The Art Simile

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)


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2 Responses to “The Art Simile”

  1. Renee Says:

    Excellent commentary.

    I’m also becoming more aware of his scientific and medical similes. I’ve taken them to be another aspect of his modern sensibility, as well as the science he learned at school and, experientially, at home. I’ve encountered few other writers who use art and science so effectively for metaphor.

    Thanks for your continuing studies.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Thanks. I think Proust learned a lot of science from his father and brother and I can easily imagine him sharing some of his scientific similes with perhaps his father and certainly his brother. But then all his similes are so wide-ranging in knowledge. I was astonished to see how many paintings are contained in similies after reading Karpeles’ Paintings in Proust. And I’ve recently been concentrating on the musical metaphors and similes, which are nearly as extensive. I think at root Proust is striving for absolutes that transcend disease and death.

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