David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: proustblog (page 3 of 6)

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.)

2.2.1 Place-Names: The Place: Balbec

The action shifts to Balbec, a peaceful seaside town where Marcel comes to recuperate from his asthma. His grandmother and Francoise (who used to be his Aunt Leonie’s maid) accompany him. Most of the characters up until this point disappear, and for the first time, there is the sense of a real break. Given how tied “Madame Swann at Home” is to what went before it, as well as the sense of closure and expansion it provides over the entirety of Swann’s Way, the real division in the first two books lies here, not at the end of Swann’s Way.
The tone is considerably breezier and less intense, for which I’m grateful. Balbec is more sparsely populated than Paris or Combray, and Marcel himself begins to become a more active participant in what goes on around him. Unlike his affair with Gilberte, which seemed almost hermetically isolated from the larger community, Marcel himself has more prominence in the sparser landscape. He quietly matures in this section, primarily through his interactions with, first, his friendship with two boys, Saint-Loup and Bloch, and second, his involvement with the titular group of young women. He also, crucially, makes the acquaintance of the painter Elstir, who functions as a counterweight to the writer Bergotte, who dominated “Madame Swann at Home” but does not appear here.
I did feel a tone of liberation in this part, as though, free of the comings and goings of all the socialites in Paris, Proust can get down to Marcel’s individual development without detailing the constant movements of the society around him. Tied mostly to a hotel full of elderly shut-ins, there’s a sense of expansiveness and linearity. Even cheeriness, as evidenced in passages like this, which shows a sunny facility that hasn’t been dominant since Combray:

I felt on seeing her [a tall girl] that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become conscious anew of beauty and of happiness. We invariably forget that these are individual qualities, and, mentally substituting for them a conventional type at which we arrive by striking a sort of mean among the different faces that have taken our fancy, among the pleasures we have known, we are left with mere abstract images which are lifeless and insipid because they lack precisely that element of novelty, different from anything we have known, that element which is peculiar to beauty and to happiness. And we deliver on life a pessimistic judgment which we suppose to be accurate, for we believed that we were taking happiness and beauty into account, whereas in fact we left them out and replaced them by syntheses in which there is not a single atom of either. (705)

Maybe not completely sunny, but at least a yearning for it that is fulfilled later on. (There are hidden allusions: this passage rephrases an observation made about the novelty of Bergotte’s speech, on pages 592-593.)
The more abstract philosophizing recedes, but Proust still hammers some of his earlier themes, though he mostly doesn’t elaborate on them until the last hundred pages or so of “Place-Names: The Place.” In short: the role of our own images of people and things, the evolution and mutation of these things and images over time, and the uncertainty of the present moment. Above all of these, the refuge in the aesthetic and the imagined, rather than the reasoned and felt.

2.1.7 Mme Swann at Home: Vinteuil’s Sonata

Proust spends some time in Within a Budding Grove on Vinteuil’s sonata, the one which Swann came to associate with Odette, which contained a certain passage that sent him into a reverie. Marcel himself falls under its spell in “Mme Swann at Home” and describes how it offers itself up in pieces, with its most apparent aspects also being the least rewarding. It’s some sonata–Proust compares it to Beethoven.

In “Swann in Love,” Vinteuil’s sonata appeared to offer Swann glimpses of the noumenal; it came as close to Truth as anything he experienced. Now, with the sonata tied to an unhappy, finished past, its effects on him have changed. They are no less vivid, but less transcendent:

“It’s rather a charming thought, don’t you think,” Swann continued, “that sound can reflect, like water, like a mirror. And it’s curious, too, that Vinteuil’s phrase now shows me only the things to which I paid no attention then. Of my troubles, my loves of those days, it recalls nothing, it has swapped things around…What the music shows–to me, at least–is not ‘the triumph of the Will’ or ‘In Tune with the Infinite,’ but shall we say old Verdurin in his frock coat in the palmhouse in the Zoological Gardens. Hundreds of times, without my leaving this room, the little phrase has carried me off to dine with it at Armenonville. (575)

And so Swann’s glimpse of the absolute turns out to be bound in time to a very particular context. It holds the power to transport him, but not to another plane of reality, only to another place in his memory. Since this passage comes after pages praising the internal beauty and structure of the sonata, it’s not as though the sonata’s merit is completely relative. But its merit is something not quite beyond the reach of humanity, not as a gift from a genius to the peons, but as an object of depth and subtlety from which some people (those deep people of substance, Proust says) can draw a profound aesthetic experience, by lashing it to their own experiences, past and present. Thereafter, Swann can have differing associations with the sonata, but he maintains a relationship with it as he carries it with him.

