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Travel and Habit in Merleau-Ponty and Proust


By Richard Kreitner


The Montréal Review, October 2011


"Had my parents allowed me, when I read a book, to pay a visit to the country it described, I should have felt that I was making an enormous advance towards the ultimate conquest of truth."

Marcel Proust, Swann's Way


The phenomenological project, according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is to study (1), as far as is possible given the nature of human consciousness, the experience of experience. While previous thinkers have promised to do the same thing, they miss the mark, according to Merleau-Ponty, because they forget to account for the very act they are doing: philosophizing. A significant flaw of past philosophies in general and past accounts of perception in particular is that they imported back into that original experience of the world concepts discovered and terms crafted only (conceptually) later on, in the sanitized study of that experience. Science is especially guilty of this fallacy: it places the world of phenomena into a sort of laboratory and studies it there, all the while forgetting that it has done this, and that the conditions it studies are not the same as those we experience when we are not consciously studying them. Merleau-Ponty was not anti-science; he believed that in this way science was in fact doing something. It was certainly creating knowledge and changing the way we understood the universe. But it was not accessing real human experience. It was proving certain facts, but not touching any truths.

Only through the phenomenological reduction popularized by Edmund Husserl did Merleau-Ponty discover the conceptual tools necessary for accessing original lived experience, while not corrupting that which is intended for study by sequestering them in any laboratory-type conditions, which artificially separate experience from the wider situation of the world and therefore look at them analytically, not experientially). In the "Preface" to the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty writes:

Although it is a transcendental philosophy that suspends the affirmations of the natural attitude in order to understand them, phenomenology is also a philosophy for which the world is always "already there" prior to reflection - like an inalienable presence - and whose entire effort is to regain this naïve contact with the world in order to raise it to a philosophical status.(2)

Thus the goal of the phenomenological reduction is to be able to meditate on experience while not being distracted by considerations of where it comes from or what is causing it; it is to return to naïve experience. The reduction brackets off irrelevant concerns - ego, habit, familiarity, for instance - in order to appreciate, and study philosophically, the deeper truth of what we experience as embodied minds situated in this "inalienable" world. It takes us out of naïve experience enough so we can study that naïve experience, but keeps us in the world because the entire point is to study what, for humans, happens there. Moreover, for Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenological reduction will never fully accomplish its task, because it can never completely capture consciousness in the act of becoming conscious of something: "The most important lesson of the reduction is the impossibility of a complete reduction." (3) Since even our phenomenological radical reflections occur in the course of the "temporal flo that they are attempting to capture," (4) we can never full get back to naïve experience.

While the writings of Edmund Husserl, and later Martin Heidegger, might be the first time phenomenology ever appears as an established way of doing philosophy, Merleau-Ponty admits that at least parts of it have been embryonically present in other writers: "It has been en route for a long time, and its disciples find it everywhere," he writes, "in Hegel and in Kierkegaard of course, but also in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud." (5) This list should not be taken as exhaustive. As is evident from his many citations elsewhere in the Phenomenology of Perception and in other works, Merleau-Ponty was influenced greatly by the proto-phenomenological insights presented by the novelist Marcel Proust in his seven-part novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Like Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, Proust's novel was about the experience of experience. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty himself wrote: "No one has gone further than Proust in fixing the relations between the visible and the invisible," (6) meaning the relations between the objects we perceive in the world and the sens of those objects (or situations) we mysteriously perceive in the same moment. For Merleau-Ponty, Proust - though a novelist and not a trained philosopher or phenomenologist - offered a model of how to get "back to the things themselves." Though the influence of Proust is evident throughout Merleau-Ponty's work, similarities are particularly notable in those passages where the philosopher writes about the effect of travel on our perceptions of experience. In Merleau-Ponty's work, travel and exile from one's own habitual life perform the same functions as the phenomenological reduction; by applying his philosophy to the passages on travel in the work of Marcel Proust, we can recognize the extent to which the truths of phenomenology are not accessible only through philosophy or the philosopher's phenomenological reduction, but rather can also be accomplished in the world, by putting oneself at once at a remove from the world, but by at the same time remaining inexorably in it enough to study it - in short, through travel.


For Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenological reduction reveals what Husserl called the "passive synthesis" by means of which we capture all experience and organize it into a sensible whole. We are rarely surprised by our perceptions; even if we did not quite expect to see a peculiar phenomenon, we soon reconcile ourselves to its reality; we put faith in our perceptions, because we have faith in the real. (Descartes' experiments in trying to force himself to consider the opposite - that perhaps he was being tricked by an evil demon -prove Merleau-Ponty's point rather than its opposite; it is clearly the rule for Descartes to trust he is not being tricked by such a demon, and only in exceptional moments that he can actively force himself to seriously consider that unlikely possibility.) As Merleau-Ponty writes: "The real is a tightly woven fabric; it does not wait for our judgments in order to incorporate the most surprising of phenomena, nor to reject the most convincing of our imaginings." (7) Whatever Descartes' fantasies to the contrary, we have a very good sense of what is real and what is not, and in everyday life we constantly make this distinction passively or tacitly, without having to run every experience or perception through a reality test. We never actually have to pinch ourselves to confirm that something is real.

But the world does not come glued together in this way; there is no sens to anything until a consciousness comes along and tacitly provides it. Phenomenology understands human existence to be underpinned by a constant movement towards the world, a tacit supporting of all objects and situations around us. What Merleau-Ponty writes of the phenomenological reduction is also true, as we will see, of the effects of travel: "When I return to myself from the dogmatism of common sense or the dogmatism of science, I do not find a source of intrinsic truth, but rather a subject destined to the world." (8) To be so destined is to be implicated in what phenomenology calls an act of "intentionality," I create the sens in the world that would not exist unless I was around to perceive it. The only way to truly philosophize without permitting the philosophizing to pollute that about which we would like to philosophize is to bracket off this intentional tendency - not to deny it entirely, but to temporarily ignore it in order to study more closely how we gear into situations in order to synthesize them. Merleau-Ponty writes: "The only way for us to catch sight of ourselves is by suspending this movement, by refusing to be complicit with it, or again, to put it out of play." (9) Only by denying ourselves the synthesis we otherwise perform automatically can we "break our familiarity with it, and this rupture can teach us nothing except the unmotivated springing forth of the world." (10)

The insights available through the phenomenological reduction - and, for that matter, through travel - are dependent on the fact that we cannot always be performing such an operation; rather, those moments in which we can suspend intentionality rely on the store of experiences we acquire naively, non-reflectively, when intentionality is naturally and mutely going about its work: "Radical reflection [through the phenomenological reduction] is conscious of its own dependence upon an unreflected life that is its initial, constant, and final situation." (11) Thus Merleau-Ponty does not advocate the complete overthrow of dogmatic commonsense - in the travel metaphor, it is not about permanent exile, not about forever leaving behind our normal everyday experience in our house or hometown, among familiar persons, places, and things - or dogmatic science - the lab-style study we occasionally conduct regarding our lives, while not accounting for how that study itself affects our lives. Rather, despite whatever insights the reduction grants us, despite whatever wonderful perspective we can attain through travel, we always have to return to the natural, non-reflective attitude, we always have to go back home.

Because the very nature of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy is the attempt to return philosophy to ordinary experience, he often invokes real-life situations - generally in the first-person - in order to demonstrate the actual insights his phenomenology grants us access to. Thus we find the philosopher walking down the beach trying to ascertain whether what he sees is a mast attached to a ship run aground or a stray branch from a nearby tree; we gaze with him out his windows to the Parisian boulevard bustling below - or, rather, to the one side of it he can see, since he is situated on the other side, therefore necessarily invisible to him, as a face is not seen but rather perceived by the eyes themselves doing the seeing; and, with Merleau-Ponty, we breathe heavy with exertion climbing Sartre's mountain before he finally tells us it is okay to not want to climb to the top, that an inferiority complex is not something one can merely discard at will, that freedom is always situated within a historical and situational context, rather than absolute as Sartre would have us believe. Each real-life example serves to make explicit the relation between phenomenological insights and actual situations we find ourselves gearing into in the world.

