David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2004

3.1.4 Polite Society

The emphasis on the decay beneath the polite, dull society of the Guermantes mirrors the decline of the emotional vividness of Marcel’s existence. Part of this is ascribable to Marcel himself not playing a huge role in the proceedings, but even when he does, there is a lifelessness to it all. Only a few times does he drop hints as to the nature of what is going on, which form the thin backbone of the first half of the book, and a good part of the second. It is this: just as Marcel had earlier found that he could enjoy the company of some silly girls more than any profound conversation with intellectuals, he is here slowly discovering that such high-minded conversation has only the most tenuous link to interaction. Several times, he encounters people behaving strangely with him, and several times he realizes that although he had assumed that their words and actions were in response to his own, it is actually nothing more than a spark escaping from their own solipsistic existence.
Legrandin, dull even by the standards of The Guermantes Way, snaps at Marcel at one point:

“You might at least have the civility to begin by saying how d’ye do to me,” he replied, without offering me his hand and in a coarse and angry voice which I had never suspected him of possessing, a voice which, having no rational connexion with what he ordinarily said, had another more immediate and striking connexion with something he was feeling. For the fact of the matter is that, since we are determined always to keep our feelings to ourselves, we have never given any thought to the manner in which we should express them. And suddenly there is within us a strange and obscene animal making itself heard, whose tones may inspire as much alarm as the person who receives the involuntary, elliptical and almost irresistible communication of one’s defect or vice as would the sudden avowal indirectly and outlandishly proffered by a criminal who can no longer refrain from confessing to a murder of which one had never imagined him to be guilty. I knew, of course, that idealism, even subjective idealism, did not prevent great philosophers from still having hearty appetites or from presenting themselves with untiring perseverance for election to the Academy. But really Legrandin had no need to remind people so often that he belonged to another planet when all his uncontrollable impulses of anger or affability were governed by the desire to occupy a good position on this one. (208)

From this he later concludes that Norpois, who insulted him behind his back earlier, was acting out of similarly unknowable motives. And thus:

What we remember of our conduct remains unknown to our nearest neighbor; what we have forgotten that we have ever said, or indeed what we never did say, flies to provoke hilarity in another planet, and the image that other people form of our actions and demeanour no more resembles our own than an inaccurate tracing, on which for the black line we find an empty space and for a blank area an inexplicable contour, resembles the original drawing. (281)

This is, again, an almost Wittgensteinian notion of speech, yet Proust allows for sudden anomalous expressions, as though the absence of semantics in the translation of internal feeling to external behavior produces inherent imperfections. And as the behavior of Marcel’s associates is more circumscribed by society, so their deviations become more apparent, as they progress from silly teenage exclamations of intuitive feelings to becoming models of decorum. Ironically, this exposes their own preoccupations more, since the deviations are easy to spot.
The most blatant example of this disparity is Marcel’s relation to M. de Charlus. Charlus is, as Proust will discuss at great length, homosexual, and his interest in Marcel is so assaultive and histrionic (not to mention manic-depressive) that the narrative strains credulity in attempting to portray Marcel as fairly oblivious to Charlus’s quirks. (Alain Delon played Charlus in Swann in Love, but hell, Rip Taylor probably could have pulled it off.) But coming after hundreds of pages of genteel boredom, Charlus is vastly entertaining. A sample:

“Let us return to yourself,” he said, “and my plans for you…Given a very considerable lead over your contemporaries, who knows whether you may not perhaps become what some eminent man of the past might have been if a beneficent spirit had revealed to him, among a generation that knew nothing of them, the secrets of steam and electricity. Do not be foolish, do not refuse for reasons of tact and discretion. Try to understand that, if I do you a great service, I do not expect my reward from you to be any less great. It is many years now since people in society ceased to interest me. I have but one passion left, to seek to redeem the mistakes of my life by conferring the benefit of my knowledge on a soul that is still virgin and capable of being fired by virtue…Perhaps in teaching you the great secrets of diplomacy I might recover a taste for them myself, and begin at last to do things of real interest in which you would have an equal share. But before I can discover this I must see you often, very often, every day.” (301)

Though it’s a comical example, it again paints an exchange in which the subtext is, by a huge margin, exclusively within the mind of only one of the participants. Though Charlus has a unique manner of speaking, he has done reasonably well in society, and has somehow kept his own predilections from surfacing in speech.
When Marcel’s grandmother falls to her deathbed pages later, the effect is paradoxical; the grandmother, unconscious and dying, communicates more to her family than all those in high society have up until that point. It’s this irony that lies when Marcel recalls his mother chastising him over his infatuation with Mme de Guermantes:

“You really must stop hanging about trying to meet Mme de Guermantes. You’re becoming a laughing-stock. Besides, look how ill your grandmother is, you really have something more serious to think about than waylaying a woman who doesn’t care a straw about you,” instantaneously–like a hypnotist who brings you back from the distant country in which you imagined yourself to be, and opens your eyes for you, or like the doctor who, by recalling you to a sense of duty and reality, cures you of an imaginary disease in which you have been wallowing–had awakened me from an unduly protracted dream. (385)

This memory isn’t mentioned until the second part of the volume, but since it occurs chronologically in the first part, it serves as the epitaph to his infatuation with the Guermantes, since he shortly goes on the warpath against them.

3.1.3 Grandmother’s Death

At the end of the first half of The Guermantes Way, Marcel’s grandmother dies. Over the course of fifty pages, she slowly degenerates, is treated by doctors, and finally passes on. It’s the most memorable sequence in the volume, and even without its surrounding material, it would be a remarkable deathbed sequence, sentimental but not mawkish, detached without being impersonal.
Marcel’s grandmother figured heavily in the second volume as a protective, benevolent figure, merging with the placid scenery of Balbec. She disappears for the first part of this book, only to reappear with a phone call to Marcel in which he, somewhat sadly, finally feels independent of her. Shortly thereafter, he is shocked to see her:

We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which, before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us, seizes them in its vortex and flings them back upon the idea that we have always had of them, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it…[here follows a verbose passage in which Proust seems to be putting off saying the inevitable]…And–like a sick man who, not having looked at his own reflexion for a long time, and regularly composing the features which he never sees in accordance with the ideal image of himself that he carries in his mind, recoils on catching sight in the glass, in the middle of an arid desert of a face, of the sloping pink protuberance of a nose as huge of one of the pyramids of Egypt–I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, vacant, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, a dejected old woman whom I did not know. (142)

And what follows from there is a private struggle between Marcel’s grandmother and her impending death, which is played out uncomfortably in public. Legrandin spies the family in a cab one day and gives a look of shock:

She had seemed to be foundering, slithering into the abyss, clinging desperately to the cushions which could scarcely hold back the headlong plunge of her body, her hair disheveled, her eyes wild, no longer capable of facing the assault of the images which their pupils no longer had the strength to bear. She had appeared, although I was beside her, to be plunged into that unknown world in the heart of which she had already received the blows of which she bore the marks when I had looked up at her in the Champs-Elysees, her had, her face, her coat deranged by the hand of the invisible angel with whom she had wrestled. (326)

Twenty-five pages later, it is continuing inexorably, but by this point Marcel’s grandmother is so central and so present in her final struggle that she seems to warp the environment around her to draw others in:

I found myself in the presence of a sort of miracle. Accompanied by an incessant low murmur, my grandmother seemed to be singing us a long, joyous song which filled the room, rapid and musical. I soon realized that it was scarcely less unconscious, that it was as purely mechanical, as the hoarse rattle that I had heard before leaving the room. Perhaps to a slight extent it reflected some improvement brought about by the morphine. Principally it was the result (the air not passing quite in the same way through the bronchial tubes) of a change in the register of her breathing. Released by the twofold action of the oxygen and the morphine, my grandmother’s breath no longer laboured, no longer whined, but, swift and light, glided like a skater towards the delicious fluid. Perhaps the breath, imperceptible as that of the wind in the hollow stem of a reed, was mingled in this song with some of those more human sighs which, released at the approach of death, suggest intimations of pain or happiness in those who have already ceased to feel, and came now to add a more melodious accent, but without changing its rhythm, to that long phrase which rose, soared still higher, then subsided, to spring up once more, from the alleviated chest, in pursuit of the oxygen. (352)

(Amazing passage, no?) Finally:

Who knows whether, without my grandmother’s even being conscious of them, countless happy and tender memories compressed by suffering were not escaping from her now, like those lighter gases which had long been compressed in the cylinders? It was as though everything that she had to tell us was pouring out, that it was us that she was addressing with this prolixity, this eagerness, this effusion. At the foot of the bed, convulsed by every gasp of this agony, not weeping but at moments drenched with tears, my mother stood with the unheeding desolation of a tree lashed by the rain and shaken by the wind…Suddenly my grandmother half rose, made a violent effort, like someone struggling to resist an attempt on his life…At that moment my grandmother opened her eyes…The hiss of the oxygen had ceased; the doctor moved away from the bedside. My grandmother was dead. (357)

