David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: childhood (page 4 of 5)

Bruno Schulz and Wittgenstein

Mark Kaplan thinks about Hegel after reading a phrase of Bruno Schulz:

It is though what the mind grasps, in a cursory and impatient way, is simply the idea of these things – without colour, volume, height, or any tangible qualities at all.

This sent me scurrying back to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus for a rejoinder. I didn’t find one, but here is a (rather Kantian) comment from Philosophical Remarks:

That it doesn’t strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, etc. etc., shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectivally or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn’t strike us and never can strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought and it’s impossible we should, since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world.

What I wanted to say is it’s strange that those who ascribe reality only to things and not to our ideas move about so unquestioningly in the world as idea and never long to escape from it.

The word points to a series of cognitive structures that give form to the world, as though, in the absence of physical details about an object itself, the formal constraints on the word bound what it means in our mind.

Some of Schulz’s own comments on the matter (please read the whole thing at the link, it’s wonderful):

Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth.

When we employ commonplace words, we forget that they are fragments of ancient and eternal stories, that, like barbarians, we are building our homes out of fragments of sculptures and the statues of the gods.

Speech is the metaphysical organ of man. And yet over time the word grows rigid, becomes immobilized, ceases to be the conductor of new meanings. The poet restores conductivity to words through new short-circuits, which arise out of their fusions.

At present we consider the word to be merely a shadow of reality, its reflection. But the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word. Philosophy is really philology, the creative exploration of the word.

Also check out some of Schulz’s drawings, some reminiscent of Tenniel.

Later thoughts: first, that attempting to mention Hegel, Schulz, Wittgenstein, and Kant in a single concept was a bit of a stretch. The Kant-Wittgenstein connection deserves more comment, though.

Wittgenstein in the quote above describes the boundaries of perception that are a given to us, both physically (in the form of our vision) and conceptually (in how our sense data, shaped by those boundaries, are reflected in mental and verbal concepts).

This is a variation on one of Kant’s core ideas, the transcendental deduction:

For the empirical consciousness, which accompanies different representations, is in itself diverse and without relation to the identity of the subject…The analytic unity of apperception is possible only under the presupposition of a certain synthetic unity.

(Since this is one of the most famous passages in Kant, I fear that I’m going to bore philosophy majors here and mystify everyone else, but I will try to take it in a different direction.)

Approximately, Kant makes a case for a priori synthetic knowledge by concluding that the mind cannot simply be a blank slate on which sense impressions are made, since there must be a set of preexisting organizing principles. He then proceeds to lay out at great length what those principles are.

Wittgenstein views these principles as a prison: they confine the ideas that proscribe our world. And thus they confine our use of language as well. In the absence of alternative principles, our words must reflect a blinkered perception that generates ideas about the world along strict, narrow lines.

Wittgenstein focuses on one of those principles at much greater length than all others, which is the placement of the self in relation to other objects. For Wittgenstein, it is the way that we pick ourselves out amongst all the objects in the world that is one of the key aspects of how our minds give shape to raw sense data.

Now, this is a jump, but can you see what Schulz is saying, the writer’s act upon words that — that it is not experiential sense data that can operate upon the mind to change it, but words in the absence of sensory referents that can stretch the boundaries of the organizing principles? And that, in the absence of sense data in which one can pick one’s self out of one’s surroundings, writing can offer a less blinkered view in which ideas may be more unfettered. This is all mysticism, of course, but at least it’s interesting mysticism.

Finally, a quote in summary from Gilbert Ryle, with regard to Mark Kaplan’s original thoughts:

Sometimes, when someone mentions a blacksmith’s forge, I find myself instantaneously back in my childhood, visiting a local smithy. I can vividly “see” the glowing red horseshoe on the anvil, fairly vividly “hear” the hammer ringing on the shoe and less vividly “smell” the singed hoof. How should we describe this “smelling in the mind’s nose?”

