Marcel Proust’s World—Insights into a Pandemonium
Voices: Author, Speaker
AUTHOR: As I was starting to prepare some notes for this essay on Marcel Proust, I received a letter from an editorial office that was also taking an interest in this topic, a letter that included a few remarks that I would like to quote here at the beginning, because they caused me to doubt something that I had regarded as self-evident—namely, that Proust’s novel can count on being met with passionate interest today. In this letter I was told:
SPEAKER: We cannot—and far be it from me to complain about this—expect our readers to take a snobbish sort of literary interest in the book from the outset. To the contrary, what we will inevitably be faced with, even from readers who do take an interest in literature, is that certain prejudice against Proust as a writer who is exclusive, decadent, hard to read, and in any case long-since outmoded, a writer who basically poses only stylistic problems.
AUTHOR: Thus was I forewarned of the reception that would presumably greet this work, and of the necessity of following up the already numerous existing interpretations of it with yet another one devoted to the analysis of its style, structure, and composition.
Proust criticism in Germany began with a now-famous book by Ernst Robert Curtius, who in 1925 was already saying that soon people would be mentioning the author of In Search of Lost Time alongside Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert. Later Walter Benjamin and much more recently Günter Blöcker drew our attention to the new realities to be found in Proust, and I wouldn’t know what to add to these outstanding works if I didn’t have the desire, even at the price of greater lopsidedness, to rid the book of the stigma of snobbism, aestheticism, and classicism with which it seems to be tainted in many people’s eyes. For in the eyes of anyone who understands how to read it properly, it is a severe, tragic, and revolutionary book that can continue the tradition only because it breaks with it. Because it is as wide-ranging as A Thousand and One Nights, full of relationships and worldliness, it affords as many possible ways of being read, and one of them might be to inspect its sheen and the arrangement of its folds, its nuances and oscillations—but another certainly might be to step into the modern Inferno that this work contains, into the circles of hell in which Proust’s characters, already damned in the here and now, reside. Today we know that Proust was originally planning to call his work not In Search of Lost Time but Sodom and Gomorrah, but he ended up retaining this title only for a single volume of it. Earlier something similar happened to the work of Baudelaire, whose Flowers of Evil was actually meant to be published under the title The Lesbians. In Proust’s diaries there is a passage that takes issue with this curious plan:1
SPEAKER: “How could Baudelaire take enough interest in lesbians to want to make them the eponyms of his magnum opus? Given that an author like Vigny had a jaundiced view of women and attributed this to the mysteries of her peculiar physiology, we understand why his amorous disenchantment and jealousy impelled him to write: ‘Woman will be in Gomorrah and man in Sodom.’ But at least he segregates them far from one another as irreconcilable enemies: ‘And exchanging an irritated distant look / The two sexes will die, each in its private nook…’ The nature of Baudelaire’s case is nothing like this.” 1
AUTHOR: And the nature of Proust’s case was nothing like that either. But at the moment we must consider how to get some sort of purchase on the horrifying truths that this book is in search of. Proust enters the two accursed cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, almost compulsively, as the first writer to do so in order to investigate the connection between the individual and society. To be sure, this subject was virulently popular with writers long before him, from Saint-Simon to Balzac to Zola, who acknowledged that it was of enormous psychological and social interest but strived in vain to come up with a way of presenting it that would not result in an “outcry.” Proust feared no such outcry; he merely feared being applauded by the wrong side of the house, the side who were absolutely incapable of understanding his artistic intentions. But he managed to forestall both the outcry and the applause via the sheer persuasive purity of his depiction. There was scarcely any protest from the critics, but to this day this portion of his work is met with either passive resistance or stone-cold silence. One of the first French reviewers wrote:
SPEAKER: It’s appalling. I can’t talk about it!
AUTHOR: But every time a new writer enters a previously unexplored, unshaped domain, he seems to be committing a sacrilege. When Dumas fils depicted prostitution and Flaubert adultery—both of which had existed from time immemorial—with meticulously objective precision, neither of these subjects had ever been considered fit for artistic representation either. To be sure, then as now, the taste of the average reader was characterized by horrified revulsion from any direct confrontation with reality. But inasmuch as the passing away of a single generation often suffices to allow new truths to be received as actual truths, ours may already be an age in which Proust’s audacious revelations can be dispassionately seen for what they are.
In keeping with his method of composition, he does not merely summon up the ghosts of the two Biblical cities in one or two chapters; rather, he introduces them as a motif time and again; this motif is a thread that runs through his entire book, all the way to the last volume—of which there is more to be said—in a gloomy, gruesome wartime scene leading to a vision of humankind’s fundamental misery and predestination to destruction.
