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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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Proust

We are the Convalescents of Experience: The Awakening Goddess by Sándor Márai

The Awakening Goddess

With sunrise she unpicks her secrets.
Aurora awakes,
the young goddess:
the world awakens in the sign of blood,
a wrathful goddess opens her eyes.

We are the convalescents of experience:
poets and women and strong men
who with huddled expectancy lie in wait for the first minute:
we greet the world’s dawns with the chants of those heading off to die.

Softly:
someone is dreaming us,
our beautiful woman-treasures,
our toylike doll-wars,
the clever sawdust in our heads!
Softly!

Our great ships swim for in her dream. A telephone rings.
A train rattles across the prairie. A motion picture rolls in Paris.
Couples unite in hotel rooms: the woman tears her hat off, her dress shreds,
hurry, this is happiness…The diplomat yawns, rubs his nape;
from the swooning blood of a woman a new human cries out. A dog barks;
a hunter contemplates the noontime vapours in the reeds. Kant writes the

Imperative,

Königsberg shakes from bombs. The past determines the future—

Someone screams: tragedy!
the mind responds: twice two is four!
the madman: I’m the king of Mars!
the king: , L’état, c’est moi!
the people: we are the power!
the philosopher: causes give birth to effects!
the love: someone’s upsetting me!
the poet: the world is harmony, this I believe!

Softly:
someone is dreaming us,
with sunrise she unpicks her wrathful secrets,
we’re the passing shades of her bad dream;
let’s not disturb the dreamer’s dream:
the world awakens in the sign of blood.

 

Someone asked me last week to describe the types of poems I like.  My response: intense, hard hitting, memorable.  Márai’s volume of poetry, The Withering World, suits me perfectly.  (Thanks to literary Twitter’s @Unwise_Trousers for recommending this.)

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Poetry

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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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.

 

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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?

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