Archive for December, 2009

Out of Character

December 31, 2009

The long passage on the nature of art is certainly didactic, but also much more graceful than similar such passages by Tolstoy and Mann. The voice is nominally that of Marcel/narrator, but the author’s voice is dominant. For instance, consider this statement on the bearing of real-life people to characters in the novel:

 By such tones of voice, such variations in the physiognomy, seen perhaps in his earliest childhood, has the life of other people been represented for him and when, later, he becomes a writer, it is from these observations that he composes his human figures, grafting on to a movement of the shoulders common to a number of people–a movement as truthfully delineated as though it had been recorded in an anatomist’s note-book, though the truth which he uses it to express is of a psychological order–a movement of the neck made by someone else, each of many individuals having posed for a moment as his model. (VI,306)

But the novel we are reading is in the form of a memoir, where the lead character learns from his experiences with the people of his life how to become a writer, so the characters cannot be composites of others. Unless, that is, this is Proust, the author, having his say. At the same time, nonetheless, it is a warning not to look for the author and his friends in this novel.


Dead Metaphor Society

December 29, 2009

In rhetoric, a dead metaphor is one that has lost its quality of joining two objects. It is a cliché. You grasp the concept. We use them socially out of habit, laziness or not caring for the person to whom we are talking. Marcel realizes that he will have to look within to keep language fresh in his writing.

Above all I should have to be on my guard against those phrases which are chosen rather by the lips than by the mind, those humorous phrases such as we utter in conversation and continue at the end of a long conversation with other people to address, factitiously, to  ourselves although they merely fill our mind with lies–those, so to speak, purely physical remarks, which, in the writer who stoops so low as to transcribe them, are accompanied always by, for instance, the little smile, the little grimace which at every turn disfigures the spoken phrase of a Sainte-Beuve, whereas real books should be the offspring not of daylight and casual talk but of darkness and silence. (VI,302)

Metaphor Time

December 28, 2009

In describing the feeling of happiness given by an unforced memory, the narrator is in a way providing the emotional power of the metaphor in art.

[The writer] can describe a scene by describing one after another the innumerable objects which at a given moment were present at a particular place, but truth will be attained by him only when he takes two different objects, state the connexion between them–a connexion analogous in the world of art to the unique connexion which in the world of science is provided by the law of  causality–and encloses them in the necessary links of a well-wrought  style; truth–and life  too–can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and in reuniting them to each other, liberated from the  contingencies of time, within a metaphor. (VI,289)

His definition of metaphor is very similar to that of the unforced memory, which also escapes “the contingencies of time.”

But let a noise or a scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and immediately the permanent and habitually concealed essence of things is liberated…(VI,264)

Metaphor and unforced memory both generate the happiness that comes from escaping time and from discovering the “concealed essense of things.”

Why Read?

December 26, 2009

Our Motto:

As for the enjoyment which is derived by a really discerning mind and a truly living heart from a thought beautifully expressed in the writings of a great writer, this is no doubt an entirely wholesome enjoyment, but, precious though the men may be who are truly capable of enjoying this pleasure–and how many of them are there in a generation?–they are nevertheless in the very process reduced to being no more than the full consciousness of another…he has added to it nothing…(VI,296)

I suppose that may characterize the limits of what you read here. I am cheered, though, when a page or two later Proust sees more value for the soul when reading others.

Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in  infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance. (VI,299)

I would also add that reading or viewing or listening leaves our soul primed to feel more deeply.

Unforced Memories

December 22, 2009

For all the fame of Proust’s idea of unforced memories, they occur precious few times in the novel. Aside from the opening madeleine scene, the others happen within a few pages in Time Regained. Yet Marcel feels they give him the key to writing. Given their rare appearance and the fact that they are “unforced” (how can you rely on a tool that is not voluntary?), I have found the idea problematic. So I’ll dig a little deeper into the passages involved to see what my problem is.

The first question the narrator asks is how come unforced memories seem to have more power when recalled than when they were imprinted on our memory? When these perceptions are experienced, they often are not the focus of our attention. The feel of a napkin at the Guermantes party, brings back the seaside colors of Balbec.

And what I found myself enjoying was not merely these colours but a whole instant of my life on whose summit they rested, an instant which had been no doubt an aspiration towards them and which some feeling of fatigue or sadness had perhaps prevented me from enjoying at Balbec but which, freed from what is necessarily imperfect in external perception, pure and disembodied, caused me to swell with happiness. (VI,259)

In addition, the intellect wants connections between perceptions and, finding none, “forgets” them.

