Category Archives: French Literature

Love, Death, and Indifference in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu

In 1893-1894 Proust wrote a story for Les plaisirs et les jours entitled “The Indifferent One.” But at the last minute he pulled it and substituted it with a different piece of writing. Burton Pike, whose translation of the story is published in Conjunctions No. 31, says that as Proust was beginning to write A la recherche du temps perdu in 1910 he was looking for a copy of this story. It is a short tale about a man and a woman who, because they feign indifference towards one another—neither will be the one to admit to love first—they lose their chance of being together. It is not known whether he ever found his copy of the story, but Proust’s deeper thoughts on indifference are woven everywhere into the fabric of his magnum opus.

Indifference, which is closely related to memory and time in Proust, is a favorite subject of his within two specific contexts: love and death. In the various stages of the love affairs that he describes, indifference is the alpha and omega, so to speak, of a relationship. It is always used as a strategy or a weapon by one lover to goad the other into returning that love. As Swann is pursing Odette’s affections his modus operandi is described: (tran. Moncrieff et al.) “Thus the simple and regular manifestations of this social organism, the ‘little clan’ automatically provided Swann with a daily rendezvous with Odette, and enabled him to feign indifference to the prospect of seeing her, or even of a desire not to see her; in doing which he incurred no very great risk since, even though he had written to her during the day, he would of necessity see her in the evening and accompany her home.” And the narrator himself, as a young man pining away for Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, uses, or tries to use, the same strategy of faking an indifference towards her. When Gilberte sends Marcel invitations to see her, he starts to decline thinking that this will lure her to him:

“…when she made appointments for me to see her I used often to accept them and then, at the last moment, write to her that I was prevented from coming, but with the same protestations of my disappointment that I should have made to anyone whom I had not wished to see. These expressions of regret, which we keep as a rule for people who do not matter, would do more, I imagined to persuade Gilberte of my indifference than would the tone of indifference which we affect only to those whom we love. When, better than by mere words, by a course of action indefinitely repeated, I should have proved to her that I had no appetite for seeing her, perhaps she would discover once again an appetite for seeing me!”

But Proust does acknowledge that all of this pretending and false lack of emotion is a cruel and cold thing to subject a person to, especially someone we claim to love: “Furthermore, our mistake is our failure to value the intelligence, the kindness of a woman whom we love, however slight they may be. Our mistake is our remaining indifferent to the kindness, the intelligence of others.” He learns this painful lesson in his most important love affair with Albertine.

After the love affairs in Proust come to a long, painful ending, indifference is desperately hoped and wished for by the lover; Proust writes about a mad, jealous, love-sick Swann:

“Examining his complaint with as much scientific detachment as if he had inoculated himself with it in order to study its effects, he told himself that, when he was cured of it, what Odette might or might not do would be a matter of indifference to him. But the truth was that in the depths of his morbid condition he feared death itself no more than such a recovery, which would in fact amount to the death of all that he now was.”

It is only when an irreversible indifference to her sets in that Swann finds any real relief from his sorrows. And Marcel himself, due to his forced separation with Gilberte through feigned indifference and rejecting her invitations, finally experiences true indifference towards her: “I had arrived at a state of almost complete indifference to Gilberte when, two years later, I went with the grandmother to Balbec.” The true test of the end of the affair for Proust is utter and complete indifference.

When the death of his grandmother fully impacts the narrator in his second visit to Balbec he reflects on the indifference the dead have for us and the indifference we eventually develop for those who leave us. He keeps dreaming about his grandmother and is disturbed that, although she seems alive, she treats him with indifference: “But in vain did I take her in my arms, I did not kindle a spark of affection in her eyes, a flush of colour in her cheeks. Absent from herself, she appeared not to love me, not to know me, perhaps not to see me. I could not interpret the secret of her indifference. of her dejection, of her silent displeasure.” And as time goes on and the memories of his grandmother fade, he has deep guilt about the indifference he eventually feels for her as well.

