A Judge’s Love Affair with Marcel Proust

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer

My mother alerted me to a fabulous interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and his love for Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. (The translated version of the interview, which was conducted in French, was reprinted in The New York Review of Books and can be found here.) I’ve excerpted the parts where Breyer talks about the impact of Proust, and of literature generally, on our lives.

First of all, here’s a sampling of Breyer’s appreciation of Proust: 

Ioanna Kohler: The Recherche is a work of literature that you particularly cherish. Why? What was it in Proust’s novel that especially touched you?

SB: It’s all there in Proust—all mankind! Not only all the different character types, but also every emotion, every imaginable situation. Proust is a universal author: he can touch anyone, for different reasons; each of us can find some piece of himself in Proust, at different ages. For instance, the narrator of the Recherche is obsessed with the Duchesse de Guermantes. To him, Oriane embodies a slice of the history of France and glows like a stained-glass window, wreathed in the aura of her aristocratic lineage. Now, however different the situations may be, we have all of us—in our childhood, our adolescence, or later in life—admired from afar someone who has dazzled us for this reason or that. And when we read Proust, we get a glimpse of ourselves. In fact, I think that the only human emotion he never explored—because he never experienced it himself—was that of becoming a father.

What is most extraordinary about Proust is his ability to capture the subtlest nuances of human emotions, the slightest variations of the mind and the soul. To me, Proust is the Shakespeare of the inner world…

Here is Breyer talking about the importance of literature for lawyers, judges, and citizens generally:

IK: During a lecture you delivered at New York Law School, a student asked you what major you would recommend he select in order to become a lawyer. Your answer was quite surprising: you suggested that he choose “whatever major you want, as long as it has nothing to do with the law.” You, in fact, studied philosophy at Stanford and Oxford before studying the law at Harvard. How can the humanities or foreign languages be an asset for a jurist?

SB: It’s true, I’ve always thought that it was not particularly useful to study law as an undergrad. We are only allowed to live one life: it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it. In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live. Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world. Foreign languages, too, are fundamental.

The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other. So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do. Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.

IK: Literature has an extraordinary capacity for stimulating the life of the mind, enriching our personal lives, and, as you just said, developing our empathy. Does it have comparable virtues in the field of politics? Can it play a role in enlivening the democratic debate?

SB: Absolutely! Literature is crucial to any democracy. Take the field of women’s rights, for instance. You have to read Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves to realize how narrow a range of opportunities were available even to a highborn young woman in the seventeenth century. They had a choice of either marriage or the convent. It only got worse in the nineteenth century, because along with the pressure of the church, there was the male stranglehold on all property rights. It’s evident in Balzac’s novels, for example. In Balzac, there are mainly two types of women: prostitutes and brebis, or ewes, who are all victims. Eugénie Grandet is a victim. Madame de Mortsauf, in Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley), is one too.

Here is Breyer talking about how reading Proust helps him better interpret the Constitution:

IK: The Recherche is a total work, which contains within it all the clues necessary to its understanding. At the same time, no other twentieth-century book, except, perhaps, for Joyce’s Ulysses, has prompted so many critical readings and literary analyses. Could we perhaps draw a parallel with the US Constitution, which is subject to such constant interpretation? Why are certain texts capable of making us think so deeply?

SB: It’s hard to compare a literary text with a political text like the US Constitution: their aims are so radically different. The criteria by which we judge a work of art are aesthetic in nature, while we use more practical criteria in the realm of the law—for instance: “Will this interpretation of the law allow society to work better?”

On the other hand, it’s true that the US Constitution, much like any literary text, should not be interpreted rigidly. It’s a living text, open to interpretation. It should be placed in the context of its time. The Founding Fathers of American democracy wanted to draft a document that would become the foundation of an enduring society, a document that would survive the centuries. The Constitution is a very brief text (it covers only a few pages), but it embodies certain values—the values of the Enlightenment.

The problem is this: How shall we interpret these values, which have remained unchanged since the eighteenth century, and apply them to a constantly changing world?…

And finally, here’s Breyer talking about the importance of artistic creation for all aspects of our lives:

IK: You often emphasize the beneficial role of artistic creation for all of us.

SB: To me, the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is the desire to create order out of chaos, to give form to the universe. We are surrounded by colors, shapes, and sounds. We can arrange all these things in an attractive and constructive manner, as in a painting or a symphony. And that is what Proust did with his writing. Of course, he was supremely talented—but I firmly believe that every one of us can, to some extent, try to establish order amid chaos.

This is a man I’m willing to trust with the Constitution.

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  • Barbara

    Very interesting interview. Thanks to you and your mother for the heads up!


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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