The Discrete Charm of the Aristocracy

Marcel continues to be intrigued by the aristocracy. The bourgeoisie, though having drawn ahead in wealth, have yet to acquire the self-assurance of the hereditary caste.

For, apart from individual characteristics, there was still at this period a very marked difference between any rich and well-dressed man of that section of the aristocracy and any rich and well-dressed man of the world of finance or “big business.” Where one of the latter would  have thought he was giving proof of his exclusiveness by adopting a sharp and haughty tone in speaking to an inferior, the nobleman, affable and mild, gave the impression of considering, of practising  an affectation of humility and patience, a pretence of being just an ordinary member of the audience, as a prerogative of his good breeding. (III,40)

A budding genius who has taken a stall in order to see Berma thinks only of not soiling his gloves, of not disturbing, of conciliating the neighbour whom chance has put beside him, of pursuing with an intermittent smile the fleeting glance, and avoiding with apparent want of politeness the intercepted glance, of a person of his acquaintance whom he has discovered in the audience and to whom, after endless indecision, he makes up his mind to go and talk just as the three knocks from the stage, resound before he has had time to reach this friend, force him to take flight, like the Hebrews in the Red Sea, through a heaving tide of spectators and spectatresses whom he has forced to rise to their feet and whose dresses he tears and boots he crushes as he passes. (III,42)

The nobility, though, is quite at home here, leaving them free to enjoy the performance, save one small deficit.

…it was because they rested an indifferent hand on the gilded shafts of the columns which upheld this temple of the lyric art–it was because they remained unmoved by the extravagant honours  which seemed to be being paid them by a pair of carved figures which held out towards the boxes branches of palm and laurel, that  they alone would have had the equanimity of mind to listen to the play, if only they had had minds. (III,43)






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