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Grief and Love: The Notebooks of Camus 1935-1937

In the entry for his notebooks of March, 1936 (no specific date is recorded), Camus writes:

My joy is endless.

Dolorem exprimit quia movit amorem.

There are so many ways to translate this. Exprimit, present tense, literally means “to shake out.” It is a compound of primo, primere, (which becomes “to press” in English) and the preposition ex meaning “out of.” It is a verb of extreme action, almost violence: to shake off dolorem (grief or pain).

And that quia, which is the centerpiece of the phrase, is so important: “because.”

Movit is from the Latin verb moveo, movere (which in English becomes the verb “to move”) but it is the perfect tense. Movit can mean many things, but here I like the translation “to undertake” or “to cause.” Both of these translations imply that he has himself been moved by love (amorem) but has also inspired this feeling in someone else. The change in verb tense, from the present exprimit, to the perfect movit is striking to me as well. He shakes off pain because he has inspired love?

Finally, the chiasmus he uses to compose this sentence is significant. Dolorem (pain, grief) and Amorem (love) frame the sentiment. The verbs are placed close together and, as I mentioned, that quia (because) stands out as the center, the most important part of the phrase.

So I have, for now anyway, decided I like this translation: “He expels pain because he has inspired love.”

But this really raises more questions: Does love, in any form, expunge grief? Can a new love expel the hurt and grief of a previous one? Or is it really easier to shake off grief because we have loved? Is it his love for someone else or the fact that someone else loves him that eases his pain?

Or is it both?

I will be immersed in Camus’s notebooks for some time to come with this phrase lingering in the back of my mind.

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The World is Round

The Sea of Time and Space. William Blake. 1821.

As I’m sitting here at Heathrow waiting for my flight back to Boston my heart and my mind are full of thoughts and emotions. We oftentimes tend to dwell on grief, loss and heartache—broken relationships, silence, distance, and, of course, death. But we rarely speak about the experience of meeting new people and making a new friend. Of all my trips to London, this has been my best experience because of a new friend.

I am reading Caroline Bird’s poetry collection (one of several books I bought on my trip) from Carcanet, “Looking Through Letterboxes” and her poem “Geography Lesson” seems especially fitting:

When you’ve reached the peak,

the summit, the end,

you’ve come to the limit,

let me tell you gently

that the world is round, my sweet,

and it’s all a long walk backwards,

starting from here.

Maybe I’m just too much of an optimist. But I think that, even as an adult, if we keep our minds and hearts open it is possible to meet fantastic, new friends. But as Bird also says in one of her poems, “Only takes you so far, fate.”

The Blake piece also seems fitting and was one of my favorites at The Tate exhibit: ” The Sea of Time and Space” which deals with, among many things, the theme of choice.

More on my trip later, when I’m home and have time to think.

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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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