These notes cover to the end of Part One of Volume III, The Guermantes Way, in the Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
A great meeting.
Marie-José and Tamara brought delicacies of all kinds, including a spinach and feta baked item (easily living up to the adjectival form of the word "delicacy") and a Turkish sweet pumpkin dish. Walden brought a white-frosted Guinness chocolate cake, which was, Renée and I agreed late that night, the most moist and tasty cake we have ever experienced (and I don't even go for chocolate that much). To top it off, Setenay brought an incredible baklava, honey-rich and crumbling on the tongue...
What does Liesl sing in The Sound of Music? "Somewhere in my youth or childhood... I must have done something good." That's about the way we all felt.
Fully engaged as I was in: a) eating my piece of Guinness chocolate cake and b) a lively conversation with Florence about the documentary "Race to Nowhere" (which, Florence was telling me, examines the pressures we impose on our children in the school setting), I forgot to watch the time. So, forgive me you merciless Proustians, it's true: I was late getting us to move to the living room. Jaimey, having just walked in the door, looked on in horror. What the hell is going on? Why are you still milling about in the dining room? I could tell he was thinking.
We took our seats about 10 minutes after the usual time.
A small group this time -- perhaps 15 of us. At 8:40 pm we began our discussion.
1. Walden's Presentation -- the Manifold Pressures Bearing Down On Us In This Life
To start us off, Walden asked Florence to read a passage aloud from the month's reading. In it the Narrator is talking about the enormous strain that human beings face when ill:
"De même, quand les bimes de la maladie et de la mort so'ouvrent en nous et que nous n'avons plus rien à opposer au tumulte avec lequel le monde et notre propre corps se ruent sur nous, alors soutenir même la pesée de nos muscles, même le frisson qui dévaste nos moelles, alors, même nous tenir immobiles dans ce que nous croyons d'habitude n'être rien que la simple position d'une chose, exige, si l'on veut que la tête reste droite et le regard calme, de l'energie vitale, et devient l'objet d'une lutte épuisante."
Miriam volunteered to read the same passage in English:
"Similarly when the abyss of sickness and death opens within us and we have no longer any resistance to offer to the tumult with which the world and our own body rush upon us, then to endure even the tension of our own muscles, the shudder that freezes us to the marrow, then even to keep ourselves motionless in what we ordinarily regard as nothing but the simple negative position of a lifeless thing requires, if we wish our head to remain erect and our eyes calm, an expense of vital energy and becomes the object of an exhausting struggle." (GW, 444).
(Both Florence and Miriam read with beautiful simplicity, didn't you think?)
The reading aloud of this passage led the group into a discussion of the near impossibility of knowing other people's experiences. So many of us, I suggested, have private concerns about sickness and health -- or if not that, then other hidden emotional needs, parenting issues, marital disputes, career problems, distractions, anxieties, intimations of all kinds -- bearing down on us, and often no one else knows about them. They press down upon our bodies and our psyches-- undetected by others -- as we jitter about our days, just as Proust describes the "atmospheric pressure" weighing on each of us at all times (in lines just preceding the passage above). Given our almost perfect ignorance of the pressures that other people are resisting, I asked, isn't it always an act of hubris to render judgment upon anyone?
(Well, except perhaps Mitt Romney. He was annoying, despite the pressures no doubt bearing down on him... jet skis needing fuel... the car elevator making too much noise...)
2. Are Each of Us "Indeed Alone," Then?
This comment led us to discuss that terrible verdict the Narrator renders on life, as he stands on the landing of an apartment building after taking his grandmother to be examined by a doctor following her stroke:
"Each of us is indeed alone," the Narrator observes (GW, 432). Here Proust seems to conclude that we can never truly understand or empathize with another person's experience.
Renée agreed that the rapid juxtaposition between the doctor's pronouncement of "doom" for the Narrator's grandmother... and then his rage at the trivial matter of his unmended buttonhole... is devastating. It is true that our private worlds hardly overlap. Yet, she argued further, they do sometimes overlap. As Renée pointed out, the sentence immediately following the Narrator's insistence that we are "indeed alone" is also uncharacteristically short:
"We set off homewards."
