The Little Patch of Yellow Wall: Proust on memory, regret and death

Vermeer. View of Delft. Oil on Canvas. 1660.

I keep rereading the same two pages of The Captive in which Proust creates an emotional narrative that involves  reflections on Vermeer’s View of Delft, memory, the art of writing, regret, death and reincarnation.  There isn’t much to say about these passages, and analyzing them would ruin the experience, I think.  But I hope others will enjoy this selection of his writings as much as I have.

The scene is the death of Bergotte, the narrator’s favorite author whom he has also gotten to know personally through the years.  Bergotte has been ill for quite some time and has been advised by various doctors to stay in bed.  But when an art critic describes a brilliantly painted yellow wall in Vermeer’s View of Delft, Bergotte has to go and see this painting for himself; it bothers him that he thought he knew this work by heart but he has no recollection of this yellow wall:

At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking,  more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks  to the critic’s article, he noticed fore the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall.  His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall.  ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.’  Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition.  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.

I suppose when all is said and done, like Bergotte, we all have some version of that little patch of yellow wall….

Bergotte collapses in front of this painting and Proust’s commentary on death, the soul and the afterlife I found surprisingly… hopeful:

He was dead.  Dead for ever?  Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death.  All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a pieces of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—if then!—to fools.  So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead forever is by no means improbable.

4 Comments

Filed under French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Proust

Words form, interpretations: Love and I, Poems by Fanny Howe

Fanny Howe’s latest collection of poems, Love and I,  arrived in the mail this afternoon and I have spent some time reading and thinking about it.  Her poems have a constant sense of motion which is particularly fitting for her thoughts on love.  I’ve always felt that love—romantic, familial, platonic, etc.—is never something that can be static.  We either move forward in love by putting effort into fostering it, tending to it, even expanding it.  Conversely it also takes effort to forget it by sabotaging it, resisting it and ignoring it.  My favorite poem in the collection has a brilliant title that captures Howe’s thoughts on love, memory and motion.  Philophany is taken from two Ancient Greek words, philos, “love” and the verb phan, to “think,” “deem,” “suppose.”

Philophany

The clatter of rain has a personal meaning.
This is the time to meditate or write down your dreams.
But the lover can do neither, can only wander
From room to room trying not to spill what’s so precious.

Around the lover are myriad sounds.
Thoughts shine through like water.
Forms, shapes, colors, stations are glorified in the morning.
Indecipherable, almost transparent.

Fear of loss takes root in the blood of the lover.
Words form, interpretations.

Miracles: no one there where someone was.
Someone here where no one was.

The stars that shine are sparks and coal.
As if to show experience purifies existence.

Experience was everything to me.
(This is what the uneducated would say.)

Every word must come from my acts direct.
But I know the difficulty too.
Who will believe what I do?

I’m very interested in reading more Fanny Howe.  Her back list of poetry, essays and novels is overwhelming.  Please let me know if you have any favorites of hers as a good place to start.  I’m interested in reading all three genres.

 

12 Comments

Filed under American Literature, Poetry

Lovesickness in Proust’s The Captive

There was an amusing yet horrifying thread going around on literary Twitter about the most painful things people have suffered.  (Follow @Unwise_Trousers for this and other, very interesting content, literary and otherwise!)  But in many ways emotional pain is worse than physical pain, isn’t it?  For instance, I was finding Volume V of Proust, The Captive and the Fugitive, hard to read because of the narrator’s obsessive jealousy and his extreme need to keep his mistress, Albertine, locked away from the rest of the world.  He was spending a lot of time with her at Balbec in the previous book, but towards the end of his time there he decides he really doesn’t love her and is going to break things off with her.  But he finds out about another possible lover of hers—a woman—and his jealousy causes him to become obsessed with her all over again.  He invites her to live with him in his parents’ house in Paris and whenever she goes out of the apartment he has her accompanied by a friend.  Why would he care so much about a woman whom he says he doesn’t really love?  At times he doesn’t even find her attractive and he can’t stand her lowbrow way of speaking.

The passages about his lovesickness, a common trope in literature, serve to explain his behavior.  As I wrote in an earlier post, Catullus in his Carmen 76 is the perfect example of an author equating love to pain and sickness.  He uses words like morbum (disease), pestem (sickness) and perniciem (ruin) to describe the end of his affair.  George Eliot and, of course, Shakespeare, have also adding meaningful contributions to this trope.  Now I would add Proust to my list as he writes:

Of Albertine, on the other hand, I had nothing more to learn.  Every day she seemed to me less pretty.  Only the desire that she aroused in others, when, on learning of it, I began to suffer again and wanted to challenge their possession of her, raised her in my eyes to a lofty pinnacle.  She was capable of causing me pain, but no longer any joy.  Pain alone kept my wearisome attachment alive. As soon as it subsided, and with it the need to appease it, requiring all my attention like some agonising distraction, I felt how utterly meaningless she was to me, as I must be to her.  I was miserable at the thought that this state of affairs should persist, and, at certain moments, I longed to hear of something terrible that she had done, something that would keep us estranged until I was cured, giving us a chance to make it up and to reconstitute in a different and more flexible form the chain that bound us.

His metaphor continues for a few pages—he also wishes to be “cured” so that he might be able to travel and visit Venice.  His jealousy, in particular, is a painful disease:

However, jealousy is one of those intermittent maladies the cause of which is capricious, arbitrary, always identical in the same patient, sometimes entirely different in another.  There are asthma sufferers who can assuage their attacks only by opening the windows, inhaling the high winds, the pure air of mountains, others by taking refuge in the heart of the city, in a smoke-filled room.  There are few jealous men whose jealously does not allow certain derogations.

