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The Assembly of the Gods: Expectation in Proust’s Guermantes Way

My reading of the first part of The Guermantes Way has me thinking about expectations and how we are constantly needing to adjust expectations that are set too high or too low.  From the Latin verb expecto, meaning “to await” or “to wait for”, expectation implies looking to the future and a sense of anticipation.  The narrator in Proust’s novel has been invited to the opera where he will see Berma, who once was his favorite actress, in a production of Racine’s Phedre. As a child he couldn’t wait to see Berma—his expectations were full of that sense of anticipation which the word implies—but he is bitterly disappointed by her performance.  But this time he is a bit older and he has no expectations for his second experience with her.

As a young adult, the narrator now sits in the opera house and, as the play unfolds, he realizes that his earlier expectations as a child, were unrealistic and even silly.  Now that he is older he understands that her craft, which includes subtleties of the inflection of her voice and gestures, clearly set Berma apart from other actors. He reflects:

I realized that my original desire had been more exacting than the intentions of the poet, the actress, the great decorative artist who directed the production, and that the charm which floated over a line as it was spoken, the shifting poses perpetually transformed into others, the successive tableaux, were the fleeting result, the momentary object, the mobile masterpiece with the art of the theatre intended and which the attentiveness of a  too-enraptured audience would destroy by trying to arrest.

This more mature and thoughtful version of the narrator also realizes that he similarly had unrealistic expectations that he placed on Gilberte, Swann’s daughter with whom he was in love in the previous book.  While watching Berma perform, he thinks about the myriad of factors that influence the foundation of one’s expectations:

It had just occurred to me that if I had not derived any pleasure from my first encounter with Berma, it was because, as earlier still when I used to meet Gilberte in the Champs-Elysees, I had come to her with too strong a desire.  Between my two disappointments there was perhaps not only this resemblance, but another, deeper one.  The impression given us by a person or a work (or an interpretation of a work) of marked individuality is peculiar to that person or work.  We have brought with us the ideas of ‘beauty,’ ‘breadth of style,’ ‘pathos’ and so forth which we might at a pinch have the illusion of recognizing in the banality of a conventional face or talent, but our critical spirit has before it the insistent challenge of a form of which it possesses no intellectual, in which it must must disengage the unknown element.

But just as Berma walks off stage, the focus of the narrator’s attention is diverted to other, important, and captivating audience members,  the Princesse de Guermantes who is seated with her aunt, and, incidentally, Proust’s new neighbor, the Duchesse de Guermantes.  It is this encounter that causes him to become smitten with the Duchesse for a good part of this book.  Germaine Bree argues in his essay “Proust’s Dormant Gods” (Yale French Studies No. 38, 1967) that Proust likes to apply Greek myths when discussing the metamorphosis of nature and persons.  I think Proust also has a penchant for comparing the women who become the object of his love to Greek myth and ancient goddesses (in the previous volume he compares Albertine and her friends to nymphs), thereby setting his expectations for his interactions and relationships with these women rather high.  He observes and thinks about the Duchesse and the Princesse as they sit in their theater box:

The costumes of these two ladies seem to me like the materialisation, snow-white or patterned with colour, of their inner activity, and, like the gestures which I had seen the Princesse de Guermantes make and which, I had no doubt, corresponded to some latent idea, the plumes which swept spangled bodice seemed to have a special meaning, to be to each of these women an attribute which was hers, and hers alone, the significance of which I should have liked to know: the bird of paradise seemed inseparable from the wearer as her peacock is from Juno, and I did not believe that any other woman could usurp that spangled bodice, any more than the fringed and flashing shield of Minerva. And when I turned my eyes to their box, far more than on the ceiling of the theatre, painted with lifeless allegories, it was as though I had seen, thanks to a miraculous break in the customary clouds, the assembly of the Gods in the act of contemplating the spectacle of mankind, beneath a crimson canopy, in a clear lighted space, between two pillars of Heaven.

When one sets one’s expectations as high as Mount Olympus, one is bound to be disappointed. But, as the narrator reminds himself while watching Berma, sometimes we just can’t stop ourselves from setting lofty and, perhaps,  unrealistic expectations. Proust is reminding us, I think, in this theater scene that life is a series of expectations, ones we must constantly adjust and readjust.





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In a Budding Grove: Proust Teaches Us How to Read Proust

As a young boy and adolescent, the narrator of Proust’s masterpiece is an avid reader and is a particular devotee of the books of an author called Bergotte.  As a consequence Proust gives us some insight into what he thinks about writing,  literature and other creative endeavors that require talent and genious.  When the narrator meets his hero, he remarks about the author’s style of writing:

The true variety is in this abundance of real and unexpected elements, in the branch loaded with blue flowers which shoots up, against all reason, from the spring hedgerow that seemed already overcharged with blossoms, whereas the purely formal imitation of variety (and one might advance the same argument for all the other qualities of style) is but a barren uniformity, that is to say the very antithesis of variety, and cannot, in the work of imitators, give the illusion or recall the memory of it save to a reader who has not acquired the sense of it from the masters themselves.

