Posts Tagged ‘Proust’

Ontological Metaphor

June 20, 2014

Proust gave great importance to metaphor in his novel. The problem is, as Gerald Genette has pointed out, that most of Proust’s so-called metaphors are actually metonymies. In rhetoric, a metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects which somehow expands our understanding of the original target object. Whereas a metonymy is a comparison between two objects that share a common space, so that our understanding is expanded by identifying close kinships. The most prominent type of metonymy in Proust is that involving spatial relations. Just consider how the two great themes of bourgeois and aristocratic life are identified as the ways by the Swann and Guermantes estates. Albertine is Balbec, the beach, the ocean. The contiguity can take other forms than purely spatial. The hundreds of painting references are mostly similarities of appearance.

The problem I mention is not so much of the right rhetorical term to use. It’s that metonymy is based on objective criteria of comparison, in the way that words in a dictionary are defined by synonyms. But Proust wants to reveal essence, something not easily done when comparisons reveal only established similarities. Landy admits as much but he often sees a subjective quality that reveals more.

Marcel says it himself: the reason that women find themselves linked, in his mind, to their geographical site, and that many gain their very “prestige” from the connection, is because he imagines that they can deliver the essence of a place. What he seeks in the peasant girls of Roussainville is, as we just saw, “the intimate savour of the country”; what he seeks in Mme de Stermaria is the ile de Bretagne; what he seeks in Gilberte is, among other things, the Tansonville hawthorns; and what he seeks in Albertine is, in good measure, the sea at Balbec. (74)

Beistegui wants to transcend these rhetorical definitions and find a more purely philosophical definition of Proustian metaphor. We saw earlier that he identifies the source of Marcel’s disillusionment in the unavoidable, necessary absence in the present, the real:  “…at the heart of our relation to the world there’s a lack.” And it is this perception of absence, of incompleteness in perceived reality that creates the need for metaphor. Metaphor completes the merely real thing. In just this sense metaphor arises in the nature of being, is ontological.

Proust and then Beistegui:

Almost all the works I could see about me in the studio were, of course, seascapes done recently here in Balbec. But I could see that their charm lay in a kind of metamorphosis of the things depicted, analogous to the poetical device known as metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, Elstir recreated them by removing their names, or by giving them another name. (II, 566)

The key-term here is obviously metamorphosis. It’s the only one likely to lead us to a real understanding of metaphor. In metamorphosis, which is clearly similar to what’s referred to here as “the poetical device known as metaphor,” it’s the things themselves that are changed. It’s the things themselves that are given in the seascapes. And yet, those things only really become themselves by being changed, by undergoing a metamorphosis. They are more themselves, if you like, closer to what they truly are in Elstir’s painting than in the images that we usually have of them – images that are diverted and perverted by the practical and utilitarian nature of our perception, by habit and by the theoretical understanding that we have of the world. It’s a discovery and a paradox. It’s not enough for God to have created the world. For Proust, God’s act of creation is unfinished until it’s resumed and completed by the artist on another level. Why would there be artists, after all, if the created world were perfect? (80)

…metaphor’s rooted in the being of the world and comes out of it. It’s nature itself that shifts like that, that’s swept away in its own transposition, its own excess or overflow. And this, in fact, is where its beauty lies. So far as Proust’s concerned, if we want, like Elstir, to capture the beauty of the sea, we need to avoid fixating on it since, like everything else, it’s essentially not in its place. It’s really not where we’d expect it to be, even though it’s actually there. It is and reveals itself only through the process that characterizes it, to wit its movement of expansion and encroachment, of displacement and deviation, in short, of transposition. (85)

One element is still missing before metaphor becomes art: style.

