David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2004

Benny Morris: “Survival of the Fittest”

The work situation’s slowed down Proust a bit, but I wanted to give a mention of Benny Morris’s Survival of the Fittest interview with Ha’aretz, which has been making its way around the blogs.

(Though just linking to the thing is tough enough now that Ha’aretz has taken the original page down. Free Republic, Counterpunch, and LGF all have the original text, and I’m not keen on linking to them or most of the other places that have copied it.)

Aside from demonsrating that Morris has no career as a Likud PR man, it’s a very articulate depiction of the bunker mentality. I haven’t read all of Morris’s Israel history; I read excerpts for comparison while reading Avi Shlaim‘s book. Shlaim dabbled in counterfactuals on the order of, “If Ben-Gurion hadn’t done X, there might have been peace, but we’ll never know.” Morris, slightly to Shlaim’s right at the time, tended to stick with military history over politics and let whatever stains were there speak for themselves.

Now Morris is not so reticent, but I don’t see such a huge contradiction with his previous positions…it appears to be an avoidance of cognitive dissonance that leads him to dwell on those things that most partisans would gloss over or deny. For someone who wrote in English first and then translated his history into Hebrew, it’s a drastic turn inward. The polite but rather slanted interviews he did with Barak in the NYRB seem to be things of the past.

My own reaction: I can’t imagine the interview convincing anyone who wasn’t already convinced. It’s a portrayal of a state of mind, not an argument.

2.2.4 Place-Names: The Place: Albertine

I don’t have a great deal to say about the girls of Within a Budding Grove. Young Marcel’s impressions of them have as much to do with what he is looking for at that point in his life as with their individual personalities, and so he draws them coarsely and simply. Albertine is obnoxious, Andree is smart, and so on…it doesn’t make them unbelievable, but it places as much weight on Marcel’s impressions as there was on Swann’s fantasies of Odette in Swann’s Way.
The process repeats between Marcel and Albertine as it did with Marcel and Gilberte and Swann and Odette. After he first sees her:

Since my first sight of Albertine I had thought about her endlessly, I had carried on with what I called by her name an interminable inner dialogue in which I made her question and answer, think and act, and in the infinite series of imaginary Albertines who followed one after the other in my fancy hour by hour, the real Albertine, glimpsed on the beach, figured only at the head, just as the actress who “creates” a role, the star, appears, out of a long series of performances, in the first few alone. (917)

Albertine’s real presence, which is hardly overwhelming or even likable, eliminates a lot of his dreams, yet they have no deterrent effect on Marcel. On the contrary, he takes pleasure in the trivial discussions and cruelties of the girls, yet here is Proust talking about the loss of his rich image of Albertine:

As I drew closer to the girl and began to know her better, this knowledge developed by a process of subtraction, each constituent of imagination and desire giving place to a notion which was worth infinitely less. (933)

Proust’s analysis becomes so kaleidoscopic that it all but overshadows the main climax of the action, when Marcel makes a physical advance on Albertine and is rejected because she’s not that kind of girl. It’s meant as an indication of how Marcel’s own image of Albertine could not predict how he would act around her, nor did her own past actions and appearances give a foreclosed prediction of how she would react. Yet the moment-by-moment relativism is pushed to the point where this significant plot point recedes instantly, as, it is implied, Marcel retreats into his head.
His reaction after his advances are rebuffed is not that of the more emotional Swann, but detached reconsideration:

It was perhaps because they were so diverse, the persons whom I used to contemplate in her at this period, that later I developed the habit of becoming myself a different person, according to the particular Albertine to whom my thoughts had turned; a jealous, an indifferent, a voluptuous, a melancholy, a frenzied person, created anew not merely by the accident of the particular memory that had risen to the surface, but in proportion also to the strength of the belief that was lent to the support of one and the same memory by the varying manner in which I appreciated it. For this was the point to which I invariably had to return, to those beliefs which for most of the time occupy our souls unbeknownst to us, but which for all that are of more importance to our happiness than is the person whom we see, for it is through them that we see him, it is they that impart his momentary grandeur to the person seen. To be quite accurate, I ought to give a different name to each of the selves who subsequently thought about Albertine; I ought still more to give a different name to each of the Albertines who appeared before me, never the same, like those sees that succeeded one another and against which, a nymph likewise, she was silhouetted. (1010)

