David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2003 (page 3 of 4)

1.3.3 Swann in Love: Swann Himself

As described last time, Swann doesn’t think Odette is very cultured or intelligent despite being utterly infatuated with her. He’s fairly on the money too. (Proust certainly agrees.) The real damage Odette does to Swann, the damage that robs him of part of his soul, is not that he misunderstands her so much (although he does), but that he allows his infatuation to remove from him his aesthetic faith. This is for me the very core of “Swann in Love” (and certainly something Proust dwells on elsewhere), where Swann, ripped apart by Odette’s thoughtlessness and faithlessness, finds an affirmation (conveniently) of exactly the sort of aesthetic experience Proust has been trying to justify.
But first, Odette. She leads him to abandon his tastes in people and art and embrace the Verdurins soirees and their facile tastes. It’s not something she intends; she respects his intelligence as far as she can understand it, and Swann explicitly gives up on communicating to her his aesthetics. So he minimizes them. Odette later ridicules Swann for not appreciating the dull, witless things she likes, but she is more tasteless than she is dismissive. Switch the genders, and you have something like this:

BART: Dad, if there’s a really special girl and she likes some clod who’s beneath her, what should you do?
HOMER: I married her!

Pages 263-275 describe the agonizing way in which Swann abandons any conception of artistic merit to be in harmony with Odette’s tastes. Of his own tastes, he becomes

convinced, moreover, that a cultivated “society” woman would have understood them no better, but would not have managed to remain so prettily silent. But, now that he was in love with Odette, all this was changed; to share her sympathies, to strive to be one with her in spirit, was a task so attractive that he tried to find enjoyment in the thinks that she liked, and did find a pleasure, not only in imitating her habits but in adopting her opinions, which was all the deeper because, as those habits and opinions had no roots in his own intelligence they reminded him only of his love, for the sake of which he had preferred them to his own.
Besides, having allowed the intellectual beliefs of his youth to languish, and his man-of-the-world scepticism having permeated them without his being aware of it, he felt that the objects we admire have no absolute value in themselves, that the whole thing is a matter of period and class, is no more than a series of fashions, the most vulgar of which are worth just as much as those which are regarded as the most refined. (269)

Most of ROTP so far is a refutation of exactly this belief, which is tantamount to nihilism in Proust’s world. By turning his back on the worth of his admiration, he removes his very view of the world (and its worth), and there’s nothing to replace it but Odette. The choice, as Proust paints it, is not between elitism and egalitarianism, but between partiality and apathy.
Swann’s salvation (and his inability to adapt to life with Odette) comes in his failure to renounce fully his tastes and embrace the relativism above. A few pages later, Swann is still unable to buy into the Verdurins’ crass little culture. As he struggles to adapt to them:

The fact was that they had very quickly sensed in him [Swann] a locked door, a reserved, impenetrable chamber in which he still professed silently to himself that the Princesse de Sagan was not grotesque and that Cottard’s jokes were not amusing, in a word, for all that he never deviated from his affability or revolted against their dogmas, an impermeability ot those dogmas, a resistance to complete conversion, the like of which they had never come across in anyone before. (273)

The rest of the section is a portrayal of Swann in this limbo, and while Odette continues to drive him crazy, I see it as a distraction from the portrait of a man who’s lost his aesthetic moorings, not his romantic ones.
He eventually regains them. At a better class of party than the Verdurins’ (I still thought it was boring), Swann speaks to the Princess des Laumes and feels more identification than he has with Odette or any of the Verdurin crowd, since “they had the ‘tone’ of the Guermantes set” (372). This is followed by a series of aesthetic revelations where he re-embraces what he gave up earlier. On hearing that same musical phrase again, he locates his happiness and love inside of it:

In that way Vinteuil’s phrase, like some theme, say, in Tristan, which represents to us also a certain emotional accretion, had espoused our mortal state, had endued a vesture of humanity that was particularly affecting. Its destiny was linked to the future, to the reality of the human soul, of which it was one of the most special and distinctive ornaments. Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but, if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.