We scarcely pick up on the insinuations at the beginning—when, for example, we are introduced to the Baron de Charlus, around whom in his capacity as Sodom’s master of ceremonies all the other characters later congregate, and are told that he deeply mourned the death of his late wife—“but as a brother mourns a cousin, a grandmother, a sister.”
Let us now pose about Proust the question that Proust posed about Baudelaire. How and why could he take such a keen interest in sexual inversion? Why is his world half populated by people like Charlus and Morel, Jupien and Saint-Loup, and on the other hand by Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her girlfriend, by Albertine and Esther? And how can he give us a compelling representation of humankind and of human suffering and passions by fixating on these characters?
One might be inclined to believe that like André Gide in the same period he had been in search of a new attitude towards life, that he had yearned for vindication and transfiguration and the reawaking of a Greek ideal. But what Proust fancies most is not romanticism but rather the truth and nothing but the truth. He presupposes that inversion is an incurable illness, that it is pathological, and concludes:
SPEAKER: “An idealization of Sodom is impossible. The entire young-people’s version of homosexuality, the homosexuality of Plato and of Virgil’s shepherds, vanished nineteen-hundred years ago. Its glorification as a passion of the human individual, a passion that he freely chooses out of a taste for beauty, friendship, and masculine intelligence, is an absurdity. Only the geniuses, who are great and independent enough to live above their epoch in a young and fresh world, are capable of soaring to the level of a sublime friendship. In others, nothing comes into being but confusion; they confuse their mania with a friendship that resembles it no respect whatsoever. Thus this passion expresses neither an ideal of beauty nor satanic dissoluteness, for that would mean that it is intentional. But it is an illness whose consequences are social in character.”2
AUTHOR: So it is necessary for Proust to investigate the phenomenon anew. Along with this mysterious caprice of nature as it is documented by him at the beginning of Sodom and Gomorrah, a caprice in which Baron Charlus and the caretaker Jupien participate, he becomes more and more and especially preoccupied with homosexuality as a manifestation of the conflict between the individual and society. The latent revolt of the individual against society, of nature against morality, leads him to the concept of the homme traqué, of the type of person who is hounded, cornered, a type of which the invert is merely a conspicuous example.
This is why we are capable of identifying with the human structure of Proust’s characters. This is why in our eyes Dostoyevsky’s characters, who are almost consistently epileptics as he was, are not outlandish invalids or lunatics, but, rather, living and suffering human beings with whom we can identify.
The most mournful brushstrokes of the portrait of the homme traqué are supplied by the story of the inverts, for it is a history of lying, hiding, hypocrisy, lifelong unrest, and fear. In the case of the Baron de Charlus his incessant efforts to repress his passion are the key to his personality. In its absence we would fail to comprehend his kindness and his baseness, his rage and his humor, his alternately tyrannical and cringing demeanor. At some point Nietzsche asks the outsiders:
SPEAKER: “What do you lust after, what do you need in order to placate yourself?
To console myself…what are you saying? Please, give me…
What? What! Perfect…
Yet another mask. Another mask!”3
AUTHOR: Charlus’s entire life is a performance acted behind a mask. Only for a few seconds at a stretch, for the sake of disclosing himself to others of his kind, does he dare to make a gesture that reveals his true essence. The very next instant, trembling with the fear of being discovered, he dons a mask. In a salon he can always be found at the elbow of the most elegant woman in attendance. Towards young men he affects an air of nonchalance, haughtiness, arrogance. The baron, who can be gentle and obliging, refuses to let people be introduced to him. And yet he is never secure. Does somebody harbor doubts? Does somebody harbor suspicions about him? In the end he is no longer an enigma to others, but everyone who surrounds him is an enigma to him. In the eyes of the masked person the entire world is wearing a mask the sight of which he finds excruciating. He can no longer distinguish his friends from his foes; he thinks he hears insulting insinuations everywhere he goes; he perceives everybody as a judge and stands without respite before the Bench.
He carries himself like a criminal, and among his peers he behaves as though he is a member of a gang of thieves. Eventually he goes so far as to accuse everyone in the world of being prey to his vice in order to exculpate himself more easily.
The demonized sphere around Charlus has its analogues in the sphere of ordinary people, for a pervasive idea in Proust’s work and world is the idea of the human individual’s futile search for joy, for plaisir. This search is that individual’s secret mainspring and the unacknowledged determiner of his actions and his behavior. The sacrifice that he offers to this search bears absolutely no relation to its fulfillment, because the latter never supervenes when it is necessary to us but only at a later time, a time by which we have long since set off in pursuit of a different goal.