4.2.2 Marcel and Albertine 1

I have never fully appreciated unrequited love. Whenever I’ve pursued someone and they’ve given me little or negative responses in return, it’s been all too easy to say, “Well, I guess they aren’t for me after all” and turn my gaze elsewhere. The idea that you could eventually alchemize someone’s indifference into 24-carat affection struck me as (a) a lot of work, and (b) counterintuitive. Wouldn’t you be better off starting from the base of someone who actually likes you? For those who say that there’s no accounting for the capriciousness of the heart, I guess I’ve just been granted a sanguine one that responds more to affection than to infatuation.
I say this because, after Swann’s ironic pursuit of Odette and Charlus’s difficulties with his young proteges, Proust now closes in on the central relationship between Marcel and Albertine, and especially after the preceding thousand-plus pages, it certainly seems like he ought to know better. And he has no one to blame but himself.
We got a glimpse of the trouble during Within a Budding Grove, where he abandoned a fairly rational like of Andree for Albertine’s more difficult, prissy personality. By the end of Sodom and Gomorrah, the relationship is much more serious, yet it’s arisen almost completely in Marcel’s head, much as Swann’s infatuation with Odette did. There are few significant interactions between Marcel and Albertine, and much tossing and turning of the facts in his head. This will change in the fifth volume, but for now, it is a sign of Marcel’s continued detachment from being an aggressive participant in the world around him. Even when he does act–as he does at the end of Sodom and Gomorrah–it is within constraints clearly set by his own mind, and not by society. In part, this stems from the disillusionment he suffered after his obsession with the Guermantes; now he will listen to himself more than the expectations of society. Yet as with Swann, who was stuck with the low-class Verdurin salon sheerly on account of Odette, Marcel’s solipsism places him farther from Albertine than he otherwise would be.
The echo of Swann persists, yet where Odette’s lesbian tendencies had been a marginal aspect of her general amorality, Albertine’s become central in Marcel’s mind very early on. On seeing Andree and Albertine being ambiguously physically affectionate, he is aware of the parallel:

I thought then of all that I had been told about Swann’s love for Odette, of the way in which Swann had been tricked all his life. Indeed, when I come to think of it, the hypothesis that made me gradually build up the whole of Albertine’s character and give a painful interpretation to every moment of a life that I could not control in its entirety, was the memory, the rooted idea of Mme Swann’s character, as it had been described to me. These accounts contributed towards the fact that, in the future, my imagination played with the idea that Albertine might, instead of being the good girl that she was, have had the same immorality, the same capacity for deceit as a former prostitute, and I thought of all the sufferings that would in that case have been in store for me if I had happened to love her. (832)

“if I had happened to love her”: Aware of Swann’s misfortune and uncertain of his own feelings, Marcel is no more able to control himself. He is more self-conscious (in several senses), yet he is no wiser. Thirty pages later, he confronts Alberine about being a lesbian and “the profound disgust I felt for women tainted with that vice” (861), and Albertine says that no, “Andree and I both loathe that sort of thing. We haven’t reached our age without seeing women with cropped hair who behave like men and do the things you mean, and nothing revolts us more.” (862) They then kiss passionately, and Marcel rationalizes away every doubt and every possible comparison between Albertine and Odette: “Was there not a vast gulf between Albertine, a girl of good middle-class parentage, and Odette, a whore sold by her mother in her childhood?” (863) An older voice immediately reflects:

I ought to have gone away that evening and never seen her again. I sensed there and then that in a love that is not shared we can only enjoy that simulacrum of happiness which had been given to me at one of those unique moments in which a woman’s good nature, or her caprice, or mere chance, respond to our desires, in perfect coincidence, with the same words, the same actions, as if we were really loved. The wiser course would have been to consider with curiosity, to appropriate with delight, that little particle of happiness failing which I should have died without suspecting what it could mean to hearts less difficult to please or more highly privileged; to pretend that it formed part of a vast and enduring happiness of which this fragment only was visible to me…I ought to have left Balbec, to have shut myself up in solitude, to have remained there in harmony with the last vibrations of the voice which I had contrived to render loving for an instant, and of which I should have asked nothing more than that it might never address another word to me; for fear lest, by an additional word which henceforth could not but be different, it might shatter with a discord the sensory silence in which, as though by the pressure of a pedal, there might long have survived in me the throbbing chord of happiness. (864)

