Idolatry of Words


The young Marcel wants to write but cannot, at least until he can overcome his idealization, worship actually, of language.  Much of the chapter Place-Names in Swann’s Way is taken up with this theme.

The narrator starts the chapter as he began the volume, with the setting of sleepless nights:

Among the rooms which used most commonly to take shape in my mind during my nights of sleeplessness, there was none that differed more utterly from the rooms at Combray…than my room in the Grand Hotel de la Plage, at Balbec… (I,545).

This is recalled from his childhood visits to Balbec. But his first contact with the town was an invention of his imagination:

And yet nothing could have differed more utterly, either, from the real Balbec than that other Balbec of which I had often dreamed, on stormy days, when the wind was so strong that Francoise, as she took me to the Champs-Elysees, would advise me not to walk too close to the walls or I might have my head knocked off by a falling slate, and would recount to me, with many a groan, the terrible disasters and shipwrecks that were reported in the newspaper.  (I,546)

And from Legrandin:

And it is the ultimate encampment of the fishermen, the heirs of all the fishermen who have lived since the world’s beginning, facing the everlasting kingdom of the sea-fogs and shadows of the night. (I,547)

And from Swann:

Yes indeed I know Balbec! The church there, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and still half Romanesque, is perhaps the most curious example to be found of our Norman Gothic, and so singular that one is tempted to describe it as Persian in its inspiration. (I,547)

Thus did the name Balbec evoke storms and exotic Persian styled churches:

Thereafter, on delightful, stormy February nights, the wind–breathing into my ear, which it shook no less violently than the chimney of my bedroom, the project of a visit to Balbec–blended in me the desire for Gothic architecture as well as for a storm upon the sea…I need only, to make them reappear, pronounce the names Balbec, Venice, Florence, within whose syllables had gradually accumulated the longing inspired in me by the places for which they stood. (I, 548-550)

The narrator hints at what we will later see; by associating such ideal images with these place names, Marcel will inevitably become unable, at least for a time, to appreciate the actual places:

But if these names thus permanently absorbed the image I had formed of these towns, it was only by transforming that image, by subordinating its reappearance in me to their own special laws; and in consequence of this they made it more beautiful, but at the same time more different from anything that the towns of Normandy or Tuscany could in reality be, and by increasing the arbitrary delights of my imagination, aggravated the disenchantment that was in store for me when I set out upon my travels. (I,550)

These images were false for another reason also–namely, that they were necessarily much simplified. Doubtless whatever it was that my imagination aspired to, that my senses took in only incompletely and without any immediate pleasure, I had committed to the safe custody of names; doubtless, because I had accumulated there a store of dreams, those names now magnetised my desires; but names themselves are not very comprehensive; the most that I could do was to include in each of them two or three of the principal “curiosities” of the town…(I,553)

This theme is renewed in the scenes where Marcel meets Gilberte. He hears one of her playmates call her name:

The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the girl whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of someone in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close to me, in action so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and the  proximity of its target–carrying it its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impressions concerning her to whom it was addressed…(I,560)

It will be only in the final volume that Marcel will know Gilberte directly, unmediated by the powerful associations connected to her name.

In the following volumes Marcel will face other idealisations that he must overcome before he will be able to write about them, most notably the French aristocracy.

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