Archive for December, 2010

Impressionist Proust

December 30, 2010

Chernowitz provides many examples of the way Impressionist art has influenced his writing. All in all, it amounts to this:

One of the most vital characteristics of pictorial Impressionism and one that constitutes perhaps the greatest link between its art and Proust’s is the emphasis on aconceptual sensation. As has already been described in connection with Elstir, this instantaneous first impression involves the reaction which is experienced before the intellect has had time to intervene and interpret things in conventional, rational, causal terms. Whether depicting a quiet street scene such as Manet’s Rue de Berne or a scene full of movement like Courses à Longchamp or even a simple portrait, the Impressionist artist renders his subject as a visual illusion perceived during the split second of this first impression and not as it actually is according to his knowledge of its permanent color and form. (165-166)


Manet Rue de Bernes



Manet Course a Longchamp



            Manet Portrait of Berthe Morisot


Metaphors and Images

December 23, 2010

Chernowitz recognizes Proust’s frequent use of paintings in his metaphors.

We must remember that Proust is opposed to merely “describing” objects: it is his “impressions” he wished to convey, since for him an abstract thought is less valuable, less profound than a truth or an image derived from one’s impressions. Is there a better syntactical formula than the simile to express the component parts of an impression, that is, the relation of sensations and memories, or, as Proust defines reality, “un certain rapport entre ces sensations et ces souvenirs qui nous entourent simultanément”? Proust’s search for his impressions and their recapture in literary imagery will therefore proceed by juxtaposing in an analogical relation the sensations of the present with the memories of the past. Thanks to comparison, these elements from different periods of time are harmonized in the sentence almost simultaneously, just like notes in a broken chord.

“…and the life of Odette at all other times, since he knew nothing of it, appeared to him upon a neutral and colorless background, like those sheets of sketches by Watteau upon which one sees, here and there, in every corner and in all directions, traced in three colors and upon the buff paper, innumerable smiles.” (130)

Watteau Sketch of Women’s Faces

Odette in Drag

December 22, 2010
Chernowitz identifies some inspirations for Miss Sacripant:

Miss Sacripant, Elstir’s portrait of an actress disguised as a young man–who is really Odette de Crécy–of a beautiful but peculiar type, is also a composite. Like Whistler’s Miss Alexander, she is holding a broad-brimmed hat level with her knee, but is probably only in part a Whistler.

 Whistler – Miss Alexander

The costume disguising her sex recall the work of Manet, who painted so many portraits of this kind, where he would us the same model, Victorine Meurend, who posed in men’s attire in Le Toréador, Le Fifre, Mlle V. en costume d’Espagnol, Jeune femme couchée en costume en costume d’ Espagnol, and others. Besides, Proust himself refers to Miss Sacripant specifically as “contemporain d’un des nombreux portraits que Manet ou Whistler ont peints.” (115)

Manet Le Toreador

Manet Le Fifre

 Manet Jeune Fille couchee

Proust and Painting

December 21, 2010
 Maurice Chernowitz, author of Proust and Painting, notes how Swann loves to match real people to images found in the paintings of the masters. Chernowitz does much the same thing in his book by matching Proust’s word paintings with what he imagines as the real paintings that inspired the prose.

In this first manuscript, which has remained partly unpublished, Elstir’s art reveals to the narrator the beauty of natural scenes to which he had previously paid no attention. A water-color instills in him the desire to see again in real life scenes of the ocean where the bathers and the yachts are an integral part of the view. Manet, Monet, and the other Impressionists have pictured seascapes exactly like these, where men and boat are one with the ocean and the multicolored passengers are treated as if they were part of a landscape or of a colorful still life. (101)

Manet – Seascape at Berck

Furthermore, Elstir’s studies render the narrator less restricted in his tastes by bringing out the charm of a provincial French town…Here Proust may have thought of Pissarro’s pictures, for the latter pained market scenes and fairs in village squares in Rouen and elsewhere that show a perfect knowledge of village life. (101)


Pissarro – The Old Market at Rouen

He quotes this passage where Elstir compares a seaside cliff in sweltering sunshine to a cathedral.

“I spoke to you the other day of Balbec church as a great cliff, a huge breakwater built of the stone of the country, but conversely,” he went on, showing me a watercolor, “look at these cliffs (it’s a sketch I did near here, at the Creuniers); don’t those rocks, so powerfully and delicately modelled, remind you of a cathedral?” And indeed one would have taken them for soaring red arches. But, painted on a scorching hot day, they seemed to have been reduced to dust, volatilised by the heat which had drunk up half the sea so that it had almost been distilled, over the whole surface of the picture into a gaseous state. (II,656)

Monet – Entretat End of Day

 Guided by Elstir, Marcel begins to see the commonplace as beautiful. Chernowitz sees Manet in this word tableau of the dinner table.

