In and Out of Bed with Marcel Proust

Although it is anathema in our 24-hour workaholic culture, I truly understand why people might “take to bed,” as the Victorians put it, and declare themselves “invalid.” When one is interminably ill, having ambitions of any kind seems an exercise in disappointment and self-loathing—and all exertion is inevitably an exercise in self-flagellation. It ultimately comes down to weighing, every day, whether pain and disappointment is preferable to taking permanently to bed. Making the choice harder still is the image in our mind of the patron saint of all invalids, Marcel Proust, who took to bed for the last three years of his life, from which position he finished À la recherche du temps perdu. I picture him in his nightcap and gown, hunched over writing feverishly, a gleam in his eye that glows all the brighter for the pallor of his wasted visage. The only sound is the scratch of his pen as his all-but indecipherable hand fills up yet another page of the manuscript grown around him like a ponderous, perilous forest. 

This was the image I had in mind for many years as I imagined bedrest and confinement as an anodyne to the anxiety and froth of everyday life—one which did not dull the mind or ambition but fueled new insights and understandings. Indeed, had I not had a chance to put my vision to the test a decade ago during an earlier, shorter period of illness, I suspect I would be in bed at this moment, laptop alight on my chest, books piled high around me… while I slept fitfully but profoundly oblivious to the potential charms of ideas and art strewn about me.

And as attractive as may be the images in the mind’s eye of Proust life in bed, there is also that other image, of the writer on his death bed—the same bed in which he completed his masterpiece. A lifelong sufferer from chronic respiratory illness, he was died at 51 of pneumonia—the result of insufficient knowledge of and treatment for his asthma and bronchitis, but also, more directly, the direct result of three years of bed rest. Today we know that bed rest—once the most common prescription for a wide range of ailments and for recovery from almost any medical procedure—very often does more harm than good. Kidney failure, pulmonary embolisms, and of course pneumonia are at the top of the various health risks directly associated with what was until fairly recently one of medicine’s most prescribed treatments. Of course, Proust would not have known that. At the time, invalids taking to bed for months or even years was common, even in his own family, as he writes about so beautifully (and humorously). But if we rightly admire what Proust accomplished from bed in his final years, it is also hard not to wonder how much longer he might have lived—and how much more he might have written.

So it is that now I keep in mind not the romantic image of Proust writing in bed, but this deathbed photograph—the most boring picture Man Ray ever took. Jean Cocteau summoned Ray, who was still settling into his new life in Paris, to take the picture. Confronted with the body of one of the age’s most daring and innovating writers, Ray became uncharacteristically dreary and conservative, producing a portrait that swerved not an inch from the model established by countless deathbed photographs taken since the middle of the nineteenth century. This is the image that gets me out of bed each morning.