In Time Regained, just at the point in which he becomes indifferent to death, as his health fails and he comes close to death, he begins to worry about the state of his writing and his work. But he realizes that when he is gone, and really even before then, the reception of his novel will be out of his control: “I was surprised at my own indifference to criticism of my work but from the time when my legs had given way when I went downstairs I had become indifferent to everything; I only long for rest until the end came. It was not because I counted on posthumous fame that I was indifferent to the judgments of the eminent today. Those who pronounced on my work after my death could think what they pleased of it.”

Indifference in love and death culminates in the novel with Albertine and his intense, jealousy riddled relationship with her. His cruelest sham of indifference is when Marcel asks Albertine to leave him and he pretends he no longer loves her. It is this false indifference that eventually drives her away from him. But in the case of this love affair, separation, oblivion, indifference is achieved through Albertine’s sudden death. It takes him a year of painful mourning, of making connections with other friends and of travelling for him to finally reach this stage, “As for the third occasion on which I remember that I was conscious of approaching an absolute indifference with respect to Albertine (and on this third occasion I felt that I had entirely arrived at it,) it was one day, at Venice, long after Andree’s visit.”

As with most things I’ve read in Proust he has me thinking about and second guessing whether or not we are truly capable of reaching complete indifference towards someone whom we have loved. After all, Swann does marry Odette, Marcel still feels a twinge of jealously years later when he finds out about Gilberte’s other lover, and Albertine’s name appears until the very end of the novel. The word indifferent or indifference appears 23 times in Swann’s Way, 38 times in A Budding Grove, 22 times in The Guermantes Way, 19 times in Sodom and Gomorrah, 48 times in The Captive and The Fugitive, and 41 times in Time Regained. The Moncrieff et al. edition of In Search of Lost Time includes a discussion of Proust’s favorite topics and themes, including memory, time, music, death, etc. It’s a shame that indifference isn’t mentioned as well because he clearly thought about and struggled with this emotion, whether feigned or real.

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Lucretius on Dispelling Fear

De Rerum Natura 2.55-61 (translation is my own):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

These lines from Book II of De Rerum Natura are quoted by the Marquis de Sade (although they are mistakenly said to be from Book III) in the introduction to his “philosophical novel” Aline & Valcour which will be published in a new English translation at the end of the year by Contra Mundum. The epistolary style novel, written while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, is described as owing “a special debt to the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose Epicurean and materialist philosophy lends it a contemporary feel wholly missing from many 18th century novels.”

Needless to say, I’m very intrigued. This will be my first Sade novel.

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Grande Mortalis Aevi Spatium: Freedom and Servitude in Tacitus and Proust

After the death of the Emperor Domitian, the Roman historian Tacitus decides to write a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, who suffered through this tyrannical, oppressive and cruel regime.  Agricola, who served as a general and governor of Roman Britain under Domitian,  was an example of a virtuous man who stood up against the Emperor’s despotism.  In the opening of his Agricola, Tacitus lays out the guiding themes for his biography and, in particular, he contrasts the freedom (libertate) of the previous generation with the servitude (servitude) of his contemporaries under the reign of Domitian (Latin translations are my own):

We have provided a great deal of evidence of the suffering that was perpetrated; and just as the previous epoch saw what would be the extremes of freedom, so now in this age we see the extremes of servitude, especially since our ability of speaking and listening has been taken away through interrogations.  We would have destroyed our memory itself along with our voice, if it were as easy for us to forget as it was to keep silent.

Now that Trajan is Emperor, Tactius explains, freedom is slowly returning, but it is difficult to forget this disease to which a generation of Romans were subjected.  Although it was a span of only fifteen years, Tacitus calls Domitian’s reign of terror grande mortalis aevi spatium (a large interval of human life).