The inverts merely allow us more forcefully to comprehend the impossibility of fulfilling our desires because in the course of their search for happiness they behave in a more visibly delusional manner than we ourselves generally do.
SPEAKER: “…their happiness is far greater than that of any normal lover could ever be. Knowing so well the hazards that beset their search for a partner, they feel that their form of love is not, like that of heterosexuals, born of the moment, is not a mere instant’s fancy, but must be far more deeply in rooted in…life…that the answer to their call has come from somewhere far beyond the passing minute, that the ‘beloved’ thus miraculously given has been his affianced love from days before his birth, has found his way to this moment of meeting from the depths of limbo, from those stars where all our souls dwell before they are incarnate. Such love, they will be more than ever tempted to believe, is the only true love…”4
AUTHOR: His idea of love is thus a different one from the classical and romantic one that has been dominant up until the present age. The depictions of love in Proust are quite new and based on a more precise investigation of its genesis, of its crystallization, of its expiration, and ultimately of its indifference.
It amounts to a tragic view of love to which have hitherto been blind. The depth of our feeling and the longevity of our passion are decided not by the merit of the woman or the man whom we love but rather by our own condition. We offer music, flame, and perfume to the other and nourish his being for our own benefit. This is why we find the love affairs of others so hard to comprehend. All the lovers in Proust are genuinely in love with people who are unworthy of them and often deeply inferior to them. Odette, a demi-mondaine, lays waste years of the life of the exceedingly intelligent Swann and ruins his social position; Albertine, a vulgar and mediocre figure, becomes the great love of the narrator’s life and continues to spellbind him and poison his existence long after her death; the plebian violinist Morel takes complete possession of Charlus, one of France’s foremost gentlemen of rank; the radiant youth Saint-Loup loses a fortune to Rachel, a woman who only slightly earlier could have been had by anyone for a couple of francs.
All love is luckless, and under its merciless dispensation lovers are drawn into a gearworks of anxiety, jealousy, and lies, and into a form of pain that not even death and absence are capable of assuaging. At first the vacuum that emerges from forgetting allows them to readjust to reality—for a while at least, until another person steps into this position. Thus the narrator, the “I” of the novel, has repeatedly thought of a single person as signifying the entire world—his grandmother, his mother, Gilberte, the Duchesse de Guermantes, and Albertine, and each time he traverses the Way of the Cross, until time does its part and forgetting sets in. This tragic interpretation of love—love as a catastrophe and preordained doom—is naturally determined by Proust’s specific experiences and suffers every now and then from the “transference” that he effects—for example of Albert into Albertine—but only to the extent that lasting relationships and marriages are excluded from the analysis.
There are of course also moments of happiness, of joy and the fulfilment of its spirit in the analysis and meticulous dissection. The only exceptions are the brief instants of contemplation and mystical meditation. The famous passage with The Captive begins, the passage in which the narrative is immersed in contemplating the sleeping Albertine, coincides with a cessation of the plot, of action, of movement; immediately after it her awakening will bring back the pain, and the inferno will be here once again, and work will be resumed on the fabric of lies on which both their patterns are being embroidered. The mysteries surrounding Albertine become operative once again; the shadows of Gomorra fall on her, and there are conversations that constitute a singular sort of torture:
SPEAKER: “‘Albertine, can you swear to me that you have never lied to me?’ She stared into space, then answered: ‘Yes—in other words, no. It was wrong of me to tell you that Andrée had had a huge crush on Bloch; we’d never set eyes on him. ‘But then why did you say that she had?’ ‘Because I was worried that you believed other things about her, that’s all.’ […] She gazed into space again and said: ‘When I talked to you about Léa just now, it was wrong of me to not to tell you about a three-week trip I took with her. But I barely knew you when that happened!’ ‘Was this before Balbec?’ ‘Before the second time, yes.’ In the morning of that same day she had told me that she didn’t know Léa […]! I was watching a torch instantly reducing to ashes a novel I had taken millions of minutes to write. To what end? To what end? To be sure, I fully understood that Albertine was disclosing these facts to me because she thought I had learned them indirectly from Léa, and because there was no other reason for a hundred other such facts not to exist. I also understood that when you questioned Albertine, her words never contained an atom of truth […]. ‘But two things: that’s nothing,’ I said to Albertine; ‘let’s make it four so that you can give me something to remember. What else can you reveal to me?’