This, Renée argued, presents a counterpoint to the we-are-all-alone sentiment. After all, the Narrator and his grandmother, as scattered and incoherent as she is after her stroke and as frenzied and guilt-burdened as he is, are still a "we" headed "homewards." Thus the simple action they are undertaking demonstrates the possibility of a union between people after all. (As for their destination being "homewards," I think of how Robert Frost defined home, in a simple and colloquial way: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Indeed, there is no question that the grandmother has a place where someone will "take her in.")
3. The Role of Death in Life
Here, if I am remembering correctly, we circled back to the question of death and its relationship to life. At first we were still talking about illness and its surprising effects on us. Marie-José mentioned that when she faced surgery this past summer she thought she would rebound quickly -- but instead she could hardly move for weeks due to pain. This provoked Walden to observe that we cannot adequately define "health"; rather, it is only understood as the absence of sickness. His comment made me think of the saying that life is in fact defined by its boundaries, by what it is not.
This prompted me to push back on the oft-heard cliché (again, not what Walden was saying exactly, but something provoked by it) that death is what gives our lives meaning. We hear so often the line that it is this very fragility of life -- our mortality -- which makes it so precious to us. I argued that, no, this is bosh. I do not go along with the widely-accepted romanticization of death, which I think is driven by wishful thinking. I would happily take eternal life, I insisted, and have plenty of opportunities to cherish the memories of many particular episodes, many triumphs and failures, many heartbreaks and lessons learned, without needing to have in mind the threat of my eventual death in order to value it all.
Marie-José agreed with me; we took hands jokingly across the gap between our seats, and I told her I was looking forward to eternal life we would enjoy (you can all come too, really!). That disastrous 400+ year experiment of the commune (all that mud, and the smell of the pigs!) will make for some good memories in our second 400 years, when we try being astronauts.
Heather objected. "Wait a second," she said. "I don't want to let this go quite yet... Don't you think death has some utility?" she asked. "After all, without suffering, wouldn't life lose its texture, what makes it interesting?" I answered: "Oh no Heather, don't get me wrong: I'm all for suffering!" (Strange to say it this way, but it's true -- I appreciate that suffering represents change, and complications, as Heather suggests.) I continued: "I just think that, by and large, death is a drag."
(I stand by that one. Let it be a quotation that comes up next to my name on an internet search: By and large, death is a drag. -- Tom Clyde)
"After all," I continued, "Death is merely the cessation of life, and as such it offers no redemptive value. The notion that it does is, I think, a residue of supernatural thinking."
This bothered Heather. She persisted. "But what about our attraction to death as -- if nothing else -- a means of escape? In my darkest moments, I have to confess, I have occasionally though, well, at least I would no longer have to check my voice mail!"
No one could argue with that. She had backed me into a corner. But I gathered myself and came back: "Still, Heather: snuffing yourself out -- just to escape the hard parts of life -- does not redeem it. It's a horrible thought, but your voice mail will still be waiting out there on some AT&T server, long after you are gone! Death doesn't change a thing about your life except to end your relationship with it."
Our conversation having run aground on the shoals of Voice Mail (easy to do -- I think there's an episode like this in the Odyssey... Scylla, Charybdis and... Beeeeeeep), we took cautious sips of tea and gulps of wine and stared at one another uneasily for a moment. Then, thankfully, Jaimey brought us back to the text of the novel. He directed us to the last sentence of Volume III, Part Two, Chapter One, which describes the grandmother on her death bed:
"On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl" (GW, 471).
Jaimey suggested that although a person's death may not redeem his or her own life, it does provide an occasion for other people to memorialize the person who is no more. We create "cathedrals of the mind, if you will," Jaimey said, with sculptures of exquisite beauty, as Proust has done with the grandmother in this novel. Here, Jaimey contended, Proust is giving sense to the quest implicit in the title of the novel. We can recover lost time -- including lost loved ones -- through art, by recreating them in our imaginations.
Fine, I acknowledged. Death no doubt has utility for other people. It is a useful plot point in Shakespearean tragedies -- or Paul Thomas Anderson films. But let's not mix ourselves up and claim that it offers utility to the one who is actually doing the dying.
