Our third year of Reading Proust in Berkeley begins!
For our next meeting on October 2, 2013, please read to page 146 in Volume V, The Captive, in the Modern Library translation (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
The sentence that precedes the stopping point is:
"As soon as she had begun to open her eyes with a smile, she would have offered me her lips, and before she had even said a word, I wold have savoured their freshness, as soothing as that of a garden still silent before the break of day."
Would one of our French readers please provide the equivalent page number in the French edition? Thank you.
These notes cover pages 1 to 146 in Volume V, The Captive & The Fugitive, Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
It was great to reunite with the Proust reading group on Wednesday night -- after our summer away.
We had a couple of new members (welcome Nasi and Devyani!), and many familiar faces.
At 8:30, as usual, we moved into the living-room to begin our discussion.
1. The Reading-Proust-in-Berkeley 15-second "Summarize Proust!" Competition
In lieu of a presentation for this first meeting, I had asked each member of our reading group to prepare his or her own Monty-Pythonesque, 15-second summary of the four volumes we have read so far...
-- Don bravely went first. He leaned back in his chair, draped his left arm languorously over the armrest, and stifled a yawn. Then, preceding to pluck the petals off of an invisible flower, he said quietly:
"She loves me... I love her not... she loves me... I love her not..."
-- Walden offered: "Marcel Proust: a literary slow food movement."
I initially heard this the wrong way -- in a scatological sense. That was very disturbing. But then I heard it the way Walden intended it and got it. Yes.
-- With his characteristic easy smile, Dave said (I am paraphrasing): "A petulant child with 'mama issues' re-enacts these issues with various girls as he grows older..."
Feeling a need to defend the Narrator from such a damning psychological portrait, I suggested replacing "petulant child" with, I don't know... "sensitive, genius child"?
-- I don't remember their exact wording, but Jennifer and Marie-José each read sentences that struck me as similarly dismissive of Proust's achievement (Jennifer had composed hers and M-J had come upon hers in a French magazine). In distilling it down to 15 seconds they seemed to have reduced the Narrator's character, in much the way Dave did, to a study of... neurosis, immaturity, failure.
This got my back up. But I kept silent.
-- Renée's 15-second summary consisted of a stripped-down list of a succession of encounters the Narrator has in the novel: "Girl, old girl, older girl, easy girl, call girl, young girl, gang of girls, peasant girls, girl, girl, boy/girl, boys, three boys and a girl, girl."
"Three boys and a girl?" I asked, "When was that?"
"Oh, that's the Baron de Charlus, Jupien, Morel, and Jupien's niece," Renée fired back.
"Were they all... together?"
"That was my impression," said Renée.
"Wow," was all I could say, having somehow missed anything that racy.
-- Indeed, for her summary Lucie chose to focus, exclusively, on these more... racy aspects of the novel. Written in rhyming couplets, her summary, malheureusement, ran 20.08 seconds, and therefore was disqualified for the competition.
Nevertheless I include it in full:
Life is tight when mommy gives me a good night kiss
Watch out Swann my homie, Odette is hit or miss
I jizz in my britches, Gilberte is out of luck
At Balbec those bitches could really use a fuck
Charlus is sucking dick! Does Miss A eat pussy?
That shit is getting sick. That's aristocracy.
(To truly imagine the effect, you have to add Lucie's lilting French accent to the reading.)
-- Devyani, one of our new readers, speculated that the novel is really about... death, and even more specifically, the view from one's death-bed. (She explained that she had been struck with this thought while reading the opening pages of Swann's Way, in which the Narrator drifts in and out of sleep.)
This prompted me to counter indignantly: "How can you say that? I have never read any novel that is more about life!"
Immediately, though, some members of the group stepped in to defend Devyani's view. Referencing Proust's isolation in a cork-lined room as he wrote, they suggested that this may be why the Narrator is so consumed with looking back on past events. And further, they insisted, this condition of passivity is akin to a kind of death-in-life.
I objected to this line of argument. All biographical interest aside, I pointed out, the author's reclusive existence in the last years of his life says exactly nothing about the subject of the novel! And as it so happens (despite what someone reading about Proust the writer might expect), the writing is full of characters who are all but bursting with emotions and fierce longings and ambitions and reversals and contradictions and second-guessings, characters very much at the mercy of time and growth and even decay.
In short, I continued, the novel is replete with the unmistakable ingredients of life, life, life!
To be sure, death is, from time to time, the subject of speculation in the novel (for example, as Don pointed out, the Narrator's commentary on pp. 101-102, regarding the false confidence in one's future accomplishments a person may feel when threatened with death). But death, I insisted, is by no means the axis upon which this novel turns. Quite to the contrary, it is life...