[Two side notes: first, the unbelievable prescient echo of Wittgenstein in the separation of public discourse from private sensation in the first part of the passage. Second, the insistence on a purely aesthetic apprehension of emotional experiences, as a distancing mechanism from hurt and pain.]
The anticipatory dread of this passage cuts off any chance of seeing the relationship in a sunny light. With Swann we read the detached report of a man deceiving himself; here the effect is so enveloping we live it and the future regret simultaneously.
The Albertine storyline is triggered, again, by a return to Balbec. Though the trip itself is far less revelatory than his first stay there, his arrival engenders a flood of memories and remembered sensations that is one of the best passages in the book, “The Intermittencies of the Heart:”

On the first night…I was shaken with sobs, tears streamed from my eyes. The being who had come to my rescue, saving me from barrenness of spirit, was the same who, years before, in a moment of identical distress and loneliness, in a moment when I had nothing left of myself, had come in and had restored me to myself, for that being was myself and something more than me (the container that is greater than the contained and was bringing it to me). I had just perceived, in my memory, stooping over my fatigue, the tender, preoccupied, disappointed face of my grandmother, as she had been on that first evening of our arrival, the face not of that grandmother whom I had been astonished and remorseful at having so little missed, and who had nothing in common with her save her name, but of my real grandmother, of whom, for the first time since the afternoon of her stroke in the Champs-Elysees, I now recaptured the living reality in a complete and involuntary recollection. This reality does not exist for us so long as it has not been recreated by our thought (otherwise men who have been engaged in a titanic struggle would all of them be great epic poets); and thus, in my wild desire to fling myself into her arms, it was only at that moment–more than a year after her burial, because of the anachronism which so often prevents the calendar of facts from corresponding to the calendar of feelings–that I became conscious that she was dead…At any given moment, our total soul has only a more or less fictitious value, in spite of the rich inventory of its assets, for now some, now others are unrealisible, whether they are real riches or those of the imagination–in my own case, for example, not only of the ancient name of Guermantes but those, immeasurably graver, of the true memory of my grandmother. For with the perturbations of memory are linked the intermittencies of the heart. It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession. Perhaps it is equally inexact to suppose that they escape or return. In any case if they remain within us, for most of the time it is in an unknown region where they are of no use to us, and where even the most ordinary are crowded out by memories of a different kind, which preclude any simultaneous occurrence of them in our consciousness. But if the context of sensations in which they are preserved is recaptured, they acquire in turn the same power of expelling everything that is incompatible with them, of installing alone in us the self that originally lived them…I was now solely the person who had sought a refuge in his grandmother’s arms. (783)

This is, of course, an elaboration on one of the earliest and most famous themes in the book, brought up in the madeleine sequence. It’s turned into a darker and more chaotic form here. What was the evocation of an environment is now an evocation of a potentiality of the self, one of many. And this reflects itself in his shifting attitudes towards Albertine, which are as nihilistically inclined as they are dangerous.

3.2 Disenchantment

If the first half of the volume was an alternately dreamy and dreary description of the romance of the Guermantes, the second half is an attempt to contextualize it and explain Marcel’s severe disillusionment with them and their place in society. Their charm, he says, lies in the following:

The Guermantes were not only endowed with an exquisite quality of flesh, of hair, of transparency of gaze, but had a way of holding themselves, of walking, of bowing, of looking at one before they shook one’s hand, of shaking hands, which made them as different in all these respects from an ordinary member of fashionable society as he in turn was from a peasant in a smock. And despite their affability one asked oneself: “Have they not indeed the right, though they waive it, when they see us walk, bow, leave a room, do any of those things which when performed by them become as graceful as the flight of a swallow or the droop of a rose on its stem, to think: ‘These people are of a different breed from us, and we are the lords of creation’?” (455)

Remember that this comes in the context of Marcel having rejected the so-called intellectual social life, thinking it to be false, misleading, and a waste of time. Earlier, Proust had extensively celebrated the pleasure of frivolous association with silly young girls over any would-be meaningful conversation. He chooses to restate this theme at length early in the second half of The Guermantes Way, at a moment of frustration and boredom with Saint-Loup:

I had reached the point, at Balbec, of regarding the pleasure of playing with a troop of girls as less destructive of the spiritual life, to which at least it remains alien, than friendship, the whole effort of which is directed towards making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable (otherwise than by means of art) to a superficial self which, unlike the other, finds no joy in its own being, but rather a vague, sentimental glow at feeling itself supported by external props, hospitalized in an extraneous individuality, where, happy in the protection that is afforded it there, it expresses its well-being in warm approval and marvels at qualities which it would denounce as failings and seek to correct in itself. (409)

Again, the emphasis is on how friendship saps the soul, how it takes up valuable time and spiritual resources. Again, Proust stresses that people are not so malleable as to gain insight and growth from a supposed interchange of ideas; rather, he insists, it leads one to water down one’s self-possessed ideas in the service of illusory connections.
Coming as it does after long passages about how people’s passions and desires can turn on a dime (Marcel himself, Swann, Saint-Loup, Albertine, etc.), the repeated emphasis on a fortress mentality towards one’s own personality seems incongruous. If past feelings can become as alien to one’s own self as a country to which you’ve never been, suitable for study but never knowable immanently, why protect the inner self from such violence that is visited upon it by friendship?
The book is not a treatise and Proust is attempting to explain, iteratively, what he sees around him, which encompasses both radical changes in one’s own self at the same time that clear spirits prevail throughout, as with Elstir and Bergotte. (Though Bergotte is showing his age and is a shadow of his former self.) Artistic creation takes place over time and may evolve, but Proust evidently advocates a hermetic mentality towards such an act preserves whatever spirit informs it, rather than allowing it to be corrupted by the standards of the day.
It is the standards that Proust seems most irritated with by the end of The Guermantes Way. His attacks on the Guermantes revolve around the sheer banality of their culture, and the relentless conformity that informs it. There is both disappointment and anger in his reaction, and the two responses aren’t quite synchronized. The disappointment is one of the larger themes, one of having chased after something that seemed distinct and unique, but turned out to be the same old crap:

After having scaled the inaccessible heights of the name Guermantes, on descending the inner slope of the life of the Duchess, I felt on finding there the names, familiar elsewhere, of Victor Hugo, Franz Hals and, I regret to say, Vibert, the same astonishment that an explorer, after having taken into account, in order to visualize the singularity of the native customs in some wild valley of Central America or Northern Africa, its geographical remoteness, the strangeness of its place-names, of its flora, feels on discovering, once he has made his way through a screen of giant aloes or machineels, inhabitants who are engaged in reading Voltaire’s Merope or Alzire. (545)

However tedious I found the Guermantes’, however shapeless I found the endless descriptions of their mores and unique manners, I can sympathize with this crushing despair, as well as the miserable sense of embarrassment that accompanies it, the sense of having bought into a system that has ultimately provided no benefit whatsoever, not even novelty. That it happens without the standard plot twist of a societal mishap or misunderstanding, or some patently unjust act, leaves the focus firmly on the development of Marcel’s own views of the culture in which he has invested.
Yet there is petty anger as well, and Proust’s deployment of it is too vicious to make the haughty, resigned disappointment of the above passage ring entirely true. A few samples:

As though corrupted by the nullity of life in society, the intelligence and sensibility of Mme de Guermantes were too vacillating for disgust not to follow pretty swiftly in the wake of infatuation (leaving her still ready to be attracted by the kind of cleverness which she had alternately sought and abandoned) and for the charm which she had found in some warm-hearted man not to change, if he came too often to see her, sought too freely from her a guidance which she was incapable of giving him, into an irritation which she believed to be produced by her admirer but which was in fact due to the utter impossibility of finding pleasure when one spends all one’s time seeking it. The Duchess’s vagaries of judgment spared no one, except her husband. He alone had never loved her…M. de Guermantes for his part, pursuing a single type of feminine beauty but seeking it in mistresses whom he constantly replaced, had, once he had left them, and to share with him in mocking them, one lasting and identical partner. (489)
The life of the Duchess was by no means easy. M. de Guermantes only became generous and human again for a new mistress, who would, as it generally happened, take the Duchess’s side. (500)