And it’s shortly after that note of disintegration that the second volume ends. Albertine is reduced to a specter, and everything that has just passed is the product of a character who is about to change, with his return to Paris. All that has gone on with Saint-Loup and Bloch, with Francoise and his grandmother, and with the young women, is left behind, as is the environment and the persona of Marcel that participated in creating the situations.
Again, what’s surprising is how subtly this despair and nostalgia creeps in, as well as the suggestion that attempting to hang on to those moments and recreate their circumstances that causes the deepest unhappiness. Superficially, he leaves Balbec peacefully, but the accumulating misery as he loses all that he gains, and as his later self in turn contextualizes it as though it were a dead specimen, gradually builds up into a terminal melancholy leavened only by the beautiful prose descriptions of past images.
That’s about it. While Swann’s Way ended with an inexplicable shocker revelation, Within a Budding Grove ends at the point where nothing could come as a shock any longer because everything is up for renegotiation. It’s not an auspicious point from which to launch 2000 more pages, and The Guermantes Way does retreat from these extremes in its early pages (what other choice was there?), but still, Proust’s terms from this vantage point look very bleak.

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…

2.2.2 Place-Names: The Place: Bloch and Saint-Loup

Happy new year to everyone. I’d originally planned to have finished the entirety of Proust by this point, but it wouldn’t have been worth it. I couldn’t absorb the whole thing, even if I read all the words. (Even as it stands, I’m not exactly delving into large chunks of it.) The first two volumes were, by a long shot, the best thing I read last year, so I figured I might as well take the time to enjoy it. I’m in the middle of The Guermantes Way way right now and things have slowed down, and that, combined with a new job, may hurt my pace, but based on what I’ve read so far, I’m committed. (Early on, the plan was to have a little mood-indicator emoticon that would specify how confident I was of finishing all seven volumes: optimistic, concerned, hopeless, pained, etc.)
Returning to Within a Budding Grove
The early parts of Marcel’s stay at Balbec are fairly uneventful. Marcel explores the hotel he’s staying at and meets a few upper-class women, but there is little development, just scene-setting. To some extent, it’s a period of adjustment. Marcel does very little, but spends a lot of time reflecting on how the ceilings in his hotel room are very high, unlike the low ceilings in his room in Paris. It makes him homesick:

For a neurotic nature such as mine–one, that is to say, in which the intermediaries, the nerves, perform their functions badly, fail to arrest on its way to consciousness, allow indeed to reach it, distinct, exhausting, innumerable and distressing, the plaints of the most humble elements of the self which are about to disappear–the anxiety and alarm which I felt as I lay beneath that strange and too lofty ceiling were but the protest of an affection that survived in me for a ceiling that was familiar and low. Doubtless this affection too would disappear, another having taken its place; but until its annihilation, every night it would suffer afresh, and on this first night especially, confronted with an irreversible future in which there would no longer be any place for it, it rose in revolt, it tortured me with the sound of its lamentations whenever my straining eyes, powerless to turn from what was wounding them, endeavoured to fasten themselves upon that inaccessible ceiling. (723)

Offhand, I can’t think of a more vivid description of homesickness, and the situation in which someone is utterly conscious of the temporary nature of their feelings, and yet is powerless to quell them. By the time he returns to Paris, he’s become accustomed to the high ceilings and it’s the low ceilings which make him ill at ease. Yet as with Swann’s infatuation with Odette, the contradiction does not invalidate what’s gone before.
It’s a milestone when, about a third of the way in, he encounters Robert de Saint-Loup. His friendship with Saint-Loup, as well as with Bloch, is the first in which Marcel plays an active part, as well as the first where the people are vaguely equals. Saint-Loup is more polished and well-to-do than Marcel (and certainly more than Bloch), but he is too polite and unaware to notice that he’s spending time around a group of obnoxious, elitist students. (Unjustified elitists, I should say–the bad kind.) But his good nature keeps him friends with Marcel, and they grow close. But Proust imposes some distancing techniques on describing their friendship, and describes what comes between them. Saint-Loup cannot bring himself to be discriminating enough to see the bad in people who aren’t Marcel, and Marcel himself, well–