But we unceremoniously dropped this debate, however, in the interest of finishing the 2013 Berkeley 15-second "Summarize Proust!" Competition...
-- I came last. Unlike the final contestant on the Monty Python skit, I did not have beautiful breasts to enhance my presentation.
Lacking such accoutrements, I instructed everyone to lie down on the ground, on our backs, and stare at the ceiling.
I explained that when Don said the word "Begin!" we were to close our eyes.
Then Don was to silently count to 15 and say: "Now!"
At this point we were to open our eyes and look, really look, at whatever object we see first.
This, I announced, would comprise my best attempt at a 15-second summary of Proust's novel.
Much confusion and commentary followed, in which people asked what they were supposed to think about, what would happen next, why, etc. I shut it down, saying, "There will be no more questions or criticism. Do not think about anything except closing your eyes and then, 15 seconds later, opening them. Right? Ready? Let's go."
Don said, "Begin!" and we all closed our eyes.
At that very moment, arriving late, Heather opened the door in the entry hall.
"That was more like a Virginia Woolf novel..." I muttered, getting to my feet. (Woolf is known for the 'interrupted moment.')
But soon Heather had joined us on the floor and we began again...
2. The Naming of the Narrator: 'My darling Marcel.'
Once back on our chairs, it was time to begin our discussion.
To start us off, I made a stab at explaining my "15-second summary" of the novel. Why did I want everyone to close their eyes and then open them?
I explained that, to me, the moment in which Albertine names the Narrator, for the first time in this month's reading, is highly significant. After thousands upon thousands of pages of nameless narrator, she identifies him by a name at last! And this happens at the exact moment that she emerges from sleep.
The more I thought about it, I told the group, the more moved I felt by this. For I realized that this naming of the Narrator is, in fact, a very powerful answer to the opening of the novel, all those thousands of pages ago in Swann's Way.
As a boy, the Narrator's identity had seemed to him fluid, amorphous, malleable. Even the walls and furniture around him in the dark seemed to shape different rooms. He was at the mercy of objects, his body almost porous. As he grew older this fragile and fugitive nature of his identity continued to haunt him. But in this month's reading, he is finally identified by name, not by himself (which had proved impossible), but by another person!
Even more, by someone who loves him!
As she emerges from unconsciousness and formlessness Albertine sees not herself but him; she names not herself, but him. This suggests, to me anyway, that in the end our identity is forged by our relationships; we are named, as it were, by other people. We might even be said to be nothing more than the composite of how we are seen by those who interact with us.
Marie-José mentioned in this respect that the understanding of identity advanced in Proust's novel reminded her of looking into a mirrored box -- with an infinite succession of images looking back at us.
I would only add to that the idea that it is not even ourselves who looks in the eye-hole of this mirrored box, but our friends, our lovers, even our captives, our adversaries, all whom we encounter during our days and nights.
This is the insight that Proust's surprise revelation of his Narrator's name provided for me. Hence my 15-second summary was an attempt to recreate that experience for the members of our group: when you open your eyes it is not yourself but the living things or people, perhaps even the objects, that you see first that begin to define who you are; it is not something intrinsic to you, but rather, everything extrinsic to you. It is what you are not that, paradoxically, defines what you are.
When I opened my eyes on the floor I saw an orange lamp-shade: that lamp-shade. In this way of thinking, then, the recreation of that lamp-shade in my mind is who I was, is the life I was living, in that single instant. Miriam suggested that she too had a memorable experience -- is that something that you felt too, Miriam? Does anyone want to share his or her experience in the comments?
Before moving on, we spoke briefly, too, of the unique grammar of this sentence revealing the Narrator's name. At first, as we might expect, Proust has his fictional Narrator doing the talking:
"It was even more so to me that when, from the underworld of sleep, she climbed the last steps of the staircase of dreams, it was in my room that she was reborn to consciousness and life, that she wondered for an instant" 'Where am I?'... Then she [Albertine] would find her tongue and say: 'My--' or 'My darling--' followed by my Christian name..." (C, 90-91)
But then the sentence abruptly shifts its frame of reference:
"...which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be 'My Marcel' or 'My darling Marcel'."
Here we are being addressed by someone who can speak of "the narrator" and the "author" in the third person!
The question is still open, though: is this "author" Marcel Proust himself? Or is this "author" merely the grown-up (fictional) Narrator, who wrote this book as a piece of non-fiction, and is also named 'Marcel'? It is left deliberately ambiguous. Or is it some other "Marcel" -- or no "Marcel" at all?
