Before we leave the "Swann in Love" chapter, I want to share with the group something that moved me and has been in my mind often over the past few weeks.
You may not have noticed it, but when discussing the rapture that Swann felt while listening to Vinteuil's "little phrase" at the Marquise de Saint-Euverte's party, the Narrator makes what I suppose may be described as a metaphysical claim: that art is a true solace in the face of death.
To Proust's Narrator, "great artists... do us the service... of showing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in the vast, unfathomed and forbidding night of our soul which we take to be an impenetrable void" (SW, 497).
This verges on cliché (I will admit that I always get uncomfortable with talk of the "soul"). But he continues: these experiences of art, although they "might present a clouded surface to the eye of reason," contain, according to Proust's Narrator, "a content so solid, so consistent, so explicit", that they stand on "equal footing with the ideas of the intellect" (SW, 497).
This leads him to the following statement, which made my eyes tear up when Renée first read it aloud to me:
"Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but, if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable" (SW, 498).
Note that Proust is not stating that our experiences of beauty will outlive us. That would be the kind of wishful thinking we hear every day. He is saying something altogether more subtle and strange.
His point is that these "phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream," these moments of inner experience, unique as they are to each of us, will precisely not outlive us. Rather than being a depressing thought to Proust's Narrator, however, this leads him to consider them "divine captives" who will accompany us when we leave the world.
This is about the most skeptical, unsentimental claim for something beyond death that I have ever encountered. I cannot refute it, no matter how hard I try. And it gives me a measure of solace I have not had for years.