She gazed into space again. To what notions of her future life was she trying to make her lie conform, with what gods, gods less accommodating than she had believed, was she trying to strike a deal? She must not have been finding this easy, because her silence and the immobility of her gaze both lasted rather a long time. “Nothing; there’s nothing else,” was what she ended up saying. And in defiance of my insistence on hearing more, she stuck tenaciously—and now effortlessly—to “nothing else.” And what a remarkable lie this was! For from the moment she had first felt these cravings until the first day of her sequestration in my apartment there was no telling how many times, in how many houses, during how many walks, she must have gratified them! The daughters of Gomorrah are both so rare and so numerous that it is impossible for one of them to escape the notice of another in a crowd of any size. Once they have sighted each other, establishing physical contact is an easy matter.”5
AUTHOR: At the center of Gomorrah, Albertine is flanked by Mademoiselle Vinteuil, the daughter of the composer whose sonata and septet play such an important role in the book. Her father died of a broken heart caused by her, and his portrait serves merely as her and her girlfriend’s habitual object of scornful profanation. But a couple of years later something remarkable happens. In a Paris salon the composer’s posthumous opus is performed in circumstances of which, to be sure, scarcely anybody is even remotely aware but which afford the narrator the insight that public acclaim and artistic immortality are often jointly catalyzed only by the interaction of the basest elements. In this case the immediate cause was to be sought in amorous relations, namely:
SPEAKER: “…the relations that bound Charlus and Morel to each other, relations that made the Baron wish to give the biggest possible boost to the artistic successes of his young idol and to obtain the cross of the Legion of Honor for him; the ultimate cause, the thing that had ultimately made this concert possible, was the fact that a young girl whose relations with Mlle. Vinteuil had paralleled those of Charlie with the baron had brought to light an entire series of works of genius that had been such a revelation that before long a subscription to erect a statue of Vinteuil had been started under the patronage of the Ministry of Public Education.”6
AUTHOR: According to Proust, this alliance of degrading passion and art is one of life’s most enigmatic phenomena, and it points back to his idea of love, which is of course pure illusion and self-deception but at the same makes feasible the liberation of our best energies. Without suffering, even suffering of the most degrading sort, we would be inhuman in our self-righteousness, and we would also be mindless, because only our pain enables us to understand and recognize other people, to make distinctions and to produce art.
The fraught relationship between the individual and society, between his private self and his public exterior, undergoes an intensification via the struggles over power and position that a human being in a social setting is incessantly compelled to engage in. This war of all against all finds expression in snobbery, or more precisely a multiplicity of snobberies. There is nobody in Proust’s world—not a single duchess, cook, doctor, or man of letters—who is invulnerable to injury by these weapons, or who would scruple to use them on his inferiors or his superiors. And we are spectators of the unmasking. The outsiders want to figure among the chosen few; the chosen few defend their prerogatives and punish the outsiders with contempt. The identities of the specific social groups from which Proust derives his observations on this process are of absolutely no importance, because his conclusions are of universal validity. Although he never set any great store by the notion of being an expressly practicing social critic, he unveiled and even expressed this system of laws in a stupendously impressive fashion. The accusation that he was indifferent to the public life, to the social and political development, of his age, is probably the most fatuous one that was ever leveled at him. One would do better to go one step further and see more than a social critique in In Search of Lost Time, and conceive of it as a conspectus of the conditio humana.
I would like to turn now to another facet of Proust’s work, a facet that for all its independence ultimately converges with the one that has just been adumbrated; from the perspective of the last volume, Time Regained, all the revealed truths are reducible to a single account balance. In this volume, Proust leads us, along with Marcel Proust the novel’s first-person narrator, into the Paris of the First World War, which is now no longer the city in which as a child he played in the Champs Elysées with his first love, Gilberte, in which he enjoyed his social triumphs and discovered his entrée into the world of the upper aristocracy, or of his life with Albertine, his incarcerated and absconded mistress, but rather a Paris that has changed no less than its inhabitants--a Paris in the ghastly grip of supraindividual passions.
SPEAKER: “...The city seemed a black, amorphous mass which suddenly passed from the nocturnal depths into the light and into the sky where one by one the aviators were ascending at the earsplitting summons of the sirens, all the while that in a movement that was slower but more insidious, more alarming—for the sight of it made one think of the still-invisible and perhaps already-near object that it was searching for—the searchlights stirred without interruption, stalked the enemy, surrounded him with their beams up to the moment when the piloted planes were to give lunging chase to him and seize him. And thus in flight after flight each aviator, now transported into the sky like a Valkyrie, soared from the city.”7
AUTHOR: This is the period in which everything apart from the war has been put on indefinite hold. But the actual event that is taking place is not the war itself, as a site of the exchange of gunfire or the potential subject of a historical painting, but rather the war’s reflection, which is something more real: its permeation of the everyday language of all and sundry, its backfiring onto life in the salons and onto fashion, and its ability to transform towns and cities into different towns and cities. The little hawthorn path at Méseglise has become Hill 507. The bridge over the Vivonne and its idyll have both been exploded. The Parisian ladies have put away their pearls and now flaunt their patriotism by sporting dark military tunics over short skirts and gaiters reminiscent of those worn by the poilus in the trenches. It has been a long time indeed since people were despised for being Dreyfusards; in the eyes of the trendsetters the new bugbears are those who oppose the mandatory three-year term of military service. All varieties of opinion are here, from blind Germanophilia to blind Germanophobia, and in the midst of their exponents stands the placatory Saint-Loup, the narrator’s formerly super-radiant friend, who will soon meet his death.
