These notes cover Chapters Two, Three and Four of The Fugitve: "Madamoiselle de Forcheville," "Sojourn in Venice" and "New Aspect of Robert de Saint-Loup."
We gathered at 8 as usual. Setenay and Ken brought delectables: wine, bread, cheese, a Turkish spinach pastry dish (I forget the name... Setanay?), and even a cake. Others brought wine as well. At 8:30 we moved into the living room to begin our discussion.
1. Don's Presentation on Homosexuality in Proust's Time
Don started us off with an interesting presentation about the difficulty of digging up information on the practices and codes of homosexuality in the time of Proust.
Long considered a sin by the Church, and therefore kept out of sight (if not mind) behind strict taboos, homosexuality was rarely discussed publicly. It was not even considered a fit subject for academic research, either in the Francophone or Anglo-American worlds, until the late 1970s.
Don did discover, though, that as early as 1791 the act of same-sex intercourse had been decriminalized in France (far earlier than in England and America). Of course it continued to be stigmatized and suppressed.
In the late 1800s, rapid social and economic changes contributed to the emergence of a new homosexual experience across Europe. Most of all, Don pointed out, it was the mere fact of city life, at the turn of the century, that enabled gays and lesbians to gather more frequently and anonymously. Don told us with some enthusiasm that public urination, if you read the signal right, provided a coded invitation for a quickie. (Don's enthusiasm on this point was for the odd facts of history, and did not represent a generalized enthusiasm for public urination -- just wanted to be clear on that.)
Subcultures formed around various preferences (young/old, mixing of social classes, or exclusively aristocratic encounters). "Molly houses" (as they were called in England -- is there a French equivalent?) provided new opportunities for same-sex encounters.
Women's excursions into this territory were often dismissed as trivial and unimportant by cultural commentators of the time (though some, like Daniel Defoe, refused to discuss lesbianism for fear that such behavior might prove all too important -- as it might call into question the need for a man to satisfy a woman's pleasure!).
I interjected to ask about the root causes of the wide-spread homophobia in the West. Don pointed to Christianity -- religious doctrine -- as the ultimate source.
"So it all started in 312 A.D. with the conversion of Emperor Constantine?" I asked.
"In effect," said Don.
"No," said Walden (who happened to be a scholar of medieval history in an earlier life, before becoming a doctor).
He explained: "Actually, the sexual squeamishness and restrictions of Christianity were not imposed top down at all. Or rather, they were later, but that is not the source of such concerns. Recall that Christianity was a slave religion, a doctrine developed among outcasts and servants and lower classes of society. These were often the very people compelled to provide sexual services -- that is, abused by their masters. So it was of great use to them to develop a system of restrictions -- a self-imposed morality -- which would, in an uncanny way, protect them from this abuse regardless of the laws. Homophobia and other sexual restrictions of the Church, we may say, bubbled up from below."
(How was that for capturing what you said, Walden?)
2. The Uses and Abuses of Autobiography
I can't remember quite how, but at this point we drifted into a discussion of what value, if any, the actual facts Proust's life and love affairs (e.g. with his chauffeur, one of the models for Albertine) have in our reading of his fiction.
Don pronounced his aversion to reading a book with the autobiography of the author in mind. I agreed that this "connect-the-dots" approach can be harmful. I mentioned in this respect Nabokov's insistence that a reader should not try to project himself or herself into a novel, not even judge its characters, but rather see it as a universe unto itself.
Jennifer pointed out that, true as this might be, we cannot but notice that the author Marcel Proust names his Narrator "Marcel," or that many of the patterns of the novel (the locations, the compromised health, the aristocratic social milieu) can be overlaid, with little effort, onto Proust's life.
Walden spoke up to say that he feels that this novel in particular "invites" the reader to enter it in a very personal way. The mix of aphorism and general observations with specific narrative detail suggests as much a moral or philosophical tract as a storyline. And the Narrator himself returns again and again to the theme of art's effect on a person and the personal nature of art: how then can we ignore these questions when we confront the effect of his novel on each of us?