Travel is an especially important phenomenon to examine specifically in relation to the way we experience what Merleau-Ponty calls "lived space," because, like the phenomenological reduction discussed above, travel separates us from what we take for granted in experience, takes us out of the familiarity that prevents us from accessing the truths of perception and of experience. Though he does not say so explicitly, Merleau-Ponty employs travel in the Phenomenology of Perception as a device to examine our commonsense notions of lived space and experience in general through radical reflection; only by leaving our everyday lives behind, he seems to suggest, can we truly understand our naïve experience of space. True insights about spatiality are impossible among objects and in situations with which we are already too familiar:

To ask oneself how spatial relations and objects with their "properties" can be determined in an explicit act is to ask oneself a second-order question; it is to present an act that only appears against the background of an already familiar world as if it were originary; it is to admit that one has not yet become conscious of the experience of the world. In the natural attitude, I have no perceptions; I do not posit this object as next to that other one and their objective relations. Rather, I have a flow of experiences that implicate and explicate each other just as much in simultaneity as they do in succession. (12)

This is a description of Merleau-Ponty's experience in the natural attitude. Only when suspending this attitude - through phenomenology or through travel (or through painting if we are Paul Cézanne) - do we have perceptions, do we realize that we are positing "this object as next to that other one." Experience in travel occurs episodically, rather than as an unpunctuated flow. Merely studying our experience of space from within the context of our everyday lives, at home among our familiar objects - the metaphorical equivalent of studying experience through objective thought - does not allow us to regain that naïve sense of wonder with which phenomenology suggests we stand before the world at the deepest level. Travel is, like the phenomenological reduction, a way of fleeing the "natural attitude," of "[becoming] conscious of the experience of the world," of experiencing the world in an aspect with which the subject is not yet familiar. It exposes naïve experience and presents it for our close philosophical examination. The scenes in the Phenomenology of Perception involving travel employ it as a metaphor for the phenomenological reduction; we can infer that in Merleau-Ponty's own experience it has served a similar purpose, both philosophically and personally.

In the passage on "Lived Space," Merleau-Ponty describes his first visit to Paris as a boy:

The first streets that I saw upon leaving the train station were - like the first words of a stranger - only manifestations of a still ambiguous, though already incomparable essence. In fact, we hardly perceive any objects at all, just as we do not see the eyes of a familiar face, but rather its gaze and its expression. There is here a latent sense, diffused throughout the landscape or the two, that we uncover in a specific self-evident phenomenon without having to define it. (13)

In describing his first visit to Paris when he was younger, Merleau-Ponty is able to meditate on how we non-thetically map out the space we occupy all the time. Even in a place we have never been before, we perceive sens. Through the structures revealed by lack of familiarity with a given space we can ascertain the even more fundamental structures of consciousness which allow us to navigate the world as if we are familiar with it, even though on our first visit to Paris we are very much not. In the same way, the phenomenological reduction peels back the layers of experience in order to reveal the way we existentially organize that experience, that our gaze supports the world. Merleau-Ponty could also have been talking about travel, about arriving somewhere new, when he writes about the spatiality of night, that the absence of familiarity at night prevents us from gearing smoothly into the world as we do during the day. "The night makes us sense our contingency, that free and inexhaustible movement by which we attempt to anchor ourselves and to transcend ourselves in things, without there being any guarantee of always finding them." (14) Both in travel and at night, the very strangeness of the world reveals intentionality as the way we gear into the world not only at those times, but at all times.

