Archive for December, 2011

Oceanic Feelings

December 17, 2011

Nattiez reflects on Swann’s progressive understandings as he re-discovers the Vinteuil sonata. They come in two waves.

On the one hand, the qualities peculiar to the sonorous material which lead him to speak of ‘purely musical impressions’: the violin line is ‘slender’, ‘robust’, ‘compact’ and ‘commanding’; the mass of the piano part ‘multiform’, ‘indivisible’, ‘smooth’ yet ‘restless’; the music evokes arabesques and surfaces of varied dimensions. At the beginning the sensations are of the order of ‘breadth’, ‘tenuity’, ‘stability’ or ‘capricousness’. Then, when perception becomes more precise, Proust introduces more objective judgements, such as ‘symmetrical arrangement’ and ‘notation’. As for the little phrase, we are told that it is ‘secret’, murmuring, detached,…airy and perfumed…dancing, pastoral, interpolated, episodic’. We thus have an abundance of concrete observations, corresponding to the first impressions of a Swann literally submerged.

For – and this is the second aspect of the evocation – mixed up with these purely musical impressions, in a ‘deep blue’ and iridescent’ atmosphere, we find observations which are indeed descriptive but the same time rather vague, relating to the wold of the sea: ‘the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound’ evokes ‘the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight’. The words ‘submersion’, ‘liquidity’, ’emerge’, ‘plunge’, ‘tumult of the waves’ should also be noted; and the phrase is located ‘above the waves of sound.’

Why this atmosphere of the sea? By way of preparation, no doubt, for the first movement of the Septet, in The Captive, but also because the sea is indissolubly bound up in Proust’s mental geography with the emergence of woman: one has only to think of the girls on the sea-front at Balbec. The little phrase will soon be associated with an unknown woman, then more specifically with Odette. (Nattiez, 41-42)

I am not entirely convinced of this last statement. While true enough, it lacks psychological force. Proust would object, but some biographical background fills out the connection between music and sea.

Proust and Reynaldo Hahn spent the summer of 1895 in and around Brittany, ending with a stay near the village of Beg Meil. Proust turned twenty-four that July and Hahn twenty-one in August. Proust was feeling in good health and the two of them, along with the American painter T. Alexander Harrison, made frequent walks to the beach to view the sunsets over the ocean (read William C. Carter’s Proust in Love for a full account). Earlier in the summer they had met Camille Saint-Saëns and it was at Beg Meil that Proust and Hahn became entranced with his Sonata I for piano and violin, opus 75. Proust would ask Hahn to play the opening movement over and over and it became emblematic of their love for each other. And it became, of course, the model for Vinteuil’s “little phrase.” Here is Proust retelling this time in his first novel (unpublished in his lifetime), Jean Santeuil.

He had recognized that phrase from the Saint-Saëns Sonata which almost every eventing in the heyday of their happiness he had asked for, and she had played endlessly to him, ten times, twenty times, over, making him sit quite close to her so that she could embrace him while she played….Far from her now and all alone, having had  this evening not so much as a single kiss, and not daring to ask for one, he listened to the phrase wich when they were happy, had seemed to greet them with a smile from heaven, but now had lost its power to enchant. (quoted in Carter, 45)

It seems to me it is the combination of seaside setting and the powerful impact of this music on his love affair with Hahn that is the true source of Proust’s oceanic metaphors to describe the music.

Hume and Bondage

December 12, 2011

I don’t know how familiar Proust was with Hume, but he certainly shares his view that the intellect without the desires is nothing.

Enigmatic Façade

December 11, 2011

I believe much of the narrative power of Proust’s prose arises from his decision to tell an autobiographical tale that, even though the narrator is in effect omniscient, he lets us learn at just the same rate as Marcel, his younger self, does. Richard L. Kopp, in Marcel Proust as Social Critic, shares this view but bases it on his interpretation of the central psychological insight of the narrator, that we are fundamentally alone, cannot know the other person, can only observe and interpret. This raises Marcel’s observations as the primary vehicle for his understanding of and subsequent disillusionment with society.