…the slightest word that we have said, the most insignificant action that we have performed at any one epoch of our life was surrounded by, and coloured by the reflexion of, things which logically had no connexion with it and which later have been separated from it by our intellect which could make nothing of them for its own rational purposes, things, however, in the midst of which–here the pink reflexion of the evening upon the flower-covered wall of a country restaurant, a feeling of hunger, the desire for women, the pleasure of luxury; there the blue volutes of the morning sea and, enveloped in, phrases of music half emerging like the shoulders of water-nymphs–the simplest act or gesture remains immured as within a thousand sealed vessels, each one of them filled with things of a colour, a scent, a temperature that are absolutely different one from another…(VI,260)

But why should the abrupt return to consciousness of these old memories cause a joyful sensation?

The truth surely was that the being within me which had enjoyed these impressions had enjoyed them because they had in them something that was common to a day long past and to the present, because in some way they were extra-temporal, and this being made its appearance only when, through one of these identifications of the present with the past, it was likely to find itself in the one and only medium in which it could exist and enjoy the essence of things, that is to say: outside time. This explained why it was that my  anxiety on the subject of my death had ceased at the moment when I had unconsciously recognised the taste of the little madeleine… (VI,262)

The other source of pleasure in an unforced memory is that it allows the imagination to savour the perception, something not permitted otherwise. Marcel has many times been disappointed in the reality of a town or church that had previously existed only in his imagination.

…my imagination, which was the only organ that I possessed for the enjoyment of beauty, could not apply itself to it, in virtue of that ineluctable law which ordains that we can only imagine what is absent. And now, suddenly, the effect of this harsh law had been neutralized, temporarily annulled, by a marvellous expedient of nature which had caused a sensation–the noise made both by the spoon and by the hammer, for instance–to be mirrored at one and the same time in the past, so that my imagination was permitted to savour it …(VI,263)

Aside from the pleasure aroused, what meaning for the artist can be attached to these experiences?

For the truths which the intellect apprehends directly in the world of full and unimpeded light have something less profound, less necessary than those which life communicates to us against our will in an impression which is material because it enters us through the senses but yet has a spiritual meaning which it is possible for us to extract….the task was to interpret the given sensations as signs of so many laws and ideas, by trying to think–that is to say, to draw forth from the shadow–what I had merely felt, by trying to convert it into its spiritual equivalent. And this method, which seemed to me the sole method, what was it but the creation of a work of art? (VI,273)

Marcel now has a tentative answer to his lifelong question, what to write about. He had allowed his intellect to thrash about, unconnected to the truths nature had imprinted deep within himself.

When an idea–an idea of any kind–is left in us by life, its material pattern, the outline of the impression that is made upon us, remains behind as the token of its necessary truth. The ideas formed by the pure intelligence have no more that a logical, a possible truth, they are arbitrarily chosen….What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown. (VI,275)

This is the elegant Proustan version of the old advice to writers, write what you know about.

Robert Saint-Loup RIP

December 17, 2009

When Schiller translated Macbeth into German, he dropped all the comic scenes, deeming them unworthy of a high tragedy. Had Schiller had the opportunity to translate Proust’s account of the death of Saint-Loup, I’m sure he would have cut about half, for it is truly Shakespearean in its mix of the high and low, tragedy and comedy.

The scene may actually be said to begin back at the brothel, where Marcel glimpses a figure he suspects is Saint-Loup rushing out the door, so rushed that he drops his prized croix de guerre. When Marcel finally arrives home after his adventures with Charlus, Francoise reports that Saint-Loup had stopped in, looking for his missing medal. What follows is a long comic passage featuring Francoise and the butler and their reflections on the war and assaults on the French language.

“Heavens above, Mother of God,” cried Francoise, “aren’t they satisfied to have conquered poor Belgium? She suffered enough, that one, at the time of her innovation.”

“I cannot understand how everybody can be so stupid. You will see, Francoise, they are preparing a new attack with wider scoop than all the others.”

