These notes cover from p. 353 to p. 559 (the end of The Captive) in the Modern Library (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright) edition of In Search of Lost Time.
We started the evening a little later than usual.
Yet order was soon restored when Walden walked through the door, bearing one of his wife's famous Guinness chocolate cakes.
By 8:45 more than a few slices of cake had mysteriously vanished. And soon, with glasses of mulled wine in hand, we moved to the living room, where Marie-José began her presentation.
1. Marie-José's Presentation on Proust's Friend, the Poet Anna de Noallis
Marie-José chose to speak on the poet Anna de Noallis, a contemporary of Proust's. (Please see the separate post, below, for Marie-José's thorough write-up on this woman's life and work.)
Apparently, following the publication of a review he wrote of a book of her poetry, entitled Les Éblouissements, in Le Figaro in 1907, Marcel Proust and Anna de Noallis began a lifelong correspondence and friendship.
Above all, Proust wrote that he admired her ability to appear as both "the subject and the author" of her poems, particularly the way that she showed an uncanny appreciation of the beauty of nature, while her own beauty (embodied in both her person and her poems) in turn demanded that... nature appreciate her.
(I didn't quite get that anthropomorphizing of nature -- as if nature appreciates anything at all! But I let it stand, figuring that I should read Proust's full review before I say anything.)
At Marie-José's mention of this Proust's description of Anna de Noallis as both "subject and author," though, my mind began turning...
I thought of the distinction Marcel makes between objective and subjective experiences, in a passage in the month's reading...
And so we plunged back into the Recherche.
2. Marcel's Musings on The Objective/Subjective Distinction
I recalled, in particular, an extended rumination of Marcel's in which he insists that the mere "facts" of his relationship with Albertine do not constitute the totality of their experience:
"One can of course reduce everything, if one regards it in its social aspect, to the most commonplace item of newspaper gossip. From outside, it is perhaps thus that I myself would look at it. But I know very well that what is true, what at least is also true, is everything that I have thought, what I have read in Albetine's eyes, the fears that torment me... There is something beyond those facts that are reported. It is true that this other thing exists perhaps, were we capable of seeing it... because there is perhaps an element of mystery in everyday life... It was possible for me to neglect it in the lives of other people, but Albertine's life and my own I was living from within" (C, 491).
We are blessed -- but also cursed, aren't we? -- by this twofold consciousness: we are, each of us, living in the external world and "living from within"!
Each one of us has an undeniable, objective presence in the world, on the one hand, and then, on the other, each one of us also has a subjective experience, forever separate and incommunicable, an inner world.
As Proust memorably phrases it, each of us is a "sealed envelope," inwardly reaching "to infinity." But let's follow Marcel as he thinks this one out:
"I could, if I choose, take Albertine on my knee, hold her head in my hands, I could caress her, run my hands slowly over her, but, just as if I had been handling a stone which encloses the salt of immemorial oceans or the light of a star, I felt that I was touching no more than the sealed envelope of a person who inwardly reached to infinity. How I suffered from that position to which we are reduced by the obliviousness of nature which, when instituting the division of bodies, never thought of making possible the interpenetration of souls!" (C, 520).
I read this passage aloud to the group and shared how it amused me to think of Proust imagining an oblivious nature, instituting the divison of bodies, but like some dull busybody, forgetting to add the design feature for the continued interpenetration of souls.... Oops.
Marie-José mentioned, in this context, how she was struck by the games Proust, the author, plays with the porous boundary between fiction and life. She pointed out how ironic it is, for example, that the Baron de Charlus is described by Marcel as casting aspersions on the social status of Robert de Montesquiou -- who was, in fact, the real-life model for the Baron de Charlus! Likewise, she mentioned, how ironic it is that his fictional servant, Francoise, is mentioned in comparison to her real-life equivalent, Marcel Proust's actual governess.
As we talked about this, we began to see that Marcel as the Narrator, and Proust as the writer, are together (how else?) engaged in a great effort. We might call it a metaphysical effort. They are, using every technique at their disposal, attempting to break through the battlements that prevent each of us, in our everyday lives, from entering into the subjective worlds of other people.
