Archive for February, 2011

Proust’s Ethics

February 13, 2011

Hindus evaluates Proust’s ethics through a study of the Dreyfus case and how he has each of his characters react to the case. He begins with the author himself by recounting an anecdote provided by his good friend, Léon Daudet, a prominent anti-Semite.

At the very height of the political conflict in 1901, in other words in the midst of the Dreyfus Case, Proust conceived the idea of giving a dinner party with sixty guests of various shades of opinion. Every piece of china was liable to be smashed. I sat next to a charming young person, looking like a portrait by Nattier or Largillière, , who, I afterwards learned, was the daughter of a prominent Jewish banker. Anatole France presided at the next table. The bitterest of enemies ate their chaud-froid within two yards of each other, for the currents of understanding and benevolence in Marcel flowed about the guests and enveloped them in coils. For the space of two hours, the greatest imaginable good-will reigned among the warriors. I doubt if anyone except Proust could have accomplished that feat. As I was complimenting the host on his achievement, he replied modestly: “But, monsieur, really, monsieur, it all depends on the first reaction to each other of the different characters.” I gathered that he realized the danger of his experiment and was pleased to see it succeed.” (218)

Proust, an ardent Dreyfusard, was no ideologue, a trait that allowed him to judge clearly the moral foundations of both the Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard. First, the ultra-assimilated Swann:

Something very deep within him is touched, though Proust emphasizes that it is not his sense of justice. From the extreme of not being conscious of any anti-Semitism at all in society, he goes to the opposite extreme of seeing it everywhere. He makes the blanket generalization to the narrator that the whole Faubourg Saint-Germain is against Dreyfus, because it is and always has been completely anti-Semitic, and he says this in spite of the most signal exceptions (such as that of the Prince de Guermantes…) which obtrude themselves on his notice. Now in making such a false generalization, Swann, in the eyes of Proust and of his reader, is acting no differently from an anti-Semite like Charlus, who says that all Jews are for Dreyfus because they always stick together and are a separate and alien nation in the midst of France. It is Charlus, we remember, who announces the precious discovery that Dreyfus couldn’t have committed treason, as he was charged with  doing, because it was Judea that was really his nation; towards France, he was guilty at most of a “breach of hospitality.”

Proust, as he reveals on many occasions in his book, believed almost mystically in the importance of heredity, and in Swann he seems to discover a belated return to his Hebraic ancestors. Swann is punished for the long suppression of the truth about himself by the heart-rending discovery that some of his best friends in life have been anti-Semites all the while. Even Odette, Swann’s wife, is an anti-Dreyfusard and owes her rise into society principally, it  seems, to this qualification, for she lacks any other. (226-227)

The Duc de Guermantes:

Each man went along with his crowd–he was either liberal or reactionary, Catholic or anticlerical–and few were brave or adequate enough morally to make  a deliberate effort to judge the facts for themselves and to adhere strictly to their independent findings. The worst example of conformity represented in the book is that of the most brutal character who can be found in its pages, the Duc de Guermentes…The Duc is automatically against Dreyfus, because he feels that that is what his position in society requires of him. He does not investigate the issues, he does not hesitate for a moment, he has no sensitivity to the question of justice….The final irony about him, such as only Proust seems capable of inventing, is that eventually, he too becomes a Dreyfusard! Not because of the promptings of conscience, but because, at a well-known watering places to which he had gone for his health, he met three noble ladies, who were all Dreyfusards. This coincidence convinces him, by the irrefutable arguments of both social rank and sex, that Dreyfusism, which he had previously regarded as an opinion held jointly by Jews and the riff raff of society, is in reality not merely a respectable opinion but even a smart one! (228)

The Prince de Guermantes:

The Prince de Guermantes, on the other hand, is one who neither makes up his mind by the expectations of his social class, nor perversely moves against it. It does not occur to him that certain views in such a matter are or are not smart…There is an ironic note ending the Prince’s story too. He has concealed his views…even from his family, from his own wife, only to discover by accident eventually that she, too, being evidently a match for her husband, had been subscribing secretly to L’Aurore, the Dreyfusard paper, and had been afraid to worry him by sharing her convictions with him! So we see Proust weaving his ethical commentary together with strands of ironic humor, all of which seems to have one purpose–to reveal the existence of conscientious people and of conscienceless ones, to show the sharp contrast of the thoughtful and the thoughtless, the sensitive and the insensitive. (229-230)