…though he had once been a gardener at Combray and was a mere butler, he was nevertheless a good Frenchman according to the rule of Saint-Andre-des-Champs and possessed, by virtue of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the right to use the pronunciation “scoop” in full independence and not to let himself be dictated to on a point which formed no part of his service and upon which in consequence, since the Revolution had made us all equals, he need listen to nobody. (VI,219-220)

A curious interlude follows, where the third “I” of the novel, the author (after the narrator and Marcel) speaks. He delivers a speech on true patriotism, illustrated by an account of a fictional family.

In this book in which there is not a single incident which is not fictitious, not a single character who is a real person in disguise, in which everything has been invented by me in accordance with the requirements of my theme, I owe it to the credit of my country to say that only the millionaire cousins of Francoise…are real people who exist. (VI,225)

This is Proust’s transition from the preceding comic pages to the announcement of the death of Saint-Loup, the most patriotic, brave character in the novel. Marcel is flooded with memories of his friend.

For several days I remained shut up in my room, thinking of him. I recalled his arrival the first time at Balbec, when, in an almost white suit, with his eyes greenish and mobile like the waves, he had crossed the hall adjoining the great dining-room whose windows gave on the to the sea. (VI,227)

The narrative focus continues this roving path. Next we return to Francoise and her elaborate performance of grief. Then Marcel reflects again on Robert, this time remarking on his character, flawed though it might be. The Duchessse de Guermantes’s genuine grief is acknowledged, though not without placing it in context.

But then when I recall all the little malicious utterances, all the ill-natured refusals to help each other which this friendship had not excluded, I cannot help reflecting that in society a great friendship does not amount to much. (VI,234)

In the final passage of this scene, we read a little story featuring Morel and a fresh example of his vile behavior, yet who seems to be indirectly redeemed by Saint-Loup when he is sent to the front lines and fights bravely.

This passage on the death of Saint-Loup cannot easily be defined as tragic or comic. It is quintessential Proust, a composition that circles a central theme, developing it through many sets of eyes and multiple emotional and psychological levels.

Charlus in Love II

December 14, 2009

I do not believe I am far off if I say that the biggest villan for Proust is habit. Marcel’s long battle to understand and overcome habit in order to become a writer is a recurrent theme. Isn’t this the importance of the madeleine, of unforced memory, which breaks through the habit-induced fog of the intellect to experience the world directly, happily?

So that, if there were no such thing as habit, life must appear delightful to those of us who are continually under the threat of death–that is to  say, to all mankind. (II,398) 

Habit also may erode our morals by gradually habituating us to behavior that once would have shocked us. This is another answer to the question of the last post: how did Charlus end up chained to an iron bed and lashed with a nail-studded whip?

But in him, as in Jupien, the practice of separating morality from a whole order of actions (and this is something that must also often happen to men who have public duties to perform, those of a judge for instance or a statesman and many others as well) must have been so long established that Habit, no longer asking Moral Sentiment for its opinion, had grown stronger from day to today until at last this consenting Prometheus had had himself nailed by Force to the rock of Pure Matter. (VI,214)

But the narrator tempers this harsh judgement of Charlus’s moral slide to slavery to his obsessions. Charlus knows he is acting in a bizarre play of his own creation.

Yet I have perhaps been inaccurate in speaking of the rock of Pure Matter. In this Pure Matter it is possible that a small quantum of Mind still survived. This madman knew, in spite of everything, that he was the victim of a form of madness and during his mad moments he nevertheless was playing a part, since he knew quite well that the young man who was berating him was not more wicked than the little boy who in a game of war is chosen by lot to be “the Prussian,” upon whom all the others hurl themselves in a fury of genuine patriotism and pretended hate. (VI,215)

Moreover, this “small quantum of mind” is motivated, at heart, by love, albeit Proustian love.

Even in these aberrations (and this is true also of our loves or our travels), human nature still betrays its need for belief by its insistent demand for truth….And if there is something of aberration or perversion in all our loves, perversions in the narrower sense of the word are like loves in which the germ of disease has spread vitriously to every part. Even in the maddest of them love may still be recognised…at the bottom of all this there persisted in M. de Charlus his dream of virility, to be attested if need be by acts of brutality, and all that inner radiance, invisible to us but projecting in this manner a little reflected light, with which his mediaeval imagination adorned crosses of judgement and feudal torture. (VI,215-217)

This passage pulls all the traits of Charlus’s personality together. However degrading his behavior may be, he has led himself there by his pride in his “mediaeval” family origins and in his virility, which dictates the choice of pain and even the type of instruments that inflict it. Perhaps if the war had not been against his beloved Germans, Charlus might have channeled these same traits into behavior praised by all. But the source would have been the same.