Proust has an interesting mix of real and fictional authors throughout his story.  For readers and critics who try to understand why Proust invents this fictional author, Bergotte, and, in vain, attempt to guess on whom he is based, Proust provides the answer in his narrative.

And for those who fret over genre, and how to categorize his lengthy, meandering, difficult, masterpiece—to which a countless number of adjectives have been applied in the attempt to label it—Proust offers this:

The reason why a work of genius is not easily admired from the first is that the man who has created it is extraordinary, that few other men resemble him.  It is his work itself that, by fertilising the rare minds capable of understanding it, will make them increase and multiply.  It was Beethoven’s quartets themselves (the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteen and Fifteenth) that devoted half a century to forming, fashioning and enlarging the audience for Beethoven’s quartets, thus marking, like every great work of art, an advance if not in the quality of artists at least in the community of minds, largely composed today of what was not to be found when the work first appeared, that is to say of persons capable of appreciating it.  What is called posterity is the posterity of the work of art.  It is essential that the work (leaving out of account, for simplicity’s sake, the contingency that several men of genius may at the same time be working along parallel lines to create a more instructed public in the future, from which other men of genius will benefit) should create its own posterity.

I enjoyed Swann’s Way more than I can appropriately express in a post.   The way in which he gives us Swann’s account of his painful relationship with the courtesan, Odette, by taking on Swann’s point-of-view was riveting, to say the least.  As I began Volume II, In a Budding Grove, I had expected that in the chapter entitled “Madame Swann at Home” that I would, in turn, get Odette’s point-of-view and learn more about how their marriage came about.  But Proust only gives us Mme. Swann’s story through his narrator’s eyes.  That’s not to say that he isn’t successful at writing female characters—quite the opposite, in fact.  I’ve enjoyed Mme. Swann’s story just as much, if not more, than Swann’s himself.  Proust doesn’t, however, dare to step in her place and write from her perspective.  Even after 800 pages of text I am still learning from Proust how to read Proust, that is, to throw all expectations I’ve gained from my previous reading out the window.


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What Has to be Said is Unutterable: Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici

Nu a Contre-Jour. Pierre Bonnard. 1908. Oil on Canvas

The artist in Josipovici’s short novel tries to explain the difficult of creating art and painting, “It’s that what has to be said is unutterable. Or else: How can we tell what is the right language?  The proper tongue? That which is licit?”  Art demands a certain silence, when creating it and viewing it.  Josipovici captures the essence of this silence in both the art and the artist himself in this deceptively complex narrative which he subtitles, “A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard.”

The painter, his wife and their daughter each have a section of the book in which they describe their life together, a life that is dominated and overpowered by the artist’s desire to paint.  The first section portrays a grown daughter who is bitter and angry at her parents because she feels rejected by them.  There is no place for her, she feels, in their family and the pets received more attention than she did.  Like Bonnard’s “Nu a Contre-Jour” painting, the most important figure in the book is the artist’s model, his wife.  She meets the artist when she is working as a model and for the next 45 years she becomes his only model.  He draws and paints her incessantly, especially in the bath.  Also similar to Bonnard’s paintings, the bath is a common scene in the book as the wife soothes a severe skin rash by bathing four times a day and the artists sketches her during these baths.

But as the wife’s narrative progresses it becomes apparent that she is suffering from a mental illness and the baths become a compulsion that sooth her physically and mentally.  It’s as if she is trapped in her marriage and in her husband’s paintings.  Her entire life has been reduced to being his model and she gets no respite from the art or from his compulsion to create.  In addition, the wife’s description of their life and her confusion call into question the entire interpretation of the story, especially the first part which involves the daughter.  Like any piece of art, our perception changes the more we interact with it.

Silence is used in many forms throughout the book.  Unanswered letters, telegrams, and telephones.  Passing notes instead of talking.  The wife silently pretends to sleep to avoid interacting with guests.  In the terse and succinct writing, questions are answered by repeating the questions.  And, of course, there are long periods of silence needed by the artist to work.  We realize at the very end, when the painter himself finally speaks, just how much silence has permeated their lives.  On the death of his wife the artist writes a one page letter to a friend expressing in raw, stark language how devastating his wife’s death is for him.  He is filled with grief, loneliness and anxiety.  But why did he keep silent about his true feelings for her when she was alive?

This was my first Josipovici book and its strange and unexpected story has intrigued me and made me eager to explore his writings further, especially his non-fiction.


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Some Concluding Thoughts on Musil’s The Man without Qualities

It’s impossible to do any kind of a coherent analysis of Musil’s brilliant, enigmatic, philosophical, unfinished magnum opus.  But I thought I would share some final ideas that kept coming to mind as I read Volume II in the Sophie Wilkins translation.  It can’t be a coincidence that Musil chose Diotima and Agathe, names from Plato’s Symopsium, for his prominent female characters.  Similar to Plato, Musil uses his characters that are sometimes quite serious, and oftentimes ironic or sarcastic to explore the topics of Eros (Love), beauty, goodness and morality.  Musil is interested in the passions that are sparked by physical love, but also the beauty and insight that Eros inspires when felt on a deeper level.  But none of his characters ever achieve a higher or successful or even contented state of Eros.  Diotima and Agathe are both married to taciturn, duty bound and stern men who satisfy them neither physically or intellectually.  When Diotima, who is described as a voluptuous beauty with her hair always in a perfect Grecian knot, begins to spend with a Prussian business magnate named Paul Arnheim, her emotional and intellectual connection with him allows her to see the beauty in other things around her.