SPEAKER: “Just as heroes of a mediocre and banal cast of mind writing poems during their convalescence went about describing the war not at the level of its events, which in themselves are nothing, but at that of the banal aesthetic rules they had been following theretofore, speaking, as they would have done ten years earlier, of the ‘bloody dawn,’ of the ‘trembling flight of victory,’ Saint-Loup, who was much more intelligent and artistic, remained intelligent and artistic, and when he was immobilized at the edge of a marshy forest he jotted down tasteful observations on the landscape for my benefit, but as if in preparation for a duck hunt. To make me appreciate certain contrasts of light and shadow that had ‘enchanted his morning,’ he referenced certain paintings that we both admired and did not scruple to allude to a page of Romain Rolland, even of Nietzsche, with that independence characteristic of men at the front who lacked the fear of pronouncing a German name felt by those stationed in the rear echelons, or even to quote one of the enemy with a certain dash of coquetry…”8
AUTHOR: It is via such illuminations that Proust invariably arrives at allusions to these years’ monstrous events. As the lyrical letters of his friend contrast with the trench in which he is lying, the comportment of the queen of the Paris salons, Madame Verdurin, whose house is crisscrossed by the comings and goings of officers and politicians, contrasts with the sinking of the Lusitania.
SPEAKER: “These Verdurins (and then Mme Verdurin on her own, after her husband’s death) hosted dinner parties, and M. de Charlus pursued his pleasures, while hardly reflecting on the fact that the Germans—immobilized, to be sure, by a bloody barrier that was constantly being rebuilt—were only an hour’s car drive away from Paris. And yet it must be admitted that the Verdurins were indeed thinking about this because they had a political salon where the situation of not only the army but also of the navy was discussed each evening. They really were thinking about those hecatombs of annihilated regiments, of drowned ship passengers; but an inverse operation multiplies what impinges on our well-being to such an extent and divides what does not impinge on it by such a colossal figure that the death of millions of strangers is whispered to us as softly as and almost less disagreeably than a draught of air. Mme Verdurin, suffering from her migraines on account of not having a croissant to dunk in her café au lait, had obtained from Cottard a prescription that allowed her to order them at a certain restaurant of which we have spoken. This prescription had been as difficult to obtain from the authorities as the nomination of a general. She received her first croissant on the morning when the newspapers reported on the sinking of the Lusitania. As she dunked the croissant in the coffee and repeatedly flicked her newspaper to keep it spread flat without having to leave off dunking, she said: ‘How horrible! This is more horrible than the most terrible tragedy imaginable.’ But the death of all those drowning victims must not have seemed more than a billionth of its actual magnitude to her, for as she engaged in these dolorous reflections with her mouth full, the expression that was floating on the surface of her face—an expression probably brought there by the flavor of the croissant, so preciously curative of migraines—was actually one of mild satisfaction.”9
AUTHOR: Because the war exerted such a deeply astonishing influence on Proust’s novel and almost exploded its original plan, to my mind it is important to present a few cases in illustration of this influence along with the new perspectives under whose auspices he allows his characters to continue developing pathologically in a state of war-induced shock. He brought increasingly merciless observation to bear on the collective emotion that is so closely akin to the emotions of individuals, and in this hectic, perfervid atmosphere he registers the derailment of people, of classes, of nations. Even more than the Dreyfus Affair, by which Proust was first schooled in the entire problem of character and the mutability of character, of opinion and the mutability of opinion, the war tore Proust out of the world of good taste, of convention, and of the aristocratic and artistic attitude towards life. Only through his observation of the sudden transformation and the constants of the war did he wrest his standpoint free of all the milieus that could make him suspicious, and from the perspective of the end of the book, all parties receive their proper emphases. Thus do his characters turn into the “monsters” that have such an appalling legitimacy in our eyes. Saint-Loup turns into a hero, which he has been all along unbeknownst to himself; Mme Verdurin soars with exaggerated chauvinism into the most exclusive social circles; a formerly anti-militaristic literary critic switches over to the avid contemplation of military maneuvers; Charlus, now shunned by multitudes, isolated, and headed for an appalling dissolution, reminiscences about his Bavarian ancestors and is incapable of countenancing the annihilation of Germany.