4. A Variety of Responses to the Disintegration of the Body
Next we discussed some of the ins and outs of the grandmother's extended illness, and the various ways in which the characters respond to it.
Renée mentioned the early reference to the grandmother's fever as a "crushed Python," vanquished only by the medication prescribed by Cottard (GW, 407). She noted that this metaphor slips into the mouth of Cottard a few pages later when he urges the grandmother to go out and walk to a clump of laurels on the Champs-Elyssés: "After he had exterminated the serpent Python, it was with a branch of laurels in his hand that Apollo made his entry into Delphi" (GW, 411). Is this an editing mistake -- or has the Narrator simply absorbed Cottard's metaphor and so used it himself?
We talked about the various people who come to witness the disintegration of the body. There is the mysterious "cousin" who is apparently drawn to all deaths in the family (why? a secret pleasure? a fear of death that forces him to stare it down?). And of course there are the grandmother's two cousins who do not visit because they had "discovered a musician... who gave them excellent chamber recitals," and had decided that they could enjoy a "contemplative melancholy, a sorrowful exaltation," better back in Combray (GW, 442). We heaped scorn on the Duc de Guermantes and his obliviousness to the protocols of grief. We talked about the priest who was caught peeking through his praying hands to see what the Narrator was doing. We mentioned the near disappearance of the grandfather and the father... (Are they upstairs in the house somewhere, puffing on cigars and drinking cognac? Why do they not feature in this chapter? Was this the convention, in that era, for men to retreat to the study at times of illness, just as they did during childbirth?)
Jaimey emphasized the appearance of the writer Bergotte at the grandmother's bedside. He is oddly not communicative but he is present: in fact he seems to be disintegrating as a personality as he grows older. Certainly his writing has faltered, and his social skills are in decline. Yet, Jaimey pointed out to us, Bergotte's presence provides a kind of analogy to the way in which the grandmother's identity is being preserved by the Narrator through the novel we are reading. Bergotte is nearly gone; yet the Narrator reminds us that his published books will remain. In a sense, they are already beginning to supplant his life.
This is another example, Jaimey suggested, of art transcending death. (I'm sorry, but I am still skeptical that this qualifies as transcendence, or that it is really so significant -- immortality being quite immaterial to the dead in the absence of a supernatural set of assumptions. Who cares about your set of published books -- or even their influence on future generations -- when the worms set to work on your body?)
At some point in our discussion, Miriam gave an exuberant monologue about the way in which we are all "moon dust": how the body dissipates, how odd and foreign it is, like an octopus even (quoting Proust's memorable image on GW, 404), but how we nevertheless survive in our work and the memories of others... Heather, listening closely, leaned back and said, "Whoa, man, give me another hit off that joint." (I am not doing justice to Miriam's eloquent sermon -- Miriam, can you recreate it? It was wonderfully heartfelt but I am afraid that I caught more of the energy in it than the sense.)
Finally, we discussed how the mother and the Narrator attended the death bed of the grandmother with a minimum of words. Francoise, in her inarticulate way, keeps repeating the phrase, "I feel quite upset" (GW, 464). (The Narrator observes that it is "... in the same tone in which she would say, when she had taken too large a plateful of cabbage broth, 'I've got a sort of weight on my stomach,' sensations both of which were natural than she seemed to think.") But the mother is silent. She says not a word when the grandmother first arrives home, even declining to look at her face (GW, 433). And when the Duc de Guermantes tries to engage her in social etiquette ("the complete ritual of salutation") she does not even respond to him (GW, 460). In a novel of so many words, which elevates language as a tool of transcendence and insight, it is interesting that love and devotion are expressed wordlessly.
Jaimey also had an interesting point here that Proust's father was a doctor, so he knew well the good and the bad of the profession, which we see in equal measure in this chapter.
5. Enter the Baron de Charlus
As the evening drew on we had occasion to share our reactions to end of the earlier chapter, which covered the conclusion of Mme de Villiparsis' party, as well.
