The Soul of Wit


Mme de Guermantes’s wit is so famous, it begs for a definition.

It is fickle and easily distracted.

As though corrupted by the nullity of life in society, the intelligence and sensibility of Mme de Guermantes were too vacillating for disgust not to follow pretty swiftly in the wake of infatuation (leaving her still ready to be attracted afresh by the kind of cleverness which she had alternately sought and abandoned) and for the charm which she had found in some warm-hearted man not to change, if he came too often to see her, sought too freely from her a guidance which she was incapable of giving him, into an irritation which she believed to be produced by her admirer but which was in fact due to the utter impossibility of finding pleasure when one spends all one’s time seeking it. (III,646)

It is amoral.

Known to be kind, she would receive the constant telephone calls, the confidences, the tears of the abandoned mistress and make no complaint. She would laugh at them, first with her husband, then with a few chosen friends. And imagining that the pity which she showed for the unfortunate woman gave her the right to make fun of her, even to her face, whatever the lady might say, provided it could be included among the attributes of the ridiculous character which the Duke and Duchesse had recently fabricated for her, Mme de Guermantes had no hesitation in exchanging glances of ironical connivance with her husband. (III,661)

It is cruel.

An idea seemed to flicker in the eye of Mme de Guermantes. She insisted that M. de Grouchy must not give himself the trouble of sending the pheasants. And making a sign to the betrothed footman with whom I had exchanged a few words on my way in from the Elstir room, “Poullein,” she told him, “you will go tomorrow and fetch M. le Comte’s  pheasants and bring them straight back–you won’t mind, will you, Grouchy, if I make a few little presents. Basin and I can’t eat a dozen pheasants by ourselves.” “But the day after tomorrow will be soon enough,” said M. Grouchy. “No, tomorrow suits me better,” the Duchesse insisted. Poullein had turned pale; he would miss his rendezvous with his sweetheart. This was quite enough for the diversion of the Duchesse, who liked to appear to be taking a human interest in everyone. (III,662)

How like the sensibility of a writer!

But Mme de Guermantes on the contrary drew from such incidents opportunities for stories which made the Guermantes laugh until the tears streamed down their cheeks, so that one was obliged to envy the lady for having run short of chairs, for having herself made or allowed her servant to make a gaffe, for having had at a party someone whom nobody knew, as one is obliged to be thankful that great writers have been kept at a distance by men and betrayed by women when their humiliations and their sufferings have been if not the direct simulus of their genius at any rate the subject matter of their works. (III,641).

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