Oceanic Feelings


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.

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2 Responses to “Oceanic Feelings”

  1. Edward Olivera Says:

    I just finished the episode of the septet in The Captive and for the first time found myself bored by Proust. I don’t think he handles musical description well when it doesn’t serve a larger narrative purpose (as with “the little phrase, “and even this strains my patience). In contrast to the commentary on various paintings that thread the entire work, which I find brilliant and connecting a greater aesthetic purpose, the language of this episode falls flat, victim to the kind of empty ramblings all too common to musical description.

  2. Jim Everett Says:

    The septet passage is a bit long and in that respect might be compared to the long history passages in War and Peace or whaling passages in Moby Dick. But wait until you get to the aesthetic passages in Time Regained: even longer and more essayistic than novelistic.

    But I think I understand the importance of music to Proust and, more importantly, to his character Marcel. Put simply, music is a model for overcoming temporality, for grasping essence. So music is closely identified with Marcel’s quest to become an artist. But this potential is missed when Swann, for instance, is satisfied to identify it with Odette.

    But in the end you are right to judge these musical passages as either good fiction or not.

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