Archive for June, 2010

Beckett on Proust: Memory and Style

June 29, 2010

Beckett on involuntary memory:

The most successful evocative experiment can only project the echo of a past sensation, because, being an act of intellection, it is conditioned by the prejudices of the intelligence which abstracts from any given sensation, as being illogical and insignificant, a discordant and frivolous intruder, whatever word or gesture, sound or perfume, cannot be fitted into the puzzle of a concept. But the essence of any new experience is contained precisely in this mysterious element that the vigilant will reject as an anachronism. It is the axis about which the sensation pivots, the centre of gravity of its coherence. So that no amount of voluntary manipulation can reconstitute in its integrity an impression that the will has–so to speak–buckled into incoherence. But if, by accident,  and given favourable circumstances (a relaxation of the subject’s habit of thought and a reduction of the radius of his memory, a generally diminished tension of consciousness following upon a phase of extreme discouragement), if by some miracle of analogy the central impression of a past sensation recurs as an immediate stimulus which can be instinctively identified by the subject with the model of duplication (whose integral purity has been retained because it has been forgotten), then the total past sensation, not its echo nor its copy, but the sensation itself, annihilating every spatial and temporal restriction, comes in a rush to engulf the subject in all the beauty of its infallible proportion. (53-54)

The most trivial experience–he says in effect–is encrusted with elements that logically are not related to it and have consequently been rejected by our intelligence: it is imprisoned in a vase filled with a certain perfume and a certain colour and raised to a certain temperature. These vases are suspended along the height of our years, and, not being accessible to our intelligent memory, are in a sense immune, the purity of their climatic content is guaranteed by forgetfulness, each one is kept at its distance, at it date. So that when the imprisoned microcosm is besieged in the manner described, we are flooded by a new air and a new perfume (new precisely because already experience), and we breathe the true air of Paradise, of the only Paradise that is not the dream of a madman, the Paradise that has been lost. (55)

 But if this mystical experience communicates an extratemporal essence, it follows that the communicant is for the moment an extratemporal being. Consequently the Proustian solution consists, in so far as it has been examined, in the negation of Time and Death, the negation of Death because the negation of Time. Death is dead because Time is dead. (At this point a brief impertinence, which consists in considering Le Temps Retrouvé almost as inappropriate a description of the Proustian solution as Crime and Punishment of a masterpiece that contains no allusion to either crime or punishment. Time is not recovered, it is obliterated. Time is recovered, and Death with it,  when he leaves the library and joins the guests, perched in precarious decrepitude on the aspiring stilts of the former and preserved from the latter by a miracle of terrified equilibrium. If the title is a good title the scene in the library is an anticlimax. (56-57)

Beckett on Proust’s style:

The narrator had ascribed his ‘lack of talent’ to a lack of observation, or rather to what he supposed was a non-artistic habit of observation. he was incapable of recording surface….The copiable he does not see. He searches for a relation, a common factor, substrata. Thus he is less interested in what is said than in the way in which it is said. Similarly his faculties are more violently activated by intermediate than by terminal–capital–stimuli. We find countless examples of these secondary reflexes. Withdrawn in his cool dark room at Combray he extracts the total essence of a scorching midday from the scarlet stellar blows of a hammer in the street and the chamber-music of flies in the gloom. Lying in bed at dawn, the exact quality of the weather, temperature and visibility, is transmitted to him in terms of sound, in the chimes and calls of hawkers. (63)

By his impressionism I mean his non-logical statement of phenomena in the order and exactitude of their perception, before they have been distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect….In this connection Proust can be related to Dostoievski, who states his characters without explaining them. It may be objected that Proust does little else but explain his characters. But his explanations are experimental and demonstrative. he explains them in order that they may appear as they are–inexplicable. He explains them away. (66-67)

Beckett on Proust: Albertine

June 27, 2010

Beckett follows Albertine from Marcel’s first visit to Balbec.

