"In fact, in Proust’s view, we don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.
«Infirmity alone makes us take notice and learn, and enables us to analyse processes which we would otherwise know nothing about. A man who falls straight into bed every night, and ceases to live until the moment when he wakes and rises, will surely never dream of making, not necessarily great discoveries, but even minor observations about sleep. He scarcely knows that he is asleep. A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to study the phenomena of memory.»"
"We suffer, therefore we think, an we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence.
It follows that ideas that have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation. For Proust, mental activity seems divided into two categories; there are what might be called painless thoughts, sparked by no particular discomfort, inspired by nothing other than a disinterested wish to find out how sleep works or why human beings forget, and painful thoughts, arising out of a distressing inability to sleep or recall a name—and it is this latter category which Proust significantly privileges.
He tells us, for instance, that there are two methods by which a person can acquire wisdom, painlessly via a teacher or painfully via life, and he proposes that the painful variety is far superior—a point he puts in the mouth of his fictional painter Elstir, who treats the narrator to an argument in favor of making some mistakes:
«There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or even lived in a way which was so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. But he shouldn’t regret this entirely, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as any of us can be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be reached. I know there are young people … whose teachers have instilled in them a nobility of mind and moral refinement from the very beginning of their schooldays. They perhaps have nothing to retract when they look back upon their lives; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.»"
“Happiness is good for the body,” Proust tells us, “but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.”
«A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.»
"It is when we hear that Proust’s lover died in a plane crash off the coast of Antibes, or that Stendhal endured a series of agonizing unrequited passions, or that Nietzsche was a social outcast taunted by schoolboys, that we can be reassured of having discovered valuable intellectual authorities. It is not the contented or the glowing who have left many of the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive. It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of, and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable."
"Perhaps the greatest claim one can therefore make for suffering is that it opens up possibilities for intelligent, imaginative inquiry—possibilities that may quite easily be, and most often are, overlooked or refused."
«The whole art of living is to make use of the individuals through whom we suffer.»
«Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart.»
"However, only too frequently, suffering fails to alchemize into ideas and, instead of affording us a better sense of reality, pushes us into a baneful direction where we learn nothing new, where we are subject to many more illusions and entertain far fewer vital thoughts than if we had never suffered to begin with. Proust’s novel is filled with those we might call bad sufferers, wretched souls who have been betrayed in love or excluded from parties, who are pained by a feeling of intellectual inadequacy or a sense of social inferiority, but who learn nothing from such ills, and indeed react to them by engaging a variety of ruinous defense mechanisms which entail arrogance and delusion, cruelty and callousness, spite and rage." (Alain de Botton "How Proust Can Change Your Life")