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.