Thus her relationship with Mme. Bontemps, her early amiabilities, the effect of a declamatory beauty-spot on her chin, her use of the adverb ‘perfectly ‘ for ‘quite,’ the provisional inflammation of her temple constituting an optical centre of gravity about which the composition of her features is organised, are sufficient taken together to establish an Albertine as remote from the first Albertine, the beach flower, as yet a third aspect, characterised by a pronounced nasal enunciation, a terrifying command of slang, the disappearance of the inflamed temple, and the miraculous transference of the beauty-spot from her chin to her upper lip, is remote from the second. Thus is established the pictorial multiplicity of Albertine that will duly evolve into a plastic and moral multiplicity, no longer a mere shifting superficies and an effect of the observer’s angle of approach rather than the expression of an inward and active variety, but a multiplicity in depth, a turmoil of objective and immanent contradictions over which the subject has no control. (32)

 But Albertine is a fugitive, and no expression of her value can be complete unless preceded by some such symbol as that which physics denotes speed. A static Albertine would soon be conquered, would soon be compared to all the other possible conquests that her possession excludes, and the infinite of what is not and may be preferred to the nullity of what is. Love, he insists, can only coexist with a state of dissatisfaction, whether born of jealousy or its predecessor–desire. It represents our demand for a whole. (39)

There is no limit to her deceit and none to his faculty of suffering. And in the midst of this Tolomea [a region in Dante’s Inferno. JE] he knows that this woman has no reality, that ‘our most exclusive love for a person is always our love for something else,’ that intrinsically she is less than nothing, but that in her nothingness there is active, mysterious and invisible, a current that forces him to bow down and worship an obscure and implacable Goddess, and to make sacrifices of himself before her. And the Goddess who requires this sacrifice and this humiliation, whose sole condition of patronage is corruptibililty, and into whose faith and worship all mankind is born, is the Goddess of Time. No object prolonged in this temporal dimension tolerates possession, meaning by possession total possession, only to be achieved by the complete identification of object and subject. The impenetrability of the most vulgar and insignificant human creature is not merely an illusion of the subject’s jealousy (although this impenetrability stands out more clearly under the Röntgen rays of a jealousy so fiercely hypertrophied as was that of the narrator, a jealousy that is doubtless a form of his domination complex and his infantilism, two tendencies highly developed in Proust). (41-41)

Beckett on Proust: Memory

June 27, 2010

Beckett says that “Memory and Habit are attributes of the Time cancer.”

The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his  existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. (8)

The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations (because by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave-sheets serve as swaddling-clothes) represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being. (8)

The narrator cannot sleep in a strange room, is tortured by a high ceiling, being used to a low ceiling. What is taking place? The old pact is out of date. It contained no clause treating of high ceilings. The habit of friendship for the low ceiling is ineffectual, must die in order that a habit of friendship for the high ceiling may be born. Between this death and that birth, reality, intolerable, absorbed feverishly by his consciousness at the extreme limit of its intensity, by his total consciousness organised to avert the disaster, to create the new habit that will empty the mystery of its threat–and also of its beauty. (10-11)

‘Enchantment of reality’ has the air of a paradox. But when the object is perceived as particular and unique and not merely the member of a family, when it appears independent of any general notion and detached from the sanity of a cause, isolated and inexplicable in the light of ignorance, then and then only may it be a source of enchantment. Unfortunately Habit has laid its veto on this form of perception, its action being precisely to hide the essence–the Idea–of the object in the haze of conception–preconception. (11)

…the reader is cordially invited to omit this summary analysis of what is perhaps the greatest passage that Proust ever wrote–Les Intermittances du Coeur.  This incident takes place on the first evening of the narrator’s second visit to Balbec.On this occasion he is with his mother, his grandmother having died a year before. But the dead annex the quick as surely as the Kingdom of France annexes the Duchy of Orléans….He arrives tired and ill, as on the former occasion that has been analysed as an example of the death of habit. Now, however, the dragon has been reduced to docility, and the cavern is a room….He stoops down–cautiously, in the interests of his heart–to unbutton his boots. Suddenly he is filled with a divine familiar presence. Once more he is restored to himself by that being whose tenderness, several years earlier, in a similar moment of distress and fatigue, had brought him a moment’s calm, by his grandmother as she had then, as she had continued to be until that fatal day of her stroke in the Champs Elysées, after which nothing remained of her but a name, so that her death was of as little consequence to the narrator as the death of a stranger. Now, a year after her burial, thanks to the mysterious action of involuntary memory, he learns that she is dead….But he has not merely extracted from this gesture the lost reality of his grandmother: he has recovered the lost reality of himself, the reality of his lost self….But this resumption of a past life is poisoned by a cruel anachronism: his grandmother is dead. For the first time since her death, since the Champs Elysées, he has recovered her living and complete, as she was so many times, at Combray and Paris and Balbec. For the first time since her death he knows that she is dead, he knows who is dead. He had to recover her alive and tender before he could admit her dead and for ever incapable of any tenderness. This contradiction between presence and irremediable obliteration is intolerable. (25-28)

