O Sole Mio – Making up My Mind
In Venice, Mama departs for the train station. M sits alone on the hotel terrace and sips a drink as a song from a nearby boat washes through him. He is torn between following Mama or remaining. To go or not to go, that is his question. If he remains, he might encounter certain women (perhaps Mme Putbus’s maid.) But if he remains, he will be alone. Where the reality of Venice was just a while ago still an enchanted place of nature learning from art – the reality of that place washes away. The personality and name of Venice, the Venice of Fortuny, Ruskin and Carpaccio, formerly enmeshed in dream and longing – that Venice abruptly dissolves into a place mediocre and unremarkable. The song, the sinking sun, the despair of solitude and the vanishing reality of Venice combine into an “unalterable and poignant alloy.” How did this melancholy combination happen?
First, I listen with M to the song, O sole mio (O my sun). While “sole” is sun, it also makes the French speaker think of “seule” (alone). My American ear hears O sole mio as o solo mio – making me think of solo = solitude, aloneness. The homonymic triplet (sole and seule and solo) binds the sinking sun to M’s impending solitude – Mamma’s leaving. As the sun sinks, the place of his current existence (Venice) both fades from sight and cools in temperature – setting the conditions to cause a fadeout of reality itself.
Cold and ice are called to M’s mind as the temperature cools. He is reminded that he once imagined the huts at some spa not just as huts, but as secret entry points to the freezing arctic sea. Here and now in Venice, the houses on the canals have become that – secret border crossings over to somewhere hostile and alien. It is in this unreal, icy and unfriendly setting that he is to be left alone. As his despair grows, the refrain O sole mio continues to wash through him; its melancholy is like a numbing cold.
As they fade from sight, surrounding objects, buildings, and canals are rendered less distinct in form and color; their outlines vanish. Combining with the visual and temperature fading, his solitude goes further. It moves from solitude to alienation. In an alienated state, the surroundings become “unreal”- they lose their “meaning.” They reduce to their bare physical blobby chemical elements, the building materials – they become so much oxygen and hydrogen. The actual changing condition of external reality (sinking sun and Mamma’s departure) is matched by or reflected in M’s internal state of alienation where he feels the very reality of Venice dissolves before him.
What is alienation with respect to a place, a city? Minimally, it is the feeling that the place is undistinguished from any other place. It is not determined. It has no meaning, therefore, it has no reality. The reality, the substance, of a place lies not in its raw stones and water and buildings but in the imprint of ideas and affect. Reality is constituted by the subjective – the idea of personality, the idea of the name; these are impressed upon the very stones. Without the subjective, the stones are lifeless. As M sips his drink overlooking the canal, listening to O sole mio and thinking about his solitude, he sinks like the sun into despair and alienation. Everything seems, and therefore is, alien. The Venice of his imagination is reduced– it becomes just a pile of vulgar material stuff; its soul has fled; the dream and the longing with the insubstantial palaces are shattered to dust and ashes.
What began as a chance conjunction of homonyms turned into a meditation on alienation and dissolution of reality. Whew!
Aside 1. Our Proust cannot carry on too long in pure reverie (either philosophical or seriously subjective) without comic intervention. Does this poignant scene balance on the edge of funny – could a slight twist of the kaleidoscope push it over? As M is stabbed with each phrase of O sole mio, he aches for its ending, but what happens? “When the … song seemed to be at an end, the singer had still not enough and resumed at the top as though he needed to proclaim once more my solitude and despair.”(!!) I’m imagining a singer on a boat proclaiming publicly, loudly (sort of like a rooster) without surcease my own private despair. There is something ridiculous about that. Do you hear anything funny …. or have I gone off the deep end?
Aside 2. A title for this passage could be Making Up My Mind – To go (with Mamma) or not to go – the reference to Hamlet (pg 667) is not accidental. There are several sallies in and around the “resolution”. At the zero hour, M’s will to action kicks in and he races off to the station to join Mamma. Again, is there something vaguely comical here? I imagine M leaving his drink, giving orders about his baggage and racing off to the station, arms akimbo – to hell with Mme Putbus’ maid.
But to tell the truth, I’m not really sure about the comic in Aside 1 and Aside 2 above. I have a friend who sees this whole passage as completely straight. What do you think?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * **
Here’s the passage. You should treat yourself to the real text in your own edition. The cut and mangled remains below are only signposts. [Vol III FUG 667-669]
I ordered a drink to be brought out to me on the terrace overlooking the canal, and settled down there to watch the sunset, while from a boat that had stopped in front of the hotel a musician sang O sole mio.
The sun continued to sink. …My irrevocable solitude was so near at hand …. … I felt myself to be alone; things had become alien to me … The town that I saw before me had ceased to be Venice. Its personality, its name, seemed to me to be mendacious fictions which I no longer had the will to impress upon its stones. I saw the palaces reduced to their basic elements, lifeless heaps of marble with nothing to choose between them, and the water as a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, eternal, blind, anterior and exterior to Venice, oblivious of the Doges or of Turner … this unremarkable place was as strange as a place at which one has just arrived, which does not yet know one, or a place which one has left and which has forgotten one already. I could no longer tell it anything about myself, I could leave nothing of myself imprinted upon it; it contracted me into myself until I was no more than a throbbing heart and an attention strained to follow the development of 0 sole mio. In vain might I fix my mind despairingly upon the beautiful and distinctive curve of the Rialto, it seemed to me…a bridge … as alien to the notion I had of it … So it was with the palaces, the canal, the Rialto, divested of the idea that constituted their reality and dissolved into their vulgar material elements. … there was that singularity in things whereby, even when similar in appearance to those of our own land, they reveal themselves to be alien, in exile beneath other skies… filled me with that blend of distaste and alarm which I had felt as a child … I had asked myself whether those depths… were not the entry to arctic seas … and in this lonely, unreal, icy, unfriendly setting in which I was going to be left alone, the strains of O sole mio, rising like a dirge for the Venice I had known, seemed to bear witness to my misery.
O sole mio was charged with a profound, almost despairing melancholy. … And it was perhaps this melancholy, like a sort of numbing cold, that constituted the despairing but hypnotic charm of the song … my solitude and despair.
My mother must by now have reached the station. In a little while she would be gone. I was gripped by the anguish that was caused me by the sight of the Canal which had become diminutive now that the soul of Venice had fled from it, of that commonplace Rialto which was no longer the Rialto, and by the song of despair which O sole mio had become and which, bellowed thus beside the insubstantial palaces, finally reduced them to dust and ashes and completed the ruin of Venice … with the result that the fading light was to combine for ever in my memory with the throb of my emotion and the bronze voice of the singer in an equivocal, unalterable and poignant alloy.