Nasty stuff, and Proust continues with it at length, expressing the same vigor in his disapproval and gossip as he did in his infatuation in the first half of the book. I remarked earlier that Proust reminded me of The Good Soldier in the way that the narrative shifted unreliably to reflect the currents of the narrator’s thoughts. The Guermantes Way tells a very simple story of the extremes of enchantment and disillusionment, but it is the credence that is built up in both parts that prevents the final judgment from being wholly negative. In light of previous developments of the book, his disgust is too calculatedly over the top to displace completely the earlier aesthetic joy (even if I found it fairly dull). In fact, Marcel’s arc closely mirrors that of Swann with Odette, Saint-Loup with Rachel, and to some extent, Marcel himself with Albertine:

Mme de Guermantes’s mind attracted me just because of what it excluded (which was precisely the substance of my own thoughts) and everything which, by virtue of that exclusion, it had been able to preserve, that seductive vigour of supple bodies which no exhausting reflexion, no moral anxiety or nervous disorder has deformed. Her mind, of a formation so anterior to my own, was for me the equivalent of what had been offered me by the gait and the bearing of the girls of the little band along the sea-shore. Mme de Guermantes offered me, domesticated and subdued by civility, by respect for intellectual values, all the energy and charm of a cruel little girl of one of the noble families round Combray who from her childhood had been brought up in the saddle, had tortured cats, gouged out the eyes of rabbits, and, instead of having remained a pillar of virtue, might equally well have been…the most brilliant mistress of the Prince de Sagan, But she was incapable of understanding what I had looked for in her–the charm of her historic name–and the tiny quantity of it that I had found in her, a rustic survival from Guermantes…A misunderstanding that is entirely natural, and one that will always exist between a young dreamer and a society woman, but nevertheless profoundly disturbs him, so long as he has not yet discovered the nature of his imaginative faculties and has not yet resigned himself to the inevitable disappointments he is destined to find in people, as in the theatre, in travel and indeed in love. (522)

In a self-pitying manner, he seems to shoulder some of the blame on himself, just as Swann was painted as having built Odette up into an internal image wholly unlikely the actual woman. The slightly obnoxious tone beneath it (the combined forces of disappointment and anger serving to undermine each other) indicates, however, that Marcel has not really been damaged, not to the extent that Swann was. Disappointed and annoyed, but not mortally wounded. Compared to the drama of Swann’s infatuation and despair, it is calculatedly smaller. And it is with this echo firmly in mind that Proust brings Swann back at the very end of the volume, to drag the book once more back to serious topics. Swann by this point is easily one of the most likable characters, and it’s pretty obvious why he hasn’t had much to say for the entire volume. And his announcement in the final pages puts an uneasy stamp on what the decorative flourishes that have made up the last 600 pages. He declines an invitation to go to Italy with the Guermantes, and having taken offense, the Duchess demands to know why:

“Very well, give me in one word the reason why you can’t come to Italy.”
“But, my dear lady, it’s because I shall then have been dead for several months. According to the doctors I’ve consulted, by the end of the year the thing I’ve got won’t in any case leave me more than three or four months to live, and even that is a generous estimate,” replied Swann with a smile.
“What’s that you say?” cried the Duchess, stopping for a moment on her way to the carriage and raising her beautiful, melancholy blue eyes, now clouded by uncertainty. Placed for the first time in her life between two duties as incompatible as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner and showing compassion for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the right line to follow; not knowing which to choose, she felt obliged to pretend not to believe that the latter alternative need be seriously considered, in order to comply with the first, which at the moment demanded less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that any existed. “You’re joking,” she said to Swann.
“It would be a joke in charming taste,” he replied ironically. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I’ve never said a word to you about my illness before. But since you asked me, and since now I may die at any moment…But whatever I do I mustn’t make you late; you’re dining out, remember.” (618)

The back and forth continues for a while until they do go off to dinner, with the Duke complaining about how difficult the Duchess is:

The Duke felt no compunction in speaking thus of his wife’s ailments and his own to a dying man, for the former interested him more and therefore appeared to him more important. And so it was simply from good breeding and good fellowship that, after politely showing us out, he shouted in a stentorian voice from the porch to Swann, who was already in the courtyard: “You, now, don’t let yourself be alarmed by the nonsense of those damned doctors. They’re fools. You’re as sound as a bell. You’ll bury us all!” (620)

And so the volume ends, with a scenario contrived to make the Guermantes look as bad as possible, not able to express a bit of sincere concern for a terminally ill man. Whatever their redeeming aesthetic value, it’s a fair dead certainty that Proust has his readers on the same page at this point, and ready to move on.