I don’t have a lot to say about the sequence–it speaks for itself as a self-contained entity–but coming as it does in the middle of one of the driest parts of the book, its self-contained force obscures its connections to what surrounds it. The seemingly intentional striving for a dramatic, profound climax contracts with the apparent formlessness of what’s gone before. Underneath the polite nothings of the Guermantes and high society, the entire volume is, in fact, suffused with death and decay. Bergotte, aging and beginning to see the renown that most great writers never live to see, is a shell of man, and even Marcel’s affection for his work has faded. “Nice guy” Saint-Loup beats a man who solicits him for sex. Bloch is so alienated from his own faith and so attracted to high society that he ignores the implications of the Dreyfus case. And Swann, as is revealed at the end of the volume, is sick with cancer.

Alexander Kluge and Peter Watkins

Kluge’s Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome is less successful than his earlier Case Histories because he decouples the human element from his reportage style. In Case Histories, the portraits of ordinary people corrupted (easily or with some difficulty) or destroyed by circumstances resonated because they so resolutely represented the ordinary in times of crisis. Here, the stars are four old Nazi war criminals who, in the near future, mastermind humanity’s expansion into space and the mass exploitation of, well, pretty much everything.

The trick is in the telling, full of vague pictures, recorded dialogues, and all sorts of obfuscatory tricks to frame the science fiction concepts in blandly “objective,” “scientific,” and “rational” phrasings. Kluge’s goal, as far as I can tell, is to produce enough distance from those mechanisms by means of the science fiction content to expose them for the manipulative forms of speech that they are. The technique is fairly effective, but Kluge overplays his hand by making the material too grand-scale and not giving enough insight into how the forms of reportage are being consumed. It’s propaganda without an audience.

Far more effective are the best moments of Peter Watkins‘s oeuvre, recently playing at Anthology. Watkins is an extremely clever filmmaker who is also extremely left-wing, sliding somewhere into the anarcho-socialist category. So Punishment Park is about a near-future extension of Vietnam where the authorities are locking up hippies and dissidents and sending them off in the desert with a bunch of trigger-happy National Guardsmen; The Gladiators shows all the generals of the world getting together quietly in a room to cheerfully direct wargames where their troops kill each other; Privilege is a MacGoohan-esque individualist tract about how a pop star is exploited by the state first to direct youth violence in harmless directions, then to persuade everyone to convert to Christianity and conform and so on. “Aren’t you using this young man to further your own agenda?” they ask the clergyman. He replies: “Well, in the middle ages the church used the inquisition to further our own agenda, and we think this is a lot less painful!” It’s farther out than Lindsay Anderson’s flicks of the same period (if…, O! Lucky Man) and about as entertaining.

But the matter at hand is a particular device that Watkins only inconsistently uses. He’s fond of voiceover narration (I believe in his own voice), often telling you the exact meaning of the scene, and the use of tropes used almost exclusively in documentaries. I have a distaste for many documentaries because, due to the need to organize messy material into a compelling storyline, the invisible hand of the editor/director is often far more apparent than if the facts could be smoothed over in fiction, and the result is all too apparently manipulative. Watkins exposes these methods and those used in news reports, often with stunning verisimilitude. In Culloden, a recreation of the battle done up in the style of a news report, complete with interviews and running commentary, the inflections and mannerisms of the commentators are not those of any other film; they’re those of the mid-60’s BBC. In Punishment Park, he doesn’t go so far, but he manages to capture some (apparently improvised) very believable conversations between older establishment types (most memorably a Phyllis Schlafly look- and sound-alike years before she appeared on the scene) and some young anti-establishment kids. They talk, they spew their dogma, and they fight, and it’s all in the trite, ideologically simplistic phrasings of received ideas that very rarely make it into novels or films. It’s incredibly depressing, but it’s also convincing because it captures some ineffables that fell out of Kluge’s work: incoherent speech corrupted by emotion, the verbal shorthand of preconceived notions, and the pompous, rehearsed tone of someone saying things that they’ve believed for years and have never questioned.

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