Charlus in Love

December 13, 2009

For Proustian characters, love is an act of the imagination. When the imagination is silenced by possession of the person desired, love disappears. Both Swann and Marcel experience this and in similar ways. Swann’s love is sparked by the imaginative leap from the resemblance of Odette to a Botticelli figure and then kept alive by his agony over the mystery of Odette’s present and past lives. Swann’s love ended with their marriage.  Marcel’s love for Albertine is ended not by her death so much as by her memory eroded by time. In both cases their obsessions with these women was prolonged by the mystery of their lesbian lives.

Charlus is no different. He pursues Charlie Morel for a longer time than Swann’s and Marcel’s loves combined. Morel is bisexual, but he keeps Charlus at a distance. Charlus, deprived of possession, grows murderous toward Charlie, who refuses to see him, fearing for his life. All this by way of trying to understand how we find Charlus in a male brothel, voluntarily chained and being beaten with a nail-studded whip.

The narrator observes that the war has provided new opportunities for Charlus. Many of his more mature partners are away in service, but Paris is a “harem” of young men from many countries and races. Charlus’s imagination is fired with new opportunities:

He found the Germans very ugly, perhaps because they were rather too near to his own blood–it was the Moroccans he was mad about and even more the Anglo-Saxons, in whom he saw living statues by Phidias. Now in him pleasure was not unaccompanied by a certain idea of cruelty of which I had not at that time learned the full force: the man whom he loved appeared to him in the guise of a delightful torturer. In taking sides against the Germans he would have seemed to himself to be acting as he did only in his hours of physical pleasure, to be acting, that is, in a manner contrary to his merciful nature, fired with passion for seductive evil and helping to crush virtuous ugliness. (VI,126)

Marcel happens on a male brothel, set up by Charlus and run by Jupien to minister to Charlus’s erotic needs. And what are those needs? What follows is an extended comic scene that explores the mystery of love, Charlus style. Marcel finds a group of young men in a small room, chatting as working men do, about the war, about beating their clients. Marcel is given a room, has his refreshment and then wanders about. He spies on Charlus as he is chained and beaten by Maurice. Jupien characterizes him thusly:

“He’s a milkman but he’s also one of the most dangerous thugs in Belleville” (and it was with a superbly salacious note in his voice that Jupien uttered the work “thug”). And as if this recommendation were not sufficient, he would try to add one or two further “citations.” “He has had several convictions for theft and burglary, he was in Fresnes for assaulting” (the same salacious note in his voice) “and practically murdering people in the street, and he’s been in a punishment battalion Africa. He killed his sergeant.” (VI,184)

 Charlus, courteous and kind when he wants, is not convinced of Maurice’s thuggery.

“I did not want to speak in front of that boy, who is very nice and does his best. But I don’t find him sufficiently brutal. He has a charming face, but when he calls me a filthy brute he might be just repeating a lesson.” “I assure  you, nobody has said a word to him,” replied Jupien, without perceiving how improbable this statement was. “And besides, he was involved in the murder of a concierge in La Villete.” “Ah! that is extremely interesting,” said the Baron with a smile. (VI,184)

Marcel notes resemblances of the young men here to Morel. He wonders if this is intentional.

A third hypothesis which occurred to me was that perhaps, in spite of appearances, there had never existed between him and Morel anything more than relations of friendship, and that M. de Charlus caused young men who resembled Morel to come to Jupien’s establishment so that he might have the illusion, while he was with them, of enjoying pleasure with Morel himself. (VI,185)

 As with Swann and Marcel, the impossibility of fully possessing the loved one fires the imagination and intensifies the love. Charlus is special in that he stage manages his imagination. But the sting of the nail-studded whip is real enough to maintain the illusion.

Star to Star

December 8, 2009

I finally got around to reading Alex Ross’s piece on “fictional music” in The New Yorker (Aug. 24, 2009), where he talks about Proust’s Vinteuil and Mann’s Leverkühn. I could not find the full text of the article on-line but here is a link to a podcast where Ross is interviewed:

He nominates Fauré’s Piano Quintet in D Minor as the likely source of  Vinteuil’s “little phrase” and you can hear the theme here. (I listened also to several interpretations on YouTube by student groups which I liked.)