Sometimes I reproached myself for thus taking pleasure in considering my friend as a work of art, that is to say in regarding the play of all the parts of his being as harmoniously ordered by a general idea from which they depended but of which he was unaware. (792)

It’s a strange passage; for me, it hearkens back to earlier passages in which one character or another imagines another person and that view of the other person as an “object” determines the relationship, rather than a real exchange of emotion between two people.
It’s Bloch who makes the most of these divisions. Nominally friends with both Saint-Loup and Marcel, he’s portrayed even more negatively than before. Before, he was simply a pretentious ass who talked big about things he didn’t know. Now he is an insecure wretch who tries to drive a wedge between Saint-Loup and Marcel and ingratiate himself with both of them. He insults each to the other, and makes much more of his supposed connection with Bergotte than is actually there. Yet his actions have little effect, and there is more of a sense of stasis than change: socially, Saint-Loup is above Marcel, and Marcel is above Bloch, and that is the way it is. Marcel even gives him a break in retrospect:

Bloch was not altogether a bad fellow: he was capable of being extremely nice. And now that the race of Combray, the race from which sprang creatures as absolutely unspoiled as my grandmother and my mother, seems almost extinct, since I no longer have much choice save between decent brutes, frank and insensitive, the mere sound of whose voices shows at once that they take absolutely no interest in your life–and another kind of men who so long as they are with you understand you, cherish you, grow sentimental to the point of tears, then make up for it a few hours later with some cruel joke at your expense, but come back to you, always just as understanding, as charming, as in tune with you for the moment, I think that it is of this latter sort that I prefer, if not the moral worth, at any rate the society. (802)

I’m still not sure what to make of this; it reminds me of the strange amalgams in Erich von Stroheim’s speeches celebrating the dying aristocracy in Grand Illusion. It indicates a certain disinterest on the older Marcel’s part towards people who would stab you in the back and yet be utterly proper about it, as well as a sense of having lost the social world in which one could comfortably function. Hints of terrible, crushing isolation creep into “Place-Names: The Place.” They don’t dominate, but young Marcel’s orientation is already beginning to lead in that direction.
Back to Bloch. He is “ill-bred, neurotic and snobbish,” not just coming from a Jewish background but a lower-class Jewish background, which, as opposed to Swann and Marcel’s more subdued Jewish characters, looms large enough in Bloch’s social standing to cause him to feel (and, as far as many are concerned, be) chronically inferior. Proust takes a pitying tone when describing these aspects of Bloch, particularly when he sees Bloch ingratiating himself with Saint-Loup’s student friends by attacking Jews, or minimizing his Jewish heritage to Marcel.
These themes aren’t worked out in the second volume, but allusions to the Dreyfus case increase, and there is a fair amount of subtle, but indisputable anti-Semitism. When it appears, it’s first situated very much in shared attitudes rather than innate prejudice; the Dreyfus case rolls around, and it is expected that cultured people should have an attitude, and being anti-Dreyfus is rather popular. Bloch seeks to climb up through the ranks by imitating these attitudes, with little luck. Meanwhile, Saint-Loup is sympathetically pro-Dreyfus, unlike most of his comrades, and comes off rather well. But he can afford to hold a less popular opinion. It doesn’t make Bloch’s words defensible, but it makes him more pathetic than rotten.
(Later on, some of the characters (including Albertine) clearly have prejudices against Jews that have been long-abiding, so there’s a mix of causes here, which Proust doesn’t treat systematically.)

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