How close can you get? Can we ever hope to transcend, to casser, out of our "division of bodies"?
2. Heather Detects a New Tenderness in Marcel
Heather spoke up to say how, in this month's reading, she is beginning to see a more sympathetic side to the character of the Narrator.
She noted how, in his fight with Albertine near the end of The Captive for example, he seemed... more vulnerable... more recognizable. Certainly, he seemed less haughty and removed than he had been previously. For one thing (quite adorably) he gets frightened by his own bluff! As Marcel admits:
"This fictitious parting scene ended by causing me almost as much grief as if it has been real, possibly because one of the actors, Albertine, by believing it to be real, had heightened the illusion for the other" (C, 476).
Setenay remarked, at this point, that in these confrontations with Albertine Marcel struck her as surprisingly naive in his willingness to accept her at her word. Why does he get so ensnared, she asked, by this wily young woman?
Perhaps I am to much like Marcel myself, but I countered that I did not see it this way at all. To me, Albertine's (premeditated? off-the-cuff?) justifications for her lies are largely convincing! In fact I would go so far as to say that I am still skeptical that she is even cheating on Marcel... or even a lesbian in the first place...
Renée pointed out one of the most glaring contradictions -- where Albertine pretends not to know Léa and then later admits she went on a three-week trip with her.
Still, stubborn to the end, I suggested to the group that if any of us were interrogated as to our every movement and social engagement, day by day, even hour by hour, we too might get caught out on a few contradictions and evasions! Would we not?
A number of members of our group pointed out here (trying to lend me a lifeline?) that Albertine is, after all, a captive -- a prisoner -- and should be seen in this context. Surely she is allowed to tell a little lie once in while, when conversing with none other than her prison-keeper?
Setenay nodded knowingly... and said I was definitely a sucker in the mold of Marcel.
Interesting how the group's allegiances seemed to have swung from Albertine to Marcel, or at least balanced out a bit. Before he struck everyone as a prideful, controlling, supercilious twit. Now, all that may be true, but she is seen as a manipulative, lying, cynical gold-digger.
What a pair.
I actallly like them both. I have a feeling that if they were friends they would crack me up.
Marie-José reminded us, rightly, that we are not meant to "like" or "not like" them; they are there to provoke us. Yes, I answered, but sometimes we use the shorthand of talking about our affinity for them as a way to understand their character and traits.
3. Ethics and the Writer
The mention of this perceived new tenderness in the Narrator provoked me to read aloud the comment that Marcel makes in regards to the humiliation of his friend the Baron de Charlus at the Verdurins' party:
"I had no opinion as to the proportion in which good and evil might be blended in the relations between Morel and M. de Charlus, but the thought of the sufferings that were in store for M. de Charlus was intolerable to me. I would have liked to warn him, but did not know how to do so" (C, 388).
As I told the group, this struck me as a mealy-mouthed expression of concern for Charlus, at best... So it was "intolerable," Marcel says... yet he won't do anything to stop it? Why, I asked, are Brichot and Marcel so passive, chatting amiably with Charlus about the gay underground, in the face of this coming "execution"?
Ken suggested that Marcel conceives of himself as an observer, first and foremost -- a non-interventionist. After all, Ken reminded us, he is an aspiring writer.
Brichot, I offered, we can understand -- the cliché of the absent-minded professor confined to the Ivory Tower and all that. He is accustomed to abdicating moral responsibility and hiding behind a screen of high-flown intellectuality. (His stream-of-consciousness processing of the cruelly that was inflicted on his friend M. de Charlus, while riding home with Marcel, is a tour-de-force of Greek and Roman and French classical allusions. C, 441-442. I found it strangely moving for the emotions running just beneath its surface; even Brichot is barely holding it all together.)
But following on Ken's remark we agreed that Marcel, too, can be seen as hiding behind an assumed identity-- in this case, the identity of a... vigilant and amused observer of the foibles and drama of humankind.
This understanding of Marcel makes me think of Janet Malcolm's influential book, The Journalist and the Murderer, in which she theorizes that all journalists -- we may extrapolate to all writers? -- are coldly plotting the "murder" -- the reveal, the scoop, the climactic scene, the denouement -- of their subjects. Malcolm points out that it takes a certain ruthlessness to stay disengaged, just enough, from people to maintain the distance to write effectively about them.