But why stop at a sonata? We can invest great significance in the most trivial of things: a pop song, a knick-knack, a prized material possession signifying status or rarity. In this case too, it is our investment, our personal feelings, that have the significance, that make an amalgam that dwarfs the original object. And whatever connection to the heavens someone proclaims through their own or someone else’s work of art is filtered through that, so any declaration of universality should be treated as suspect. Proust seems to violates this constantly by making grand poetic generalizations, but he tends to catch himself by later contradicting whatever he said.

Coincidentally, the reason I decided to take a subjective, digression-laden approach when I was keeping this journal was to avoid the dictatorial tone of much criticism, that analysis which plies its trade with ostensibly factual analysis of the text, presented as scientific and descriptive. I don’t understand why that tone persists in light of all the relativistic theorizing that’s gone on over the last century. (Actually, I sure do, but that’s a sociological topic.) Fortunately, we have Proust to show us, at great length, that time will undo such authority, in people and in art.

2.1.6 Mme Swann at Home: Bergotte Himself

There is something very particular about Bergotte that I want to point out because I believe it illustrates how cagey Proust is about letting “authority” seep into his novel. I’ve already mentioned how the people who have most influenced young Marcel, like Bloch and Bergotte, but also Swann and Odette, are invariably undercut by being painted in a very different light, either in their interactions with others, or through being seen differently in the past or the future.
In the case of Bergotte, you have the first character who could be considered a genius. His effects on people are mixed. He can be so novel in his verbiage that people are disappointed, because they cannot attach it to anything in their experience. The impression he makes is decidedly not rational:

Doubtless again to distinguish himself from the previous generation, too fond as it had been of abstractions, of weighty commonplaces, when Bergotte wished to speak favourably of a book, what he would emphasise, what he would quote with approval would always be some scene that furnished the reader with an image, some picture that had no rational meaning. “Ah, yes!” he would exclaim, “it’s good! There’s a little girl in an orange shawl. It’s excellent!” or again, “Oh yes, there’s a passage in which there’s a regiment marching along the street; yes, it’s good!”…And it is true that there was in Bergotte’s style a kind of harmony similar to that for which the ancients used to praise certain of their orators in terms which we now find hard to understand, accustomed as we are to our own modern tongues in which effects of that kind are not sought. (598)

This “kind of harmony” is more insidious than the substance of what Bergotte is saying. We’ve already seen his impact on Marcel, which contained as much of Marcel as it did of Bergotte, and Bergotte’s attunement to a certain type of intellectual disposition at the expense of his interactions with those around him, but the emphasis on his mode of speaking further points away from the substance of what he says and more towards the style, one which fosters agreement even when the reader isn’t sure with what he is agreeing. The influence of the style seems unavoidable:

There were other characteristics of his elocution which he shared not with the members of his family, but with certain contemporary writers. Younger men who were beginning to repudiate him and disclaimed any intellectual affinity with him nevertheless displayed it willy-nilly by employing the same adverbs, the same prepositions that he incessantly repeated, by constructing their sentences in the same way, speaking in the same quiescent, lingering tone, in reaction against the eloquent and facile language of an earlier generation…His way of thinking, inoculated into them, had led them to those alterations of syntax and accentuation which bear a necessary relation to originality of mind. (598)