This reminds me of Mann circa The Magic Mountain, but it’s better. Mann is a beautiful writer, but very weak philosophically, and weakest when he tries to spin up unjustifiable ideas with purple prose. Proust avoids the generalization by emphasizing the partiality and intimacy of a particular taste; i.e., by placing the importance on the multiplicity as well as the reality of these aesthetic impressions. It’s still a little heavy for a writer like Proust, and you wish that, say, Erik Satie would show up and vomit all over the place, but it’s still moving.
(It’s also a recipe for tremendous selfishness and self-absorption when someone enslaves themselves and their buddies to a useless personal vision, but more on that later.)
Shortly afterwards, he gives up on Odette, even before he finds out the worst about her. And that’s about it for them.

1.3.2 Swann in Love: Snobbery

Snobbery: it’s all over the book and it’s not going away. It’s no revelation that Proust is an elitist and a harshly judgmental one, but it’s something that evolves out of the social structuring, not an attitude that developed in isolation from the circumstances. In other words, the question in this book is not whether someone is a snob, but what kind of snob they are: Descriptive snobbery.
Some examples:
The Cottards. They aren’t snobs, but targets. They have no aesthetic sensibility.

M. and Mme Cottard, typical, in this respect, of the public, were incapable of finding, either in Vinteuil’s sonata or in Biche’s portraits, what constituted for them harmony in music or beauty in painting. It appeared to them, when the pianist played his sonata, as though he were striking at random from the piano a medley of notes which bore no relation to the musical forms to which they themselves were accustomed, and that the painter simply flung the colours at random on his canvases. When, in one of these, they were able to distinguish a human form, they always found it coarsened and vulgarised and devoid of truth, as though M. Biche had not known how the human shoulder was constructed, or that a woman’s hair was not ordinarily purple. (232)

What’s notable here is that the snobbery is based on Cottard’s utter failure of imagination. Their lack of appreciation for art is grounded in their inability to conceptualize the work in their head, which Proust considers primary (see Images).
Swann. Swann is eventually spat on by the Verdurins (see below) for descending into uncouth and non-social climbing behavior after becoming infatuated with Odette. Yet Proust passes a harsher judgment on him very late in “Swann in Love,” when Swann is unable to extend his view of Odette (idealized, and in his own personal experience) so that he realizes the extent of her decadent, adulterous, bisexual lifestyle:

Like many other men, Swann had a naturally lazy mind and lacked imagination. He knew perfectly well as a general truth that human life is full of contrasts, but in the case of each individual human being he imagined all that part of of his or her life with which he was not familiar as being identical with the part with which he was. (390)

(“Ah,” says Proust, “I shall do better!”) Is it fair to call this snobbery? Under the terms of the book, I think so. Swann is in a station (one of infatuation and idleness) that gives itself over to defects of perception and imaging, even if it allows him to perceive in brilliant clarity that brief passage of Vinteuil’s music. Marcel is in a station (a writer) where he thinks he’s doing much better, and who’s to say he isn’t? In this regard, there is a air of superiority.
The Verdurins. As hosts of many of the parties that Swann, Odette, and the rest of the gang attend, they are in the position of criticizing everyone while being (a) fairly immune, since they are incontrovertibly established (within their relatively low social circle), and (b) not much to speak of themselves, since they’re so petty and shallow:

“I don’t suppose it’s because our friend [Swann] believes she’s [Odette’s] virtuous,” M. Verdurin went on sarcastically. “And yet, you never know; he seems to think she’s intelligent. I don’t know whether you heard the way he lectured her the other evening about Vinteuil’s sonata. I’m devoted to Odette, but really?-to expound theories of aesthetics to her?-the man must be a prize idiot.” (248)

They’re really irritating. Their attitudes appear to flow from their position, which requires them to maintain a detached superiority from their guests. Hence passages like these.
(It’s been on my mind anyway, but this passage reminds me of the Hegelian master/slave analogy, where Hegel declares that the slave’s intervention for the master in doing any and all work for the master removes the master from the world and disconnects the master from all that is reality.)
Besides all that, M. Verdurin is incorrect, since Swann does have his issues with Odette. (see below)
Once Swann is well and truly obsessed, they make to cast him out. Swann thoughtlessly makes a slight verbal faux pas by praising the wrong person at one of the Verdurins’ parties. . .