SPEAKER: “The reason for this was that in these disputes the large aggregations of individuals called nations behave like individuals to a certain extent. The logic that guides them is strictly of an internal kind and is perpetually being overhauled by passion, like the logic of people offended in an amorous or domestic dispute, in a dispute between a son and his father, between a cook and her mistress, between a wife and her husband. The party in the wrong for all her wrongness believes that she is in the right--as did Germany—and the party in the right sometimes adduces arguments in her favor which she finds irrefutable only because they vouch for her passion...The surest means of remaining blind to the unjust aspects of the German individual’s cause, of recognizing at every moment the just aspects of the French individual’s cause, was not for a German and a Frenchman to be of poor judgment and sound judgment respectively, but to be patriotic.”10
AUTHOR: Irony authenticates Proust’s magisterially incorruptible view of unfolding events, notwithstanding the fact that during the war, as during the Dreyfus affair, he himself was a highly partisan figure--a champion of France as he had previously been a champion of Dreyfus. But his partiality never prevented him from investigating with scientific objectivity the murderous drives those later years first brought to his attention. Maturity makes him misanthropic, and a novel that begins on a note of enchantment, a novel whose personages are still regarded with tenderness, gives way to an ever-increasingly lackluster one; its characters discolor one another and become darker: the Duchesse de Guermantes goes completely to seed; beneath a hypocritical semblance of meekness, Madame de Marsante turns traitor to her incurable aristocratic pride; Saint-Loup eventually becomes yet another inhabitant of Sodom and a client of the utterly depraved Jupien. In the absence of the war, which delayed the novel’s publication and impelled Proust to continue working on it, In Search of Lost Time would have ended up being much shorter and much closer in spirit to the classical ideal of the French novel; but it would have lacked the disconcerting and oceanic quality to which it owes its absolute uniqueness.
Once Proust has presented to us his principal characters disfigured by the stigmata the war has imprinted on them, night descends. This is a night in which the narrator unexpectedly wanders into a Parisian brothel. He recognizes its owner as Jupien, his old caretaker, who has become the curator of the baron’s vices. The events of this night constitute the centerpiece of the work’s terminal phase; they take place in the innermost circle of hell and are a grisly spectacle of human misery and human irredeemability in which the scum of the earth—of the common people—and the scum of the ether—of high society—mingle with one another.
The universal lunacy is represented by this particular instance of it. The grand pandemonium is represented by this minor one—and the writer Proust, the aesthete of yesteryear, has arrived at a place where inurement to horror renders horrific visions superfluous. In the course of this night Jupien even says to him:
SPEAKER: “It is not children but poets whose education consists of a course of spankings.”11
AUTHOR: And Proust, still reeling from the impression made on him by the events he has witnessed in the house, rejoins:
SPEAKER: “In the meantime…this house is quite a different thing, more than a madhouse, since the madness of the patients here is acted out, reconstituted, visible; it’s a genuine pandemonium. I had thought, like the caliph in A Thousand and One Nights, that I would arrive just in time to come to the aid of a man who was being beaten, and it was a different tale from A Thousand and One Nights that I saw dramatized in front of me, the one in which a woman who has been transformed into a dog willingly has herself beaten in order to reassume her original shape.”12
AUTHOR: But nobody is reassuming his original shape anymore. This is the hour in which everyone is being turned into a “Pompeian” on whom the volcanic fire could rain down at any moment.
SPEAKER: “The streets had become completely black. Only occasionally a fairly low-flying enemy plane would illuminate the spot on which it was planning to drop a bomb. I was no longer able to find my way; I thought about that day when, en route to Raspelière, I had encountered a plane like a God who had made my horse bridle. I reflected that this encounter would be different and that this time the God of Evil would kill me. I quickened my pace to take flight like a seafarer pursued by a tidal bore; I was running in a circle around the darkened squares from which I could no longer escape…I thought about Jupien’s house, perhaps reduced to ashes at that moment, for a bomb had fallen quite close to me right after I had left it, a house on whose walls Monsieur de Charlus could have prophetically written ‘Sodoma’ as that anonymous inhabitant of Pompeii had done no less presciently or at the beginning of the volcanic eruption and of a catastrophe that had already begun.”13
AUTHOR: After this nocturnal exodus, the end of the war is absorbed into a handful of brief reflections, in utterances, death notices, and deliberations that seem to the younger among us to have been written not after the First World War but after the Second, couched as they are in a mode of thought that allows us to believe that the transparency of facts is superior to prophecy.