Beckett on Proust: Time

June 27, 2010

Samuel Beckett’s Proust is brief, only 72 pages, but is dense with insight. It is loosely organized on the themes of time, memory, love and artistic vision. In this post, which will require little commentary on my part, I will select passages related to time.

He accepts regretfully the sacred ruler and compass of literary geometry. But he will refuse to extend his submission to spatial scales, he will refuse to measure the length and weight of man in terms of his body instead of in terms of his years….Proust’s creatures, then, are victims of this predominating condition and circumstance–Time; victims as lower organisms, conscious only of two dimensions and suddenly confronted with the mystery of height, are victims: victims and prisoners. There is no escape from the hours and days. There is no escape from  yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us.  (2)

We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday. A calamitous day, but calamitous not necessarily in content. The good or evil disposition of the object has neither reality nor significance. The immediate joys and sorrows of the body and the intelligence are so many superfoetations. [I looked it up for you: The conception of a second embryo, during the gestation of the first. JE] Such as it was, it has been assimilated to the only world that has reality and significance, the world of our own latent consciousness, and its cosmography has suffered a dislocation….The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego, not for to-day’s. We are disappointed at the nullity of what we are pleased to call attainment. But what is attainment: The identification of the subject with the object of his desire. The subject has died–and perhaps many times–on the way. (3)

 The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantation, decantation from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours. Generally speaking the former is innocuous, amorphous, without character, without any Borgian virtue. Lazily considered in anticipation and in the haze of our smug will to live, of our pernicious and incurable optimism, it seems exempt from the bitterness of fatality: in store for us, not in store in us. On occasions, however, it is capable of supplementing the labours of its colleague. It is only necessary for its surface to be broken by a date, by any temporal specification allowing us to measure the days that separate us from a menace–or a promise. Swann, for example, contemplates with doleful resignation the months that he must spend away from Odette during the summer. One day Odette says: ‘Forcheville (her lover, and, after the death of Swann, her husband) is going to Egypt at Pentecost.’ Swann translates: ‘I am going with Forcheville to Egypt at Pentecost.’ The fluid of future time freezes, and poor Swann, face to face the future reality of Odette and Forcheville in Egypt, suffers more grievously than even at the misery of his present condition. (4-5)

The future event cannot be focussed, its implication cannot be seized, until it is definitely situated and a date assigned to it. When Albertine was his prisoner, the possibility of her escape did not seriously disturb him, because it was indistinct and abstract, like the possibility of death. Whatever opinion we may be pleased to hold on the subject of death, we may be sure that it is meaningless and valueless. Death has not required us to keep a day free. (6)

The Proust Project II

June 18, 2010

Edmund White asks, addressing Proust’s discourse on the nature of homosexuality in Sodom and Gomorrah, was he himself a self-hating homosexual as well as a Jewish anti-Semite?

He starts out with the most extreme (and the most offensive) theory: that male homosexuals are inverts, i.e., women disguised as men. This whole initial disquisition on homosexuality is triggered by Marcel’s realization that Charlus’s face in repose is that of a woman since “he was one.” This the theory of “the soul of a woman enclosed in the body of a man,” first worked out by the German sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1868. (81)

Proust in this passage has already employed the pseudomedical term “invert”; now in elaborate and venomous and confusing sentences he invokes the judge as well as God and Christ (law and religion). But these invocations are embedded in a comparison of inverts to Jews, disobliging to both….Proust sets out to show the similarities between the self-hating homosexual and the anti-Semitic Jew. Just as the Jew who has converted to Christianity must deny his original faith before the bar of justice (the Inquisition), in the same way the male homosexual can enjoy the love of his parents and the camaraderie of his friends only by denying “his very life,” i.e., his real desires. (82)

