Love and Despair


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)

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