…the promenade of the antiquated chairs that came twice daily to take their places round the white cloth spread on the table as on an altar at which were celebrated the rites of the palate, and where in the hollows of the oyster-shells a few drops of lustral water had remained as in tiny holy-water stoups of stone; I tried to find beauty there where I had never imagined before that it could exist, in the most ordinary things, in the profundities of “still life.” (II,613)

Manet – Oysters

Axel’s Castle I

December 21, 2010

Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle, writes essays on writers he describes as Symbolists. They include Yeats, Valéry, Eliot, Proust, Joyce and Stern. Here he defines Symbolism:

Every feeling or sensation we have, every moment of consciousness, is different from every other; and it is, in consequence, impossible to render our sensations as we actually experience them through the conventional and universal language of ordinary literature. Each poet has his unique personality; each of his moments has its special tone, its special combination of elements. And it is the poet’s task to find, to invent, the special language which will alone be capable of expressing his personality and feelings. Such a language must make use of symbols: what is so special, so fleeting and so vague cannot be conveyed by direct statement or description, but only by a succession of words, of images, which will serve to suggest it to the reader. The Symbolists themselves, full of the idea of producing with poetry effects like those of music, tended to think of these images as possessing an abstract value like musical notes and chords. But the words of our speech are not musical notation, and what the symbols of Symbolism really were, were metaphors detached from their subjects–for one cannot, beyond a certain point, in poetry, merely enjoy color and sound for their own sake: one has to guess what the images are being applied to. And Symbolism may be defined as an attempt by carefully studied means–a complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors–to communicate unique personal feelings. (21-22)

So how is Proust a Symbolist?

Marcel Proust is the first important novelist to apply the principles of Symbolism to fiction. Proust had assimilated a great variety of writers from Ruskin to Dostoevsky, and he had acquired a remarkable technical virtuosity; but, born in 1871, he  had been young in the eighties and nineties, when Symbolism was in the air, and the peculiar methods and form of his great novel certainly owed much to Symbolist theory. I have said that the influence on the Symbolists of Wagner was as considerable as that of  any writer of books, and it is significant of Proust’s conception of his art that he should have been in the habit of speaking of his  “themes.” His enormous novel, “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” is, in fact, a symphonic structure rather than a narrative in the ordinary sense. The shifting images of the Symbolist poet, with their “multiplied associations,” are here characters, situation, places, vivid moments, obsessive emotions, recurrent patterns of behavior. (132)

Today, we can admire the ingenuity with which Proust, in these first pages of his book, has succeeded in introducing nearly every important character. And not merely every strand of his plot, but also every philosophic theme. We are able here to note already one feature which all his characters have in common. All alike are suffering from some form of unsatisfied longing or disappointed hope: all are sick with some form of the ideal. Legrandin wants to know the Guermantes; Vinteuil is wounded in his love for his daughter; Swann, associating the beauty of Odette with that of the women of Botticelli, ridiculously and tragically identifies his passion for her with the neglected aesthetic interests. (134)

While the novel’s  non-narrative, symphonic structure, established Proust as a Symbolist (or what we now call, more inclusively, Modernist), he owes much to the traditional, narrative novel.

The contrast between, on the one hand, the dreams, the broodings and the repinings of the neurasthenic hero, as we get them for such long stretches, and, on the other, the rich and lively social scenes, dramatized by so powerful an imagination, is one of the most curious features of the book. These latter scenes, indeed, contain so much broad humor and so much extravagant satire that, appearing in a modern French novel, they amaze us. Proust, however, was much addicted to English literature: “It is strange,” he writes in a letter, “that, in the most widely different departments, from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there should be no other literature which exercises over me so powerful an influence as English and American.” (136)

As, furthermore, it has been said of Dickens that his villains are so amusing–in their fashion, so enthusiastically alive–that we are reluctant to see the last of them, so we acquire a curious affection for even the most objectionable characters in Proust: Morel, for example, is certainly one of the most odious character in fiction, yet we are never really made to hate him or to wish that we did not have to hear about him, and we feel a genuine regret when Mme. Verdurin, with her false teeth and her monocle, finally vanishes from our sight.This generous sympathy and understanding for even the monstrosities which humanity produces, and Proust’s capacity for galvanizing these monstrosities into energetic life, are at the bottom of the extraordinary success of the tragi-comic hero of Proust’s Sodom, M. de Charlus. But Charlus surpasses Dickens and, as has been said, is almost comparable to Falstaff. In a letter in which Proust explains that he has borrowed certain traits of Charlus from a real person, he adds that the character in the book is, however, intended to be “much bigger,” to “contain much more of humanity”; and it is one of the strange paradoxes of Proust’s genius that he should have been able to create in a character so special a figure of heroic proportions. (137-138)

The heart of the Symbolist/Modernist attempt is to find a bridge from the experience to the expression, from the unknowable to the known. Proust symbolizes this search in his characters.

