The Buds in the Grove

The Buds in the Grove

Moncrieff is faulted for his translation of the title A la recherche du Temps Perdu into Remembrance of Things Past. It is neither literal, nor germane. Its source, the Shakespeare sonnet, celebrates friendship – hardly a prized state for Marcel. That unfortunate choice is now wisely dropped in newer editions. Yet, it seems to me that Within A Budding Grove translated for A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs is brilliant – perhaps even more so than its original. For here, Proust’s binoculars are trained not only on the particular buds – the birth of love and sexual awareness of the les jeunes filles. His lenses reveal also genealogies of taste, manner, character and judgment. Like the birth of love and desire, these other buds are tender, bittersweet, honest, amusing, often (usually) in error, often painful.

Bud of Taste
Take the bud of aesthetic taste – M experiences art in the theatre (Berma) and architecture. The first experience with art which M (I/narrator) had looked forward to with characteristic longing and agitation turned out to be an imperfect pleasure at best. That experience was seeing Berma live on stage in Phaedre. His initial disappointment was somewhat mitigated by a burst of audience laughter. Later that evening, he read a newspaper review which praised the performance with the phrase “the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art.” The phrase contained some spark that ignited his aesthetic attention and he appropriated it so that it became his own idea. Once his, the idea linked itself to other ideas already within him, and this linkage enhanced and nourished the formulation of a more determined aesthetic taste.

As soon as my mind had conceived this new idea of “the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art,” it, the idea, sped to join the imperfect pleasure which I had felt in the theatre ….formed something so exalting that I exclaimed to myself: “What a great artist!” [Vol I, BG p 518]

He didn’t read more Racine. He didn’t see more Berma. The new ranking that Berma now had in his mind came about strictly on the basis of the critic’s review. There was no independent appraisal. Purely, “I was disappointed with X. I read the review in the NY Times. Now my opinion is that X is exalted, brilliant and magnificent.”

The power of association works excellently in the production of metaphor. It’s all over the Search. But for Proust, association is not only a literary device. He’s telling us that association is a force in the production of taste.

..and let us then declare whether, in the communal life that is led by our ideas in the enclosure of our minds, there is a single one of those that makes us most happy which has not first sought, like a very parasite, and won from an alien but neighboring idea the greater part of the strength that it originally lacked.[Vol I 519]

A few pages later, (after a powerful conjunction of the grand universal motifs of Love, Art and Time in the particularities of Gilberte, Berma and New Year’s Day), the narrator returns to the genealogy of taste. He observes that in his adolescence his taste in architecture was inchoate and naive. He hadn’t yet formed the requisite appreciation of the palaces of Gabriel. In fact his eye was quite blind to both fineness and age.

“…I should have been astonished to learn that the Porte Saint-Martin and the Porte Saint-Denis, those glories of the age of Louis XIV, were not contemporary with the most recently built tenements in the sordid districts that bore their names.” p 527

So how did the ranking of Gabriel’s building get to be high? Again by association. By reminding him of something that he already knew. To be reminded is to experience an association through resemblance.

“by reminding me of a set from the operetta Orphée auz Enfers, gave me for the first time an impression of beauty” [Vol I BG p 527]

In fact, maybe the growth of aesthetic taste doesn’t happen in quite this way. ( My personal experience does not confirm the emphasis on association.) What I am gripped by is the laser-like bearing down on the raw phenomenology of the growing thing, the bud of taste.

Bud of Judgement
Up to this point, Bergotte, in Marcel’s eye, is the unblemished author whose books he revered for many idyllic hours in Combray and Paris. Bergotte’s stature is at Olympian heights when Marcel gains entry to the Swanns’ “at-homes” and is actually able to meet the great man himself. Marcel is shocked by both the appearance and the behavior of his imagined “langorous old man”. His imagination had constructed a dignified temple to house the magnificent work within. This image is shattered by the “little man with the snub nose” who stands before him. But at the same time Marcel is becoming aware of a need to separate the man from his works. The shattering of the imagined character or manner or appearance does not shatter the esteem for the work. This sharp separation will evolve for Marcel into an intense dislike for critical theories like those of Saint-Beuve that insist on reading autobiography into the work, or insist on reading the work as roman à clef.

After the shock of the snail-shell nose and his odd voice are absorbed, Bergotte demonstrates two ignoble, non-Olympian character flaws. The first is his dismissive contempt of Cottard as a physician. Bergotte counsels Marcel that anyone who cannot read Shakespeare could simply not have the necessary wherewithal to treat sensitive natures – Marcel should dismiss him [Vol I BG 614]. As it happens, Marcel has just recovered from very serious illness where Cottard’s superb treatment was recognized as absolutely “brilliant.” The implication is yes, he, Cottard, is a non-Shakespeare reading philistine and yes, he may cut a ridiculous swath in cultured circles – but that is medically irrelevant; Cottard qua physician is superb. Bergotte is totally off the mark.

The second “flaw” on the part of Bergotte is the rude reference by him to Odette as a “whore.” [Vol I BG 615] What is rude is not that it wasn’t once true; what is rude and without character is that she is now his hostess; she is entertaining him in her salon. He bad-mouths her quietly in her own house! Marcel observes that his family – aunts, grandmother – is not similarly flawed in character.

But, once revealed, these flaws do nothing to diminish M’s reverence of Bergotte as the grand writer. In revealing the flaws of Bergotte, he reveals his own evolving judgment of taste and character.

In the grove of adolescence, the bud of taste and the bud of judgement unfold through Berma and Bergotte. Moncrieff’s translated title for this volume is perfect.

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