Whereupon Mme Verdurin, realising that this one infidel would prevent her “little nucleus” from achieving complete unanimity, was unable to restrain herself, in her fury at the obstinacy of this wretch who could not see what anguish his words were causing her, from screaming at him from the depths of her tortured heart: “You may think so if you wish, but at least you needn’t say so to us.” (283)

The Hegel comparison doesn’t seem so off-base: the Verdurins (masters) need the backing and agreement of their guests (slaves) to maintain their position over the guests.
Swann and Odette. Swann initially can’t dismiss his low opinion of Odette’s brain, not as a judgment but as a fact:

Except when he asked her for Vinteuil’s little phrase instead of the Valse de Roses, Swann made no effort to induce her to play the things that he himself preferred, or, in literature any more than in music, to correct the manifold errors of her taste. He fully realised that she was not intelligent.
If, then, Swann tried to show her what artistic beauty consisted in, how one ought to appreciate poetry or painting, after a minute or two she would cease to listen, saying: “Yes . . . I never thought it would be like that.” And he felt that her disappointement was so great that he preferred to lie to her, assuring her that what he had said was nothing, that he had only touched the surface, that he had no time to go into it all properly, that there was more in it than that. (263)

This passage makes me far more sympathetic to elitism than I usually like to think I am. No one wants to admit that they feel agonizingly unable to explain the superiority of their tastes to some cretin that they’ve just met, and still everyone does, gets irritated, and then avoids the subject of their favorite work of art that the other dope couldn’t appreciate. Then they realize that Bush is still in the White House, chide themselves for being so shallow, and summon up newfound respect for the erstwhile cretin. Proust wouldn’t give; it’s close to the most important thing in the world for him.
For twelve pages or so Proust tracks how this feeling simmers and evolves in Swann, which is the subject for next time.

1.3.1 Swann in Love: Images

Paris, years earlier, as Marcel (the narrator and the author are nearly undifferentiable in this section) recounts the story of Swann’s unpleasant affair with Odette, a not-terribly-deep woman who is as incapable of returning his affections as she is of understanding them. So say Proust and Swann, in baroque language Odette probably couldn’t understand. Odette herself plays up her ignorance, calling herself “an ignorant woman with a taste for beautiful things.” Swann, unsurprisingly, falls for her and confounds himself with jealousy, and generally makes himself miserable over her long after she’s lost interest. This goes on for a while.
Despite the fact (it’s presented as objectively as can be) that Odette is beneath him, intellectually and socially, Proust presents Swann’s attraction to her as explicable, if only because the explanation takes up a good chunk of the two hundred pages of “Swann in Love.” Despite some editorializing that makes it clear that Proust is most in sympathy with Swann, the sympathetic air mostly arises from the description of the tiny details that captivate Swann, that keep his obsession going even as it wrecks his social standing.
It’s not a rational response that Swann has, obviously, but I’ve rarely read such a detailed itemization of the particulars that cause an irrational response. Part of this is my own bias: I’ve never been interested in stories that grow out of two characters’ de facto attraction to each other and consist of little but the misery they make for each other. Maybe I’ve been lucky to avoid experiences that would make me empathetic. Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (the title is ironic) spends two hours showing a couple repeatedly breaking up and getting back together as soon as they forget why they broke up. They forget fast. The movie bored me. So the “hopeless love” angle isn’t one that I’m going to touch.
Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe spends five hundred pages talking about how a bookish older man and his library are destroyed by his incredibly base housekeeper, whom he falls in love with and marries. It’s supposed to serve as a symbolic representation of nihilism destroying the cultured mores of the educated classes, but the book doesn’t work: the characters aren’t convincing, and the relationship less so.
Proust is better than that. Swann is foolish, he’s arbitrary, and he’s inconsistent, but for all the details, he seems sui generis; there’s never been someone who fell for another person quite in the way he does, though I’m sure some have come fairly close. Even when Proust goes off into theorizing, it is always about the particulars of Swann’s pathology, not about the sorrows of humanity. So Swann is as large to readers as he is to himself. There is so much detail about his particular tastes and preferences, particularly his attention to a single, small passage of music that he comes to associate with his love for Odette, that he’s not just another “mad love” character out of Ariosto behaving stupidly, but someone for whom his every action is justifiable, and someone whom I find reasonably comprehensible. He makes a mental image of that passage, knowing little about music or even about the piece’s overall structure:

He had before him something that was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought and which allowed the actual music to be recalled. This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him.

The phrase is not just music but is itself sui generis, as is Swann himself, as presented. The arbitratiness of his tastes, as with the choice of musical notes, is akin to the establishment of a private reality, not just the whims of an aristocrat. Whether his tastes are explicable is not meaningful, since they govern him like natural laws.
This approach accomodates one other crucial thing, which is inconstancy. Generally, even in someone like Flaubert, when a character changes a core opinion, it’s presented as a fulcrum, something that tips the balance and causes the novel to progress. That doesn’t happen here; inconstancy is made part of Swann’s being. He changes his mind about Odette several times; he gets fed up with her, he falls back in love with her, he allows himself to forget what she’s done, he replaces her with his ideal. The changes are rapid, but the constantly (and drastically) evolving mental processes of Swann don’t change much in his relationship with Odette; it’s only by the microscopic examination of his thoughts that you’re aware that his opinions are changing as much as they are. This could come off as arbitrary or inexplicable, but again, rationality is not the order of the day. Natural law is.

1.2 Combray

Deep in the realm of Marcel’s youth, his extended family, and the people of the town of Combray, where one person not knowing another is shocking. It’s probably not a common association, but I think of that dusty, windswept Texas town in the movie of The Last Picture Show and how every possible interpersonal combination has to be explored by the inhabitants (and the author) just to distract themselves from how desolate the whole place is.
This isn’t to say that Combray works in the same way, but the centrality of Combray and its removal from Paris, to the point where it seems out of time and most larger context, acts as the main limiter of what the youth Marcel is exposed to in this section. In the preface the world was the size of his bedroom, which he wanted his mother to re-enter; now it’s the size of an idyllic small town.
It’s not just him. The attraction he feels to the plain, unnoteworthy church of Combray is shared by his grandmother. The implication: objects are granted aesthetic significance by those people who project their memories onto it.
A few character studies are striking:
The fall of M. Legrandin: Legrandin is an effete snob who, initially respected by Marcel’s family, falls from favor after Marcel induces his family to tie him in knots over the fact that he’s not quite as high and mighty as he claims to be. (The actual circumstances are too twisty to summarize easily.) It only takes a single gesture on his behalf to convince Marcel that his act isn’t justified.
M. Vinteuil and his daughter: Vinteuil has no idea how rotten and amoral his daughter is, and by the time she spits on his picture (a terrible act by the standards at work here), he’s already dead. He’s much gossipped about, but he himself never realizes.
Francoise and Leonie: Leonie is Marcel’s aunt, Francoise her cook. Leonie hasn’t been doing well and has thrown all sorts of paranoid accusations at Francoise, who’s weathered them as best as possible. Yet after Leonie dies, the family realizes “the sort of terror in which Francoise had lived of my aunt’s harsh words, her suspicions and her anger, had developed in her a feeling which we had mistaken for hatred and which was really veneration and love.”
These miniatures (none take more than a couple pages to play out) all deal with conflicting representations of other people (or of one’s self). While one interpretation is designated “correct” each time, the revelation is always a tad uncertain, since it’s simply a revision of an earlier account, not a true reckoning.
In turn, it makes me wonder about the revelation of Mme de Guermantes, the local noble whom Marcel imagines so vividly without having met that, when he finally sees her, the sight doesn’t permit him to reject his fixed idea of her, but instead amplifies it. Again, it’s more of a revision than a true correction.
As, to some extent, with books. The Bergotte passage, about Marcel’s infatuation with and worship of an author, was the first that made me realize that there was a decent chance I would complete the entirety of ROTP, that no matter how many dull stories of aristocratic intrigue or explorations of uninteresting minutiae, there was enough depth to the reflection at times to keep me going through the dry patches, which I’m steeling myself for.
(Compared to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, it was a more difficult assessment. There are large dry passages in MWQ, but the payoffs are so self-contained and so dazzling in their ideological genius that the promise of continued, new treasures made it easy to keep going. Add to that the constant tension of World War I looming over all the characters and the narrative, promising to destroy all their dreams and high ideals, and the irony grants resonance to each bit of politics or theory. There is much more of a cumulative effect in Proust, with a fair amount of (so far) deadwood being thrown into the mix.)
He reads Bergotte, who’s an imagined author who deals in aethetic lyricism and symbolic images (he sounds a bit German). One passage makes a particular impression on him:

I now had the impression of being confronted not by a particular passage in one of Bergotte’s works, tracing a purely bi-dimensional figure upon the surface of my mind, but rather by the “ideal passage” of Bergotte, common to every one of his books, to which all the earlier, similar passages, now becoming merged in it, had added a kind of density and volume by which my own understanding seemed to be enlarged. (102)

And that’s why I kept reading too. It’s a better description of a reader’s revelation than anything I’ve gotten from Northrop Frye or Leavis.
This sort of experienced synecdoche (an approximate term here) returns later in Swann’s apprehension of a piece of music, so I’ll get back to it.
And finally, something that jumps off the page, Marcel’s view of women prepubescent vs. post-pubescent. He speaks of “that period of life when one has not yet separated the fact of this sensual pleasure from the various women in whose company one has tasted it, when one has not yet reduced it to a general idea which makes one regard them thenceforward as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same.” I don’t know if this makes him a sex-hating anti-Puritan aesthete or someone simply obsessed with multiplicities of experience.
More likely than either, it gets back to his obsession with the child’s immediate experience of sensations with less than the full complement of an adult’s prejudices, sex being one of the most dominant.

Proust 1.1 – Overture

Marcel thinks back to earlier years lying in bed.

This is the proper introduction to the whole endeavor, and Proust spends fifty pages leading up to the famous madeleines segment, in which his childhood memory is brought forth in Romantic fashion through the eating of the little morsel.

Such is his aim, but since ROTP is about nothing if not minute digressions and explorations, I found the theorizing and abstract internal experience less persuasive than the recreation itself. Which is fitting, since the intended effect (as stated) is one of transparency, of a recreation of the past as immanent, not remembered as shadows. The town of Combray, all its sensory data, come back to him via the conduit of the madeleine.

But there’s another memory that has already been detailed, that of his attempt to get his mother to give him a goodnight kiss after he has been put to bed, presented as though he were pulling some sort of heist. He slips a note to Francoise, his aunt’s cook, to be delivered to his mother, and after his father’s unexpectedly kindly intervention, he gets his kiss and then some: his mother stays in his room that night. It’s the solipsism that’s striking: it’s presented as though the feelings of the kid there and then are the size of the world, and no objective perspective of the adult (except for verbal embellishment and refinement) will interfere.

So there is the sensory memory, and the emotional memory, and the intent is to present both unfettered. What’s not clear is if they’re considered the same type or if they fall under different rubrics. But since questions and not answers are going to be the order for at least a thousand pages or so, best not to consider it further right now.

Also, I can’t forget this passage, from the reticent, snarky family friend M. Swann:

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance. (27)


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