3. On the Question of "Love"
At this point, if I remember correctly, we began swapping quotes from the reading regarding Marcel's tormented relationship with Albertine.
Some in the group, Jennifer and Heather most of all, argued that Marcel simply does not know how to love. Jennifer claimed he reminds her of a teenager (she is the mother of teenagers) in his "emotional immaturity" -- I think she also used the word "stunted." Heather, a professional psychologist, insisted that he lacks the capacity for "mutuality," i.e. the recognition that other people have entire conscious universes of their own and are not mere objects. Walden suggested that it may be very deliberate, as Proust is intending to call into question the very possibility of "love."
I queried, in response, what exactly they meant when they talked about their expectations or standards for "love." This term seemed too broad to me. After all, love can be defined as Eros, or romantic love, in which case surely Marcel's changeable but undeniably passionate feelings for Albertine qualify, don't they? Or it can be defined as a deep commitment to an ongoing companionship, in which case I believe we all struggle mightily between opposite poles of mutuality and selfishness (or objectification), don't we? Certainly Marcel and Albertine's relationship, though deceitful and manipulative, qualifies as a companionship, even if a troubled one?
I asked Jennifer directly, what makes you so certain that teenagers -- and this fictional character of Marcel -- are any more emotionally "stunted" than we all are? In many ways I think of teenagers as more emotionally raw and honest than adults!
Heather spoke up to say that, although it may be true that we all have this experience of variability and uncertainty in love on occasion, in our adulthood most of us develop techniques for achieving stability. We find a balance, with which we can show a more steady and consistent concern for our lovers and friends than Marcel shows for Albertine.
Renée spoke up here to mention the incident of the syringa (flowering branches) that Marcel brought home -- a plant which happen to have a scent that Albertine finds repulsive (C, 64).
It occured to Renée that these flowers might be a literary device, by which Proust provides a hint as to the incompatibility of these two lovers. In other words, Marcel and Albertine may be, quite simply, a bad match.
Granting Renée's point that this may be the intention of Proust, I suggested that, just as likely in my view, the syringa (and Albertine's repulsion at them), may be intended to represent the unavoidable and recurrent mismatches that occur in all relationships. "After all," I said, "don't we disagree about something on a daily, even hourly, basis, honey? We don't take that to be proof that we are definitively incompatible!" Renée answered this with a wry smile -- not sure how to read that one. (Hi honey -- luv you. I'll try to store those measuring cups on that low revolving shelf, even though it is a pain, I promise, if it means so goddamn much to you...)
I left this and turned back to the Marcel-is-just-a-mixed-up-loser camp of Jennifer, Heather and Marie-José (the latter having joined them, in my mind, when she began to look, once again, to Proust's conflicted relationship to his homosexuality for insight into his Narrator's behavior). "Certainly," I conceded, "Marcel acts like a jerk towards Albertine much of the time. Fine. It's not what we would call a harmonious relationship. Fine. But to say, in a sweeping fashion, that he is incapable of love? That goes too far, I think. Remember when he weeps upon realizing that his friend Saint-Loup is, unknowingly, in love with the scheming sex-worker, Rachel (or Zazette, as was her true name)? Remember the Narrator's tenuous but touching and lasting relationship with the insecure, intellectual poseur Bloch, how he acknowledged the kind person underneath? Remember his steady affection and respect for his artistic mentor, the painter Elstir? And think of all the good times with Albertine, when he is infused with passion for her, thinking of her "set against the sea"? Is myth-making so wrong? Are we so unlike him as you suggest? Have you all figured out how to contain the ambiguities and anxieties of love and relationships so effectively that you can confidently label this person 'normal' and 'balanced' and that person 'unhealthy' and 'stunted'? I mean, Heather, surely you have read Equus?"
Jennifer added that, in her view, underneath the "beautiful prose" of Proust's work is "cynicism, just cynicism."
I was feeling fully disagreeable by this point. "But Jennifer! 'Beautiful,' in my definition, does not exclude cynicism! What is beautiful to you? Only something that is rainbow-colored and soft?" "No," Jennifer responded calmly. "But I feel that the prettiness of the prose in this novel clouds an ugly view on the world."
4. The Geometries of Love
Walden spoke up here to say that he thinks that Proust captures very effectively in this novel the non-linear truth about relationships. Whereas our culture promotes a view of love, particularly Eros or romantic love, as a linear relationship, between Person A and Person B, Walden drew our attention to the way that the characters in this novel have, more often than not, triangular relationships. Take Marcel-Albertine-Andreé. Or Charlus-Morel-Jupien's Niece. Or Swann-Odette-Mme Verdurin. Over and over we see that people love in a thick description, a three-dimensional geometry. Not only triangles but trapezoids, parallelograms... Mandelbrot sets!
