Category Archives: Marcel Proust

Seduction of the Waiter

Seduction of the Waiter

Is there a category for Proust’s hilarious technique of pasting snippets of one text onto an unrelated foundation story?  Sometimes the snippet has a teeny modification.  The result is a new high in color and humor.  A fully blown demonstration of this technique (or form? – I don’t know what to call it) is the luncheon ceremony in the hotel dining room at Balbec on M’s second visit.

At Balbec, M. Nissim Bernard (Bloch’s great-uncle) is putting the make on a young waiter and quickly (very quickly) relieves the young man of his virtue.  The waiter, forty years younger than his seducer, happily exchanges his innocence for shiny objects.  M. Nissim Bernard had not expected so rapid a conquest.  Afterwards, the older man unfailingly appears at the hotel lunchtime “ceremony” occupying his regular seat for the pleasure of viewing his boy race around the dining-room and of being waited upon by him as a stranger.

The hotel becomes theatre, spectacle, oriental temple, caravanserai and seraglio.  As MP tells this story of seduction and conquest, he interlaces it with quotes from Racine plays  – Athalie and Esther.

Athalie tells of a serious legitimist struggle between the kingdoms of Israel and Judea.  Wicked Queen Athalie has usurped the throne in Israel and installed her false god Baal there.  To ensure her throne and lineage she, on a rampage, kills all competing potential heirs except one – a toddler lying undetected among the princely bodies.  To the rescue comes his loving aunt.  The toddler heir is covered with blood and his little arms gratefully embrace her.  The aunt describes the gruesome rescue.

Et soit frayeur encore, ou pour me caresser
De ses bras innocents je me sentis presser.
(Athalie, Racine, Act I, Scene 2)

Back to Balbec. Here is M. Nissim Bernard making a move on the young waiter.  The other waiters become young Israelites.  Snippets from Racine are enlisted to show how difficult is the path of virtue – when temptations of riches and gold are dangled.  The final snippet suggests that the young man’s surrender to vice was joyous and justified because, basically, “Be merry now for tomorrow we may die”  But all the sumptuous quotations from Athalie are snagged violently out of context.  A specific (and delicious) example of the slightly altered snippet is the succumbing of the young waiter.

Et soit frayeur encore, ou pour le caresser
De ses bras innocents il se sentit presser.
(Vol II CP 872 )

Compare the altered version with the actual one from Racine above.  Even if you read only broken French, you can appreciate the sly difference.  Note the transformation by means of a few pronoun gender changes.  Now, instead of the terrified aunt rescuing the little boy from certain death and his grateful and pitiable caress, we have the hotel waiter flinging his arms around his seducer!  Other quotations in this particular scene are plucked from their serious and unrelated roots and replanted in the hotel-Temple.

Yet, somehow, in the inimitable way of the Search, there is a certain compassion for the ridiculous and aging M. Nissim Bernard whose betrayal by his new love is already adumbrated in the waiter’s coldness of manner.

I like to imagine MP sitting at his writing table, twirling his mustache(s), his Racine open to Athalie, searching and snagging just the right snippets to produce the fusion of these two scenes, the seduction of the hotel page and the tearful rescue of an innocent toddler.

Was Proust’s form  already established?  Is there a name for it?  It’s not parody; it’s not pastiche. By standard definitions, parody is an imitative spoof which mocks the work it imitates.  Pastiche is also imitation but doesn’t mock – perhaps it affectionately celebrates.  Maybe literary critics have a name for Proust’s form, but I don’t know it.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here is the scene (Vol II CP 871-872):

The fact of the matter was that he was keeping, as other men keep a dancer from the corps de ballet, a fledgling waiter of much the same type of the pages of whom we have spoken, and who made us think of the young Israelites in Esther and Athalie.  It is true that the forty years’ difference in age between M. Nissim Bernard and the young waiter ought to have preserved the latter from a contact that could scarcely have been agreeable.  But, as Racine so wisely observes in those same choruses:

Great God, with what uncertain tread
A budding virtue ‘mid such perils goes!
What stumbling-blocks do lie before a soul
That seeks Thee and would fain be innocent.