Why has Proust changed from the traditional form to what was then a relatively unfamiliar novel form to tell what is basically the same story as that found in Jean Santeuil?

The answer to this question of the change of person is related Proust’s belief that in life, i.e., in society, each individual is a completely independent entity with no means of communication with others. What is Basin like when he is not playing the role of Duc de Guermantes? We can ask this question of any character in society and the answer will always be that we do not and cannot know. Each individual in society presents an enigmatic façade which is usually called “personality.” (60)

Proust’s concept of a narrator to tell all the action is the logical outcome of his conviction that we cannot know the inner workings of the mind unless the individual makes it possible. In order to observe society, Proust says it is necessary to be in the position of an outsider: “Pour la découverte esthétique des réalités, if faut se mettre  en dehors d’elles..” (Proust Notebooks). His narrator says his book will be a kind of magnifying glass through which the reader will see all of life more clearly: “The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.” (Time Regained, 322). (63)

Within the social structure he has created, Proust places his narrator in a position from which all the characters and their characteristics can be observed. The narrator finds himself in the enviable situation of being welcomed into salons where members do not easily move from one social level to another. In this way he is able to observe any social level from the inside even though he himself may remain an outsider to a particular social situation. But by his emphasis on observation of people and events, it can be said that the narrator is always an outsider. And it is from the vantage point of exterior observation that he is able to gather facts and make objective judgments. (65)

Kopp gives numerous examples of learning by observation; here is one:

When, one evening, he goes to visit the Guermantes with the secret desire of learning the validity of a dinner invitation, the narrator finds himself a witness to several scenes which he will use to judge his aristocratic hosts: the duke’s machinations to avoid knowing the seriousness of his cousin’s illness, an instance of the duchesse’s dislike of making people happy, and the lack of feeling with which they receive Swann’s announcement that he is dying. He never does learn whether the invitation was really from the princess, but he learns quite a bit about life in high society by that brief visit. and after the dinner is over he is again, conveniently, in their company when the duke is informed that his cousin is indeed dead. At this moment he has the opportunity to witness the duke’s reaction to the fait accompli; Swann, after all, could have been misled by the doctors: “Ce sont des anes.” But the narrator sees that the duke’s reaction is, paradoxically, the same. (Guermantes Way, 786-819)

Parsifal II

December 3, 2011

Jean-Jacques Nattiez, in his Proust as Musician, write about how Wagner and Parsifal, in particular, influenced Search. He quotes from the “Parsifal panel,” a passage that Proust edited out of Time Regained, perhaps because he wanted a stronger focus on literary art. The scene is the Guermantes library, where Marcel is awaiting the end of the concert, a movement from Parsifal, before joining the guests.

Some of these truths themselves are perfectly supernatural beings whom we have never seen, but whom we recognise with infinite pleasure when a great artist succeeds in bringing them from that divine world to which he has access so that they may come to shine for a moment above our own. Was not this motif of the “Good Friday Spell’, which (doubtless through a door of the great salon left half-open because of the heat) reached me just a moment ago, providing support for my idea if indeed it had not just suggested it–was it not one of these beings, not belonging to any of the species of reality, or to any of the realms of nature, that we might conceive? With his violin bow Wagner seems to content himself with discovering this being, rendering it visible like a faded picture newly restored, revealing all its contours with the prudent and tender assurance of instruments that follow their track, now changing subtly to indicate a shadow, now marking more boldly the greater brilliance where, just for a moment before disappearing, the vision reaches–that scrupulously respected vision to which they would not have been able to add one single feature without our having felt that Wagner was embellishing, lying, ceasing to see and concealing its fading with fragments of his own invention. What exactly was its clear relationship to the first awakening of spring? Who could have said?It was still there, like an iridescent bubble that had not yet burst, like a rainbow that had faded for a moment only to begin shining again with a livelier brilliance, adding now all the tones of the prism to the mere two colors that had iridesced at the beginning and making them sing. And one remained in a silent ecstasy, as if a single gesture would have imperilled the delicious, frail presence which one wished to go on admiring for as long as it lasted and which would in a moment disappear. (Matinee chez la Princesse de Guermantes (the rough drafts for Time Regained), ed. Henri Bonnet (Paris: Gallimard, 1982) (quoted in Nanttiez, 28)