It’s no coincidence that Proust chooses to quote Tacitus’s opening lines of the Agricola in the penultimate volumes of In Search of Lost Time.   The Fugitive and The Captive, as the names imply,  are similar to Tacitus’ biography in contemplating freedom and servitude, memory and speech, and the effects these things have on our lives.   In Proust’s narrative, the tyrant to which both the narrator and his mistress are subjected, which curbs their freedom, is their terrible behavior in relation to Love.  The narrator is at a party given by the Verdurins whose faithful clan of followers of their salon at one time included Odette and Swann.  Brichot, an academic who has been part of the little clan for twenty-five years comments to Marcel about the drawing room at the Verdurins: “There look at this room, it may perhaps give you and idea of what things were like in the Rue Montalivet, twenty-five years ago, grande mortalis aevi spatium.”  To Brichot the old furnishings connect past and present, they remind him just how long he has been part of this little clan.

But there is a deeper level of meaning here when this passage is examined in light of Tacitus’s influence.  The Verdurins, for all these years, have acted like tyrants towards their followers from whom they expect constant attendance at their gatherings.  If one of their band falls in love and is thus in danger of abandoning their weekly parties, the Verdurins immediately step in and do everything in their power to break up the couple.  It is in the midst of one of these forced break-ups–that of Charlus with his lover Morel–that Brichot makes his remark about the large interval of human life.  Not only do the Verdurins have control over their group, but they relish in their bad deeds and their tyranny.  Even Charlus becomes their victim when their false accusations cause the Baron’s lover to break with him in front of everyone: “The fact remains that, in this salon which he despised, this great nobleman…could do nothing, in the paralysis of his every limb as well as his tongue, but cast around him terror-striken, suppliant, bewildered glances, outraged by the violence that was being done to him.”

The narrator himself, while being drawn into the Verdurins’ little plot against Charlus, is having his own struggles with servitude.  He has been keeping his mistress, Albertine, in a room in his parents’ apartments and he only allows her to go out if she is with him or otherwise supervised.  He knows that what he is doing is not right and suspects that he is making her unhappy.  He thinks about the days before she was his “captive” when she was the very embodiment of libertate (freedom) in her life of biking, golfing, and visiting friends at Balbec: “And it was curious to remark how fate, which transforms persons, had contrived to penetrate the walls of her prison, to change her in her very essence, and turn the girl I had known into a dreary, docile captive.”

But the narrator himself also feels as if he lacks freedom because of his feelings of extreme jealousy and his incessant plots to keep Albertine captive.   He oftentimes refers to his own situation as “my servitude” and tries to convince himself that he doesn’t love her or is indifferent to her: “That vague fear which I had felt at the Verdurins’ that Albertine might leave me had at first subsided.  When I returned home, it had been with the feeling that I myself was a captive, not with that of finding a captive in the house.”  What is most maddening to read in these episodes is the narrator’s attempt to manipulate her by doing and saying the opposite of what he thinks and feels.  In the face of his amorous dilemmas, he keeps silent, the same sin that Tacitus finds fault with in his contemporaries.  Marcel pretends he wants Albertine to leave when all he really wants is for her to confirm her feelings for him and to stay with him indefinitely.  He won’t admit his jealousy, he won’t admit his love for her, and most importantly, he won’t admit that he wants her to stay with him forever.

When all of his ridiculous, manipulative plans fail and he manages to drive Albertine away, he finds that his memories are the most painful things to endure.  She was a constant, reassuring presence in his life and he must go through the grieving process and hope his memory fades now that Albertine has regained her freedom: “The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds.  Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone.  Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.”

As he tries to grieve and he tries to forget, Marcel painfully realizes that his time with Albertine, her presence in his life, no matter how much he tries to deny it or feign indifferent, was a grande spatium.  As I read Proust’s chapter “Grieving and Forgetting,” I can’t help but think that, as he was writing, he was keenly aware of another phrase in the same passage of Tacitus’s introduction to his Agricola: — Non tamen pigebit vel incondita ac rudi voce memoriam prioris servitutis ac testimonium praesentium bonorum composuisse.  “It will not pain me to have recorded the memories of my prior servitude, albeit with a crude and disorganized voice, nor  to have  recorded the circumstances of my present good fortune.”

 

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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.

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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?

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