For all that the young waiter had been brought up “remote from the world” in the Temple-Caravanserai of Balbec, he had not followed the advice of Joad:

In riches and in gold put not thy trust.

He had perhaps justified himself by saying:

The wicked cover the earth.

However that might be, and albeit M. Nissim Bernard had not expected so rapid a conquest, on the very first day,

 Were’t in alarm, or anxious to caress,
He felt those childish arms about him thrown.

And by the second day, M. Nissim Bernard having taken the young waiter out,

The dire assault his innocence destroyed.

From that moment the boy’s life was altered.  He might only carry bread and salt, as his superior bade him, but his whole face sang:

From flowers to flowers, from joys to keener joys
Let our desires now range.
Uncertain is our tale of fleeting years,
Let us then hasten to enjoy this life!
Honours and fame are the reward
Of blind and meek obedience.
For moping innocence
Who now would raise his voice?

The Case, the Salon, the Invert, the Intellectual

Note:  This post to my Yahoo group was written in the first week of September, 2001 –  before the attack of 9/11.  I live less than 1 mile from what was the Twin Towers.  From my windows on the 16th Floor, I could see the whole scene dead on and smell and breathe the plume.  My group sent messages and even called.  I could barely receive calls and could not call out at all. ****************************************************

September 21, 2001

Dear Group, I am so sad to see this flurry of “unsubscribers” right now.   The list is, for me, a haven of civilization, a barricade against dumbing down, vulgarity, ugliness, barbarism and thought control.   I’m so with Murray who wrote: “I find solace in all the histories and novels that I read. I know that the human spirit will not be defeated.” Before the attack, I was drafting a post.  Here it is in embryonic form – too long and  repetitive – I hope not impossible.  I submit it to be a voice against unsubscribing.  Your responses will help me clean it up. Goodbye.  I just now looked at an update on the news.  I’m scared … but carrying on.   I send you all the best.  Thank you for your messages and phone calls.



The Case, the Salon, the Invert, the Intellectual

The Search is not only a Bildungsroman, a Kunstlerroman, an ironic novel, a novel about {recovery of lost time, the fluidity and perspectival nature of truth, multiplicity of selves, external world refracted in inner vision etc. etc.}  The Search is also a social epic which captures at the highest level of art the convulsions and transformations of fin-de-siècle France, recording, for example, inclusions and exclusions within salon society depending on which side they marched in the Dreyfus Affair (“The Case”).   But so many pooh-pooh the importance of historical detail – if not entire context.  Why? I suspect (… and I’m probably in hot water here) that the reason for the underplay is lassitude (uhhhh –  laziness?) It’s more fun to deal with the universals of Truth, Beauty, Eros, Human Nature;  more fun to stay within inner vision and sensual metaphor than to do the boring work of reading history and social background.  I know this because I am guilty.  But, I don’t buy that the details of the political landscape are beside the point; that the only valid job is to extract the lasting “universals.”  Proust himself was an advocate of particulars; his social kaleidoscope cannot be understood without the actual, non-abstract historical and political context.

Carol wrote: “The glittering social groups portrayed in The Search were simply normal, everyday acquaintances to the Narrator and he was equally fascinated by other sections of society (e.g. servants) so the setting of the work is just the happenings of everyday life.”

Malcolm wrote:  “… I wouldn’t worry too much about the fine detail of the Dreyfus affair. If you know the main details, that’s enough (Captain Dreyfus, Jewish officer in French Army wrongly accused of treason, a grossly unfair court-martial, senior officers prepared to commit perjury, found guilty, sentenced to life on Devil’s Island, then exonerated a couple of years later when Esterhazy, the real traitor, was discovered). It is interesting in the way in which the case split French society.”

I have a different view.  The fine details do matter – Peter pointed out that Nabokov wanted his students to “caress the details.” … not to mention that that’s where the devil is.