Merleau-Ponty goes on to describe a summer vacation in the country. He is "happy to leave behind my work and my ordinary surroundings. I settle into the village. It becomes the center of my life." (15) For the writer, this reveals the sense in which our life is always centered in a certain milieu, in which even the smallest events come, for us, to assume the weight of great importance: "The majority of events cease to count for me, whereas the nearest ones consume me." (16) This is true both in a familiar city and in an unfamiliar village; only in the unfamiliar surroundings, however, do we notice that this happens. For Merleau-Ponty, "the low level of water in the river, or the corn or walnut harvest, are events." (17) While the same types of ultimately inconsequential events that take place in the city are imbued with the same kind of importance, we fail to recognize that we do this because habit dulls the senses, or, as Proust says, "Habit weakens everything." (18) It requires the phenomenological reduction or travel to be revealed.

The strangeness of travel does not only reveal the similarities between the natural attitude and our mode of consciousness once removed by either travel or the phenomenological reduction; it also reveals differences that help us understand both the non-reflective mode and the radically reflective mode. Certain elements of the natural attitude are revealed when one is "exiled" (19) from the space that is normally the center of one's life: "Our body and our perception always solicit us to take the landscape they offer as the center of our world." (20) We cannot help but do this; it is actually a necessity of human consciousness. In the first pages of Swann's Way, Proust writes: "Habit! that skillful but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds suffer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our minds are none the less only too happy to discover at last, for without it, reduced to their own devices, they would be powerless to make any room seem habitable." (21) Proust's Narrator repeatedly worries through the novel that, with every move of his life from one house to another, with every holiday he takes to the seashore, he will not be able to accustom himself to his surroundings, and will therefore feel depressed. Yet, every time life continues to happen, he secretly develops unseen attachments for the new room and the view of the ocean through the window; he is eventually sad to leave this new place, too. In the passage above, Proust notes how this is always what happens. For Proust as for Merleau-Ponty, being in unfamiliar surroundings forces one to re-arrange one's external perceptions to familiarize oneself. The work done by what Proust calls habit is also done by what Merleau-Ponty later called the passive synthesis. In both cases, even in unfamiliar surroundings one - on a very fundamental, non-thetic level - makes oneself at home.

But only to a certain extent, says Merleau-Ponty. Even when we habituate ourselves to a strange place, the center of our life can remain in the city from which we have fled: "This landscape is not necessarily the landscape of our life. I can 'be elsewhere' while remaining here, and if I am kept far from what I love, I feel far from the center of real life." (22) The homesickness that often accompanies travel - which Proust's Narrator knew so much about - reveals to us aspects of our existence while at home. In fact, homesickness is often accompanied by the fond reminiscence of some aspects of home life that we had not even noticed while they were occurring: the specific angle of the sunlight at noon; the sounds of church bells; the smell of Francois' cooking. The distance provided by travel is similar to that provided by the phenomenological reduction in that we are able to view these otherwise unnoticed aspects of our everyday lives and the magical meanings woven into their fabric.

For instance, when Proust's Narrator arrives in the seaside town of Balbec for his summer vacation, he is startled by the lack of familiarity of his appointed rooms. He worries that he will never grow accustomed to his new situation, and, in Merleau-Ponty's phrase, will for the whole summer feel "decentered" from his world. This lack of familiarity leads the Narrator to notice how he relates to objects in general - observations that any Merleau-Ponty reader is already familiar with:

Space there was none for me in my bedroom (mine in name only) at Balbec; it was full of things which did not know me, which flung back at me the distrustful glance I cast at them, and, without taking any heed of my existence, showed that I was interrupting the humdrum course of theirs. (23)

Similarly, Merleau-Ponty writes in "Eye and Mind" that painters - who, for him, have certain phenomenological insights - also often feel objects to be looking back at them. He quotes Andre Marchand saying: "In a forest, I have felt many times over that is was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me." (24) Travel, like painting and the phenomenological reduction, allows us to recognize this underlying structure of perception, that our gaze is returned.

