The Cloven Hoof of Dr Percepied
A creative Proustian remarked that allowing sub-surface associations to surface is a way of “opening up the text.” Though the musing on one’s own sub-surfaces may yield up terra incognita unpopular and strange, I agree that his strategy really does open the text to deeper meaning, nuance, inner textual connections. (If that Proustian is reading this post, I here give huge thanks for what I have learned from him.)
Here are some thoughts on the sub-surface identity of Dr. Percepied.
The name “Percepied” (“pierced foot”) appears in the Paris phone book 7 times – so while a bit odd, it is not an invention – it has a foot in reality. With pierced-foot we think of diabolical cloven-hoof; we think of the pierced feet of Christ in agony; we may think of a variant – not a foot but a pierced tongue (a “forked tongue”); we may even (in conjunction with the incident on Montjouvain) think of the lame Oedipus (the name “Oedipus” means lame). In this post I speak only of my own association of pierced-foot with the diabolical “cloven-hoof” – and an aside to the “forked-tongue”.. (Perhaps someone else out there will sound the other tones in the name ie Christ, Oedipus.)
If we read “pierced-foot” as “cloven-hoof”, evil is immediately thrust before us because the cloven-hoof is an ancient Christian sign of the devil. This name prepares us to witness a loathsome nature. In Swann’s Way, we find, contrary to his good reputation, that Dr Percepied isn’t so good after all. His reputation as a kindly old curmudgeon is unwarranted. That reputation in fact masks an underlying brutal and ironic unkindness. He is a nasty mean gossiper who takes pleasure in the patent misery of others – a real schadenfreude kind of guy. We first encounter him with young M and parents (in Combray) where he baldly snickers that what is going on at Montjouvain is far beyond what meets the eye (see quote below). Now, rumors regarding “carnal relations” between Mlle Vinteuil and “her friend” are rife; they have been circulating throughout the town. The shame of M Vinteuil, her musical father, is palpable; his inner agony is inscribed over his face. But Dr. cloven-hoof Percepied is not content to rest with that agony nor with the current extent of the rumor in the town; he goes above and beyond the rumor. He insinuates that M Vinteuil himself is not just an ignorant or passive observer to the carnal relations performed in his domain but that he himself is somehow an active player!! Percepied does not sound out his insinuations – but that there is further corruption and perhaps even incest is the unmistakable thrust of his vile forked tongue. (e.g, M Vinteuil himself is a teacher not only of music but a teacher of perversity; maybe he was sleeping with “the friend” who then moved on to the daughter. Maybe there is an active orgiastic menage a trois, all three in the room. Maybe there is explicit incest between father and daughter – the possibilities are endless.)
A few pages later we learn that the town rumor is basically correct. Lesbian “carnal relations” are indeed going on in that house. We learn further that a kind of sadism (clearly distinguished in the text from evil) is going on as well. We learn there is an unexplained hostility from the women toward the (now dead) father and, we recoil from the cruel turning of the photograph and the spitting. But consider. If Percepied’s insinuations of menage or incest were correct, then the women’s unexplained cruelty would be not so unexplained (and we might recoil not so much.) But even if the insinuations are correct, Percepied is still a spiteful cloven-hoof – he is mean and nasty in his brutal irony. He is a gossiper taking pleasure in the patent misery of others. By the way, I now remember that in Jewish law, spreading gossip (“lashon hora” ) is a very very serious “sin”, second in rank only to the first – the very worst (which I do not remember!) Interestingly, the sanction of lashon hora applies even to malicious gossip that happens to be true – (the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt bear no false witness” is more restricted, applying only to false witness.)
In the quotes below from the first encounters with Percepied, note his unwarranted reputation. Note his “ironical and brutal common sense.” Why common sense? Does this mean that Percepied has used common sense (available to anyone who takes the time to ponder) to figure out what is really really going on at Montjouvain. In other words, since common sense delivers truth – is he saying that Percepied’s insinuations are true? Even if true, he is brutal, mean and diabolical in spreading this “truth” around.
“That poor M. Vinteuil must be blinded by fatherly love not to see what everyone is talking about a man who is shocked by the slightest loose word letting his daughter bring a woman like that to live under his roof! He says that she is a most superior woman, with a heart of gold, and that she would have shown extraordinary musical talent if she had only been trained. He may be sure it isn’t music that she’s teaching his daughter.” But M. Vinteuil assured them that it was, and indeed it is remarkable how people never fail to arouse admiration for their moral qualities in the relatives of those with whom they are having carnal relations. Physical passion, so unjustly decried, compels its victims to display every vestige that is in them of kindness and self-abnegation, to such an extent that they shine resplendent in the eyes of their immediate entourage. Dr Percepied, whose hearty voice and bushy eyebrows enabled him to play to his heart’s content the role of mischief-maker which his looks belied, without in the least degree compromising his unassailable and quite unmerited reputation of being a kind-hearted old curmudgeon, could make the Cure and everyone else laugh until they cried by saying in a gruff voice: “What d’ye say to this, now? It seems that she plays music with her friend, Mlle Vinteuil. That surprises you, does it? I’m not so sure. It was Papa Vinteuil who told me all about it yesterday. After all, she has every right to be fond of music, that girl. I’m not one to thwart the artistic vocation of a child; nor Vinteuil either, it seems. And then he plays music too, with his daughter’s friend. Why, good lord, it must be a regular musical box, that house! What are you laughing at? They play too much music, those people, in my opinion. I met Papa Vinteuil the other day, by the cemetery. It was all he could do to keep on his feet.” [Vol I, SW, 160-161]
I would gloat over her admission with an ironical and brutal common sense worthy of Dr. Percepied. [Vol I, SW pg 168 ]