Miriam spoke up to share a different perspective on Marcel's jealousy, controlling behavior, and lies. She reminded us that he has an extraordinarily creative mind. Isn't it possible, Miriam asked, that his behavior is provoked by his prolific imagination, the multiplicity of scenarios that his mind generates? Isn't it possible that he is doing the best he can to love Albertine, but that he is caught in a complexity of his own mind, as well as being buffeted by the people around him?
5. The Sleeping Albertine and the Narrator's Infamous "Wing-Beat of a Bird"
Next we discussed the memorable way that Marcel describes one of his physical encounters with Albertine. He comes upon her sleeping, and says the following about it:
"I would climb deliberately and noiselessly on to the bed, lie down by her side, clasp her waist in one arm, and place my lips on her cheek and my free hand on her heart and then on every part of her body in turn, so that it too was raised, like the pearls, by her breathing; I myself was gently rocked by its regular motion: I had embarked on the tide of Albertine's sleep... Sometimes it afforded me a pleasure that was less pure. For this I had no need to make any movement, but allowed my leg to dangle against hers, like an oar which one trails in the water, imparting to it now and again gentle oscillation like the intermittent wing-beat of a bird asleep in the air..." (C, 87-88)
Some in the group (including me) found this description decidedly creepy. Others (including Renée and Miriam) found it to be perfectly understandable and even touching, if we keep in view the extreme sensitivity of the Narrator, who finds himself bewildered by the actions and words of people who are awake. It is a soothing break, a solace, for him to have his lover asleep and immobile. That way he can finally feel safe enough to love.
A theme was emerging in our discussion, was it not? We are what we bring to a relationship; we are stuck with ourselves, and therefore must be generous with ourselves for all of the obstacles, irritations, bad habits, danger zones that we must surmount in order to love. Judge not lest ye be judged... Pride goeth before the fall. That kind of thing.
This direction in the discussion reminded me of a passage in this month's reading that I had sent last week (via text! what would Proust make of that?) to a friend of mine in New York who is in currently embarking on a romantic relationship, fraught with the usual doubts at the beginning.
At one point, in discussing his on-again, off-again feelings for Albertine, the Narrator remarks:
"If I was not in love with Albertine (and of this I could not be sure) then there was nothing extraordinary in the place that she occupied in my life; we live only with what we do not love, with what we have brought to live with us only in order to kill the intolerable love..." (C, 121-122).
This is an amazing passage, to my mind. It makes clear, I think, why it is so rare that love survives everything else that we bring to a relationship. That's why we all tear up at weddings! Because we know, intuitively, that the couple must have thrown everything they have at it -- trying to "kill the intolerable love" -- and it still it survives, a silver cord reaching from one to the other, despite everything!
Incidentally, think about it, most of the speeches and toasts at a wedding will rightfully warn them that they will continue to bring everything other than their love to their marriage. For there is no stasis, there is no "happily ever after." This is what we must live, all the other stuff: all the disagreements, all the warps and wobbles and mishaps and misapprehensions. And when love perseveres, and even deepens anyway... well, that is something to celebrate. We can only cry with joy.
After all, it even happens to Marcel, despite all his protestations:
"Since Albertine never knew whether I might not wish to go out with her before dinner, I usually found in the hall her hat, coat and umbrella, which she had left lying there in case they should be needed. As soon as I caught sight of them on opening the door, the atmosphere of the house became breathable once more. I felt that, instead of the rarefied air, it was happiness that filled it..." (C, 65).
Doesn't know how to love indeed! He is in love! I would just say that he isn't very good at it.
But who is? Everything is always changing in time anyway. And if we think we have our lover figured out, fixed for good, made stable (or worse, "normal"), well that's the most worrisome sign of all... For, as Proust reminds us:
"[When we] assign sharply defined characters... that will be because they will have ceased to interest us, because [they] will no longer be, for our heart, the apparition which it expected to be different and which, each time, leaves it overwhelmed by fresh incarnations. Their immobility will come from our indifference to them, which will deliver them up to the judgment of our intelligence" (C, 79).
May we all pray that you and I will never be "delivered up" to the judgment of our lover's intelligence!
6. On Possession
By this time it was nearing the end of the evening, and we agreed that our discussion had captured some of the claustrophobic (though thrilling!) atmosphere of the novel. Our reading group had expressed many of the variable positions that the Narrator himself takes, when he considers his love (or lack thereof) for Albertine, and their life together in his Paris apartment.
