An Artist in Evil

Sadism is not associated with hate for Proust. It may be a way to experience pleasure, or it may be the cruelty of indifference. It is the former for Mlle Vinteuil, who profanes her father’s memory in order to get in the right frame of mind for sex. She challenges her lesbian friend to spit on her father’s photograph. They close the curtain on the voyeur Marcel and we are left to imagine the rest. Now for the psychological analysis…

But, appearance apart, in  Mlle Vinteuil’s sort at least in the earlier stages, the evil element was probably not unmixed. A sadist of her kind is an artist in evil, which a wholly wicked person could not be, for in that case the evil would not have been external, it would have seemed quite natural to her, and would not even have been distinguishable from herself; and as for virtue, respect for the dead, filial affection, since she would never have practised the cult of these things, she would take no impious delight in profaning them. Sadist’s of Mlle Vinteuil’s sort are creatures so purely sentimental, so naturally virtuous, that even sensual pleasure appears to them as something bad, the prerogative of the wicked. And when they allow themselves for a moment to enjoy it  they endeavour to impersonate, to identify with, the wicked, and to make their partners do likewise, in order to gain the momentary illusion of having escaped beyond the control of their own gentle and scrupulous natures into the inhuman world of pleasure. (I,231)

It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure, that seemed to her attractive; it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil. And as, each time she indulged in it, it  was accompanied by evil thoughts such as ordinarily had no place in her virtuous mind, she came at length to see in pleasure itself something diabolical, to identify it with Evil. (I,232)

Perhaps she would not have thought of evil as a state so rare, so abnormal, so exotic, one in which it was so refreshing to sojourn, had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone else, that indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the most terrible and lasting form of cruelty. (I,232-233)

Proust took his mother’s photograph to the male brothels he frequented late in his life.


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