The conviction that it is impossible to know, impossible to master, the external world, permeates his whole book. It is reiterated on almost every page, in a thousand different connections: Albertine’s lies; the gossip about the heir-apparent of Luxemburg; the contradictory diagnoses of the doctors who are consulted about the grandmother’s illness; the attractions of Rivebelle and Balbec, mutually invisible across the water; the ticking of the watch in Saint-Loup’s room, which the visitor is unable to locate;; the names in the railway time-table of the towns in the neighborhood of Balbec, which first rouse romantic images in the mood of the boy and whose etymologies are explained by the curé of Combray, then become for the young man simply the stations of the Balbec railway, and are later, explained differently and authoritatively by Brichot, so that they take on an entirely new suggestiveness. (156-157)

An English Tribute

December 12, 2010

On hearing of Proust’s death in 1922, his translator, Scott Moncrieff, solicited short appreciative essays from members of his literary circle. He didn’t hear back from Virginia Wolff, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley or E.M. Forster, but enough did reply to fill a small volume: Marcel Proust, An English Tribute. Presented here are a few passages that are particularly insightful on how Proust developed his characters.

He is, perhaps, if we return to that definition of the difference between a novel and a play, more of the essential novelist than any man has ever been. His aim is by a hundred different methods to make you know his chief characters, not as if you were meeting them every day, but as if you yourself had for the moment actually been living in their skins and inhabiting their minds. Everything possible must be done to help you to this end. You must feel the repulsions and attractions they feel; you must even share their ancestors, their upbringing, and the class in which they live, and share them so intimately that with you, as with them, they have become second nature. Nor is even this enough. The man who knows himself is not common, and to know Proust’s characters as you know yourself may only be a small advance in knowledge. So every motive of importance, every reaction to whatever stimulus they receive, is analysed and explained until your feeling will probably be, not only how well you know this being, who is in so many respects unlike you, but how far more your own most distressing and ridiculous actions, how far more understandable is an attitude to life or to our neighbours that you yourself have almost unconsciously, and perhaps in mere self-protection, adopted. (Ralph Wright, 36-37)

 If I say that I regard Proust as the only completely satisfying poetical record, the most important literary phenomenon of our time, I feel that I am involved in an argument with people who think that the relentless effusion of modern verse has [no] more significance than, let us say, a bath tap which has been left running. And I simply do not want to argue about what I enjoy. If I say that Proust represents the apex hitherto reached by the feminine or realistic art of this age, just as Stendhal represents the culmination of the masculine or ideological art of the eighteenth century, or that Proust arrives at the general through an incredibly sensitive exploration of the particular, whereas Stendhal achieves the particular by his exquisite consciousness of the general, I am involved in a lecture. And I simply do not want to lecture about what I enjoy. The trouble is that, in order to demonstrate Proust to people who have not read him, one ought to have as subtle a power of evocation, as rich a manner of suggestion as Proust himself, who could, I believe, make even a dream interesting, so that we should live in that dream and extract from it the essential flavour of its peculiarity as authentically as the dreamer. That is why Proust writes of childhood with such magic. He manages to recognize, in the complication of events that merely occur and are forgotten, the ideal duration in which they were imbedded and which gave them their material weight and spiritual portentousness. It is only in childhood, or at any rate only in isolated fragments of time later, that we possess at all intimately this sense of duration when objects appeal to us as their essential selves, as pure energies. At other periods we value them according as they forward our lives, according as they are useful to us, and thus we lose our sense of their independent existence. (Compton Mackenzie, 61-62)

Two passages on Proust’s understanding of the female character:

And when we recall the endless pains expended, through Swann’s love for her, on Odette, on the making indeed a mirror of that love for the woman by whom it was inspired and from whom it drew its strength and weakness, we realise that purposely the author has left of Gilberte ” a loveliness perceived in twilight, a beauty not clearly visioned”; that he considered the emotions felt for her not to be a response to any emanation from herself; but that she was rather a focus, a rallying point, for the aspirations and intimations of boyhood; that she was in herself uninteresting, filling rather than creating a position in the life of the “moi” of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.  (Alec Waugh, 63-64)

