Inquisition of Swann – An Operatic Drama

The Inquisition of Swann – an Operatic Drama

This post concerns the first third of Swann in Love, but primarily [Vol I SW 272-290] from: “And so, in the whole of the Verdurin Circle, there was probably not a single one of the faithful ….” to “Swann was still unconscious of the disgrace that threatened him …”

The opening paragraph of Swann in Love [Vol I, 205] fires off a list of descriptors for Mme Verdurin’s salon:  the little nucleus, the little group, the little clan, the faithful, the little church.  Although these several descriptors are used more or less interchangeably throughout The Search, the last is particularly apt for the story of Swann’s inquisition on the eve of “fall from grace.”  In the little church a “new recruit” who falls short of the “orthodoxy” of its “creed” and fails to “abjure” his previous odious allegiances is subject to “expulsion” and “banishment.” [Vol I, SW 273)  The likening (simile? metaphor? analogy? trope?) of the Verdurin salon to a hermetic dogmatic church with Mme V. at its helm is simultaneously droll and savage as rendered in the inimitable Proustian ironic.  The stage is set at the first of the five or six dinner parties of The Search.  The Grand Inquisitor, Mme Verdurin, and her court of the faithful will test and try Swann, the unregenerate convert who will not yield up an abjuration of his secret ties to the bores, the bluebloods, the aristocracy.  Strict and scary requirements of dogma are well established.  For his “resistance to complete conversion,” the Inquisition of Swann is about to begin.

Before taking on the role of spectator at this operatic drama, I must note several allusions.**  I mention the Inquisition and two of its famous practitioners — Blanche of Castile and the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada.

The Inquisition was established in the 13th C. to discover and punish Christian heresies, specifically the flourishing Cathars in western Europe.  Blanche of Castile, Queen Regent of France, battled rebellious nobles as well as her Cathari heretics.  Dressed in white, she rode fearlessly into battle at the head of her troops mounted on a white horse draped in white.

Two centuries later in Spain, the targeted heretics were the New Christians (conversos/Marranos).  Torquemada was appointed Inquisitor-General — aka the Grand Inquisitor — to deal with them.  A converso was a Jewish convert accused of not going all the way; one who allegedly maintained secret judaizing practices; for example, lighting candles or wearing white on the Sabbath or avoiding pork.  Sometimes a formal “trial” was held and then the converso was burned at the stake.  The ceremony was termed an auto-da-fé, an “Act of Faith.”  The guilty were sentenced to be “relaxed” (official term for burning) in this holy way.  Unconverted Jews were exiled.

The opera at table begins with Forcheville’s compliment to Mme V. on her white dress.  Cottard snaps out a pun: “Blanche? Blanche of Castile?”  At this, the spectator/reader can picture Mme Verdurin in her flowing white dress on her white horse riding triumphantly into the wind – breathing fire down on her heretics.  Brichot picks up the gauntlet at the Blanche story and taunts Swann “in martial accents” to joust with him  –“Isn’t that so, M. Swann?” but Swann demurs.  Cottard sounds the faux religious trope when he mocks Swann’s use of the word “elevated.”  Raising his arms in “mock solemnity” as if he were performing the Elevation of the Host, he pipes out “Elevated … to the purple.”  The chorus laughs.  Then, when Elstir begins his scatological discourse on painting materials and casually uses the word “one,” Cottard strikes again with another pun – this time alluding to the painting, The Last Supper — “And one makes twelve”, he says.  Note, duhh, that at this supper are twelve salonistes: Mme and M Verdurin, Mme and M Cottard, pianist, pianist’s aunt, Brichot, Saniette, Elstir (Tiche/Biche), Forcheville, Odette, and Swann (Judas?).  Swann is not amused by these artless ventures with wit and erudition; he finds them “pedantic, vulgar and nauseating.”  The banter about Blanche of Castile, painting materials, low-grade theatre, and Fénelon does not scintillate for him — his recalcitrance is noticed by all.  While all are in rapt attention as the painter discourses on materials — glue, soap and even (tee hee) caca — (an odd foreshadowing of the Brooklyn Museum’s elephant shit Madonna that enraged Mayor Guiliani a few years ago), Swann stays aloof.  To Mme V.’s fury, he constantly spoils the glittery dialectical contests, the “brilliant conversation” which ought to “go off like fireworks.”  When Mme Cottard tries to bend Swann to her demotic taste, she is dismissed with “polite irony.”  But, she won’t let go –“Really, and what don’t you like about them [certain plays]?”