In his vast novel, which he began only after his parents’ death, he devotes hundreds of pages to the theme of male homosexuality and even more to lesbianism. Just as Vintueil’s daughter and her girlfriend profane her father’s photograph, in the same way Proust in real life installed his parents’ furniture in a male brothel (and gave his father’s clothes to a servant). Was this frankness about the shocking subject of homosexuality in his novel, were these acts of profanation in real life Proust’s ways of avenging himself on parents to whom he could never reveal the truth about his sexual identity? Is he one of those “sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie even in the hour when they close her dying eyes”? Perhaps to divert attention from his own parti pris, Proust rendered loathsome most of the male homosexual characters in his book while carefully preserving the heterosexuality of Marcel; it was this grotesquerie that André Gide complained about to Proust himself. (83)

Proust’s apparent homophobia is matched by his apparent anti-Semitism. Proust may have made fun of the Bloch family by showing how venal and vulgar its members were, but he was also the man who stood by Dreyfus and who would ask his friends to curb anti-Semitic jibes in his presence, because his mother was Jewish. Homosexuals, however, are even more self-hating in Proust’s account. He says that whereas Jews in an extreme case (the Dreyfus Affair) will band together, homosexuals are so self-hating they will not close ranks around one of their pariahs (Oscar Wilde). If these parallels and contrasts that Proust establishes are negative, they conceal a hidden suggestion that homosexuality is not really a sickness after all but that inverts constitute something like a minority. (83)

Homosexuality is a rich, ambiguous subject for Proust to investigate precisely because it is as open to interpretation as love (or life) itself. (85)

The Proust Project I

June 17, 2010

The novelist André Aciman invited twenty-eight writers to choose a favorite passage from ISOLT and comment on it in a brief essay. I include here portion of a few of the responces.

Lydia Davis on the Martinville steeple passage and her wonder at a boy writing it:

Young Marcel’s age is a constant puzzle, anyway, in the first volume of the novel: it seems, throughout, to be an amalgam of different ages. Would a child of thirteen or, say, seven do all of the following: wait for his mother’s kiss in the hallway; enjoy his private lust in the little room that smelled of orrisroot; be allowed to sit with the adults at dinner for a short time only; read Bergotte and discuss him with his friend Bloch and with Swann; tearfully hug the hawthorns in his new jacket and rip the curlpapers out of his hair; write the description of the steeples; dread the approach of bedtime once again, and with it the separation of his mother? (15)

 Lara Vapnyar on Swann and Odette and the cattleyas:

“Perhaps, too, he was fixing upon the face of an Odette not yet possessed, nor even kissed by him, which he was seeing for the last time, the comprehensive gaze with which, on the day of his departure, a traveller hopes to bear away with him in memory a landscape he is leaving for ever.”  The beauty of this sentence is in Proust’s ability to move from past to future, and back, and back again, never quite touching the present. In the words “not yet possessed” there is a glimpse of the future, where Odette would already be possessed by Swann and what’s happening now in the carriage would inevitably be looked upon as the past. The metaphoric traveller is making a similar time journey: he is looking at the place he is about to depart from (the act of leaving is still in the future) as if it had already slipped into the past and he had memories of it. The only thing that is missing is the present…(30)

Alain de Botton on the passage where Marcel spends the night on a train:

We’ve all heard the train wheels beat against the rails, but takes Proust to rescue the sound from our customary inattention and to pin it down in words that carry over the emotional charge of the original experience. The value of Proust’s novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own but could not have formulated on our own. An effect of reading a book that hs devoted attention to noticing such faint yet vital tremors is that once we’ve put the volume down and resumed our own life, we may attend to precisely the things which the author would have responded to had he or she been in our company. Our mind will be like a radar newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness. The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own sensitivity. (43-43)

Wayne Koestenbaum on Marcel’s infatuation with the duchess:

Marcel’s extreme consciousness requires the ballast of a motionless, heraldic, feminine object. The duchess could be Vivien Leigh, or Arletty, or Catherine Deneuve, or Kim Novak in Vertigo, a figment one never stops searching for; the duchess is any woman you have idealized for reasons that sensible people would call silly or superficial. Proust’s Search is full of love objects, and the duchess is not the central one. And yet, in my biased estimation, Marcel’s brief love for the duchess–her name, her remoteness, her station, her beauty, her nose, her pronunciation, her chiffon–stands out as the most poignant. (58)

