by Heather Clague
Why am I giving Swann such a hard time? Surely, I should be able to take Swann and Proust as men of their time, to take as an interesting historical feature of this novel that Swann and Proust didn’t feel obligated to empathize with common, petty, traumatized Odette -- much as Charlotte Bronte didn’t feel obligated to understand Mr. Rochester’s first wife, the madwoman in the attic, in Jane Eyre. (It would be interesting to write a version of the story from Odette’s point of view, as Jean Rhys did for Bertha Mason in Wide Sargasso Sea.)
Anyway, at first glance, my irritation with Swann seems just an effort to counterbalance that injustice; I’m not signing a decree from the Politboro condemning Swann, Proust, and all the other societal parasites like them. (Whoops). After all, as Tom pointed out, Swann has many redeeming features. He is intelligent and sensitive. The narrator identifies with Swann because he can see in Swann a similar capacity for intense engagement with his own inner experience. Much of our reading to this point is a celebration of the inner life, a treatise on ‘why poetry matters’, and my own life is the richer for it (thank you Alain de Botton, and thank you Tom and Renée!)
On page 424 (in my gray covered Moncrieff translation) Proust reminds us of how much is lost when one neglects an exploration of what lies inside:
"These images, unreal, fixed, always alike, filling all my nights and days, differentiated this period in my life from those which had gone before it (and might easily have been confused with it by an observer who saw things only from without, that is to say, who saw nothing), as in an opera a melodic theme introduces a novel atmosphere which one could never have suspected if one had done no more than read the libretto, still less if one had remained outside the theatre counting only ten minutes as they passed."
But if the world is littered with examples of the harm done by a neglect of the inner life, we do also have to reckon with the outer world, and not just to avoid getting run over by a truck. Both Swann and Tom’s solo traveler in Bali (see Notes on the December 7, 2011 Meeting) share the same problem. He who who makes no deep lasting ties to other people, who pursues experience but makes no effort to write it down or communicate it to others, who feels neither the artist’s nor the worker’s imperative to be productive, is living a life that is missing something important. Swann’s ecstacy from the little phrase isn’t enough to redeem him; we won’t find salvation in mere experience; that can only come once we try to share that experience (did he ever try to help Odette understand why that phrase moved him so much?) We are inherently social creatures, and we cannot avoid this simultaneous need for and responsibility to others. We can only be touched by the sensitive narrator because Proust took the effort to write and publish his big book. Either through our relationships, our work or our art, we connect with people beyond ourselves, and thereby our inner and outer lives matter more deeply.