Now Forcheville takes the stage and tries to entice Swann into the joust.  As he speaks of their old regiment, he grills –  “Isn’t that so Swann?  I never see anything of you, do I?”.  Then, blasphemy of blasphemies, he lets drop in front of all that Swann travels with such bluebloods as the La Trémoïlles and the des Laumes.  A bomb!  Mme V. demands total allegiance and association and, most important, total disassocation from anybody of perceived higher rank –  (“bores”) who would look DOWN on her little church.  This is it – the absolute pinnacle of heretical flagrance; the most egregious breach of dogma.  Mme V. becomes whiter than her dress; she becomes a plaster mask with “the unconscious silence of inanimate objects”; she becomes a veritable bust for the Palace of Industry.  When at last she musters control over her seething rage, she gazes down on Swann (down from her high inquisitional post) and says, “You’d need to pay me a lot of money before I’d let that lot set foot inside my house.”  Inflamed, she is every inch the Grand Inquisitor.  She, Blanche/Torquemada/Verdurin, menaces him in front of the court with the passion of “one who has failed to stamp out heresy” hoping for a recantation.  She demands:  “Tell us frankly, now, what you think of them yourself….”—pg. 282.  But Swann is an intransigent infidel who will not, in no way, recant.  He is a recreant, a non-abjuring converso, a half-convert – one who won’t go all the way.  He has secret allegiances to blood, rank and privilege.  His secret meetings with those bores are his own secret Sabbath.  Interestingly, Swann is REALLY a convert (independent of Mme V.’s little church).  That is, his own family converted from Judaism a few generations ago.  BUT, as we all know, history unconfined to the Spanish Inquisition has repeatedly shown that once a Jew, always a Jew – one can’t get away from it.  Mme de Gallardon comments to Princesse des Laumes at the subsequent de Saint-Euverte party: “I know he’s a convert…and even his parents and grandparents before him. But they say that the converted ones remain more attached to their religion than the practicing ones, that it’s all a pretence; is that true, d’you think?” (pg. 364)

Swann, unconscious of the impending disgrace that he is bringing down upon himself, persists in his defiance.  Referring to the house of La Trémoïlles he digs himself in deeper, “I can assure you that everyone likes going to her house.”  At this, Madame cannot muzzle her fury.  This wretch of an infidel dares to infect her faithful with his blasphemy and threatens to prevent her from “achieving complete unanimity” through her “despotic power” over them.  She screams, “you may think so … but …you needn’t say so.”

At the table/courtroom of Inquisition, different church members, the faithful, have come forward with their inquiries, their testimonials – their arias.  Elstir, booming out on the excellence of the work of the deceased artist (who is that?), is a “singer who has reached the highest note.”  He stops.  He pitches “his voice on a basso profundo note which he struggled to bring into harmony.”  (A Proustian remarked that the drama here is like a jazz piece – each instrument basks in the solo spotlight for a while.)

The foreshadowing of this operatic drama is superbly artful right from the very outset of Swann In Love.  Listen to Grandfather humming on page 212 [Vol I SW].  First he hums “What is this mystery?/I cannot understand it.”  This comes from the opera “La Dame Blanche” (by Adrien Boeildieu) seeding for us the old “termagent” of Castile, the first police chief of republicanism (pg. 275).  His next tune is “Fugitive vision …” from Massenet’s Hérodiade.  This opera involves Salomé and we know what she did with the head of John the Baptist when she couldn’t get what she wanted (according, anyway, to Flaubert’s Herodias or Gustave Moreau’s painting –cf pg. 292).  These implicit allusions to Salomé gesture at Odette’s handling of Swann — but that’s the next drama.  Finally, I do not know the source of Grandfather’s last tune –“In matters such as this/‘Tis best to close one’s eyes.”  But his little recital is a chilling overture to the grand operas to come.


*  For some ideas in this post, I am indebted to fabulous discussion with members of the Proust Society.  It was commented on this list that we members are most noticeably over the age of 55 (but I hope we can all get along).  The comment points to a very serious problem.  Where are the young readers of hard books with long words in them???  Why are they disappearing?  I am sickened by the grim stats on declining readership.  This decline, to my mind is inextricably linked to the savage degradation of language promoted by language police (cf Diane Ravitch) and the popular media.  The ‘60s attacks on “the canon”, the privileging of Image and Sound over the Word, the promotion of quick “action” over dialogue, reflection, conversation, and witty dialectic have triumphed.  This scandalous war against the word has taken a terrible toll — from which recovery will be all uphill if at all.  What needs to be done to bring the young educated back to suffer long books with long words and complicated ideas??  I don’t know.  Good luck to all of you under 40 if you enlist in counter-measures.  You will, like, need all the help you can get in our increasingly language-impoverished world.

BTW, if you believe, as I do, that full and developed language is a distinguishing characteristic of the human species, it follows that assault on language is criminal since it constitutes an attack on the species-being of humans.  Therefore, ought not the language attackers be tried at the Hague for crimes against humanity?

**  My noting would be unnecessary if we had an English edition of The Search with decent notes!  The ultimate would be a “companion” keyed to, say, a Pléiade at the level of page and line number — like Willcock’s Companion to the Iliad or Guildford’s Ulysses Annotated.  What an indelible, incredible contribution to Proust scholarship that would be!  Allons, PhD candidates – I throw down the glove.  Here is your clarion call.






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