Proust famously denounced attempts to reduce art to the person of the artist. The self that makes art is not the self that we engage socially. Still, this leaves room to read the novel to understand the artist’s self. Wilson does this and does not like who he meets.
The fascination of Proust’s novel is so great that, while we are reading it, we tend to accept it in toto. In convincing us of the reality of his creations, Proust infects us with his point of view, even where this point of view has falsified his picture of life. It is only in the latter part of his narrative that we begin seriously to question what he is telling us. Is it really true, we begin to ask ourselves, that one’s relation with other people can never provide a lasting satisfaction? Is it true that literature and art are the only forms of creative activity which can enable us to meet and master reality? Would not such an able doctor as Proust represents his Cottard as being enjoy, in supervising his cases, the satisfaction of knowing that he has imposed a little of his own private reality upon the world outside? Would not a diplomat like M. de Norpois in arranging his alliances?–or a hostess like Mme. de Guermantes in creating her social circle? Might not a more sympathetic and attentive lover than Proust’s hero have even succeeded in recreating Albertine at least partly in his own image? We begin to be willing to agree with Ortega y Gasset that Proust is guilty of the mediæval sin of accidia, the combination of slothfulness and gloom which Dante represented as an eternal submergence in mud.
For “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” in spite of all its humor and beauty, is one of the gloomiest books ever written. Proust tells us that the idea of death has “kept him company as incessantly as the idea of his own identity”; and even the water-lilies of the little river at Combray, continually straining to follow the current and continually jerked back by their stems, are likened to the futile attempts of the neurasthenic to break the habits which are eating his life. Proust’s lovers are always suffering: we scarcely ever see them in any of those moments of ecstasy or contentment which, after all, not seldom occur even in the case of an unfortunate love affair–and on the rare occasions when they are supposed to be enjoying themselves, the whole atmosphere is shadowed by the sadness and corrupted by the odor of the putrescence which are immediately to set in. (164-165)
And so with Proust we are forced to recognize that his ideas and imagination are more seriously affected by his physical and psychological ailments than we had at fist been willing to suppose. His characters, we begin to observe, are always becoming ill like the hero–an immense number of them turn out homosexual, and homosexuality is “an incurable disease.” Finally, they all suddenly grow old in a thunderclap–more hideously and humiliatingly old than we have ever known any real group of people to be. And we find that we are made more and more uncomfortable by Proust’s incessant rubbing in of all these ignominies and disabilities. We begin to feel less the pathos of the characters than the author’s appetite for making them miserable. And we realize that the atrocious cruelty which dominates Proust’s world, in the behavior of the people in the social scenes no less than in the relations of the lovers, is the hysterical sadistic complement to the hero’s hysterical masochistic passivity.What, we ask, is the matter with Proust?–and what is it that happened to his novel? (165-166)
It seems to me plain, in spite of all the rumors as to the ambiguity of Albertine’s sex, that both Proust’s hero and himself were exceeding ly susceptible to women: we are certainly made to feel the feminine attraction of both Albertine and Odette, and the spell of their lovers’ infatuation, whereas, on the other hand, none of the male homosexual characters is ever made to appear anything but horrible or comic. Proust had apparently, in his youth, been in love at different times with several women–Mme. Pouquet was evidently one of these–had fared rather badly with them and had never forgiven them to the end of his days. And he shows in “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” more resentment against the opposite sex than enthusiasm for his own. Homosexuality figures in Proust almost exclusively under the aspect of perversity, and it is in general unmistakably associated, as in the incident of Mme. Vinteuil, with another kind of perversity, sadism. The cruel and nasty side of Proust is the inevitable reaction against, the inevitable compensation for, the good-little-boy side which…was a great deal too good to be human–or, more precisely, which remained rather puerile. (181-182)
Proust was never able to find any other woman to care for him as his mother did. His friends have testified to the fact that it was impossible for any friend or inamorata to meet the all-absorbing demands for sympathy and attention which he was accustomed to having satisfied at home; and he was unwilling or unable to make the effort to adjust himself to any non-filial relation. The ultimate result was that strange state of mind which often disconcerts us in his novel: a state of mind which combines a complacent egoism with a plaintive malaise at feeling itself shut off from the world, a dismay at the apparent impossibility of making connections with other human beings. We end by feeling that, after all, he enjoys the situation of which he is always complaining. Did he not prefer, after all, his invalid’s cell, with his mother ministering to him, to the give and take of human intercourse? The death of his mother upset this situation and we probably owe his novel to it. Proust, with his narcotics, his fumigations, his cork-lined chamber, his faithful servants and his practice of sleeping all day, arranged for himself an existence as well protected as it had been during his mother’s lifetime; but lacking that one human relationship which had sustained him, he was obliged to supply something to take its place and for the first time he set himself seriously to work. His need now to rejoin that world of humanity from which he had allowed himself to be exiled become more pressing, and his book was a last desperate effort to satisfy it. (183-184)