Again, the distinction between the objective vs. the subjective arises.
Where does the truth lie, in the direct experience of the subject, or in the frame given it by the impartial observer?
What is a writer's obligation to present to his or her reader? Might a writer care too much for his or her characters?
4. Marcel on the Impossibility of Final Judgments
We talked here, for a little while, about Marcel's realization of how impossible it is to judge others' characters in any final way.
After Marcel learns from Cottard that the Verdurins anonymously supported Saniette financially before his death, he is provoked to reevaluate his previous (harsh) judgment of their moral character. Thinking on this, he resolves never to fall into this trap again:
"... we ought never to bear a grudge against people, ought never to judge them by some memory of an unkind action, for we do not know all the good that, at other moments, their hearts may have sincerely desired and realised. And thus, even simply from the point of view of prediction, one is mistaken. For doubtless the evil aspect which we have noted once and for all will recur; but the heart is richer than that, has many other aspects which will recur also in the same person and which we refuse to acknowledge because of this earlier bad behavior" (C, 439).
Again (not to beat a dead horse) but it strikes me that Marcel's comments here point to complexity of our subjective experiences -- changeable, infinite, and unable to be contained. They resist objective frame we want to place on them.
And, as Marcel notes, even if we get it right, even if both coincide, for a flashing instant, everything will change anyway:
"... it is difficult to present a fixed image of a character as of societies and passions. For a character alters no less than they do, and if one tries to take a snapshot of what is relatively immutable in it, one finds it presenting a succession of different aspects (implying that it is incapable of keeping still but keeps moving) to the disconcerted lens" (C, 440).
5. But What About Love and Generosity? Surely These Are Objective?
In speaking of impossibility of judging character, we found ourselves talking about that incredible scene -- very cinematic, Don noted -- in which the Queen of Naples sweeps in and saves her dear cousin the Baron de Charlus from the abuse he was suffering at the Verdurins.
"Lean on my arm," she whispers. "You may be sure that it will always support you. It is strong enough for that" (C, 432).
Surely, here is an example of a unbending ethical character if there can be any?
Yet, interestingly, the Queen of Naples is not immune to Marcel's musing on the divide between objectivity and subjectivity either. For, as he points out, her ethical standpoint is at bottom merely a tribal one, with its own strengths and weaknesses. As Marcel explains:
"The Queen was a woman of great kindness, but she conceived of kindness first and foremost in the form of an unshakable attachment to the people she loved, to her own family, to all the princes of her race, among whom was M. de Charlus, and, after them, to all the people of the middle classes or of the humblest populace who knew how to respect those whom she loved and were well-disposed towards them. It was as to a woman endowed with these sound instincts that she had [earlier in the evening] shown kindness to Mme Verdurin. And no doubt this is a narrow conception of kindness, somewhat Tory and increasingly obsolete. But this does not mean that her kindness was an less genuine or ardent. The ancients were no less strongly attached to the human group to which they devoted themselves because it did not go beyond the limits of their city, nor are the men of today to their country, than those who in the future will love the United States of the World" (C, 431-432).
Marcel does not think that it is her love and generosity is insincere, just because it is limited. Indeed, he quite explicitly links her ethical outlook to that of his own beloved mother and grandmother:
"I had the example of my own mother, whom Mme de Cambremer and Mme de Guermantes could never persuade to take part in any philanthropic undertaking, to join any patriotic ladies' work party, to sell raffle tickets or sponsor charity shows. I do not say that she was right in acting only when her heart had first spoken, and in reserving for her own family, for her servants, for the unfortunate whom chance brought her way, the riches of her love and generosity, but I do know that these, like those of my grandmother, were inexhaustible and exceeded by far anything that Mme de Guermantes or Mme de Cambremer ever could have done or did" (C, 432).
So, once again, what does it mean to be "loving" and "generous" in the final summation?
As Don pointed out, what these passages are illuminating for us is that when we speak of "love" and "generosity" it is really a question of which definition we are using at the time we speak of them.