Glittering society was unique in its social transformations in the early third Republic (1870-1940), marked singularly by, but not restricted to, the Dreyfus Affair.  Inclusions and exclusions spiked noticeably. The dramatic changes in salon composition are meticulously tracked by Proust with respect to class, blood, wealth and artistic or intellectual stature.  Independent of The Search, I learned that salon society is recognized as an institution which both registered and effected social change; it was both mirror and agency.   One theory (Hannah Arendt) goes further to say that the degree of inclusion or exclusion of Jews and homosexuals inside the salons is an index to the stability or instability outside; or an index to just how well society coped with its perennial disease – boredom.  In Origins of Totalitarianism, there is a chapter on the Dreyfus Affair preceded by several pages on Proust.

The life of this greatest writer of 20th C France was spent exclusively in society; all events appeared to him as they are reflected in society and reconsidered by the individual, so that reflections and reconsiderations constitute the specific reality and texture of Proust’s world … his inner life … became like a mirror in whose reflection truth might appear … there is no better witness of this period when society had emancipated itself completely from public concerns, and when politics itself was becoming part of social life.

We see M traveling up through the salons (Mme Villeparisis–> Duchesse Guermantes–>Princess Guermantes –>and more); Verdurin, the vulgar rich lady is honing hers.  Odette, the unlettered courtesan,  builds one.  The well established aristocratic salons are dramatically reconfiguring.

I’m not saying that The Search’s main aspect is social epic or historical reportage, but I believe that we grossly underrate Proust’s astonishing achievement in this area.  It’s not that he “reduced” his book to particularities (in a “Naturalist” way) by sinking it into actual time and place and thereby squandering universality – a requirement for literary survival.  He was not a Naturalist … but neither was a he a Symbolist (to name-drop some extremes.)  His genius and magic in capturing the social transformation and realignments with their attendant abstract issues of Truth and Justice is that he records, without turning into a bloodless historian, note-taker or without blasting (and numbing) us with discursive polemic (as in Magic Mountain, my view.)  Taking the time to acquaint oneself with the social and political picture of the third Republic will be amply rewarded.   This is the time that the “Citoyen” became “Bourgeois”; divisions were redefined from sharp class and blood lines {clergy, military, royalty, nobility} to something different (more “democratic”?)  BTW, the movie “Grand Illusion” is an excellent adjunct to the issue of social realignments.

When the Case breaks open, the fury, longevity and most of all its scope can be understand only against history.  The Case, catalytically, propelled forces of change already well brewing.  And, as it emerged from the historical past, it augured the horrible future.  Here’s a smattering that I’ve picked up in some cursory background reading.

The military enclave is world unto itself – its position is a holdover from earlier times – it is straining to hold on to its independence.  The clergy is clutching at its waning power (look up a huge fight there on the education front – parochial vs public).  The rising bourgeoisie is accumulating mountains of money and frothing at the bit to break into the bastions of birth and privilege – while the aristocrat members are closing rank at the Jockey club against these arrivistes banging on its doors.   And, there is the smarting defeat in the recent Franco Prussian War with some groups yearning for revenge and action.  Don’t forget the Panama scandal, that crooked deal which cast a net over suborned Government people as well as huge numbers of ordinary bourgeois who personally lost money – that scandal where two Jewish-German scumbags played a heavy role.  (One, before he committed suicide, gave over to the vicious anti-Semite Drumont, the long list names of government members on the take or otherwise implicated.  They quaked in their boots every morning waiting to see if their names would appear in Drumont’s newspaper.  And appear they DID.)  Reference to these events permeate the work.  Understanding these references to the Panama scandal, L’Aurore, revisionism, the anti-semitic “leagues”, Picquart vs. Henry etc. etc. deepens the reading just as much as the abstract discussions of Altruism vs Egoism and the varieties of inverts.  I suggest for background reading, you wet a toe in the ocean of writing about the era and particularly of Dreyfus (but you don’t have to drown yourself.)

Here is a tiny sample of quotes showing the turning social kaleidoscope jolted by the Case.