 Andrew Solomon on Marcel’s grandmother’s illness:

“But to ask pity of our body is like discoursing  in front of an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the tides.” To discourse in front of an octopus is not deeply satisfying, but to realize that your are the octopus is ghastly….Somehow this octopus is the flawed part of us. It is the part the insufferable le needs of which so weigh down the characters in Proust, leading them into damage and despair. To love purely and freely, without the encumbrance of desire or illness–this ascetic goal seems to preoccupy Marcel even as he writes of human weakness, sensual despair, and the alien body. This body–will no one rid me of its pleasures and its pain? And yet, one does not even have the language with which to address the monstrous thing within which one is imprisoned and without which one is gone. (64)

Abstruse Engima

June 16, 2010

Landy uses the indent method to diagram Proust’s sentences, a method I have also found useful. It can bring out rhythm, sense and structure in a graphic way. Here is an example from Landy, along with his commentary.

How could I have guessed
what I was told afterwards
    (and of whose truth I have never been certain,
       Andree’s assertions
          about anything that concerned Albertine,
                 especially later on,
          having always seemed to me to be highly dubious,
                  as we have already seen,
              she did not genuinely like my friend
              and was jealous of her),
something which
    in any event,
        if it was true,
was remarkably well concealed from me
    by both of them:
that Albertine was on the best of terms with Morel? (IV,586)

Another “Zenonian hundred-yard dash,” this sentence is an object lesson in how the mind can, under pressure, turn a simple question into an impossibly abstruse enigma. The nucleus, represented in the original by the first and last five words, is straightforward: “How could I have guessed … that Albertine was on the best of terms with Morel?” It is repeatedly interrupted, however, by qualifications, justifications, and justification of justifications.

To start with, an opposite (optimistic) hypothesis makes it appearance almost immediately: perhaps Albertine was not on the best of terms with Morel, in which case there is no point asking the question. This being the hypothesis of the intellect, it is appropriately backed up by argument (Andrée may be lying), and that argument in turn backed up by a causal explanation (Andrée may be lying), and that argument in turn backed up by a causal explanation (Andrée is jealous of Albertine). It is not entirely convincing: Marcel says he has “always” distrusted Andrée, “especially later on”; the two temporal adverbs stand in a certain amount of tension.

Next, Marcel feels compelled to defend his obliviousness, saying that he had no way of knowing what was going on; and he interrupts his excuses, for good measure, to give voice once again to the optimistic hypothesis (“if it were true”).

What we are left with is a muddle, and the impression of a mind spinning its wheels in irremediable uncertainty, moving from ignorance to blind guesswork and thence to total confusion. At first Marcel knew nothing; later he learned that Albertine and Morel were in cahoots; later still he put that idea into question, ending up worse off than he started (still as ignorant, but even more racked with doubt).

The sentence is as contorted as the mind that produced it. It not only speaks of but instantiates the intellect’s failure to reach reliable conclusions concerning other minds. And it intimates, sotto voce, the one success to which intellect can still aspire: that of rationalizing away what we do not wish to believe. 148-149)


June 15, 2010

Landy sees the Proustian self or identity as the actions of the intellect, intuition and will, each working at different strengths at different times, defining many layers of selves over a lifetime. The challenge is to forge an identity from these deep layers of sedimentation.

The image of the Self conveyed by the Recherche may be rebarbatively elaborate, but it has the merit of explaining a wide variety of phenomena that alternative schemata simply cannot capture: recidivism of the soul, simultaneities of faith and distrust, lucid dreams, a confusion as to our location on waking, and above all the strange power of ancient memories over our present-day organism. The fact, as Marcel sees it, is that involuntary memory is really not memory at all. When an odor, texture, or sound returns us to a former state, we are not dragging into the light a set of impressions that have long since departed but, instead, summoning up a part of us that is still very much present within our mind. Only in this way is it possible to reexperience from within a situation we approached with a radically different set of attributes, beliefs and desires. (110)

Involuntary memory provides evidence of at least the possibility of a unified self.