When it comes to such a mean, graceless, and unprincipled character as Bloch, the reader feels sure that the agreement of his views with the truth is entirely accidental. The Case simply presents to him an opportunity to better his intellectual fortunes, to reverse the whole social order perhaps. The last thing in the world that Bloch is concerned with is that which is most troublesome to the conscientious Prince de Guermantes–namely, the personal fate of Dreyfus and the human sufferings of his family. Proust shows us in the Dreyfus Case and later on in the war how social misfortunes are the lucky harvest seasons of the selfish and unscrupulous. (232-233)

Love and Despair

February 10, 2011

Hindus finds it useful to divide the romantic characters into two groups, the lovers and the loved. The lovers are all male and wealthy and/or powerful: Swann, Marcel, St. Loup and Charlus. The loved are all female (or play that role) and are without wealth (Odette, Albertine, Rachel,Morel) and/or outsiders to society (Gilberte as the daughter of a former prostitute and a Jew). The lovers are consumed with jealousy, the loved are its passive recipients. What drives these two groups? For the loved, clearly they seek wealth and recognition in society, which does not interest Proust. They are accordingly given no interior life. What about the lovers? Is it sexual desire? Hindus quotes Proust:

Generally speaking, love has not for its object a human body, except when an emotion, the fear of losing it, the uncertainty of finding it again have been infused into it. This sort of anxiety has a great affinity for bodies. It adds to them a quality which surpasses beauty even; which is one of the reasons why we see men who are indifferent to the most beautiful women fall passionately in love with others who appear to us to be ugly. To these people, these fugitives, their own nature, our anxiety fastens wings. And even when they are in our company the look in their eyes seems to warn us that they are about to take flight. (The Fugitive)

It is this hallucinatory quality of love, making us see things as no one else in the world would see them, that causes Proust to refer to love continually as a disease, a compulsion, a poison. Whether a given person who has caught it ever recovers from it depends on his reserves of resistance, the strength of his mental constitution, and the seriousness of the original infection. There is no way of saying in advance whether it is going to be fatal or not. Once the recovery is complete, however, the sufferer himself (that is to say, literally the passionate man) can see the world once again in the same light as everybody else does, and then it is clear that it was something within himself which he called his love and not something outside. (140-141)

Love to Proust is a self-sought laceration for one side, for the rich or the noble, and it is a golden opportunity for the other side, for the ambitious beggar. For the latter, love is quite often the key which provides an entry into a new and delightful world. “A young king or a crown prince may travel in foreign countries and make the most gratifying conquests, and yet lack entirely that regular and classic profile which would be indispensable, I dare say, in an outside broker.” (143)

Feelings of guilt and pain are the drivers for the lovers.

The connections between love and guilt are both subtle and manifold. Essentially, it is a nameless guilt of which the sufferings caused by jealousy are the expiation. For example, Swann’s grief over his love and his need continually to speak of it to anybody who will listen is compared by Proust to the murderer’s need to confess. This “figure of speech” is far from accidental, as I hope to make clear by other examples soon. It is not we who seek love, but the albatrosses that hang round our necks. The proof of the morality of Proust’s vision  of the world, if any were needed, is that pain seems to him a retribution–ultimately, it may be as his language suggests, of original sin.The merit of love is that when its torture has reached the most excruciating point, it may lead us to a re-examination of our festering conscience. A man unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of a woman like Odette must ask himself at some time–what did he do to deserve this? The answer that Proust himself gives to the question is “Enough!” (145)

But the narrator does not feel himself absolved of his old guilt by his new suffering. On the contrary, he feels like a criminal who goes on compounding his crimes. Each instrument of his castigation, after it has served its purpose, becomes the source of fresh blame of himself. Thus, after Albertine runs away from his and is killed in an accident before she can return, he does not think of the pain she had caused him, but, as in the case of the grandmother, whom he had better reason to love, of his own failures of sympathy with his tormentor.This is delicacy carried almost to the point of self-destruction. “In these moments, linking at once of my grandmother’s death and of Albertine, it seems to me that my life was stained with a double murder from which only the cowardice of the world could absolve me.” The same thought occurs in other forms: “It seemed to me that, by my entirely selfish affection, I had allowed Albertine to die just as I had murdered my grandmother.” His guilt seems both active and passive. Either he lets a person die or he actually commits a murder. (147)

What good comes from all this?