Duchesse de Guermantes: “…I do think it perfectly intolerable that just because they’re supposed to be right-thinking and don’t deal with Jewish tradesmen, or have ‘Down with the Jews’ written on their sunshades, we should have a swarm of Durands and Dubois and so forth, women we should never have known but for this business ….” (Vol II GW p245)

Charlus: “All this Dreyfus business …has only one drawback.  It destroys society by the influx of Mr and Mrs Beasts … which I find even in the houses of my own cousins, because they belong to the Patriotic League, the Anti-Jewish League, or some such league, as if a political opinion entitled one to a social qualification.” (Vol II GW p300)

Swann, reporting to M. what the Prince de Guermantes said: “Well, my dear Swann, about eighteen months ago, a conversation I had with General de Beauserfeuil made me suspect that, not an error, but grave illegalities, had been committed in the conduct of the trial.’ ” (Vol II CP, page 731)

PS While reading for background, I learned that the entire notion of “the intellectual” is attributed categorically to the Dreyfus Affair.  The day after Zola’s “J’Accuse” was published (Jan. 13, 1898) in Clemenceau’s newspaper (L’Aurore), a petition of protest was published there – soon called the “Manifesto of the Intellectuals.”  Among its signatories was Marcel Proust.  When Zola emerged from his role as prophet and became priest, he galvanized the academicians, writers, journalists to come forward en masse in protest – not so much against anti-semitism as against the lies and the corruption; he believed, unlike Norpois (the instrumentalist, the creature of diplomacy), that Truth and Justice are inextricably linked – and, therefore, Truth had come to light.  I have read, but can’t now find the source, that Proust was a prime mover in the very process of drafting this courageous petition.  An  article in New York Review of Books (Sept. 20, 2001) called “Intellectuals and Tyrants: the Lure of Syracuse” by Mark Lilla refers to the birth of “the intellectual” within the Affair.

Manifesto of the Intellectuals.  L'Aurore, January 14, 1898

Manifesto of the Intellectuals. L’Aurore, January 14, 1898

PSS.  I seem to remember that Françoise makes a remark that I now can’t find, for the life of me.  Something like “intellectual, intellectual … that’s all I hear about.”  Speak, Memory!  I would be grateful to know if she does say that.


Music, Memory and the Impermanence of Love

Music, Memory and the Impermanence of Love

At Mme Verdurin’s, Swann heard the Vinteuil sonata for the second time and was again enraptured.  The first time was pre-Odette. The notes of the sonata have no material equivalent in the real world, the narrator remarks; they don’t correspond to anything.  Therefore, were it not for memory, they would live out their lives in performance and then vanish completely.

Notes vanishing

Notes vanishing

Memory saves music from vanishing into non-being, into oblivion.  Memory acts as music’s stenographer – recording a transcript and thereby making it permanent.  The notes won’t float off into nothingness.  This compressed notion of the permanence of music through memory, bursts out in full at Mme Euverte’s dinner party some 150 pages later.

memory as stenographer of music

Memory as stenographer of music

At Mme Euverte’s dinner party, the Vinteuil sonata becomes the Rosetta stone for Swann’s clear realization that Odette has fallen out of love with him. He begins an excursus on music and memory :”There are in the music of the violin ..” [Vol I SW 378].  Swann understands that Odette’s love is transitory because he understands that memory of music is permanent.  The tenacious and persistent permanence of musical memory is held up in relief against the fickleness and impermanence of love.

To see how this works, we need first to see how music is permanent.  Musical memory is set on an equal footing with certain ideas of the intellect like notions of “light, of sound, of perspective.” [Vol I SW 381]  These “ideas” are firmly lodged; they are divine captives

