Proust’s Psychology


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)

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