Proust’s Shakespearean Jealousy

Harold Bloom, in How to Read and Why, contrasts Proust with Shakespeare on jealousy:

Reading about the fictive jealous agonies of others may not heal our parallel torments, and may never teach us a comic perspective applicable to ourselves, and yet the sympathetic pleasure aroused seems close to the center of aesthetic experience. In Proust as in Shakespeare, the art itself is nature, an observation crucial to The Winter’s Tale, which rivals Othello as Shakespeare’s vision of sexual jealousy. Proust does not make us into Iago as we read, and yet we revel in his narrator’s self ruining, for in Proust every major character, but Marcel in particular, becomes his own Iago. Of all Shakespeare’s villans, Iago is the most inventive at stimulating sexual jealousy in his prime victim, Othello. The genius of Iago is that of a great playwright who delights in tormenting and mutilating his characters. In Proust, many of the protagonists become instances of Iago turned against himself. What gives more aesthetic pleasure than a pride of self-mutilating Iagos? My favorite passage in all of Proust comes after the narrator’s beloved Albertine is dead, and result from minute investigations into every detail of her lesbian passions:

Albertine no longer existed; but to me she was the person who had concealed from me that she had assignations with women in Balbec, who imagined that she had succeeded in keeping me in ignorance of them. When we try to consider what will happen to us after our own death, is it not still our living self which we mistakenly project at that moment? And is it much more absurd, when all is said, to regret that a woman who no longer exists is unaware that we have learned what she was doing six years ago than to desire that of ourselves, who will be dead,the public shall still speak with approval a century hence? If there is more real foundation in the latter than in the former case, the regrets of my retrospective jealousy proceeded none the less from the same optical error as in other men the desire for posthumous fame. And yet, if this impression of the solemn finality of my separation from Albertine  had momentarily supplanted my ideas of her misdeeds, it only succeeded in aggravating them by bestowing upon them an irremediable character. I saw myself astray in life as on an endless beach where I was alone and where, in whatever directions I might turn, I would never meet her.

“How to read a novel” might be epitomized as “how to read this passage,” which is Proust’s Search in miniature, and so is a model also of the traditional novel. Proust’s vision of jealousy, quite Shakespearian, is that indeed it is in search of lost time, and of lost  space as well. Othello, Leontes, Swann, and Marcel all suffer “the same optical error,” the jealous resentment that there will never be enough time and enough space for themselves to enjoy Desdemona, Hermione, Odette, and Albertine. (184-185)


2 Responses to “Proust’s Shakespearean Jealousy”

  1. Sean Says:

    Has it occurred to you that Othello was not jealous but actually quite trusting, and that Albertine was a man having sex with a woman, and not a lesbian affair at all, but seen through the “closeted” narrative of Proust he was simply a heterosexual man having sex with a woman, which drove Proust crazy because he had a homosexual fixation on Albert…. and that the loss of time and space is quite different from sexual jealousy, in both Shakespeare and Proust.

    I would break that run-on sentence up but I’m afraid you would misread them also … It is no surprise that I am the first to comment on this post. I can only hope that the “by” in the last paragraph is a typo. It is difficult to be certain. This post is confused and in over its nose.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      First, I fixed the typo. Thanks.

      Proust absolutely hated for anyone to mix up his personal life with his novel. That said, I would agree that Proust filtered his characters through his own sexual experience, which was for the most part homosexual. So the Swann and Marcel love affairs drew heavily on his own gay love affairs. But I don’t think that requires us to read the novel with that in mind. I find it simpler and more satisfying to read it just as Proust wrote it: two heterosexual love stories.

      I too don’t fully accept Bloom’s definition of jealousy. It is insightful but I like the old-fashioned view that it is the pain caused when you realize a loved one is having fun and you are not part of it. And that, I think, applies to Othello.

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