We all know with what liveliness in conversation any man with the gifts of observation and wit can create an image for us of some female “character” met with in his childhood or his travels. But let that same man come to speak out of his emotions of some woman who has moved him deeply, then his heart will cloud his brain, his will no longer be capable of outlining a portrait. As listeners our impressions of his subject will be gained, not from what he says, but independently from what we perceive that he feels, which may well be in direct conflict with his words. In life, that is to say, the more important a character is to us the more we are thrown back for our ultimate knowledge on the emotions aroused by that character in ourselves. In fiction it is usually the other way about. It is his central figures whom the novelist pretends to know best. Proust, however, has recognised this discrepancy with scientific clearness. he devotes himself, therefore, where his important women are concerned–aside from the very minimum of detached, objective observations–to a presentment of the effect they have upon the men that love them…

It is in this differential treatment of his women that we perceive how rigourously Proust applies his artistic method He never seeks to transcend his own personality. In him, the observer, the whole of creation lives and moves and has its being. Men are creatures made in his own image. He can faithfully follow his own emotions, and “by his belief” can conscientiously endow his men with souls. But women are in a different case. He has no inner guide to assure him that they are anything more than the phantoms they seem. Strictly speaking, this should imply no more than a negative attitude. In fact, however, Proust goes further. Because he has no grounds for belief he passes into unbelief. In his philosophy esse est percipi, therefore, the souls of women for him have no existence. Herein it is likely that he has borne out the unavowed experience of most men. Whether or no, he certainly has expressed the truth of his own experience with a purity that few, even among great writers, can rival. (Catherine Carswell, 72-75)

 Joseph Conrad describes his own goal in writing as “the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel… before all, to make you see.” He is amazed at how Proust arrives at these goals in so different a way from himself.

He is a writer who has pushed analysis to the point when it becomes creative. All that crowd of personages in their infinite variety through all the gradations of the social scale are rendered visible to us by the force of analysis alone. I don’t say Proust has no gift of description or characterisation; but, to take an example from each end of the scale: Francoise, the devoted servant, and the Baron de Charlus, a consummate portrait–how many descriptive lines have they got to themselves in the whole body of that immense work? Perhaps, counting the lines, half a page each. And yet no intelligent person can doubt for a moment their plastic and coloured existence. One would think that this method (and Proust has no other, because his method is the expression of this temperament) may be carried too far, but as a matter of fact it is never wearisome. There may be her and there amongst those thousands of pages a paragraph that none might think over-subtle, a bit of analysis pushed so far as to vanish into nothingness. But those are very few, and all minor instances. The intellectual pleasure never flags, because one has the feeling that the last word is being said upon a subject much studied, much written about, and of human interest–the last word of its time. Those that have found beauty in Proust’s work are perfectly right. It is there. What amazes one is its inexplicable character. In that prose so full of life there is no reverie, no emotion, no marked irony, no warmth of conviction, not even a marked rhythm to charm our ear. It appeals to our sense of wonder and gains our homage by its veiled greatness. I don’t think there ever has been in the whole of literature such an example of the power of analysis, and I feel pretty safe in saying that there will never by another. (Joseph Conrad, 126-128)

The Dialectics of Proust

December 5, 2010

For Richard Macksey, in his essay The Architecture of Time: Dialectics and Structure (in Proust, A Collection of Critical Essays), the central dynamic of the novel is the tension between the inner and outer life, realized self and desire for the other, art and life and the dialectic that the artist experiences in finding a way to reconcile these contrasting forces.

For Proust originality was a quality of “vision,” a way of seeing the world whole and unique; he saw his own task as that of enclosing his world in a new structure which, like the parish church of Saint-Hilaire, would include in its unity the “four dimension of space–the name of the fourth being Time.” Although the vocabulary of Proust’s extended architectural metaphors frequently recalls his apprenticeship to John Ruskin, two insistent points in such comparisons are peculiarly characteristic of the novelist’s own vision: the possibility of creating a dialectic between inside and outside, a living space within which the artist can translate the world;  and the possibility, usually represented by the gothic arch or rose window, of bringing into immanent contact two apparently opposed views or ways of life.

The  world outside, beyond the walls of the family or of Combray, is always the object of the Proustian character in his  moment of dispersion; the mechanism by which he reaches out in a vain attempt to appropriate the shifting surfaces out there for his own may be called love or snobisme or even chauvinism, but the trajectory is always the same, a flight from the inside, from the center of the self….The first movement in each case is outward toward the flux, the second a turning back on the center. But for Proust the experience of change and the succession of affective state which it brings is absolutely essential to the later, positive phase of the dialectic–the remembering and reconstituting of these experiences. (105-106)

The Swann novella and the life of Charlus are accounts of a failed “reconstitution.”