The genuine impact of involuntary memory thus turns out to be related to its unveiling of a hidden faculty within the Self. The simple act of remembering, and remembering from within–not just the facts of an experience (dates, times, names, places), as if it belonged to another person, but the subjective component, the way in which our taste buds receive information, the way (more importantly) in which we put things together–offers the sudden tantalizing glimpse of a possible identity consistent over time, and thus a partial and preliminary satisfaction of the ontological and epistemological criteria: involuntary memory indicates the existence of, and affords access to, a unique…self. (113)

If involuntary memory establishes the existence of the self, it is personal temperament or style that provides the content of the self.

The true self, in other words, cannot be expressed in but only revealed through language. It is not just perspective but first and foremost style; which is why, contra Sainte-Beuve and with Mallarmé, the writerly persona is more authentic than the empirical human being….As a musician of words, one is able to discover the true locus of coherence and uniqueness within oneself in “that song, different from those of other singers, similar to [one’s] own, …that distinctive strain the sameness of which–for whatever its subject it remains identical with itself–proves the permanence of the elements that compose [one’s] soul”.(V,343). And one is able at last to communicate to oneself as well, potentially, as to others) one’s idiosyncratic view of the world, thus resolving the final difficulty, that of representation. (115)

 Armed with a sense of unity and style, the author (and any person) can now compose a life.

Real life, that is , is inherently literary, even for the inartistic, who are merely unaware of its existence at a subterranean level of themselves. In order to bring it into the light, we do not have to channel our life into writing; on the contrary, we need only introduce literature into our life, “developing” the various images that lie dormant in the mind and thus, in compliance with the Pindaric injunction invoked by Nietzsche and Marcel alike, becoming who we are. For we are already a set of disparate elements; whether or not we then become a whole of which they are parts depends on the success of our attempts at self-unification, on the measure of artistry we import into our existence. Instead of life in literature, the ultimate answer turns out to be life as literature. (123)


June 14, 2010

Marcel goes to the greatest of efforts to uncover Albertine’s secret life. Curiously, he passes up on an opportunity to gather unambiguous evidence.

Sometimes, when she was too warm,, she would take off her kimono while she was already almost asleep and fling it over an armchair. As she slept I would tell myself that all her letters were in the inner pocket of this kimono, into which she always thrust them. A signature, an assignation, would have sufficed to prove a lie or to dispel a suspicion. When I could see that Albertine was sound asleep, leaving the foot of the bed where I had been standing motionless in contemplation of her, I would take a step forward, seized by a burning curiosity, feeling that the secret of this other life lay offering itself to em, flaccid and defenceless, in that armchair. Perhaps I took this step forward also because to stand perfectly still and watch her sleeping became tiring after a while. And so, on tiptoe, constantly turning around to make sure that Albertine was not waking, I would advance towards the armchair. There I would stop short, and stand for a long time gazing at the kimono, as I had stood for a long time gazing at Albertine. But (and here I was perhaps wrong) never once did I touch the kimono, put my hand in the pocket, examine the letters. In the end, realising that I would never make up my mind, I would creep back to the bedside and begin again to watch the sleeping Albertine, who would tell me nothing, whereas I could see lying across an arm of the chair that kimono which would perhaps have told me much. (V,89-90)

 Landy tries to understand Marcel’s reticence in finally discovering the truth by examining the nature of his love.

Marcel has good reason for continuing his légère amours even as he dedicates his life to literature. For while no amount of shared affection can ever reveal the essence of another person, in love any more than in friendship–such communications being the exclusive province of art–erotic attachments are, as we saw in the introduction, particularly propitious when it comes to uncovering our own essence. The reason is that the very “temperament” that turns all love objects into what we want them (or fear them) to be, and thus prevents us from seeing them as they really are, also constitutes that which we really are at a fundamental level…Our passions, that is, may never reveal the “objective truth” about someone else (i.e., correspondence between our imagination and her reality), but they do communicate a “subjective truth” about ourselves (i.e., coherence among our various projections). And they tell us more about this “innermost part of our being” than do the artworks of others or even our own involuntary memories, since the latter merely indicate the existence of an abiding temperament within us and never its specific nature….This being the case, it is in our interest to preserve our illusions, precisely because they are our illusions, indicative of who, at a deep level, we are. (93-94)

If so, why then does Marcel send out so many spying missions on Albertine?