What the younger writers take from Bergotte is not his ideology, which they reject, but the power in his style. Yet it is through his style that he wields his influence, both over people who cannot quite comprehend what he is saying, and in the next generation of writers.
The notion of speech that is more about style and influence than ideological substance puts me in mind of Mynheer Peeperkorn, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Let me start by saying that I find Mynheer one of the most irritating characters in literature, and he’s a good part of my low estimation of the book. But his flaws and Mann’s flaws are relevant to what Proust does with Bergotte. Let’s take a look at some of Mynheer’s speech:

“Gentleman–,” the Dutchman said, raising his lance-nailed captain’s hand in a gesture that both implored and commanded. “Fine, gentlemen, agreed, excellent! Asceticism–indulgence–sensual lust–let me say that–by all means! Eminently important! Eminently controversial! And yet, permit me to say–I fear that we are about to commit a–ladies and gentlemen, we are avoiding, we are irresponsibly avoiding the holiest of–” He took a deep breath. “This air, ladies and gentlemen, this day’s foehn air so rich in character, so tenderly enervating, suggestive and reminiscent of spring’s fragrance–we should not breathe it in merely so that in the form of–I implore you: we should not do it. That is an insult. For its own sweet, simple sake, we must totally and fully–oh, and with our highest and most perceptive–settled, ladies and gentlemen! And only as an act in purest praise of its properties should we then release it from our–but I must break off, ladies and gentlemen. I must break off in honor of this–” (582)

(This surely must be less annoying in German.) After thirty pages of this sort of thing, you can’t wait for the impotent old life force to off himself. Yet in the book, this sort of logorrhea gains him a little cult following who cheerfully follow him and his irrational ramblings off the cliff of reason. The protagonist Hans Castorp decides that the rational characters “simply shrank beside Peeperkorn” and discusses how Mynheer being drunk “only made him grander and more awe-inspiring,” and it’s all very uninspiring, no more so than when Mynheer opens his mouth. That he’s patently saying nothing is a fact; it’s his mystical life force or whatever ineffable thing Mann was thinking about on that day that is the attractive force. It’s unconvincing because there is nothing of that attraction communicated in the book.
Bergotte, on the other hand, does come across as a great spirit, less in what he says or what he does, more in the description of that effect. It’s made more convincing by the portrayal of it as only part of his nature, and the description of how his particular genius can sometimes estrange him from people as much as enamor people of him. With Mann, Mynheer is the nonnegotiable life force, while with Proust, Bergotte is presented in terms of his effects on particular types of people. There’s some, but not much, “there” there.
So while Mynheer Peeperkorn belongs to a line that eventually extends down to Jubal Harshaw and “Henry Miller” the character(not in their positions in the novel, but in their universal effects on those around them–see also Wyndham Lewis), Bergotte is Oz and the man behind the curtain simultaneously, as well as a heterogeneity of experience that does not permit him to be one thing to all people.
The contrast is deeper than the nature of the individual character; it’s a question of approach, and it reminded me of a passage from way back in “Combray” in the first volume:

These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a “real” person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of “real” people would be a decided improvement. A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. 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…It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. (91)

What is Proust doing if not to portray, first, the repetitions and lack of change amongst characters, and second, the simultaneous coexistence of contradictory characteristics in a character depending on the situation?
I find this to be the best answer to the charges of myopia that I and plenty of others have leveled against the novel, of asking why the vagaries of these high-class French people have any significance. Well, to do the sort of examination here, I believe that Proust had to stick very close to his own past experience, mutating it but hardly abandoning it. I don’t see how he could have constructed such elaborate characters except by starting from known exemplars and then reconstructing/reshuffling them. I could be wrong, but that’s my best guess. Proust’s endless efforts to detach his writing from one particular view of his situations also goes a way to redeeming the choice of subject matter, since it becomes secondary to the approach.
This is probably the penultimate entry on “Mme Swann at Home,” which is by a wide margin the richest section in the first two books. (The remaining section of Within a Budding Grove is thankfully much more linear and breezy.) It’s hardly self-contained, so it’s bizarre that it begins the second volume, but there you have it. The message that I take from it, above all else, is that everything–past, present, and future–is subject to revision over time. Of course, a thousand pages of showing that principle in action over everything and everyone Proust can think of has a far more profound effect than just saying it.

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