Ross, in referring to the long passage on music in The Captive (V, 335), notes how little Proust thinks of biography as a source of understanding a work of art. Vinteuil, who Ross points out has no first name, is known by the narrator as “so timid and sad.” Yet he “had been capable–when he had to choose a timbre and to blend another with it–of an audacity, and in the full sense of the word a felicity, as to which the hearing of any of his works left one in no doubt.” I believe Proust is speaking for himself (as well as the Narrator) as someone to be judged by his art and not by the impressions he has given others of being a social butterfly, charming but inconsequential. Those who know the artist only through social interactions in fact know next to nothing about the person. Proust revisits this theme several more times when he dismisses the value of time spent cultivating friendships. While this may disappoint his friends, they are more than recompensed by the deeper connections they may form if they attend to his art.

A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for it we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to  see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star. (V, 343)

Sentenced by Proust

December 6, 2009

Why does Proust write in such long sentences? Aren’t they too long to keep their structure in our awareness? I don’t have answers to these questions. All I can do is take examples of long sentences, look at them more closely than we might when reading the novel and then seek to draw conclusions.

M. Verdurin has just died. Nowhere to this point in the novel have we seen him portrayed very sympathetically. In this passage we see him in a new way, through the eyes of the mature Elstir, the painter.

More and more he was inclined to believe materialistically that a not inconsiderable part of beauty is inherent in objects, and just as, at the beginning, he had adored in Mme Elstir the archetype of that rather heavy beauty which he had pursued and caressed in his paintings and in his tapestries, so now in the death of M. Verdurin he saw the disappearance of one of the last relics of the social framework, the perishable framework—as swift to crumble away as the very fashions in clothes which form part of it – which supports an art and certifies its authenticity, and he was as saddened and distressed by this event as a painter of fétes galantes might have been by the Revolution which destroyed the elegances of the eighteenth century, or Renoir by the disappearance of Montmartre and the Moulin de la Galette; but more than this, with M. Verdurin he saw disappear the eyes, the brain, which had had the truest vision of his painting, in which, in the form of a cherished memory, his painting was to some extent inherent. (VI, 116)

The first thing I do when I want to look more closely at a Proustian sentence is to do a simple diagram. I simply indent each sentence fragment so that those on the same indent and block can be read as a continuous thought.

More and more he was inclined to believe materialistically that a not inconsiderable part of beauty is inherent in objects, and

just as

at the beginning,             

he had adored in Mme Elstir the archetype of that rather heavy beauty which he had pursued and caressed in his paintings and in his tapestries,

so now in the death of M. Verdurin he saw the disappearance of one of the last relics of the social framework,

 the perishable framework—as swift to crumble away as the very fashions in clothes which form part of it –

 which supports an art and certifies its authenticity

and he was as saddened and distressed by this event as a painter of fétes galantes might have been by the Revolution which destroyed the elegances of the eighteenth century, or Renoir by the disappearance of Montmartre and the Moulin de la Galette;

but more than this, with M. Verdurin he saw disappear the eyes, the brain, which had had the truest vision of his painting,

 in which,

in the form of a cherished memory,

his painting was to some extent inherent.

So the sentence without any qualifiers or parenthetical remarks, reads:

More and more he was inclined to believe materialistically that a not inconsiderable part of beauty is inherent in objects, and so now in the death of M. Verdurin he saw the disappearance of one of the last relics of the social framework which supports an art and certifies its authenticity, and he was as saddened and distressed by this event as a painter of fétes galantes might have been by the Revolution which destroyed the elegances of the eighteenth century, or Renoir by the disappearance of Montmartre and the Moulin de la Galette; but more than this, with M. Verdurin he saw disappear the eyes, the brain, which had had the truest vision of his painting.

This shortend version of the sentence retains the essence of this meditation on the (non-Platonic) groundedness of beauty, that it depends not only in how it is substantiated but even in the confirmation of its beauty by the eyes of concrete individuals. But now consider the sentence with the parenthetical content and see how Proust transforms it into a moving and melancholic statement on the relation of time to beauty. Elstir recalls the beauty of his wife, “in the beginning,” a lost beauty that once inspired him to paint. His art is supported and authenticated by the social framework that discovered him and elevated him. But that framework perishes with time, “as swift to crumble away as the very fashions in clothes which form part of it.” And “to some extent” the beauty he had created existed “in the form of a cherished memory.” This slowing of the narrative mimics in form what he says time does to beauty.