And while impression’s the only “criterion of truth” for the writer, it’s still not enough: it needs the assistance of the mind in order to “elucidate its truth.” Metaphorical effort or “style” aren’t the simple expression of a brute impression: they are its continuation, its depth and lining. Beginning with an impression, they lead us beyond it. Sympathizing with matter isn’t the same as representing it. But it’s also not clinging to it in some sort of immediate and pre-linguistic presence. Rather, it means transposing and translating it (“the writer’s task and duty are those of a translator”), not into a radically different language or another reality altogether – thinking along these lines simply reinstates the idea of a world in itself and a world of phenomena, a supersensible world and a sensible world – but into this implicit or tacit language that’s the language of the world itself. Ultimately, the impression is “for the writer what an experiment is for the scientist, except that for the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes it, and for the writer it comes afterwards.” (88)

Finally, there is the question of the permanence of metaphor, its persistence in time.

This way of seeing things is the artist’s way, a way of seeing that brings “two different terms together permanently.” Such is, it seems to me, precisely the work of style and of metaphor in particular. And metaphor’s at its peak when it schematizes involuntary memory as the supplement to the lack that the present itself is. When it turns time into the very object of its figure, it becomes the very symbol of literature and art in general: (91)

One can list indefinitely in a description all the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, the analogue in the world of art of the unique relation created in the world of science by the laws of causality, and encloses them within the necessary armature of a beautiful style. Indeed, just as in life, it begins at the moment when, by bringing together a quality shared by two sensations, he draws out their common essence by uniting them with each other, in order to protect them from the contingencies of time, in a metaphor. (VI, 289)


A Word from the Author

April 12, 2010

Proust occasionally inserts his own voice into the novel, as if to say, “Don’t forget about me! This is my novel.” The only authorial voice we should expect to hear is that of the elderly Marcel, writing his memoire. In this point of view, the characters are former acquaintances of the author, not “characters.”

Before we come back to Jupien’s shop, the author would like to say how grieved he would be if the reader were to be offended by his portrayal of such weird characters…But it is not the less true that considerable interest, not to say beauty, may be found in actions inspired by a cast of mind so remote from anything we feel, from anything we believe, that they remain incomprehensible to us, displaying themselves before our eyes like a spectacle without rhyme or reason. What could be more poetic than Xerxes, son of Darius, ordering the sea to be scourged with rods for having engulfed his fleet? (V,52-53)

 The novelist is not at all coy about himself here, where the protagonist finally gets a name.

Then she would find her tongue and say: “My–” or “My darling–” followed by my Christian name, which , if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be “My Marcel,” or “My darling Marcel.” (V,91)

The novelist and narrator are so entwined in this passage that I am unable to parse it.

And yet, my dear Charles Swann, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a y0ung idiot has made you the hero of one of his novels that people are beginning so speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live. If, in Tissot’s picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond de Polignac and Saint-Maurice, people are always drawing attention to you, it is because they see that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann. (V,262-263)





Out of Character

December 31, 2009

The long passage on the nature of art is certainly didactic, but also much more graceful than similar such passages by Tolstoy and Mann. The voice is nominally that of Marcel/narrator, but the author’s voice is dominant. For instance, consider this statement on the bearing of real-life people to characters in the novel:

 By such tones of voice, such variations in the physiognomy, seen perhaps in his earliest childhood, has the life of other people been represented for him and when, later, he becomes a writer, it is from these observations that he composes his human figures, grafting on to a movement of the shoulders common to a number of people–a movement as truthfully delineated as though it had been recorded in an anatomist’s note-book, though the truth which he uses it to express is of a psychological order–a movement of the neck made by someone else, each of many individuals having posed for a moment as his model. (VI,306)

But the novel we are reading is in the form of a memoir, where the lead character learns from his experiences with the people of his life how to become a writer, so the characters cannot be composites of others. Unless, that is, this is Proust, the author, having his say. At the same time, nonetheless, it is a warning not to look for the author and his friends in this novel.

Why Read?

December 26, 2009

Our Motto:

As for the enjoyment which is derived by a really discerning mind and a truly living heart from a thought beautifully expressed in the writings of a great writer, this is no doubt an entirely wholesome enjoyment, but, precious though the men may be who are truly capable of enjoying this pleasure–and how many of them are there in a generation?–they are nevertheless in the very process reduced to being no more than the full consciousness of another…he has added to it nothing…(VI,296)

I suppose that may characterize the limits of what you read here. I am cheered, though, when a page or two later Proust sees more value for the soul when reading others.

Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in  infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance. (VI,299)

I would also add that reading or viewing or listening leaves our soul primed to feel more deeply.

Robert Saint-Loup RIP

December 17, 2009

When Schiller translated Macbeth into German, he dropped all the comic scenes, deeming them unworthy of a high tragedy. Had Schiller had the opportunity to translate Proust’s account of the death of Saint-Loup, I’m sure he would have cut about half, for it is truly Shakespearean in its mix of the high and low, tragedy and comedy.

The scene may actually be said to begin back at the brothel, where Marcel glimpses a figure he suspects is Saint-Loup rushing out the door, so rushed that he drops his prized croix de guerre. When Marcel finally arrives home after his adventures with Charlus, Francoise reports that Saint-Loup had stopped in, looking for his missing medal. What follows is a long comic passage featuring Francoise and the butler and their reflections on the war and assaults on the French language.

“Heavens above, Mother of God,” cried Francoise, “aren’t they satisfied to have conquered poor Belgium? She suffered enough, that one, at the time of her innovation.”

“I cannot understand how everybody can be so stupid. You will see, Francoise, they are preparing a new attack with wider scoop than all the others.”

…though he had once been a gardener at Combray and was a mere butler, he was nevertheless a good Frenchman according to the rule of Saint-Andre-des-Champs and possessed, by virtue of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the right to use the pronunciation “scoop” in full independence and not to let himself be dictated to on a point which formed no part of his service and upon which in consequence, since the Revolution had made us all equals, he need listen to nobody. (VI,219-220)

A curious interlude follows, where the third “I” of the novel, the author (after the narrator and Marcel) speaks. He delivers a speech on true patriotism, illustrated by an account of a fictional family.

In this book in which there is not a single incident which is not fictitious, not a single character who is a real person in disguise, in which everything has been invented by me in accordance with the requirements of my theme, I owe it to the credit of my country to say that only the millionaire cousins of Francoise…are real people who exist. (VI,225)

This is Proust’s transition from the preceding comic pages to the announcement of the death of Saint-Loup, the most patriotic, brave character in the novel. Marcel is flooded with memories of his friend.

For several days I remained shut up in my room, thinking of him. I recalled his arrival the first time at Balbec, when, in an almost white suit, with his eyes greenish and mobile like the waves, he had crossed the hall adjoining the great dining-room whose windows gave on the to the sea. (VI,227)

The narrative focus continues this roving path. Next we return to Francoise and her elaborate performance of grief. Then Marcel reflects again on Robert, this time remarking on his character, flawed though it might be. The Duchessse de Guermantes’s genuine grief is acknowledged, though not without placing it in context.

But then when I recall all the little malicious utterances, all the ill-natured refusals to help each other which this friendship had not excluded, I cannot help reflecting that in society a great friendship does not amount to much. (VI,234)

In the final passage of this scene, we read a little story featuring Morel and a fresh example of his vile behavior, yet who seems to be indirectly redeemed by Saint-Loup when he is sent to the front lines and fights bravely.

This passage on the death of Saint-Loup cannot easily be defined as tragic or comic. It is quintessential Proust, a composition that circles a central theme, developing it through many sets of eyes and multiple emotional and psychological levels.

Charlus in Love II

December 14, 2009

I do not believe I am far off if I say that the biggest villan for Proust is habit. Marcel’s long battle to understand and overcome habit in order to become a writer is a recurrent theme. Isn’t this the importance of the madeleine, of unforced memory, which breaks through the habit-induced fog of the intellect to experience the world directly, happily?

So that, if there were no such thing as habit, life must appear delightful to those of us who are continually under the threat of death–that is to  say, to all mankind. (II,398) 

Habit also may erode our morals by gradually habituating us to behavior that once would have shocked us. This is another answer to the question of the last post: how did Charlus end up chained to an iron bed and lashed with a nail-studded whip?