3.1.1 The Situation

Maybe it’s reading The Guermantes Way under drastically different circumstances than the first two books, or maybe it’s that by the third volume, you can no longer see clearly back to the beginning of the entire work, nor can you see anything like the end. But really, The Guermantes Way seems like a tougher slog in general, because there’s no longer a clear narrative thread, and there is less philosophical substance (Proust having dispatched the idea of it in the previous two volumes) than previously. Instead, there’s endless parties with endlessly revolving characters, with no clear end and no clear direction.
That’s the way it reads for the first three hundred pages. There’s nothing to match the drama of Swann and Odette, and no passages as concentrated as those in the first section of Within a Budding Grove, though there are some nice bits in the later pages. They’re not enough to stave off the feeling that Proust’s leviathan has run aground and is flailing.
That’s not to say that it is not a compelling portrayal. Marcel, now a young adult, wanders through the upper social circles of Paris and sees characters, mostly seen before, dithering about in their own preoccupations. He does very little; he seemingly has no obligations. The rest of the crowd, including such past charmers as Cottard, Bloch, M. de Charlus, and Mme de Villeparisis, evince no development whatsoever, just a presentation of their often shallow selves. In “Swann in Love,” they provided the background tableaux against which Swann acted out his passions. Here, with Marcel considerably less involved and active than he was in “Place-Names: The Place” (in Balbec), there is only the peopled scenery. Marcel’s infatuation with the elite Guermantes clan, on display during a visit to the theater where he rhapsodizes over the Princess’s dress, and his concern with the art of the actress Berma: these things are the raw material of his memories, and they don’t resonate as earlier passages did because they are so particular to their time and place, shorn of passions that readers in which readers can recognize themselves.
This network of private, unique connections is what he’s after:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. And great fatigue followed by a good night’s rest can to a certain extent help us to do so. For in order to make us descend into the most subterranean galleries of sleep, where no reflexion from overnight, no gleam of memory comes to light up the interior monologue–if the latter does not itself cease–fatigue followed by rest will so thoroughly turn over the soil and penetrate the bedrock of our bodies that we discover down there, where our muscles plunge and twist in their ramifications and breathe in new life, the garden where we played in our childhood. There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. (89)

The problem with such an approach, as Proust intimates, is that without an external point of reference, with only an excavation of purely internal sensations and impressions, the relation of one’s own mind and memories to common, shared experience does not exist. In going over and over the shared experience in the first part of The Guermantes Way, he leaves readers very little to grasp, other than portraits of scenery.
It is not until three-hundred pages in, halfway through the volume, that the death of Marcel’s grandmother gives shape to what’s gone before. Given that the second part of the book accelerates rapidly, the contrast feels intentional. It serves to make the first part even more elusive.

2.1.3 Mme Swann at Home: Swann and Odette

If Swann’s Way zigzagged between Marcel’s childhood and Swann’s earlier affair, with clearly defined angles, Within a Budding Grove is corkscrew-shaped: each gnarled observation doubles back on itself and intersects with everything else, with no clear resolution.
One of the most vivid juxtapositions comes in Marcel’s view of Gilberte (the Swanns’ daughter), who has come to embody both the present and the past of her parents:

On Gilberte’s face, at the corner of a perfect reproduction of Odette’s nose, the skin was raised so as to preserve intact M. Swann’s two moles. It was a new variety of Mme Swann that was thus obtained, growing there by her side like a white lilac-tree besides a purple…It was when she had been to her classes, when she must go home for some lesson that Gilberte’s pupils executed that movement which, in the past, in Odette’s eyes, had been caused by the fear of disclosing that she had opened the door that day to one of her lovers, or was at that moment in a hurry to get to some assignation. Thus did one see the two natures of M. and Mme Swann ripple and flow and overlap one upon the other in the body of this Melusine. (607)

