Idolatry of Painting

Swann in Love fits in curiously with the remainder of Search.It has an omniscient narrator, an ‘as related to’ kind of voice, even though Proust adds a line to say he heard Swann’slove story later in life. It interrupts the unfolding of Marcel’s coming of age story, pushing the narrative back a generation to the time around Marcel’s birth. We do get introduced to some of the main characters in the following volumes, besides Swann himself: Mme Verdurin, Elstir, Princess des Laumes, etc. And the love story is a forecast of the Albertine affair (Albertine had not been envisaged when Proust wrote Swann’s Way;I wonder if she had been how he would have handled Swann.) The narrator, at the end ofCombray, says that Swann’s story, like the madeline, served as an aide memoire to his childhood:

Thus would I often lie until morning, dreaming of the old days at Combray, of my melancholy and wakeful evenings there, of other days besides, the memory of  which had been more recently restored to me by the taste–by what would have been called at Combray the “perfume”–of a cup of tea, and, by an association of memories, of a story which, many years after I had left the little place, had been told me of a love affair in which Swann had been involved before I was born… (I, 262)

But the strongest claim for the inclusion of the Swann episode comes a little later, when the narrator injects his personal voice, “…when I began to take an interest in his character because of the similarities which, in wholly different respects, it offered to my own…” (I, 273). All this by way of introduction to my theme: Swann is Marcel’s spiritual alter ego in his understanding of art (and love). By looking at Swann’s view of painting, we see what Marcel must overcome. The following passages show how Swann’s vision and understanding become clouded in part because of his, to use Roger Shattuck’s term, art idolatry.

Swann is not initially attracted to Odette’s physical beauty, until one day he notices a similarity she has to a figure in Botticelli’s The Trials of Moses.

…she struck Swann by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, which is to be seen in one of the Sistine frescos. He had always found a peculiar fascination in tracing in the paintings of the old masters not merely the general characteristics of the people whom he encountered in his daily life, but rather what seems least susceptible of generalization, the individual features of men and women when he knew…. He no longer based his estimate of the merit of Odette’s face on the doubtful quality of her cheeks and purely fleshy softness which he supposed would greet his lips there should he ever hazard a kiss, but regarded it rather as a skein of beautiful, delicate lines which his eyes unravelled…(I, 315)

Now hear Swann at the end of Swann in Love:

Odette’s pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn feature, her tired eyes…”To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” (I, 543)

Swann’s idealization of art keeps him from living incitefully, with disastrous results. Marcel’s idealization of literature is a translation of this idea into literature; he cannot possible write the ethereal prose that he imagines literature requires.

On the other hand, Swann’s depiction of Odette as Zipporah is brilliant. Proust simply worked from Botticelli to create Odette’s face. I normally am hesitant to have a novelistic image locked into a single form by, as in this case, a painting or by a reading by an actor. But I concede here that the Botticelli image is much better than what I had imagined prior to seeing it in detail.



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One Response to “Idolatry of Painting”

  1. Jim Everett Says:

    And thus the beauty of life, an expression somehow devoid of meaning, a stage this side of art at which I had seen Swann come to rest, was that also which by a slackening of creative ardour, idolatry of the forms which had inspired it, a tendency to take the line of least reistance, must gradually undermine an Elstir’s progress. (II,589)

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