What Marcel Proust Really Said about Seeing with New Eyes

In his TED Talk—on home, travel, and stillness—author Pico Iyer refers to the words of the French author Marcel Proust:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.

When I Googled that phrase, I came up with several similar, though slightly different, versions. The most popular one comes up on over 800,000 sites, often used, as Iyer did, in the context of travel:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

487786787_c63e03fe2c_nBut I wasn’t done yet. I don’t trust “famous quote” sites, nor do I trust the democracy of the Internet. A little more searching led me to the actual quotation, and the original source. It’s Proust’s seven-volume work, Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time). The quotation above is a paraphrase of text in volume 5—The Prisoner—originally published in French, in 1923, and first translated into English by C. K. Moncrief.

In chapter 2 of The Prisoner, the narrator is commenting at length on art, rather than travel. Listening for the first time to a work by the composer Vinteuil, he finds himself transported not to a physical location, but to a wonderful “strange land” of the composer’s own making. “Each artist,” he decides, “seems thus to be the native of an unknown country, which he himself has forgotten. . . .” These artists include composers, such as Vinteuil, and painters, such as the narrator’s friend, Elstir. He continues:

This lost country composers do not actually remember, but each of them remains all his life somehow attuned to it; he is wild with joy when he is singing the airs of his native land, betrays it at times in his thirst for fame, but then, in seeking fame, turns his back upon it, and it is only when he despises it that he finds it when he utters, whatever the subject with which he is dealing, that peculiar strain the monotony of which—for whatever its subject it remains identical in itself—proves the permanence of the elements that compose his soul. But is it not the fact then that from those elements, all the real residuum which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even by friend to friend, by master to disciple, by lover to mistress, that ineffable something which makes a difference in quality between what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with his fellows only by limiting himself to external points common to us all and of no interest, art, the art of a Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, makes the man himself apparent, rendering externally visible in the colours of the spectrum that intimate composition of those worlds which we call individual persons and which, without the aid of art, we should never know? A pair of wings, a different mode of breathing, which would enable us to traverse infinite space, would in no way help us, for, if we visited Mars or Venus keeping the same senses, they would clothe in the same aspect as the things of the earth everything that we should be capable of seeing. The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is; and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.

So there you have it. Maybe this adds to the meaning of the more-familiar “quotation.” Or maybe it lessens it, in your mind.

Maybe, for you, this is no longer a phrase about travel. Or maybe it is now much, much more so.

[photo: “New Eyes,” by Brian Talbot, used under a Creative Commons license—the photo’s caption at Flickr.com is the “most popular” version of Proust’s words, above]


Pico Iyer on Home, Travel, and Stillness (plus, Have You Seen the TED Commandments?)

161335960_3c30374d20_nPico Iyer, best-selling author on the topic of crossing cultures, finds the concept of “home” difficult to describe. It’s no wonder. His parents are Indian. He was born in England. At the age of eight he moved with his family to California. And currently, between his many travels, he lives with his Japanese wife in Japan.

In a TED Talk from 3 months ago, Iyer “meditates on the meaning of home, the joy of traveling and the serenity of standing still.”

Some great writers are not great speakers, but Iyer expresses his thoughts with eloquence in both forms. Here are a few of those thoughts:

On multi-cultural children:
“[T[heir whole life will be spent taking pieces of many different places and putting them together into a stained-glass whole.”

On traveling:
“The real voyage of discovery, as Marcel Proust famously said, consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes. And of course, once you have new eyes, even the old sights, even your home become something different.”

On the concept of home:
“[H]ome, we know, is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.”

On collecting 1 million miles on a frequent-flyer program:
“You all know that crazy system, six days in hell, you get the seventh day free.”

And on spending three days in silence at a monastery:
“I began to think that something in me had really been crying out for stillness, but of course I couldn’t hear it because I was running around so much.”

Following the TED Commandments

I’ve watched several TED Talks, and I’m always impressed with how the speakers seem to present their thoughts articulately and effortlessly. I’ve always wondered if they use teleprompters. I found my answer at Jimmy Guterman’s blog. Guterman, a TED Talk presenter, wrote that the TED Talk stage includes “confidence monitors.” These floor-mounted monitors show the slides used in the presentation, to which presenter notes can be added. He added these notes, but regretted it later, as he was distracted by the monitors and felt that he looked down at them too often.

Guterman goes on to list the “TED Commandments” that TED sends to every speaker. It’s a great list of advice, and most of it applies to even casual conversations:

I. Thou shalt not steal time.
II. Thou shalt not sell from the stage.
III. Thou shalt not flaunt thine ego.
IV. Thou shalt not commit obfuscation.
V. Thou shalt not murder PowerPoint.
VI. Thou shalt shine a light.
VII. Thou shalt tell a story.
VIII. Thou shalt honor emotion.
IX. Thou shalt bravely bare thy soul.
X. Thou shalt prepare for impact.

To this, Guterman adds a number eleven: Trust thyself. (In other words, Don’t use monitors.)

If you’re thinking about brushing up your public-speaking skills and want to imitate that TED Talk style, you might want to take a look at this “Onion Talk,” produced by the folks at The Onion. It’s called “Ducks Go Quack, Chickens Say Cluck” . . . sort of a lesson on cross-cultural communication.

(Jimmy Guterman, “How to Give a TED Talk (and How Not To),” Jimmy Guterman’s blog, March 12, 2002)

[photo: “Loneliness,” by David Jakes, used under a Creative Commons license]