The Narrator recognizes another truth of lived space while looking around that unfamiliar Balbec hotel room: "I kept raising my eyes - which the things in my room in Paris disturbed no more than did my eyelids themselves, for they were merely extensions of my organs, an enlargement of myself." (25) Evidently the Narrator feels no such connection with the strange room in Balbec. By going to Balbec and putting himself in the midst of the unfamiliar, the Narrator realizes the ordinary, naïve way in which he lives in Paris; he realizes what phenomenology calls the intentionality of his existence in the world. Merleau-Ponty reached the same observation through phenomenology, by thinking about how a woman wearing a tall hat ducks below doorways so as not to crush it, how a driver of a car uses the car, like his body, to accomplish his projects in the world; how a man with a cane feels the ground as if with his own fingers: "To habituate oneself to a hat, an automobile, or a cane is to take up residence in them; or, inversely, to cause them to participate within the voluminosity of the lived body. Habit expresses the power we have dilating our being in the world, or of altering our existence through incorporating new instruments." (26) In the same way that Proust understood our familiar surroundings to be merely an extension of our own body, Merleau-Ponty recognizes that we use those surroundings as additional limbs, available for us to take up and employ. Whereas Merleau-Ponty discovered this truth of our experience, Proust's Narrator does so by leaving his ordinary surroundings (which themselves, due to habit, could never have realized such truth to him), through travel.

Thus travel, like the phenomenological reduction, reveals the way we gear into the world around us and imbue it with certain meanings and significance. The natural attitude in which we live ordinarily prevents us from recognizing this way we organize the world. As Proust says, "If habit is a second nature, it prevents us from knowing our first." (27) The familiarity of our everyday lives and the redundancy of everyday situations prevents us from recognizing the way we exist in the world on a naïve level. For Proust and Merleau-Ponty, we always structure our surroundings in this way, whether or not we are on vacation; being away from one's familiar surroundings, as we see in Proust, merely reveals this intentional structure of consciousness as the general rule. Even as the phenomenological reduction always falls short of its goal; travel does too - since we never completely leave behind our history and sedimented past experience. In the section in which Merleau-Ponty describes his first arrival in Paris, he writes: "Every perception presupposes a certain past of the subject; and the abstract function of perception, as the encounter with objects, implies a more secret act by which we elaborate our milieu." (28) For Merleau-Ponty, this secret act is the passive synthesis, the tacit movement towards the world through which we unify all our perceptions into a sensible form. While Proust did not yet have the conceptual vocabulary available to Merleau-Ponty, he also explained how this work - which he ascribed to habit - underlies our experience of experience, showing, as Merleau-Ponty himself did, that there is a way in which we can get distance on ordinary, naïve experience without leaving the world completely, and that is through either the phenomenological reduction or through travel.


Richard Kreitner studies philosophy at McGill University. He is a regular contributor to The Montreal Review and The McGill Tribune.



1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York: Routledge, 2011), 7.

2. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 14.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 8.

5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 149.

6. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 11.

7. Ibid.

8. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 13-14.

9. Ibid., 14.

10. Ibid.

11. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 332.

12. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology , 333.

13. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology , 335.

14. Ibid., 337.

15. Ibid., 338.

16. Ibid.

17. Proust, Within a Budding Grove, 300.

18. Ibid.

19. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 338.

20. Marcel Proust, Swann's Way , trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff an Terence Kilmartin (New York: The Modern Library, 2003) 8-9.

21. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 338.

22. Proust, Within a Budding Grove, 333.

23. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Eye and Mind," in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 129.

24. Proust, Within a Budding Grove, 334.

25. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 179.

26. Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah , trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (New York: The Modern Classics, 2003), 208.

27. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 333.


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