Riding Aristotle at Saint-André-des-Champs

September, 2004

Riding Aristotle at Saint-André-des-Champs

Phyllis Riding Aristotle by Hans Baldung Grien, 1513

Phyllis Riding Aristotle by Hans Baldung Grien, 1513

Close reading sometimes discloses more puzzles than it dissolves.  Here I am well along on a second reading.  I’m in The Fugitive and am startled by  “ …. from that Saint-André-des-Champs side of her [Andree’s] nature which Albertine too had shown me at the start.”  I pause.  I ask “Now what is that nature?”  Obviously I missed something in the previous 2000 pages – twice.  I recognized the name of the church, but what did it stand for?  After some searching, I think I can now depuzzle it.  (If others demystify, I don’t see why I can’t depuzzle.)  It turns out to be not that much of a puzzle, after all – I just didn’t get it without deciphering.

How French that church was!  Over its door the saints, the chevalier knights with lilies in their hands …the medieval artist and the medieval peasant (who had survived to cook for us in the nineteenth century) …[SW 164-165]

…for I foresaw that she [Françoise] would speak of them as being among those duties which could not be avoided, according to the laws laid down at Saint-André-des-Champs..[GW149]

…of the little French peasant whose type may be seen in stone at Saint-André-des-Champs [GW 381]

…from that Saint-André-des-Champs side of her [Andree’s] nature which Albertine too had shown me at the start. [FUG 616]

… the best in the Frenchmen of Saint-André-des-Champs, lords, citizens and serfs …[Vol III TR 760]

…a good Frenchman according to the rule of Saint-André-des-Champs [Vol III TR 872]

the greatness of France, her greatness of soul, her greatness after the fashion of Saint-André-des-Champs.  [Vol III TR 876]

Obviously, the church stands for something.

The church of Saint-André-des-Champs is located by the Méséglise Way in Combray.  It is not THE church – the one that clutches at the heart.  That one is Saint Hilaire next to Aunt Léonie’s house right in the town.  Saint-André-des-Champs is outside the town, out in the fields.  For Marcel, it is that which is quintessentially French – but medieval and feudal French.  It is representative of the solid, loyal serf and peasant sensibility (as well as the Nobility and Monarchy).  The sculpted stone saints and angels on its porch were modeled for the sculptors by medieval peasants.  Their faces and worldview repeat down through history and Marcel sees them today in the cooks and coachmen all around him.  Thus, when we read of “the laws laid down at Saint-André-des-Champs” we understand these to be the manners, limitations, aspirations and proprieties set down by the French feudal code.  Françoise and Théodore seem to be the most representative of these “laws” (although both Albertine, Andree and Saint Loup have that “side” in their natures too.)

To say that Saint-André-des-Champs stands in for French feudal manners and mentality is not to demean or to belittle.  Just the opposite is made clear in Time Regained against the background of the war (WWI).  There, people of different classes, noble and ignoble, attest to the greatness of France, her greatness of soul, through their conformity with the medieval rules of Saint-André-des-Champs.

What are these medieval rules? –  Loyalty and Strict Placement and Keeping One’s Place are some.

It is interesting that Charlus does not ever seem to be associated with that church and its rules even though he is often associated, like Françoise, with medieval and feudal.  Perhaps it’s because he carries a whiff of the German whereas Saint-André-des-Champs is pure French.

One day on a walk, foul weather causes the family to scurry out of the rain and into the church.  M notes the stone carvings and their usual scenes –   weddings, funerals, saints.  Then, in a new sentence he goes on to observe that the sculptor  “also” recorded “certain” anecdotes of Aristotle and Virgil.  These tiny words “also” and  “certain” are unmistakably the Proustian mark of something unusual –  coy little droppings – whispered hints that there is more here than meets the eye – usually sexual.

Often, too, we would hurry to take shelter, huddled togethercheek by jowl with its stony saints and patriarchs,under the porch of Saint-André-des-Champs. How French that church was! Over its door the saints, the chevalier kings with lilies in their hands, the wedding scenes and funeralswere carved as they might have been in the mind of Françoise. The sculptor had also recorded certain anecdotes of Aristotle and Virgil, precisely as Françoise in her kitchen was wont to hold forth about St Louis as though she herself had known him, generally in order to depreciate, by contrast with him, my grandparents whom she considered less “righteous.” One could see that the notions which the mediaeval artist and … [Vol III SW 164]

Aristotle and Phyllis, 15th C. Rouen Cathedral

15th C. , Rouen Cathedral

So  what’s with these certain anecdotes of Aristotle and Virgil?  The back story on Aristotle is his situation.  He’s down on all fours like a horse.  He’s being ridden and often flogged by a beautiful woman,  Phyllis.  Iconoclastic.  Pagan.  Strange image for a church.

Cadouin Abbey, France

Cadouin Abbey, France

But, amazingly, this was a not an uncommon medieval depiction in painting, sculpture, ivories, wood and found in churches. Google “Aristotle Phyllis”.  One explanation is that he was crazy with lust for Phyllis.  She agreed to sex on the condition that she go astride and whip him.

I don’t know what’s with Virgil — but with Proust, it’s most probably sexual. Perhaps the sculptor of Saint-André-des-Champs gestures at homosexual love in the Eclogues? Corydon?

All this in the little words “also” and “certain” as the family waits for the weather to break.*


*I am indebted to Leland de la Durantaye in this article in the Boston Review  for noticing the tiny, coy reference to Aristotle.