Posts Tagged ‘Aesthetics’

Getting Down

January 1, 2014

Unable to sleep in an unfamiliar guest room, I pulled a book down from the library shelf, Why New Orleans Matters by Tom PiazzaI opened it and serendipitously read the following passage where the author cites the noted musicologist Dr. John to restate Proust’s central aesthetic concern. Metaphor is not limited to a rhetorical device; it can be a very physical, time erasing bridge from the present moment to our most intensively lived past, to essence. 

Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience–dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing–is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music–she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone–the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dancers, and getting ideas from the dancers’ gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name; one is literally getting down, as in particle physics, to some root stratum where one is freed from the lockstep of time itself, where one might even run backward, or sideways, and something eternal and transcendent is accessed. (Why New Orleans Matters, page 25).


Created by a Human Being

January 8, 2012

To write about Proust’s aesthetics is necessarily to contradict Proust’s intentions. For him, art begins where rational explanation ends. Nattiez is aware of the risk. In this passage, for instance, he provides an insightful analysis of the importance of music in Search:

The philosophy of Schopenhauer is not an apology for suicide. Renunciation of the Will-to-Live means that exceptional beings–geniuses and saints–devote themselves to pure contemplation. The musician is the supreme contemplative, for when music does not debase itself in pictorial description it is ‘a direct copy of the will itself.’

Is not the joy of the Veda also the joyous call to creation that the Narrator hears at the beginning and at the end of the Septet? Yes indeed, it was Schopenhauer who wrote the Vinteuil Sonata, right down to the last detail: ‘The composer reveals the innermost  nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand, just as a magnetic somnambulist gives information about things of which she has no conception when she is awake. Therefore in the composer, more than in any other  artist, the man is entirely separate and distinct from the artist.’ Herein reside Swann’s false trails: rational explanation, biographical explanation. We should also recall the Narrator’s speculation about a phrase in the Septet: ‘Perhaps…it had been inspired in Vinteuil by his daughter’s sleep.’ (83)

But Nattiez recognizes the inherent contradiction in writing about what cannot be written about.

In trying to show what the Sonata and Septet of Vinteuil owe to Schopenhauer, I have obviously gone against Proust’s intentions. If A la recherche itself is to be a redemptive work in the image of Parsifal or the Septet, it needs to escape from Time and become a pure object of philosophical, literary and aesthetic contemplation; the novel must free itself from its epoch and its author. It was not for nothing that Proust asked Céleste to burn his rough drafts, and there can be no doubt he would have done the same with all his notebooks and jotters if only he had time to experience the feeling that his work was finally complete. In all creative artists obsessed with the absolute…we find the same Utopian effort to efface the poietic dimension. It is Utopian, in the first place, because, as Proust shows very clearly with respect to Wagner, even of itself the text of a writer or composer will always bear traces–whether he likes it or not, and to a greater or lesser degree–of the labour that brought it into existence. It is Utopian, secondly, because the creative artist cannot obliterate all traces of his activity. If he destroys his rough drafts and sketches, his contemporaries will describe them. Even if he kills his contemporaries, that will not prevent the critic from comparing his texts and establishing connections (as I have done in this book). And it is Utopian, in the final analysis, because while all the metaphysicians in the world may say what they like about the Essence or the Idea being outside time, the books that deal with it or the works that are supposed to apprehend or translate it will always have been created by a human being, in  a given period, in a specific context. (88)

Schopenhauer and Proust

March 20, 2011

Many commentators have noted the influence of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics on Proust. In his philosophy, the will to live is directionless and can only result in pain and loss. Our only salvation is in art, which can afford us glimpses of the Platonic ideal or essences, which inhabit a world outside the aimless will. This view is, of course, also that of the Search: the protagonist’s pursues illusory goals, suffers from disappointment and is redeemed by art. It is easy to see Schopenhauer’s influence on Proust’s aesthetics. Take the decision every young writer must face: what to write about? And what not to write about.

Marcel very early on knows he wants to be a writer. Living in an enchanted setting on the Vivonne, he can find nothing elevated enough to serve as his subject.