3. Homosexuality, Revisited
Somewhere in this discussion we found ourselves back on the question of "the gay" (I put it that way simply for fun, in the spirit of Rachel Maddow's show).
I spoke up to say that the... what is the right word?... saturation... of gay and lesbian characters in this novel has, over the three years we have been reading it, had a kind of cumulative effect on me.
At first, I explained, I was merely reading along, accepting the characterization of the Baron de Charlus and his sexual proclivities. (Remember that marvelous scene in which he hopes to seduce the Narrator by inviting him to his house in Paris and raging at him?)
Then, as Albertine and her friends and Bloch's sister and Aimé and so many characters we encountered began to demonstrate their homosexual inclinations, like timed fireworks against the sky, I found it all increasingly laughable.
7 out of 10 people, according to Charlus' assessment, are gay or lesbian... What a joke! I thought. We know, of course, that social scientists in our time assess the statistics to be more in the order of 4% of the population! How our dear reclusive Proust must be projecting his fantasy life onto the larger world!
But in the last chapter that we read for this month, when Saint-Loup was revealed to be having a torrid affair with the pianist Morel (et tu, Saint-Loup?), I felt my resistance... drop away.
It got me thinking. Well? Could Proust be right? That is, could he be right, in some deeper sense, in his understanding of human nature and sexuality? He is right on so many things. What am I possibly missing here?
I shared with the group that in college -- a history major -- I studied Early Tokugawa Japan and was suprised to learn that every Samurai customarily had a young boy who accompanied him and performed sexual services. And of course we all know from Homer, Plato, Horace and others how frequently men in the Ancient World engaged in same-sex encounters...
Perhaps it is our time that is the exception?
We are so certain of our 4% statistics (recently revised down from 10%, if you hadn't heard). We think we are so liberal and open-minded and tolerant. But perhaps this 4% only reflects what people are doing, not what they could be doing in another social context.
Proust has made me wonder how and when I got so acculturated, so socialized (choose your term), such that my homosexual urges, if any, were at an early age entirely preempted by heterosexual urges. Was it just the general culture -- hitting all of us in multiple ways every day, from books and movies to TV ads to remarks by grandparents to gender roles assigned at school?
Somewhere along the way, most of us became part of the huge majority of exclusively heterosexual people, and we never look back. For me, by 12 or 13 or so, it got to the point where when I walked along a busy street I literally did not see the men -- my gaze moved from girl to girl (and later, woman to woman)... faces, bodies, etc. I confess it's that way for me even today.
But what if sexuality is far more fluid than we are socialized to believe? What if Proust's imaginative world, if not statistically accurate, is nevertheless aspirationally accurate?
After all, Renée and I recently saw the all-male production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night playing in New York. And after 10 minutes or so, the gender of the actors becomes... irrelevant.
You realize how minor a factor it is in how we perceive another human being, including their physical beauty. Love, fascination, the dizzying ways that we subjectively experience beauty, these are what matters (as we have learned from Proust, it is not the actual hawthorn flowers of course, little white and pink collections of petals, but what goes on in the mind when the Narrator gazes at them).
I took a breath. "So my point is" -- here I paused dramatically -- "After reading five volumes of Proust, I... am... gay."
The point is not that now, after reading past the tipping point of Saint-Loup and Morel's relationship, I suddenly feel attracted to men.
But that's my point.
Perhaps I have been socialized, acculturated, what you will, to my heterosexual preference. Some people, of course, are so naturally inclined to have gay or lesbian sexual encounters that they break out of the social strictures of the majority culture. Most of us, though, are basically drawn to the experience of procreative sex (after all, natural selection found that urge -- to put it mildly -- a little helpful for replicating our DNA, so it's no surprise that it is a compelling instinctive urge for most of us). But why do we stop there? Or rather: when did we stop there?
What I find myself speculating about is whether our contemporary culture, some 100 years removed from Proust's time, may be still, surreptitiously, encouraging and honing our basic sexual urges into an exclusively heterosexual urge.
