2.1.6 Mme Swann at Home: Bergotte Himself

There is something very particular about Bergotte that I want to point out because I believe it illustrates how cagey Proust is about letting “authority” seep into his novel. I’ve already mentioned how the people who have most influenced young Marcel, like Bloch and Bergotte, but also Swann and Odette, are invariably undercut by being painted in a very different light, either in their interactions with others, or through being seen differently in the past or the future.
In the case of Bergotte, you have the first character who could be considered a genius. His effects on people are mixed. He can be so novel in his verbiage that people are disappointed, because they cannot attach it to anything in their experience. The impression he makes is decidedly not rational:

Doubtless again to distinguish himself from the previous generation, too fond as it had been of abstractions, of weighty commonplaces, when Bergotte wished to speak favourably of a book, what he would emphasise, what he would quote with approval would always be some scene that furnished the reader with an image, some picture that had no rational meaning. “Ah, yes!” he would exclaim, “it’s good! There’s a little girl in an orange shawl. It’s excellent!” or again, “Oh yes, there’s a passage in which there’s a regiment marching along the street; yes, it’s good!”…And it is true that there was in Bergotte’s style a kind of harmony similar to that for which the ancients used to praise certain of their orators in terms which we now find hard to understand, accustomed as we are to our own modern tongues in which effects of that kind are not sought. (598)

This “kind of harmony” is more insidious than the substance of what Bergotte is saying. We’ve already seen his impact on Marcel, which contained as much of Marcel as it did of Bergotte, and Bergotte’s attunement to a certain type of intellectual disposition at the expense of his interactions with those around him, but the emphasis on his mode of speaking further points away from the substance of what he says and more towards the style, one which fosters agreement even when the reader isn’t sure with what he is agreeing. The influence of the style seems unavoidable:

There were other characteristics of his elocution which he shared not with the members of his family, but with certain contemporary writers. Younger men who were beginning to repudiate him and disclaimed any intellectual affinity with him nevertheless displayed it willy-nilly by employing the same adverbs, the same prepositions that he incessantly repeated, by constructing their sentences in the same way, speaking in the same quiescent, lingering tone, in reaction against the eloquent and facile language of an earlier generation…His way of thinking, inoculated into them, had led them to those alterations of syntax and accentuation which bear a necessary relation to originality of mind. (598)

What the younger writers take from Bergotte is not his ideology, which they reject, but the power in his style. Yet it is through his style that he wields his influence, both over people who cannot quite comprehend what he is saying, and in the next generation of writers.
The notion of speech that is more about style and influence than ideological substance puts me in mind of Mynheer Peeperkorn, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Let me start by saying that I find Mynheer one of the most irritating characters in literature, and he’s a good part of my low estimation of the book. But his flaws and Mann’s flaws are relevant to what Proust does with Bergotte. Let’s take a look at some of Mynheer’s speech:

“Gentleman–,” the Dutchman said, raising his lance-nailed captain’s hand in a gesture that both implored and commanded. “Fine, gentlemen, agreed, excellent! Asceticism–indulgence–sensual lust–let me say that–by all means! Eminently important! Eminently controversial! And yet, permit me to say–I fear that we are about to commit a–ladies and gentlemen, we are avoiding, we are irresponsibly avoiding the holiest of–” He took a deep breath. “This air, ladies and gentlemen, this day’s foehn air so rich in character, so tenderly enervating, suggestive and reminiscent of spring’s fragrance–we should not breathe it in merely so that in the form of–I implore you: we should not do it. That is an insult. For its own sweet, simple sake, we must totally and fully–oh, and with our highest and most perceptive–settled, ladies and gentlemen! And only as an act in purest praise of its properties should we then release it from our–but I must break off, ladies and gentlemen. I must break off in honor of this–” (582)

(This surely must be less annoying in German.) After thirty pages of this sort of thing, you can’t wait for the impotent old life force to off himself. Yet in the book, this sort of logorrhea gains him a little cult following who cheerfully follow him and his irrational ramblings off the cliff of reason. The protagonist Hans Castorp decides that the rational characters “simply shrank beside Peeperkorn” and discusses how Mynheer being drunk “only made him grander and more awe-inspiring,” and it’s all very uninspiring, no more so than when Mynheer opens his mouth. That he’s patently saying nothing is a fact; it’s his mystical life force or whatever ineffable thing Mann was thinking about on that day that is the attractive force. It’s unconvincing because there is nothing of that attraction communicated in the book.
Bergotte, on the other hand, does come across as a great spirit, less in what he says or what he does, more in the description of that effect. It’s made more convincing by the portrayal of it as only part of his nature, and the description of how his particular genius can sometimes estrange him from people as much as enamor people of him. With Mann, Mynheer is the nonnegotiable life force, while with Proust, Bergotte is presented in terms of his effects on particular types of people. There’s some, but not much, “there” there.
So while Mynheer Peeperkorn belongs to a line that eventually extends down to Jubal Harshaw and “Henry Miller” the character(not in their positions in the novel, but in their universal effects on those around them–see also Wyndham Lewis), Bergotte is Oz and the man behind the curtain simultaneously, as well as a heterogeneity of experience that does not permit him to be one thing to all people.
The contrast is deeper than the nature of the individual character; it’s a question of approach, and it reminded me of a passage from way back in “Combray” in the first volume:

These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a “real” person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of “real” people would be a decided improvement. A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for these opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate…It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. (91)

What is Proust doing if not to portray, first, the repetitions and lack of change amongst characters, and second, the simultaneous coexistence of contradictory characteristics in a character depending on the situation?
I find this to be the best answer to the charges of myopia that I and plenty of others have leveled against the novel, of asking why the vagaries of these high-class French people have any significance. Well, to do the sort of examination here, I believe that Proust had to stick very close to his own past experience, mutating it but hardly abandoning it. I don’t see how he could have constructed such elaborate characters except by starting from known exemplars and then reconstructing/reshuffling them. I could be wrong, but that’s my best guess. Proust’s endless efforts to detach his writing from one particular view of his situations also goes a way to redeeming the choice of subject matter, since it becomes secondary to the approach.
This is probably the penultimate entry on “Mme Swann at Home,” which is by a wide margin the richest section in the first two books. (The remaining section of Within a Budding Grove is thankfully much more linear and breezy.) It’s hardly self-contained, so it’s bizarre that it begins the second volume, but there you have it. The message that I take from it, above all else, is that everything–past, present, and future–is subject to revision over time. Of course, a thousand pages of showing that principle in action over everything and everyone Proust can think of has a far more profound effect than just saying it.

Leave a Reply