Tag Archives: In Search of Lost Time

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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My First Encounter with Proust

Charles Swann, the eponymous character of Proust’s first Volume of In Search of Lost Time,  is an old acquaintance of the narrator’s family and, although he has connections to the upper classes and the royals in France and Britian, he never forgets to visit with his middle class friends.  Swann is also very quiet about these other, important social circles to which he has access, and a knowledge of this would have shocked the narrator’s great-aunt:

But if anyone had suggested to my great-aunt that this Swann, who, in his capacity as the son of old M. Swann, was “fully qualified” to be received by any of the “best people,” by the most respected barristers and solicitors of Paris (though he was perhaps a trifle inclined to let this hereditary privilege go by default), had another almost secret existence of a wholly different kind; that when he left our house in Paris, saying that he must go home to bed, he would have no sooner turned the corner than he would stop, retrace is steps, and be off to some salon on whose like no stockbroker or associate of stockbrokers had ever set eyes—that would have seemed to my aunt as extraordinary as, to a woman of wider reading,  the thought of being herself on terms of intimacy with Aristaeus and of learning that after having a chat with her he would plunge deep into the realms of Thetis, into an empire veiled from mortal eyes, in which Virgil depicts him as being received with open arms.

This short passage in Proust brought to mind my very early days as an undergraduate, when taking a Vergil course and being handed these lines from the Georgics and asked to produce a polished translation and commentary.  I carefully and lovingly labored over this Latin text for weeks.  Aristaeus chases Eurydice through a field where she is bitten and killed by a serpent.  Orpheus, in his intense grief, asks the ruler of the Underworld to allow him to bring his wife back, but, by not following the only rule—not to look back at his wife—he is unsuccessful.  As a punishment for his indiscretion Aristaeus’s bees are destroyed and he is allowed to visit his mother and the other nymphs in their underwater lair to get advice on how to resurrect his bees.  I remember the part in which Arisaeus enters this watery realm because there were certain Latin words I keep thinking about and adjusting in my translation.  My mother would call me every week and ask, “How are the bees coming along?”  Although I had studied Latin in high school, I viewed translation as just another acquired skill, but it was due to this Vergil class that I decided to be a classicist.

So many memories.

I have spent the last weekend sitting in my garden, soaking up summer and completely immersed in Proust.  I have no doubt that this experience of summer will be forever linked with my first encounter with Proust’s extraordinary masterpiece.  I had expected something special, but nothing quite like this.  Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Image of Proust” states it perfectly, “The thirteen volumes of marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu are the result of an unconstruable synthesis in which the absorption of a mystic, the art of a prose writer, the verve of a satirist, the erudition of a scholar, and the self-consciousness of a monomaniac have combined in an autobiographical work. It has rightly been said that all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one—that they are, in other words, special cases.  Among these cases this is one of the most unfathomable.”

One of the most astute and erudite readers I know remarked to me that Proust was a turning point in his reading life—-there is a distinct difference in reading and literature before Proust and after Proust he said.   Even after finishing only the first volume of In Search of Lost Time I think he is absolutely right.

 

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