But in him, as in Jupien, the practice of separating morality from a whole order of actions (and this is something that must also often happen to men who have public duties to perform, those of a judge for instance or a statesman and many others as well) must have been so long established that Habit, no longer asking Moral Sentiment for its opinion, had grown stronger from day to today until at last this consenting Prometheus had had himself nailed by Force to the rock of Pure Matter. (VI,214)

But the narrator tempers this harsh judgement of Charlus’s moral slide to slavery to his obsessions. Charlus knows he is acting in a bizarre play of his own creation.

Yet I have perhaps been inaccurate in speaking of the rock of Pure Matter. In this Pure Matter it is possible that a small quantum of Mind still survived. This madman knew, in spite of everything, that he was the victim of a form of madness and during his mad moments he nevertheless was playing a part, since he knew quite well that the young man who was berating him was not more wicked than the little boy who in a game of war is chosen by lot to be “the Prussian,” upon whom all the others hurl themselves in a fury of genuine patriotism and pretended hate. (VI,215)

Moreover, this “small quantum of mind” is motivated, at heart, by love, albeit Proustian love.

Even in these aberrations (and this is true also of our loves or our travels), human nature still betrays its need for belief by its insistent demand for truth….And if there is something of aberration or perversion in all our loves, perversions in the narrower sense of the word are like loves in which the germ of disease has spread vitriously to every part. Even in the maddest of them love may still be recognised…at the bottom of all this there persisted in M. de Charlus his dream of virility, to be attested if need be by acts of brutality, and all that inner radiance, invisible to us but projecting in this manner a little reflected light, with which his mediaeval imagination adorned crosses of judgement and feudal torture. (VI,215-217)

This passage pulls all the traits of Charlus’s personality together. However degrading his behavior may be, he has led himself there by his pride in his “mediaeval” family origins and in his virility, which dictates the choice of pain and even the type of instruments that inflict it. Perhaps if the war had not been against his beloved Germans, Charlus might have channeled these same traits into behavior praised by all. But the source would have been the same.


Star to Star

December 8, 2009

I finally got around to reading Alex Ross’s piece on “fictional music” in The New Yorker (Aug. 24, 2009), where he talks about Proust’s Vinteuil and Mann’s Leverkühn. I could not find the full text of the article on-line but here is a link to a podcast where Ross is interviewed:

He nominates Fauré’s Piano Quintet in D Minor as the likely source of  Vinteuil’s “little phrase” and you can hear the theme here. (I listened also to several interpretations on YouTube by student groups which I liked.)

Ross, in referring to the long passage on music in The Captive (V, 335), notes how little Proust thinks of biography as a source of understanding a work of art. Vinteuil, who Ross points out has no first name, is known by the narrator as “so timid and sad.” Yet he “had been capable–when he had to choose a timbre and to blend another with it–of an audacity, and in the full sense of the word a felicity, as to which the hearing of any of his works left one in no doubt.” I believe Proust is speaking for himself (as well as the Narrator) as someone to be judged by his art and not by the impressions he has given others of being a social butterfly, charming but inconsequential. Those who know the artist only through social interactions in fact know next to nothing about the person. Proust revisits this theme several more times when he dismisses the value of time spent cultivating friendships. While this may disappoint his friends, they are more than recompensed by the deeper connections they may form if they attend to his art.

A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for it we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to  see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star. (V, 343)

Who is Proust in ISOLT?

November 25, 2009

The problem with a roman a clef reading of any novel is that when you identify the real life model of a character, what you know of the real life person can supplant what the text says about the character. For example:

Charlus? Robert de Montesquiou!

Odette? Laure Heyman!

Marcel? Marcel!

The last identification, though, I don’t find completely obvious or least complete. Marcel and Proust certainly share a life mission to find themselves as writers. But a comment by Malcolm Bowie in his Proust Among the Stars has led me to ask in which other characters Proust represents himself.

