Precious and Rare


Marcel finally gets to mix with the aristocracy when invited to a dinner party by Madame la Duchesse, as she insists the butler address her. As in all cases where imagination is corrected by experience, imagination is killed.

To a certain extent, it is true, though not nearly enough to justify this state of mind, the Guermantes were different from the rest of society; they were more precious and rare. They had given me at first sight the opposite impression; I had found them vulgar, similar to all other men and women, but that was because before meeting them I had seen them, as I saw Balbec, Florence or Parma, as names. Naturally enough, in this drawing-room, all the women whom I had imagined as being like Dresden figures were after all more like the great majority of women. But, in the same way as Balbec or Florence, the Guermantes, after first disappointing the imagination because they resembled their fellow-men rather more than their name, could subsequently, though to a lesser degree, hold out to one’s intelligence certain distinctive characteristics. (III,599)

Let’s take a look at those “distinctive characteristics.” First, consider the Princesse de Parme, a person so grounded in her blue-blood and wealth, that she takes genuine delight in radiating a benevolence on those lesser endowed.

Well before I arrived in her vicinity, the lady had begun to flash at me continuously from her large, soft, dark eyes the sort of knowing smiles which we address to an old friend who perhaps has not recognised us. As this was precisely the case with me and I could not for the life of me remember who she was, I averted my eyes as the Duke propelled me towards her, in order not to have to respond until our introduction should have released me from my predicament. Meanwhile the lady continued to maintain in precarious  balance the smile she was aiming at me. She looked as though she was in a hurry to be relieved of it and hear me say: “Ah, Madame, of course! How delighted Mamma will be to hear that we’ve met again!” I was as impatient to learn her name as she was to see that I did finally greet her with every indication of recognition, so that her smile, indefinitely prolonged like the note of a tuning fork, might at length be given a rest. (III,580)

By the same token, in a fragmentary survival of the old life of the court which is called social etiquette and is by no means superficial, wherein, rather, by a sort of outside-in reversal, it is the surface that becomes essential and profound, the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes regarded as a duty more essential and more inflexible than those (all too neglected by one at least of the pair) of charity, chastity, pity and justice, that of rarely addressing the Princesse de Parme save in the third person. (III,583)

As the traveller discovers, almost unaltered, the houses roofed with turf, the terrace which may have met the eyes of Xenophon or St Paul, so in the manners of M. de Guermantes, a man who was heart-warming in his graciousness and revolting in his hardness, a slave to the pettiest obligations and derelict as regards the most solemn pacts. I found still intact after more than two centuries that aberration, peculiar to the life of the court under Louis XIV, which transfers the scruples of conscience from the domain of the affections and morality to questions of pure form. (III,598)

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