A number of members mentioned his language of possession. After all, the book we are reading is called The Captive. One might ask, of course, who really is the "captive" -- Albertine or Marcel himself.
Jennifer read the passage in which he describes his pride in having "plucked and hidden away from the rest of the world, the fairest rose," i.e. Albertine (ML, 83). Marie-José spoke of how unusual and risky, in its day, the arrangement is -- to have Albertine live secretly in Marcel's apartment. He truly holds her captive because she cannot even be seen by neighbors.
I would like to share in these notes one passage from this month's reading that nobody mentioned at the meeting -- as I think it fits this context of claustrophobia and anxiety. Certainly it struck me as very unusual for this novel, in the near violence of its imagery.
Marcel is thinking about Mme Vinteuil, whom he knows to be a lesbian, and his dear Albertine's acquaintance with her. When Albertine merely mentions Mme Vinteuil's name on one occasion, Marcel remarks:
"I should have liked, not to tear off her [Albertine's] dress to see her body, but through her body to see and read the whole diary of her memories and her future passionate assignations" (C, 117).
This passage makes clear, I think, the true nature of Marcel's obsession with wanting to possess Albertine. The problem is not that Marcel does not enjoy Albertine's company on a daily basis. The problem is not that he cannot touch and fondle and... even "wing-beat"... the surface of her body at will. The problem is that he cannot penetrate her mind.
I would note, Heather, that this strikes me as quite the opposite of the experience of a narcissist who merely objectifies others! Marcel is in a state of constant torment not because he cannot control Albertine, but because he cannot know her. He wants to possess Albertine, yes, but he wants to possess her not as an object but as a subject. He wants to see the world through her eyes. To wake up from a deep sleep and see what she sees, be seen as she is seen. And all this is, of course, impossible.
As Don remarked, one way of looking at the novel's theme is that we are all ineluctably alone, despite our greatest efforts to understand and connect and empathize with others.
"Love," or companionship anyway, is one way to attempt to break out of the prison of our own minds, and this part of the novel is exploring the hazards of this particular form of prison break.
7. Francoise's Comment on Aging
At the end of the evening Francoise made an insightful comment about how we are witnessing the aging of our Narrator. As we move out of our adolescence most of us "settle down," as it were. And in the part of the novel we are witnessing Marcel confine himself, in a way we have never seen before, to a specific apartment, and specific routines (afternoon rides in the "motor-car" with Albertine, dinners cooked by Francoise the cook).
This process, brought on by aging, by responsibility, by slowing down, by choices, has important effects on our consciousness. We don't need to go so far as to imagine that Marcel is becoming a Republican (there's an old expression in the U.S. that young people become Republicans when they start paying taxes... That was before the Republican Party became insane). But he is surely starting to become more... what shall we call it?... conservative in certain respects. He wants familiarity. He demands routine. The sight of Albertine's hat and umbrella and coat gives him a rush of happiness because it is to be expected. So does his contemplation of how she and Francoise scrupulously abide by his rule not to wake him in the morning. So does his ritual of reading the newspaper. So does his little "wing-beat of a bird."
We see here a return to the theme, so fascinatingly explored in the opening of the novel, about the huge role that habit plays in our lives. It is both necessary and constantly calling out to be challenged. We will see what happens to the habits of Marcel and Albertine in the pages ahead.
Another thought-provoking discussion. A great start to our final year. So good to see everyone.
I realize now that we never voted on a winner in the "Summarize Proust!" competition. People can vote in the comments if they like?
My vote goes to... Don. Simply because his physical mimicry of a 19th century aesthete, in a state of ennui, was just too good. I mean, it was up there with Marcel Marceu (another "Marcel," but one not so prolix!).
This never came up in our meeting, and I thought it was too funny to leave unmentioned...
In our reading for the October 2 meeting Proust granted us a rare visual description of Albertine's body:
"Before Albertine obeyed and took off her shoes, I would open her chemise. Her two little uplifted breasts were so round that they seemed not so much to be an integral part of her body as to have ripened there like fruit; and her belly (concealing the place where a man's is disfigured as thought by an iron clamp left sticking in a statute that has been taken down from its niche) was closed, at the junction of her thighs, by two valves with a curve as languid, as reposeful, as cloistral as that of the horizon after the sun has set. She would take off her shoes, and lie down by my side" (C, 97)
Hey, that's what he sees. That made me laugh out loud when I read it.
