À la Récherche du Temps Perdu
Remembrance of Things Past
In Search of Lost Time
August 01, 2004
(I'll break my own rule here and use the more faithful title instead of Cities of the Plain.)
For all initial appearances, Sodom and Gomorrah is more of the same. There is not the break that there was between past volumes: the transition from the flashbacks of Swann's Way to Proust's youth, the transition from Balbec to Paris. We are still in high society and, with the exception of a brief return to Balbec, the scenery is numbingly similar to that of The Guermantes Way. The apparent shift is mostly psychological, as Marcel has once more receded from the picture now that his infatuation with the Guermantes has expired. But there is a more subtle thematic shift--a nascent one--that hints at some resuscitation of life from the nihilistic attitudes of the prior volume.
Sodom and Gomorrah is divided into two parts: the first is thirty pages, and the second is five hundred. Without reading too much into this (Proust hadn't finished revising the thing, after all), I'm still inclined to give equal weight to each. While the second is society-play of the sort seen before, the first is something else entirely. Marcel surreptitiously spies on M. de Charlus and the tailor Jupien, several times. They speak of homosexuality and engage each other as though belonging to a secret society, not as lovers but as conspirators, speakers of gossip who are allied with one another because of their kind. Proust makes a few observations about what he calls this breed of "man-women" which fall somewhere between stereotyping and species classification, but what's more interesting is the process by which this discovery is made.
Marcel, in the novel, has never before eavesdropped on people to this extent; Proust's omniscient knowledge of others has been treated as a given. Here, then, is something that has been consciously excluded from the novel so far. Homosexuality has surfaced at times (Odette, Albertine, Saint-Loup), but not as a principle of social order. In the women it was a dalliance; in Saint-Loup something to be rejected and ignored. But in Charlus, it's a character factor that is so fundamental to his personality and his behavior that it, for Proust, separates him into another species:
The way Proust conceives this discovery, as an organizing principle, suggests that underneath the trivial chaos of social conceits, there are powerful and submerged forces, of which Marcel had not previously been aware. And permanence is a key aspect of his conception of homosexuality: for many pages, Proust has spoken of the fickleness of emotion and the alienation of people from their own past emotional states, but homosexuality, he implies, is something entirely different, a trait that underlies fundamental character, not a fleeting whim, and so is something that can be looked to for reference about a person's deeper nature. Proust says nothing of this directly, but the contrast is difficult to ignore, and this treatment of homosexuality as more fundamental than love or any other emotion suggests that there may yet be some meaning to be found in the detritus of high society.
Of course, Proust then has this to say:
I'm tempted to just shrug this off as part of Proust's general misanthropy, but it's notable enough (especially next to his treatment of the Dreyfuss scandal, which I haven't discussed at all yet) that it deserves mention, even without comment.
Posted by at August 1, 2004 06:45 PM