Or, Proust, artificial intelligence and a love affair with the hawthorn bush

A close up of some flowers on a hawthorn bush.

The hawthorn bush is a hardy little shrub that people often grow as hedges. It has small white or pink flowers in spring, and berries in the autumn.

I have finally finished reading the first volume of Proust’s seminal work, Swann’s Way. Many aspects of the book annoyed me but I confess to you, dear reader, none more than his descriptions of the hawthorn bushes in Combray. Maybe this is subjective, based purely on my personal taste; I tend to zone out on literary descriptions of plant life. Nonetheless, I found Proust’s obsession with the hawthorn bushes cloying and overblown.

Here’s a snippet from several pages of hawthorn worship:

And then I returned to the hawthorns, and stood before them as one stands before those masterpieces which, one imagines, one will be better able to ‘take in’ when one has looked away for a moment at something else; but in vain did I make a screen with my hands, the better to concentrate upon the flowers, the feeling they aroused in me remained obscure and vague, struggling and failing to free itself, to float across and become one with them.

A weird thing happened though. Swann’s Way accompanied me throughout the first two months of 2023 and, now that I’ve finished it, I miss it. I miss him, the author – his self-assured tone, his grandeur, his long-winded style. I am intrigued to find out what happens with M. Swann, his wife Odette and their gorgeous young daughter, Gilberte.

But will I pick up the second volume? Not just yet. I have too many other books on my reading list to create such a long delay right now. I mean, seriously, two months to read a book! Crikey. As for the other five volumes, they may need to wait until some distant time, like retirement.

Meanwhile, as I was grappling with Proust, something incredible happened to writing: ChatGPT. Everyone, everywhere has been writing and talking about it. Except me. I went straight into denial. I didn’t want to accept that artificial intelligence might be infiltrating my professional sphere.

But a casual conversation led me to connect ChatGPT with Proust. ChatGPT is in the envious position of being able to process the entire text of Proust’s five volumes almost immediately – certainly without taking two months to read one of them as this mere human did! So I figured that it might know something about Proust’s genius and, most importantly, how to write like him.

I asked it “What makes Proust a genius?” and this is what it said:

Marcel Proust is considered a genius for his exceptional literary achievements, particularly his monumental novel In Search of Lost Time (also known as Remembrance of Things Past). Here are a few reasons why he is considered a literary genius:
1.  Innovative style: Proust's writing style was highly innovative for its time. He employed long, complex sentences, intricate metaphors, and vivid sensory descriptions to create a rich, immersive reading experience. He also experimented with stream-of-consciousness narration, which allows the reader to delve deep into the characters' inner lives and thoughts.
2. Psychological insight: Proust was a master at exploring the complex and often contradictory motivations and desires of his characters. He used his own experiences and observations of the people around him to create fully-realized characters who are simultaneously sympathetic and flawed.
3. Narrative structure: "In Search of Lost Time" is a massive, multi-volume novel that explores a wide range of themes and ideas. Proust's ability to weave together various plot threads and characters into a coherent and compelling narrative is a testament to his skill as a writer.
4. Timeless themes: Proust's exploration of universal themes such as memory, time, love, and loss continue to resonate with readers today. His work is a testament to the power of literature to illuminate the human experience and capture the essence of what it means to be alive.
Overall, Proust's genius lies in his ability to create a vast and intricate world that is both deeply personal and universally relevant. His writing has influenced generations of writers and continues to captivate readers today.

I thought this response was pretty good. It has an academic tone and it seems to be a fair summary of other reviews and opinions that I have read about Proust. Noting that ChatGPT can scour the whole internet for content, I was reasonably comfortable with this neutral, factual result.

Then I asked it to write like Proust. Because of my distaste for the author’s hawthorn bush descriptions, I typed: “Write a paragraph about hawthorn bushes like Proust.” Here’s what it wrote:

As I gaze upon the hawthorn bushes, their thorny branches seem to me like outstretched arms, beckoning me towards their fragrant blossoms. The delicate white petals dance in the gentle breeze, their sweet scent filling my nostrils and evoking memories long forgotten. In the dappled sunlight, the bushes appear to shimmer and sparkle, their beauty a reminder of the fleeting nature of life. How many times have I walked past these bushes without truly seeing them? Now, as I contemplate their beauty, I am transported to a time long ago, when I first discovered the wonder of nature and the joy it brings. The hawthorn bushes, like Proust’s madeleine, have unlocked a flood of memories and emotions, reminding me of the beauty and mystery of the world around us.

And I’m so glad that’s what it wrote. This machine can’t ever be Proust. Sure, it can mimic him but it does so in a shallow and childish way. Not unlike what I might do if you asked me to attempt the same task, I suppose.

Then I got a little bit excited and I asked ChatGPT to write like Jane Austen. Here’s what it said:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. And yet, how vexing it is that so many of these men, instead of seeking a partner of merit and refinement, are instead blinded by the allure of youth and beauty. Alas, these foolish men shall soon discover that such fleeting charms cannot sustain a lasting and meaningful relationship. It is only through mutual respect, understanding, and shared values that true happiness can be found. And so, I implore all gentlemen of good breeding to look beyond the surface and seek a wife of substance and worth, for she shall be the true source of joy in his life.

The first line there is a direct copy of the opening line of Pride and Prejudice. The rest, however, is an uneasy mixture of contemporary thought (meaningful relationships, shared values) and old-fashioned words (vexing, implore), making the passage clunky and dull.

I could keep playing with this software all day. But, alas, I must get some work done, so I will quickly conclude: ChatGPT can’t write like Austen or Proust. Yet.

This means I can rest for a while, knowing that it is humanness that makes literature. I don’t think it will always be so, though. As ChatGPT’s programming becomes more sophisticated, so will its artistry. Maybe in that future time, writing prose will become unnecessary. But I have a feeling that those who feel compelled to write will do so anyway. And I think that true artists draw from the soul. ChatGPT will never be able to do this, no matter how complete its command of grammar and style.

I look forward to experimenting more with ChatGPT and finding out if it is useful for creating shortcuts in my work. I’d love to know what you think of its writing attempts and its answers to your questions, or about any other ways you use it. And if you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend it! It’s easy, fun and has so much potential as a research tool.

Much love, Lyndall