The meticulous stocktaking of this positivist who refuses to indulge himself in so much as a glance at anything above or beyond what is immediately given, whose world is unillumined by any light from above and whose ecstasies are merely a means of searching for the truth, has brought to light more of the mystery of the human and inanimate realms than undertakings with higher aspirations. This stocktaking emerged in the course of his mind’s struggle against time, against incapacitation, the struggle to find a fixed point of reference in his evanescent life, to find an idea that might have served as a rule by which that life could have been lived.
SPEAKER: “[…] How many people turn away from writing, how many other tasks one assumes in order to avoid attending to that one! Each event, be it the Dreyfus Affair, be the it the war, had furnished other excuses to writers for not deciphering the aforementioned book; they wished to secure the triumph of justice, reestablish the moral unity of the nation, and had no time left to think about literature. But these were nothing but excuses because they lacked genius or possessed something more than genius—namely, instinct. For instinct dictates duty and intelligence furnishes pretexts for shirking it. But excuses have no place whatsoever in art; intentions count for nothing in its sphere; at each and every moment the artist must obey his instinct, which is what makes art the most essentially real thing in existence, the severest school of hard knocks, and the actual Last Judgment.”14
AUTHOR: And so he becomes the translator, the interpreter, of that reality that has disclosed itself to him through time, and his book had to be tantamount to a betrayal of all the people and things that had moved him, because the truth could not have been given utterance by any other means. After the War he returns to Paris once again in order to take leave of the “world.” He visits the salon of the Princesse de Guermantes once again and is once again taken aback—this because as so many years have passed, he is faced with people on whom the ashes have fallen, people whom he no longer recognizes, old men and old women, and young people whom he has never seen before. What has time wrought? Old friends have fallen out with each other and new friendships have been formed; political passions have cooled, families have fallen asunder; the social classes have undergone another shakeup; things that used to be beautiful and expensive are no longer either; and those who used to be loved are no longer loved. An inexorable current has swept the victors and the vanquished along to their deaths. But other people don’t recognize him either. He must come to terms with the fact that he too has grown old—and he becomes cognizant of an idea of time that calls into question every form of an afterlife, even that of the afterlife of art. But this same idea, in being the only idea, also gives him his creative impetus and his will to bring his work of art to completion. He now begins to fear death and to count the days remaining to him, but not because he fears his own destruction, for he feels as though he has passed through all the circles of hell and died several times already. The I who loved Albertine died when it ceased to love her, and the I who loved the Duchesse de Guermantes died when it ceased to love her. He was no longer the being who had been capable of such passions and suffering, but rather a being who saw himself as having been presented with a task that had to be carried out at all costs. His dread in the face of this task has supplanted his dread of all other things.
SPEAKER: “For my part, I shall aver that the cruelty of art’s fiat consists in the fact that human beings die and that we ourselves may die in devoting every last drop of our suffering to preempting the germination of the grass of oblivion via that of the grass of eternal life, the lush grass of productive artworks, upon which future generations will come to partake merrily of their ‘déjeuner sur l’herbe’ without giving a thought to those who are slumbering in the earth beneath them.”15
AUTHOR: He intends to crouch down on a mountaintop and gaze down into the depths of bygone years, even as he himself is imperiled by his attempt to cling to himself with all his strength to avoid sliding downhill, and he concludes his work with a sentence that prepares the way for the one with which it opens. The end has become a beginning. The last word precedes the first.
SPEAKER: “If at least I was afforded enough time to complete my work, I would not fail to mark it with the seal of this Time, the idea of which was imposing itself on me with so much force today, and in this work I would describe men and women faithfully, even if this meant making them seem like veritable monsters, by representing them as occupying a substantially larger place in Time than the painfully limited one vouchsafed to them in space, a place that is, by contrast, of such immeasurable extent that, like giants completely immersed in years, they brush against the mutually distant epochs through which they have lived—epochs bracketing the accumulated accretion of so many days—in TIME.”16
AUTHOR: But how do we ourselves fare when we look back on this novel, on its holy sites, which are not our own, on the lives and deaths of these monsters that it has kept in suspended animation for us? They are there, I believe, in order to allow us to possess them, so that we can enter into every process of love, jealousy, and mendacity, ambition and disappointment and ultimately truth and extinction. It is of course not a book that centers on a given person but rather a book in which a given set of central characters can be suffused with life—a book of pure relationships, in which every sentence and every passage is an “Open, Sesame” and causes a door within ourselves to open.