But Diotima learns that it’s one thing to discuss a higher level of Eros that excludes a physical relationship and quite another issue in real life to be content in such a situation.  Neither she nor Arnheim can make the first move towards a sexual relationship and both are tormented by it.  At the beginning of Volume II, Diotima’s unhappiness due to her lack of fulfillment in the realm of Eros causes her physical symptoms in the form of cramps and migraines.  So she adjusts her strategy, and her library, in order to become a sexual expert and train her husband to become more of a “successful” husband.  In the end, however,  all of her newly acquired knowledge still doesn’t make up for the lack of an emotional connection with her now very confused and brooding husband.

The only relationship in Musil’s narrative that comes close to being a success is that developed between Ulrich and his sister, Agathe, with whom, before their father’s funeral, he hadn’t interacted since childhood.  They, too, have an instant emotional and intellectual connection and Musil hints at an incestuous affair between brother and sister.  One of these most obvious hints is from Agathe herself who summarizes Aristophanes speech from Plato’s Symposium:

‘You know that myth Plato tells, following some ancient source, that the gods divided the original human beings into halves, male and female?’ She had propped herself up on one elbow and unexpectedly blushed, feeling awkward at having asked Ulrich if he knew so familiar a story; then she resolutely charged ahead: ‘Now those two pathetic halves do all kinds of silly things to come together again.  It’s in all the schoolbooks for older children; unfortunately, they never tell you why it doesn’t work!’

And even this bond between brother and sister isn’t fulfilling enough for Agathe who, after an upsetting letter from her estranged husband, desperately needs a hug from Ulrich but instead gets a lecture on morality.   Even when Musil is dealing with political, religious or moral subjects, he tends to insert an idea or two about Eros.  In the last few pages of Volume II, as the leaders of the Parallel Campaign are still trying to figure out what to do for their Emperor’s 70th Jubilee, as different political factions try to insert their opposing agendas on the planning, Ulrich says,

‘These people aren’t so far wrong, you know, when one of them accuses the other of wanting to love if he only could, and the other retorts that it’s all the same with wanting to hate.  It’s true of all the feelings.  Hatred today has something companionable about it, and on the other hand, in order to feel what would really be love for another human being—I maintain,’ Ulrich said abruptly, ‘that two such people have never yet existed!’

I was thinking of reading the Posthumous Papers translated by Burton Pike sometime in the winter which continues some of Musil’s story.  But, then again, it seems fitting that Musil’s work is unfinished.  All of these characters would have had their lives disturbed and/or destroyed by the impending Great War and they certainly never would have come to any definitive conclusions about love, beauty, morality, or what to do about the Parallel Campaign.





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Topos Uranios: Robert Musil on Truth, Opinion and the Media

One of the threads that runs throughout Musil’s magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, is the lines that are blurred, especially by those in authority and the media, between truth and opinion.  The protagonist, Ulrich, is hired to be a part of the campaign to celebrate the 70th jubilee of Franz Josef’s reign over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and suddenly finds himself coming in contact with the Austrian social, political and economic elites.  One such character is not even Austrian, but a Prussian businessman and prolific writer named Arnheim whose celebrity status outweighs the fact that he is not from the mother country yet is helping to plan a nationalist campaign to celebrate Austria.  The media adores this man of industry, a veritable Renaissance man who is able to discuss and be knowledgeable on just about any topic.  When the Austrian media is supposed to be covering the Austrian campaign to celebrate its Austria emperor, it is Arnheim, the Prussian, that most interests them.  Musil’s commentary on the situation is clever, witty and still relevant 100 years later:

If he were alive today, Plato—to take him as an example, because along with a dozen others he is regarded as the greatest thinker who ever lived—would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out instantaneously for its content of reason and reality.  He would have supposed a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of ideas, which he has described so impressively that to this day all the better class of people are still idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course if Plato were to walk suddenly into a news editor’s office today and prove himself to be indeed that great author who died over two thousand years ago he would be a tremendous sensation and would instantly be showered with the most lucrative offers.  If he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophical travel pieces in three weeks, and a few thousand of his well-known short stories, perhaps even turn one or the other of his older works into film, he could undoubtedly do very well for himself for a considerable period of time.  The moment his return had ceased to be news, however,  and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little column on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section (but in the easiest and most lively style possible, not heavy: remember the readers), and the features editor would add that he was sorry, but he could use such a contribution only once a month or so, because there were so many other good writers to be considered.  And both of these gentlemen would end up feeling that they had done quite a lot for a man who might indeed be the Nestor of European publicists but still was a bit outdated, and certainly not in a class for current newsworthiness with a man like, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

In an age when one is just as likely to see or read a news story about world politics as the Kardashians in any major, global news outlet, this paragraph could just as well have been written about the current state of truth/opinion/media.


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