Nattiez shows more Parsifal inspirations:

This Wagner emerges as a principal source of Proust’s thinking. He provides him with a mirror image of his own poietics and–in a slightly narcissistic way–of a creative alter ego; moreover, he supplies him, at an earlier stage in the genesis of the novel, with a work which tells of a quest analogous to that of A la recherche and which could, by association, be the work that inspires the Narrator’s revelation of the absolute. In his notes of 1913-1916 Proust writes: ‘I shall present the discover of Time regained in the sensations induced by the spoon, the tea, etc., as an illumination à la Parsifal’ (MPG:318).

The psychological progression embodied in A la recherche parallels that of Parsifal. It is no accident that, as we have seen, the idea of the ‘blossoming girls’ was already present at the time of Contre Sainte-Beuve. The Narrator is delayed in his quest by the girls just as Parsifal is by Flower Maidens. Thus there is no doubt whatever, in my view, that the passages of Within a Budding Grove in which Proust describes girls in terms of flowers were inspired by Wagner. Swann, like Amfortas, has let himself be trapped in the snares of love. Does not Proust associate Odette–and, with her, all the other temptresses, her daughter Gilberte, Mme de Guermantes, Albertine–with Kundry, the prisoner of the magician Klingsor, when he writes, shortly before the ‘transmission’ scene: ‘I should have been less ill at ease in a magician’s cave than in this little waiting room where the fire appeared to me the be performing alchemical transmutations as in Klingsor’s laboratory’ (WBG, I 567-8)?  It is only when the Narrator succeeds in passing beyond the illusions of romantic love, particularly after the distressing experience of Albertine’s kiss (G,II: 379), that he can gain access to the revelation, just as Parsifal, after being kissed by Kundry, is able to comprehend the mystery of the Grail and succeed where Amfortas has failed. Parsifal attains to perfect understanding at the time of the Good Friday spell; the Narrator, when listening to the Septet. Parsifal is able to enter Monsalvat, led by Gurnemanz; the Narrator, the library of the Princesse de Guermantes. Wagner laid great stress upon the ascent to the Grail, symbolised by the visible unrolling of the scenery in the first, 1882 production; and in Proust the episode of the uneven paving-stones in the courtyard, leading to the illumination in the library, comes precisely at the end of a long walk in Paris.

The name Swann, which ‘had for me become almost mythological’ (S, I:157), was surely not chosen by accident, so close is it to the German Schwann. As Rouisset has emphasised (1962:149), the Narrator, having had to choose between the Swann/Charlus pair and the Elstir/Vinteuil pair, sides decisively with the creative artists. He ‘eliminates once and for all Swann and Charlus, who lived on in him and threatened to make him sterile’; just as  Parsifal kills the swan the hunt for which has led him to Monsalvat, where he will experience a revelation, so the Narrator stops following in the footsteps of Swann only to be confronted, in Swann’s house, by the Sonata that will lead him to artistic truth.

One is also struck by the close analogy between the reaction of the Narrator, exposed for the first time to the Sonata whose religious character has been carefully evoked in the course of the Saint-Euverte soirée,  and the reaction of Parsifal, who witnesses a ceremony which he does not understand. Proust was well acquainted with this scene. In that letter to Jacques Rivière (17 February 1914) about the unity of his work, he wrote: ‘It would be just as if a spectator who saw Parsifal, at the end of the first act, understanding nothing of the ceremony and being chased off by Gurnemanz, were to suppose that what Wagner had meant was that simplicity of heart leads to nothing.” Like Parsifal, A la recherche is a work whose hero is on a quest for redemption. But just as Amfortas fails the first time around, it is not Swann but the Narrator who will succeed. (Nattiez, 31-31)