2.2.3 Place-Names: The Place: Friendship and Perception

First, a continuation of the topic from last time, where I was speculating on Proust’s oddly detached view of friendship, one in which each person’s aesthetic experience of the other appears to trump a meaningful connection based on common ground. I thought this was a recipe for deep unhappiness and, more to the point, pained loneliness, as the memories of the years fade. Regardless, Proust makes it rather clear in this striking passage about artists:

Friendship is a dispensation from this duty [to live for the artist’s self], an abdication of self. Even conversation, which is friendship’s mode of expression, is a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute, whereas the march of thought in the solitary work of artistic creation proceeds in depth, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance–though with more effort, it is true–towards a goal of truth. And friendship is not merely devoid of virtue, like conversation, it is fatal to us as well. For the sense of boredom which those of us whose law of development is purely internal cannot help but feel in a friend’s company (when, that is to say, we must remain on the surface of ourselves, instead of pursuing our voyage of discovery into the depths)–that first impression of boredom our friendship impels us to correct when we are alone again, to recall with emotion the words which our friend said to us, to look upon them as a valuable addition to our substance, when the fact is that we are not like buildings to which stones can be added from without, but like trees which draw from their own sap the next knot that will appear on their trunks, the spreading roof of their foliage. (968)

(I happened to be listening to Emil Gilels playing the third movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier while I was typing this in, and it goes very well with it.)
This is pretty miserable stuff, all the more imposing because the facts on the ground don’t appear necessarily to imply any of it. It’s the voice of the future coming back and passing judgment again. The transition from describing “artists” to “we” and “us” (which I gather to be a translation of the French “on”) generalizes the experience of those with rich inner lives to that of everyone, and dismisses human conversation as an artifice that distracts the mind from the serious matters that can only be considered in isolation.
It’s a short step to Proust then claiming that human interaction is only meaningful in the oft-referenced paradigm of a subject observing another person as an object, as though the other were a painting. From there, he devalues and disparages his friendship with the studied, well-spoken Saint-Loup, blaming him for fooling him into thinking that there was more to be had from human conversation than was actually possible. Instead he celebrates his frivolous interactions with the group of girls that constitute the “budding grove.” He says:

With the girls, if the pleasure which I enjoyed was selfish, at least it was not based on the lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone and prevents us from admitting that, when we chat, it is no longer we who speak, that we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people and not of a self that differs from them. The words exchanged between the girls of the little band and myself were of little interest; they were, moreover, few, broken by long spells of silence on my part. This did not prevent me from taking as much pleasure in listening to them as in looking at them, in discovering in the voice of each one of them a brightly colored picture. (969)

It’s too early to say how this fits in with the general picture of the book (other than pointing the way towards much darkness ahead), but for me, this passage resonates with something Proust mentioned much earlier, about how characters in books are necessarily single facets of entire people:

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. (91)

The connection? Much fiction doesn’t even make a pretense of realistic dialogue; there is unbelievable exposition, concision, and elision. When writing dialogue, it’s easy to get bogged down in imagining conversations as they’re happening, and ending up with reams of uninteresting, unlovely back-and-forths. Proust chooses to eliminate much of the dialogue and recount his impressions of it, which are often far removed from the source. And he seems to say that yes, by definition the aesthetics of real conversation can’t be captured in novelistic dialogue, so rather than try to capture it and be dull, he’ll often only tell of what he took from the conversation.
And this largely provides the best key for why Marcel falls in love with the coarse and unkind Albertine rather than the intelligent, sweet, and neurotic Andree. He details a bit about how Andree is too much like himself and Albertine attracts him, but such reductions are less believable next to the notion that Albertine provided him with some unique beauty in their conversations that was not transferred to the page, and once that experience was captured in his head, Andree could not surpass it.
Even Bergotte is undermined via the painter Elstir. Marcel’s interactions with Elstir provoke reveries similar to those that he had in response to Bergotte much earlier, but Marcel’s dialogue with Elstir isn’t dialectical, nor is it particularly rational. Rather, Elstir’s painting correlates quite closely to Proust’s own description of apperception:

One of these “magnificent” photographs will illustrate a law of perspective, will show us some cathedral which we are accustomed to see in the middle of a town, taken instead from a selected vantage point from which it will appear to be thirty times the height of the houses and to be thrusting out a spur from the bank of the river, from which it is actually at some distance. Now the effort made by Elstir to reproduce things not as he knew them to be but according to the optical illusions of which our first sight of them is composed, had led him precisely to bring out certain of these laws of perspective, which were thus all the more striking, since art had been the first to disclose them. (897)

The autonomy (even priority) of the perception over the actual object reinforces all of what Proust has been saying above. When Marcel sees one of Elstir’s paintings and delivers a series of impressions before finding out that it’s actually of a young Odette, it reinforces how far Marcel, Elstir, and the book itself are from the actual things being described, and how much these perceptions dominate their emotions and memories over any sort of objective series of facts.
The sour note in it, as described above, is the ineluctable isolation in all these memories and impressions, a proto-Wittgensteinian private language that dissipates in conversation and has no necessary connection to the noumenal reality that inspires it.
But hey, there’s this book at least…

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