Archive for May, 2011

Triumph Over Nonsense

May 11, 2011

I have been reading an account of Proust’s sexuality by J. E. Rivers called Proust and the Art of Love. One is thankful that today, unlike the period Rivers writes in, we can think about such matters without the oppressive weight of Freudianism, which, like Marxism, had ready answers for any and every human problem. I am no more interested in a theory of the nature of homosexuality than I am in a theory on the nature of heterosexuality. Not that I am immune from visceral reactions to strangeness of sex in others. Why, I ask, are so many characters in Search homosexual? But then I have to ask myself, why are so many characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace heterosexual? Over a hundred talking characters and they’re ALL straight? And this is supposed to be a realist novel?

But if we no longer embrace homosexuality as a vice or disease, we have to acknowledge that it was so regarded when Proust wrote and that he himself seems to have agreed. I was reminded of this when reading now a piece on E. M. Forster. Proust differed from Forster (and virtually everyone else) in finding a way to create art from this tension. Although Forster was more clear-sighted than Proust on the healthiness of homosexuality, he ultimately failed to turn this insight into art.

The reason for E. M. Forster’s apparent abandonment of fiction after the publication of A Passage to India in 1924 is now well known: “Weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women & vice versa”. Forster had written down this explanation in June 1910 in what became known as “the Locked Diary”. This notebook, which could indeed be locked by a clasp and key (occasionally mislaid), was used by Forster between September 1909 and June 1967 to record those thoughts and observations he wanted to keep private. It now forms the “central column”, as he puts it, of Philip Gardner’s very welcome but problematic three-volume edition of Forster’s journals and diaries….

The days when a chance encounter could lead to fiction, as when meeting the lame shepherd at Figsbury Rings in September 1904 gave birth to The Longest Journey, are soon over. Recording a visit in 1935 by two West Hackhurst neighbours, a tenant farmer called Hughie Waterson and a Mrs Morgan, Forster writes: “Now if I could end with a note on the physical appearance of H. & Mrs M, and their clothes, they might begin to live in ink and become germs of fictitious characters. But except that I shouldn’t mind going to bed with the first and couldn’t with the second little occurs to me”. He adds that Somerset Maugham, whose stories he was reading, “could have got down the necessary for both”, and some years later, describing a slatternly woman on a train, he admits: “She might be someone’s material for a novel, and the greater novelists, amongst whom I have never been, would certainly include such a woman, instead of recoiling from her and being critical”. Even as a mere diarist of such encounters, Forster feels he does not measure up. After dwelling at some length on “an enormous young foreigner in the tube”, he concludes: “I stared at him for ¼ hour, and have put down every prosy scrap I could remember. Denton Welsh [sic] would have done him in a couple of lines”….

For men of Forster’s era and class, homosexuality often defied social as well as sexual conventions. In Forster’s case it also challenged imposed racial boundaries: several of his lovers were not only of a different (which is to say “lower”) class but also of a different (and, by the Imperial standards of the time, “inferior”) race. Forster’s Indian and Egyptian lovers are well documented, but Moffat additionally reveals that the married bus driver whom Forster picked up in Weybridge in 1924, and was still intermittently sleeping with in the late 1960s, was of mixed race. Gardner mysteriously states that “the friendship fairly soon evaporated”, whereas what is so interesting about it is that it persisted, as Forster himself notes in the Locked Diary in May 1966: “I can think of nothing which has lasted so long, and borne such odd fruit. Although so limited, he lies in the direction of my hopes”. These hopes Forster had outlined almost fifty years before when describing his affair with the Egyptian tram conductor Mohammed el Adl: “to be trusted across the barriers of income race and class”. The affair represented “such a triumph over nonsense and artificial difficulties”, Forster felt. “I see beyond my own happiness and intimacy, occasional glimpses of the happiness of 1000s of others whose names I shall never hear, and I know that there is a great unrecorded history”. Forster regarded himself as part of that history, and in “What I Believe” insisted that such relationships provided “something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty”.

Proust and Japonisme: Between Nature and Imagination

May 1, 2011

Japanese influence on Western art began as a trickle and became a flood after the Meiji Restoration in 1861. The Impressionists, and Monet especially, were drawn to the Japanese techniques of foreshortening, flattening and color blocks. Proust made Japonisme an important motif in Search, as necessary to document as the Dreyfus case. Jan Hokenson’s essay “Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics” (in Bloom’s Marcel Proust) surprises us  by showing in how many ways Proust wound this motif through the novel.

She begins by reminding us of the Japanese metaphor Proust invokes to describe how the taste of the madeleine lead to a powerful refreshing of his hitherto dry, colorless childhood memories (much as Japanese art gave new eyes to Monet).

And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup  of tea (I,64).

 Hokenson sorts the Japanese art references into three types.