Divine captives - Raphael

Divine captives – Raphael

of the soul; they don’t vanish.  We can no more get rid of these general and abstract ideas than we can, say, doubt that the room is light after the lamp is lit.  The permanence of music through memory is explained in terms of this notion.  To memorize a piece of music is to install that music into the inner hardware of the soul as firmly as light or perspective.  The music is then never forgotten.  Consider how music you’ve heard decades ago is still “in” there somehow.  You have only to jump-start the first few notes from, say, an advertisement or an overture in order to ignite the whole song or piece, to re-call it into being.  Music, once installed, becomes as stubbornly and irrevocably existent like a Kant category inside or a Platonic form above.  It exists permanently without material equivalent, “sine materia.” [SW,Pg. 228]  Through this thought-train, “Swann was not mistaken in believing that the phrase of the sonata really did exist.” [Vol I SW 381]

Music is not only existent in reality, its ontological status is high; it enjoys a very chic kind of existence.  It has a lot of “ontos” in two ways:  music is determined and it lasts a long time.  How “determined”? The very reality of music is determined in that there’s no open-endedness about it.  To clarify this concept, Swann compares musical dialogue between the piano and violin

Dialogue - piano and violin

Dialogue between piano and violin

to spoken dialogue.  Unlike speech, music has an inner “inexorable logic.”

The fundamental premises move “inevitably to the conclusion as in a syllogism.”  Spoken dialogue is filled with fancy and possibility; the outcome is open, unknown and indeterminate at the beginning.  But musical dialogue has no such indeterminacy.  It is closed.  To illustrate what Swann is thinking, consider the resolution of a chord set, where any other chord except the right one would jar and be immediately recognized as inauthentic, as a “counterfeit.”  The resolution “determines” the dialogue.  Thus music trumps speech, it is “here”, has more chic by the evaluative criterion of determinacy.

And … music lasts a long time, once it gets “in” to the memory.  The destiny of the ideas like light, sound and, now, music in the mind or soul is linked to the future in that their mortality is identical to our own.  They will perish only when we do.  Music is not forgotten because it becomes a structure within the very soul itself, like an idea – a form of the understanding.

But love, on the contrary, hangs out on the outer fringes, rising and falling away. Perishes.    So music also trumps love in time as well as determinacy.

The music excursus ends abruptly with

“From that evening onward, Swann understood that the feeling which Odette had once had for him would never revive….” [Vol I SW 384]

This conclusion initially puzzled me.  What did Swann’s musing about the permanence of music have to do with love?  It wasn’t until I had performed the tortuous exegesis (above) that the passage disclosed itself to me.  That is, I had to “decipher” it.

“What we have not had to decipher and to analyse by our own efforts, anything that was clear before we came, does not belong to us.”  [Vol III TR 914]

But effort and persistence rewarded; I understand the connection now.  It is a connection simply by way of contrast and opposition.  (Now, it seems obvious!)  Love, unlike music, does not persist in memory in the way that “ideas” do.  When I say that someone “gets under my skin” (meaning that I am in love with that person, can’t stop thinking about that person) that’s exactly the limit of love that is described.  Love is just skin-deep.  Never deeper.  Love never achieves status as an idea; it never becomes a divine captive of the soul nor an idea of the intellect like light or sound or perspective or music; that would be a far deeper and permanent place.

PS.  The Search has several kinds of memory weaving in and out.  Famously, there is memory of the involuntary kind – exemplified by the tea and madeleine incident.  But musical memory and madeleine memory are quite different.  One way to distinguish them is by the onset.  Madeleine memory

Madeleine memory

Madeleine memory – recalling by taste and smell

erupts via the sensory transmitters of taste, smell and feel.  Musical memory can erupt merely by a jump-start of the first few notes; the rest follows.

Forgotten music recalled by a jump-start.

Musical memory – recalling by a jump-start of notes.

So, one difference is that madeleine memory is mediated by a sensory experience totally different from the memory that ensues.  Musical memory is unmediated altogether or is mediated by a sample of the same or similar music.

These sections [Vol I, 227-230 and 378-384] suggest that music has a privileged entrée to what is “underneath” appearance, to what is really really real and are often read as subscription to Schopenhauer’s theory of music.  For Kant, knowledge of the phenomenal world – a mixture of sensation and intellect – is the limit of human understanding.  One cannot penetrate beyond what appears to us to some deeper “essence” or to the  “thing-in-itself.”  Not music, nor anything else will get us beyond the phenomena.  Schopenhauer, in opposition, said that music would, in fact, contact the thing-in-itself – the noumena, the world beyond appearance.  Hearing music puts the soul directly in touch with essence (the transcendent, substantial) – unmediated by human tools for knowing and perceiving.