The main point here is how Gilberte takes after and intermixes parts of both of her parents, good and bad, but beneath that, there is also the suggestion of natures past and present: Swann’s abandoned social climbing, Odette’s coquetry, Mme Swann’s more subdued role as a wife, the resigned intellectual that Swann has become.
What of the two parents? Odette and Swann have ended up married, more seemingly by default than for any other reason. He doesn’t love her; whatever appeal she once held has not returned. Everything is for convenience. That is the immediate implication. But, as elsewhere, their present relationship affects the past as much as the past affects it:

The laborious process of causation which sooner or later will bring about every possible effect, including, consequently, those which one had believed to be least possible, naturally slow at times, is rendered slower still by our desire (which in seeking to accelerate only obstructs it), by our very existence, and comes to fruition only when we have ceased to desire–have ceased, possibly, to live. Was not Swann conscious of this from his own experience, and was there not already in his lifetime–as it were a prefiguration of what was to happen after his death–a posthumous happiness in this marriage with Odette whom he had passionately loved–even if she had not attracted him at first sight–whom he had married when he no longer loved her, when the person who, in Swann, had so longed to live and so despaired of living all his life with Odette, when that person was dead? (508)

Here, Proust presents Swann as a changed man: in fact, it was only through his change (his renouncing of his love for Odette) that he was ever able to marry him. Yet the marriage, despite his lack of love for her, makes a sanguine postmortem for Swann’s dead self, the one who did love Odette, in that he (the current Swann) has made his dead self happy by ending up with Swann, even if his current self is, at best, resigned. The irony arises in the fact that Proust presents it as a prerequisite that Swann had given up all his passion before he could have married her. The arrangement between M. Swann and Mme. Swann requires that he not be the crazed obsessive of years past but a reticent, somewhat cynical man of good standing. And so he is:

There was no renunciation on Swann’s part, when he married Odette, of his social ambitions, for from those ambitions Odette had long ago, in the spiritual sense of the word, detached him…In so far as a mental picture which accompanies one of our resolutions may be said to motivate it, so it might be said that if Swann married Odette it was in order to introduce her, together with Gilberte, without anyone else being present, without, if need be, anyone else ever coming to know if it, to the Duchesse de Guermantes. (506-508)

And also:

For a long time now it had been a matter of indifference to him whether Odette had been, or was being, unfaithful to him. And yet he had continued for some years to seek out old servants of hers, to such an extent had the painful curiosity persisted in him, to know whether on that day, so long ago, at six o’clock, Odette had been in bed with Forcheville. Then the curiosity itself had disappeared, without, however, his abandoning his investigations. He went on trying to discover what no longer interested him, because his old self, though it had shrivelled to extreme decrepitude, still acted mechanically, in accordance with preoccupations so utterly abandoned that Swann could not now succeed even in picturing to himself that anguish–so compelling once that he had been unable to imagine that he would ever be delivered from it. (564)

Again, there is the zombie Swann, who still acts on his old desires. And again, I’m not sure how much to trust this, since there is so much confusion and suggestion that these passages are only the temporary rationalization of Swann’s current self. It’s enough to say that Swann does not love Odette, certainly not like he did in the past, but he is still moved by her, and by his former self.
Most notably, Swann has a new, unnamed lover, who dredges up the old anxieties:

For between Swann and the woman whom he loved this anguish piled up an unyielding mass of previous suspicions, having their cause in Odette, or in some other perhaps who had preceded Odette, which allowed the ageing lover to know his mistress of to-day only through the old, collective spectre of the “woman who aroused his jealousy” in which he had arbitrarily embodied his new love. Often, however, Swann woulud accuse his jealousy of making him believe in imaginary infidelities; but then he would remember that he had given Odette the benefit of the same argument, and wrongly. And so everything that the young woman whom he loved did in the hours that he was not with her ceased to appear innocent. But whereas at that other time he had made a vow that if ever he ceased to love the woman who, though he did not then know it, was to be his future wife, he would show her an implacable indifference that would at last be sincere, in order to avenge his pride that had so long been humiliated, now that he could enforce those reprisals without risk to himself, he no longer wihsed to do so; with his love had vanished the desire to show that he no longer loved. (565)

