The Artist as Mirror


At Tansonville Marcel pulls down a volume of the Goncourt brothers journal from Gilberte’s library. Proust here writes a delicious pastiche of a Goncourt entry on a dinner at the Verdurins. I enjoyed the passage, but I like the real Goncourt better. My favorite entry was about their discovery of the true life of their housekeeper, their “Francoise.” The brothers were devastated with grief at her death, which was tempered a bit when they learned from a household staff member that she had over the years stolen money from the house budget to pay for elaborate orgies, of which she was the center of attention. But back to Proust.

Marcel feels pangs of inadequacy as a would-be writer after reading the entry on the Verdurins. He had known them as insignificant social climbers, certainly, he thought, unworthy of being the object of serious art. What did he miss? Does he have an “illness” that keeps him from seeing the richness of the world around him? Why can’t he remember the kinds of sparkling conversations recorded by the Goncourts? His responses to these questions take him a giant step closer to knowing what and how to write, a process completed later in Time Regained.

We can begin with the question of his “incapacity for looking and listening”:

…which the passage from the Journal had so painfully illustrated to me, was nevertheless not total. … the stories that people told escaped me, for what interested me was not what they were trying to say but the manner in which they said it and the way in which this manner revealed their character or their foibles, or rather I was interested in what had always, because it gave me specific pleasure, been more particularly the goal of my investigations; the point that was common to one being and another.  As soon as I perceived this my intelligence–until that moment slumbering, even if sometimes the apparent animation of my talk might disguise from others a profound intellectual torpor–at once set off joyously in pursuit, but its quarry then…was situated in the middle distance, behind actual appearances, in a zone that was rather more withdrawn.  So the apparent copiable charm of things and people escaped me, because I had not the ability to stop short there–I was like a surgeon who beneath the smooth surface of a woman’s belly sees the internal disease which is devouring it. If I went to a dinner party I did not see the guests: when I thought I was looking at them, I was in fact examining them with X-rays. (VI, 39).

This discovery about himself frees Marcel to pursue a psychological rather than “copiable” descriptive language of society. His next puzzle is the proper subject of art. Recall Marcel’s frustration, in Combray, at not being able to imagine a subject for writing that was lofty enough. Some of this attitude  “>carrys over from his childhood when he reads the Goncourt Journal and wonders how the Verdurins could a subject for art.

Marcel recalls paintings of drawing rooms and ladies in lace that left him with sense of longing to visit and see with his own eyes. Yet he knows that these are places and people that he has known to be common and boring. He recalls how the artist creates beauty:

For I had already realized long ago that it is not the man with the liveliest mind, the most well-informed, the best supplied with friends and acquaintances, the one who knows how to become a mirror and in this way can reflect his life, commonplace though it may be, who becomes a Bergotte (even if his contemporaries once thought him less witty than Swann, less erudite then Breaute)… Will not posterity, when it looks at our time, find the poetry of an elegant home and beautifully dressed women in the drawing-room of the publisher Charpentier as painted by Renoir, rather than in the portraits of the Princesse de Sagan or the Comtesse de La Rochefoucauld by Cot or Chaplin? (VI,44)

These two insights, the power of his psychological insights and the artist as mirror, still leave Marcel with self-doubt. He retreats to a sanatorium, leaving the final self-discoveries to come later, when he wrestles with time and memory.

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