SPEAKER: “In reality every reader, as he is reading, is the reader of himself. The writer’s work is nothing but a kind of optical instrument that he presents to the reader with the aim of allowing him to discern what he never would have been able to see within himself without the aid of the book. The fact that the reader recognizes within himself what is said by the book is proof of the book’s truth, and vice versa, at least to a certain extent; the difference between the two often being attributable not to the author but to the reader. Moreover, the book can be too scholarly, too obscure for the naïve reader and thus present him with nothing but a clouded lens through which he will be unable to read. But the treatment of other peculiarities (such as inversion) can require the reader to read in a certain manner in order to read well; the author need not be offended by this, but, to the contrary, accord the reader the greatest degree of liberty by saying to him: ‘Take a look even if you see better through this lens, through that one, or through yet another one.’”17
AUTHOR: This liberty that Proust accords his reader has been made use of here, for there are any number of possible ways of reading him: as a social critic, as a theoretician of art, as a philosopher—and here I have attempted a few of these ways of reading; to be sure, these cannot yield a picture of the work in its entirety, but they are worth attempting in order to show how he himself would like to be seen—as the creator of men and women who henceforth will be consolingly walking among us with their sufferings and errors, and as the creator of places that we shall admittedly never find on a map but because they were inhabited by these people, because they were loved and were witnesses of so much misery like those marvelous places that attracted great myths and were populated by heroes, demigods, and gods, will henceforth be renowned. But as for Proust himself, who in the end admittedly renounced everything in order to liberate the imprisoned images of the world, who, fasting and painfully working within four bare walls in solitude, has markedly increased our share of truth, let him be represented by a message he has forwarded to us in tribute to Ruskin:
SPEAKER: “Though dead, he continues to light our way like a long-extinct star whose light is still finding its way to us…Those eyes that have been closed forever and are resting in the depths of the grave will still be affording a view of nature generations after we ourselves are gone.”18
AUTHOR: For this positivist and mystic for whom the world of art was the only absolute and who never allowed himself to gaze hopefully through the window of his prison cell here nevertheless wrote of one of his characters, the great writer Bergotte:
SPEAKER: “They laid him in the earth, but throughout the night of mourning, his books, displayed in groups of three in illuminated shop fronts, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings, and for this man who was no more they seemed to symbolize his resurrection.”19
1. As Bachmann’s editors point out, this passage is not from Proust’s diaries but rather from his 1921 essay À Propos Baudelaire as quoted in André Maurois’s À la recherche de Marcel Proust, published in German as Auf den Spuren von Marcel Proust and in English (at least in the U.S.) as Proust: Portrait of a Genius. I have translated the passage directly from the essay.
2. Bachmann’s editors do not provide a footnote for this passage; consequently, I have translated it from the German.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse [Beyond Good and Evil], Aphorism No. 278, very liberally modified.
4. From Proust’s Cahiers (unpublished when Bachmann wrote her essay) as quoted in À la recherche de Marcel Proust. As I have no access to the original French texts of either the Cahiers or Maurois’s book, I have quoted with minor modifications the English translation of the latter, as it sounds more Proustian to my ears than the German translation quoted by Bachmann.
5. Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, Vol. V, La Prisonnière, Chapter III, “Disparition d’Albertine.” Bachmann quotes Eva Rechel-Mertens’s German translation with modifications according to the editors. As near as I can tell in the absence of access to this translation, these modifications consist entirely of omissions. I have translated this passage, along with all subsequent quotations of À la recherche du temps perdu, from the original French. I have also indicated the lacunae in the German with square-bracketed ellipses.
6. Ibid., Chapter II, “Les Verdurin se brouillent avec M. de Charlus.” The editors remark that the passage has been “slightly modified,” but I detect nothing beyond the bounds of a more or less faithful translation.
7. À la recherche du temps perdu, Vol. VII, Le Temps Retrouvé, Chapter II, “M. de Charlus pendant la guerre; ses opinions, ses plaisirs.”
11. Ibid. It is not Jupien but the narrator himself who states this.
14. Ibid., Chapter III, “Matinée chez la Princesse de Guermantes,” “slightly modified” according to the editors. The only modification I detect is the indicated omission of the first word of the first sentence, aussi (also).
18. Proust as quoted without attribution in Maurois’s À la recherche de Marcel Proust. Here, in contrast to the passage annotated by n. 4, I have found the English translation less satisfying than the German, which I have consequently translated rather than quoting the English.
19. La Prisonnière, Chapter I, “Vie en commun avec Albertine.”
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Werke, edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, and Clemens Münster (Munich: Piper, 1978), Vol. IV, pp. 156-180. Bachmann’s essay was first broadcast on May 13, 1958 on Bayerischer Rundfunk in Munich. The complete essay can be heard here.