Bowie sees something of Proust in the character Bloch. The Block character is problematic for just about everyone. He is the apotheosis of the socially crude Jew, cluelessly clawing for recognition in high society. And his family is worse. This character has opened Proust up to charges of anti-Semitism, a charge that is completely out of keeping with what we know of his personal life, his devotion to his Jewish mother and her family, his activism in the fight to release Dreyfus. Bowie sees in Bloch as a parody of the young Proust trying to gain acceptance in the Parisian tout-monde. Block is forever knocking over vases, wearing muddy clothes and lacking graces. Might Proust himself have been expressing his exaggerated fears of being judged badly by society when portraying Bloch? This sounds much more reasonable than interpreting Bloch as an anti-Semitic outburst.

And isn’t Proust very much in Swann? Swann’s knowledge and love of art is bottomless, but without issue. He cannot finish his book on Vermeer. He wastes his time advising society, who respect his taste, about art that will just be adornments on a mansion wall. Proust had a similarly encyclopedic knowledge of painting, as evidenced in the always perfect  choice of a painting to help visualize a scene in the novel. And until his breakthrough at mid-life, he was a commentator, as in his Ruskin translations, rather than an artist. Proust succeeds where Swann failed, thankfully.

The arrogant Charlus could not be more unlike the charming, gentle Proust. Except in one respect. They share similar sexual inclinations. Both are drawn to rough trade and violence as a sexual stimulant. Charlus’ choice of arousal in a male brothel is chains and whipping. Proust’s is the sight of rats fighting to the death. Proust knew firsthand how to lead Charlus to understand the power of cruelty to release sexual frenzy.

Proust famously advised his readers to understand that his characters came from real life, but that each of them was formed from numerous examples. This perception can be turned around. At least some of the characters can be understood as one aspect of Proust’s complex character.

Jim Everett

Proust Meets Mann

November 16, 2009

Literary mash-ups are hot now, following the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I don’t want to miss out. My modest proposal is to have Proust meet Mann: Marcel retires to a sanatorium in Davos and becomes a companion of Hans Castorp.

I can foresee a few major objections to this project, so let’s address these first.

Marcel, we know, spends a long time in a sanatorium. Most commentators identify the place as a mental health sanatorium, but the text does not say this explicitly. This idea comes, presumably, from the fact that Proust spent time in a mental sanatorium after the death of his mother. For my purposes, I choose to focus on Proust’s asthma and the need to treat it in a better climate. What better place than a resort-like setting in the Swiss Alps?

Another objection will be about the dramatic action. How do you have any when both protagonists are social mirrors? Marcel and Hans are much better at bringing out responses in others than in driving conversations and social interactions. To keep the action going we will have to introduce a few more characters who Marcel and Hans can interrogate, obsess over and come to understand and dismiss.

I would have Marcel paid a visit by Charlus and Saint-Loup and Hans paid a visit by Mynheer Peeperkorn and Mme. Clavida Chauchat. These characters will provide all the themes needed to fill a fat book.

Marcel is intrigued by Chauchat and spends long hours in conversation with her, each wrapped in blankets and sitting in the cold air on her balcony. From a few casual remarks by Clavida, Marcel learns that she has not only visited Balbec but had met Albertine. She waves off further questions about Albertine, saying she met her only once or twice. Marcel is not so sure she is telling the whole truth. He devises strategies to make her reveal more.

Meanwhile, Charlus is spending a lot of time with Peeperkorn, too much time. What transpires between them is too scandalous to even summarize here. Suffice it to say that Charlus is confirmed in his love of all things German.

Saint-Loup spars with the radical terrorist Jesuit Leo Naphta. Robert gradually loses his composure as Naphta unveils Robert’s virile homosexuality as a symbol of the decline and fall of the West. Saint-Loup shoots Naphta in a fit of rage, but the crime is covered up by Settembrini by staging a fake duel. Saint-Loup departs for Paris to prepare for the looming war.

I think I have taken this far enough for a good writer to take over and flesh out. All I ask is for an acknowledgement (and 1% of the gross from the film adaptation.)