And when we consider all the good that accrues to us through our suffering, says Proust, we conclude by being grateful for it, and seeing that we have chosen right after all. “A woman is of greater service to our life if she is in it, instead of being an element of happiness, an instrument of sorrow, and there is not a woman in the world the possession of whom is as precious as that of the truths she reveals to us by making us suffer.” And later on in the same volume: “Desire, going always in the direction of what is most opposite of ourself, forces us to love what will make us suffer.”

Suffering is so valuable to Proust because without it, he thinks, we must always remain strangers to ourselves. Without suffering we are “ignorant of ourselves.” “How much further,” says Proust, “does anguish penetrate in psychology than psychology itself!” By the second term, he makes it clear that he means cold, intellectual analysis. But the innermost nature of life for Proust as for Schopenhauer is something much more akin to feeling than it is to reason–consequently, thought can work best when it is roused by the keenest of all feelings which is pain. Schopenhauer says of death that it is the muse of all philosophy, and Proust makes of frustrated love the inspiration of all art. (148-149)

Proust’s Psychology

February 9, 2011

Proust’s characters hide their inner selves behind various types of masks. Hindus shows how it is not in direct communications but in the simple actions of the characters that they reveal themselves.

Proust is the discoverer of the hidden things in character, and the deepest influence which he can have upon his reader’s understanding of other people is to convey an awareness of another dimension in them. Men in general are satisfied to deal with each other as if the apparitions of their surface lives were the real thing, because they are frightened of the psychological deeps. They suspected that monsters lurked there, I suppose, long before Freud ever confirmed their suspicions. But Proust is too honest a writer to anchor upon social superficiality, where, as the poet puts it, a smile “falls heavily among the bric-a-brac,” and a man must grimace and gesture according to certain rules, “dance, dance like a dancing bear.” (122-123)

Since people, according to Proust, often do not understand themselves very well, since they have an interest in concealing things about themselves even from those closest to them, since our knowledge of them is intermittent and fragmentary, since the very senses with which we perceive them are tired or fallible, since we subject the evidence we receive from the external world to more or less rigid molds of interpretation which, like the bed of Procrustes, do not completely fit and often do violence to those fleeting travelers which we call our impressions, it is natural that the amount of error in the world will always be very great and the little truth there inaccessible save to the most patient and persistent search. Proust believed that we can sometimes get at that elusive truth more effectively by what might be called peripheral means than we can directly. Not the advertisement of a personality, writ large for the world to see, is the important thing–we might call this the public relations of the private life–but the small, characteristic sign, by which a  man did not even know that he was expressing himself, which he paid little attention to, and which comes to us consequently in a pure state. This is what makes handwriting, facial expression, and quality of voice so significant psychologically for Proust. (125-126)

Truth is revealed in handwriting.

There must have been a family resemblance between the handwriting of Gilberte and that of her mother Odette, for, in the course of the latter’s long affair with Swann, the narrator describes a letter which Swann received from her. Swann “at once recognized that florid handwriting, in which an affectation of British stiffness imposed an apparent discipline upon its shapeless characters, significant perhaps to less intimate eyes than his of an untidiness of mind, a fragmentary education, a want of sincerity and decision.” The reader recognizes that his estimate of Odette’s character is much more profound and accurate than anything Swann was able to arrive at for a very long time through his merely physical proximity to Odette. (127)

For truth revealed in voice, Hindus quotes this passage where Legrandin speaks in

a coarse and angry voice which I had never suspected him of possessing, a voice which bearing no traceable relation to what he ordinarily said did bear another more immediate and striking relation to something that he was feeling at the moment. What happens is that we are determined always to keep our feelings to ourselves, we have never given any thought to the manner in which we should express them. And suddenly there is within us a strange and obscene animal making its voice heard, the tones of which may inspire as much terror in the listener who receives the involuntary, elliptical, irresistible communication of our defect or vice as would the sudden avowal indirect and uncouthly proffered by a criminal who can no longer  refrain from confessing a murder of which one had never imagined him to be guilty. (130)

The Art Simile

February 5, 2011

Milton Hindus, in his The Proustian Vision, calls the art simile the most characteristic feature of Proust’s literary style. The relationship of art to nature as the source of truth is far different from the Romantics.