And Marcel is the master of resorting these definitions -- shuffling them and dealing a new hand at will. For example, even as we are full of compassion towards M. de Charlus, imagining his trauma, the tears glistening in his and Morel's eyes... even as we are full of venom towards Mme Verdurin for her act... Marcel ventures to make us think again.
He wants us to try to see Mme Verdurin's act of outrageous cruelty towards Charlus, her bald-faced lies to Morel, in a softer light... seen subjectively... from within:
"And perhaps the lie had not been a calculated one, perhaps she had not even consciously lied. A sort of sentimental logic, or perhaps, more elementary still, a sort of nervous reflex, that impelled her, in order to brighten up her life and preserve her happiness, to sow discord in the little clan, may have brought impulsively to her lips, without giving her time to check their veracity, these assertions that were so diabolically effective if not strictly accurate"(C, 423).
This does not erase for him the fact that the treatment of the Baron de Charlus is and remains "intolerable." Rather, Proust seems to be pointing to the tremendous complexity, the mystery at the core, of our lives, even while we cannot help but pass judgment on this or that person, this or that action.
Proust is showing how our twofold consciousness enables us to review, criticize, judge, praise or condemn, on the objective level, but also to know that, on the subjective level, we are never in full knowledge, we will always be staring into an infinite regress of experience and meaning.
This is what we are beginning to appreciate as we near -- what? where are we? -- 3000 pages into this novel!
It is interesting that Marcel does, quite sneakily, manage to reveal to the reader where he comes down on the actions of the Queen of Naples... It is so fast you might miss it, but it is buried in his description of her walking out the door, arm and arm with Charlus:
"And it was thus, taking the Baron on her arm and without having allowed Morel to be presented to her, that the glorious sister of the Empress Elizabeth left the house" (C, 433).
That "glorious" is a nice touch, isn't it? Even while knowing that final judgments are suspect, we can still praise actions that we find worthy and beautiful!
6. Who Among Us Is Not a Captive?
Somewhere along the way, we got into a discussion about who is a captive and who is not.
When Marcel returns home after his night at the Verdurins he looks up to see the shutters in Albertine's room as "striped from top to bottom with parallel bars of gold" (C, 444).
They may be gold, but they are bars all the same.
She is clearly a captive.
But members of the group pointed out that Charlus, Morel, Marcel, can all be seen as captives as well. Walden even observed that in the very way that Proust has written this book, with its repetitions of paranoia, its wakings and dressings, nighttime rituals and undressings, it makes its readers captives as well.
Walden's comment reminded me of brilliant analysis I once read on the disturbing ending chapters of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck and Tom keep Jim, the slave, in a kind of mock imprisonment -- nearly torturing him in the process. We are led, by Twain, to feel morally outraged by what these boys are doing to poor Jim; but how different is their misguided game, really, from the way we enjoyed the earlier fiction -- a kind of diversion in itself, after all -- while reading about this an escaped slave, "Jim," adrift on a raft on the Mississippi? Where does our moral outrage begin and our pleasure leave off?
Here we see how Twain and Proust use the very structure of their novels to reproduce for the reader the experience of the characters. They are willing to bend the objective world of the reader to conform with the subjective world of the characters... What is this but one more way to attempt to bring the two together?
(Is this possibly a good working definition of art? Art: the effort to bring the objective and subjective together.)
7. The Question of Albertine's Verbal Slip
I know that Jeff would have been disappointed in me if we had not mentioned, however briefly, how Albertine, in a moment of frustration, exclaims: "I'd a great deal rather you left me free for once in a way to go and get myself... me faire casser"
She covers her mouth with her hand. She blushes. Marcel's heart begins to race and his mind to spin.
What is it, exactly, she says? I asked the group.
And whatever it is, what does her saying it reveal about her?
Marcel explains that what she said -- or almost said -- is so vulgar that even the lowest of the low would not utter it:
"For even the vilest of prostitutes, who consents to such a thing, or even desires it, does not use that hideous expression to the man who indulges in it. She would feel it too degrading" (C, 457).
The expression me faire casser, we learn from the notes, refers to breaking the seal at the opening of a ceramic pot. In English, then, I gather that Albertine has said something along the lines of "go get myself -- stuck? -- plugged? -- in the ass."
