Swann’s Catharsis

Swann’s Catharsis

[Vol I SW 410-415; Davis 391-396]
The closing pages of Swann in Love tell of Swann falling out of love; that is, they tell of the passing away of his jealousy and suffering (which amounts to the passing away of love). Jealous-Swann is becoming Not-Jealous Swann. This passing ought to be a relief, as after a painful illness. But a disquietude hovers over him. It’s not simply that love falls away and he can blithely sail off to another love or even a lesser dalliance, for example, to that attractive Mme Cambremer that he encountered at Mme Euverte’s. In fact, he thinks with “terror” and sadness of the passing away, as in death, of Jealous-Swann; that is, a self that has ceased to be. Just as he would like to have the feeling of Odette’s face imprinted into his memory at the birth of his love – the moment of their first kiss – so now he would like to have sensed the feeling of the moment of its death. He would like to have arrested that moment. He would like to feel it now, and under his control. But, he cannot remember either how voluptuous love or how jealousy felt; and not remembering is tantamount to the death of those other Swanns. He is like a train traveler grasping to hold onto the fine passing landscape or like a tourist wanting to endure one last Venetian mosquito bite for the sake of savoring Venice one more time. He struggles but he can revivify neither the early voluptuous moments with Odette nor the later pain.

Why not? Because ontologically, he cannot exist as old Jealous-Swann and new Non-Jealous-Swann at the same time. Although these two lives are both genuine Swanns, they cannot co-exist. One cannot at once be one’s own double. Impossible.

“…but it is so difficult to enter a state of duality [d’être double] and to present to oneself the lifelike spectacle of a feeling one has ceased to possess…” [Vol I, SW 411; Davis 391]

The struggle to catch those fading selves is too much. Like the train traveler, Swann gives up; he succumbs to the inevitability of the passing, and falls into somnolent oblivion. He cannot become his own double in the present.

Or, can he? Can one become one’s own double making possible the impossible? Just when he thought that Jealous-Swann was dead and gone, he dreamed him back to life. He did this through his own agency – through his dreaming and through the creative, seminal power of his masturbation. By his own hand, he reproduced himself.

“.. having for the moment as well such creative power that he reproduced himself [se reproduisait] himself by simple division … with the warmth that he felt in his own palm he modeled the hollow of a strange hand which he thought he was clasping, … which would produce … the person required to receive his love or prompt his awakening…the sound of the waves leaping and his heart, with the same violence, pounding with anxiety in his chest. Suddenly the palpitations of his heart … he felt an inexplicable pain and nausea .. ”[Vol I, 413; Davis 394]

The dream and the entire aura is distinctly not as much erotic as it is nauseating and purgative.

Love and jealousy are back; the cruel machinations of Mme Verdurin and, perhaps, Charlus are back. The weeping young man in the fez is himself – witnessing Odette’s infidelities. An orgasmic crescendo builds. His love for Odette turns to hate. There is nausea and pain. At last, he comes – a pure purgation of the bile of jealousy. He wakes and a distinct sense of relief settles over him as he attends with pleasure to the quotidian, to the exigencies of the moment – the barber’s appointment, the planning of a trip to Combray, a hoped-for contact with Mme Cambremer. Through his dream and masturbation, he has fostered a kind of Greek “catharsis” where he is a spectator to the spectacle of his own tragedy.

Woven within the narrative of Swann’s catharsis are two related “big” ideas concerning the self. The first concerns a problem with the notion of “multiplicity of selves.” We see the multiplicity idea throughout The Search and from that, the narrator derives the concomitant ideas of birth and death of those new and old selves. But there is a problem; the selves are sequential; they don’t co-exist. Sequence is intrinsically a temporal concept. But how can one live or recreate sequence which is temporal as if it were not? As if it were simultaneous or could transcended its temporality? The “solution” to the problem will blossom in full as the book evolves. The solution lies in the agency on the part of the self existing in the present. Through dreaming or memory or finally, art, those past selves can be revivified, can be made to mean something again.

The second big idea is that the self creates itself; gives birth to itself. This idea is dramatically exemplified by the virtually non-erotic masturbation which is linked not to desire or lust for Odette as much as it is linked to the idea of self-creation.. Swann, and later more prominently Marcel, “reproduces himself”. He is his own father. The Non-Jealous-Swann (re)creates the Jealous Swann. Masturbation is a proto self-creation. The idea of self-creation, of the person creating himself, is one that appears in other 20thC literature and philosophy, notably in the person of Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s Ulysses) who is his own father, the father of his artworks. The idea of self-creation resonates philosophically as well, for example in the “authenticity” of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Well, is this finale of Swann in Love more “about” the narrative, the cartharsis, or the “big” ideas. No answer. All are subtly and organically woven into the fabric, one is breathless (again) in the face of Proust’s genius to intertwine (or derive) metaphor, allusion, “big and deep” ideas into (and from) the fabric of the “real” narrative events.
In this note I haven’t touched the surface of the richness of symbol and metaphor within the dream.

1. In the dream, Odette seems to become a leper. Medically, the onset of leprosy is marked by “red spots” on the face. It can also cause dry eyes by decreasing tear production. It can cause weakness of the eyelids, preventing proper closure of the lid which protects the eye. Odette’s cheeks were “pale with little red spots. Further, her eyes are about to “détacher” themselves from her like teardrops (yukk!) Is this your reading? Is Odette a leper? Is Swann dreaming her into a repulsive condition so that he can purge himself of her?
2. Why does Mme Verdurin grow a long nose and mustache? (nose is a penis? Is she a Pinochio liar? Is she a Cyrano lover?) Is she some dominatrix?)
3. What is the icy salty water on Swann’s cheek (that he can taste). His own tears or his semen or …?
4. In the dream, Swann was obliged “to answer with a smile some question of Mme Verdurin’s”. What was Mme Verdurin’s question? I like the proposal from an astute Proust reader who proposed that the question Mme Verdurin asked Swann was “Are you jealous?” The scene reminded him of the earlier one when Mme V. was “fingering her bronzes” and said to her husband “… Come, you might at least be polite don’t say that you’ve never been jealous!” [227/210]
5. A question to French readers. In the dream, a peasant, dreadfully burned, yells at Swann “Come and ask Charlus where Odette spent the night… (Venez demander à Charlus où Odette est est allée finir la soirée …”). To my (American) ear, the phrase “Come and ask Charlus …” sounds odd. Why not just “Ask Charlus” or at most “Go and ask Charlus”. Does the phrase sound at all “odd” to the French ear. My interpretation of “come” is sexual. It says to the masturbating Swann, “Come!” – but this reading may be baloney to a Frenchman.
6. What is the fire and ice? The constant going up and going down the mountainous coast?



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