For Marcel’s spies are in fact never intended to gather the truth in the first place.  He knows, after all,that he will not believe what they tell him, since it is easy to discredit what we have merely heard and not seen for ourselves…and since, for the various reasons outlined earlier, no third party can ever be relied on to provide a jealous lover with sound information.  Furthermore, Marcel seems always to select the worst possible candidates for the job. (96)

Landy sees this Proustian accommodation with ignorance as a restatement of Nietzsche’s “will to ignorance.”

Science, then, turns out to be no more than a mechanism spontaneously developed by mankind as protection against the dangerous insight that in and of itself life has no meaning, human striving no point or purpose. Our tireless pursuit of trivial fact simply serve to conceal from us that far deeper ignorance, and thus to preserve it, there being no other way it can be preserved once the first rays of doubt begin to dawn on our cognitive horizon. We must persuade ourselves that we are doing everything possible to discover the truth, while continually investigating areas from which we know it absent; we must, as it turns out, double our delusion, not only remaining unaware of the state of affairs but forgetting that we are unaware, becoming ignorant of our very ignorance. (99)

Martinville Prose Poem

June 13, 2010

Marcel seems to elevate his composition on the Martinville steeples to the importance of the madeleine experience. Yet, as Landy observes, many of us are left wondering why.

We are, however, in for a disappointment. What “reality” lies hidden “beneath the surface” of the Martinville steeples? What transformative knowledge, what Platonic essence, does Marcel detect in their depths? Nothing in the passage gives the slightest indication of any such discovery. In order to make any headway at all, we ar obliged to resort to a type of arithmetical calculation. For we fortunately possess not one but two accounts of the excursion, not just the prose poem itself but also, right before it, the history of its genesis, the very same scene described in a down-to-earth, factual way, more or less as Marcel would doubtless have phrased it had he never had the epiphany. Now if we start from the prose poem and then subtract the narrative, what we are left with is presumably the epiphanic inspiration, the “thought…which had not existed for me a moment earlier.” (55)

After performing this calculation we are left with:

We travel fast, but the three steeples [appear to] stand still…The three steeples look like birds on the plain…The Vieuxvicq steeple [apparently] moves away again, leaving the Martinville steeples alone in the smiling light of sunset…The village [apparently] accompanies us….The road turns, and the three steeples [appear to] veer out of sight, like three golden pivots….They look like three flowers painted on the sky….They also evoke three young girls of a legend. (55-56)

Landy sees here the insight that so moves Marcel.

More specifically, the poem brings two fresh features into the description, a series of images and a set of personifications (notice that I have inserted the terms “appear to” or “apparently” no fewer than seven times in my synopsis). The steeples resemble birds, pivots, flowers, and girls; they are capable of autonomous movement (“timidly seeking their way,…drawing close to one another”) equipped with distinguishing character traits (Vieuxvicq is “bold” and also disdainful, “taking its proper distance” from the other two) and endorsed with agency–to the point, indeed, of bearing responsibility for their “actions” (Vieuxvicq being censured as “dilatory”). It is these two addenda, I will argue, that constitute the very heart of the insight newly introduced into Marcel’s (dim) awareness. Together they notify a part of him that there is a distinction between the steeples considered objectively and the steeples as he sees them, and that what is left over when the first is subtracted from the second is something he did not know he had–namely a perspective. (56)

 Borrowing Marcel’s moraliste terminology, we might say that the narrative is composed by intellect and the prose poem by intuition, the latter being a faculty for immediate insight, placing us directly in tough with objects of cognition. As a result, the prose poem is very close to impressionist paintings produce by the fictional Elstir, whose ambition was “to reproduce things not as he knew them to be but according to the optical illusions of which our first sight of them [notre vision première] is composed.Whereas the narrative version presents what Marcel knows about the carriage ride, what he has worked out post hoc, the impressionist paragraph gives only what he registered at the time, the initial optical illusion. (58)

This is the “reality” hidden “beneath the surface” of the Martinville steeples.

The new truth is in fact a truth about the human mind, not about the steeples: it is about the primacy of intuition, and the qualitative difference between the pictures it offers (delineated in the prose poem) and the corrected pictures subsequently generated by the intellect. (59)