Proust’s answer to the bleakness of life resulting from time’s corrosion of everything humanly valuable is an aesthetic one. Time can be defeated by a proper appreciation of the power of memory to reveal the essences of life and by an artistry that can record these essences. But he knows the dangers of aestheticism and he personifies them in the character of Swann. This man, though immensely learned and intelligent, lives on the surface of art, emotionally cut off from it, symbolized by his inability to finish his Vermeer manuscript. But Germaine Brée, in Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time, sees that he has one last chance to emerge from this barrenness.
At the same time, love reveals to Swann that he has within him a capacity for feeling, a wealth of emotional life of which he is usually unaware because he normally lives on the surface, carefully insulated against this emotional zone. The Swann who struggles against the proof of his failure in love asserts by that very failure his belief that love was to bring him something besides Odette, was to fill another need, in a kind of parenthesis, between the two musicales where the little Vinteuil phrase is played. The first time, the phrase touches Swann’s heart and awakens in him a renewed taste for love. The second time it re-animates, in all its reality, the suffering through which he has unconsciously lived, makes him realize its extent and brings back to him from oblivion the full memory of his essay at love. But at the same time the musical phrase again poses the riddle of its own existence, a riddle which is now compounded with that of Swann’s love. For an instant Swann is at the threshold of a spiritual discovery for which his love has prepared the way because it has liberated his emotional power. But because of his lack of intellectual persistence he can never understand the real nature of his experience, nor the nature of the faculty which had temporarily substituted for his everyday world an hallucinated world in which he recognized neither others nor himself. His love is twice “lost” to him, and with that love he loses also what Vinteuil’s phrase has suggested to him. “It is one of those powers of jealousy,” the narrator says much later, “to show us that feelings and the reality of facts are unknown and open to countless suppositions. We think we know exactly how things stand, what people think about them, for the simple reason that we don’t care. But as soon as we wish to know something, as a jealous person does, things become a dizzying kaleidoscope in which we see nothing.”
Proust’s object when he tells the story of Swann’s love for Odette is not merely to relate a love story but to show how, because of love, Swann sets forth into an unknown world in which “he no longer distinguishes anything” and which causes the narrow and reassuring setting of his daily life to collapse. Swann proceeds no further in the knowledge of the “terra incognita” into which his love has led him; but his adventure is a prelude to the narrator’s, and each acquires it full meaning only in relation to the other. (151-2)