Proust Among the Stars

November 7, 2009

Proust Among the Stars

I took a break from reading Time Regained to read Bowie’s critical study of Proust. I picked it up with some hesitation, given that Bowie has also written a book on Lacan, whose writings I find obscure. And you will find some of this style in places, especially in free associations on words. To give an example, Proust writes on Albertine:

…and her belly..was closed, at the base of her thighs, by two valves with a curve as languid, as reposeful, as cloistral as that of the horizon after the sun has set. (V,82)

Bowie comments:

The fact that valve, which comes within punning distance of vulve, contains a reminiscence of the madeleine, the novel’s supreme edible object, opens up another biological vista: the desire to eat and desire to mate as interconnected versions of one inextinguishable élan vital. (249)

But fortunately this style does not dominate the book. Bowie, though, is not so interested in talking about broad thematic structures as he is in making discoveries by burrowing into passages of the novel. His chapters have very broad titles: Self, Time, Art, Politics, Morality, Sex and Death. To give you a taste of his bottom-up style, I will focus on one recurring theme, the reasons for the length and complexity of Proust’s sentences.

Proust has much to say on the metaphysics of time, of time as a subject in itself. But he also utilizes syntax to give the reader an appreciation of the flow of time. He cites this sentence of Proust:

How often have I watched, and longed to imitate when I should be free to live as I chose, a rower who had shipped his oars and lay flat on his back in the bottom of his boat, letting it drift with the current, seeing nothing but the sky gliding slowly by above him, his face aglow with a foretaste of happiness and peace! (I,204)

And comments:

At least three time scales are present. The oarsman sinks back languorously after hard work with arms and legs; the narrator enjoys himself when he is finally able to break free from a constraining family; and Proust’s sentence arrives at its final visionary affirmation after much syntactic travail….The problem – and the pleasurableness – of sentences on this model lies in their insistent intermixing of past, present and future. Their syntax and tense-pattern deal in prematurity and belatedness to the near-exclusion of linear succession….The temporality of Proust’s sentence is insistently heterogenous: moment by moment, the flow of time is stalled, and unpacked into its backward- and forward-looking ingredients. (37)

In another passage Bowie talks about how the long, syntactically involved sentences provide a type of thinking, one that compresses and enlarges, compares and distinguishes.

Yet what is remarkable in all this seeming flouting of the rules – whether of story-telling, or art history, or inferential argument – is that something strict and rule-governed is still going on sentence by sentence. Distinctions have to be clear if a coherent play of ambiguity, as distinct from mere semantic havering or fuss, is to be sustained. The machinery for making such distinctions is to be found in the bifurcating syntax of the Proustian sentence, and it is the peculiar property of these sentences, placed end to end and seemingly so autonomous, to organise long stretches of text around relatively few underlying structural schemes. The sentences do many unruly things, of course: their syntax ramifies and proliferates; their meanings are sometimes amplified and embellished to the point of distraction. Yet they studiously repeat, almost in the manner of intellectual home truths, certain characteristic patterns of thought. Antithetical qualities are held against each other in equipoise. The alternative potentialities of a single situation are expounded. Surprising details yield large insights, and large insights, once they have been naturalized, seize upon the further surprising details they require to remain credible. (49)

Finally, Bowie observes the erotic character of Proust’s sentences, the desire that is delayed then gratified.

Whereas in sentences of this kind desire is directed towards a goal, and victorious in the face of delay and complication, others are of course more radically dispersed and fail to achieve, and seem often to desire to fail to achieve, a perfect final cadence…..The syntactic patterning of his book connects short-lived local wishes to the imposing invariant structures of human feeling, and brings a quality that one might call desirousness – desire stripped of its objects – into prominence in all manner of seemingly non-sexual scenarios. The sentences last as long as they do, sub-divide and reassemble themselves as intricately as they do, because they have this generalizing task to perform.  (229)

Often as densely worded as Proust himself, Bowie’s close reading of Search has given me a better ability to be a close reader myself.