Swann-Odette Redux

Proust retells the the story of the man who is willing to sacrifice all for a woman who is in every respect unworthy. Where Swann’s imagination was seduced by Odette’s resemblance to a Botticelli figure, Saint-Loup’s is seduced by a theatrical creation.

She had one of those faces to which distance–and not necessarily that between stalls and stage, the world being merely a larger theatre–gives form and outline and which, seen from close to, crumble to dust. Standing beside her one saw only a nebula, a milky way of freckles, of tiny spots nothing more. At a respectable distance, all this ceased to be visible and from cheeks that withdrew, were reabsorbed into her face, there rose like a crescent moon a nose so fine and so pure that one would have liked to be the object of Rachel’s attention, to see her again and again, to keep her near one, provided that one had never seen her differently and at close range. (III,231)

But Marcel had seen her at close range, as a twenty franc prostitute, and so was accordingly resistant to her charms.

I realised then how much a human imagination can put behind a little scrap of a face, such as this woman’s was, if it is the imagination that has come to know it first; and conversely into what wretched elements, crudely material and utterly valueless, something that had been the inspiration of countless dreams might be decomposed if, on the contrary, it had been perceived in the opposite manner, by the most casual and trivial acquaintance. (III,209)

It was not “Rachel when from the Lord,” who seemed to me of little significance, it was the power of the human imagination, the illusion on which were based the pains of love, that I found so striking. (III,211)

Saint-Loup would later see a photo of Albertine, who he knew caused Marcel such distress, and would be amazed that Marcel would trouble himself with such a plain looking girl.


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