Like an illness that has invaded his body he is nearly helpless to rid himself of it.  He can try different remedies, but, as he predicts, the only end of it will be the end of himself or the end of Albertine.  The narrator himself is the real “captive” here, isn’t he?

3 Comments

Filed under French Literature, Uncategorized

Gender and Sexuality in Proust

In an early scene in Sodom and Gomorrah, the narrator is in a casino while on holiday in Balbec watching his on-again and off-again love Albertine dancing with one of her girlfriends.  As he is watching the pair move around on the dance floor, an old acquaintance of his, Dr. Cottard, a distinguished physician and medical scholar, remarks to him about these women, “‘There now, look,’ he went on, pointing to Albertine and Andree who were waltzing slowly, tightly clasped together, ‘I’ve left my glasses behind and I can’t see very well, but they are certainly  keenly aroused. It’s not sufficiently know that women derive most excitement through their breasts. And theirs, as you see, are touching completely.'”

It never fails to astonish me how relevant Proust’s writing still is in the 21st century.  Issues of women’s health and sexuality are still misunderstood and considered  taboo to discuss openly.  Cottard’s remarks, which I found rather humorous, would just as likely be uttered and believed by someone today!  And not only does the narrator himself accept Cottard’s remarks as true, but he is crazy with jealously in thinking that his beloved is having a sexual relationship with her friend.

As the title of Volume VI suggests, the sexual preferences of several characters are expounded upon at length, especially the escapades and conquests of the Baron de Charlus.   Whole careers and volumes of books and articles have been dedicated to this topic.  But, it seems to me at least, Proust’s exploration of gender is not mentioned in the secondary literature quite as much.   One of the passages I found most astonishing for its relevance to current conversations about gender is that which describes the Baron when he entering a drawing room and greeting the mistress whose party he is attending:

…normally held in reserve, it was with a fluttering, mincing gait and the same sweep with which a skirt would have enlarged and impeded his waddling motion that he advanced upon Mme Verdurin with so flattered and honoured an air that one would have said that to be presented to her was for him a supreme favour.  His face, bent slightly forward, on which satisfaction vied with decorum, was creased with tiny wrinkles of affability.  One might have thought that it was Mme de Marsantes who was entering the room, so salient at that  moment was the woman whom a mistake on the part of Nature had enshrined in the body of M. de Charlus.  Of course the Baron had made every effort to conceal this mistake and to assume a masculine appearance.  But no sooner had he succeeded than, having meanwhile retained the same tastes, he acquired from this habit of feeling like a woman a new feminine appearance, due not to heredity but to his own way of living.

And at a different party given by the Princess de Guermantes, it is the wife of an ambassador whose gender is questioned:

It was said at the Ministry, without any suggestion of malice, that in their household it was the husband who wore the petticoats and the wife the trousers.  Now there was more truth in this than was supposed.  Mme de Vaugoubert really was a man.  Whether she had always been one, or had grown to be as I now saw her, matters little, for in either case we are face with one of the most touching miracles of nature which, in the latter alternative especially, makes the human kingdom resemble the kingdom of flowers.  On the former hypothesis—if the future Mme de Vaugoubert had always been so heavily mannish—nature, by a fiendish and beneficent ruse, bestows on the girl the deceptive aspect of a man. And the youth who has no love for women and is seeking to be cured greets with joy this subterfuge of discovering a bride who reminds him of a market porter.

Until very recently gender identity has been misunderstood and rarely discussed.  I found it quite astonishing to find these relevant passages in Proust.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Love and Transformation: My Translation of Ovid Amores 1.3

My reading of Proust has me thinking a lot about Ovid, especially his Amores. I offer here my translation of Amores 1.3:

I pray for righteous things: may the girl who was just snatched

away from me either love me or show me why I should always

love her! Ah, I ask for too much—if only she would allow

herself to be loved, then Venus will have heard all my prayers!

Accept a lover who would devote himself to you for many years;

Accept a lover who knows how to love with pure loyalty!

If my upper class family does not impress you, and if my

equestrian lineage does not impress you, then neither will

my impeccably plowed fields nor my thrifty parents who

regulate my expenses. But Apollo, and his nine Muses,and the

inventor of the grapevines, Bacchus himself, all act on my behalf,

as well as Love itself who has given me to you, and Loyalty which

yields to no one, and morals without a flaw, and naked

simplicity and blushing modesty. A thousand lovers would not

satisfy me, for I’m not the horse-jumper of love; You alone will be

my forever cure, if there is any loyalty. Whatever number of years

the threads of the Fates have spun out for me, let me spend them with

you and may I die first, with you grieving for me. Offer yourself

to me as material fitting for my poems. Brilliant poems will be

produced from your inspiration. Io, frightened by her silly

horns, and the one whom Zeus tricked by pretending to be

a water bird, and even that famous virgin, carried away across the

sea as she held on to the horns of the disguised bull, have all had their

names made famous through poetry. Poets will sing about us

throughout eternity, and my name will always be linked with yours.

There is no way that Proust could not have known and appreciated Ovid’s poetry. I can imagine Proust swooning over Ovid’s treatment of love, indifference, social position, etc. in the Amores.

7 Comments

Filed under Classics