When Proust has occasion to liken his impressions of nature with his memories of art experiences, it is in a tone almost of apology for nature. To Proust, as to Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,”art is something precious and permanent rescued from the destructive changes of the natural world. Proust prefers the golden bird to the feathered one. He asks forgiveness from the reader at one point of his story for daring to compare the “humble landscape” of Combray with certain “glorious works” of art–“those old engravings of the ‘Cenacolo,’ or that painting by Gentile Bellini, in which one sees, in a state in which they no longer exist, the masterpiece of Leonardo and the portico of Saint Mark’s.”

There seems to me no aspect of Proust which makes him more “modern” than this elevation of art to a position superior to nature. One must have traveled very far indeed away from the romantic poets in terms of aesthetic theory if one is to think of a pastoral landscape as humble when compared with certain paintings. Is it possible to conceive of Wordsworth or Shelley valuing a work of art above nature? For these poets, the highest aspiration of the artist was to produce something which merited comparison with nature, while for Proust it seems to be the highest praise of natural beauty that is suggests a work of art. See what becomes, for example, of Keats’ “murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves” when Proust is the listener: ” the flies…performed for my benefit, in their small concert, the chamber music of summer.”

Proust is able to put the art simile to a variety of uses. Sometimes, as in most of the examples I have given, he uses it, as the simile is used generally, simply to make the feeling which surrounds a given term clearer by a felicitous comparison. But sometimes he uses it as a conscious comic device, making the analogy tremble on the edge of the ridiculous without quite allowing it to topple over. This use of the figure of speech then becomes so intimate and personal a thing that I can describe its effect best as Proustian irony–that is, an irony which is kindly rather than cruel, an irony which, like that of the grandmother’s smile as Proust describes it, is directed at himself rather than at a victim. A good example of this is his description of the trouble his poor cook takes in honor of an important diplomat who is to be their dinner guest: “She had gone herself to the Halles to procure the best cuts of rump-steak, shin of beef, calves’ feet, as Michelangelo passed eight months in the mountains of Carrara choosing the most perfect blocks of marble for the tomb of Julius II.” Or again when he compares the cries of street peddlers outside his window to passages from Mussorgsky and Debussy. These conceits make us smile, but it is an affectionate humor, for it would be too gross and out of character for Proust to have intended such extravagant comparisons to dwarf still further the modest stature of a servant or of a peddler. Rather (if I  may be excused for analyzing with so heavy a hand what is so feathery a touch of fantasy) he seems to me to imply here that all those who serve their purposes well, whatever these purposes might be, resemble each other. Françoise, the cook, as he points out on other occasions, is, in her own way, an artist; the narrator admires not only her cooking but her poetic speech–he admires what the Existentialists would call her authenticity. And the great artists who are thus compared to the most humble tradesmen and workers would probably have been the least distressed or amused by the contrast. (50-52)

Proust is so aware that this is his signature stylistic technique that he is comfortable imitating himself in a pastiche.

He introduces a parody of himself from the lips of Albertine, who has lived with him long enough presumably to mimic him successfully. Her pastiche necessarily is overdone, but the features which she caricatures are present in the original:

What I like about these foodstuffs that are cried is that a thing which we hear like a rhapsody change its nature when it comes to our table and addresses itself to my palate. As for ices (for I hope that you won’t order me one that isn’t cast in one of  those old-fashioned moulds, which have every architectural shape imaginable), whenever I take one, temples, churches, obelisks, rocks, it is like an illustrated geography book which I look at first of all and then convert its raspberry or vanilla monuments into coolness in my throat….I set my lips to work to destroy, pillar after pillar, those Venetian churches of a porphyry that is made with strawberries, and send what I spare of them crashing down upon the worshippers. Yes, all those monuments will pass from their stony state into my inside which throbs already with their melting coolness. (V,166)

Even to the most uncritical reader, this passage seems to give the show away. To the one whose consciousness is already attuned to Proust’s artistic device, it increases his awareness.It is a kind of play within the play, which underlines the essential pattern of the original. Proust has slipped the key to his own method under the door mat. (54-55)