And then it happened that, along the Guermantes way, I sometimes passed beside well-watered little enclosures, over whose hedges rose cluster of dark blossom. I would stop, hoping to gain some precious addition to my experience, for I seemed to have before my eyes a fragment of that fluvial country which I had longed so much to see and know since coming upon a description of it by one of my favourite authors. And it was with that storybook land, with its imagined soil intersected by a hundred bubbling watercourses, that Guermantes, changing its aspect in my mind, became identified, after I heard Dr. Percepied speak of the flowers and the charming rivulets and fountains that were to be seen there in the ducal park. I used to dream that Mme de Guermantes, taking a sudden capricious fancy to me, invited me there, that all day long she stood fishing for trout by my side. And when evening came, holding my hand in hers, as we passed by the little gardens of her vassals she would point out to me the flowers that leaned their red and purple spikes along the tops of the low walls, and would teach me all their names. She would make me tell her, too all about the poems that I intended to compose. And these dreams reminded me that, since I wished some day to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, and tried to discover some subject to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, my consciousness would be faced with a blank, I would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent or that perhaps some malady of the brain was hindering its development. (I,243-244)

Here is Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation, on the content of art.

It follows from the previous chapter and from my whole view of art that its object is to facilitate knowledge of the Ideas of the world (in the Platonic sense, the only one which I recognize for the word Idea). But the Ideas are essentially something of perception, and therefore, in its fuller determinations, something inexhaustible. The communication of such a thing can therefore take place only on the path of perception, which is that of art. Therefore, whoever is imbued with the apprehension of an Idea is justified when he chooses art as the medium of his communication. The mere concept, on the other hand, is something completely determinable, hence something to be exhausted, something distinctly thought, which can be, according to its whole content, communicated coldly and dispassionately by words. Now to wish to communicate such a thing through a work of art is a very useless indirect course; in fact, it belongs to that playing with the means of art without knowledge of the end which I have just censured. Therefore, a work of art, the conception of which has resulted from mere, distinct concepts, in always ungenuine. If, when considering a work of plastic art, or reading a poem, or listening to a piece of music (which aims at describing something definite), we see the distinct, limited, cold, dispassionate concept glimmer and finally appear through all the rich resources of art, the concept which was the kernel of this work, the whole conception of the work having therefore consisted only in clearly thinking this concept, and accordingly being completely exhausted by it communication, then we feel disgust and indignation, for we see ourselves deceived and cheated of our interest and attention. We are entirely satisfied by the impression of a work of art only when it leaves behind something that, in spite of all our reflection on it, we cannot bring down to the distinctness of a concept. The mark of that hybrid origin from mere concepts is that the author of a work of art should have been able, before setting about it, to state in distinct words what he intended to present; for then it would have been possible to attain his whole end through these words themselves. It is therefore an undertaking as unworthy as it is absurd when, as has often been attempted at the present day, one tries to reduce a poem of Shakespeare or Goethe to an abstract truth, the communication whereof would have been the aim of the poem. Naturally the artist should think when arranging his work, but only that idea which was perceived before it was thought has suggestive and stimulating force when it is communicated. (II, 408-409)

This is a statement of the core Proustian aesthetic: The impressions of the artist must be rescued from the oblivion of time and restored to life through art.


The Art Simile

February 5, 2011

Milton Hindus, in his The Proustian Vision, calls the art simile the most characteristic feature of Proust’s literary style. The relationship of art to nature as the source of truth is far different from the Romantics.

When Proust has occasion to liken his impressions of nature with his memories of art experiences, it is in a tone almost of apology for nature. To Proust, as to Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,”art is something precious and permanent rescued from the destructive changes of the natural world. Proust prefers the golden bird to the feathered one. He asks forgiveness from the reader at one point of his story for daring to compare the “humble landscape” of Combray with certain “glorious works” of art–“those old engravings of the ‘Cenacolo,’ or that painting by Gentile Bellini, in which one sees, in a state in which they no longer exist, the masterpiece of Leonardo and the portico of Saint Mark’s.”

There seems to me no aspect of Proust which makes him more “modern” than this elevation of art to a position superior to nature. One must have traveled very far indeed away from the romantic poets in terms of aesthetic theory if one is to think of a pastoral landscape as humble when compared with certain paintings. Is it possible to conceive of Wordsworth or Shelley valuing a work of art above nature? For these poets, the highest aspiration of the artist was to produce something which merited comparison with nature, while for Proust it seems to be the highest praise of natural beauty that is suggests a work of art. See what becomes, for example, of Keats’ “murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves” when Proust is the listener: ” the flies…performed for my benefit, in their small concert, the chamber music of summer.”