We observed how creepy the Baron de Charlus is as he escorts the young Narrator to the street. I argued that his actions constitute a kind of field manual for the sexual conquest of a vulnerable young person. First, as they walk, he claims that he is putting himself out in some unspecified way, i.e. the Narrator is in debt to him. Second, he offers himself as a possible mentor; he suggests, in a memorably icky phrase, that after all, most older men have an urge "to give our time to a plant of human growth" (GW, 387). Thus, in these first two steps he gets the Narrator to agree to receive whatever it is that he will be giving. He has laid the psychological ground for what will come next.
Charlus then proceeds with step three, which is to insult and so destabilize the Narrator -- calling him "lower middle class" (GW, 388). But there is a solution to this shame: he mentions that he has "plans" for the Narrator -- in effect, a method for raising him up. And this is where it gets very claustrophobic. The Narrator, it is made clear: 1) must see Charlus every day, 2) must give up going "into society," 3) must allow Charlus, as his mentor, to be the judge of what he does and doesn't do, and 4) must jettison all but a few "right" friends (GW, 395-401).
Marie-José suggested somehow that this is a uniquely homosexual dynamic between the Baron de Charlus and the Narrator. I objected to this -- and initiated a sort of spontaneous cross-examination.
"Are you heterosexual?" I asked aggressively.
Marie-José looked at me, understandably perplexed.
"I mean, I know you are married, but I don't want to make assumptions..."
"Yes," she said, "I am heterosexual."
"Well then," I continued, "Haven't you ever had some man close in on you in this way, some older man? Someone whom you did not desire but felt obligated to?"
Marie-José waited for me to make my point.
"You see, this is a case of sexual manipulation and abuse, Marie-José! This has nothing to do with heterosexuality or homosexuality!"
She laughed and... confessed that an older man, a "potter," had once wanted to be with her, and she had witnessed some of this same behavior, but it had not been particularly threatening. In fact, she had ended up giving in, out of mere curiosity.
From the other side of the room Reneé spoke up to say that she too had experiences of this nature...
"Your voice teacher?" I asked.
"No," she said.
At this point the group was laughing, half out of humor and half out of nervousness at not knowing which of them I would start cross-examining next. I suspect that Jeff spoke for everyone when he cried out, "Tom! Hold on there, buddy. You've gone far enough with the whole District Attorney act." We all cracked up.
But the truth is, my cross-examination worked. Now we know about the potter.
Still, as we continued our conversation it became clear that I lost my larger case. For, the more we thought about it, despite my protestations, there is, in fact, something uniquely coded about the Baron de Charlus' behavior. It reflects, no doubt accurately, the dangers that gay men were subject to in Proust's time.
After all, as Jaimey pointed out, the very identity of homosexuality -- or "inversion," as Marie-José informed us it was called at the time -- was relatively new. Of course some men and women had always been drawn sexually to members of their own sex, and had acted on it, but they had resisted being labeled by that behavior (only their actions were -- sodomy, buggery, etc.). Now it was the person himself or herself that was being identified as an "invert." So there was a great deal of stigma and discomfort about this new subculture emerging in turn-of-the-century Paris.
We noted, in respect to this, how almost every reference we have read in Proust to homosexuality comes accompanied with the threat of violence. Think of that frightening anecdote about a gay-bashing that the Narrator relates to us in the Balbec section, or the incident from Volume III, Part One, of Saint-Loup brutal thrashing a man who approaches him outside the theater in Paris. Or think of the abrupt and odd behavior of the Baron de Charlus in the Narrator's hotel room in Balbec, the firm grip of the Baron de Charlus on the Narrator's arm as they walk, his derisive talk of "rent-boys"... Homosexual identity is fenced in by an extraordinary degree of fear.
André Gide famously criticized Proust for not exploring in his novel the more beautiful possibilities of an amorous love between men. We speculated whether Proust didn't really know them, or was full of a kind of self-disgust, or whether, on the contrary, he intentionally did this so as to draw his readers in, to let them assume that he is sympathetic to their bigotry -- all the better to undermine their assumptions by drawing rich portraits of the characters, including the Baron de Charlus. We shall see in Volume IV (in which, I am of the understanding that M. de Charlus ends up a major character), whether he becomes more complicated and nuanced as we go (as we are accustomed with Proust's characters). If he doesn't, I have to say that I am with Gide.