This is the most vehement passage of renunciation, where Swann has not only given up on Odette totally, but he has also given up on even wanting to avenge himself on her by cheating on her. (He does it anyway, but he won’t tell her.) Yet Odette is still present in his fears about his new love, and it is not the “Mme. Swann” of the present day but the Odette of years past. Having been filled with emotion again, the memory of the object (i.e., Odette) that captivated him when he was in love is cast on to the new object (the unnamed woman) even as Odette herself is the subject of none of his old emotions. It is this remembered object, no longer extant, that informs his relationship with the new woman, more than anything in his marriage.
(I use the word “object” because he is so insistent on the myopia of each character as they interact with their projected, changing views of other people. It is to his immense credit that the subject changes so rapidly, particularly in “Mme Swann at Home,” as to produce vertigo and uncertainty.)
The themes are even a little trite here: Swann never got over old Odette, the green-eyed demon still torments him, he’s grown tired of Odette even though he got her. What’s striking is the treatment. It’s the tactic of laying out the contradictions over time, contradictions that don’t get resolved because there is no true consistency: Swann’s images of Odette in years past are, ultimately, his own, and they make themselves felt again because Odette then still exists for him, in that zombie part of him that can still react without reason.
Compare it to the end (ch. 17) of Joyce’s Ulysses, where there is the realization that Bloom’s relationship with Stephen Dedalus will not recreate Bloom’s dead son Rudy, due to “the irreparability of the past [and] the imprevidibility of the future.” Joyce’s faux “scientific objective” tone in that chapter serves to pull Bloom from inside his own head to a point of (as I always read it) despair, but also to a point where his endeavors may be cast in a nobler light. Proust focuses exclusively on the former aspect, but he never admits a single emotion above others. He is persistent in destabilizing his frameworks, and there is a certain humility in that. I find Ulysses heartbreaking, but I’m also inclined to think that emotionally, it is more tradition-bound than Proust.
Later, when Marcel is mourning the death of his love for Gilberte, he might as well be talking about Swann:

The picture of the beloved in our minds which we believe to be old, original, authentic, has in reality been refashioned by us many times over. The cruel memory, on the other hand, is not contemporaneous with the restored picture, it is of another age, it is one of the rare witnesses to a monstrous past. But inasmuch as this past continues to exist, save in ourselves who have been pleased to substitute for it a miraculous golden age, a paradise in which all mankind shall be reconciled, those memories, those letters carry us back to reality, and cannot but make us feel, by the sudden pang they give us, what a long way we have been borne from that reality by the baseless hopes engendered by our daily expectation.
But after a time, absence may prove efficacious. The desire, the appetite for seeing us again may after all be reborn in the heart which at present contemns us. Only, we must allow time. But our demands as far as time is concerned are no less exorbitant than those which the heart requires in order to change. For one thing, time is the very thing that we are least willing to allow, for our suffering is acute and we are anxious to see it brought to an end. And then, too, the time which the other heart will need in order to change, our own heart will have spent in changing itself also, so that when the goal which we had set ourselves becomes attainable it will have ceased to be our goal. Besides, the very idea that it will be attainable, that there is no happiness that, when it has ceased to be a happiness for us, we cannot ultimately attain, contains an element, but only an element, of truth. It falls to us when we have grown indifferent to it. But the very fact of our indifference will have made us less exacting, and enables us in retrospect to feel convinced that it would have delighted us had it come at a time when perhaps it would have seemed to us miserably inadequate. One is not very particular, nor a very good judge, about things which no longer matter to one…So that we can never be certain that the happiness which comes to us too late, when we can no longer enjoy it, when we are no longer in love, is altogether the same as that same happiness the lack of which made us at one time so unhappy. There is only one person who could decide this–our then self; it is no longer with us, and were it to reappear, no doubt our happiness–identical or not–would vanish. (675-676)

In the second paragraph, the first third or so are things we’ve heard before. It’s the looping back (from “Besides…” onward), the delving into a hypothetical past space where an individual subjective mind cannot exist, that is novel.

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