Does this suggest that Albertine is far more street and raunchy than she lets on to Marcel? If so, does this verbal slip suggest that she is trying to improve herself à la Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and this was a mere reversion to an earlier form? Or, to the contrary, does it suggest that her behavior with Marcel is all an elaborate act, a put-on, so that she can continue to fleece him of his money?
In the end the group seemed to weigh in on the side of Albertine as doing it all for the gifts and cash. Perhaps she is not so unlike Odette, after all.
8. The Transcendence of Art vs. the "Materialist Hypothesis" (Tom's Obsession)
Towards the end of the meeting I brought up again -- sorry! -- my sense of an emerging philosophical argument between stubborn materialists like me and Proust (always useful to choose a deceased antagonist, don't you know).
I am almost certain that this argument will reach its apogee in the final volume, Time Regained.
But this month's reading added some fuel to the fire, so I couldn't let it go without comment.
Once again, I pointed out, our Narrator is making some noises in the direction of finding some kind of transcendent possibility, even a path to salvation, through art. For example, in one of his conversations with Albertine, Marcel reflects:
"It seemed to me, when I abandoned myself to this hypothesis that art might be real, that it was something even more than the merely spine-tingling joy of a fine day or an opiate night that music can give; a more real, more fruitful exhilaration, to judge at least by what I felt. It is inconceivable that a piece of sculpture or a piece of music which gives us an emotion that we feel to be more exalted, more pure, more true, does not correspond to some definite spiritual reality, or life would be meaningless" (C, 504).
That last "life would be meaningless" is an insult to those of us who don't hold this view! I exclaimed. Who does he think he is, the Pope? Who is he to tell anyone that life would be meaningless without a "definite spiritual reality" (whatever that is)?
Anyway, I asked, has Marcel forgotten about the experience of life lived "from within"? What about embracing our own subjective meanings in an objectively meaningless universe?
Why in this one case of art does he relinquish his usual distinction between the objective and the subjective? It's good enough in love, why not in art? Only when it comes to the meaning of art, it seems, does Marcel want to join them together as an either-or, all-or-nothing proposition!
Maybe, just maybe, art is objectively meaningless but subjectively delirious and ecstatic and powerful? Isn't that enough?
But Proust does not leave it there. He has Marcel attempt to distinguish further between the experiences we have based on our memories from the more "spiritual" experiences afforded us by art. Marcel ruminates on his feelings while listening to Vinteuil's septet... compared to the feelings that are triggered by, say, mere memories:
"...whereas in memory this vagueness may be, if not fathomed, at any rate identified, thanks to a pinpointing of circumstances which explain why a certain taste has been able to recall to us luminous sensations, the vague sensations given by Vinteuil coming not from a memory but from an impression (like that of the steeples of Martinville), one would have had to find, for the geranium scent of the music, not a material explanation, but the profound equivalent, the unknown, colourful festival (of which his works seemed to be the disconnected fragments, the scarlet-flashing splinter), the mode by which he "heard" the universe and projected it far beyond himself. Perhaps it was in this, I said to Albertine, this unknown quality of a unique world which no other composer had ever yet revealed, that the most authentic proof of genius lies, even more than in the content of the work itself" (C, 505).
Why is it "far beyond himself"? Why does Marcel make this assumption? Could it not be simply our shared human experience -- the common neurochemical organization of our brains, for example -- that could be the source of our appreciation of a work of art? This could allow for a "pinpointing of circumstances" just as much a memory does.
But to my delight, as I reported to the group, Proust himself then proceeds to articulate my side of the argument, which he calls "the materialist hypothesis," better than I could. I read the passage aloud to the group:
"But... it was the other, the materialist hypothesis, that of there being nothing, that in turn presented itself to my mind. I began to doubt again; I told myself that after all it might be the case that, if Venteuil's phrases seemed to be the expression of certain states of soul analogous to that which I had experienced when I stated the madeleine soaked in tea, there was nothing to assure me that the vagueness of such states was a sign of their profundity rather than of our not having yet learned to analyse them, so that there might be nothing more real in them than in other states... In any case, whispered the spirit of doubt, even if these states are more profound than others that occur in life, and defy analysis for that very reason, because they bring into play too many forces of which we have hitherto been unaware, the charm of certain phrases of Vinteuil's music makes us think of them because it too defies analysis, but this does not prove that it has the same profundity; the beauty of a phrase of pure music can easily appear to be the image of or at least akin to an unintellectual impression which we have received, but simply because it is unintellectual. And why then do we suppose to be specially profound those mysterious phrases which haunt certain quartets and this septet by Vinteuil?" (C, 513-514).