First, Proust satirizes the socialites’ frivolous  abuses of japonisme, chiefly in the boudoirs and the salons. Swann is appalled at Odette’s craze for chrysanthemums but, on his first visit to her apartments, he ultimately lets himself be inveigled by her Orientalisms, including her silk cushions and her “grande lanterne japonaise suspendu à une cordelette de soie (mais qui, pour ne pas priver les visiteurs de derniers conforts de la civilisation occidentale, s’éclairait au gaz).” Swann participates in this travesty of the Japanese object, and its relation to light, as the narrator suggests by casting into japoniste allusion his refrain that comfort and art are incompatible. (89)

A similar set of satiric allusions proceeds from the Verdurins’ salon. Aside from predictably garbled judgements on such japonistes as Whistler, the most recurrent travesty concerns the running joke about “la salade japonaise,” which begins as a silly in-joke, the characters’ coy way of letting others know they have been to see Dumas fils’ play Francillon. But soon we learn that the Verdurin salad contains western potatoes. It is another aesthetic hash, on a par  the with the Japanese porcelains jostling among the Verdurins’ Louis XIII vases, mindlessly making counter-systems interchangeable. (89-90)

The second type of japoniste allusion at the level of story occurs among the artistocrats. Almost everyone but Marcel’s mother, his grandmother, and the artists Elstir and Vinteuil are guilty of japoniste folly at some point in the Recherche. The Guermantes characters are just as prey to fashion, although they are associated with its creative aspects that will engage Marcel. At her soirée in Le Côté de Guermantes Madame de Villeparisis is painting a japoniste view, which no one can identify until the Duchesse de Guermantes points out that it resembles the apple blossoms on a Japanese screen. Later even Charlus, in a rare creative endeavor that associates him with the artistic sensibility if not with true painting, paints a fan for the Duchesse, notably a japoniste scene of black and yellow irises. (90)

The third set of allusions, still at the level of story, appears in the subtext of Marcel’s artistic apprenticeship. These concern the japonisme of the finest painters of the period, chiefly Whistler, Degas, Manet, Monet, Moreau and of course Elstir. They have attained the Japanese “way of seeing,” in Berger’s phrase, that Marcel is only slowly acquiring. On one occasion, for instance, just before his first visit to Elstir’s studio, he makes a (retrospectively) significant association with the prints but foolishly does not pursue it. In his room at Balbec, lying in bed and musing on the images of the sea reflected in the glass on the bookcases, Marcel considers the natural beauty of the sunset over the sea and ponders various artistic analogues. But he misconstrues the relationship between the world reflected and the reflections that shift with the light like changing exhibits of paintings….Wisely, Marcel recognizes the link between the Japanese “couleurs se vives” and his childhood, but then (“dédaigneaux, ennuyé et frivole”) he dismisses the thought. In the Japanese model, Marcel has just seen for himself that cloud and lake lack a line of demarcation like the two interchangeable halves of a metaphor, but Marcel cannot apprehend the importance of what he is seeing nor of the Japanese association. he discerns analogies in the seascapes with Monet and Whistler, even noting the butterfly signature that Whistler developed to mime the Japanese hanka (or seal). But it is only thirty pages later, after his visit to Elstir’s studio, that Marcel can assimilate Japanese analogies to his own aesthetic development. The structure of this visual perception in his hotel room continues to structure Marcel’s nascent japonisme: vaguely associated with the purity of childhood impressions and artistic beginnings  (of Marcel, and primitively of Art), it is reflected against books, on the “vitrines de la bibliothèque,” in interreflections of literature and painting that he alone can make real, in ultimately writing this book. (90-91)

Ultimately, japonisme is always central to Marcel’s emotional and imaginative development.

In the modernist round of the novel, then, Proust’s japonisme serves subtly and recurrently to advance the apprentice’s progress preparatory to the writing of his text. In society, in love, in painting and in artworks, the diverse japonisme of other characters trains this eye and challenges his aesthetic and literary judgement to develop an authentic “goût japonais.” The narrator’s prose japonisme in “Combray” is painterly, imbedding the boy’s first strong visual and emotional impressions, and his first efforts at writing, in visual imagery often derived from the prints. Certain iconic images, such as japonisme apple blossoms and silhouetted trees, later reappear in typically Proustian fashion, threading childhood memories through adult impressions and, increasingly, artistic reflections. Isolated japoniste views, including seascapes and sunsets, grow in intensity and complexity until Marcel learns to plumb, rather than dismiss their uniqueness in his visual and artistic experience. In artistic method, indeterminacy holds the lesson of metaphor. Contrast offers a depiction of successive selves. Suggestion reflects the truth of imaginative completion of absent wholes from parts. Throughout his japonisme Proust stresses two continuous refrains, an emotional sadness in pain at impending loss (associated with the evanescence of beauty in nature) and an imaginative reconstruction of absent or concealed essence, that is, anticipatory grief and retrospective creation. In both cases, as in the Recherche as a whole, Japanese art delicately depicts natural beauty that is completed by the mind in revery, first on the artwork then on itself. Proust’s several uses of japonisme imagery reflected on glass recapitulate in graphic terms the mental process, the inward turning from Japanese art which is always positioned between nature and imagination. (97)