2.1.7 Mme Swann at Home: Vinteuil’s Sonata

Proust spends some time in Within a Budding Grove on Vinteuil’s sonata, the one which Swann came to associate with Odette, which contained a certain passage that sent him into a reverie. Marcel himself falls under its spell in “Mme Swann at Home” and describes how it offers itself up in pieces, with its most apparent aspects also being the least rewarding. It’s some sonata–Proust compares it to Beethoven.

In “Swann in Love,” Vinteuil’s sonata appeared to offer Swann glimpses of the noumenal; it came as close to Truth as anything he experienced. Now, with the sonata tied to an unhappy, finished past, its effects on him have changed. They are no less vivid, but less transcendent:

“It’s rather a charming thought, don’t you think,” Swann continued, “that sound can reflect, like water, like a mirror. And it’s curious, too, that Vinteuil’s phrase now shows me only the things to which I paid no attention then. Of my troubles, my loves of those days, it recalls nothing, it has swapped things around…What the music shows–to me, at least–is not ‘the triumph of the Will’ or ‘In Tune with the Infinite,’ but shall we say old Verdurin in his frock coat in the palmhouse in the Zoological Gardens. Hundreds of times, without my leaving this room, the little phrase has carried me off to dine with it at Armenonville. (575)

And so Swann’s glimpse of the absolute turns out to be bound in time to a very particular context. It holds the power to transport him, but not to another plane of reality, only to another place in his memory. Since this passage comes after pages praising the internal beauty and structure of the sonata, it’s not as though the sonata’s merit is completely relative. But its merit is something not quite beyond the reach of humanity, not as a gift from a genius to the peons, but as an object of depth and subtlety from which some people (those deep people of substance, Proust says) can draw a profound aesthetic experience, by lashing it to their own experiences, past and present. Thereafter, Swann can have differing associations with the sonata, but he maintains a relationship with it as he carries it with him.

But why stop at a sonata? We can invest great significance in the most trivial of things: a pop song, a knick-knack, a prized material possession signifying status or rarity. In this case too, it is our investment, our personal feelings, that have the significance, that make an amalgam that dwarfs the original object. And whatever connection to the heavens someone proclaims through their own or someone else’s work of art is filtered through that, so any declaration of universality should be treated as suspect. Proust seems to violates this constantly by making grand poetic generalizations, but he tends to catch himself by later contradicting whatever he said.

Coincidentally, the reason I decided to take a subjective, digression-laden approach when I was keeping this journal was to avoid the dictatorial tone of much criticism, that analysis which plies its trade with ostensibly factual analysis of the text, presented as scientific and descriptive. I don’t understand why that tone persists in light of all the relativistic theorizing that’s gone on over the last century. (Actually, I sure do, but that’s a sociological topic.) Fortunately, we have Proust to show us, at great length, that time will undo such authority, in people and in art.

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