Come to think of it, his descriptions of Albertine's breasts remind me of the speculation that Michelangelo, being homosexual, preferred to use male models for his sculptures of women -- and only added the breasts on as a kind of afterthought.
Doesn't this image of Michelangelo's Night match Proust's description of Albertine's "two little uplifted breasts," which "seemed to have "ripened there like fruit"?
Artistic symmetries through the centuries.
For our next meeting we will read to p. 353 in Volume V, The Captive & The Fugitive, Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
The reading ends with the phrase:
"...while Morel was the son of that old valet who had introduced me to the lady in pink and enabled me, years after, to identify her as Mme Swann."
The sentence that follows where we will end is:
"At the moment when, the music having come to an end, the guests came to take leave of him, M. de Charlus committed the same error as on their arrival."
A party. A Vinteuil septet. And the stirrings of a war unlike any we have ever seen before...
M. de Charlus vs. Mme Verdurin. Can you believe it?
It makes me think of those old movies pitting King Kong vs. Godzilla.
Everybody stay clear. We can expect entire landscapes to topple.
by Jeanne Oakley
I was completely blown away by the Description of Vinteuil's music, both his sonata and his new work, "the septet," in The Captive (C, 332):
"Whereas the sonata opened upon a lily-white pastoral dawn, dividing it's fragile purity only to hover in the delicate yet compact entanglement of a rustic bower of honeysuckle against white geraniums, it was upon flat, unbroken surfaces like those of the sea on a morning that threatens storm, in the midst of eerie silence, in an infinite void, that this new work began, and it was into a rose-red daybreak that this unknown universe was drawn from the silence and the night to build up gradually before me."
I had to know more about Vinteuil, and found this: a discussion, by John Adam's, at the Art Institute of Chicago:
These notes cover pp. 146 - 353 in Volume V, The Captive & The Fugitive, of the Modern Library edition of In Search of Lost Time (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
I am going to have to keep these notes more brief than usual.
We have a busy weekend ahead, and this is my chance to write down what I remember from our Wednesday meeting before it all becomes a distant memory...
So here goes. I have about an hour. Wish me luck.
Francoise and Dave brought delicious salamis and cheeses and home-baked cookies, as well as wine. Oliver, out from New York and joining our group for the second time, contributed cheese and crackers as well. We were treated to a great repast before the meeting began in earnest at 8:30.
1. Don's Presentation on Lies and the Liars who Tell Them
Don started us off by talking about the repeated lies, the paranoia, the habitual duplicity displayed by many of the characters in this section of The Captive. We all had to agree that relationships in this novel are really not made out to be too appealing.
Indeed, Don drew our attention to the Narrator's description of his relationship with Albertine as nothing less than a crime... barely held in abeyance. The words suggest a love affair, sure, but one marred only by the threat of violent death:
"In the case of Albertine, the prospect of her continued society was painful to me in another way which I cannot explain in this narrative. It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one's own like a bomb which one holds in one's hands, unable to get rid of it without committing a crime" (C, 235-236).
Marie-José took off from there. She emphasized that not only every relationship in this novel is fraught with lies and distortions, but that the author himself often gives us multiple versions of the same event. There is a tangle of manipulation everywhere you look: between the characters, between the author and his readers, between the Narrator and his author, even inside the troubled mind of the Narrator himself, who seems to verge on a state of schizophrenia at times.
I took some umbrage with this (even in my sick state, you see my dear M-J, I still had some kick in me yet!). Yes, I acknowledged, many of the characters... Marcel, Morel, the Baron de Charlus, and even perhaps Albertine (I say "perhaps" for Albertine in particular, because we should remember that everything we read about her is filtered through the subjectivity of the Narrator) -- all of these characters seem to be inconstant in the extreme. Yes, these characters and many others in the novel are engaged in games of trickery and fabrication and manipulation. But when you look closely at the specifics of their "lies" they are rarely calculated in the manner of a truly good liar (a figure who is, I would argue, far more rare than most fiction suggests). Much of their inconstancy is a result of the unavoidable changeableness of their own thoughts and emotional states in time. To my mind, then, they are not so much Machiavellian as they are... human. Their lies are often the result of their own confusion.
Following on this point, Renée shared with the group her fascination with the changes that the Narrator expresses, in quick succession, when he summons a "startling towhead" dairy-maid up to his chambers. Apparently he has developed a crush on her, based solely on her appearance. (Was it her "sharply defined nose... in a thin face, which recalled the beaks of baby vultures" (C, 179)? To each his own, we might say.) When this young girl finally stands before him, the Narrator notices his perceptions alter:
"The quivering cloud of my suppositions no longer enveloped her in a dizzying haze. She acquired an almost apologetic air from having... but a single nose, rounder than I had thought, which gave her a hint of stupidity...' (C, 184).