It has done its work on me. It has done its work, I am guessing, on most of the people in our Proust reading group. 96% of us, and all that. But this statistic may be more arbitrary and unnatural than we think.
In other words, it's not just me.
You too may be gayer than you think.
It may be that, without the residue of the Church's taboos against homosexuality, without the residue of sexual squeamishness, without the social and economic incentives of our time which promote conformity and "being normal," without the incessant consumerist-capitalist advertising culture urging us to celebrate and reward our heterosexual urges to the exclusion of all else, perhaps we might all be a little more drawn to have sexual encounters with whomever we like or love, and not worry as much about body type or hairy chins or their lack thereof, or the absence or presence of a protrusion or a pundendum.
That was rant, no? Anyway, it is worth wondering.
See! To Walden's point, Proust's work urges us to enter into it personally, to grapple with its questions, in a way that other more plot-driven novels may not.
4. Reading as a State of Mind
Towards the end of the evening Renée mentioned how funny and accurate she found the Narrator's description of himself reading and re-reading his article in Le Figaro.
Marcel re-reads the newspaper as a variety of different people -- so as to experience it in a different light each time through. The words change because of his (entirely imaginary) changing point of view.
This led us to discuss Marcel's mistake as to the author of the telegram he receives in Venice proposing marriage. Thinking it is from Albertine (due to the unfamiliar penmanship of the Italian telegraph operator), he is surprised to learn that she had not died after all (just as we are surprised by his nonchalance at this discovery, F 871). Of course she had died, and the telegram was from Gilberte, which made all the difference in how he read it.
In each of these cases, we realized as we compared these incidents, the experience of reading words is shown to be highly influenced by the subjective state of the author or reader of those words.
I mentioned an experience I had in college, when I received a letter from one "A.C." who I assumed was a mysterious, worldly, slightly bedraggled girl I had known (and been bewitched by) in high school. The letter struck me as brilliant and sly, by turns seductive and arch. Then I looked more carefully at the envelope and realized that it had been written by a different "A.C." altogether, a girl I had performed with in theater occasionally, a sincere and warm (though perhaps slightly needy) friend. Upon re-reading it, indeed, the letter changed: it became sweet, chatty, a little aimless, and far less interesting. What a difference my subjective state made.
Jeanne mentioned how the cycles of grief that Proust depicts in The Fugitive struck her as very accurate. She read the passage in which Marcel explains his sense of remove from Albertine even after mistakenly thinking that she is still alive:
"My new self, while it grew up in the shadow of the old, had often heard the other speak of Albertine; through that other self, through the stories it had gathered from it, it thought that it knew her, it found her lovable, it loved her; but it was only a love at second hand" (F, 805).
6. Loose Ends
At some point I recall that we talked about how the Narrator describes Andrée as having three levels (at least): nice on the surface, full of envy and pride on the second, and a deeper kindness underneath it all (F, 816).
This looped us back to our discussion of the uses and abuses of autobiography, in that the complexity of one human being is such that there is no easy explanation for why or how someone is. So the attempt to explain away something fictional with its real-life analogue -- or even to answer a question definitively about anybody, when we are all in the current of time and always changing -- is a futile exercise. (Not that it isn't fun to try sometimes.)
At another point we touched on Gilberte's avoidance of any mention to her father Swann.
Jennifer read this with the hope, which she recognized as wilful on her part, that Gilberte is just demonstrating her father's famous tact in this, and thereby protecting her love for him. Others of us were dismayed at the betrayal of her own father, after all that he had given her.
We also discussed the amusing portrait of Madame Villeparisis and Norpois at lunch in Venice (F, 855). A married couple, a rare occurrence in Proust! (And as someone pointed out, Norpois seems to be exclusively heterosexual. Though we don't know this for sure.) In talking about married couples we mentioned, too, the genuine relationship between M. and Madame Guermantes. He may have affairs, but they seem to share a sense of abiding by certain aristocratic customs, and they seem to confer with each other on points of delicacy, such as whether to accept Swann's daughter Gilberte into their social circles after all (see their back and forth on F, 786). A rich conversation -- onward!