Martinville Prose Poem


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)

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