The "beaks of baby vultures" -- hot.
A "hint of stupidity"? -- apparently not.
Yet only moments later the Narrator raises his eyes once again "to those flavescent, frizzy locks and [feels himself] caught in their swirl and swept away, with a throbbing heart, amid the lightening and the blasts of a hurricane of beauty" (C, 185). And moments after that, upon getting distracted by the idea that his Albertine may be having an affair with the actress Léa, our dear Marcel is utterly dismissive of the dairy-girl all over again.
Which part was the lie? Which part the truth?
Perhaps Proust is demonstrating the way that lies are grown out of our unavoidably conflicted and time-bound minds. Perhaps his characters are not so far from us, after all.
Don added another twist to this discussion of lying and manipulation by quoting the Narrator on how we are most inclined to tell untruths to those with whom we are the most intimate. This occurs, Proust speculates, because strangers give us no reason to lie. Whereas those whom we love, on the contrary, fall within the ambit of our nearest desires. Which gives us every reason to lie to them.
"To be harsh and deceitful to the person whom we love is so natural! If the interest that we show towards other people does not prevent us from being gentle towards them and complying with their wishes, it is because our interest is not sincere" (C, 140).
Dave spoke up to link this part of the discussion to the larger question, which comes into clear focus at the Verdurins' party, of whether art allows us to escape these hobbling, distorting effects of everyday life. Alas, at this point the Narrator concludes that it does not. Lies -- or at least unavoidable misrepresentations and contradictions -- not only permeate our every social encounter, they also, permeate all artistic efforts. Proust even seems to issue a kind of apologia directly to his readers:
"If we are not obliged, in the interests of narrative tidiness, to confine ourselves to frivolous reasons, how many more serious reasons would enable us to demonstrate the mendacious flimsiness of the opening pages of this volume in which, from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another! Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning" (C, 250).
2. Death and the Final Judgment
The next topic of heated discussion that I can recall is about the question of judgment of a person's life, once it has ended. I spoke of how moving I found the passages concerning the death of M. Swann. The Narrator quotes the obituary that appeared in the papers, in order to show how insufficient it is. He writes of his affection for Swann:
"Swann... was a remarkable intellectual and artistic personality, and although he 'produced' nothing, still he was lucky enough to survive a little longer" (C, 262)
And then, oddly, significantly, the Narrator (or is it the author?) slips into addressing the character Swann directly:
"And yet, my dear Charles Swann, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a young idiot has made you the hero of one of this novels that people are beginning to speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live" (C, 262).
I mentioned that this reminded me of Shakespeare's many boasts of giving the gift of immortality to the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth in his sonnets. (Well-known examples include sonnet #18 or sonnet #55) It has always struck me as a cognitive mistake, prompted by the way our brains are constructed, that we want to believe that an artist or a subject can gain "immortality" through art or other forms of achievement. This kind of so-called immortality is, of course, nothing of the sort. Let's be clear: the author, Proust; his friend Charles Haas (who is thought to have inspired the character Swann, along with Charles Ephrussi); the Dark Lady; Dante's Beatrice -- none of these people ever did or are or will experience life after death.
To be sure, words or images, the work of art, will live on, but this gives any human beings implicated in it... exactly... let's pause to calculate... zero satisfaction after death. To think otherwise is, I believe, due to our innate bafflement at death; we still don't believe it, all the way up to the point where we stop believing or not believing altogether and are dead.
This raised the question for the group of what life, exactly, is most worth living. Should we aim for artistic (or other worldly) success, as Proust did? Or should we carry ourselves more modestly, as Swann and Charlus do? (I know, the word "modest" does not fit well with the mention of the Baron de Charlus, but I mean in the sense that he does not feel compelled to write the great, closely-observed novel that the Narrator senses in him (C, 291). He is too busy living.)
I admitted to the group that in recent years this is a big question for me personally, as an artist who has not been as compelled to create art as I used to be. The Narrator, while considering marriage with Albertine, thinks of all the art that he would never produce due to such a time-drain as -- gasp -- a relationship... He thinks back to the time of his youth, walking the Méséglise and Guermantes ways, dreaming of becoming a major artist:
"In abandoning that ambition de facto, had I forfeited something real? Could life console me for the loss of art? Was there in art a more profound reality, in which our true personality finds an expression that is not afforded it by the activities of life? For every great artist seems so different from all the rest, and gives us so strongly a sensation of individuality for which we seek in vain in our everyday existence! (C, 204).