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.

Post – Bookends of the Search

The Bookends of the Search Contain a Secret

The first paragraph and the last form a stunning pair of bookends which contain a secret.  The secret is an homage to an unnamed titan of French letters.  The titan’s name appears nowhere in The Search, but his legacy is felt and Proust knows it and cherishes it.  I call this homage a secret because I’ve never come across it in Proust commentary.  But it’s out of the closet now.  Remember, you read it here first.  (If you find it somewhere else, please let me know!  I first revealed the secret to my Yahoo Proust group in 2003.)

The beginning of The Search, page 1, paragraph 1, takes place in that dusky state of hypnagogia where all is possible.  In bed, M holds a book and reads by candlelight.  Just barely drifting off, he imagines that he himself is the subject of the book.  “It seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book.”


First paragraph of The Search

First paragraph of The Search

The end of The Search, 3000 pages later, after all the disappointments and joys, the failed loves, the gatherings, the artists, the tastes and smells, the revelations, time lost and regained – after all that, at the final gathering, M observes his people; they are old and tottery.  They are walkers perched on living stilts which become dangerous as they grow and raise the walkers to untenable heights … from which they suddenly fall. “ … as though men spend their lives perched upon living stilts which never cease to grow until … they fall.”

Last page of The Search

Last page of The Search

So the Proust bookends begin with the narrator as reader – one whose drowsy imagination seduces him into believing that he is the subject matter of his book.  The ending bookend portrays humanity as perched on stilts.

Now consider another pair of identical bookends  – this one centuries earlier.

First, the beginning.  The proem “To the Reader” is so remarkable and charged that I have to read and re-read it several times.  Here I pick out just the idea relevant to this note.  The writer tells that he portrays himself, that he himself is the subject matter of his book.  “it is myself that I portray … I am myself the matter of my book.”

The first page of the Essays

The first page of the Essays

The final page, 1000 pages later, observes that we always “go outside of ourselves because we do not know what it is like inside.”  But this external excursion that we do to ourselves is folly because we must still confront and account for our internal dispositions, habits, tastes, our insides.  And here comes the surprise.   The unnamed titan goes on to use the stilts metaphor: “There is no use mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must still walk on our own legs.  And on the loftiest throne we are still sitting only on our own rump.”  The century is the 16th and the titan is Michel Montaigne – author of another masterpiece, the Essays.

The last page of The Essays

The last page of The Essays

So the bookends of The Search mirror the bookends of The Essays and in doing so pay a proud homage.

And is this important?

It’s important. I believe that Proust saw himself in a direct line of “the grand tradition” of French letters – that he stood on classical giant shoulders …  Pascal, Racine, Descartes, La Fontaine and others.  The identical bookends are his grateful and graceful grace notes to that tradition.







Double Pastiche


Luncheon Visitor

Luncheon Visitor


Double Pastiche

One fine Sunday after Mass, I was allowed to walk alone along the Vivonne. My eyes savored the grasses and purple wildflowers along the bank and drank its watery surface dappled with iridescent insects. Perfume from the pink and white blossoms of nearby apple and pear trees seized me with such joy that I had to rest on the high bank to calm my beating heart. My body drifted into a sweet hypnagogia lingering there until the sound of laughter turned me, an aural tropism, in its direction. I saw a group seated on the grass – a most curious group consisting of two fully and well attired gentlemen and two women whose unconventional dress further fixed my gaze. One, seated with the men, was entirely, voluptuously, naked; the other was disrobing in the near distance. A cornucopia spilled its bountiful cargo of oranges, grapes, cheese, breads, wine bottles and glasses onto the grass in a tempting disarray. The woman placed an orange segment into the mouth of her gentleman causing my own taste to be aroused from afar by that ambrosia al fresco and I did not resist, but could not explain, the waves of longing and pleasant trembling that came over me. Abruptly, I was forced to abandon my fragrant bower when a violent curtain of summer rain concluded the unfinished luncheon on the grass.

