The Compass and the Scale
Marcel and Gilberte are breaking up. Marcel is a wild compass spinning toward two opposite poles of inner anguish.
And those alternative orientations, that wild spinning of my inner compass … expressed themselves in the mutually contradictory letters to Gilberte which I began to draft. [Vol I BG 629]
At one pole is his unabashed longing to see her. At the other is his desire not to appear obsequious or needy. The first is pure pain, the second is pure pride. He realizes that a strategic dialectic is required to manage the pride. He must say and do exactly the right thing.
Disclosing his pain to her is a tactical error. I picture the polarities of pain and pride on the compass but before I can really savor them as alternative directions on the compass, a new metaphor is before me – that of the old-fashioned kind of balancing scales – the kind with two metal pans hanging with chains.
In one pan there is our desire not to displease, not to appear too humble … [where it is] more astute at times to appear almost to disregard, so that she shall not have that sense of her own indispensability … in the other scale there is a feeling of pain … which cannot be assuaged unless … we go to her at once.[BG 629]
I had never thought about any relation of a compass to a scale – the linkage is quite wonderful.
The compass emphasizes the wild swinging between pain and pride independent of human agency; one cannot adjust the compass. The scales, on the other hand, involve the agent who, by adjustment of the pans through his own free choice, throws the whole thing in or out of balance. Metaphor of the compass was too limited to deal with choice, so we readers have the benefit of both.
If we withdraw from the pan that holds our pride a small quantity of the will-power which we have weakly allowed to wither with age, if we add to the pan that holds our suffering a physical pain which we have acquired and have allowed to get worse, then, instead of the brave solution that would have carried the day at twenty, it is the other, grown too heavy and insufficiently counter- balanced, that pulls us down at fifty. …. we shall have had the fatal self-indulgence of complicating our love by an intrusion of habit which adolescence, detained by too many other duties, less free to choose, knows nothing of. [BG 630]
Balancing scale of pride and pain polarities get resolved. In youth, one is more bound and driven by desire and is “less free to choose”. At middle age, the intrusion of Habit complicates the whole process. Where one would have proffered a ‘brave solution” at twenty, at fifty it’s much more complicated.
Instead of the brave solution that would have carried the day at twenty, it is the other, grown too heavy insufficiently counter-balanced, that pulls us down at fifty. [BG 630]
The question is which is the “brave solution” and which is the “other?” I think Marcel says (not that I agree or disagree) that the brave solution at twenty, where habit does not abide, leans toward the pain pan and the “other” (cowardly – as opposite to brave?) is the pride pan of middle and old age. Is this right?
The pans out of balance return in a scene which clutches at the heart. At a Vermeer exhibition, as Bergotte sinks to the floor with a mortal heart attack. He reviews his art and his life as two pans. “In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter. ” [CAP 185]
In Manhattan, this January day is bright and warm. I bet if I left my computer right now and peered down at the street from my airie on the 16th floor, I’d see bare legs and sneakers. I am sad that Global Warming and too much hairspray have destroyed my beloved winter. I may need to move back to Stockholm to recover. Best, Sharon