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.