What is this thing called “reality?”

July 14, 2003

What is This Thing Called Reality?

My art teacher quipped: “The reality in art is different from the reality in reality.”  This quip trained a flashlight on a section in the Search that had been tormenting me for hours (days).  From a syntactical viewpoint, the section was not as tormenting as some of those many-splendoured-sentences with clauses subordinate to subordinate clauses until backwards reels the mind.  But if the syntax was not cruel, the meaning was leashed.  His quip helped unleash the meaning.

The tormenting section lies between pages 380 and 388 in The Captive.  (page numbers refer to Vol III (of III), Vintage/Random House silver edition, Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation.   To bypass the “who is speaking?” issue (it’s irrelevant here), I use the designation “M” to refer to Marcel/ I/Narrator or Marcel Proust.

Scattered throughout the tormenting section, reference is made to “two hypotheses.”

… the effort necessary to lay bare the truth  — two hypotheses which recur in all important questions … we must choose between them … [Vol III 380]

Well, excuse me, what ARE the two hypotheses?

Sometimes there is a sneaky and unhelpful pointer to one hypothesis or the other – a coy and starchy guide like “the former,” or “the other.”  What IS this problem that is present in “all important questions” and is addressed by the two hypotheses??   Grrrr.  What is M tormenting me with??  Not only are there two hypotheses, but he also tells me that I must CHOOSE between them!!  How the hell can I do that if I don’t know what they are or what they speak to?

What follows is my take on what the problem is and what its two solution hypotheses are.  (It’s only my interpretation, not my own personal view on the problem – if, there even IS such a problem).  In the text below, from pages 380-8, I numbered and capitalized a few phrases in order to refer to them.

My teacher’s quip lit up the basic geography of the topic; we are squarely in the world of speculative metaphysics.  This is the knotty, rarified world of questions concerning “reality”.  The “two hypotheses” (1) concern its nature.  Is there more than one kind?  If more than one, is there a ranking where one kind trumps the other in value?  More specifically, M muses on the status of art, memory and impression in the great chain of Being.  He speculates on which KIND of reality those slippery phenomena are.  Does art point to another reality “beyond” itself?  How does one explain the variation in clarity or vagueness of sensation, impression and memory?  Does the degree of clarity in the impression depend on the “degree of reality?” in the object of the impression?  Can a thing be “more real” than something else? (6)  This reality problem is a really really big one – it undergirds “all important questions.”  Basically, to resolve the problem, M entertains two, just two, hypotheses – also designated as “explanations” (4).

ONE of the hypotheses is the “materialist hypothesis” (5).  It says that the universe is monistic; that is, there is only one “kind” of reality and it is material.  It is the ontological WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).  It’s the “material explanation.” (5) 


What you see is not what you get - I

What you see is not what you get – I


This arid hypothesis dismisses my “feeling” (3) that reactions and states of my soul gesture to something “more exalted, more pure, more true” than what just meets my eye and my immediate impressions.  There is nothing, says the material hypothesis,  that is “more real” in those states of my soul than any other (6).

THE OTHER hypothesis says that there IS more reality than just meets the eye.

What you see is not what you get - II

What you see is not what you get – II

What You See Is not All That You Could Get.  Why?  Because art is real too (2)  Reality is therefore (at least) dualistic; it is not just the material that is real.  Art gestures toward a universe “beyond itself.”  Art is a kind of “spiritual reality” (3) that corresponds/transcends/is beyond the material.  The vagueness and happiness in the impressions registered by the madeleine soaked in tea or in Vinteuil’s music is due to their “profundity” and to their “spiritual reality.”  That is the reason that one can describe the reality in Vinteuil’s music only metaphorically, like the perfumed scent of a geranium (3).  The scent captures the mode in which Vinteuil heard that other reality, that other universe, – beyond immediate impressions.

