Proust’s Religion

There is religious imagery in Proust, but his religion does not have need of God. Rene Girard, in his essay in Proust, A Collection of Critical Essays, explains.

Throughout the novel, the desires–innocent as well as perverse–of Marcel and of the other characters are described in quasi-religious terms. Behind the coveted something, there is always a someone endowed with an almost supernatural prestige. Marcel yearns after a kind of  mystical communion, with an individual, or with a group, dwelling, he believes, in a superior realm of existence and entirely separated from the vulgar herd. This metaphysical desire takes a different form in the various stage of the novel. Just as Combray huddles at the foot of its medieval church, so the first Marcel lives in the shadow of his parents, or of Swann, or of the great writer Bergotte, all of them towering figures whom the child imitates religiously in the hope of becoming one of them. Later on, through sexual desire and social ambition, Marcel again seeks initiation to a new and mysterious existence which he believes to be preferable to his own. Now, however, the benevolent gods of Combray have been replaced by malevolent ones–the smart hostesses who stubbornly refuse to send the passionately awaited invitation, the flighty boys and girls who inflict the torture of jealousy upon their admirers in inverse proportion to the pleasure they provide. Proust’s metaphors, his art, reflect this change in the “religious” atmosphere of the novel. The images of Combray, usually borrowed from the Old Testament and medieval Christianity, express a vigorous but naive faith. The world of snobisme and erotic passion, on the other hand, associates itself with black magic, with the bloody cults of fetishism, with such perversions of Christianity as witch-hunting and the Inquisition. (2)

The salons he longs for and finally attains are temples of snobisme, where no one can feel secure because there is always a place where one has not yet been accepted.

Why should everyone feel individually guilty about a feeling of inadequacy which is, in reality, universal? To answer this question, we must go back to Combray. Marcel has rejected the bourgeois morality of his parents, except for one essential tenet which he is unable to question: he still believes that he must be a “real” man, self-reliant, independent, and strong. But what does it mean to be a “real” man in a positivistic world from which all things transcending the human have been banished? It means, in the last resort, that humanity must assume the attributes of divinity. This consequence of  “God’s death,” seen clearly only by Nietzsche and Dostoevski before Proust’s time is perhaps obscurely at work among those characters in the novel who are constantly seeking mystical union with a pseudo-divinity and must therefore be, at least subconsciously, committed to self-divinization.

According to Nietzsche, God’s death, by propelling human pride to new heights, will lead man to surpass himself and become a superman. Dostoevski is of a different mind. Man is not a god, Dostoevski asserts, and the individual man’s inner voice will always tell him this truth. But this existentially irrefutable truth is powerless against the unanimous voice of a Promethean society, always urging its members to arrogate the functions of the divine. The result, for the individual, will be inescapable frustration. “Divinity” becomes what one knows one does not have, but what one must assume les autres do have. Each would-be superman will believe himself the only limited being n a society of demi-gods, and in his delusion will seek salvation from his divinized but envied fellowmen, with tragic and grotesque consequences for all concerned.

Proust is not prepared to take a direct part in this philosophical debate, possibly because, for him God is simply too dead…

For Proust as for Dostoevski, transcendence, which, in the past, separated the worshipper from the worshipped, now separates individuals from each other and forces them to live their relationships at the level of a corrupted religiosity. Everyone is led by amour-propre, Proust writes–by a self-centered love that leads outward, turning us into the slaves and imitators of others. Crushed under the weight of our Promethean pride, amour-propre has become like a centrifugal planisphere. As this centrifugal pride lures the narrator with the fallacious promises of snobisme and sexual passion, it takes him further and further away from Combray. (5-6)


One Response to “Proust’s Religion”

  1. 5 October (1922): Marcel Proust to Camille Vettard Says:

    For René Girard on Proust click link…

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