Near the end of the "Combray" chapter, Proust's Narrator discusses how, as a boy, he used to wander the Méséglise Way in a fruitless search for the young freckle-faced girl he once encountered there.
"It seemed to me," he writes, "that the beauty of the trees was hers also, and that her kisses would reveal to me the spirit of those horizons" (SW, 220).
Somehow, as he wanders, he finds that his appreciation for everything around him is enhanced by his thoughts of Gilberte. He explains:
"...my imagination, drawing strength from the contact with my sensuality, my sensuality expanding through all the realms of my imagination, my desire no longer had any bounds...
"For at that time everything that was not myself, the earth and the creatures upon it, seemed to me more precious, more important, endowed with a more real existence than they appear to full-grown men. And between the earth and its creatures I made no distinction...
"I could believe this all the more readily (and also that the caresses by which she would bring that savour to my senses would themselves be of a special kind, yielding a pleasure which I could never derive from anyone else) since I was still, and must for long remain, in that period of my life when one has not yet separated the fact of this sensual pleasure from the various women in whose company one has tasted it, when one has not yet reduced it to a general idea which makes one regard them thenceforward as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same" (SW, 220-222).
So let's get this straight. According to Proust:
The young lover "...has not yet separated the fact of this sensual pleasure from the various women in whose company one has tasted it..."
Whereas, the older lover (would this be all the rest of us?) has reduced sensual pleasure "...to a general idea which makes one regard [one's lovers] thenceforward as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same."
That caught my attention. It struck me as quite cynical.
But he doesn't leave it there. Proust expands further on the experience of the young lover:
"Indeed, that pleasure does not even exist, isolated, distinct, formulated in the consciousness, as the ultimate aim for which one seeks a woman's company, or as the cause of the preliminary perturbation that one feels. Scarcely does one think of it as a pleasure in store for one; rather does one call it her charm; for one does not think of oneself, but only of escaping from oneself..." (SW, 222)
I found this fascinating. And I had to ask myself...
Is it true that my earliest experiences of sensual pleasure were qualitatively different from all of my experiences of pleasure in the years that followed? Did they have more specificity to them, more immediacy? When we were younger did we manage to escape from ourselves in a way that is closed to us now?
My answer, upon reflection? Yes. I believe that Proust is right.
Certainly it remains this woman or this man, in this moment, for whom a person's heart pounds, at any age. How could it be otherwise? But Proust has convinced me that along with the pleasures we experience in the moment, there is another, faint strain for most of us now: the knowledge of... where it all might lead.
This knowledge is both bluntly physical and briskly practical. You know something of your body's urges and how they may be experienced. You also know something of the pleasures of companionship, of relying on another person and providing for another person, in a relationship. You have enjoyed both in the past; you would like to experience them again, or, as the case may be, to continue experiencing them as you do presently.
Perhaps this is why people in their 30s and up have such trouble staying casual and care-free when they date. They know well the "isolated, distinct" pleasure that might await them, farther down the path -- even when they are just sitting down for a drink with someone for the first time. Their resulting expectations, largely mocked by our culture as excessively romantic, are in fact, as Proust teaches us, perfectly reasonable, even inevitable.
So Proust explains us to ourselves -- all of us... I hate to say older, let's say experienced... lovers. And it comes as a relief, I think, does it not? He shows us that, married or unmarried, we are full of expectations, appraisals, often anticipating what lies ahead. We can't help it.
Those years leading up to sweet sixteen are long gone. No more first, dizzying "French" kisses (do the French members of our group even know what this means?). No more furtive touches during seemingly endless games of Truth or Dare. No more losing all sense of time and space in a slow dance. There is no going back.
Yet -- sweet consolation! -- there is going forward. There is the pleasure of comparing our dog-eared maps of desire, gazing at markers along the way, exploring the winding paths, some old, some never before noticed... This, the pleasure of older lovers (and by that I mean anyone who has ever loved before) is surely a pleasure all of its own. Wouldn't you say so?
In "Swann in Love," the Narrator describes the different ways that a young lover and an older lover tend to fall for their beloveds, and I think it sheds further light on this subject.
He writes that, for someone like Swann, the mere experience of mutual sympathy with Odette is enough:
"But at the time of his life, tinged already with disenchantment, which Swann was now approaching, where a man can content himself with being in love for the pleasure of the loving without expecting too much in return, this mutual sympathy, if it is no longer as in early youth the goal towards which love inevitably tends, is nevertheless bound to it by so strong an association of ideas that it may well become the cause of love if it manifests itself first. In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of a woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses a woman's heart may be enough to make him fall in love with her...
"Since we know its song, which is engraved on our hearts in its entirety, there is no need for a woman to repeat the opening strains -- filled with the admiration which beauty inspires -- for us to remember what follows. And if she begins in the middle -- where hearts are joined and where it sings of our existing, henceforward, for one another only -- we are well enough attuned to that music to be able to take it up and follow our partner without hesitation at the appropriate passage" (SW, 277)
A question for the members of our reading group:
Do you agree with Proust here that older lovers are actually more susceptible than young lovers to falling in love, since they can skip right past the preliminaries? Put another way, have we become such saps -- so "disenchanted," to use Proust's Narrator's word -- that all we need is a little hit of mutual sympathy to fall madly in love?
I'm not convinced. If they were friends of mine, and I were a witness to this affair, I would suspect that there is something in Odette that draws Swann to her, beyond her ability to convince him that he possesses her exclusively. My experience tells me that there is a kind of magic, perhaps based in neurochemistry, complimentary immune systems, smells, facial patterns, background understandings, who knows, but a magic all the same, which makes him fixate on her in the first place.
Proust does not speculate about such a magic (although he does note its presence when discussing Swann's later attachment to Odettem, see SW, 438). On the contrary, Proust suggests that, initially at least, Odette's qualities are actually quite off-putting to Swann, and that Swann needs to supplement his thoughts of her by other means. He relies on his imagination, the instability of memory, and other cognitive tricks to help him sustain his passion for her, according to the Narrator. One useful way that he employs is to meditate on her passing resemblance to a beautiful figure in a painting by Botticelli:
"He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and her body, and these he tried incessantly to recapture thereafter, both when he was with Odette and when he was only thinking of her in her absence... The words "Florentine painting" were invaluable to Swann. They enabled him, like a title, to introduce the image of Odette into a world of dreams and fancies which, until then, she had been debarred from entering, and where she assumed a new and nobler form" (ML, 316-317).
Zipporah, Jethro's daughter, in a detail from Botticelli's The Trials of Moses
But isn't it likely that Swann's transformation of Odette into a beauty in a Botticelli painting is only achieved because of some uncanny, pre-cognitive pull he has towards her? You can't just do that with anyone. If we could fall in love merely on account of mutual sympathy, then surely love affairs would happen frequently, confusingly, between friends. But there is that mystery, that extra element. And, whatever the Narrator tells himself, Odette has it, and M. Swann desires it.
Then and only then, I would argue, the hard work of love begins.