Here we come to the crux of the argument, I think. Let me try to capture it:
1) the effect of art is a sensory one, an "unintellectual impression," in which case it is not pointing to any place "far beyond" but exactly in our bodies; or
2) the effect of art is an intellectual one, in which it is a matter of the arrangement of language and the juxtaposition of ideas... again, hardly pointing to a a place "far beyond" but exactly a matter of cogitation and socially-derived understandings; or
3) the effect of art is both at once.
In none of these three scenarios does the effect of art transcend anything, so far as I can see.
The most I would concede to Marcel would be that there emerges in the works of artists a vision of their particular obsessions, their unique style, which you can call "proof of genius" if you like (though that is only a conferral of status and has no ontological significance to speak of).
9. Pink and Proust
The end of the evening is a bit of a blur...
I think Jeanne suggested at one point that Marcel's love seemed to her an obsessive, adolescent one. Like Swann and Odette's, Ken remarked. But then I thought of the jaded, open marriage that Swann and Odette had later. And this made me ask the question: Do we only get one time for this kind of existential, soul-shaking love? And then we get married and -- what? -- it smooths out? You give up?
Or should we think instead of sustaining these haunting, existential questions, this desire for the "interpenetration of souls," this anguish and ecstasy of love, for a lifetime?
I mentioned in this context, weirdly I know, a Pink song that I had heard performed over the weekend at my children's piano recital -- "Just Give Me a Reason."
In this song the couple is asking if they can "learn to love again" -- and they insist that they can, because it is "written in the stars"... They sing (quite stirringly) that they can, they will cross the "empty sheets" that lie between them at night!
But I insisted that, in view of what we have learned from Proust, this is a cop-out. It won't be enough. (Sorry Pink; trumped by Proust once again.) If they want to revive their love they are going to grapple with all those agonizing questions again, the ones that brought them together in the first place: How can I ever have access to my lover's inner world, when it reaches to infinity? What is the relative importance, or truth, of our objective bodies and personalities, our sexual selves, our sharp elbows and heavy breathing, compared to the subjective states inside of our minds?
They are going to have to scratch their way, with unflinching honesty, across those empty sheets. It's not going to happen by some feel-good conviction that their love is "written in the stars" -- which appears, to me anyway, to be merely an attempt to patch up their differences with a well-meaning (but fatally ersatz) shared myth.
Something like that anyway.
I remember, as the hour crept close to 11 pm, reading Proust's vivid description of Marcel, still in his fur-lined coat, sitting on the corner of Albertine's bed watching her sleeping in the middle of the night:
"She had fallen asleep as soon as she lay down; her sheets, wrapped round her body like a shroud, had assumed, with their elegant folds, the rigidity of stone... Seeing that expressionless body lying there, I asked myself what logarithmic table it constituted, that all the actions in which it might have been involved, from the nudge of an elbow to the brushing of a skirt, should be capable of causing me, stretched out to the infinity of all points that it had occupied in space and time, and from time to time sharply awakened in my memory, so intense an anguish, even though I knew that it was determined by impulses and desires of hers which in another person, in herself five years earlier or five years later, would have left me quite indifferent. It was all a lie, but a lie for which I had not the courage to seek any solution other than my own death. And so I remained, in the fur-lined coat which I had not taken off since my return from the Verdurins', beside that twisted body, that allegorical figure. Allegorising what? My death? My love? " (C, 485).
What an amazing passage. It does show the vulnerability that Heather was talking about.
And finally, one last erotic image of the sleeping Albertine:
"And in waking her I had merely, as when we cut open a fruit, released the gushing juice which quenches thirst" (C, 522).
Great meeting. See you all in January!