So, after this schema, is one or the other of these rarified hypotheses ultimately “chosen” by M?  Does he follow his own stern order – that we MUST choose?  He’s drawn to the one, thinking that there is nothing beyond the immediate tangible world, but then the irresistible lure of happiness and joy from the tea or the smell of mouldering wood draws him to the other.  So, apparently, no; he doesn’t choose. He remains the careful DOUBTER (6), ostensibly holding final answers at bay.  But, we really know, down deep, he’s not one of those rank meat and potatoes materialists.  He knows that those spiritual states of profound happiness are not illusory, neither are they caused by “illusions” (6).

It’s really not all that philosophically complicated; just hidden and leashed – just begging for undivided attention (lots of that) and assiduity (lots of that too).  There are other subjects (more important ones) that float through this section; but for me, before I could lay out this underlying metaphysic, I didn’t get very far.

I am beholden to my life-drawing teacher for his quip … but perhaps I did not unleash the meaning properly after all.  Maybe it’s still tethered and locked in there on those pages.

Happy Belated Bastille Day,


Here is the text that has been tormenting me.  I inserted the numbers so that I can refer to that portion of the text.

 … This reaction from the disappointment which great works of art cause at first may in fact be attributed to a weakening of the initial impression or to the effort necessary to lay bare the truth (1) TWO HYPOTHESES which recur in ALL IMPORTANT QUESTIONS, questions about the truth of Art, of Reality, of the Immortality of the Soul; WE MUST CHOOSE BETWEEN THEM; and, in the case of Vinteuil’s music, this choice was constantly presenting itself under a variety of forms.  For instance, this music seemed to me something truer than all known books.  At moments I thought that this was due to the fact that, what we feel about life not being felt in the form of ideas, its literary, that is to say intellectual expression describes it, explains it, analyses it, but does not recompose it as does music, in which the sounds seem to follow the very movement of our being, to reproduce that extreme inner point of our sensations which is the part that gives us that peculiar exhilaration which we experience from time to time and which, when we say “What a fine day! What glorious sunshine!” we do not in the least communicate to others, in whom the same sun and the same weather evoke quite different vibrations.  In Vinteuil’s music, there were thus some of those visions which it is impossible to express and almost forbidden to contemplate, since, when at the moment of falling asleep we receive the caress of their unreal enchantment, at that very moment in which reason has already deserted us, our eyes seal up and before we have had time to know not only the ineffable but the invisible, we are asleep.  It seemed to me, (2) WHEN I ABANDONED MYSELF TO THIS HYPOTHESIS THAT ART MIGHT BE REAL, that it was something even more than the merely nerve-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 (3) EXALTED, MORE PURE, MORE TRUE,  DOES NOT CORRESPOND TO SOME DEFINITE SPIRITUAL REALITY OR LIFE WOULD BE MEANINGLESS.  Thus nothing resembled more closely than some such phrase of Vinteuil the peculiar pleasure which I had felt at certain moments in my life, when gazing, for instance, at the steeples of Martinville, or at certain trees along a road near Balbec, or, more simply, at the beginning of this book, when I tasted a certain cup of tea.  Like that cup of tea, all those sensations of light, the bright clamour, the boisterous colours that Vinteuil sent to us from the world in which he composed, paraded before my imagination, insistently but too rapidly for me to be able to apprehend it, something that I might compare to THE PERFUMED SCENT OF A GERANIUM.  But 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 his music, (4) 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 splinters), the mode by which he “heard” the universe and projected it far beyond himself… [Vol III 380-382]

But while she was speaking, and I thought once more of Vinteuil, it was the other, the (5) 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 Vinteuil’s phrases seemed to be the expression of certain states of soul analogous to that which I had experienced when I tasted 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, (6) SO THAT THERE MIGHT BE NOTHING MORE REAL IN THEM THAN IN OTHER STATES.  And yet that happiness, that sense of certainty in happiness while I was drinking the cup of tea, or when I smelt in the Champs-Elysees a smell of mouldering wood, was not an illusion… [Vol III 388]