6. The Pavilion in the Park
Before closing out these notes I want to mention that we talked at some length about that trellissed pavilion in the Champs-Elyssés, where the grandmother has her stroke in her stall. The attendant there, whom we have already met when the Narrator was a boy (see Notes on the February 1, 2011 Meeting, section #3), was as vivid as ever to us.
She is described as having an "irregular face smeared with coarse paint, and her little bonnet of red flowers and black lace surmounting her auburn wig" (GW, 419). During this part of our discussion I mentioned to the group that this attendant reminds me of some capricious creature, half mortal, half god, from Greek mythology. She is a gatekeeper of sorts (are the stalls portals? Hollywood will no doubt buy the rights). Sometimes her interests have erotic overtones, sometimes cruel ones. The Narrator witnesses her turn away a desperate "shabbily dressed woman" with the lie that there are no vacant stalls -- simply because she judges her, with no evidence, to be "a bad payer" (GW, 422).
If you think about it, aren't we all subject to these capricious turns? This, after all, is what our body says to us before we die: go away, no vacant stall.
At some point in our discussion we talked too about the passage in which the Narrator speaks of the arrival of death, like a "Stranger," in his grandmother's life:
"We see ourselves dying, in these cases, not at the actual moment of death but months, sometimes years before, when death has hideously come to dwell in us. We make the acquaintance of the Stranger whom we hear coming and going in our brain. True, we do not know him by sight, but from the sounds we hear him regularly make we can form an idea of his habits. Is he a malefactor? One morning, we can no longer hear him. He has gone. Ah! if only it were for ever! In the evening he has returned. What are his plans?" (GW, 429-430).
This description of terminal illness as a Stranger reminded me of a passage in the late Christopher Hitchens recent memoir, describing the progression of his esophageal cancer (leading to his death in December of last year). Hitchens turns the Stranger into a Footman but keeps the capitalization:
"The novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down."
Shades of Proust, no? (Hitchens definitely read his Proust closely, as he did everything.)
But Hitchens, like me, does not see death as redemptive, only as he writes, something "banal." He even resists the best efforts of his friends to lend death a kind of ersatz nobility... Near the end of Hitchen's life, his friend Ian McKewan read Phillip Larkin's poem The Whitsun Weddings, aloud to him at his hospital bed. It ends with these celebrated lines, thought by many to imply the possibility of some significant passage through death:
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
To which, a few weeks later, Hitchens replied by letter:
"Dearest Ian, Well, indeed – no rain, no gain – but it still depends on how much anthropomorphizing Larkin is doing with his unconscious … I’d provisionally surmise that “somewhere becoming rain” is unpromising."
Bleak but, to my mind anyway, honest. Hitchen's death, much like the grandmother's in In Search of Lost Time, is an important event his friends and readers, but not for him. To him it is only the end.
7. It's Always Darkest Just Before Dawn
We did, however, talk about the cleansing and clarifying that the grandmother's death seems to have on the Narrator. Not a few in the group commented on the brilliance of Proust in having the superficial world of Mme de Villaparisis' party directly precede the direct and spare account of death. We know that by the conclusion of this chapter the Narrator will be changed forever. And indeed, as someone in our group pointed out, the first sentence of the following chapter begins:
"Although it was simply a Sunday afternoon, I had been born again, life lay intact before me, for that morning, after a succession of mild days, there had been a cold fog which had not cleared until nearly midday: and a change in the weather is sufficient to create the world and ourselves anew" (GW, 472).
There has been more than a change in the weather. Nice try, Marcel.
Great meeting. Very provocative. I am going to mull over the redemptive possibilities of art, even in the face of the banality of death, for the next month (and for the remainder of our Proust reading group, and for the rest of my life). It is such a gift to engage these ideas and images with such a spirited, intelligent, insightful, generous-hearted group of people. Have a great holiday time, and we'll see you in January.
Oh, and write in, as always, with any additions or criticisms or different recollections! The cork board is still up and running too -- for quotes as you read.