Richard H. Barker, in Marcel Proust, A Biography, is puzzled by Proust’s disparagement of the intellect when, in Time Regained, especially, he presses his intellectual concerns to the point of draining the life out of his characters.
The intellect has a curious history in Proust’s novel. Generally, in the earlier volumes, and even in Le Temps retrouvé, it is represented as an inferior function of the mind, one that falsifies and distorts. It is almost invariably contrasted with sensibility, which alone reveals the real world. But now, in discussing his novel, Proust suddenly remarks that the intellect is not after all contemptible. The truths that it draws from reality may at least supplement, may, as it were, “enchase in a grosser substance,” the impressions of sensibility or memory. But as he goes on, Proust indicates that these truths of the intellect are far more than a supplement: they are the very substance of a work of art. For the novelist is a man who instinctively, from his earliest years, has trained himself to see the general in the particular and to ignore everything that is not general. He observes what appear to be childish trifles–“the tone in which a sentence had been spoken, the facial expression and movement of the shoulders of someone about whom perhaps he knows nothing else”–but always because such trifles help him to formulate psychological laws. “He retains in his memory,” Proust says, “only what is of a general character.” There is no suggestion, at this point, that his memory is arbitrary or mystical, or that its exercise is always accompanied by unearthly happiness. In fact, the sense of relief that the novelist feels comes from his intellect, which enables him to understand his suffering, to represent it in its most general form, and thus, in some measure at least, to escape its strangling grip.
The importance that Proust now attaches to the intellect suggests that his ideas about art have undergone a profound change. The conception of involuntary memory, with which he started, was never a very promising one. But in the early drafts of the novel, of which Du Côté de chez Swann is a specimen, it seemed adequate because he chose to rely as little as possible on his intelligence and to give free rein to his sensibility. In the later drafts, however, first represented by A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, his sensibility became less evident and his intelligence much more so. No theory of intuitive perception could account for Sodome et Gomorrhe or La Prisonnière or Albertine disparue. Certainly no theory minimizing the part played by the intellect in art could account for the final chapter in Le Temps retrouvé. For this chapter is quite definitely written to a thesis; it is made up very largely of rather too pat examples designed to illustrate an abstract idea.
The idea is an old one, the Triumph of Time, one of the commonplaces of Renaissance poetry. Time is inexorable; everything changes and decays, including human beings. The scene is the drawing room of the Princesse de Guermantes, but it might well be the country of the Struldbrugs visited by Gulliver. The guests, people whom Marcel (who has long been in a sanatorium) has not seen for years, have suddenly become so old that they are often unrecognizable. Their beards are white; their cheeks are puffy and covered with red blotches; their expressions, once haughty, are now fixed in a perpetual smirk. Very ugly women have resisted old age best, for age is after all a human thing. “They were monsters and did not seem to have changed any more than whales.” Beautiful women sometimes seem to have resisted it too, but when Marcel approaches them he finds that they look quite different,
as happens with the outer surface of a vegetable or a drop of water or blood when placed under the microscope. Then I discerned a multitude of fatty splotches under the skin that I had thought so smooth, but which now sickened me. Nor did the lines of the face withstand this enlargement any better. When viewed at close range, the line of the nose was interrupted and weakened and the same oily spots were here as on the rest of the face, while the eyes were seen to be sunken behind pouches that destroyed the likeness which I thought I had discovered between this face and the one of former days.
The inspiration here seems more obviously Swift–a passage in “A Voyage to Brobdingnag.”
But the changes that Time brings are not only physical: society itself has changed. The old distinctions are no longer observed or even remembered; the aristocracy now mingles with the middle class. The social climbers have risen and the socially prominent have gone down. The Duchesse de Guermantes is one of the latter, having lost both her wit and her exclusiveness; she now runs after actresses, in particular the actress Rachel, her bête noireof other days. Charlus now bows obsequiously to Madame de Saint-Euverte–perhaps, however, without recognizing her, for he has had a stroke. His faculties have been impaired–or rather some of them, for he is still able, when left unguarded, to seduce a child of ten. Odette has risen considerably and is already in the process of descending. At a ripe age (calculations based on the novel seem to show that she must be at least seventy or eighty) she has become the mistress of the Duc de Guermantes. A kept woman in her youth, she is now a kept woman again. Such unlikely characters as Legrandin and Bloch have risen persistently. The latter, having changed his name and become famous, is received everywhere. An even more striking example is Madame Verdurin, once the epitome of the middle class. Since the death of her husband she has been remarrying to advantage. She was for a while the Duchesse de Duras, and she is now–perhaps Proust’s ultimate surprise–the Princesse de Guermantes.
Proust’s interest in Time is certainly not new. Since the beginning of the novel, he has been concerned with the social fluctuations that it brings; he has explored the rise of Odette and the decline of Madame de Villeparisis. But as he represents them, changes in social position often involve changes in character. The elegant aristocratic Swann of the first volume is the complacent middle-class Swann of the second. Despite all the elaborate explanations that are given, one sometimes doubts that he is really the same man. So it is here with the Duchesse de Guermantes and Madame Verdurin. The Duchess who dotes on Rachel can scarcely be identified with the elegant and malicious hostess of the earlier volumes; the Madame Verdurin who has neither a little nucleus to entertain nor a Saniette to torture is just no one at all. In Madame Verdurin’s case, Proust’s failure is particularly obvious since, in the course of a whole chapter devoted to a reception at her house, he gives her only a single remark. “That’s it!” she says, with a metallic rattle in her voice, caused by her false teeth. “We’ll get up a little clan! How I like these intelligent young people who take part in everything! Ah, what a muzhishian you are!” But even in this remark she is not the Madame Verdurin of old. One can scarcely help feeling that on the whole Proust’s interest in Time is too self-conscious, and that the sacrifices it involves are too great.
The chief weakness in Le Temps retrouvéis not, however, the transformations in character that occur at the end; it is the fact that the intellectual element in Proust’s art has become somewhat too prominent. It has been present, no doubt, since the beginning of the novel, and with each succeeding volume its importance has grown. A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs is more intellectual than Du Côté de chez Swann; La Prisonnière and Albertine disparue are more intellectual than Le Côté de Guermantes and Sodome et Gomorrhe. Yet in none of these volumes, even in the last of them, is the balance between sensibility and intellect quite upset. In Le Temps retrouvé it is. The starting point–as in some of Proust’s earliest pieces–is an abstract idea, a favorite theory of the author’s; the narrative, or what narrative remains, becomes little more than a convenient illustration. No one has condemned abstract ideas more strongly than Proust. “A book in which there are theories,” he says, “is like an article from which the price mark has not been removed.” (VI,278) Yet it would be difficult to deny that he himself has here written such a book. In Le Temps retrouvé the price mark is Time. (311-315)