Proust is able to put the art simile to a variety of uses. Sometimes, as in most of the examples I have given, he uses it, as the simile is used generally, simply to make the feeling which surrounds a given term clearer by a felicitous comparison. But sometimes he uses it as a conscious comic device, making the analogy tremble on the edge of the ridiculous without quite allowing it to topple over. This use of the figure of speech then becomes so intimate and personal a thing that I can describe its effect best as Proustian irony–that is, an irony which is kindly rather than cruel, an irony which, like that of the grandmother’s smile as Proust describes it, is directed at himself rather than at a victim. A good example of this is his description of the trouble his poor cook takes in honor of an important diplomat who is to be their dinner guest: “She had gone herself to the Halles to procure the best cuts of rump-steak, shin of beef, calves’ feet, as Michelangelo passed eight months in the mountains of Carrara choosing the most perfect blocks of marble for the tomb of Julius II.” Or again when he compares the cries of street peddlers outside his window to passages from Mussorgsky and Debussy. These conceits make us smile, but it is an affectionate humor, for it would be too gross and out of character for Proust to have intended such extravagant comparisons to dwarf still further the modest stature of a servant or of a peddler. Rather (if I  may be excused for analyzing with so heavy a hand what is so feathery a touch of fantasy) he seems to me to imply here that all those who serve their purposes well, whatever these purposes might be, resemble each other. Françoise, the cook, as he points out on other occasions, is, in her own way, an artist; the narrator admires not only her cooking but her poetic speech–he admires what the Existentialists would call her authenticity. And the great artists who are thus compared to the most humble tradesmen and workers would probably have been the least distressed or amused by the contrast. (50-52)

Proust is so aware that this is his signature stylistic technique that he is comfortable imitating himself in a pastiche.

He introduces a parody of himself from the lips of Albertine, who has lived with him long enough presumably to mimic him successfully. Her pastiche necessarily is overdone, but the features which she caricatures are present in the original:

What I like about these foodstuffs that are cried is that a thing which we hear like a rhapsody change its nature when it comes to our table and addresses itself to my palate. As for ices (for I hope that you won’t order me one that isn’t cast in one of  those old-fashioned moulds, which have every architectural shape imaginable), whenever I take one, temples, churches, obelisks, rocks, it is like an illustrated geography book which I look at first of all and then convert its raspberry or vanilla monuments into coolness in my throat….I set my lips to work to destroy, pillar after pillar, those Venetian churches of a porphyry that is made with strawberries, and send what I spare of them crashing down upon the worshippers. Yes, all those monuments will pass from their stony state into my inside which throbs already with their melting coolness. (V,166)

Even to the most uncritical reader, this passage seems to give the show away. To the one whose consciousness is already attuned to Proust’s artistic device, it increases his awareness.It is a kind of play within the play, which underlines the essential pattern of the original. Proust has slipped the key to his own method under the door mat. (54-55)

Proust and the French Novel

January 2, 2011

Wallace Fowlie, in his A Reading of Proust, draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of French literature to situate Proust in that tradition. First, there is the timeless aspect of Proust, shared by many great writers

Whether Cervantes or Balzac, the novelist seeks to place man faithfully in the context of life, at the same time that he attempts to show him moving beyond the illusions of life. Within this double human reality, the particularized universe of the hero and the transformed picture of his universe, the novelist constructs his work. The customary daily object–a goblet in the story of Tristan, a bride’s bouquet in Madame Bovary, a madeleine cake in Du Côté de chez Swann,–is so transcribed and utilized as to become miraculous.

Two worlds, then are fused in the art of the novelist: a real world always to some degree familiar to us and recognizable–Dickens’ London, Kafka’s Prague, Proust’s Paris–and an unreal or possible world, strange to us, but which attracts us and which, in the case of Proust, grows so forcibly that it ends by dominating our own world. A great novel is the realm of grace in which there is no unimportant detail, where chance is abolished because it is always turned into something meaningful, where the characters understand all the parts of their world and where the novelist succeeds in establishing man’s consent to the things of his world, whether they prolong his happiness or his misery. Most of the seemingly insignificant events of our real life remain insignificant and disappear from our memory. The novelist, if he is Proust, resurrects the insignificant, conjures them up with their full setting, and discovers for them their real meaning. (4)

And there is Proust placed in the specifically French tradition:

The intelligence with which a French artist considers his universe or his subject matter is part of his creativeness and his inspiration. It lends both a sense of economy and a sense of monotony to his work. It forces him back again and again to his own subject, as to his one obsession: the cult of energy in Stendhal, the necessary and heroic asceticism of the artist in Proust. This constancy of theme in a French novel reflects the constancy of the writer’s soul, his dedicated will. It explains to some extent the permanent shibboleth of all of French art–its classicism, whether it be the classicism of Racine, or the classicism of the Romantics, or that of André Gide. The term “classicism,” implies a sacrifice of human time and pleasure, as well as of all the extraneous elements in the work of art. It also implies the worship and practice of intelligence, and the belief that art is at the basis of civilization and of a given code of human behavior. The concept of classicism does not exclude a degree of stubbornness in the French artist, a will to return doggedly to the same problem, the same situation, the same work. A highly developed belief in the efficacy of human creativity lies behind a Gothic cathedral and the Comédie Humanine of Honoré de Balzac.

What is looked upon today as a specifically contemporary problem or crisis in the novel has in some form or other always existed in France, a land not so much of novelists as of theorists and critics, orators, and moralists. It is something of a miracle that the French genius, basically anti-poetic and anti-fictional, has, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, expressed itself in creative realms and taken an eminent, if not primary place, with its trinity of poets: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, and its trinity of novelists: Balzac, Stendhal, and Proust. These six poets and novelists never relinquished their right, during their literary careers, to criticize their own art and to expound its theory. Often they married theory to art. (5-6)

And Proust in his uniqueness:

The paradox of all creation is dramatically clear in the case of the novel. There is the reality the novelist proposes: a provincial town called Combray (Du  Côté de chez Swann), a “pension de famille” in Paris (Le Pere Goriot), a seminary in Paris (Manon Lescaut). But there is also the novelist who, no matter how rigorous his intentions may be, as soon as he puts pen to paper, will intervene in his own plan. A novel can never be a simple reproduction of reality. It is always, to some degree, an interpretation of some instance of reality.  Emma Bovary may be modeled after one woman, or she may be a synthesis of two or three women who really existed, but she is also, according to the novelist’s famous confession, Flaubert himself. Likewise, Julien Sorel is both the criminal Berthet and the writer Henri Beyle. Critics have tried to explain Charles Swann by his possible models, Charles Haas and Charles Ephrussi, but they have had to conclude that he is also Marcel Proust. (7)

Theology teaches that the world was created by an act of love. This would lead us to the thought that the creatures of a novelist have been given life by him because of some connection with them, because of some degree of love he feels for them, even the monsters of creation. Those writers who have created the largest number of characters: Dante, Shakespeare, Molière, Balzac, and Proust, have castigated and even damned some of their characters: Dante’s Farinata, Shakespeare’s Iago, Proust’s Charlus, are reproved for their evil, but there is little or no trace of scorn or mockery on the part of their creators. As the most willfully wicked man maintains some vestige of his relationship with God, so the most deliberately fictional character maintains something of his creator, and hence of is divine origin. (8)

The novel is not only an art form: in such exemplary cases as that of Proust, it becomes a spiritual exercise, a form which may be read on more than one level, as esoteric art reserved for initiates or specialists, and in this sense, the novelist Marcel Proust is also the uncoverer of secrets. In terms of society, love, politics, morality, he is disillusioned, almost totally pessimistic, but he is, nevertheless, a joyous celebrant in his invention of a literary means of depicting the mortality of man’s actions and hopes, a style which triumphs over this mortality. (16-17)

Impressionist Proust

December 30, 2010

Chernowitz provides many examples of the way Impressionist art has influenced his writing. All in all, it amounts to this:

One of the most vital characteristics of pictorial Impressionism and one that constitutes perhaps the greatest link between its art and Proust’s is the emphasis on aconceptual sensation. As has already been described in connection with Elstir, this instantaneous first impression involves the reaction which is experienced before the intellect has had time to intervene and interpret things in conventional, rational, causal terms. Whether depicting a quiet street scene such as Manet’s Rue de Berne or a scene full of movement like Courses à Longchamp or even a simple portrait, the Impressionist artist renders his subject as a visual illusion perceived during the split second of this first impression and not as it actually is according to his knowledge of its permanent color and form. (165-166)


Manet Rue de Bernes



Manet Course a Longchamp



            Manet Portrait of Berthe Morisot