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Tragic Thirst for a Wilder Existence: The Immoralist by André Gide

Michel’s entire life up until his young adulthood has been influenced and directed by his father.  From his earliest years he is groomed to be a classicist and archaeologist and is immersed in ancient history and cares for nothing that doesn’t deal with the past.  Michel is a docile, emotionless, physically weak and disciplined man.   When his father dies, he marries Marceline, not because he loves her, but because that’s what his father wanted.

While on their honeymoon in Africa, Michel becomes very ill with tuberculosis.  His fevers, bad health and brush with death awaken in him thoughts, emotions, longing and senses he has never experienced before.  He falls in love with his wife and becomes extremely devoted to her.  And he also develops a sensual longing for the African boys that visit and interact with them.  When he recovers and returns to France, he tries to reestablish his career by giving a series of lectures on Athalaric, an obscure Gothic king who died young from heaving drinking and leading an excessively sensual life:

But, I must admit, the figure of the young king Athalaric was what attracted me most to the subject.  I imagined this fifteen-year-old, covertly spurred on by the Goths, rebelling against his mother Amalaswintha, balking at his Latin education, rejecting culture like a stallion restive in harness and, preferring the company of the tumultuous Goths to that of the old and over-prudent Cassiodorus, enjoying for a few years with unruly favorites his own age a violent, voluptuous, unbridled life, dying at eighteen, utterly corrupted, glutted with debauchery.  I recognized in this tragic thirst for a wilder and unspoiled existence something of what Marceline used to call, with a smile, my “attack.”  I sought relief by applying to it at leas my mind, since my body was no longer concerned, and I did my best to convince myself there was a lesson to be read in Athalaric’s hideous death.

I would argue that the lesson Michel learns is that we can’t let ourselves get too weighed down by the past; we must move forward, take risks in life.  And even though these risks may cause us pain and heartache, it is always worth taking a chance.

Gide was a perfect read for my post-Proust reading funk.  I’ve also decided to finish Schmidt’s book on poets and immerse myself in poetry for a while.



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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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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.


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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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