We gently lobbed back and forth for a while with this question. Don spoke of how powerful the description of Bergotte's death was for him: he will never forget that small patch of yellow wall in the Vermeer painting, which Bergotte gazed at as he died (C, 245). Don felt that this last vision represented a failure on Bergotte's part; the work unfinished, the work he might have done but did not.
Yet, on the contrary, Renée said she felt that the yellow wall represented the ever-reaching desire of the artist. Even at Bergotte's last instant he was challenging himself anew:
"'That's how I ought to have written, he said. 'My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.'" (C, 244).
This is it! Renée exclaimed. This is the irrepressible urge towards beauty and never-to-be-achieved unity that Bergotte, as an artist, represents!
3. The Transcendent Possibilities of Art, and the Position of the Artist
We circled back here, I believe, to a debate we have had at previous meetings. Towards the end of this month's reading the Narrator hears Vinteuil's septet and has an epiphany.
Art, he decides, is not mere technique and "industrious toil" (as he had concluded earlier in the day, C, 209). It is a way to experience a deeper, mystical union with other people, far exceeding the way offered by relationships. The Narrator asks rhetorically:
"[I]s it not true that those elements -- all the residuum of reality which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even from friend to friend, from master to disciple, from lover to mistress, that ineffable something which differentiates qualitatively what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with others only by limiting himself to externals, common to all and of no interest -- are brought out by art, the art of Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, which exteriorises in the colours of the spectrum the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, but for art, we should never know?" (C, 343)
And he adds, working himself into a fine lather:
"The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elistir, with a Vinteuil; with men [sic] like these we do really fly from star to star" (C, 343).
I commented that I would like to mark my disagreement with this position now. (And since it appears that Proust is angling towards this near-religious conclusion of the transcendent possibilities of Great Art, I am glad for it. I look forward to this disagreement with such a brilliant antagonist as Proust!)
Heather remarked, quite accurately, that even if art does not allow us to gain immortality or transcend our own cognitive limitations, even if Proust is inflating the capacity of genius out of the limited experience of his own failure at relationships, we can still agree that we are grateful for the works of great artists. She looked at me: Tom? Can we not be grateful for Shakespeare? For Proust? For Steve Jobs? There is something important that distinguishes the modest well-lived life of Swann, collecting his paintings, visiting his mistress, dropping bon mots at various social gatherings, and the lives of René Pascal or Charles Baudelaire... no?
I had to agree on that point. Like Heather I am very grateful for all the people who have come before and achieved remarkable things. But, to my mind anyway, this does not elevate their efforts to the quasi-religious status that Proust wants to give it.
As this debate will only gather heat, I suspect, in the months to come, let's leave it there.
4. Conclusion of the Meeting
I am out of time. So these notes will have to stand. I will end with an extended passage describing -- metaphorically, alas -- the actual sex life of Marcel and Albertine.
We know that they did not consummate their love "in the full sense of the word" (C, 120). Yet they did get up to some other exciting stuff... "Oh dear," Albertine says to Marcel,
"... at the Ritz I'm afraid you'll find Vendome Columns of ice, chocolate or raspberry, and then you'll need a lot of them so that they may look like votive pillars or pylons erected along an avenue to the glory of Coolness. They make raspberry obelisks too, which will rise up here and there in the burning desert of my thirst, and I shall make their pink granite crumble and melt deep down in my throat which they will refresh better than any oasis" (C, 165).
"In the same way, at the foot of my yellowish lemon ice, I can see quite clearly postillions, travellers, post-chaises over which my tongue sets to work to roll down freezing avalanches that will swallow them up... I set my lips to work to destroy, pillar by pillar, those Venetian churches... and send what's left over crashing down upon the worshippers" (C, 166).
I remarked that a close textual analysis suggests, with a high degree of certainty, that the writer of these passages (channeling his passion through the words of his fictional character Albertine) has, in view of the copious and convincing details provided, himself experienced putting his lips to not a few... pink granite ices... in his time.
What is that maxim for aspiring writers? Write what you know. Proust appears to have done just that.
Well, great meeting. I will perhaps supplement these notes at a later date with some of the other eddies in our discussion that I have left out. In the meantime, email me with any posts you would like to add, or add your comment below!
Grand pied de grue! (Still working on my pronunciation.)
We will have our next meeting on the second Wednesday of the month. It falls on December 11, 2013. Also, please note the 8:30 pm start this time.
For this meeting please read to the end of The Captive in Volume V.
See you then!
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!