Like the narrator he [Swann] cherishes some of the same art objects, and like him thinks by vital analogy and similitude. But unlike the narrator at the  end of his journey, Swann chooses to enlist the world of art and its message into the service of love. He converts the petite phrase of Vinteuil, which calls to him from that world, into the “national anthem” of his love affair with Odette de Crécy. He tries to find in the world of flux the stability of a painting by Botticelli.

In external circumstance or physical appearance the Baron de Charlus bears little similarity to Charles Swann. Yet in their gifts of sensibility and intelligence, more especially in their ways of responding to art and love, they betray an intimate identity. Between them they suggest the range of object and similarity of mechanism which Proust finds in his analysis of the centrifugal force of desire. Both men respond quickly to the stimulus of art, but both pervert its message. Just as Swann demeans the music of Vinteuil by involving it in his affair with Odette (so that eventually the petite phrase “says nothing to him”), so Charlus, amateur of Balzac, confuses the events and characters of a fictional world with this own–and disastrously puts his faith in the reality of the latter.

The parallelism of Swann’s career and choice with those of Charlus is further reinforced by the skillful articulation of details of plot. The Baron is associated in the narrator’s mind with his childhood memories of Tansonville as the “gentleman in twill,” friend of Swann and an ambiguous admirer of Odette. The great soirée at the Princess de Guermantes’ in Sodome et Gomorrhe I marks the point when Charlus inherits Swann’s legacy, the point where the former comes to the center of the stage and the latter vanished into the wings. Even the downfall in love of each, the moment of rejection, is engineered by the same hostess, Mme Verdurin, largely because of her jealousy for the same rival, Mme de Guermantes. Finally, the same musical theme (although radically transformed) orchestrates both events. (110-111)

Marcel transcends Swann and Charlus, not in type and quality of life experiences, but in creating a vast inner cathedral where the experiences can be translated to art.

His faith in metaphoric expression, the ritual action of his art, is to become the ky to the narrator’s  own vocation. The two Proustian emotions turn on the axes of love and art: intense suffering and total joy. Both can serve the narrator in his search for his vocation. Thus, the dialectical opposition of the way of love and the way of art, already foreshadowed in the career of Swann, is first revealed to the narrator in the paradoxes and associations of his first love affair. Although love is here and in the future a failure as a means of appropriating reality, it does provide a valuable by-product–the feelings–which can be translated through a very different process into the material of art. (117)

 With Husserl, Proust ultimately rejects “psychologism” as a means to certainty. Like the philosopher, he insists that an experience cannot be objectified as things can be; thus knowledge of the consciousness must be entirely different from knowledge of the physical. Husserl argues that the psychical can only be grasped by a special kind of reflective experience, an Erlebnis; a temporal depth is demanded. But true reflection is inseparable from what is reflected upon: I cannot know what a flower is until I live  reflexively my own consciousness of the flower.

There is for Proust a similar reflective character in this prise de conscience, which suggests the final dimension of his edifice: Time. This destroyer of all external objects of desire becomes, in turn, a creative force: it allows recollection. Value resides only in past experience possessed and translated in the present. The artist’s two means to achieve this vital simultaneity are memory and metaphor. Both require for Proust, as for Coleridge, “the reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference.”

The great danger in Proust’s affective psychology is that all past moments will remain discrete and yet indistinguishable from one another–like the shattered images of the world outside. The task is to compose them like the minute pieces of glass in the rose window of his cathedral into felt relationships. In the Proustian dialectic of the temporal and intemporal, even the very intermittency of time has a vital role to play. As moments are separated from each other like the successive spatial planes of Cézanne’s landscapes, a new law of perspective is possible, unexpectedly combining  (like the dancing spires) instants which could not be contiguous in any sort of continuous time.

In this final architectural image–the imposition of spatial relations on time–Proust at once suggests the character of his own creative act, a kind of achievement of simultaneity through analogy, and he offers direction to the readers who will visit the edifice after him. His ideal reader would come not once but again in order to comprehend the original experiences and their network of associations. As early as the Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust argued that to be nourished by art is “to distinguish a subtle harmony…between two impressions or two ideas,” one past and one present. thereby the viewer of two pictures by the same artist “perceives something which is in neither the first nor the second but in some way exists between them, a sort of ideal picture which he sees projecting itself in spiritual substantiality outside of the picture; he has been nourished, and begins to live and be happy again.” (119-120)

See a video of Richard Macksey’s library: