Marcel Proust

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Milton Hindus (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: Hindus, Milton. “Minor Works.” In A Reader's Guide to Marcel Proust, pp. 181-95. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, first published in 1962, Hindus offers an overview of Pleasures and Days, Pastiches and Mélanges, and Chroniques, all of which are considered minor works of Proust.]


The first book published by Proust in 1896 at the age of twenty-five, with a perceptive preface by Anatole France, is a collection of prose and verse (the English translation retains the prose but drops the half dozen pages of verse “portraits of painters and musicians” which the French text includes). This excision, except perhaps from a scholarly point of view, seems to me to have been advisable, not only because it is difficult to carry over the quality and felicities of even the greatest poetry from one language to another but because Proust's gift was definitely not for verse. To convince ourselves of this fact, we have only to compare the fifteen line verse tribute to Chopin with the beautiful passage which he devoted to that composer in Swann's Way (429).

But the prose is another matter. The dichotomy between the two gifts is a matter of repeated observation in literary history. When John Dryden, according to tradition, said to Jonathan Swift: “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet!” he was right in the technical sense, if we identify poetry and verse as people were inclined to do in England at the time, but he was wrong if we use the word poet in its larger Aristotelian sense as a maker of plots and creator of characters. Swift, though indifferent as a versifier, became the greatest prose writer in his language. In our own time in America, Dreiser, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald all tried their hands at poetry in the narrower sense and published the results, which are not very interesting except in the documentary or biographical sense. Like Melville, whose poetry is to be found mainly in Moby Dick rather than in his voluminous verse, Proust incorporated his poetry into Remembrance.

This earliest collection of his sketches, stories, satires, verses is by no means a negligible production. In the authentic sense of a much abused and frequently undeserved term of praise, it is promising. Of course it does not promise so much as Proust was to perform, for whereas it is characteristic of facile and clever talents to promise more than they are able to redeem, it is characteristic of something far higher than talent sometimes to promise less. Anatole France (or, according to malicious legend, his mistress), who had the advantage of knowing the young writer personally and was consequently better able to gauge the depth of meaning in his words, caught the hint of “things to come” completely. His oft-quoted descriptive phrase about Proust as “a depraved Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and an ingenuous Petronius” is possibly more applicable to Remembrance, which was many years away, than to the slim volume to which it is affixed.

André Gide, after changing his mind for the better about Swann's Way, went back to this earlier book of Proust's and did penance by confessing that he had not done justice to it on first reading and that viewing it retrospectively it turns out to have many of the themes and qualities which later went into its author's masterpiece. Edmund Wilson, who did not have to change his mind because he came to Proust's work when it had long been famous, has also done a good job of tracing the connections of subject and manner of...

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treatment evident betweenLes plaisirs et les jours and Remembrance. Without attempting to deny the validity of the insights of such gifted creators and critics, which are only too easy to document satisfactorily with quotations, it must be admitted, I think, that this book of Proust's is by no means as ripe an artistic production as, for example, Joyce's Dubliners is. Had Joyce died before he wrote Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake (not to mention Chamber Music or Exiles) his first precocious publication should have survived and been rediscovered in time. The same, I am afraid, cannot be said of Les Plaisirs et les Jours, which owes its continuing interest and preservation solely to its author's later work.

The resemblances in some details to Remembrance are not difficult to discover. In the story “A Young Girl's Confession,” which deals with a familiar Proustian theme: the profanation of the parental image and the intolerable burden of guilt this brings with it, we come across a clear reminder of the incident involving the mother's good-night kiss in the opening section of Swann's Way. (Pleasures and Days, p. 80). And two pages later on, there is an aphorism which is an abbreviation of the same theme that in its most complete development appears in the volume Sweet Cheat Gone: “Absence taught me other and still more bitter lessons, that one grows accustomed to absence, that the greatest diminution of oneself, the most humiliating suffering is to feel that one no longer suffers.” (82)

The protagonist of this story, though of a different sex, obviously has the same basic character (or maybe the more appropriate word is characterlessness) as the narrator of Remembrance, and her mother is just as concerned about it as his is: “What grieved my mother was my lack of will. I did everything on the impulse of the moment.” (83-84)

When he speaks of the benefits we derive from suffering and of those who cause us to suffer (women, “cruel friends”) as benefactors, we are reminded of how much his vision of life has in common with that of Schopenhauer. Proust adds to the fundamental pessimism of this philosopher a masochistic twist of his own which occasionally has the effect of giving to it an air of affectation or preciosity. The theme of the vanity of snobbery and ambition could come from the same source or be traceable all the way back to Ecclesiastes, and yet there is a Proustian grace in the phrasing, a sense of style that is personal to himself and is the initial gift he brought with him to the art of writing. This stylistic grace is evident when he speaks, for example, of “the universal scandal of human lives, not excepting his own, that walked toward death backward with eyes turned toward life.” (10)

In the story “Violante, or Worldly Vanities,” there is an evocation of the torrid, lustful atmosphere of Gomorrah (32-33) which is significant in the light of the importance of this theme later on and at the same time makes more understandable Anatole France's mention of the name of Petronius in connection with that of Proust, though I do not see his reason for qualifying with the adjective “ingenuous” the name of the Roman satirist, unless the adjective indicates (aside from adding a characteristic spice of paradox) that the old author was loathe to believe that his young friend was as sophisticated about corruption in sexual mores as certain passages in this book seemed to suggest. But Proust was certainly not ingenuous, and if his work reminds one of the satire of the Roman decadence it may be because he was so well acquainted with the seamier side of contemporary manners and morals.

But Petronius is not the only Latin satirist whom Proust brings to mind. In “Fragments from Italian Comedy,” in addition to its titular models, the reader is reminded of a range of satire from the relative good-nature of Horace to the bitter sarcasm of Martial's epigrams. Here is one of the characters whom he rather mildly makes fun of: “Myrto, witty, pretty, and kind, but something of a social climber, prefers, to all her other friends, Parthénis who is a duchess and smarter than herself; yet she enjoys the companionship of Lalagé whose social standing is exactly equal to her own, and she is also by no means indifferent to the attractions of Cléanthis who is obscure and has no pretensions to brilliant rank. But the friend Myrto cannot endure is Doris. Doris's worldly situation is a little below that of Myrto, and she seeks out Myrto, as Myrto does Parthénis, because she is more fashionable.” (36)

The eccentric Oranthe is delineated in a more incisive, epigrammatic manner. In this character, foibles and vices are almost indistinguishable from each other: “So you didn't go to bed last night? You haven't washed this morning? But why proclaim it from the housetops, Oranthe? Brilliantly gifted as you are, isn't that enough to distinguish you from common mortals? Must you insist upon acting such a pitiful role besides? You are hounded by creditors, your infidelities drive your wife to despair … You know how to make yourself very agreeable, and your wit, without your long hair, would be enough to make people notice you … The trouble with you is that to the soul of an artist you have added all the prejudices of a bourgeois, only showing the reverse side and without deceiving us.” (43)

The character Olivian, though he is described in more than a page, is really caught with a single sentence: “Olivian, you are truly unfortunate. Because, almost before you were a man, you were already a man of letters.” (51)

But if he is clearly indebted to ancient models (beginning with the very title of his book, which is an ironic echo of Hesiod's Works and Days) he has learned from the standard authors in his own culture as well. A maxim such as the following is a recognizable variation upon a well-known theme by La Rochefoucauld: “A libertine's need of virginity is another form of the eternal homage love pays to innocence.” (45) And a passage such as the following derives not only from observation but even more obviously from Madame Bovary: “There are women in the provinces, it would seem, little shopkeepers whose brains are tiny cages imprisoning longings for Society as fierce as wild animals. The postman brings them the Gaulois. The society page is gobbled up in a flash. The ravenous provincial ladies are satisfied. And for the next hour their eyes, whose pupils are inordinately dilated by veneration and delight, will shine with an expression of perfect serenity.” (41)

At least one other literary debt of Proust's deserves mention—the one he owes to Tolstoy. The last story in the book entitled “The End of Jealousy” and particularly its concluding pages read in parts (152-153, 161-162) almost like involuntary pastiches of the Russian master's great story The Kreutzer Sonata and the scene at the death-bed of Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in War and Peace. Tolstoy is explicitly mentioned by Proust on a number of occasions, and it is certain that his work was one of the most lasting admirations in Proust's life.


In an essay on Flaubert reprinted in the volume Chroniques, Proust speaks of the therapeutic function of writing conscious imitations or pastiches of famous authors. His idea is that the styles of the masters are so infectious to the sensitive beginner that if he does not get them out of his system somehow, he will continue in involuntary servitude to them all of his life without knowing it. To exorcise them and neutralize their gravitational pull upon himself, he must consciously imitate them (to the degree of parody) instead of unconsciously doing so.

This may have been a rationalization of his own delight in mimicry (of the mannerisms of his friends as well as those of celebrated stylists in literature). In any case, he succeeds in these pastiches in being both amusing and instructive. (Especially excellent, I think, is his take-off on a typical Lundi article by Sainte-Beuve. (24 ff) Here, in a few lively pages, he has condensed the essence of his hundreds of expository pages directed against Sainte-Beuve in his then unpublished work of that name, and furthermore he has made his serious point in a delightfully entertaining way. Presumably criticizing a mythical novel by Flaubert (a portion of which served for the previous pastiche), Sainte-Beuve displays a positive aversion to the prospect of coming to grips with the work he is supposed to be criticizing. He escapes from his duty as a critic somewhat in the manner of Stephen Leacock's celebrated horseman who galloped rapidly off in all directions. The “article” consists of an endless series of irrelevancies: digressions about Flaubert's father, digressions about the lack of complete realism in his portrayal of a scene in a law court (Sainte-Beuve's authority is an eminent lawyer of his acquaintance), pedantic allusions—a la Brichot—to Martial, to Napoleon, to Villemain and to whatever and whomever else the critic's capacious memory can dredge up. At the end, we realize (if we are reflective—but how many newspaper readers reflect on what they have read?) that we have been titillated, interested, and informed on every possible subject but the one that the critic is ostensibly concerned with and ought to have dealt with—namely, the work of art by Flaubert. And we realize, through the distortion of caricature, that this parody has exposed the journalistic technique of Sainte-Beuve, which is never so completely awry from its critical purpose as Proust pretends here but is so only at its weakest points which the parodist has mercilessly seized upon.

And we realize the cardinal sin of journalism—which according to Proust means writing to please others, in distinction from “true” writing which is more subjective in its motivation (to the point of being self-centered) and derives its possible importance from this central characteristic. In another connection, later in this book, he writes: “When one works to please others, one cannot succeed, but the things one has done to please oneself always have a chance of interesting someone else.” (102-103) The sentence refers to Ruskin whose analysis and appreciations of the Gothic Cathedrals of France are the subjects of the greater part of this volume. Ruskin for Proust was “one of the greatest writers of all times and of all countries.” (187) So great was his feeling for the English master, some of whose works he translated and annotated meticulously, that at the latter's death in 1900 Proust describes a pilgrimage he made to the Cathedral at Rouen in search of an obscure, small bit of sculpture there which Ruskin had discovered and spoken of with infectious enthusiasm. (174) This is one of the more striking passages in Proust himself and invites comparison with the passage in The Captive describing the death of Bergotte which happened during an art exhibition where, as we recall, he had gone in search of a painting by Vermeer in which a sensitive critic had brought to light a hitherto unnoticed little patch of yellow wall, exquisitely done. It is enthusiasm rightly directed that for Proust is the touchstone of the quality of aesthetic criticism: “Great literary beauties correspond to something, and it is perhaps enthusiasm in art which is the criterion of truth.” (178) He applies to Ruskin himself the words which that great enthusiast spoke at the death of his favorite contemporary English painter, Turner: “It is with these eyes, closed forever at the bottom of the tomb, that generations yet unborn will look at nature.” (180)

But Proust points out that while Ruskin himself recommended reverence as the proper attitude to assume towards great art and great artists, he rejected what can only be labelled as blind infatuation and dared to find fault even with sacred scripture since there is no form of writing which does not contain an admixture of error. (188) This authority is used to justify his finding some fault with Ruskin. In light of the fact that Proust himself has been subjected to the same criticism by religiously oriented critics, it is especially interesting that he should accuse Ruskin of what he calls the “idolatry of art.” (181) Briefly, he believes, that Ruskin was so sensitive to beauty that, without knowing it, he elevated aesthetics above every other consideration, including ethics, and he cites passages from The Stones of Venice which are impressively eloquent and lovely prose without ringing really true or sincere. (183-185) In other words, he thinks that excessive devotion to art forms led this most consciously moral of men (who carried sincerity to the point of giving away his private fortune and of recommending to his readers that before allowing themselves to enjoy the beauties of a Cathedral like Amiens they should give alms to the beggars at the door!) into unconscious prevarications by which (through the process of what Freud was to call rationalization) he disguised from himself the luxurious sensuality of his own basic motivations. Proust plays with the curious notion that immoral ideas (or amoral ones? Nietzsche, for example?) sincerely expressed may be less dangerous to integrity of spirit than moral ideas insincerely expressed. (182) Such a notion complicates the problem of evaluative judgment almost beyond belief, and Proust may (from what we know of the problems of his personal life as well as those he faced in choosing his artistic subjects) have been pleading his own case; yet the distinction he insists on appears to be valid. The greatest of all aesthetic as well as ethical virtues for him is to be sincere, which is another way of saying that it is tremendously difficult to know when one is being really honest with oneself! He criticizes Ruskin, too, (and perhaps this technical fault which he discovers grows out of the substantive one just discussed) for emphasizing overmuch the ideas or literary equivalents of painting. For Proust (and his point of view was to gain increasing currency with artists and critics later in the twentieth century) painting can hope to rival literature only when it realizes that its peculiar genius is not at all literary! (157)

Yet in spite of such criticisms which establish his independence, his overwhelmingly favorable reaction to Ruskin is allowed to stand. He quotes pages and pages of Ruskin's text and accompanies each quotation with learned footnotes which cite parallel passages from Ruskin's other works. He is himself evidently steeped in Ruskin's works and invites the reader to immerse himself in it as well. He warns of the danger of trying to get to know an author through selections, anthologies, or even a complete book: “To read but one book by an author,” he tells us, “is to enjoy merely a passing acquaintance with him” (107) His own knowledge of Ruskin is clearly not superficial but thorough, broad and deep. To give us a sample of the richness his master's work contains, he composes a detailed guide to Ruskin's Bible of Amiens, which is itself a guide to that Cathedral. (131 ff) Though the following words are not meant to be applied directly to him, Ruskin in Proust's estimation was undoubtedly one of those who realized and is capable of making us realize that “the supreme effort of the writer as of the artist is partially to lift the veil of ugliness and insignificance which leaves us without curiosity about the world.” (250)

A strange thing to find in the volume is the evidence of what can only be called, in a predominantly romantic setting of materials and ideas, elements of a classical point of view concerning art (which may help to explain how it came about—biographers have offered some ad hominem explanations of the phenomenon—that one of the most favorable criticisms of Proust's first book was written by the reactionary classicist, Charles Maurras, a fact which Proust remembered with gratitude all his life). In true romantic vein he speaks of “the man of genius” but notice that the romantic man of genius in the following passage is engaged in a seemingly classical activity: “The man of genius cannot give birth to undying works save by creating them not in the image of the mortal being that he is, but in the image of the representative example of humanity that he bears within him.” (148) And he notes the paradox that while the most intelligent public tends to be romantic in its taste today, “the masters (even the so-called romantic masters preferred by the romantic public) are classical!” (267) To compound the ambiguity, he claims that the romantics have always made the best commentators on classics, like Phèdre.

Part of the greatness of Ruskin for him consists of the fact that he was so enamored of the past and turns our thoughts towards it with understanding, love, and humility. Writing against an anti-clerical bill introduced into the Chamber of Deputies by Briand in the wake of the Dreyfus Case—a bill that would have ended the state subvention of services in the great Cathedrals of France—Proust foresees with trepidation the ultimate result, so dear to the heart of all progressive thinkers, that “the dead (that “great silent democracy” as Proust called it in a phrase resembling one of Chesterton's) will no longer govern the living. And the oblivious living will cease to fulfill the vows of the dead.” (209) Passages such as this one help us to understand better why, though some Catholics have been among the most outspoken critics of Proust, other Catholic writers like Mauriac have by and large found it possible, with some reservations, to defend his work strongly.

But the most interesting selection in Pastiches et Mélanges to my mind is the one most frequently translated and reprinted entitled “Filial Sentiments of a Parricide.” (211-225) The story in brief has to do with a man, Henri van Blarenberghe, whom Proust knew very casually over a long period but with whom, due to circumstances relating to the death of both their fathers, he was in touch by letter shortly before van Blarenberghe was involved in a family tragedy so macabre that it supplied the subject of a horrifying item in the press of the day, the kind of sensational story we glance at briefly, read with indifference, and immediately pass over. The newspaper item was headed with the words “Drama of a Lunatic” and it told how van Blarenberghe, a wealthy, sensitive man (his sensitive nature has been established by Proust previously through quoting from a couple of the letters he had received from him over the years) had in a fit of rage killed his mother suddenly and then, when he realized what he had done, shot himself so awkwardly in the head that he died a tortured, lingering death, with a police inspector at his elbow badgering him in his final moments in search of some clue which might help to unravel the motives of the catastrophe.

Proust's idea in his little piece is to go back of the bare journalistic facts reported in the paper, not by analyzing the psychology of the participants in the action (he didn't know any of them well enough to do so) but to point out how various of the incidents reported by the press serve to remind the reader who is in some way sympathetically attuned to the people involved, of moments in the highest classical drama of Greece and novels of the modern world—of Ajax by Sophocles and of Oedipus, of Shakespeare's King Lear, of Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov and of Cervantes' Don Quixote. Proust's object is to show that this journalistic sensation is not just cheap melodrama but has within it the stuff of great tragedy. To use his own words: “I want to bring into the room of the crime something of the breath of heaven, to show that what this newspaper paragraph recorded was precisely one of those Greek dramas, the performance of which was almost a sacred ceremony; that the poor parricide was no criminal brute, no moral leper beyond the pale of humanity, but a noble example, a tender and a loving son whom an ineluctable fate—or, let us say, pathological, and so speak the language of today—had driven to crime, and to its expiation, in a manner that should be forever illustrious.” (In other words, Proust's theme has something in common with that of Kafka's story The Hunger Artist, in which the author tries to indicate that the ethic of asceticism, which once gave rise to so many illustrious religious martyrdoms, is today regarded as merely ridiculous, meaningless, or diseased; martyrs are thus robbed of the attention which was once theirs, without ceasing to suffer or to be less worthy of fame and celebration than their great predecessors—the saints over whom so many tears have been shed and for whom so many prayers have been intoned. It is humanity that is fickle and from time to time changes its style in heroes or refuses to recognize the existence of the hero altogether, as at the present time).

But there is another idea that Proust develops at the end—that such a newspaper melodrama, like the high tragedies of the Greeks and Elizabethans, merely carries to an extreme of crudity, impulses and actions that are far from uncommon, and his conclusion is that every man and woman in this world is to some degree guilty of parricide (and matricide) though the means used are not usually revolver and dagger but only words, hateful looks, etc. “Filial Sentiments of a Parricide” is an extraordinarily powerful piece of literature which, appearing years ago in English translation in one of our more fashionable literary periodicals, so completely dwarfed and put into the shadow the articles and stories which the editors had to print side by side with it that there was no sense of competition or comparison between them. Proust is able to breathe life and imagination into the classical myth while using it to give a higher meaning to an otherwise sordid contemporary scandal. His handling of his materials has something so masterful about it that it brings to my mind the story about Cezanne, who, after rebelling successfully against a lifeless academicism in painting, proposed that modern artists measure their art against the solidity characteristic of the classics displayed in the museums. Cezanne proposed to be modern and alive and exciting (unlike the academic painters) without ceasing to be monumental and permanent in his intentions. If anything by Proust aside from Remembrance deserves the attention of the conscientious, careful or merely curious reader, I suggest that it is the pages entitled “Filial Sentiments of a Parricide.”


This is a miscellaneous collection of pieces by Proust in various newspapers and magazines up to a year before his death in 1922. It was made by his brother Robert in collaboration with the publisher Gallimard, and it contains a good many things of interest to the Proustian reader. For example, an anecdote about the Prince Edmond de Polignac reveals that this personage “sat” for a moment to supply at least one touch in the portrait of the writer Bergotte (whose more important models are Anatole France and John Ruskin) in Remembrance. In The Captive, the ailing Bergotte in his last years always feels chilly, wears his plaids and travelling clothes, and apologetically quotes to his friends a Greek sage to justify his change of habits: “Anaxagoras has said: Life is a journey!” Well, Polignac is evidently the personage from real life about whom this story was told. In fact, a good many of the incidents in Remembrance have sources traceable in contemporary history, sometimes in the journalistic writings of Proust himself, and this is the reason undoubtedly that he referred to the form of his greatest work as a cross between fiction and the memoir.

Among the most interesting of the selections are those modified excerpts from Swann's Way which Proust chose to publish in the newspaper Figaro from 1912 to March 1913, just before the first installment of Remembrance went into print. (92-122) The striking thing about all these selections is their distinction of style, and if one were to do a pastiche of Proust himself one would have to capture in particular his habitual use of what I have elsewhere called “the Art-Simile”—that is to say, the simile in which nature is compared to a work of art, rather than vice versa, as is usually the case in romantic art. The Art-Simile seems to me the most important Proustian innovation in imagery, and the number and quality of such images in these selections indicate that the author himself was conscious of how characteristic they were of his vision of the world, which elevated art to a pinnacle of importance in a hierarchy of values previously occupied for Rousseau and the Romantic poets by nature unretouched.

A ray of sunlight on the balcony breaking through the clouds on a day which had started out to be gloomy is strikingly compared to the crescendo in an orchestral overture in which a single note is artfully led through all sorts of intermediary stages until it reaches the utmost degree of sound in a fortissimo. (103) Street noises become for the writer's ear: “a thousand popular themes finely written for different instruments … orchestrating lightly the morning air.” (106) A childhood reminiscence that he has evoked becomes “something fantastic, melancholy and caressing, like a phrase of Schumann.” (105)

Proust's feeling for just comparisons which form the bases of similes and metaphors gives substance to Aristotle's observation in The Poetics that the quality of metaphor constitutes the hallmark of poetic genius, and it is interesting to note that in a discriminating essay on Flaubert's style reprinted in this book in which Proust praises Flaubert's originality in the way he employs certain tenses (past definite, past indefinite, present participle) as well as his use of certain pronouns and prepositions, he also takes occasion to criticize the flat commonplaceness of that prose master's metaphors. (193 ff) It is clear, on the other hand, that the originality and freshness and unexpectedness of Proust's own metaphors are among the chief beauties of his poetic style.

The essay on Flaubert is one of Proust's attempts to confirm his thesis that “we no longer know how to read.” (206) Lack of careful discrimination and failure of sensibility alone could account, so far as he is concerned, for recent harsh criticisms that had been leveled at Flaubert (without doing justice to his genuine originality) and flattering notices directed once more towards the criticism of Sainte-Beuve. In 1920, as more than a decade earlier, the difference between a Sainte-Beuve and a Flaubert appeared to him to be the difference between very good paste and slightly-flawed pearl. He protests vehemently against the injustices and perversities in which the world, under the dictates of fashion and in its restless, frantic search for novelties, indulges itself in the course of time. He detects, for example, a tendency among musicians and the public in the wake of the First World War to depreciate the compositions of Wagner, just as certain avant-garde Wagnerians a generation earlier had depreciated the music of Chopin. (218) The reaction against Wagner appeared to him to be connected with an absurd cultural nationalism aimed against all things German. He tells us of a recent so-called History of Philosophy which somehow managed to exclude the names of Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel! (218-219) To the excessively refined aesthetes and intellectuals, whose thirst for novelty and the bizarre accounts for many of the idiocies in contemporary judgments, he makes the plea (rather unusual for an avant-garde writer!) that “we must read the masters with more simplicity.” (209)

Yet even in the act of admiring and imitating them, he cannot help noting the fact that “all the ‘sages’ of our time have been more or less mad—from Auguste Comte to Nietzsche.” (147) Even the lucid Tolstoy was “singular” and Proust tells us that he has heard that his great master Ruskin in his last years appears to have suffered from a mental illness. From these observations, however, he does not draw Irving Babbitt's conclusion that there is something radically unsound about the romanticism of the nineteenth century and that we had better begin searching for wisdom in a new, a more traditional direction. However much Proust loved the classics, he was conscious of the importance of being sensitive to the literary situation of one's own time. To write as well as Voltaire he tells us (since this had become a common critical compliment of late) would involve writing not at all like Voltaire now but very differently from him. Only tone-deaf academicians could think otherwise; empty formalism repels him.

He makes one remark which seems to suggest an adequate criterion by which his own accomplishment will ultimately be measured as well as the accomplishments of other significant writers (“more or less mad”) of the time in which he lived. “Posterity,” he says, “cares about quality of work; it does not judge quantity.” If Proust's work contained no more quality than that of some of his prolific contemporaries, then indeed quantity even much greater than the 4,000 pages of Remembrance should not be sufficient to protect his name against oblivion.

One thing above all seems to me to promise well for the permanence of Proust at his best: It is the clarity and radiance of his work, the absence in it of those difficulties, obscurities, and (let us admit it) outright impossibilities which too often disfigure the work of even the more gifted among his contemporaries. This being so, I find it interesting that one of the best articles in this book should be entitled “Contre l'Obscurité” written when Proust was no more than twenty-five years old and directed against the affectation and lack of clarity which he found in some of the “ideas and images” fashionable among the young Symbolists of his day. Taking a conservative point of view, which he himself recognizes is unusual at his age and therefore “all the more meritorious in the mouth of a young man,” he cautions his contemporaries that “talent is in effect more than originality of temperament. … It is the power of reducing an original temperament to the general laws of art, to the permanent genius of the language.” (138) It is because he never forgets this, never pretends to be more profound than he is, that Proust's work seems to some of us more than the merely “mammoth” production which is, even according to its harsher critics, one of the wonders of modern world literature.


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Marcel Proust 1871-1922

French novelist, essayist, poet, and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Proust's life and works. For additional discussion of Proust's complete career, see TCLC Volumes 7 and 13; for discussion of the novel Remembrance of Things Past, see TCLC Volume 33.

Proust is widely considered the greatest French novelist of the twentieth century, and, with James Joyce, one of the two most important authors of the early twentieth century. His reputation, based almost entirely on his sprawling multi-volume novel À la recherché du temps perdu (1913-27; Remembrance of Things Past), is that of a talented prose stylist, and keen observer. Proust's masterwork is grounded in the author's powers of recollection, and features both comic and psychological dimensions, encompassing characters from all strata of French society. Proust is most noted for his ability to form his memories into a compelling narrative and his penetrating view into his own life.

Biographical Information

Proust was born in 1871, in Auteuil, France to Dr. Adrien Proust, a prominent physician, and Jeanne Weil, the highly-educated daughter of a stockbroker and member of a prominent family. As a child, Proust suffered from asthma, an illness which would follow him throughout his life. In school, Proust showed an aptitude for composition and classical languages, graduating from the Lycée Condorcet in 1889. Following a mandatory one-year term of military service, Proust entered into Parisian society. He frequented the many literary salons of the city, where he met notable figures including author Anatole France. During the early years of the 1890s Proust began publishing his first writings in the magazine Le Banquet, which he founded with his friends Daniel Halevy and Jacques Bizet, son of famed composer Georges Bizet. These early works were primarily anecdotes or short reviews of Parisian social events. During this period Proust also studied law at the Sorbonne in order to please his parents. Proust's first self-published collection of writings, Les Plaisirs et les jours, appeared in 1896. The work met with negative critical reception, and its sales failed to cover the cost of its publication. Over the next several years, Proust devoted himself to writing a vast, autobiographical novel. Published posthumously in three volumes, Jean Santeuil (1952) refined Proust's writing style and influenced his later composition of Remembrance of Things Past. In 1900 Proust began translating the works of English critic John Ruskin into French, recognizing that Ruskin's intricate, detailed style resembled his own. His translations of Ruskin's works, including The Bible of Amiens in 1904, were met with minimal attention from French critics.

The first portion of Remembrance of Things Past,Du côté de chez Swann, was published in 1913, at significant personal expense to Proust after it was rejected by numerous publishers. It garnered a largely negative reception from his contemporaries, who, though acknowledging Proust's keen perception, found the work needing significant reduction. Proust continued work on Remembrance of Things Past, publishing the second and third volumes À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur and Le côté de Guermantes in 1919 and 1920-21, respectively. Proust did not live to see his entire work published. He did, however, realize his dream of winning a literary prize when the prestigious Prix Goncourt was awarded to him for À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur in 1919. By 1922, with the final three volumes of his masterwork written but still unpublished, Proust's health had diminished. He fell ill after contracting a cold and died in November of that year.

Major Works

Proust's primary contribution to twentieth-century literature is his masterwork, Remembrance of Things Past, which comprises seven individual novels, each of which was first published in two-, three-, or four-volume editions. Proust lived to see the publication of four novels, but the rest of the work was published posthumously: La prisonnière in 1923, Albertine disparue in 1925, and Le temps retrouve in 1927. Vivid characters, elaborate descriptions, and meticulous attention to memories are all hallmarks of this work. A massive work, Remembrance of Things Past, defies summarization. Thought not strictly autobiographical, the work uses aspects of Proust's life to explore themes such as the journey from childhood to adulthood, the nature of love and sexuality, and the interaction between the artist and society.

Critical Reception

At the outset of Proust's literary career, critics were generally dismissive of his intricate, analytical style. One editor, referring to the massive size of Du côté de chez Swann,, remarked “… I cannot understand how a gentleman can use thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before getting to sleep.” After À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur received a literary prize in 1919, however, critics began to reconsider their negative assessments of Proust's unique style. In the years after the author's death, Remembrance of Things Past received more and more positive attention, and the work now ranks among the century's most respected works of French literature. Significant critical and scholarly attention to Proust's masterwork continues more to this day, and has driven critics to examine his minor works as well. The enduring appeal of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, is described by Nadine Gordimer, who maintains that “Marcel Proust is a writer with whom one moves along, for life; reading and re-reading without ever exhausting the sources he reveals only when one is ready for, or made ready for them.”

Joseph Epstein (essay date 23 April 1998)

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SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Monsieur Proust's Masterwork.” The New Criterion 16, no. 8 (23 April 1998): 19-28.

[In this essay, Epstein offers a survey of critical commentary on Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.]

What do we come away with when we read not merely a masterpiece but a masterwork of literature? The distinction between the two, masterpiece and masterwork, I take to be in favor of the latter, for a masterwork is not necessarily perfect of its kind, as a masterpiece ought to be, but of a significance beyond the question of mere (some “mere”) perfection. Usually large, often sprawling, always the product of monstrous ambition, a masterwork is a key book, one that defines a historical era, or the culmination of a form, or a national literature, or Western thought itself. Robert Musil, in The Man Without Qualities, set out to produce a masterwork, but, despite his great brilliance, failed. Nothing short of genius is required to bring it off. The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy—such are masterworks. Closer to our own time, books that qualify as masterworks, I should say, include War and Peace, Ulysses, and Remembrance of Things Past.

One of the qualities that mark a masterwork is the inability of readers ever to feel that they have quite grasped it, or at any rate grasped it in its entirety, its wholeness. Almost all masterworks fit into that select category of works that probably shouldn't be read for the first time; they are works, in other words, that call for being not merely read but reread, two, three, maybe more times, for even the most percipient reader cannot hope to comprehend all that is going on in their pages. Such is their richness that they may yield up quite different and possibly equally persuasive interpretations at various ages in the same reader's life.

The modern masterwork at its most characteristic, in some ways the masterwork of all masterworks, is Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Yet of the great works of modern literature, it is the one that offers the most obstacles. The first of course is its bulk, its length: more than a million words, 3,365 pages in the Terence Kilmartin reworking of the C. Scott Moncrieff translation. Much depends on the edition in which one attempts to read Proust. The C. Scott Moncrieff translation, which came in a boxed two-volume Random House edition, had wretched leading; the very want of space between lines makes dragging one's eyes across the page a physical difficulty in itself. The language in Moncrieff, too, has sometimes been thought too lush, the editing that is necessarily a part of the act of translation too lenient. Not that one wishes in any way to undervalue Moncrieff's achievement, which is immense.

Like any serious proustolâtre (as fanatics for Proust are called), I own both the C. Scott Moncrieff and the Terence Kilmartin editions; and I own, too, the Pléiade edition of A la recherche du temps perdu. Attempting to read Proust in French fairly quickly put paid to my pathetic pretensions as a reader of French. Proust presents difficulties enough in English. His long, looping sentences, interrupted by parentheses frequently more interesting than the sentences in which they are embedded, frequently held together by shaky syntax, often require rereading. A stockpile of such sentences in a paragraph that itself runs four or five pages is not exactly what might be called, in the current cant phrase, reader friendly.

Lest one think oneself low on the learning curve for finding Proust difficult, one's spirits—and self-esteem—might revive slightly by the discovery that E. M. Forster found Proust no piece of (madeleine) cake. “I was hoping to find Proust easier in English than in French,” Forster wrote,

and do not. All the difficulties of the original are here faithfully reproduced. A sentence begins quite simply, then it undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, such expensive dogs, and what, after all, is its relation to the main subject, potted so gaily half a page back, and proving finally to have been in the accusative case.

Much of this is owing to Proust's method of composition. Extravagance, in prose as in life, was not something he worried much about. Céleste Alberet, his housekeeper and friend of his last years, tells that Proust, whose skin, like so much else about him, was very sensitive, used to require several towels to dry his face. “He dabbed himself with each towel once, either to wash or to dry himself, and then threw it aside,” thence to be sent to Lavigne, an expensive Paris laundry. With his towels, so with his prose: Proust was lavish in the extreme, rarely cutting, endlessly adding to his already vast manuscript. No believer in the modern dictum that less is more, he believed, au contraire, that more was plainly more and hence better, and he seems never to have had any trouble in finding more to add by way of new subordinate clauses, additional parentheses, and fresh codas to already vastly labyrinthine sentences.

This method, if method it was, can give Proust's prose a density and a difficulty that puts some readers off, but it also gives that same prose a richness and complexity that turns quite as many readers on. (“These, however, are the disciplines of Proust,” Forster wrote, after the passage I quoted above. “No earnest sportsman would forego them.”) The love of complexity in literature is an acquired taste. Joseph Conrad had it. And Henry James had it in excelsis, once saying that if he could make the pronunciation of his name more complicated he would not hesitate to do so. The complexity of Proust is an acquired taste, but, once acquired, it becomes an abiding love.

I have read Remembrance of Things Past two and one-seventh times. The first, or one-seventh, time was as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where Swann's Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, came near the end of one of those mad-hatter survey courses in the novel that young teachers put together, beginning with The Princess of Clèves and running through Henry Fielding, Stendhal, Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and ending with Ulysses.

What did a boy of twenty make of Proust's astonishing opening volume? About 15 percent of all it contained, I should guess. I recall being alternately bored, confused, and hugely impressed by the book. At the outset, I was much more taken with Charles Swann's self-torturing pursuit of the coquette Odette than I was with the little Marcel's longing for his maman and the older Marcel's cerebrations about time and memory. A good bit of the convolutions of poor M. Swann's exquisite masochism must have been lost on me as was a good deal else. “The value of the work,” wrote Valéry in “Homage to Marcel Proust,” “is equal to the amount of life we ourselves provide.” At twenty, one does not have that large a deposit of life to bring to the task. Yet, somehow, for all my not really being up to the book, I knew I was in the presence of serious stuff, the real thing, and, like Henry Miller when a coin dropped from the purse of a woman he was making love to standing up in a dank hallway in Paris, I made a mental note to pick it up later.

I was in my early thirties when I made my first full frontal assault on Remembrance of Things Past. I now brought a little more life to it: fatherhood, a failed marriage, a decision to live a quiet and fairly bookish life. Still, the book, like all monumental works, was a climb. One had to be up for it, and stay up to keep stride with its brilliant author. Proust's is distinctly not a bedtime, nor a beach, nor a summer holiday book. It must be read at one's most alert hours, with an intellectual receptivity that one brings to the reading of one's own will and testament. It requires scrutiny but scrutiny enacted in a spirit of devotion.

For me this meant reading Remembrance of Things Past in the early morning hours. I tried to give the book an hour out of each day. In that hour I covered ten, sometimes fifteen, rarely twenty pages, depending upon whether the Proust portion for the day contained more analysis than narrative or narrative than analysis, though the two were so frequently intermixed that the distinction didn't always hold up. Seeking forward motion, I did not dally, struggling for complete lucidity and mastery over each difficult passage. Some mornings I was better than others: certain mornings, I read passages that I felt might just change my life; on other mornings, I felt myself obtuse and not at all up to my author; on all mornings, I knew I was in the presence of an astonishingly penetrating little half-Jewish, fully homosexual genius.

Proust was a genius on the same level as Henry James and, in my view, on a higher level than Sigmund Freud. I would later read Leon Edel, in the introduction to the fourth of his five-volume biography of James, make a similar though less invidious observation:

On the level of art James was probing the same human experience—and in an analogously systematic if unconscious way—as Sigmund Freud, who was making his discoveries at this very moment in Vienna. And also at this same moment, in Paris, James's fellow artist, Marcel Proust, was engaged in examining that part of reflective experience which relates to association and memory. Proust, in the footsteps of Bergson, discovered for himself and demonstrated how a calling up of the past (which Freud was asking of his patients) establishes man in time, can give him an identity and reveal to him the realities of his being.

A work of the prodigious length of Remembrance of Things Past has its share of longueurs. But my tendency at the time was to assume that it was I and not Proust who was boring. (“Like many other men,” Proust writes, “Swann had a naturally lazy mind and lacked imagination.”) Certain characters interested me more than others: Swann, Mme. Verdurin, Saint-Loup, Vinteuil, Bergotte. Baron de Charlus, in especial, elicited my readerly pleasure: my attention went up when he appeared on the page, my heart sank ever so slightly when he departed.

I was always on the qui vive for snobbery, for at the top of the rap sheet on Marcel Proust is that he was a miserable snob. But by the time he came to write Remembrance of Things Past Proust was no longer a snob, but the great chronicler of snobbery, the greatest since the Duc de Saint-Simon, who was, I believe, a true snob and who operated on the principle of it takes one to know one. Proust took the fashionable world, in which snobbery is unavoidable, for his field of study, and, as Léon Daudet remarked, “the monde mattered to him as flowers matter to a botanist, not as they do to the man who buys the bouquet.” He became, in other words, both the chronicler and the anatomist of snobbery.

George Painter, still Proust's best biographer and a man who has to have given Proust and the snobbery question as much thought as anyone in the world, in an interview with Phyllis Grosskurth remarked that he didn't think Proust a snob. “He began as a snob,” Painter said,

partly because he was a Jew and a homosexual. If he could be accepted in the place where it was most difficult to get in at all, then that would make him feel better, feel more at home in the world. When he found that they [the great aristocrats of his day] had very similar failings to everybody else in his own middle classes or in the working classes of his servants, he was partly relieved, and perhaps a little disappointed. He often says how similar the bourgeois, the working-classes, and the aristocracy are in their ways, except that the working-classes are much kinder and more intelligent. He became an anti-snob.

Proust knew all about snobs, about upward- and downward-looking snobs, and what drove both sorts of snob. But after reading Proust, it is all but impossible to feel any regard for the modern aristocracy. “I had seen enough of fashionable society,” he writes, “to know that it is there that one finds real illiteracy and not, let us say, among electricians.” And then there is the great scene when poor Swann cannot get the Duchess de Guermantes to delay her departure for a party long enough to receive the news of his impending death, yet she can find time to change from black to red shoes. One does not come away from Remembrance of Things Past with keen admiration for the aristocracy. Quite the reverse.

My second full reading of Proust's novel took place in my middle forties. The occasion, if not the motive, for my rereading the book was the Terence Kilmartin revision of the C. Scott Moncrieff translation. I note that I had taken to sidelining, in a light pencil, passages that seemed to me significant. The number of these passages is vast. Their cast tends to be darkish. An example from Time Regained, Proust's final volume:

Yes: if, owing to the work of oblivion, the returning memory can throw no bridge, form no connecting link between itself and the present minute, if it remains in the context of its own place and date, if it keeps its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or upon the highest peak of a mountain summit, for this very reason it causes us suddenly to breathe a new air, an air which is new precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.

With the notion of paradises lost, we are in the dense metaphysical jungle of time, Proust's larger subject. Reading him in my middle forties, now myself beginning to hear the clock tick more insistently, I was more attentive to his observations on time. These are set out most richly in Time Regained. Here one learns about “the incuriosity that is brought about by time”; the multifarious tricks time plays on memory, not least the contrast “between the mutability of people and the fixity of memory”; the search for those things that are extra-temporal, for, as Proust writes, in a characteristic sentence:

An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them—a connection that is suppressed in a simple cinematographic vision, which just because it professes to confine itself to the truth of the fact departs widely from it—a unique connection which the writer has to rediscover in order to link for ever in his phrase the two sets of phenomena which reality joins together.

The work of art, Proust holds, is the sole method for recapturing time, and no one gave the effort a more heroic attempt than this man whose own time would run out at the early age of fifty-one.

As the chronicler of the subtler alchemistry that the passage of time wreaks, Proust understood the transitoriness of all things, and particularly of all passions. “But political passions,” he writes in The Captive, the volume touching on the Dreyfus case, “are like all the rest, they do not last. New generations arise which no longer understand them; even the generation that experienced them changes, experiences new political passions which, not being modeled exactly upon their predecessors, rehabilitate some of the excluded, the reason for exclusion having altered.”

If all is transitory, this includes happiness, the great human goal, the illusion of all illusions. “In Proust,” as Howard Moss notes in his excellent The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, “the homosexuals are just as unhappy as the heterosexuals.” But unhappiness is the condition toward which all tend. In good part, this is owing to the fact that, for Proust, the organizing principle of social life is snobbery, the chief emotion propelling love is jealousy. Proust can be an immensely amusing writer—his portraits of his gallery of snobs is comedy at its highest—but he is at the same time a darkly pessimistic one. Irrationality rules in his pages, kindness and generosity come to seem improbable. Selfishness, usually badly misconstrued, is persuasive. Only his artists—the painter Elstir, the writer Bergotte, the composer Vinteuil, the actress Berma, the dilettante art critic Swann—are allowed a measure of superiority, yet even they are often vaguely ridiculous. His despair, as perhaps befits a man ill all his days, is fundamental. And yet it is a despair that, conveyed through his pages, somehow doesn't depress—at least not this reader. The reason for this, I believe, is that cascading human brilliance at the height of its flow, which is how I should describe Remembrance of Things Past, is too grand a spectacle to allow for depression on the part of the spectator.

Perhaps more than any modern writer, Proust invites reading not merely for his story but for the power of his analysis—for, not to put too fine a point on it, his wisdom. One cannot read Proust without recognizing how, in his monumental book, he has recapitulated French literature. In the purely storytelling aspects of Remembrance of Things Past, one senses the great sweep of French fiction, the line that runs from Madame de Lafayette through Stendhal through Balzac and even through Zola to Proust. In its analytic aspect, one feels in the book the influence of Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Pascal, Vauvenargues, Joubert, Chamfort, and the other French moralistes. Proust had the great French weakness—also glory—for generalization. So much is this so that Justin O'Brien, fifty years ago, extracted 428 maxims from the pages of Proust's novel, and set them out—in a small, bilingual book titled Maxims—under the five categories of “Man,” “Society,” “Love,” “Art,” and “Time and Memory.” “Proust's love of generalizing,” O'Brien wrote, “has never been hampered by his material, for the maxims occur as readily in the midst of descriptive or narrative passages as they do in the more reflective sections of the work.”

These maxims give Proust's work, as O'Brien points out, its justly deserved “reputation for universality,” but it also gives his novel its allure as wisdom literature. Proust's maxims are not, for the most part, of the quality of La Rochefoucauld's—most are not quite so polished as perfect maxims need to be—but they do have their own special power, arising as they do out of the long and elaborate story that is Remembrance of Things Past. Some are short and sharp: “After a certain age, the more one becomes oneself, the more obvious family traits become.” Others, lengthier, such as this on neurotics, carry an equally high truth quotient:

Who has not noticed this fact among women, and even men, gifted with exceptional intelligence but highly neurotic? When they are calm, happy, at peace with their surroundings, one cannot but admire their remarkable gifts and feel that their words are truth itself. A headache or a slight wound to their vanity is enough to change everything. The luminous intelligence—now harsh, convulsive, shriveled up—reflects only an irritated, suspicious, vain personality striving by every means to make a bad impression.

Proust is especially good, in his aphoristic mode, on literary and artistic matters. “Each artist seems to be the citizen of an unknown country, lost even from his memory and different from the country whence will come, embarking earthward, another great artist.” On criticism: “Each generation of critics does nothing but take the opposite of the truth accepted by their predecessors.” And on the larger subject of style:

To a writer as to a painter, style is a question not of technique but of vision. It is the revelation, which would be impossible by direct and conscious means, of the qualitative difference between our various ways of seeing the world—a difference which, but for art, would eternally remain the individual's secret.

Reading generally presents the possibility of the pleasures of plot, of style, of form, none of which need be gainsaid. But at the highest level it also holds out the prospect of wisdom, of truths previously unrevealed. Do many people still read—as I do—looking for secrets, for hitherto hidden keys that will open too-long-locked doors? It seems almost impossible to read Proust without this motive. His very style, the aphoristic shading into the philosophical, seems to invite it. Yet the trick here is not to come to him looking for answers to specific questions. (“I have an answer, I have an answer,” calls out the Yeshiva boy, in the streets of his shtetl. “Does anybody have a question?”) The trick is to have long in mind the questions for which Proust supplies the answers without himself even considering them questions.

To provide a personal example, I have long thought about the point of a literary education—the point, that is, of thoughtfully reading vast quantities of belletristic writing much of which time erases from one's memory. In part, the answer is to be found in the cultivation of sensibility; in part, I have also thought, in T. S. Eliot's lilting sentence about Henry James: “He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.” James, Eliot seems to me here to be saying, operated in the realm above ideas. Fair and true enough, but where or what is that realm and how does one arrive there in one's own thought? The most subtle formulation I have been able to discover I found in Remembrance of Things Past:

Our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate, instrument for revealing the truth. It is life that, little by little, example by example, permits us to see that what is most important to our hearts, or to our minds, is learned not by reasoning but through other agencies. Then it is that the intellect, observing their superiority, abdicates its control to them upon reasoned grounds and agrees to become their collaborator and lackey.

Proust seems here to be taking Pascal's “the heart has its reasons that reason cannot know” and further refining it to mean that only when reason gives way, gives primacy of place, to the heart does it have a chance to learn the heart's deeper reasons: the reasons that, finally, matter most of all.

Yet one probably does best not to press Proust's pages too hard in the hope of extracting ideas from them. People who have done so seem to have come up with fistfuls of grass in their hands. Céline, for example, found Proust Talmudic, or rather the Talmud Proustian, writing: “The Talmud is constructed and designed almost like Proust's novels, tortuous, … a chaotic mosaic.” Of course, Céline's reading wasn't helped any by his anti-Semitism. Jean-Paul Sartre viewed Proust's work as bourgeois irresponsibility in its purest form: “Proust chose to be a bourgeois, he made himself the accomplice of bourgeois propaganda, because his work spread the myth of human nature.” Not smart.

Great works of literature, like the figure of Henry James himself, exist on a plane where misconceived ideas can violate them. This is to say that, while of course literature is filled with ideational content, the ideas are not so easily separated from the stories, poems, and dramas in which they are embedded without doing great violence both to the ideas and to the stories, poems, and dramas themselves. “Poetry is what is lost in translation,” said Robert Frost, adding: “It is also what is lost in interpretation.” Literature, one might say, is often what gets lost when ideas are extracted too cleanly from literary works.

Which makes a book such as How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel by Alain de Botton an odd confection indeed.1 De Botton, despite his altogether French name, writes in English and is the author of two previous novels of the youthful, clever, postmodern sort. Mr. de Botton has had the extraordinary notion of turning to Proust as a guide for everyday living. What makes this extraordinary is of course the fact that Marcel Proust himself probably did not live a single ordinary day in his life. Great writer though he was, Proust was as neurotic as a flea. He was a man who dined at the homes of friends in his overcoat. He not infrequently left waiters tips of 100 percent. He was a man who, beyond the age of thirty, still reported on the condition of his bowels and micturition to his mother. Let us not even speak of the cork-lined room in which he spent the last fourteen years of his life. He turned night into day, day into night, working as others slept, sleeping as they worked. Proust was also smart, subtle, an authentic literary genius. But a guide to life? I don't think so.

Yet Mr. de Botton makes out, in these pages, what might be called, in the cant phrase of the day, a best-case scenario. His book has the merit of containing some charming bits. Mr. de Botton imagines, for example, a genial meeting between Proust and James Joyce, unlike the cool and uneventful one (which De Botton recounts) that took place at dinner at the Ritz given by Violet and Sydney Schiff for Diaghilev and his troop of dancers and for the four geniuses of modern art the Schiffs most admired: Proust, Joyce, Stravinsky, and Picasso. Joyce arrived late, improperly dressed, and with not a very high opinion of his great rival in the field of the novel: “I observe a furtive attempt to run a certain M. Marcel Proust of here [Paris] against the signatory of this letter. I have read some pages of his. I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic.” Proust claimed never to have read a page of Joyce. Alas, another of those potentially, magnificently fructifying meetings that failed to come off.

De Botton's book has other sweet bits. He informs us that Proust, like the painter Forain, had one of the early telephones available in France. He reports Fernand Gregh, one of Proust's friends, recounting how the verb “to proustify” came into being: “We created among ourselves the verb to proustify to express a slightly too conscious attitude of geniality, together with what would vulgarly have been called affectations, interminable and delicious.” He underscores Proust's own point that, in some fundamental way, friendship and truthfulness are incompatible, for Proust would never tell a friend anything that might inflict the least hurt.

De Botton puts into rather better perspective the reason why André Gide, then a key editor at Gallimard, turned down the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, and quotes Gide, writing to Proust, in self-extenuation for this most numbskulled of all editorial decisions: “For me, you had remained the man who frequented the house of Mme X, Y, Z, the man who wrote for the Figaro. I thought of you as—shall I confess it?—… a snob, a dilettante, a socialite.” What Gide doesn't confess here is that, more likely, he failed to read Proust's thick manuscript, for had he done so all such presuppositions would have been instantly dispelled.

Only rarely does Mr. de Botton cast doubt on his bona fides as a serious proustolâtre. He betrays his youthfulness, and the nature of his own undertaking, when, on page 165 of his book, he makes a poor joke by asking: “Did Proust have any relevant thoughts on dating? What should one talk about on a first date? And is it good to wear black?” He also refers to “a certain Madame Sert,” which shows a less than complete control over the milieu (or “maloo,” as Josephine Herbst used kiddingly to pronounce it), for Misia Sert, one of the great hostesses of the belle époque and friend to Mallarmé and so many other of the modern artists of France, deserves much more than the distancing diminishment of “a certain Madame Sert.”

But of course Alain de Botton's book cannot hope to embrace even a thousandth part of the richness of Proust. Any man who could write, as Proust did in Time Regained, that “the horror that grand people have for the snobs who move heaven and earth to make their acquaintance is felt also by the virile man for the invert, by a woman for every man who is too much in love with her,” thus economically demonstrating his subtle knowledge of three different worlds, cannot be contained within so slender, however genial, a volume as How Proust Can Change Your Life. The best audience for Alain de Botton's book might be those who have never read Proust but long have wished to have done, for it gives several powerful glints of the glories to be found in this richest of modern literary mines. But for those who know Proust, it seems very thin soup indeed.

Phyllis Rose's Year of Reading Proust is a vastly different kettle of caviar.2 I write “caviar,” not because I think the book pure caviar, but because there is something rather high-priced about the tastes of its author that plays out, in her pages, as unconscious comedy, though not everyone will find it amusing. I do, though chiefly in the way I find amusing the cast of characters around that overconfident and ignorant snob Mme. Verdurin, people so wrapped up in their own lives that they can have little or no notion that they just might be trivial.

One of the questions that one needs to ask when reading a great writer—it is often a painful but finally a pressing one—is, What would he or she think of me? How would I appear in the eyes of Tolstoy, George Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce? (Too often the answer, one fears, might well be: “Of no conceivable interest.”) Of the great writers, Proust is perhaps the most tolerant, but I think nonetheless that he would have consigned Miss Rose to the crowd at Mme. Verdurin's, where she would have flourished among the happy, the self-satisfied, and the purblind.

Ostensibly, Miss Rose's book is about her attempt to complete Proust's great book after many earlier failures to get past its first hundred or so pages. In fact, the book is really a memoir, a year in its author's recent life in which she recounts her family history, habits, tastes, point of view, friendships, and quotidian life. It is a year in which she awaits the death of her aged mother, long ailing from congestive heart failure, a death that, by book's end, is not accomplished. But, then, as Miss Rose allows, at the time of writing, neither had she quite finished Remembrance of Things Past. As she remarks, she intends to use “Proust's masterpiece [as] my madeleine,” to recall her own life, as the French biscuit dipped in tea did for Proust. But Proust offers only a frame for this book; at its center is the character of Phyllis Rose.

Phyllis Rose perhaps finds, one fears, altogether too bearable her astonishing lightness of being. Her husband—her second husband—is the son of the creator of the Babar books for children, who has continued to produce these books. They live in Connecticut and at Key West. She and her husband collect Roman glass and prints; she finds collecting, it seems important that you and I should know, a perfectly adequate substitute for the “universal eroticization” of unmarried life. After years in psychotherapy, she concludes that “what was unique about me was that no one had ever hurt me.” Hers was a happy childhood, awash in popular culture, which she still adores. “Nothing,” she believes, “can cheapen the Beatles story”; a child of the Sixties, she had for some years imagined herself the sole girl Beatle. Email, she avers, “has given me back the spontaneity I had lost to the laziness of age.” A professor of literature at Wesleyan University, author of books on Josephine Baker and on Victorian marriages, Miss Rose offers an example of the limits of education and of culture, for in her a vast overlay of both has not been able to cover up the inexhaustible shallows of a confident but unoriginal mind.

Miss Rose may think she is writing about Proust, but in fact she makes one wish we had a Proust around today to deal with the rich material she supplies in her memoir. Imagine what Proust might have done with Miss Rose's recounting the loss of her virginity after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “It was part of the same biological response to grief, despair, and fear that led people to make love in the cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz, and I never felt guilty about it. …” She tells us a good deal about her dreams, confirming my own view that people who commit this exceedingly boring social act generally have more interesting dreams than actual lives. She has a deep friendship with another professor at Wesleyan who is homosexual, causing her to comment on “the sophisticated refinement of sex that homosexuality seemed to me to be.” Proust could have filled her in a good bit here, too, for, as the pages from Cities of the Plain unmistakably reveal, he thought homosexuality very far from refined.

But the great Proustian scene, which Miss Rose simply isn't up to, because she is unaware of the inherent comedy of it, occurs in the latter portion of her book, when the novelist Robert Stone, a friend at Key West, asks her to prepare an important dinner for fifteen or sixteen, telling her it is for Sonny and Gita Mehta, the chief editor at the firm of Alfred A. Knopf and his wife. But Miss Rose soon comes to suspect that there are bigger fish to fry—or ought that to be bigger fish for whom to fry? The real reason for the dinner, the reason that its true guest could not be revealed, was because that guest was—can you bear the tension?—Salman Rushdie. Once she learns who it is she is to entertain, Miss Rose, without a scintilla of irony, writes: “That it would be a memorable evening for literature was true. It would be memorable for the Key West writers to meet Rushdie. And the meeting ought to be special. A great writer, a martyr to art, was owed a special evening.”

The dinner for Rushdie turned out to be a bit of a fizzle. Conversations never quite meshed; the wrong subjects came up. Sonny Mehta failed to arrive. The disappointments of a snob, even an unconscious snob, can be poignant. (One recalls Chips Channon, in his diary, recording that, such was his elation at having two reigning sovereigns in his home, he became so drunk that he had no memory of the entire evening.) “It kept getting away from me,” Miss Rose writes, who adds, “Of all the forms of creativity, hostessing is one of the most treacherous.” Perhaps, à la Mme. Verdurin, she should have arranged to have played for the company Vinteuil's haunting sonata.

“I had flunked the test of Proust,” Miss Rose remarks apropos of her slowness in picking up on the fact that the dinner Robert Stone asked her to give was for Salman Rushdie. “I flubbed the hard, minute work of perception. I let the insight go out of my mind so entirely that I hadn't even realized there was a ‘mystery guest.’” Ah, she cannot know it, but poor Miss Rose has flunked an even graver test. In this book she demonstrates herself to be one of those people, of a kind not infrequently found in Proust, who are deprived of humor, irony, and the least measure of perspective, and hence of significant self-knowledge itself. A snob of the American educated classes, far from being possessed of Proustian insight, she is herself a contemporary version of a Proustian figure.

As for that Proustian test, it has to do not with quickness of perception, though Proust clearly must himself have been a man, as was said of Henry James, “assailed by perceptions.” It has to do with something broader, something deeper. Marcel Proust, for all his neurotic tics, was a very savvy man, a man engaged with reality on the most fundamental level. Reading Proust has to do with the meshing, so impressive in Proust himself, of culture and reality. The Proustian test comes, finally, in the ability to keep in balance the contradictory notions that the world, for all its pleasures, is also a place of low deceits, vicious insensitivities, gargantuan self-deceptions, snobberies little and large, and yet, for those who cultivate awareness, it remains nonetheless a profoundly amusing place—no less profound than amusing.

In his last months, Proust told Céleste Alberet: “People will read me, yes, the whole world will read, and you'll see, Céleste. Remember this: it took a hundred years for Stendhal to become known. It will not take Marcel Proust as many as fifty.” He was of course correct. He was correct because he understood, with great precision, what his own indefatigable work provided its small but hardy band of readers.

In Time Regained, Proust wrote: “Every reader is, in reading, a reader of himself. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers the reader so that the latter may make things out in himself that he might otherwise not have seen.” If one is fortunate, if one brings to Proust a freshness of mind and the spirit of homage properly owed to a truly superior mind, one has a chance, slim but genuine, to become perhaps a little smarter about the world. For those of us who do not make any distinction between experience and reading, but believe that reading is experience, experience acquired in tranquility, Marcel Proust is our man.


  1. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel, by Alain de Botton; Vintage, 208 pages, $12 paper.

  2. The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, by Phyllis Rose; Scribner, 268 pages, $23.

Principal Works

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Les Plaisirs et les jours [Pleasures and Regrets, 1948; Pleasures and Days, and Other Writings, 1957] (prose and verse) 1896

Sésame et les lys [translator; from Sesame and Lilies, by John Ruskin] (nonfiction) 1900

La Bible d'Amiens [translator; from The Bible of Amiens, by John Ruskin] (nonfiction) 1904

À la recherche du temps perdu [Remembrance of Things Past] (novel) 1913-27

*Du côté de chez Swann [Swann's Way]. 2 vols. (novel) 1913

*A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs [Within a Budding Grove; In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,]. 3 vols. (novel) 1919

Pastiches et Mélanges (essays) 1919

*Le côté de Guermantes [The Guermantes Way]. 2 vols. (novel) 1920-21

*Sodom et Gomorrhe [Cities of the Plain; Sodom and Gomorrah]. 4 vols. (novel) 1922

*La prisonnière [The Captive]. 2 vols. (novel) 1923

*Albertine disparue [The Sweet Cheat Gone,; Albertine Gone; The Fugitive]. 2 vols. (novel) 1925

*Le temps retrouvé [The Past Recaptured; Time Regained]. 2 vols. (novel) 1927

Chroniques (essays) 1927

Oeuvres complétes de Marcel Proust 10 vols. (essays, fiction) 1929-1936

Jean Santeuil 3 vols. (fictional autobiography) 1952

Contre Sainte-Beuve [By Way of Sainte-Beuve] (essays) 1954

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919 [trans. by Sylvia Townsend Warner] (essays) 1958

Correspondance de Marcel Proust 21 vols. [ed. by Philip Kolb] (correspondence) 1970-93

Poémes (poetry) 1982

On Reading Ruskin: Prefaces to La Bible d'Amiens and Sésame et les lys with selections from the notes to the translated texts [trans. and ed. by Jean Autret, William Burford, and Phillip J. Wolfe] (essays) 1987

Mon cher petit: Lettres à Lucien Dadet (correspondence) 1991

The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust [ed. and trans. by Joachim Neugroschel] (short stories) 2001

*These works, taken together, comprise Remembrance of Things Past.

Susan Stewart (essay date fall 1999)

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SOURCE: Stewart, Susan. “Proust's Turn from Nostalgia.” Raritan 19, no. 2 (fall 1999): 77-94.

[In the following essay, Stewart argues against the notion that Proust's masterwork is a memoir rooted in nostalgia.]

You can return to a book, but you cannot return to yourself. I had remembered Proust's In Search of Lost Time as a memoir driven by a nostalgic yearning for the past. Yet when I went back to it after a period of twenty years, Proust's research, in fact, turned out not to be about nostalgia at all. Rather, he frames a critique of such willful yearning and poses a certain form of aesthetic practice as counter to it. Proust's many-volumed book bears an analogue to memory, but not to experience; it opens on a world already shaped by desire, but in its manifold of sensual particulars it reveals far more than the reader would expect it to reveal, and in its layers of coincidence it creates an art that is counter to the temporality of everyday life. Through such detail and coincidence, Proust draws us out of our social conventions for structuring time. Those structures themselves are created in light of the inimitable fact of death and the inevitable transformation of the world around us from a world inhabited and engaged by the living to a world haunted and inflected by the dead. Our relations to the dead, unlike our relations to the articulated systems of time consciousness, take place under the opposed, yet interconnected, conditions perhaps most clearly and rigorously explored in Proust's research: the forms of voluntary and involuntary memory. Proust makes evident the futility of volitional memory as expressed in nostalgia. He shows how nostalgia's willfulness is compensatory to our submission to time and, simultaneously, how nostalgia, as a dream of the recreation of what is lost in the ongoing flow of experience, is doomed to an inauthentic form.

Proust himself claims, in Within a Budding Grove, that the names designating things in the world correspond only to the intellect and thus remain alien to our true impressions. But it may be useful to trace the etymology of nostalgia as it gives evidence to an evolution out of the original Greek words nostos, or return home, and algia, a painful condition—an evolution from physical to emotional symptoms, rather than a continuing state. In a famous passage in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton discussed nostalgia as “a childish humour to hone after home,” arguing against those “base Icelanders and Norwegians” who prefer their own “ragged islands” to Italy and Greece, “the gardens of the world.” In the late seventeenth century, nostalgia was diagnosed by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer as an extreme homesickness suffered by his fellow countrymen as they fought as mercenaries far from their native mountains. The symptoms Hofer described were lability of emotion, ready weeping, wasting away, despondency, and, in some cases, suicide. In the early modern period the notion continues that nostalgia involves not merely a desire for return in time, but also a condition consequent to a severing from a place of origin. Thus nostalgia is linked to conditions of exile—whether exile from place or from childhood itself.

Such varieties of nostalgia based upon a longing for return might be addressed by a psychoanalytic model of the replete relation the infant bears to the mother's body. Yet when we juxtapose these descriptions of an early modern illness to many twentieth-century versions of nostalgia, we find a transformation from a singular, yet potentially universal, emotion, based on an individual's attachment to a site of origin and plentitude, to a somewhat ironic link between nostalgia and novelty—the capacity of contemporary culture to recycle history as commodity. This may not indicate a change in emotion—perhaps the authentic emotion remains in all of us—but now we have an attempt to market or “package” an emotion. Before we accept nostalgia under such packaged terms, terms that could only illumine the varieties of voluntary memory, we might give further attention to the dialectic between conscious and unconscious forms of return. From Freud, we receive a model of return based upon the emergence of what has been repressed. From the work of various social theorists—for example, Vladimir Jankélévitch's L'Irréversible et la nostalgie and Fred Davis's Yearning for Yesterday—we receive a model of return prompted by alienation from modernity and tending toward collective and legitimating forms of identification such as nationalism. And in Nietzsche, as in Proust, return is linked to the happiness consequent to the pursuit of truth, a truth only inferable in the recursive conditions of the retrospective view. In each of these models, we find a search for finite conditions of contingency. Such models imply a theological aspect, for they seek to mediate the separations between finite objects, finite subjects, and the infinite power of whatever is outside of human consciousness.

Nevertheless, when theorists of nostalgia think of this emotion in relation to history, and to the chronological formation of history, they may be beginning without giving adequate consideration to our conventions of time. The philosophy of time in the West has turned continually to the problem of time's status as a derived order of being. Plato, for example, argued in the Timaeus that time was not an aspect of eternity or a dimension of space and matter, but rather a product of our sensations working in combination with our beliefs, for time is something that becomes and changes rather than something belonging to the unchanging realm of reality. Aristotle dissented from Plato's view, arguing that time was not so much created out of a timeless eternity as that eternity is an endless series of moments and time is a measure applied to motion. In Aristotle, the continuity of our awareness of our own being is necessary for our recognition of moments constituting the time-continuum.

Whether following Plato, and later Plotinus, and arguing for time as a rational ordering of eternity, or following Aristotle and arguing for time as a measure of motion, each model of time consciousness implicates a corresponding model of subjectivity. Augustine presents a radical turn when he stops seeing time as a mark of change in nature and begins to see time as a mode of human perception. He departs from temporal description in terms of fixed before-and-after sequences to account for the moving experiential perspective of past, present, and future. In Augustine's argument, works of art are models of temporal order. By means of his famous discussion of a hymn by St. Ambrose, Augustine links a sound that starts, continues, and stops resonating to the past; the “not yet” under which we speak of the stopping of resonance exemplifies the future spoken of as the past and the present under which we are able to say that the sound “is resonating.” This present is already disjunctive to the presence of resonance, and thus we speak of the very passing of the present already in the past tense. In reciting Ambrose's hymn, Augustine's expectations regarding the anticipated closure of the work turn continually toward what remains of it, enacting the process by which the present relegates the future to the past. In Augustine's model the individual soul must provide the continuity of such change. He argues that it is not really accurate to speak of separate perceptual moments because we only become aware of them through the continuity of past, present, and future—the continuity of the desiring self. For Augustine, memory reminds humans of their opacity, of their difficulty in understanding and reflecting upon themselves as minds and as thinking subjects.

Descartes was to borrow Augustine's notion of the thinking subject, but he rejected memory proper and the tradition of the arts of memory since he considered a mathematical method to be a better alternative. In Descartes, the concept of order must supersede the less systematic and experiential type of knowledge achieved through memory. Descartes's identification of the self-identity of human reason with sunlight is parallel to his rejection of temporality in favor of instant certitude. In Cartesianism, resemblance and difference are the grounds for authority and error. Proust, we will see, conducts his research as a kind of correction of this Cartesian model. In Proust's search for lost time, forms of order and the instant certitude of resemblance and difference are the very sources of error; in scene after scene, Proust shows us that first impressions are the weakest, least reliable impressions. Only knowledge as a recursive aggregation leads to truth.

Contemporary philosophers of time have continued to struggle with the relation between time consciousness and subjectivity. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of perception argues in Kant's shadow that the experience of time presupposes a view of time. But Merleau-Ponty also suggests that the subject has the capacity to introduce non-being into time experience: subjects have awareness of the past no longer lived and of a future not yet lived. By introducing non-being into the plenitude of being, subjects adumbrate perspectives and bring to the present that which is not there. Like Augustine, Merleau-Ponty opens up our sense of our relation to objects of nature and made things—objects that we animate in accordance with our memories and expectations of time consciousness.

All theories of time confront two inevitabilities: first, the inevitability of sequentiality and the impossibility of repetition and, second, the inevitability of death and forgetting as symptoms not just of loss of the past, but of the decay of the self. Indeed, social conventions structuring time consciousness are the secular equivalents of Platonic eternity: by submitting ourselves to the constraints of the social order of time, we enter into a grid of temporal order that continues regardless of the interruptions posed by death. Such a grid, with its increasing distance from the uneven fluctuations of natural bases of temporal change, truly evades human intention and consequence. In the end the perpetuity of the mechanical clock becomes a second, more perfect nature, yet, in the absence of differentiating marks or periods, the hum of its repetitions signifies nothing at all. In his essay on Time, an unfinished and posthumously published work, Norbert Elias writes that the notion that time “takes on the character of a universal dimension is nothing other than a symbolic expression of the experience that everything which exists is part of an incessant sequence of events. Time is an expression of the fact that people try to define positions, the duration of intervals, the speed of changes and such like in this flow for the purpose of orientation.” The sun, moon, stars, and irregular movements of nature as sources of measure are replaced by a mesh of human inventions which then in turn appear as mysterious components of their own nature. This drift toward the eternalization of time, the imagination of a permanent form for time, Elias writes, is no doubt necessary in light of our fear of transience and death.

Elias's ideas are useful for considering the functions of voluntary memory. In discussing the conformity of the subject to social conventions of time, he further links our voluntary compliance with time control to our voluntary compliance with violence control; as social beings, we are willing to surrender our subjective experience of time and our capacity for physical extension. Voluntary memory creates generations, reinforces bonds, produces retrospective conformity, and molds social forms of ego ideals. Voluntary memory here is the foundation of social forms of nostalgia as well. As willed emotions, social nostalgias subjugate the senses and emotions to certain techniques of memory that are readily adapted into conventions of aesthetic forms.

Although we may think of nostalgia as an emotion structured by prior, historical circumstances, we find, in fact, that the forms of nostalgia are quite codified. Further, the conventions of nostalgia often transcend the historical specificity that is nostalgia's claim to particularity. Prominent among these conventions is the creation of a bounded context. This binding of circumstance and environment is readily yoked to ideologies of patriotism and nationalism that are the social forms of homesickness. The patriot's claim regarding an unambiguous relation to a point of origin is a claim regarding the social authenticity of the self. Experience, in fact, is denigrated in such an ideology, for it is the steady identification of self and place that creates the authenticity of the patriot's being. Colonialism rather than travel, village typicality rather than cosmopolitan flux—these nostalgic forms posit a mastery over context that finds its means in the politics of fascism and imperialism. Here nostalgia takes on its function of contributing to the distinctness of generations and social groups; in its demotion of individual experience, it produces retrospective conformity to a certain form of ego ideal.

Nostalgic forms are also bound to a slowed temporality, whether the slow-motion effects of video and cinema or the slowing of tempo long associated with sentiment in music. We might consider the various slowed reunions in advertisements on television or, on a slightly more highbrow note, the deliberating funereal effects of Ravel's “Pavanne for a Dead Princess,” played to the point of stupefaction in the autumn of 1997. Slowing down the view is a cue for affect. And in video and cinema, slow motion depends upon the distancing technique of a switch to the purely pictorial. Slow-motion speech, of course, is reciprocally comic. Nostalgia's bounded slowness characterizes the backward view of a consumer society condemned to faster and faster demands for judgment and action. The speeding-up of experience in truth makes a parody of the very notions of judgment and action. Thus to speak of the willed aspect of nostalgia is to realize that nostalgia itself may stand in the background of contemporary life as a vestigial sphere of agency.

Further nostalgic effects include the metonymic substitution of part for whole, as in the workings of souvenirs and fetishistic objects linked to prior contexts; the fixing of types within bounded contexts or landscapes, as in genre painting; the expression of mastery of nature and skill, as in miniaturization; an emphasis upon the repression of trauma, as in the positing of a moment of integrity before such trauma—think of all the nostalgia accruing around periods known as “prewar”; a presentation of idealized bodies as bodies ripe for reproduction; an emphasis upon appearances that is consequent to the shallowness of any world ensuing in the absence of temporal depth.

The codification of nostalgic forms paradoxically helps to undermine the authenticity of nostalgic feeling: once nostalgia can be “worked up,” it transcends particular contexts and is unable to connect to what is specific in lived experiences. Proust reminds us, continually and quite literally, of this inevitable collapse of the stage of voluntary memory. In his work, willed memory is linked to the artificiality of simulation. The Verdurins demonstrate the register of simulation throughout the novel: their conformity to social models of time requires a constant modification of truth to convention and even a modification of truth to the knowing lie. Madame Verdurin takes on the task of continually reifying the boundary of her social world and manipulating the fates of others in the interest of articulating that limit. She is described as an actor in what is quite literally a “dumb show”:

She would descend with the suddenness of the insects called ephemerids upon Princess Sherbatoff; were the latter within reach, the Mistress would cling to her shoulder, dig her nails into it, and hide her face against it for a few moments like a child playing hide and seek. Concealed by this protecting screen, she was understood to be laughing until she cried, but could as well have been thinking of nothing at all as the people who, while saying a longish prayer, take the wise precaution of burying their faces in their hands. Mme. Verdurin imitated them when she listened to Beethoven quartets, in order at the same time to show that she regarded them as a prayer and not to let it be seen that she was asleep.

The great social success of Mme. Verdurin, who ascends in the end to the rank of the Guermantes, stems from her capacity to manipulate the bounds of context and her mastery of the social system of signs. As Gilles Deleuze noted in his Proust and Signs, the simulation of laughter was her particular speciality. The narrator, a figure “from whom all things are hidden,” intuits this register of simulation, and is at the same time tormented, even made paranoid, by sexual jealousy. This jealousy is bound to an inevitable illegibility of language and gesture, an illegibility built into the very arbitrariness of the relation between sign and meaning.

Descartes was forced to admit in the Meditations that only memory can separate the states of waking and sleeping. In distinguishing between states of waking and sleeping, memory provides the continuity of the thinking subject. Proust's critique of voluntary memory further erodes the certainty of immediate apprehension, collapsing the Cartesian model by showing the false bottoms of resemblance and the distorting lenses of what Proust calls “habit.” Consider, for example, two famous scenes in the novel of the Cartesian sorting between waking and sleeping: the initial waking at the beginning of Swann's Way and the waking to the grandmother's death. In the work's well-known opening, the narrator describes the false start of waking in the night:

[M]y eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: “I'm falling asleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to look for sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was that immediate subject of my book.

As he finds, in waking, that the subject of his book separates itself from him, and his sight is restored to a state of darkness, he thinks of the error of the sleeper who mistakes a gas lamp at midnight for the dawn. The force that keeps him awake is the desire to be united with the mother; the approach of sleep, like the approach of death, marks the end of desire. In this scene the narrator awakens to the mother's absence, an awakening to which the proper response is a return to sleep.

The second awakening occurs some time later, during the grandmother's final agony. The narrator is here in fact awakened by the appearance of his mother. When she asks his forgiveness for disturbing his sleep, he answers that he was not asleep. He explains,

The great modification which the act of awakening effects in us is not so much that of ushering us into the clear life of consciousness, as that of making us lose all memory of the slightly more diffused light in which our mind had been resting, as in the opaline depths of the sea. The tide of thought … kept us in a state of motion perfectly sufficient to enable us to refer to it by the name of wakefulness. But then our actual awakening produces an interruption of memory.

At the moment of her death, the grandmother opens her eyes. And then the narrator finds that from that day forward his mother sleepwalks through life, carrying the books and accoutrements of her mother as if the grandmother's spirit literally went on to inhabit the body of her daughter.

In these scenes, Proust explores the abeyance between life and death characterizing the state of waking; until the dawning of memory, there is no continuity in consciousness—the very continuity that enables one truly to recognize experience. The everyday mind, conscious only within the patterns of habit, is hardly distinguishable here from the sleeping mind. Marcel's mother literally incorporates her grief, subsuming her experience to the carrying forward of her own mother's presence through the totems of her purse and, in a doubling of communication between dead and living generations, her volumes of Mme. de Sévigné's letters to her own daughter. Marcel comments: “death is not in vain … the dead continue to act upon us. They act upon us even more than the living because, true reality being discoverable only by the mind, being the object of a mental process, we acquire a true knowledge only of things that we are obliged to recreate by thought, things that are hidden from us in everyday life. … in this cult of grief for our dead, we pay an idolatrous worship to the things that they loved.” Marcel himself becomes aware of the grandmother's death only later as he reaches down to unbutton his boots on the occasion of his second visit to the Grand Hotel at Balbec. Within the frame of the room, and the silence of the party-wall where previously he and his grandmother had communicated by means of a private language of knocks, he recreates the reality of her life—her sacrifices on his behalf and the nature of her personality. Within the retrospective consciousness made possible by her absence and his grief, she comes forward into view. And only retrospectively do we as readers come to see that Marcel's initial waking out of fear of the absence of his mother was a kind of prolepsis of the trauma of the grandmother's death. During Marcel's childhood it is the grandmother who functions as the mother, and after the grandmother's death it is the mother's turn to take on reciprocally the function of the grandmother/mother figure. Awaking to the scene of the grandmother's death, Marcel cannot grasp its reality; it is in the involuntary compulsion of his own repetition of the fact of death and the involuntary compulsion of his mother's representation of the grandmother, the carrying forward of her belongings like objects severed from a tomb, that her death permeates his consciousness.

The novel continually links the domain of habit to the unthinking, the forgetting, by which death is put aside in the midst of everyday activity. In returning to the alienated condition under which the “subject of the book” is no longer the self, the reward is this false security of mindlessness regarding death. During the grandmother's deathbed agony, the Duke of Guermantes arrives and with him a social whirl oblivious to what is happening in the sick-chamber. In the famous scene of the red shoes, the Duchess of Guermantes is unable and unwilling to absorb the fact of Swann's imminent death, even though it is Swann himself who is informing her of its certainty. Madame Verdurin, who is most expert at ignoring the real conditions of others' lives as well as their deaths, is destined to become the paragon of the Guermantes in this sense. In The Fugitive, the narrator specifically states that “the wordly life [robs] one of the power to resuscitate the dead.”

In Proust, whatever is indeterminate in thought is overwhelmed by temporal contingency: truth appears, and grants us happiness, in moments of insight linked to the retrospective consideration of sensual experience, the “making strange” of what previously had been a matter of assumption and ready certainty. As Gilles Deleuze has noted, Proust presents a sustained critique of philosophical positions that remain blind to their own contingent relation to external forces. This is not simply a matter of returning philosophical certainty to the historical conditions of its appearance, for such a return would be a further enactment of the false confidence of voluntary memory and habitual modes of explanation. For Proust, causality is never a sufficient or adequate explanation. We have only to think of the recurring theme of false etymologies for place names and ideas in the novel. This is not simply a matter of the pronouncements of Brichot, the Sorbonne Professor who is a purveyor of a kind of know-nothing knowledge and yet who is, in the end, endowed with dignity by the journals of the Goncourt brothers. The theme of unstable origins is at the heart of the split between name and blood in the social sphere of the aristocracy and in the constantly mistaken revisions of history performed by the war-time and postwar salons of the Verdurins and Odette de Forcheville. The plot as a whole works out an elaborate etymological pun wherein the fantastic world of Geneviève de Brabant and Gilbert the Bad revealed in the lantern slide comes to life as the Duchess of Guermantes is seen after mass in the chapel of Gilbert the Bad at Combray. Then, as Gilberte Swann is transposed to Mademoiselle de Forcheville, then Madame de Saint-Loup, and finally the Duchess of Guermantes, the two initial figures of legendary time are merged in one historical character.

Female sexuality, the tormented uncertainty of jealousy, and the ambiguity of paternity further this theme of misplaced or catechrestic cause. The uncertain paternity of Gilberte, hinted at by the narrator's discussion of her filial resemblance in physical terms to her mother and moral terms to her father, is contrasted to the finite nominalism of Charlus's adoption of Jupien's niece. The madrepore, whose own etymology speaks to the birth opening of the mother and the coral's fabulous branching growth, can be seen in retrospect as the symbol of a secret and fluid lineage of female sexuality: Odette's resemblance to Rachel, Rachel's to Albertine, Albertine's to Gilberte as earlier Gilberte herself had been the pattern for Albertine, and, finally, the grandmother to the mother. The narrator's frantic jealousy wherein only homosexual, or like to like fraternal and paternal, relations eventually yield up certain knowledge and closure, is perhaps not simply bound to the structures of modernist patriarchy so much as a symptom of the signal absence of the father throughout the text. The narrator's anguished relation to Albertine's unintelligibility is rooted in his equally anguished vigil as he awaits his mother's kiss good-night, uncertain as to whether she will come or not. Here we find a deep structural relation between jealousy and nostalgia: both involve the projection of possible scenes and such projections are motivated by desire. Yet these scenes are also prohibited from actualization and thus suffer a defining lack of authenticity. Paranoia and anxiety inevitably accompany this collapse of sources and ends.

Causal explanation is only one of a variety of mental processes taken up in Proust's experiential and layered process of critique. If habit is the enemy of knowledge and friendship, and if voluntary memory is the willed distortion of truth, Proust offers the mindfulness of artistic making, the reframing of experience through mental activity, as the alternative. Generalization and convention prohibit originality and judgment, and the axiomatic tradition in French philosophy is itself shown to be a kind of binding of perspective. It is here that Proust contrasts the forms of reified boundary-making, of which nostalgia is only one mode of thought, to the forms of art. As nostalgia engages in historical thinking it is conditioned by habit and typification; in contrast, art produces new knowledge by means of form.

Hence the recurrence of haze and outline as a dimension of nostalgic forms represents an attempt to place a boundary upon ambiguity. Nostalgia works a fixed and unidirectional figure/ground shift in which the context of the past, those elements of scene taken for granted when the past is a present sphere of action, becomes the figure of the past, and action is thereby circumscribed by mere scene setting. When the nostalgic viewer enters into the frame—stepping into the image as Keats does in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” as the jealous lover falls into his or her imagination, and as the time-travelers of popular cinema arrive in other worlds—the past's completeness is a foil to intervention. The anachronistic visitor is passively situated as a viewer or, perhaps more accurately, as a dreamer overcome by a plot he has himself created but within which he cannot make an intervening gesture. For Proust, the aesthetic is tied to a negative and self-revising process of perspectivalism that is the opposite of such a nostalgic process. Aesthetic activity requires the constant modification of frame and a transposition of reality from one scene to another.

Fixed perspective results in blocked perspective, as we find in the scene of the “watch-tower” wherein the narrator observes the tryst between Charlus and Jupien. Issues of fixed perspective come in for particular criticism in the recurrence of the theme of anti-Semitism in the text, in the rigid nondiscursive positions assumed by the Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, and in the account of the static social world during the Great War. Fixed dates appear in the text for the first time during the discussion of the war and we see here, as Elias proposed, the cohesion of time control and the organization of violence. Proust describes the war itself as “the monstrous reality under which there is nothing else visible.” It can be said that there are no minor characters in the novel, for Proust's interest continually and vividly turns to the location of minor action, the world of servants, as a site wherein one can observe the unfolding of monumental consequences. In his essay on “The Image of Proust,” Walter Benjamin cited a passage from the writings of Princess Clermont-Tonnerre on this predilection: “And finally we cannot suppress the fact that Proust became enraptured with the study of domestic servants—whether it be that an element which he encountered nowhere else intrigued his investigative faculties or that he envied servants their greater opportunities for observing the intimate details of things that aroused his interest.”

Of course, as in Nietzsche's thought, the most evident device for retrospective readjustment is irony. Proust reminds us of the complete absence of irony in nostalgic forms and correlatively of the involuntary dimension of true irony. But there is also a Kantian aspect to Proust's aesthetics, for beauty emerges in situations where categories of thought are not sufficient to account for the image and where the relations between figure and ground are suspended. The paintings of Elstir, wherein the sea is a city and the city is a sea; the image of the sea in the bookcases at Balbec; the constant association of Albertine with the sea's transient, metamorphozing form; the turn to organic images, the hawthorns, apple trees, and flowers—all as fleeting in their expression as human faces and vice versa: these are a few of the examples of an aesthetic presentation that itself never brings back images and symbols in any fixed system of metonymy or order.

Rather than pursuing forms of the nostalgic in his research into lost time, Proust suggests the irony underlying the nostalgic impulse. Nostalgia's futility makes possible the practice of aesthetics and rescues the narrator's practice from dilettantism—here seen as an incomplete commitment to whatever is disorienting, and therefore possibly significant, in the experience of temporality. Such an incomplete commitment would be dominated by a teleology of habit: when we find Saint-Loup assuming the gestures of Charlus, and the narrator following in the footsteps of Swann, we watch for the gesture of thought, the decision to act, that will deliver the subject from the relentless force of plot and typification.

In his famous metaphor of the frieze of girls, Proust explores the relations between the temporal experience of subjectivity and a practice of art embedded in its own temporality. The model here is a continual shift in figure/ground relations and specifically the aesthetic history of the frieze. Albertine appears for the first time within this frieze, but, significantly, she appears without relief or individuality. As Beckett describes her in his 1931 study of Proust, she is one aspect of a hedge of Pennsylvanian roses against the breaking line of the waves. The cortege appears in motion, like figures animated in process or, more precisely, like figures who have emerged from their proper background—the sarcophagus that would seal them within a frame. When Albertine is later separated and made a captive, the narrator's jealousy enacts a futile project of reification and possession. Albertine's physical presence nevertheless retains the amorphous movement of the sea that is her proper context. The narrator's dream of fixed form and possession is ironically fulfilled in her ensuing death and the atrophy of his interest. Here we find Proust taking up the theme of death as a modeler or carver. At the time of her death, the grandmother's face is “almost finished” and, at the same time, “On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl.” In his classic essay on The Life of Forms in Art, written in the 1930s, Henri Focillon similarly described sculptural carving as “starting from the surface and seeking for the form within the block.” The touches of the sculptor become progressively closer and joined in an intimate interlocking of relationships. Yet in Proust, as a face comes into full relief, it is also on the threshold of oblivion and subject to the distortions of memory.

The narrator explains that it is “only after one has recognized, not without some tentative stumblings, the optical errors of one's first impression that one can arrive at an exact knowledge of another person, supposing such knowledge to be ever possible. But it is not; for while our original impression of him undergoes correction, the person himself, not being an inanimate object, changes for his part too: we think that we have caught him, he shifts, and, when we imagine that at last we are seeing him clearly, it is only the old impressions which we had already formed of him that we have succeeded in clarifying, when they no longer represent him.” He goes on to say that this continual task of “catching-up” with reality, linked to the proleptic expectation brought to all exchanges with others, is what protects us from the dreariness of an overly presumptuous habit. Years later, when the narrator sees a photograph of the girls, their faces blurred by similarities and by the viewer's temporal distance, they are distinguishable only by their costumes. The costumes themselves are metonymic to social categories and even elements of design that transcend the temporality of any given subject. Albertine wears a Fortuny cape that can be found in one of Carpaccio's Venetian genre scenes; an Assyrian relief is the prototype of the frock coat. All that emerges in high relief, in particular detail, is bound to be abraded back into surface and barely intelligible fragments of signs.

Proust's use of the concept of the frieze coincides in suggestive ways with the use of the concept in the turn-of-the-century aesthetic theories of Alois Riegl, especially his 1893 Stilfragen and 1901 Spatromische Kunstindustrie. As Michael Podro has explained in his useful review of Riegl's work in The Critical Historians of Art, Riegl suggests that in antiquity, and particularly in the art of ancient Egypt, a concept of self-containedness predominates. Represented objects are unconnected with other objects in their respective contexts. Objects appear as continuous unbroken forms enclosed within a boundary, as in an ideal of the self as internally continuous and distinct from its surroundings. Such self-containedness had implications not merely for the relation of the object to context, but also for the relation of the representation to the spectator. Riegl argues that the spectator is invited to comprehend such art immediately through sensual perceptions and to rely as little as possible upon past experience and subjective projections. In addition to the separation of the object from its context and the separation of representation from the spectator, Riegl suggests that space is either denied or suppressed; he sees a maximum correspondence between the depicted object and the real surface of the relief or painting, and spatial effects of depth and projection are refused in favor of a sense of surface.

Riegl goes on to claim that the classical relief begins to make a profound shift in this paradigm of self-containedness. In classical relief, relations between figures are admitted, modeling and the mobility of turning forms give a sense of the space in which they turn. There is a continuity between the space of the viewer and the space of the representation. This continuity comes into full flower in late antiquity—here relief requires limbs and folds of drapery to be carved so deeply that the unity of the figure is dissolved. Coherence is created by means of an optical plan that unites figures and their surroundings and which suggests a continuous optical space between real and represented worlds. Such a continuous space will develop into various perspectival forms known to Roman painting and will later be renewed in the Renaissance. In Riegl's account, the history of art is characterized by a coming to the fore of an awareness of relationality. And this is precisely the ontogeny recapitulated by Proust in the phylogeny of the narrator's consciousness. The frieze is the paradigm of the foreground/background shifts placed in constant mutability and of which the aggregation of the novel itself is the only accessible form. Here the capacity of the bookcase to reflect the sea is the capacity of the novel to reflect the mutability of the experience of time in ever-shifting and retrospectively self-adjusting views. The Arena Chapel frescoes of Giotto are a locus classicus for the novel; they mark the reawakening of the gestural in representation. Uniting the space of appearance with the space of apprehension, they mark the moment when human figures emerge from the world of objects to move and signify, much as the narrator hears his grandmother's voice for the first time when it comes forward in the “relief” of a telephone call. These are figures suspended between the death of inert form and the life of comprehension. The frieze of girls moves forward into the indefinite reification of the photograph. The spectacle of soldiers in formation erases their particular subjectivity and dooms them to be sacrificed. But Giotto's Paduan figures appear to be released from bonds of stone; it is the mental and form-giving activities of the artist here that rework the rules and conventions of representation itself.

In The Fugitive Proust presents a summary of his ideas on memory and forgetting. Memory has no power of invention. It is spiritual and not dependent upon the world for its stimulation. It stems from our desire for the dead—not out of a need for love, but out of a need for the absent person, for the place to be filled. The counterforce of memory, forgetting, is so powerful an instrument of adaptation to reality because it gradually destroys in us the surviving past—a past that is in perpetual contradiction to it. Following the logic of this dialectic, we can see that the willed or voluntary forms of nostalgia that so relentlessly surround us are devices of forgetting in the costume of memory.

The brilliant contribution of Proust's book is his view of the tragic, relentless course of social life once, by means of our own willed confusion, it takes on the power of a form of nature. He imagines works of art structured beyond our habitual, imitative capacities as encompassing a practice of opening the present to the nonbeing of thought—such a practice would involve whatever thought can achieve given the contingencies of habit and the inevitability of death. In Proust's great work we find a rejection of the plenitude of Bergsonian duration and of the positive implications of perspectivalism. Proust's practice is the accommodation of the involuntary and unintelligible in the pursuit of truth. In this activity of mind resides the sublimity of the art work—a Kantianism wherein particularities are not anchored to habitual concepts but return, estranged from their functions. Happiness here is synonymous with aesthetic apprehension—an aesthetic apprehension that bears the contradictions of form-giving and form-eroding activities undertaken in time.

Further Reading

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Carter, William C. Marcel Proust: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000, 946 p.

Biographical study of the life and work of Marcel Proust.

Epstein, Daniel Mark. “Proust regained.” The New Criterion 19, no. 2 (October 2000): 13-21.

Biographical overview of Proust; assesses recent studies on the life and works of Proust.


Andrews, Chris. “Proust and Fandom.” Romance Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2001): 160-72.

Examines the behavior of the narrator in Remembrance of Things Past as that of a fan rather than a narrator.

Fraser, Robert. Proust and the Victorians: The Lamp of Memory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, 320 p.

Study of the influence on Proust of Victorian art and literature.

Johnson-Roullier, Cyraina E. Reading on the Edge: Exiles, Modernities, and Cultural Transformation in Proust, Joyce, and Baldwin. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2000, 217 p.

New Criticism, cultural studies, and critical examinations of works by Proust, James Joyce, and James Baldwin.

Kopelson, Kevin. “Finishing Proust.” Iowa Review 31, no. 2 (fall 2001): 119-42.

Describes one scholar's experiences attempting to read the whole of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

Kristeva, Julia. Time & Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature, trans., Ross Guberman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 407 p.

Psychoanalytic study of the time and space continuum in Proust's masterwork.

Lamos, Colleen. “Sexual/Textual Inversion: Marcel Proust.” In Deviant Modernism: Sexual and Textual Errancy in T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust, pp. 170-216. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Examines self-reflexivity and deception in Remembrance of Things Past.

Murphy, Jonathan Paul. “Proust and Michelet: Intertextuality as Aegis.” French Studies 53, no. 4 (October 1999): 417-29.

Discusses the influence of the works of Jules Michelet on the writings of Proust.

Nalbantian, Suzanne. “The Art of Misrepresentation in Marcel Proust.” In Aesthetic Autobiography: From Life to Art in Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Anaïs Nin, pp. 62-99. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Discusses critical opinion about the relationship between author and narrator in Proust's works.

White, Edmund. Marcel Proust. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999, 165 p.

Biographic and critical overview of the life of Proust.

Additional coverage of Proust's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 58; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 120; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 110; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 65; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; Discovering Authors Modules: Most Studied Authors and Novelists; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 8; Guide to French Literature, Vol. 1789 to the Present; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1, 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 2, 3; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 75; Twayne's World Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 13, 33; and World Literature Criticism.

Marion Schmid (essay date October 1999)

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SOURCE: Schmid, Marion. “Ideology and Discourse in Proust: The Making of ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre.’” Modern Language Review 94, no. 4 (October 1999): 961-77.

[In the following essay, Schmid discusses real historical events which are referred to in Remembrance of Things Past.]

Marcel Proust has often been described as apolitical.1 It is true that apart from a well-known involvement in the Dreyfus Affair and a lesser-known intervention against the separation of Church and State in 1904, he generally refrained from expressing his political opinions in public.2 Given the highly politicized and ideologically charged milieux he frequented (amongst his friends were some of the leading ideologists and polemicists of his time: Léon Daudet, Maurice Barrès, and Charles Maurras), Proust managed surprisingly well to keep out of political debates. He cunningly manoeuvred between different political camps and happily used political personae to obtain him social honours, but was highly sensitive to rumours of his political protection. In 1920, for instance, he obtained the support of the socialist Léon Blum and the royalist Léon Daudet for his nomination to the Légion d'honneur. Once the decoration was in sight, Proust was eager to mention both of their names to refute allegations that he had been nominated by one politician in particular.3 In a letter to Jacques Boulenger of approximately the same time, concerning an article he had undertaken to thank Léon Daudet for his support in the Goncourt jury, Proust categorically denied any personal political involvement: ‘Je ne m'occupe pas de politique et je ne m'en suis jamais occupé.’4 Notwithstanding statements like this, his alleged political and ideological neutrality in public should not be interpreted as demonstrating total indifference to political questions: indeed, if anything, the opposite is in fact the case. Both his letters and his literary writings show that he took a lively interest, if not in politics as such, at least in the effect political or historical events have on people, in particular on their attitudes and mentalities. His interest in history and politics, it has often been said, was largely sociological: he studied historical and political events in their function as catalysts and mirrors of human behaviour.5

History provided Proust with two major events that sharpened his sociological view: first, the Dreyfus Affair and, second, the outbreak of the Great War. Both are richly commented upon in his correspondence and both, of course, are dramatized in A la recherche du temps perdu, the first dispersed across A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs,Le Côté de Guermantes, and Le Temps retrouvé, the second concentrated in the chapter in Le Temps retrouvé entitled ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’ (A la recherche, iv, 301-433).6 In both, Proust engaged in current historical and political reality, though under altogether different circumstances. Fragments about the Dreyfus Affair were written some twenty years after the actual event. By the time A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs and Le Côté de Guermantes were published, the Affair had long entered the realm of history. It belonged to pre-war France, and was thus unlikely to stir emotions amongst the war generation. The war chapter, by contrast, necessitated a far more direct involvement with social and political events. Proust implemented experiences and observations he made daily during the war almost instantly into his fiction. The events he described were shared by his readers and would still be fresh in their minds at the publication of Le Temps retrouvé, which was scheduled for immediately after the war. At the time he was drafting the war chapter, he could of course not foresee that the last volume of the Recherche would be published with considerable delay in 1927, by which time the conditions of its reception had changed completely.

The Dreyfus Affair has often been discussed by critics within the wider context of Judaism in the novel.7 In the following study, I concern myself with the war chapter, which has received comparatively less attention.8 In contrast to earlier critics who have concentrated for the greatest part on the published version of ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’,9 I take a genetic, more specifically a socio-genetic10 approach to this fascinating chapter, one of the most irritating and challenging of the whole novel. I examine the interdiscursive relation between Proust's emerging text and the political and ideological culture that informed it: the way in which the early drafts absorb but, crucially, also transform and reject social discourse, in this particular case, the political and ideological doxa of war-time France.11

Without giving too much away in advance, one can state from the outset that the Proust of the preparatory manuscripts is far more politically conscious than he pretended in public. Like the correspondence of the war years, with which they share the similar status of private documents, his manuscript drafts in the period 1914-18 are surprisingly lucid and outspoken about the political and intellectual climate in France behind the front, in particular about growing signs of nationalism and chauvinism amongst civilians, politicians, and, above all, journalists. Proust was only too aware that in the current chauvinistic climate, too direct an expression of his opinions would expose him to severe criticism from his readers and critics. His critical, not to say irreverent depiction of war-time France would inevitably be weighed against ‘proper’ war literature, which had become a highly celebrated literary genre during and immediately after the war. He suffered such a comparison in 1919 when he was awarded the Prix Goncourt for A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs ahead of Roland Dorgelès's far more popular war novel Les Croix de bois. In 1919, critics dismissed him as a pre-war writer, a ‘talent d'outre-tombe’, a man ‘peu en rapport avec les tendances de la génération nouvelle qui chante la beauté de la lutte’.12 The reflections about the war contained in the preparatory drafts for ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’ were likely to gain him the reputation of an anti-patriot, or, worse, a traitor.

Proust, it can safely be claimed, sought to avoid confrontation with readers and the public as much as possible. Letters to his publishers in which he either warns them of the ‘indecent’ nature of parts of his book (most famously, passages on homosexuality in Sodome et Gomorrhe), or, on the contrary, reassures them about their ‘political correctness’, as it were (in an important letter to Gallimard, quoted below (p. 964), he maintains that the war episode ‘n'a rien d'anti-militariste’), amply illustrate his fear of causing public outrage.13 Proust, as all authors, if perhaps to a higher degree, wrote with an implied readership in mind. His concerns about the novel's reception had a direct formative influence on the genesis of A la recherche. The question, then, is to what extent Proust adjusted, shaped, and censored his writing in anticipation of its potential reception. With respect to the war chapter, which passages from the preparatory drafts did he include, and which were excluded? What kind of transformations were inflicted upon the first sketches in the course of the chapter's genesis? Part of my argument here will be that self-censorship need not necessarily entail radical and definitive cuts to what the author considers unpublishable parts of the text. Rather, self-censorship involves the invention of authorial strategies (narrative, rhetorical, and other) that come to bear on the transition from avant-texte to published text (and, thus from private to public document) and allow the author to elude the anticipated obstacle. In more practical terms, authors may still be able to make their point after a phase of initial self-censorship but they would make it in a more oblique way.

My investigation is based on manuscript drafts published by the new Pléiade Proust. As has been noted by various critics, the Pléiade does not present manuscript material in the order of its composition, and, thus would not be appropriate for a proper study of the episode's genesis (such a study remains to be done).14 The synchronic and thematic organization adopted by the Pléiade team is, however, perfectly suitable for the kind of socio-genetic investigation I undertake in this article. The corpus of manuscript drafts for the war chapter published by the Pléiade gives a clear idea of the various tensions and constraints that occurred during the chapter's genetic elaboration and of the solutions Proust eventually found. I begin with a short synopsis of the complex genesis and publication history of ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’ that provides the necessary background to my argument. I then examine passages which Proust excluded from his drafts and suggest reasons why he decided to do so. Finally, and most important, I discuss Proust's critique of ideologies in the preparatory drafts and identify a number of strategies he employed to distance himself from his critique.

‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’ was inserted into Le Temps retrouvé retrospectively. At the outbreak of the war, two chapters of the last volume existed in draft: sketches for ‘Le Bal de têtes’ were written as early as spring 1910; sketches for ‘L'Adoration perpétuelle’, which diegetically precedes ‘Le Bal de têtes’, were composed at a slightly later date, sometime during 1910 and 1911. In 1916, in a letter to his publisher Gallimard, Proust explains that he has added a piece of text on the war to his last volume. The reasons for this expansion, he says in the letter, were mainly structural: he wanted to link up passages on military strategy in earlier volumes that were completed before the war with the new end of the novel:

Mais depuis, les conversations stratégiques qui ont si je me rappelle bien paru dans l'extrait que j'ai donné dans la N.R.F. (je n'en suis pas sûr, en tout cas c'est entre Robert de Saint-Loup et ses amis officiers) (tout cela écrit bien entendu quand je ne me doutais pas qu'il y aurait la guerre, aussi bien que les conversations de Françoise sur la guerre dans le premier volume) m'ont amené à faire à la fin du livre un raccord, à introduire non pas la guerre même mais quelques-uns de ses épisodes, et M. de Charlus trouve d'ailleurs son compte dans ce Paris bigarré de militaires comme une ville de Carpaccio. Tout cela ai-je besoin de dire n'a rien d'antimilitariste, tout au contraire. Mais les journaux sont très bêtes (et fort mal traités dans mon livre).

(Corr., [Correspondance,] xv, 132)

Proust's own account of the war chapter's genesis has recently been challenged by Jean-Yves Tadié and Luc Fraisse. Both critics argue that the discussions about military strategy with Saint-Loup were not, as Proust claimed in the above letter, written before the war, but were composed during the war and inserted into the third volume retrospectively.15 Following on from Tadié and Fraisse, one would need to picture the genesis of ‘M. de Charlus’ in the reverse order: realizing the structural and thematic advantages an episode about the war would have for the novel as a whole, Proust retrospectively composed scenes on warfare for the earlier volumes, which, in turn, were to prepare and anticipate the war chapter. The genetic process thus was not progressive (the earlier volumes did not, as claims Proust, exert a genetic pressure on the last one), but retroactive (the war episode in the last volume necessitated links in the earlier volumes). The same inverted causality may be observed in the relation between the war chapter and the two other chapters of Le Temps retrouvé. Readers who are unfamiliar with details of the complicated genesis of the Recherche must assume that the Great War that provides the backdrop to ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’ is the historical cause for the cataclysmic social changes described in the famous last two chapters. In fact, however, as I have just said, ‘L'Adoration perpetuelle’ and ‘Le Bal de têtes’ were written before and independently of the war. The war chapter après coup, so to speak, motivated the grandiose social Götterdämmerung in Le Temps retrouvé. The invention of the war episode then was all the more fortunate because it gave the novel a new unity. Far from being a digression, as it is sometimes considered by critics (for instance, Bardèche, ii, 306), it is one of the ‘key stones’ that hold the novel together (to use a metaphor exploited by Proust himself in Le Temps retrouvé, iv, 610). Its structural function for the Recherche is comparable to the invention of recurrent characters in Balzac's Comédie humaine and the expansion of ‘Siegfried’ into Wagner's Tetralogy, both of which Proust admired for precisely their retrospective unity.16

Preparatory sketches and fragments for the war chapter are for the greatest part contained in two notebooks: cahiers57 and 74.17Cahier 57 goes back to 1910, when Proust sketched a first version of ‘Le Bal de têtes’. During the war, he added substantially to his earlier drafts, but also composed new independent passages in the margins. Cahier 74, also known under the name ‘cahier Barbouche’, complements Cahier 57. Fragments in the two cahiers that relate specifically to the war chapter were, according to all evidence, written between 1916 and 1917.18Cahiers57 and 74 contain no single coherent sketch for the war episode. Instead, there is a large number of fragments on different aspects of the war: descriptions of Parisian ‘war salons’, sketches on individual reactions to the war, a letter by Saint-Loup describing life at the front, notes on Charlus, and, not least, fragments on French chauvinism and nationalism. As later in the published text, scarcely any mention is made of military or political events.19 Proust concentrates almost exclusively on life behind the front.

As a rule, Proust recycled most of the material he gathered in his cahiers; only occasionally do we find fragments he discarded altogether. Among these self-censored items is a fragment from Cahier 74, which contains a rather outspoken (at least by Proust's standards) criticism of the absurdity of the French war effort and expenditure. He denounces the blatant discrepancy between the deceptively comfortable life soldiers lead in the trenches and the cruel destiny that awaits them on the battle-field:

Quand on pense qu'elle [la guerre] coûtait dix milliards par an pour une armée d'un million d'hommes, on peut dire que c'était comme si la France avait donné à ses enfants les plus malheureux cent mille francs de rente pendant quelques années. C'est en automobile ‹ que › les soldats étaient transportés dans leurs tranchées, celles-ci prestigieuses comme les cavernes d'Ali Baba, étaient éclairées à l'électricité, et dans cette espèce d'exposition d'Edison qu'était la guerre actuelle, les cantonnements avaient en plein champ ce qu'ont peu de châteaux princiers, le téléphone et des aéroplanes. Sans doute quand on voyait les troupes de choc amenées en automobile, nourries avec grand soin par la variété du menu, jouer au ballon, prendre des douches, il y avait un contraste cruel entre tous ces soins prodigués à des êtres qu'on allait envoyer à la mort possible.

(iv, 789-90)

Proust's glamorous view of life at the front in this sketch stands in stark contrast to the inhuman conditions described by other writers such as Henri Barbusse, who obtained the Prix Goncourt for his war novel Le Feu in 1916. Though exaggerated and naively embellished at times, the above quote none the less grasps the cruel perversion of modern war machinery, the systematic organization of death and destruction by the state. Proust may eventually have found his description of life in the trenches too poeticizing, or, given the general enthusiasm and support for the government in the first war years, may have considered his subversion of the sacred image of the ‘patrie’ (which, in his version, does not protect its children, but sends them to death) too risky. It would be highly speculative to establish his actual motivation for cutting this scene. What is certain is that he never used it. He also abandoned a thematically related fragment from the same cahier in which he celebrated the ‘terrifying beauty’ (‘la terrible beauté’) of the German occupation of the northern part of France (which he likens to the Hundred-Years' War), and blames the French for their aesthetic indifference to such a rare event (iv, 790). Such enthusiasm and literary sensibility in view of a truly critical military situation would clearly have outraged contemporary readers, even in retrospect. Proust dropped the fragment, but retained its central idea in the published text: the narrator, on his nocturnal walk across Paris, is suddenly struck by the city's sublime beauty, which at this moment of greatest threat is revealed to him in all its grandeur and fragility (iv, 380).

A short fragment of Cahier 60 addresses the taboo topic of French collaboration and war profiteering during the war:

Pendant la guerre, des Français partaient avec autant de précautions que pour les colonies vers les lignes allemandes, où ils faisaient du trafic avec les Boches prudemment, risquant la mort, caressant des rêves de fortune, comme des Européens qui partent faire avec des sauvages un commerce défendu.

(iv, 790-91)

Proust's comparison of trafficking at the front with the illicit commerce between Europeans and ‘savages’ ironically recycles and echoes the popular notion of the savage German (the ‘Boche-Barbare’), which was coined in reaction to the first war crimes committed by German troops on their way through Belgium.20 Not even an allusion to secret French traffic with the Germans during the war remains in the published text.

It would be wrong to think that Proust discarded only sketches that were critical about France's role in the First World War. He also suppressed passages which, unlike the ones cited above, support the French side. Cahier 74, for instance, contains a curious variant of a well-known scene from ‘Combray’ that dramatizes the grandfather's latent anti-Semitism (i, 90-91). In contrast to the earlier version from ‘Combray’, the draft of Cahier 74 states that in addition to his hostility towards Jews, the grandfather was also suspicious about Germans domiciled in France. Crucially, the narrator confesses that under the present circumstances (that is, in the light of the war with Germany), he finds the grandfather's hostility, which he used to condemn in the past, prudent and, on the whole, more sympathetic (iv, 791). Cahier 74 contains another curiously pro-French sketch that begins with a criticism of the war press (Proust singles out the banalities and false optimism of war journalists) but ends on a clichéd patriotic note:

Mais plus que de relever quotidiennement l'inexactitude des raisonnements et la banalité des formules, c'était le ton allègre des journaux qui désolait. Il tenait à ce que ‘pessimisme’, qui est le nom des morales qui exigent beaucoup de l'homme, devenait au contraire significatif de lachêté. Mais comment, même s'agissant de l'Allemagne, en la voyant toujours invaincue, tenant toujours le même front, à Ostend, à Lamy, à Soissons, et sachant que, malgré cela, inévitablement, dans un temps déterminé, elle serait obligée de reculer sur le Rhin, puis d'accepter les pires conditions, comment un Français réfléchi voyant cela n'aurait il pas eu, à considérer son activité momentanée, sa vigueur inchangée en apparence, la forte impression, mêlée d'effroi et de respect, qu'on a à voir aller et venir, dîner en ville, voyager, une personne atteinte d'un cancer et dont on sait que malgré tout ces signes extérieurs qui ne signifient rien, dans deux ans plus tard elle sera morte?

(iv, 767)

In keeping with his initial criticism of the press, Proust highlights the discrepancy between the actual critical military situation and the optimistic reports in the French papers. Halfway through the paragraph (after ‘Soisson’), he does a volte-face and presages a German retreat and defeat. First presented as an unbending aggressor, Germany suddenly metamorphoses into a diseased nation that inspires pity and respect. In yet another volte-face in the next sentence (iv, 767), Proust conjures up the spectre of a reinvigorated Germany attacking France afresh twenty or thirty years after the end of the present war (a vision that proved sadly prophetic). It would seem that while he was drafting this passage, he suddenly reminded himself of its defeatist content. He did not even allow himself to finish his sentence in a way that would have been consistent with its beginning, but, instead, turned his initial vision of defeat into a vision of victory. The censor within the author seems to have been present at any moment as a regulating instance, even before ideas were allowed to be verbalized fully.

Proust never considered the First World War as a detached political event. From the earliest sketches on, he frequently compared it to other events that have shaped political and social life in France, especially the Dreyfus Affair.21 He was particularly interested in the various political and (more specifically) ideological discourses that circulate during periods of crisis. In Cahier 57, he engaged for the first time in a lengthy reflection on ideological manipulation and its consequences. I quote part of this very interesting seminal sketch:

Toutes les idées politiques, sociales, religieuses qui se succèdent dans la cervelle des idéologues […] mènent les nations, font les guerres (ou du moins la prolongation priamesque des guerres) la révolution (af. Dreyfus) écartent les juifs des emplois etc., tout cela se réduisant malgré l'ampleur que leur donne leur réfraction dans des masses à la courte vie de certaines idées dont la nouveauté séduit certains cerveaux peu exigeants en fait de preuves, comme leur vieillissement au bout de qq. ans les fatigue, si bien que tout le monde clame en chœur: la France aux Français, le Christianisme est contre nature. Pas de paix boiteuse, etc., nous n'avons pas voulu la guerre, maintenant il nous faut l'Alsace Lorraine etc. et nous faisant à peu de temps de distance estimer et mépriser François-Joseph auguste et méprisable, le roi de Serbie assassin puis vénérable, etc., et les Japonais monstres pour les Russes puis leurs alliés, les Anglais pour les Boers etc. Mais pour revenir à l'antiwagnérisme etc., comme toutes les idéologies changent mais se succèdent sans interruption, l'homme intelligent qui ne donne pas dans elles a en réalité un perpétuel rocher de Sisyphe à remonter. Il croit avoir fini de l'anticléricalisme, alors l'antisémitisme commence; il a fini de l'antisémitisme, c'est l'antigermanisme, à l'antiwagnerisme des gens qui disaient musique de l'avenir succèdent des gens qui disent musique du passé, musique germanique peut-être lier à cela brumes du Nord, Ibsen si guerre avec la Suède, Tolstoï et ballets russes si guerre avec la Russie, Kipling plus impérialiste que toute la littérature allemande (citer q.q. part Ruskin sur l'Angleterre Sésame et Bible) Annunzio etc. Si on faisait de tout cela en trop [un] beau morceau.

(Matinée, pp. 302-04)

Although confused and nebulous at times, as one may expect of a working manuscript, this sketch shows a Proust surprisingly lucid and outspoken about the dangerous power of ideologists. Ideologists, he says in the first part of the quotation, lead entire nations, they cause war and instigate racial hatred. The masses are easily prey to catching slogans such as the racist ‘La France aux Français’ or the revanchist ‘maintenant il nous faut l'Alsace-Lorraine’. However, at this stage, he was less interested in the rhetoric of ideological propagandists (which, I shall show, he satirized in later sketches), but, from a more global perspective, focused on the variety of ideological movements that swept over France in the fifty years or so before he wrote this sketch. Ideologies, he says, are almost by definition short-lived. They rapidly replace one another in history: anti-clericalism is followed by anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism by anti-Germanism, Wagnerism by anti-Wagnerism, and so forth. Proust sees ideological manipulation as an all-encompassing social phenomenon difficult to escape, even for enlightened minds. He argues that even the cultural life of a nation is ideologically determined: the current rejection of Wagner, for instance, is not aesthetic but, on the contrary, highly political.

The immediate context to Proust's criticism here, as may be known, was a sustained press campaign against Wagner, initially launched by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in a series of articles in L'Echo de Paris between September and November 1914.22 Saint-Saëns, Frédéric Masson, and other nationalists stigmatized Wagner as the epitome of modern aggressive and militant Germany. They warned about the dangerous corrupting influence of Wagner on the French public. Saint-Saëns claimed amongst other things that ‘le wagnérisme, sous couleur d'art, fut une machine merveilleusement outillée pour ronger le patriotisme en France’ (Germanophilie, p. 23). Masson declared that ‘le wagnérisme étant l'expression complète de la culture allemande, les Français atteints de wagnérite se livrent volontairement à l'Allemagne’ (L'Echo de Paris, 12 October 1914). Finally, the chauvinist Joséphin Péladan requested ‘plus d'allemand sur les lèvres, sur la scène, plus de langue allemande en terre de France […] n'est-il pas démontré que nous ne pouvons parler avec eux que par le fer?’ (Le Figaro, 28 September 1914). Proust himself summarized the French war campaign against Wagner very well in another sketch of Cahier 57, where he says that ‘l'antigermanisme […] considérait Wagner comme une dangereuse pénétration de l'Allemagne, comme une invasion secrète d'avant-guerre’ (iv, 854).

Proust's correspondence during the war years shows that he was truly concerned about the growing chauvinism and Germanophobia exhibited in the French press.23 In both his letters and his early drafts he was extremely lucid about the political motives behind the press crusade against Wagner. In the sketch from Cahier 57 cited above, he warns that Wagner is only a pawn in the current conflict. The same ideologists who at present bedevil him will target Ibsen in the case of a war with Sweden, Tolstoi and the Russian ballets in the case of a war with Russia, and so forth. Although he has not yet formulated his ideas in theoretical terms, he argues in short that chauvinism (and he takes cultural chauvinism as his prime example) is never concerned with contents or essences. German literature and music are demonized not because they are truly imperialistic in content (as ideologists want to make believe) but because Germany is imperialistic, and by extension everything that represents Germany metonymically is stigmatized as imperialistic as well.

Proust's criticism of ideologies was developed in two sketches, one in Cahier 74, and the second further down in Cahier 57. In the sketch of Cahier 74, he refined his earlier point about cultural chauvinism. He now argues that the hostilities against ‘foreign’ (especially German) art are part of a wider campaign against modern art (independent of whether it is national or foreign, by allies or by enemies) in general;24 attacking German art becomes a welcome pretext for attacking all avant-garde art in the same breath:

Malheureusement ces spectacles contre lesquels fulminait le critique, c'était des spectacles russes *(ce pourrait être Legrandin en son temps, et recommence pendant la guerre, d'où ennuis dans le faubourg)*, des romans annunziesques, la sculpture de Rodin, les drames norvégiens, tous les Alliés. Il s'en tire en disant ‹ du mal › des chefs d'orchestre allemands, des opéras de Strauss, des décors munichois, des meubles tarabiscotés où on ne pouvait pas s'asseoir, pour attaquer nos cosmopolites et invertis berlinois.

(iv, 793)25

On a sheet of paper in Cahier 57 glued onto the verso of folio 56 (a so-called ‘paperolle’) and also taking up the earlier sketch, Proust investigates the major political and historical events in France from the late nineteenth century to the Great War and the effect they had on society (iv, 763-64). He regards each new political event as a catalyst dividing society into a number of affinity groups. Before the Dreyfus Affair, he says, society was divided into conservatives and republicans. At the outbreak of the Affair, this division was abolished in favour of a new scission between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. Conservatives and republicans henceforth joined forces in either the pro-Dreyfus or the anti-Dreyfus camp. Finally, the Great War produced yet another social turnaround in uniting former Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards against the new enemy: Germany. It created a new social and ideological division between pacifists and militarists, if, as Proust says in another sketch, this last opposition did not collapse altogether under the pressure of the uniformly nationalistic press (p. 780). Here, Proust with much greater clarity, denounces the dangerous relativism of political positions, the sheer absence of any philosophical rationale or ideal behind a chosen political stance. The problem, he says in another sketch in Cahier 57, is that most people fail to question the philosophical investments they make in adopting one position rather than another, and therefore they are not even aware of blatant inconsistencies in their beliefs. The masses miss the fact that apparently different ideological positions are as a matter of fact only different facets of the same phenomenon:

Si on invoque aux yeux du dreyfusard son propre dreyfusisme pour qu'il ne soit pas Hte Cour, anticongréganiste, antigermanique il répondra[:] ‘l'enseignement congréganiste est contre nature, fait des monstres, l'affaire Dreyfus était entre Français, la race allemande veut l'anéantissement de la France de tt temps etc. Ce n'est pas la même chose.’ Car personne ne comprend que même quand c'est la même chose […] que la réalisation ne peut être la même.

(Matinée, p. 411)

In the published text of the war chapter, little of the theoretical reflections on the inconsistency of ideologies remains. Rather than engaging in a philosophical and social criticism, Proust preferred to show political and ideological inconsistencies through the example of his characters: Bontemps, a former Dreyfusard is shown to have turned Nationalist and xenophobe (iv, 305); similarly, the Verdurin salon, formerly a stronghold of revisionists, has become the meeting-place for the most violent Nationalists (pp. 307-08); finally, Brichot, a former militarist attacks the glorification of the army in Germany (p. 357; see also Sprinker, p. 161). The theoretical reflections from cahiers57 and 74 were eventually embedded into the Matinée amidst a wider meditation on the primacy of spiritual over material reality. In the published version, the narrator confesses that if Charlus's Germanophilia did not cure him of his own Germanophobia, at least it made him aware of the phobia's biased nature. Germanophobia, like other feelings, he argues, is subjective. The problem is that people fail to understand that the qualities they project onto an object, which create feelings of love or hatred, are not in the object itself: they exist solely in the mind of the projector. The success of ideological propaganda lies precisely in this discrepancy between subjective perception and objective reality:

J'avais déjà vu dans mon pays des haines successives qui avaient fait apparaître, par exemple, comme des traîtres—mille fois pire que les Allemands auxquels ils livraient la France—des dreyfusards comme Reinach avec lequel collaboraient aujourd'hui les patriotes contre un pays dont chaque membre était forcément un menteur, une bête féroce, un imbécile, exception faite des Allemands qui avaient embrassé la cause française comme le roi de Roumanie, le roi des Belges ou l'impératrice de Russie. Il est vrai que les antidreyfusards m'eussent répondu: ‘Ce n'est pas la même chose’. Mais en effet ce n'est jamais la même chose, pas plus que ce n'est la même personne: sans cela, devant le même phénomène, celui qui en est la dupe ne pourrait accuser que son état subjectif et ne pourrait croire que les qualités ou les défauts sont dans l'objet. L'intelligence n'a point de peine alors à baser sur cette différence une théorie (enseignement contre nature des congréganistes selon les radicaux, impossibilité de la race juive à se nationaliser, haine perpétuelle de la race allemande contre la race latine, la race jaune étant momentanément réhabilitée). Ce côté subjectif se marquait d'ailleurs dans les conversations avec des neutres, où les germanophiles, par example, avaient la faculté de cesser un instant de comprendre et même d'écouter quand on leur parlait des atrocités allemandes en Belgique. (Et pourtant, elles étaient réelles: ce que je remarquais de subjectif dans la haine comme dans la vue elle-même n'empêchait pas que l'objet pût posséder des qualités ou des défauts réels et ne faisait nullement s'évanouir la réalité en un pur relativisme).

(iv, 491-92)

A comparison between the earlier sketches and the final version shows how Proust gradually depoliticized his criticism of ideologies. Whilst in the early drafts he attacked the dominant ideologies of his time (anti-Semitism, Germanophobia, anti-Wagnerism, and so on) directly, in the final version he subordinated his opinions to a wider philosophical reflection that is at the centre of the Matinée. At the same time, he attenuated and counterbalanced his criticism: the narrator first declares himself Germanophobic, in contrast to the Germanophilic Charlus; more important, he considerably twists his own theory. Although he first argued that Germanophobia during the war is a subjective feeling (and, thus, within his wider theory of subjective relativism has nothing to do with the qualities or flaws of Germany), he amends his statement in the parenthesis quoted above: in this particular case, the subjective perception coincides with the real situation: that Germans are as bad as the French think. Proust, thus, makes sure he positions his narrator on the correct patriotic, Germanophobic side. The narrator engages in a cunning game of closure and disclosure.

The abstract critique of ideologies in the first drafts eventually led Proust to a more concrete examination of forms of ideological propaganda, especially in the war press. We know from Proust's own correspondence that he carefully studied war-time newspapers (in a letter to Lucien Daudet he claims that he read seven papers simultaneously and, inevitably, got confused about the events). Whilst he found most articles stupid and banal, he enjoyed the military reports by Henri Bidou in the Journal des Débats and those by Colonel Feyer in the Journal de Genève.26 Interestingly, he also subscribed to L'Action française, the newspaper published by the nationalistic and anti-Semitic group of the same name directed by Maurice Barrès.27 Proust's daily press review gave him ample material and food for thought for his criticism of war journalism, which, as he himself pointed out in the letter to Gallimard, is central to the war chapter as a whole. Most of the passages relating to the French press are contained in Cahier 74. Some are embedded in longer fragments, others are relatively self-contained. In these sketches, he attacked and ridiculed all the various features of the press that had irritated him since the outbreak of the war: the false optimism of the military commentators and their failure to assess the situation realistically (iv, 767), their bias in favour of the French cause (p. 780), the uniformity of war propaganda on both the French and the German sides (p. 785), and, in particular, the inflated, trite, and ultimately nonsensical rhetoric of war journalists (pp. 783-84). His criticism either was couched in impersonal objective terms (see, for instance, p. 780) or, more often, was expressed by the narrator-hero. There were two problems with this initial form of presentation: first and foremost, given the quasi-autobiographical form of the Recherche, readers were likely to interpret all opinions expressed as Proust's own (which indeed, in this case, they were), and criticize the author for his unpatriotic attitude. Second, as is well known, he considered any form of political involvement by an author (and his criticism of ideological manipulation was also political in its own right) to be unbecoming in a literary text (in Cahier 57, he is even worried about seeming to ‘faire du Romain Rolland’, of appearing to write pacifist literature: see Matinée, p. 307). Too overt an expression of his opinions would have clashed with his literary ideal and his anti-intellectual, anti-dogmatic stance.28 His task, then, was to decide in what way he could convey his criticism without being dogmatic and without revealing too much of his own world-view.

Proust's own notes de régie in his drafts show two major strategies he employed to ensure a sufficient distance between Marcel Proust the author and the point he was making in his text. First, instead of having the narrator denounce the banality of the war press, he decided to let stupidity speak for itself. Thus, on folio 65v of Cahier 74, he resolved to have these commonplaces uttered by his characters, instead of quoting them from war journals:

Quand je cite les mots (le passage est écrit et peut-être plusieurs fois),‘chiffon de papier’, ‘Kultur’ etc., je ferais mieux au lieu des journaux de le faire dire par des gens, par example: ‘chiffon de papier’ avec émotion par Norpois, ‘Kultur’, trois minutes en retard par [illegible word], et M. de Cambremer dira: ‘Ah oui, la fameuse kultur qui fait fusiller les prêtres et les enfants. Dame, on est kolossal ou on ne l'est pas.’

(iv, 779)

This note de régie is symptomatic of a wider process in the manuscripts that in narratological terms can be described as a move from telling (presenting his ideas in a detached way through his narrator) to showing (ceding the floor to his characters), or, from diegesis to mimesis. Proust eventually preferred a mimetic representation of war journalism that held up a mirror to his contemporary readers to an objective criticism of ideological manipulation uttered by the narrator.

At first, Proust had in mind four characters to represent war journalism: first and foremost Brichot, Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne, and Norpois, the retired Ambassador, but also, to a lesser degree, Bergotte, the writer-turned-journalist, and Legrandin, who adopts journalism as a means to gain access to high society. The margins of Cahier 74 are littered with commonplace expressions and proverbs that Proust used mainly for short sketches on the trite war rhetoric of Norpois and Brichot. Though quoted and commented upon by the author-narrator, the expressions attributed to the characters verge on pastiche, which, as is well known, is used at various occasions in the Recherche. Each character has his own style, syntax, and set of expressions, and each, in turn, stands for a particular aspect of war propaganda: through Brichot, Proust ridicules the Germanophobia of French patriots, especially their bathetic rhetoric, reflected in sentences such as ‘Depuis Louvain, il n'y a pas un seul Allemand […] qui à la promenade puisse regarder en face la statue de Goethe’ (iv, 783). Norpois, by contrast, is made to epitomize the pompous empty discourse of diplomacy. His splendid rhetoric and apparent eloquence are unmasked as a set of clichéd metaphors and proverbs:

Ce n'est pas d'ailleurs que M. de Norpois fît de l'histoire un drame tout abstrait. Il avait une assez riche provision d'images, un magasin d'accessoires parmi lesquels servaient à diverses fins un ‘roue de la Fortune’, qui était toujours ‘prête à tourner’, des ‘dés’ qui allaient ‘être jetés’. On voyait briller fort longtemps d'avance ‘l'aube de la victoire’. Les peuples dont il racontait les guerres étaient souvent placés devant un ‘fleuve’, ce qui est considéré par les historiens militaires comme une bonne défense. Mais ce n'était pas dans un but stratégique, ni même par une précision géographique, qu'il en usait. Car ce fleuve, loin de s'abriter derrière lui, il fallait le ‘passer’, et quel que fût le pays où il coulait, il s'appelait ‘le Rubicon’. Enfin M. de Norpois ne craignait pas d'invoquer, non pas Dieu, mais les dieux, et quelquefois un seul en disant: ‘Mais où donc, par Jupiter!’, ou bien, ‘Mais où donc, justes dieux!’

(pp. 783-84)

Incidentally, the Brichot and Norpois sketches have a triple function in the novel. First, in ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’, as already indicated, they illustrate the commonplace rhetoric of the French war press. Second, throughout the Recherche, they represent a specific sociolect or ideolect: that of the Sorbonne professor and the diplomat.29 Third, they link up passages from A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs and Le Côté de Guermantes, where Norpois and Brichot have greatest prominence, with Le Temps retrouvé, and thus help to consolidate the complex structure of the novel.

However, it was not enough simply to let the characters speak for themselves. Some evaluating voice was needed to report on ideological propaganda and to criticize it. Proust's second and more important strategy was to transfer criticism initially made by the narrator to Charlus, who holds centre stage in the war chapter. On folio 102r of Cahier 74, he decided:

Toutes les critiques de la presse pendant la guerre seront mises dans la bouche de M. de Charlus qui me dira à voix basse à la fois comme s'il n'osait pas employer tout haut une expression si vulgaire ou hasarder publiquement un si terrible pronostic: ‘C'est très heureux que nous n'ayons pas encore fait la paix, sans cela nous serions tous boches.’ Malgré cela il l'était lui-même un peu.

(iv, 1379)

Consequently, most fragments about the war press were focalized through Charlus: the passage about the manipulative power of the media, which was sketched for the first time in Cahier 57, the comment on the uniformity of war rhetoric in France and Germany from Cahier 74 (iv, 784), a sketch on the glorification of the present war in comparison with earlier conflicts (pp. 778-79), as well as a sustained condemnation of the triteness of war journalism, were all inserted into the long conversation between the narrator and Charlus on their nocturnal walk across Paris. Whilst in the early drafts, the critique of ideologies was mainly intradiegetic (the hero-narrator quotes and comments upon the rhetoric of, say, Brichot and Norpois), thanks to Proust's decision in Cahier 74, it became metadiegetic (the narrator directly or indirectly renders the thought of Charlus, who, in turn, quotes Norpois).30 The narration to the second degree created a sufficient distance between the narrator (who was likely to be identified with the author) and the point of the narrative, Proust's poor opinion of the press.

The same retrospective attribution31 of utterances to Charlus was applied to passages with a pro-German content, which, in the context of the war, were far more of a problem than simple criticism of the French press: ‘Tous les arguments en faveur de l'Allemagne qu'il y a dans le chapitre de la guerre, au lieu d'être présentés objectivement, devront plutôt être présentés par M. de Charlus, type du “pessimiste” et en causant avec moi’ (p. 782).

The transfer of statements from the narrator to Charlus enabled Proust to convey his criticism in an oblique way. Charlus proved the ideal vehicle for opinions the author wanted to express, but for which he did not want to assume responsibility.32 The effect of the character focalization employed by Proust can in many ways be compared to that of style indirect libre, which is a more common and better-known device of authorial detachment. Both narrative devices assist in creating a distance between the author and the ‘message’ or point of the text, with the difference that with style indirect libre it is impossible for the reader to identify any stable narrative instance at all, whilst in the type of character-focalization used by Proust in the war chapter, the reader identifies the immediate source of the utterance: Charlus. Style indirect libre sabotages readers' attempts at identifying the source of a given utterance, which would help them evaluate its meaning. Character focalization, by contrast, leaves readers to evaluate the meaning of an utterance on the basis of what they know about its origin, about the character who pronounces it. It is of course entirely in the hands of the author, who directs the readerly evaluation, whether he or she presents the character-focalizer in a positive or negative light. The dialogue between Charlus and the narrator in ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’ is a very interesting case in point of what Shlomith Rimmon-Kennan calls the ‘ideological facet’ of focalization (in Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 81). In order to achieve optimal distance from the criticism he was making, Proust manipulated both discourse and story. In addition to establishing Charlus as a character-focalizer, and thus to creating distance, he presented Charlus as an unsympathetic defeatist and Germanophile in order to counterbalance the bite of his diatribe.

In the published text, it will be remembered, Charlus is both a victim of current ideologies during the war (most important, Germanophobia and homophobia) and one of the few remaining enlightened spirits who protest against ideological propaganda (or, at least, denounce its stupidity). Rumours of his sympathies for Germany and of his defeatism in the war chapter are first spread by the Verdurin circle. The viperous Mme Verdurin, vexed about Charlus's infidelity to her salon, insinuates that the Baron, whom she claims is of Prussian descent, is a German spy (iv, 345). Morel fuels the sleaze campaign against his former lover in a series of anonymous articles that publicize Charlus's anti-patriotism and his hitherto concealed homosexuality. Morel's libels bear such revealing titles as ‘Une Allemande’ or ‘Oncle d'Amérique et tante de Francfort’ and refer to Charlus as ‘Frau Bosch’ or ‘Frau van den Bosch’ (pp. 346-47). The narrator at first seems to deplore and condemn these defamatory attacks, but gradually corroborates the very accusations he initially denounced. At various occasions, we find him insisting on Charlus's Germanophilia (pp. 368, 381, 387), which he explains partly by the fact that Charlus is the son of a Bavarian duchess (p. 353), partly by his sexual preferences (pp. 354-56), and, above all, by his complete lack of patriotism (p. 353). Comparing Charlus's attitude during the war to that of his enemy Mme Verdurin, the narrator shows less sympathy for the former:

Quant à M. de Charlus, son cas était un peu différent, mais pire encore, car il allait plus loin que ne pas souhaiter passionément la victoire de la France, il souhaitait plutôt, sans se l'avouer, que l'Allemagne sinon triomphât, du moins ne fût pas écrasée comme tout le monde le souhaitait.

(p. 352)

Even physically, Charlus metamorphoses into a comic German stereotype in the course of his promenade across Paris with the narrator: ‘Un instant encore, il me serra la main à me la broyer, ce qui est une particularité allemande chez des gens qui sentent comme le baron’ (p. 388). In the final analysis, the narrator seems to obey two conflicting tendencies: he simultaneously denounces and reinforces the campaign against Charlus. He uses Charlus as a spokesperson, but at the same time undermines his criticism of war-time France.

Proust employed a similar strategy of conflicting (and, indeed, contradicting) discourses with regard to Saint-Loup, who, together with Charlus, inherited some of Proust's own opinions in the war chapter. Saint-Loup is the very opposite of Charlus, at least politically (they do, however, converge on one point: their homosexuality). He is carefully established as a true patriot (especially in contrast to the chauvinist Bloch) and war hero, and as such is allowed to make remarks that, again, would not have been acceptable in the mouth of the narrator.33 Like his uncle Charlus, Saint-Loup criticizes French chauvinism during the war and, more important, is shown to remain unaffected by the growing hostility to German culture himself: he continues to quote Nietzsche in the trenches and preserves his admiration for Schumann and Wagner. As with Charlus, Proust both establishes and undermines the position of his hero, here by subtle allusions to Saint-Loup's homosexuality interspersed in avant-texte and text. In Cahier 74, Proust insinuates that Saint-Loup's heroism is motivated not least by his homosexual ideal of virility: ‘Mais tant de sources se confondent à l'héroïsme, que le vice nouveau qui s'était déclaré en lui, et aussi la médiocrité intellectuelle qu'il n'avait pu dépasser y avaient leur part aussi. En prenant les goûts de M. de Charlus, Robert s'était trouvé prendre aussi, sous une forme d'ailleurs fort différente, son idéal de virilité’ (iv, 770).34 In the published text, these allusions remain, if in a slightly attenuated form (pp. 323, 368). We also learn en passant that Saint-Loup, though unjustly, was accused of being involved in a German espionage affair (p. 389). All these details help to tarnish Saint-Loup's reputation as a war hero.

To highlight this point again: Proust used Saint-Loup and Charlus as mouthpieces for arguments he felt should not be presented objectively by the narrator. Saint-Loup as a war hero was allowed to make certain observations about French chauvinism that would otherwise have been unacceptable. Charlus, the exact opposite, could voice his criticism in his capacity of a defeatist and Germanophilic. Proust achieved a second degree of detachment from the statements made by Saint-Loup and Charlus by undermining the heroic status of the former and by corroborating the anti-patriotic nature of the latter. The main text is interwoven with a subtle subtext that creates sufficient ambiguity and thus welcome distance.

My study of the manuscript drafts for the war-episode shows that Proust was far more involved in political questions than he wanted to allow his public to realize. The early uncensored manuscripts from the period 1916 to 1917 contain a biting criticism of French chauvinism and ideological manipulation during the First World War. Through a close examination of French social and political life from the Dreyfus Affair to the Great War, he demonstrates that the dominant ideologies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (anti-Semitism, anti-Germanism, anti-Wagnerism), however different and inconsistent they may seem at first sight, are all facets of one ‘super’-ideology: nationalism. Nationalism is an all encompassing phenomenon that determines the social, political, and even cultural life of a nation. However, the masses are not aware of this universal ideological over-determination. They embrace each new ideology as if it were for a new cause, where in fact, it has only found a new target. Proust illustrates this discrepancy between objective reality and subjective perception, on which all ideological manipulation is based, with the example of Wagner, who became a main target of French nationalists during the war. Proust's sketches, in their attempt to formulate a theory behind ideological change, curiously anticipate the Marxist critique of ideologies of the 1960s and 1970s as it was formulated by Althusser in his seminal essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’.35 But Proust decided not to pursue these theoretical reflections. He was, after all, not an intellectual historian, nor did he have great sympathies for socialism or Marxism. Too theoretical a criticism of French chauvinism and ideological propaganda would have conflicted with his anti-intellectual, anti-dogmatic aesthetic stance and, perhaps more important, would have been unpublishable in the immediate post-war, as he knew all too well. As I have attempted to show, he was very conscious of the boundaries between private and public. As soon as his writing moved from the private to the public domain, when Le Temps retrouvé was approaching publication, he decided to temper his criticism by a number of narrative (or more precisely) discursive transformations. He gradually moved from telling to showing, from diegesis to mimesis, thus leaving the floor to his characters rather than having the narrator comment on problematic political positions. In the same vein, and much to the same purpose, he replaced intradiegetic by metadiegetic narration and focalized comments that would have been unacceptable in the mouth of the narrator-hero through elected mouthpieces such as Charlus and Saint-Loup. The detachment achieved by the introduction of a narrative meta-level and by character focalization was further enhanced by a cunning game of conflicting narratives through which the narrator both establishes and undermines his focal characters. Together with all these crucial transformations there was an important change of tone. Whilst in the early drafts, Proust presented his criticism with the seriousness and outrage it no doubt deserved, in the course of the chapter's genesis, he adopted a more ironic stance, making broader use of comic dialogue and pastiche. Irony had a further distancing and ultimately protecting effect for author and text. It made ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre’ more ambiguous, giving it the characteristic mixture of comic and tragic, which makes it truly Shakespearean in tone.36 Proust's representation of the Great War in the drafts for Le Temps retrouvé moved from moral drama to chilling social comedy.


  1. Most recently by Luc Fraisse, Proust au miroir de sa correspondance (Paris: SEDES, 1996), especially in the section ‘Proust totalement apolitique’ (pp. 315-17).

  2. Proust signed petitions and collected signatures for the revision of the Dreyfus case in 1896 and 1897; in 1904, he wrote an article against the separation of Church and State for the Figaro.

  3. See letter to Paul Souday, 27 September 1920, in Marcel Proust, Correspondance, ed. by Philip Kolb, 21 vols (Paris: Plon, 1970-93), xix, p. 485 (hereafter Corr.).

  4. Corr., xx, 530. The article was to celebrate the publication of the fifth volume of Daudet's Souvenirs, Au Temps de Judas (1920). Proust's dilemma in writing this piece is that he did not want to comment on Daudet's political and polemical writings, but, given the notoriety of Daudet the polemicist, could not drop this aspect altogether. The result is an uncomfortable mixture of blind eulogy and attempts at attenuating Daudet's dangerous political activities (‘Un Esprit et un Génie innombrables: Léon Daudet’, in Contre Sainte-Beuve, ed. by Pierre Clarac and Yves Sandre, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), pp. 601-04).

  5. See Anne Henry, Marcel Proust: Théories pour une esthétique (Paris: Klincksieck, 1981), especially pp. 344-65.

  6. All reference, unless otherwise stated, is to Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu, ed. by Jean-Yves Tadié, 4 vols, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1987-89).

  7. See, for instance, Hannah Arendt's classic study in The Origins of Totalitarianism, revised edn (London: Allen & Unwin, 1967), in particular Chapter 3, and, more recently, Albert Sonnenfeld, ‘Marcel Proust Antisémite? i and ii’, French Review, 62 (1988), 25-40, 275-82, and Jeanne Bem, in Le Texte traversé (Paris: Champion, 1991), pp. 167-80.

  8. Maurice Bardèche has given a superb reading in Marcel Proust romancier, 2 vols (Paris: Les Sept Couleurs, 1971), ii, 292-306; J. Canavaggia has included a chapter on ‘1914’ in Proust et la politique (Paris: Nizet, 1986) but rarely gets beyond plot summaries and comments. The best reading to date comes from Michael Sprinker in his recent Marxist study History and Ideology in Proust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 160-68. Further studies that deserve to be mentioned are Maurice Rieuneau, Guerre et révolution dans le roman français de 1919 à 1939 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1974), Chapter 7, ‘La Guerre dans Le Temps retrouvé’, and Colin Nettelbeck, ‘History, Art and Madame Verdurin's Croissants: The War Episode in Le Temps retrouvé’, Australian Journal of French Studies, 19 (1982), 288-94.

  9. Bardèche, who bases the rest of his study on Proust's preparatory manuscripts, makes little reference to them in his discussion of the war episode. More recently, Sprinker quotes from the manuscripts, but discusses them synchronically with the published text, rather than tracing a diachronic development from manuscripts to published text.

  10. Almuth Grésillon perhaps best describes what is involved in a socio-genetic approach: ‘[L'approche sociogénétique] consiste à s'interroger sur le tissage intertextuel et discursif que l'avant-texte exhibe entre, d'une part, le texte d'auteur en train de se faire et, d'autre part, les choses lues, sues, vues et entendues d'une culture d'époque: doxa littéraire, savoirs engrangés, idées reçues, code de représentations, souvenirs, rencontres, impressions de lecture—bref l'air du temps’ (Eléments de critique génétique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994), p. 172).

  11. I endorse an argument by Henri Mitterand, one of the most distinguished promoters of la socio-génétique in France, who maintains that ‘tout avant-texte condense, transforme, et accomode du discours social, dans des conditions telles qu'il est possible de reconstituer (hypothétiquement) les bases et le procès sociocritique du travail de préécriture’ (‘Programme et préconstruit génétiques: le dossier de L'Assommoir’, in Essais de critique génétique, ed. by Louis Hay (Paris: Flammarion, 1979), pp. 193-226 (p. 214)).

  12. The quotations are taken from an article by Jean de Pierrefeu in Les Débats, quoted by Jean-Yves Tadié in Marcel Proust (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), p. 829.

  13. In a famous letter to Alfred Vallette he writes: ‘Je termine un livre qui malgré son titre provisoire: Contre Sainte-Beuve, Souvenir d'une Matinée est un véritable roman et un roman extrêmement impudique en certaines parties. Un des principaux personnages est un homosexuel’ (Corr., ix, 155). In a letter to his brother, he worries that Sodome et Gomorrhe might be a hindrance to his nomination to the Légion d'honneur (NRF, 1 May 1970, pp. 748-50). After his nomination, in a letter to Paul Souday of 15 November 1920, he complains, still in the context of Sodome et Gomorrhe: ‘On ne m'a pas encore retiré ma croix de chevalier (mais cela viendra peut-être)’ (Corr., xix, 594); the letter to Gallimard mentioned above was written shortly before 30 May 1916 (Corr., xv, 131-32).

  14. For an account of the Pléiade's treatment of manuscript material, see for instance Anne Herschberg-Pierrot, ‘Editer Proust’, Cahiers de textologie, 2, ‘Problèmes de l'édition critique’ (Paris: Minard, 1988), pp. 121-31, and my own ‘Teleology and Textual Misrepresentation: The New Pléiade Proust’, French Studies Bulletin, 56 (1995), 15-17.

  15. See Tadié, Marcel Proust, p. 751, and Fraisse, p. 378.

  16. On Proust's endorsement of the Wagnerian and Balzacian models, see Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust et le roman (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), p. 243.

  17. Further brief sketches are contained in cahiers 55 and 60.

  18. See Matinée chez la Princesse Guermantes, ed. by Henri Bonnet and Bernard Brun (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), p. 274, hereafter Matinée.

  19. In the published text the only events to appear, dispersed over the chapter, are the battle of Verdun, dramatized as the battle of Méséglise, described in a letter by Gilberte (iv, 335), the sinking of the Lusitania, about which Mme Verdurin reads in the papers while enjoying her war-time croissant (p. 352), the formation of a new government (p. 432), and, finally, a highly disturbing unfinished paragraph about the victims of the Russian Revolution, which brings the chapter to a close (p. 433).

  20. Outrage against German barbarism reappears in the episode in Jupien's bordello, where one of the soldiers declares: ‘Et ce qu'ils ont fait à Louvain, et couper des poignets de petits enfants! Non, je ne sais pas moi, je ne suis pas meilleur qu'un autre, mais je me laisserais envoyer des pruneaux dans la gueule plutôt que d'obéir à des barbares comme ça; car c'est pas des hommes, c'est des vrais barbares, tu ne me diras pas le contraire’ (iv, 400).

  21. For more detail on these comparisons in the published text, see Sprinker, p. 161. It is interesting to note in this context that in 1914, that is shortly before he drafted the war chapter, Proust reread the sixth volume of Joseph Reinach's Histoire de l'affaire Dreyfus entitled ‘La Révision’, together with Reinach's articles on the war published in the Figaro (Fraisse, pp. 372-73).

  22. The articles were later regrouped in a pamphlet entitled Germanophilie (Paris: Dorbon-Aimé, 1916).

  23. See in particular the following letters: to Lucien Daudet and to Joseph Reinach, November 1914, Corr., xiii, 333-37, 350-51; to Paul Souday, April 1915, and to Robert de Montesquiou, July 1915, xiv, 99-100, 167; to Walter Berry, July 1917, xvi, 189, and to Madame Schiff, August 1919, xviii, 364.

  24. Modern art historians have confirmed Proust's observation: see, for instance, Kenneth E. Silver, Esprit de corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World-War, 1914-25 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

  25. See also a related sketch (iv, 785-86), which was later abandoned.

  26. See letter to Mme Catusse, written shortly after 5 June 1915, Corr., xiv, 151. See also xv, 65.

  27. Proust describes his reading of L'Action française, a paper so very opposed to his own beliefs, as a painful almost masochistic experience: ‘La pensée de ce qu'un homme pouvait souffrir m'ayant jadis rendu dreyfusard, on peut imaginer que la lecture d'une “feuille” infiniment plus cruelle que Le Figaro et les Débats, desquels je me contentais jadis, me donne souvent comme les premières atteintes d'une maladie de cœur’ (‘Un Esprit et un Génie innombrables’, p. 603).

  28. See his famous ‘Une œuvre où il y a des théories est comme un objet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix’ (iv, 461).

  29. See Gérard Genette, ‘Proust et le langage indirect’, Figures II (Paris: Seuil, 1969), pp. 223-94, and Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972), pp. 201-02. See also Anne Henry, Proust Romancier: Le Tombeau égyptien (Paris: Flammarion, 1983), Chapter 1: ‘Comment fabriquer un ambassadeur?’

  30. In Genette's terminology, an ‘intradiegetic’ narration is a narration to the first degree, whilst a ‘metadiegetic’ narration is to the second degree (Figures III, 238-39).

  31. Michael Toolan defines the concept of attribution in narratology as ‘situating most appropriately the point of origin of the narrative vision presented’ (Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Application (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 75).

  32. On this point I disagree with Genette, who claims that ‘Proust […] ne s'est donné, hors Marcel aucun “porte-parole”. Un Swann, un Saint-Loup, un Charlus, malgré toute leur intelligence, sont des objets d'observation, non des organes de vérité’ (Figures III, p. 264).

  33. For narrative transfer involving Saint-Loup, see for instance an interesting passage in cahier 74, where Proust decides to transpose comments about war literature into a letter by Saint-Loup from the front (iv, 771-72, 1377).

  34. See also the more implicit version in the published text, iv, 324-25.

  35. In Essays on Ideology (London: Verso, 1984). See also Sprinker's Marxist reading of A la recherche, which makes frequent reference to Althusser.

  36. It is interesting to note in this context that Proust described the war in letters to his friends in the period 1916 to 1918 as a Shakespearean drama (Corr., xv, 185, and xvii, 453, and Fraisse, p. 375).

Sara Danius (essay date January 2001)

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SOURCE: Danius, Sara. “The Aesthetics of the Windshield: Proust and the Modernist Rhetoric of Speed.” Modernism/Modernity 8, no. 1 (January 2001): 100-26.

[In the following essay, Danius explores Proust's use of photographic and cinematic techniques to heighten sensory perception in his essays and fiction.]

J. M. W. Turner once depicted a harbor seen against the light.1 He showed the drawing to a naval officer, who remarked that the ships had no portholes. “No, certainly not,” Turner replied and told the naval officer that if he would look at the ships against the sunset, he would find he could not see the portholes. The naval officer retorted that the artist surely must have known they were there. “Yes,” said Turner, “I know that well enough; but my business is to draw what I see, and not what I know is there.” Where the painter's eye perceives sun-drenched vessels, the naval officer perceives armed warships. Aesthetic experience and practical reason do not inhabit the same world. To observe an object from a user's point of view, the anecdote implies, is to engage in a perceptual activity radically different from the point of view of a spectator who has no interest in the object perceived other than to, say, paint it.

An influential champion of Turner's late manner, John Ruskin quoted this anecdote in his treatise on the relations between art and the natural sciences.2 For him, the story epitomized an aesthetic program, whose ultimate task was to correct the detrimental effects of industrial society on human experience. Ruskin resented many things modern: railway travel, for example, fatigued the human sensorium; photography risked making the eye too fastidious; and viewing instruments such as the Claude glass perverted artistic seeing.

The anecdote, which Marcel Proust related in the preface to his translation of Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens, points to one of many links between the British art critic and the French author.3 A sincere admirer of Ruskin's philosophy of art, Proust made the spirit of the anecdote into his own. As Jean Autret has emphasized, it provides a key to the artistic sensibility for which Remembrance of Things Past becomes a vehicle and that the portrait of the painter Elstir in particular serves to articulate.4 Fresh sense perception versus confining intellectual notions: this distinction is fundamental to Proust's visual aesthetics. Teaching the virtues of the cultivation of sensory experience, Remembrance of Things Past articulates a didactics of disinterested perception—of seeing for seeing's sake, of listening for the pleasure of sounds, and so on. The task of the artist is to be alert to the immediacy of sensory experience and, as Proust's narrator underscores in the Elstir episode, to restore it by inventing the appropriate metaphor.

Given Proust's reverence for Ruskin, and given his adoption of the master's belief in the innocence and purity of the painterly eye, one would expect the author of Remembrance of Things Past to reject mechanical means of visual representation. After all, Proust's novel is concerned, among many other things, with the discovery by the narrator of an aesthetic program that rests upon the Ruskinian distinction between numbing habit and unmediated sensory experience, between agreed-upon intellectual notions and unbiased forms of comprehension. And true enough, as the narrator warms to the didactic tasks he has set himself, particularly in the last volume, Time Regained, he repeatedly criticizes photography and cinematography, declaring them inferior to the human eye, the art of writing, and last but not least, the workings of memory.

But Proust would not be Proust if it were that simple. There is a tremendously complex and productive relationship between the ideal of unmediated vision articulated by Remembrance of Things Past and the author's deployment of photographic and cinematographic techniques of representing visual experience. For not only does Proust appropriate such modes of representation; he puts them to use at precisely those moments where he attempts to elaborate what one may call a phenomenology of perception, that is, when he seeks to render perceptual activities that are uninhibited by intellectual preconceptions. Indeed, some of Proust's boldest stylistic solutions owe their deepest impulses to machines of vision. Cinematographic means of representation, I want to argue, are singularly well suited to Proust's ambition to restore sensory impressions that have not been domesticated by the dulling force of habit.

Nowhere does this become as clear as in the article “Impressions de route en automobile.” Written in the early fall of 1907 and published in Le Figaro on 19 November, the article is based on the motoring trips Proust had made that same summer with Alfred Agostinelli, the driver he had hired for the purpose. Together they visited places in Normandy that Ruskin had written about, such as Bayeux, Conches, Lisieux, and Caen. Comfortably reclining in the passenger seat, Proust was able to concentrate on the vistas passing by; the most thrilling ones made their way into “Impressions de route en automobile.” In fact, Proust was so pleased with the centerpiece of the article—the description of the church steeples rising above Caen—that he was to recycle it in Remembrance, in the pages known as the Martinville episode. Widely thought of as one of the most important and most enigmatic passages the novel, the Martinville episode relates how the young narrator, sitting next to the coachman on a horse-driven carriage, comes to witness how the steeples of Martinville appear to be dancing on the horizon. Significantly enough, the visual experience propels the narrator's very first piece of writing.

As Jean-Yves Tadié has suggested, the Figaro article was an “embryo of the future work.”5 Yet “Impressions de route en automobile” merits our attention not just because it casts an interesting light on the genesis of Proust's novel. Read closely, it complicates the received view of the French author's relationship to Ruskin. Although Proust's période ruskinienne is commonly believed to have ended in 1906, the motoring article shows that post-Ruskinian Proust was at once more Ruskinian and more modernistic than has previously been thought. For while the piece is strikingly Ruskinian in spirit, Proust paid tribute to his old mentor's aesthetic program in rather unexpected ways—by turning Ruskin's anti-modern stance on its head. How can this be? The answers will carry us far into Proust's universe. Ultimately, the 1907 article provides us with a richer understanding of the aesthetics of perception that informs Remembrance of Things Past, which he began writing the following year.


An episode in the second volume, Within A Budding Grove, takes us to the heart of the novel's visual aesthetics. The narrator is vacationing in Balbec, a seaside resort on the Norman coast. One hot summer day he pays a visit to the atelier of the famous painter Elstir. A fictitious figure, Elstir is a composite of an array of nineteenth-century painters, first of all Turner, but also artists such as Monet, Whistler, Moreau, and Vuillard; in addition, Elstir is designed to remind the reader of Ruskin.6 No sooner has the narrator entered the studio than he is seized by happiness and the prospect of rising to a poetical understanding of reality. Elstir's atelier, he proclaims enthusiastically, is nothing less than a “laboratory of a sort of new creation of the world. …”7 The canvases lining the studio, most of them seascapes, makes him perceive the sea anew, and the beach and the sky and the foaming waves. The experience elicits a piece of art criticism, as spirited as it is ingenious: “[Elstir] had extracted, by painting them on various rectangles of canvas that were placed at all angles, here a sea-wave angrily crashing its lilac foam on to the sand, there a young man in white linen leaning on the rail of a ship. The young man's jacket and the splashing wave had acquired a new dignity from the fact that they continued to exist, even though they were deprived of those qualities in which they might be supposed to consist, the wave being no longer able to wet or the jacket to clothe anyone” (RTP [Remembrance of Things Past], 1:892-3/2:190).

Not only has Elstir freed the wave and the jacket from their established denotations; he has also restored the meanings that habitual perception prevents the beholder from perceiving. This is to say that the wave and the jacket, having slipped out of the grip of a reality which revolves around usage and function, have managed to enter a world of purposeless beauty. In this way, the narrator intimates that Elstir is not a realist, much less a naturalist; if anything, the painter is an impressionist—he is faithful to the visual impression and the immediate ways in which it comes before him. He transforms the visible world, at the same time restoring its lost glory, with the effect that the beholder is taken back to the dawn of creation: “if God the father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their names or giving them other names that Elstir created them anew. The names which designate things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion [“notion de l'intelligence”], alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with that notion” (RTP, 1:893/2:191).

The world of phenomena appears as though it had just been born, for the conventional links between signifier and signified have been severed. To this end, Elstir's prime means is the painterly equivalent of the metaphor—the metamorphosis. This is why the narrator seizes on those seascapes where the contours of land and sea blend and eventually change places, where the town rising above the sea has been rendered in “marine terms,” and the sea has been depicted in “urban terms.” To be sure, the beholder will eventually recognize the sea and the town, but through notions not typically associated with them. This is the sense in which Elstir not only strips things of their common names but also, and above all, endows them with new ones. And in naming things anew, the artist invites the beholder to see them anew, richer, fuller, and more dignified.

The episode also contains an enigmatic description of the studio itself. The blinds are closed, the atelier plunged in half-light. But there is one place, the narrator underscores, “where daylight laid against the wall its brilliant but fleeting decoration, dark; one small rectangular window alone was open” (RTP, 1:893/2:191). A darkened chamber, with a small opening providing the only source of light: Elstir's studio is literally and figuratively represented as a camera obscura, complete with an aperture. The dark room turns into a metaphor for the artist's power to recreate the world as he pleases.8

The painter's eye as camera obscura? The metaphor acquires a peculiar resonance, as the episode also includes a lengthy reflection upon the rivalry between painting and photography. The competition with the mechanically produced image has forced Elstir to reinvent his painterly aesthetics. This is because photography—”une industrie,” Proust writes—has banalized traditional art. “Since Elstir began to paint, we have grown familiar with what are called ‘wonderful’ [in French, “admirable”] photographs of scenery and towns” (RTP, 1:896/2:194). The appeal of photography lies in its ability to explode habitual ways of seeing by estranging seemingly familiar visual domains, at the same time being a faithful recording of the motif in question: “If we press for a definition of what admirers mean by the epithet [i.e., “admirable”], we shall find that it is generally applied to some unusual image of a familiar object, an image different from those that we are accustomed to see, unusual and yet true to nature, and for that reason doubly striking because it surprises us, takes us out of our cocoon of habit, and at the same time brings us back to ourselves by recalling to us an earlier impression” (RTP, 1:896-7/2:194).

No matter how pleasing and revelatory photographic means of representation may be, and no matter how effectively it ruptures habitual modes of perception, it was painting, not photography, that was first in the field. Historically speaking, what characterized painting was its extraordinary ability to defamiliarize the familiar and to make the beholder look at the world anew, but the mechanically produced image has now appropriated this very domain, with the effect that traditional painting appears obsolete, even lacking in originality. So it is that the sheer existence of photography forces the art of painting to reinvent itself. In other words, in suggesting that the superior ability of photography to represent landscape and urban sceneries has forced Elstir to abandon his classical motifs, the narrator offers a historical explanation of the painter's artistic choices. As Anne Henry has underscored, this is all the more remarkable since Proust, throughout Remembrance, tends to deny that history may serve as a valid point of departure for explication in the realm of art.9 Yet here history is explicitly and insistently evoked—in order to explain how Elstir's classical motifs and mode of painting began to lose legitimacy and how, as a result, he tries to attain an innocent, unbiased, and non-theoretical mode of seeing. In short, he comes to celebrate the visual and visionary capacities of the disinterested spectator—just like Turner did in his late period and as Monet and other impressionists were to do later in the nineteenth century. Nathalie Sarraute has captured this sea change in an apt phrase: “since Impressionism, all pictures have been painted in the first person.”10

Elstir thus gives priority to the visual impression, not the intellect. This is why he always attempts to rid himself of all knowledge (in French, “intelligence”) before sitting down to paint. To know a thing means that the thing ceases to exist in and of itself, the narrator maintains, an idea that reveals not merely what one may call a phenomenological strand in Proust's work but also an epistemological stance, including the ideal of an inductive knowledge of the “essences” of the world by way of pure perception. That Elstir seeks to remain faithful to the purely visual aspects of the seen does not mean, however, that his paintings are necessarily “true” in the ordinary sense of the word; he may well depict an optical illusion and therefore commit an “error,” as when the sea emerges like a town. But the narrator conceives of such illusions as prior to the work of the intellect and therefore artistically true (RTP, 2:194/1:897). For all the immediacy of such optical errors, however, the artist nonetheless has to unlearn his mode of seeing in order to be able to see what he actually perceives; in fact, he has to accustom his eyes (“habituer les yeux”) to not recognizing, for example, that fixed boundary which separates land from sea and so tells the beholder to identify the town as a town and the waves as waves (RTP, 2:192-3/1:895). In other words, Elstir's aesthetics of perceptual innocence presupposes the education of the eye.

The narrator's encounter with Elstir is a key episode in Remembrance. Like the portraits of the writer Bergotte, the composer Vinteuil, and the actress Berma, the Elstir episode articulates crucial aspects of the novel's artistic program. Proust alludes several times to the studio visit, thus making sure that his readers will not miss the significance of the crucial insights that the hero takes to heart. For example, in Within a Budding Grove, the narrator anticipates how he will come to understand why Madame de Sévigné's letters bring him such pleasure, for she “is an artist of the same school as a painter whom I was to meet at Balbec, where his influence on my ways of seeing things was immense. I realised at Balbec that it was in the same way as he that she presented things to her readers, in the order of our perception of them, instead of first explaining them in relation to their several causes” (RTP, 1:703/2:14). In The Guermantes Way, moreover, the narrator contemplates Elstir's aesthetics with a completeness of detail that recalls his reflections during the studio visit. Invited to a dinner party at the duke and duchess of Guermantes, he asks to see their Elstir collection and forgets about the social gathering:

Among these pictures, some of those that seemed most absurd to people in fashionable society interested me more than the rest because they recreated those optical illusions which prove to us that we should never succeed in identifying objects if we did not bring some process of reasoning to bear on them. How often, when driving, do we not come upon a bright street beginning a few feet away from us, when what we have actually before our eyes is merely a patch of wall glaringly lit which has given us the mirage of depth. This being the case, it is surely logical … to return to the very root of the impression, to represent one thing by that other for which, in the flash of a first illusion, we mistook it. … Elstir sought to wrest from what he had just felt what he already knew; he had often been at pains to break up that medley of impressions which we call vision.

[RTP, 2:434-5/2:712-3]

Further on in the same volume, the narrator makes a comparison between Elstir and himself: “My imagination, like Elstir engaged upon rendering some effect of perspective without reference to the notions of physics he might well possess, depicted for me not what I knew but what it saw” (RTP, 2:590/2:856). Clearly, the narrator is well on his way to incorporating the painter's aesthetics with his own artistic sensibility.

Yet although the Elstir episode relates a crucial discovery, Proust has carefully, albeit indirectly, prepared the reader for it. The manner in which Proust describes the long prelude to the visit—the train ride to Balbec, the atmosphere at the seaside resort, Robert de Saint-Loup's appearance, and so on—is itself exemplary of the aesthetics that the narrator discovers in the studio and eventually will make his own. At this stage in the novel, Proust's stylistic solutions become bolder, as if to reinforce the point that the narrator's artistic education is well under way. As we shall see, the hero's surroundings are repeatedly represented as though they were works of art; sometimes they have even been furnished with a frame. Moreover, each time the visual impression takes center stage.

Consider the railway journey which, more than any other episode, works to warm up the reader. Early in the morning, the narrator wakes up in his sleeping compartment, and as the train makes its way towards Balbec, he studies the break of dawn through the square of the window (“le carreau de la fenêtre”). Just above a dark silhouette, he distinguishes “some ragged clouds whose fleecy edges were of a fixed, dead pink, not liable to change, like the colour that dyes the feathers of a wing that has assimilated it or a pastel on which it has been deposited by the artist's whim” (RTP, 1:704/2:15). No sooner has the narrator clapped his eyes on the pink light of dawn than he elevates the sight to a work of art executed by a willful artist. Moments later, daylight bursts forth, and a cascade of colors—red, blue, mother of pearl—appear before the narrator, who readily surrenders to the optical extravaganza:

The sky turned to a glowing pink which I strove, glueing my eyes to the window [“la vitre”], to see more clearly, for I felt that it was related somehow to the most intimate life of Nature, but the course of the line altering, the train turned, the morning scene gave place in the frame of the window [“le cadre de la fenêtre”] to a nocturnal village, its roofs still blue with moonlight, its pond encrusted with the opalescent sheen of night, beneath a firmament still spangled with all its stars, and I was lamenting the loss of my strip of pink sky when I caught sight of it anew, but red this time, in the opposite window which it left at a second bend in the line; so that I spent my time running from one window to the other to reassemble, to collect on a single canvas the intermittent, antipodean fragments of my fine, scarlet, ever-changing morning, and to obtain a comprehensive view and a continuous picture of it [“une vue totale et un tableau continu”].

[RTP, 1:704-5/2:15-16]

Framed by the train windows, the view of the sleepy landscape through which the train travels is represented as a series of tableaux. Scenery follows upon scenery, as in a montage-cut film. Indeed, the railway compartment moves through the landscape like a projector apparatus. Naturalizing the deliciously fragmented representation of the narrator's visual activity, the window frames permit the spectacle to come into being. In a word, the train has become a vehicle of perception.

What is more, the narrator's window gazing promotes an aestheticized way of seeing to such a degree that when the train makes a stop at a little station, and he catches sight of a peasant girl selling coffee, his gaze turns her appearance too into a spectacle. “Flushed with the glow of morning,” he remarks, “her face was rosier than the sky” (1:705/2:16). The sight exalts him. During the train ride, he has let go of habitual modes of seeing. He has been exposed to a form of beauty that falls outside of traditional notions and, for this very reason, is proof of genuine beauty. Now he wants to take a good look at the peasant girl, and signals that he would like to purchase a cup of coffee. As she approaches, his gaze puts her appearance behind glass: “Above her tall figure, the complexion of her face was so burnished and so glowing that it was as if one were seeing her through a lighted window [“vitrail illuminé”]. She retraced her steps. I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun which it was somehow possible to stare at and which was coming nearer and nearer, letting itself be seen at close quarters, dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold” (RTP, 1:707/2:17-18).

This description is remarkable not for what is says about the girl's looks—after all, we learn virtually nothing about her—but for what it reveals about the hero's eye. Elstir would have been pleased. The moment the narrator fixes his gaze on the young woman, her face turns into a spectacular light show. He is faithful to what he sees, not to what he knows, and what he sees possesses all the wondrous powers of the idiosyncratic artist's eye. Indeed, Proust writes not that the young woman's face is coming nearer but that it is becoming larger: “je ne pouvais détacher mes yeux de son visage de plus en plus large.” It is as though we were watching a film in which the heroine's head approaches the camera and eventually fills the screen. The peasant girl has become pure image.

Now, why does the narrator remark that it is as though he looked at her through a lighted window, “un vitrail illuminé”? At first, the metaphor may seem like mere embellishment. But Proust needs the image of the window: it motivates the narrator's framed vision and naturalizes his aestheticized perspective. Proust makes use of a similar technique when, a few pages later, he introduces Robert de Saint-Loup, a key character in the novel. The narrator is sitting in the hotel dining-room when he catches sight of the young marquis. It is a scorching hot afternoon, the dining room is “plunged in semi-darkness,” and through the gaps between the drawn curtains the glittering blue sea can be glimpsed. Like Elstir's studio, the dining room emerges as a camera obscura, complete with apertures. In this giant dark room, the writer-to-be is busy registering remarkable sights, developing one after the other with remarkable artistic skill:

[Robert de Saint-Loup] strode rapidly across the whole width of the hotel, seeming to be in pursuit of his monocle, which kept darting away in front of him like a butterfly. He was coming from the beach, and the sea which filled the lower half of the glass front of the hall made a background against which he stood out full-length, as in certain portraits whose painters attempt, without in any way falsifying the most accurate observation of contemporary life, but by choosing for their sitter an appropriate setting … to furnish a modern equivalent of those canvases on which the old masters used to present the human figure in the foreground of the landscape.

[RTP, 1:783-4]

The snapshot of Saint-Loup is a brilliant portrait, the image of the fluttering butterfly prefiguring the narrator's futile and constantly suspended attempts to decipher the “true” nature of the marquis—in the history of art, we recall, the butterfly signifies psyche, the human soul. The feature that more than any other propels the narrator's scopophilic will-to-know is, of course, Saint-Loup's homosexuality.11

As in the peasant-girl episode, the sight is framed by the windows that serve to motivate the delimitation of the narrator's field of vision. Here, however, the scene is explicitly rendered as a work of art. The same is true when the narrator enters his hotel room and turns his eyes toward the window. As in the railway episode, the landscape is immediately transformed into a series of tableaux, complete with frames: “Gradually, as the season advanced, the picture [in French, “tableau”] that I found there in my window changed. At first it was broad daylight, and dark only if the weather was bad: and then, in the greenish glass which it distended with the curve of its rounded waves, the sea, set between the iron uprights of my casement window like a piece of stained glass in its leads, ravelled out over all the deep rocky border of the bay little plumed triangles of motionless foam …” (RTP, 1:860/2:160).

The narrator hastens to add that the foaming sea recalls Pisanello's drawings of feathers and down, and that the creamy white background makes him think of Emile Gallé's carefully etched glass objects. Waves that look like feathers, foam that appears as down: such a way of seeing is perfectly consistent with Elstir's program. The narrator's eye fails to perceive the essential difference between waves and plumage that his mind will soon discover. The task of the artist is to remain faithful to the seen, to give priority to the imagination over and above confining intellectual notions, and the art-historical figure who in this respect exercised the single most important influence on Proust was John Ruskin.


Proust's interest in Ruskin, the most influential art critic of the Victorian age, began in 1899.12 During a vacation, he read Robert de la Sizeranne's Ruskin et la religion de la beauté (Paris: Hachette, 1897).13 Interestingly, as Richard Macksey has noted, Proust first invoked Ruskin as an “instrumentality of sight,” since he sent for Sizeranne's Ruskin study in order that he, as he said, might “look at the mountains with the eyes of this important man.”14 On the occasion of Ruskin's death in 1900, Proust wrote an obituary notice in Le Figaro, suggesting that the proper way to pay homage to the British art critic was to visit the French cathedral cities he had written about, as these now “protect his soul.”15 Proust himself was to set out on Ruskinian pilgrimages, particularly in Normandy. He also went as far as Italy with Ruskin's writings as a guide. Most of these trips have left traces in Remembrance. In Padua, for example, Proust made sure to view Giotto's frescoes in the Arena chapel, half a century after Ruskin's visit, and the event is reflected in The Fugitive, in a remarkable episode—I shall have more to say about it later—written long after Proust's période ruskinienne had come to an end.

A passionate advocate of Ruskin's theory of art, Proust translated two of his books into French, The Bible of Amiens (La Bible d'Amiens, 1904) and Sesame and Lilies (Sésame et les lys, 1906), both of which he provided with voluminous prefaces and annotations. What attracted Proust to Ruskin was, among other things, the emphatic distinction between the observed and the known, between fresh sensation and dulling habit. “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way,” Ruskin writes in his seminal work on Turner's late manner, Modern Painters. “To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,—all in one” (WJR, 5:333; italics in the original). Stressing that the artist must recover the “innocence of the eye,” Ruskin promoted “a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify,—as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight” (WJR, 15:27n).

Ruskin's hostility to the modernization process runs through all his writings, a fact, incidentally, that did not escape Proust.16 Ruskin railed against the “current political economy,” including the automation of production and the mechanization of labor; and these sentiments were integral to his theory of the visual arts. When Ruskin championed Turner's art, he argued for the painter's superiority by setting up an opposition between the mechanical and natural or, alternatively, the mechanical and the spiritual. Contrasting Turner with old masters such as Lorrain, Rosa, and Poussin, Ruskin claimed that they submitted to mechanical, hence false, reproductions of nature, as they failed to rise above “the daguerreotype or calotype, or any other mechanical means that ever have been or may be invented” (WJR, 3:169). Therefore, Ruskin concluded, they lacked in love of the phenomena represented.

As Robert Hewison has underscored, Lorrain, Rosa, and Poussin were associated with the so-called picturesque.17 Deriving from the Italian word pittoresco, or “in the manner of painters,” the specifically British notion of the picturesque came into being as a response to the need for a category that complemented Burke's distinction between the sublime and the beautiful. Eminently suited to the features of the English countryside, the picturesque referred to the particular pleasure evoked by natural phenomena that were irregular, rough, and wild—without, however, inspiring awe in the spectator.18 Cultivating new modes of seeing, it taught antiquarians, tourists, and sketchers how to perceive landscape by way of paintings. In effect, then, the theory of the picturesque fostered not pure but essentially derived ways of seeing. The so-called Claude glass was part of the didactics of the picturesque. A pocket-sized black piece of convex mirror-glass, this specular instrument framed and reflected the surrounding landscape, thus turning the view into something like a picturesque work of art. Ruskin's critique of such visual pleasures was relentless. The glass, he argued in The Elements of Drawing, is “one of the most pestilent inventions for falsifying Nature and degrading art which ever was put into an artist's hand” (WJR, 15:201-2).

Ruskin would nevertheless recommend to his students of drawing the use of an equally mechanical means of reproducing nature, namely photography. Photographs were to be copied as a form of exercise and compared for their “authority” (WJR, 15:100-101; see also 21:294-95). In fact, the young Ruskin—the Ruskin of the picturesque period—celebrated the advent of daguerreotypy, claiming that it beat his own talent for drawing. “It is a noble invention—say what they will of it,” Ruskin wrote from Venice in 1845, after having procured a few daguerreotypes of the palaces he had tried to draw, “and any one who has worked and blundered and stammered as I have done for four days, and then sees the thing he has been trying to do so long in vain, done perfectly and faultlessly in half a minute, won't abuse it afterwards.”

Later in his career, as an anti-picturesque critic who promoted Turner's late manner, Ruskin was to attack photography and its automatisms in contrast to the inherent virtues of painting.19 Artistic seeing was for Ruskin a subjective affair, its empire defined by the boundaries of industrial society. For observation to quicken, and for sensation to sharpen, he recommended as “little change as possible.” Ruskin evoked a rural Arcadia lingering in the shadow of industrial society:

If the attention is awake, and the feelings in proper train, a turn of a country road, with a cottage beside it, which we have not seen before, is as much as we need for refreshment; if we hurry past it, and take two cottages at a time, it is already too much: hence, to any person who has all his senses about him, a quiet walk along not more than ten or twelve miles of road a day, is the most amusing of all travelling; and all travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity. Going by railroad I do not consider as travelling at all; it is merely “being sent” to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel. …”

[WJR, 3:370]20

Proust valued Ruskin's sensibility highly. He adopted Ruskin's belief in the primacy of sense perception and of the importance of remaining true to the concrete. He made use of Ruskin's idea that the sensuous world is a universe of signs that the artist is meant to decipher. Yet, for all his admiration for the British art critic during the critical years that preceded his great novel, Proust was nevertheless to invert Ruskin's attitude toward the historical conditions that had prompted some of the most important features of the latter's aesthetic program.


The higher the velocity, the more fatiguing travel becomes, Ruskin maintained. For Proust, the opposite was true. Speed quickened the eye. Indeed, Proust embraced the new culture of velocity with unmistakable enthusiasm and was to declare himself a “fervent d'automobilisme,” a motoring fan.21 Even when he traveled in the tracks of the British art critic whose work and sensibility he had admired for so long, Proust often chose to travel by car, turning the ride into an aesthetic experience of the first rank. In 1907, when he motored in Normandy, automobiles were still something of a novelty. In 1900, as Pär Bergman has observed, there were only about 3,000 automobiles in France, a figure that had risen to 50,000 by 1909, and to 100,000 by 1913.22 Like numerous writers, painters, and photographers, Proust marveled at how speed helped transform the perception of time and space.23 In 1904, for example, the French photographer Robert Demachy captured a motorcar racing through a curve on a country road, and soon afterwards, the image was reproduced in Alfred Stieglitz's avant-garde art review, Camera Work. Entitled Vitesse, the photograph indirectly addresses a problem that engaged numerous artists at the time: How is an image to convey an impression of speed and movement? That is to say, how is an image to represent temporal extension? Moreover, can the lived experience of locomotion be put into words?

That same year the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a short story about a motoring trip in the countryside. Thanks to the car, the ecstatic narrator suggests, it has become possible for modern humans to absorb “in one day, as many sights, as much landscape and sky, as would formerly have been granted to us in a whole life-time.”24 Set in the neighborhood of Rouen, “In an Automobile” relates how the narrator goes for a drive by himself for the first time. He speeds past sleepy villages like a missile, cleaving yellow corn fields and red poppy meadows. Traveling at a speed of, say, thirty kilometers an hour, the motor vehicle turns the quiet country road into a spectacle:

The pace grows faster and faster, the delirious wheels cry aloud in their gladness. And at first the road comes moving towards me, like a bride waving palms, rhythmically keeping time to some joyous melody. But soon it grows frantic, springs forward, and throws itself madly upon me, rushing under the car like a furious torrent, whose foam lashes my face. … It is as though wings, as though myriad wings no eye can see, transparent wings of great supernatural birds that have their homes on invisible mountains swept by the eternal snow, have come to refresh my eyes and my brow with their overwhelming fragrance!

[“IA,” 181-82/60-61]

Inert matter is here endowed with anthropomorphic features. All that seemed solid jumps into motion. In this way, Maeterlinck attempts to convey a sense of the vertiginous speed with which the motorcar travels through space. For despite all its impressive horsepower, it is not the car but nature that acquires agency in Maeterlinck's scenario. It is nature, not the car, that emerges as a reckless force apparently beyond masculine control.

Revolving around the thrill of the new, Maeterlinck's short story emphasizes the miracle of speed and the concomitant transformations of space. As the vehicle plunges into a valley, the velocity animates the poor old trees lining the road, and little by little the reader realizes that the event is of world-historical significance:

The trees, that for so many slow-moving years have serenely dwelt on its borders, shrink back in dread of disaster. They seem to be hastening one to the other, to approach their green heads, and in startled groups to debate how to bar the way of the strange apparition. But as this rushes onward, they take panic, and scatter and fly, each one quickly seeking its own habitual place; and as I pass they bend tumultuously forward, and their myriad leaves, quick to the mad joy of the force that is chanting its hymn, murmur in my ears the voluble psalm of Space, acclaiming and greeting the enemy that hitherto has always been conquered but now at last triumphs: Speed.

[“IA,” 182-83/61-62]

Thanks to speed, Maeterlinck asserts, man has triumphed over “Space and Time, its invisible brother” (IA, 183/62). The dust of history whirls up behind the motorcar, and nothing will ever be the same.

The French writer Octave Mirbeau also conceived a story glorifying the horsepower of the motorcar. Mirbeau's 1907 novel La 628-E 8, so named after his license plate, relates a motoring trip through France. In the opening pages, the narrator turns speed into an emblem of human consciousness in the modern age:

His brain is a racetrack around which jumbled thoughts and sensations roar past at 60 miles an hour, always at full throttle. Speed governs his life: he drives like the wind, thinks like the wind, makes love like the wind, lives a whirlwind existence. Life comes hurtling at him and buffeting him from every direction, as in a mad cavalry charge, only to melt flickeringly away like a film [“et disparaît cinématographiquement”] or like the trees, hedges and walls that line the road. Everything around him, and inside him, dances, leaps, and gallops, in inverse proportion to his own movement; not always a pleasant sensation, but powerful, delirious and intoxicating, like vertigo or fever.25

Diagnosing life in the modern age, Mirbeau suggests that two features characterize the world of the living: an overwhelming experience of speed and an equally overwhelming mass of visual stimuli. Trees, walls, silhouettes—everything is flickering before the eyes of modern humans. Described as a succession of moving images, the world emerges as a film.

Both Maeterlinck and Mirbeau explore the syntax of velocity, seeking to convey a sort of lived experience to which the medium of the printed word is stubbornly resistant: the bodily experience of speed. Both writers thus contemplate a representational problem: how the formal level of description may call forth what is suggested on the level of enunciation. And in response to this linguistic challenge, both writers settle on a rhetoric of inversion, substituting the immobile for the mobile, and vice versa. Mirbeau even writes that the movement of human beings stands in inverse proportion to that of the environment.

It is no coincidence that Mirbeau uses cinema as a metaphor to call forth how the world incessantly races forward and disappears behind the human subject, for it is indeed film that offers a model for how to represent the lived experience of velocity. Early cinema specifically experimented with ways of creating panoramas that simulated speed and movement. From a historical point of view, Tom Gunning argues, “camera movement began as a display of the camera's ability to mobilize and explore space.”26 Up until 1908, when so-called narrative cinema was more fully developed, a vast number of filmmakers explored speed and movement by mounting a camera on vehicles such as subway cars, streetcars, trains, aerial balloons, and gondolas. Predicated on the inversion of mobility and immobility, this widespread shooting technique produced an optical illusion of movement by suggesting that the environment rushed towards the camera and, by implication, the spectator.

As early as 1895, shortly after the first screenings of the Lumière program, the writer H. G. Wells and his collaborator Robert Paul had plans to construct a cinematic device for simulating movement through time and space, a visual attraction on the order of Wells's 1895 science-fiction novel The Time Machine.27 The project failed, but the first decade of the twentieth century saw the emergence of an array of widely popular fairground attractions that similarly produced an illusion of speed and movement. At the Paris Exposition in 1900, an attraction called cinéorama was introduced, simulating the experience of traveling in an aerial balloon hovering over Europe and Africa.28 The Exposition also included a cinematic attraction called maréorama, which simulated sea travel—hence the name. The trip went from Villefranche to Constantinople via Naples and Venice, and came complete with sirens going off and black smoke rising to the sky. … A guaranteed success, commented Le Figaro's correspondent on 22 July 1900.

A few years later an American fairground attraction called Hale's Tours was invented. A worldwide commercial success, especially between the years 1905 and 1907, it offered a synaesthetic experience of railway travel through scenic landscapes around the world. Audiences were seated in a railroad car with an open front, which served as a cinematic frame for motion pictures that had been shot from the cowcatcher of a train. In assuming the camera's point of view, spectators felt as though they themselves were moving through space. The swaying of the railway car, blowing winds, starts and stops, and the characteristic clickety-clack sound enhanced the experience of virtual movement.

The train and the cinema are two distinct sites of spectatorship, to be sure, but as Lynne Kirby has argued in her work on early cinema, they share a fundamental affinity.29 In fact, she goes as far as to suggest that the railway paved the way for the specifically cinematic construction of the spectator. Add to this historical scenario the advent of the automobile, yet another visual framing device on wheels, and we begin to appreciate the visual thrill that Proust's narrator associates with trains, automobiles, and similar technologies of speed.

In 1908, Leo Tolstoy suggested that “cinema has divined the mystery of motion.”30 In 1909, F. T. Marinetti declared that “the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed.”31 The first Futurist manifesto was published on 20 February 1909 on the front page of Le Figaro, proclaiming, among many other things, the superior beauty of the motorcar. Fifteen months earlier, on 19 November 1907, the same newspaper had featured a piece called “Impressions de route en automobile,” also on the front page, and the author of the article was Marcel Proust.


Proust had been a regular contributor to Le Figaro since 1900, and in “Impressions de route en automobile” he ventured to capture the optical thrills he had experienced in Normandy with Agostinelli behind the wheel.32 A stylistic exercise in modernist techniques of visual mimesis, the 1907 article addresses a representational problem: how to render the lived experience of speed and movement. The piece relates how the narrator and his driver travel along a winding road in Normandy, going from a place near Caen to a small town halfway between Lisieux and Louviers. The purpose of their trip is to pay a visit to the narrator's parents. The purpose of the article, however, is to depict how the motorcar catapults through space and how speed transforms the surrounding landscape into a phantasmagoria. These descriptions are then flanked by dense digressions on architecture, religious art, and the history of travel. Both Ruskin and Turner are mentioned, as are seventeenth-century Dutch painters such as Philips Wouwermans and Adriaen van de Velde. Proust thus makes sure to anchor his speed-infused landscape in the esteemed traditions of art history.

No wonder, then, that Proust so often resorts to a vocabulary that revolves around the visual. At the outset, Proust sets the stage for the optical adventures that will follow by pointing out that the windshields convert the vista into an aesthetic object: “To my right, to my left, in front of me, the car windows—which I kept closed—put behind glass, so to speak, the beautiful September day which, even in the open air, one could only see as through a kind of transparence” (“Jea,” 63). Darting across the plain of Caen at sunset, the motorists experience a visual event whose delightful nature is a function of the speed. As we shall see, the windshields delimit the view of the landscape, converting it into an object of visual pleasure—a mobile panorama. In other words, the motorcar has become a vehicle of perception, paving the way for new forms of aesthetic gratification.

Meanwhile, it is as though the motorcar is at a standstill while the environment rushes towards it. No sooner has the vehicle gathered momentum than the motorists come to witness how ancient buildings spring to life: “old lopsided houses ran nimbly toward us, offering us fresh roses or proudly showing us the young hollyhock they had grown and which already had outgrown them” (“Jea,” 63). The inanimate becomes animate; the immobile becomes mobile. Similarly, when the motorcar arrives at the foot of the cathedral in Caen, Proust writes not that the automobile speeds toward it; instead, it is the steeples that throw themselves at the vehicle, and with such violence that the driver almost collides with the porch. In reversing mobility and immobility, Proust, like Maeterlinck before him, seeks a rhetoric of speed capable of evoking the velocity with which the motorcar traverses the plain.33 At the same time, Proust insists on what the motorist perceives and not on what he knows. This stylistic technique animates the central panel of the article, the artful representation of the steeples rising above Caen:

The minutes passed, we were traveling fast, and yet the three steeples were always ahead of us, like birds perched upon the plain, motionless and conspicuous in the sunlight. Then the horizon was torn open like a fog unveiling completely and in detail a form invisible an instant before, and the towers of the Trinity appeared, or rather what appeared was one single tower perfectly hiding the other. But it drew aside, the other stepped forward and both of them lined up. Finally, a dilatory steeple … had come to join them, springing into position in front of them with a bold leap. Now, between the propagating steeples below which one saw the light which at this distance seemed to smile, the town, following their momentum from below without being able to reach their heights, developed steadily by vertical rises the complicated but candid figure of its rooftops.34

[“Jea,” 64]

The motorized spectator surely knows what the sun-drenched phenomena on the horizon represent, but he presents them as synechdoches, as part of a not-yet-revealed whole—as steeples, not churches. The steeples are a sensuous sign, an enigmatic piece of writing whose meaning awaits decipherment. In this sense, too, the narrator insists on what his eyes perceive and not on what he knows, all in an effort to render the lived experience of speed and the delicious perception of the landscape through which the car races:

We had long since left Caen, and … the two steeples of Saint-Etienne and that of Saint-Pierre waved once again their sun-bathed pinnacles in token of farewell. Sometimes one would withdraw, so that the other two might watch us for a moment still; soon I saw only two. Then they veered one last time like two golden pivots, and vanished from my sight. Many times afterwards, when traveling across the plain of Caen at sunset, I would see them again, sometimes at a great distance, and seeming no more now than two flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields; sometimes from a little closer, the steeple of Saint-Pierre having already caught up with them, they seemed like three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place over which night had begun to fall; and as I drew away from them, I could see them timidly seeking their way, and after some awkward attempts and stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another, forming now against the still rosy sky no more than a single dusky shape, pleasant and resigned, and so vanishing in the night.

[“Jea,” 65]

“The psychology of motoring has found its true writer in Proust,” Ernst Robert Curtius notes in his classic study of Remembrance. Reflecting on the close link between the narrator's epiphanic moments of inspiration and his speedy movement through space, in “Impressions de route en automobile” as well as in Remembrance, Curtius aptly remarks that one cannot imagine Proust on foot.35 Indeed, in Proust speed bursts open a new universe. As the immobile is set in motion, the artistic eye takes possession of the newly transformed visual world, as the following passage drawn from Cities of the Plain suggests: “Coming to the foot of the cliff road, the car climbed effortlessly, with a continuous sound like that of a knife being ground, while the sea, falling away, widened beneath us. The old rustic houses of Montsurvent came rushing towards us, clasping to their bosoms vine or rose-bush; the firs of la Raspelière … ran in every direction to escape from us” (RTP, 2:1029-30/3:386).

The proper content of the passage is the excitement of speed, the throbbing thrill of the new and the estrangement of the familiar. And if the scenario appears before the reader as though newly caught, it is because Proust insists on the Ruskinian belief in the primacy of the perceived. He does so particularly on the syntactic level. Not only is the motorcar turned into a subject; the vehicle is soon accompanied by other inanimate objects that also quicken, spring to life, and acquire syntactical agency: the sea pulls back behind the automobile, the houses rush toward the motorists, the firs leap to the side like anxious pedestrians. Here as in “Impressions de route en automobile,” then, Proust deploys the figure of inversion, and the qualities normally attributed to automobiles—force, speed, mobility—attach themselves to the immobile environment.36 What is more, the passage shows Proust at his most modernistic, for at the center stands not a human subject but a motorcar, hailed by the futurists as the true incarnation of beauty, second only to the aeroplane. Proust makes use of a similar reversal technique when, in The Fugitive, he describes how the narrator undertakes a gondola trip in Venice. At first the emphasis is placed on the craft and how it moves through the neighborhoods, and then the city itself springs to life. Like the fantastic steeples rising above Caen, the Venetian canals and façades turn into a mobile panorama:

My gondola followed the course of the small canals; like the mysterious hand of a genie leading me through the maze of this oriental city, they seemed, as I advanced, to be cutting a path for me through the heart of a crowded quarter which they bisected, barely parting, with a slender furrow arbitrarily traced, the tall houses with their tiny Moorish windows; and as though the magic guide had been holding a candle in his hand and were lighting the way for me, they kept casting ahead of them a ray of sunlight for which they cleared a route.

[RTP, 3:641/4:206]

Like Maeterlinck and Mirbeau, Proust embraces speed and movement with striking enthusiasm, seeking to capture the mobile panorama before the motorists' eyes. Yet although such episodes show Proust at his most modernistic, perhaps at his most innovative, his stylistic techniques are not without precedent. As I have suggested, the Proustian mode of rendering speed and movement is closely related to representational techniques inherent in early cinematography and turn-of-the-century fairground attractions.37 Cinema enabled the perception of speed as a matter of inversion in the first place, at the same time offering its very mode of representation.38


In the Martinville episode in Swann's Way, Proust makes use of the motoring article he wrote for Le Figaro.39 In these inspired pages, however, he drops the narrative about the automobile ride, along with the art-historical references and the digressions on travel. All that remains is the central panel: the mighty vision of the mobile steeples. It is as though the original building plan is no longer needed, thrown away now that the edifice has been erected. But if the tableau has been stripped of the narrative in which it was first embedded, it is also because Proust places the picturesque panorama within another story, one which revolves around the young narrator's fear that he might never become a writer.

One evening the young hero travels along the Guermantes way in Dr. Percepied's carriage. Sitting next to the coachman, he comes to witness how the glistening steeples of Martinville turn into anthropomorphic characters before his baffled eyes. The sight arouses a peculiar pleasure whose source is difficult to fathom. He decides to act on the irksome impulse, borrows a pencil and a piece of paper from the doctor, and begins to write. It is his first piece of writing. The emergence of writing, then, is intimately linked to technologies of velocity and the new spaces of representation they open up.

Later, looking back at the event, the older narrator details the optical scenario, how the road bends, how the twin steeples appear to change position, now here, now there, and how, suddenly, they are joined by a third sunlit steeple. Remarkably, he then proceeds to duplicate the description of the vertiginous ride and the enchanted steeples. Halting the diegetic flow, he presents the episode to the reader again—in the form of the literary fragment drafted on the coach-box. It is the one and only time that the narrator quotes himself, and the repetition, of course, underscores the singular importance of the sequence.40

Apart from having been adapted to the Combray topography, and apart from a few cuts and minor modifications, the fragment is a word-for-word replica of the centerpiece of the article on the visual pleasures of motoring written in 1907.41 The only difference is that Proust has substituted an old-fashioned carriage for the original automobile. There is an obvious reason. The Martinville episode takes place in the early 1880s, well before the advent of the automobile. Now, presumably the narrator has traveled in a carriage many times, so how can it be that he experiences such perceptual freshness? As Bernard Guyon has suggested, this is why Proust underscores the speedy gallop and Dr. Percepied's exceptional haste.42 Hence the dewiness of the narrator's visual experience.

The Martinville episode rounds off “Combray,” the overture to Remembrance. But there is more to the episode, for it is to reappear as a leitmotif within Proust's narrative as a whole, as part of the overarching theme which revolves around the narrator's distress that he will fail to become what he so desperately wants to be: a writer. If one pulls the thread that Proust lays out in Swann's Way and that runs through the novel up until the penultimate volume, one will discover some of the stitches that hold the unwieldy tale together. In The Guermantes Way, the narrator mentions in passing that he has found the piece about the Martinville steeples that he wrote on the coach-box of Dr. Percepied's carriage and that he has submitted a slightly edited version to Le Figaro (RTP, 2:412/2:691-692). It seems to have been in vain, however, for the article fails to appear. In The Captive, the narrator opens Le Figaro once again in the hope of discovering his article in print (RTP, 3:4-5/3:523). A little later, he repeats the attempt, with the same disappointing result (RTP, 3:114/3:626). It is only in The Fugitive, the next to last volume, that the plot about the unprinted article reaches its climax and the piece finally appears in the pages of the Parisian paper. The narrator swells with pride. He is so taken with the dignity of the event that he begins to sing the praises of the word, the mass produced word: “I considered the spiritual bread of life that a newspaper is, still warm and damp from the press in the murky air of the morning in which it is distributed, at daybreak, to the housemaids who bring it to their masters with their morning coffee, a miraculous, self-multiplying bread which is at the same time one and ten thousand, which remains the same for each person while penetrating innumerably into every house at once” (RTP, 3:579/4:148).

The daily paper is to the soul what bread is to the stomach. In Proust's hands, the newspaper—this profane piece of printed matter that, at best, enjoys a twenty-four-hour life span before it is degraded into wrapping paper—acquires almost religious dimensions. The passage alludes to the episode in the New Testament where Jesus miraculously produces bread to the hungry masses gathered to listen to his sermon. Rarely has a daily paper been described in loftier terms. And this in a work of literature that so emphatically celebrates the book—and certainly not as a mass product but, as Victor Graham has stressed, as a spiritual entity, as a soul that happens to reside in a body.43

The leitmotif weaves its way through a few more pages. When the narrator runs into monsieur de Guermantes, it turns out that the duke has failed to notice the article. The next time they meet, however, the duke congratulates him on a splendid piece of writing and on having found himself an activity worthy of esteem, but he laments the somewhat precious and clichéd style that, to his mind, characterizes large parts of the text. Tough criticism, to be sure, but what is essential is that the narrator has won recognition as a writer. In this way, then, the thematic thread binds together a course of events that begins with the Martinville episode, when the narrator produces his very first piece of writing, and that ends when Le Figaro finally runs the article and he makes his long-desired debut. Only one thing remains: for the narrator to write a significant work of literature.

When Remembrance was in its beginning stages, Proust played with the idea of letting the novel open with the episode where the narrator sees his first publication in print. In these early sketches, Proust's hero turns around in his bed, just as in the final version. The difference is that he is anxiously contemplating the fate of the article he has long since submitted to Le Figaro. The next day his proud mother, trying in vain to appear casual and indifferent, enters his bedroom with a copy of Le Figaro featuring his article on the front page. Although Proust was to move the Figaro episode from the opening pages of Swann's Way to The Fugitive, the fact that he originally thought of linking the crucial bedtime episode that opens the novel to the Figaro episode affirms the latter's importance (RTP, 1:633-36, 639).


At the time of “Impressions de route en automobile,” as I have suggested, we find Proust traveling again in Ruskin's footsteps, more than a year after his période ruskinienne is commonly believed to have ended.44 To prepare himself for these excursions, he asked his friend and ex-partner Reynaldo Hahn to send him a number of Ruskin volumes (C, [Correspondance,] 7:269-1). It should not come as a surprise, then, that the piece of prose fiction which resulted from these trips treats a number of typically Ruskinian themes: landscape, travel, architecture, painting, seeing; in addition, Ruskin is mentioned twice and quoted once. And it is certainly true that Ruskin's spirit pervades “Impressions de route en automobile,” at least as long as the car is kept out of the picture. But the car, of course, is the motor of the scenario. It is both part of the spectacle and its very vehicle. Take away the car and the speed-infused panorama loses its charge, for it is the not-yet-domesticated experience of velocity that, along with the window frames, give rise to the visual marvels that Proust so painstakingly describes. Thanks to modern technologies of speed, a new space of representation has opened up and made itself available to aesthetic exploration.

The British painter and Royal Academician Hubert von Herkomer once explained the appeal of the automobile: “The pleasure [of motoring] is seeing Nature as I could in no other way see it; my car having ‘tops,’ I get Nature framed—and picture after the other delights my artistic eye,” he wrote in 1905.45 As Herkomer gazed through the windshield, the view transformed itself to a series of tableaux complete with frames. The automobile had become a viewing instrument on the order of, say, the Claude glass.

It is hard to think of a more congenial representation of this idea than Henri Matisse's Le Pare-brise: Sur la route de Villacoublay (The Windshield). Conceived during a long motoring trip in southern France in 1916, Matisse's painting takes as its subject a windshield, including the view of the road and the surrounding landscape as seen through the windows. … A study in perspective, the painting foregrounds the way in which the view is framed, exploring how the three windows delimit the spectator's field of vision and divide the seen into separate yet related visual spaces. These spaces, in their turn, transform themselves into a pictorial suite, into three distinct images—it is as though they were only waiting to be lifted into the artist's sketchbook. And this is indeed what is taking place in Matisse's painting. In the right-hand corner, we glimpse a sketchbook propped up against the steering wheel. The frame of the sketch under way corresponds to the window frame in the front which, in its turn, corresponds to the frame of the canvas itself. Such a complicated play of frames underscores that the painting is more than a mere representation of the road from Villacoublay; it also records its own coming into being. Indeed, Le Pare-brise is a meta-painting. Ultimately, it turns the automobile into a metaphor for the painter's eye.

“When one crosses a landscape by automobile or express train, it becomes fragmented; it loses in descriptive value but gains in synthetic value,” Fernand Léger wrote in 1914. Contemplating the affinity between modern technologies of speed and the emergence of new ways of seeing, he suggested that the “view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things.”46 Proust's mode of describing the automobile ride, the excitement of speed, and the dazzling views through the windshields is a brilliant example of precisely the kind of modernist aesthetic that Léger promotes in his essay, written half a dozen years after Proust's piece was first published. In embracing the modern and making it a vital part of his visual aesthetics, Proust effectively negates Ruskin's anti-modern spirit. What is most striking, of course, is the fact that Proust places an automobile at the center of the spectacle he seeks to represent. But there are other features, in “Impressions de route en automobile” as well as elsewhere, that bespeak the subtle ways in which Proust can be said to invert, even make fun of, Ruskin's anti-modern stance. When, for example, the motorists are forced to stop in Lisieux because of a mechanical problem, the narrator takes a moment to study the façade of the cathedral because, as he points out to the reader, Ruskin once wrote about it. Night has fallen, however, and Lisieux is pitch-black. Agostinelli therefore turns on the headlights and directs them at the cathedral's exterior, endowing the porch with a halo of electric lighting. Needless to say, nothing could be farther from Ruskin's ideal lighting conditions.

In a 1909 pastiche, Proust continues his gentle mockery of Ruskin's programmatic critique of all things mechanical, imagining that the British critic has penned a description of Paris as seen from an aeroplane, a piece that, as Proust writes in a humorous subclause, “is rightly known as one of the master's most refined pieces.”47 Parodying Ruskin's style, Proust describes sight, sites, and atmospheres using the expansive and sumptuous idiom so characteristic of Ruskin's works. These poetic impressions, however, are not generated by the art critic's pre-technological eye. Indeed, this is not a Ruskin who takes slow walks through the countryside but one who darts across the skies in a vision machine, reveling in the joy of looking down on the domes of Sacre-Coeur. And when the mechanical bird finally descends, the creative gaze of the airborne spectator perceives not the Eiffel Tower but the spear of Odin. In Proust's pastiche, then, air travel promotes precisely the kind of fresh sensory experience that Ruskin honored.

Distant echoes of the aeroplane motif can be heard in The Fugitive, in the episode where the narrator pays a visit to the Arena chapel in Padua. Gazing in amazement at the famous fresco cycle on which Ruskin dwells in Giotto and His Works in Padua, he is struck not by the artist's treatment of the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the other Biblical events that make up the glorious life of Christ. Instead, what catches the narrator's eye are Giotto's angels, those speedy creatures criss-crossing the heavenly spheres with all the compelling athleticism otherwise associated with early-twentieth-century aviation shows:

Constantly flitting about above the saints whenever the latter walk abroad, these little beings, since they are real creatures with a genuine power of flight, can be seen soaring upwards, describing curves, “looping the loop” [in French: “décrivant des courbes, mettant la plus grande aisance à exécuter des loopings”], diving earthwards head first, with the aid of wings which enable them to support themselves in positions that defy the laws of gravity, and are far more reminiscent of an extinct species of bird, or of young pupils of Garros practising gliding, than of angels of the Renaissance and later periods whose wings have become no more than emblems and whose deportment is generally the same as that of heavenly beings who are not winged.

[RTP, 3:663/4:227]

Without further ado, Giotto's able-bodied angels are here turned into aeroplanes engaged in a sophisticated air show à la Roland Garros. According to Paul Robert's dictionary, this is the first time that the word looping, in the sense of “looping the loop,” appears in French.48 Ruskin surely would have turned over in his grave at the thought of Giotto's heavenly hosts being likened to aeroplanes.49 Yet, in insisting on the aerotechnical gusto with which they race across the sky, Proust pays tribute to Giotto, to all the tangible plasticity and muscular vigor that characterize his treatment of the angels. As opposed to their ethereal Renaissance colleagues, Giotto's creatures have been furnished with real wings and can actually fly. A greeting from one artist to another, the episode celebrates the flesh-and-blood naturalism that has ensured Giotto such a prominent place in the annals of art history. Not only does Proust cancel Ruskin's anti-modern stance; he also works out a vital element of his own aesthetics.

In this essay, I have discussed the great extent to which Proust takes delight in speed and movement, in “Impressions de route en automobile” as well as in numerous episodes in Remembrance. I have shown how Proust engages the universe of modernity, flung open by technologies of velocity, such as the motorcar, and articulated by technologies of vision, such as cinematography. Beyond this conclusion, however, there is another and more important one, for the point is that Proust, precisely by overturning Ruskin's hostile attitude toward the increasing industrialization of time and space, was able to pay tribute to his old mentor's aesthetic imperative: to keep to what one sees and not to what one knows is there.

At one extreme, Proust's novel is given over to a contemplative inquiry into times lost, exploring the decisive role of the five senses in the search of the past. At the other extreme, the novel is fuelled by a passion for the present, a restless, voracious, and transformative passion that revolves not around memory but around sense perception. If Ruskin helped give birth to the author of Remembrance of Things Past, it was to a forward-looking and future-oriented writer with a hearty appetite for the modern world of technology and the new ways of seeing it affords. Proust knew how to capture this universe at precisely that short-lived moment when the distant past rubs against the absolutely new, when the world suddenly and unexpectedly appears as a swarm of hieroglyphs crying for decipherment.


  1. For comments on an earlier version of this essay, I thank Fredric Jameson, Stefan Jonsson, Bengt Landgren, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Tom Whiteside. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own.

  2. The Works of John Ruskin, eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 42 vols. (London: George Allen, 1906), 33:210. Hereafter referred to as WJR, with page references given parenthetically in the text.

  3. Marcel Proust, “Préface du traducteur,” in John Ruskin, La Bible d'Amiens, trans. and annotated by Marcel Proust (Paris: Mercure de France, 1904), 79.

  4. See Jean Autret, L'influence de Ruskin sur la vie, les idées et l'oeuvre de Marcel Proust (Geneva: Droz, 1955). On Proust's interest in Ruskin, see Richard Macksey's “Introduction” to Proust, On Reading Ruskin: Prefaces to “La Bible d'Amiens” and “Sésame et les Lys,” with Selections from the Notes to the Translated Texts, trans. and ed. Jean Autret, William Burford, and Phillip J. Wolfe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), xiii-liii. For a critical discussion, see Anne Henry, Marcel Proust: Théories pour une esthétique (Paris: Klincksieck, 1971), “Contre Ruskin,” 166-257.

  5. Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust: Biographie (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 596.

  6. The visual arts play an important role in Proust's novel. On the influence of pre-modernist art, notably Renoir, Turner, and Chardin, see Juliette Monnin-Hornung's classic study, Proust et la peinture (Geneva: Droz, 1951). On the great extent to which Proust relied on specific paintings for his descriptions, see John M. Cocking, “Proust and Painting,” in Proust: Collected Essays on the Writer and His Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). See also J. Theodore Johnson, Jr., “Proust and Painting,” in Critical Essays on Marcel Proust, ed. Barbara Bucknall (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987), 162-80. For studies that argue the progressive and essentially modernistic character of Proust's aesthetic enterprise, see Reinhold Hohl, “Marcel Proust in neuer Sicht: Kubismus und Futurismus in seinem Romanwerk,” Neue Rundschau 88 (1977): 54-72; J. Theodore Johnson, Jr., “Proust's ‘Impressionism’ Reconsidered in the Light of the Visual Arts of the Twentieth Century,” in Twentieth Century French Fiction, ed. George Stambolian (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1975), 27-56; Diane R. Leonard, “Literary Evolution and the Principle of Perceptibility: The Case of Ruskin, Proust, and Modernism,” in Proceedings of the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, vol. 1, ed. Anna Balakian et al. (New York: Garland, 1985), 132-7.

  7. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, 3 vols. (New York: Vintage, 1982), 1:892; A la recherche du temps perdu, ed. Jean-Yves Tadié, 4 vols. (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1987-1989), 2:190. Hereafter referred to as RTP. Page references, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text, indicate first the English translation and then the French original.

  8. J. Theodore Johnson, Jr. has suggested that Elstir's studio appears like a giant magic lantern, and that the artist personifies the light source and projects the images. As Johnson notes, Proust himself makes this connection elsewhere in the novel; see Johnson, “La Lanterne magique: Proust's Metaphorical Toy,” L'Esprit Créateur 11.1 (1971), 28-30. Roxanne Hanney has shown that the “dark room” is a recurrent thematic element in Proust; the narrator's consciousness, for example, is often likened to a dark room, chambre noire. See Roxanne Hanney, “Proust and Negative Plates: Photography and the Photographic Process in A la recherche du temps perdu,Romanic Review (New York) 74.3 (May 1983): 342-54.

  9. Anne Henry, “Quand une peinture métaphysique sert de propédeutique à l'écriture: Les métaphores d'Elstir dans A la recherche du temps perdu,” in La critique artistique: Un genre littéraire, ed. Jean Gaulmier (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983), 224.

  10. Nathalie Sarraute, The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel, trans. Maria Jolas (New York: George Braziller, 1963), 72.

  11. Throughout the novel, the narrator tries to frame Saint-Loup photographically. Put differently, Proust uses photographic modes of representation in order to visualize the difficulties inherent in the narrator's pursuit of secure knowledge. On the epistemology of the photograph and the question of homosexuality in Proust, see Mieke Bal, The Mottled Screen: Reading Proust Visually (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 226-30.

  12. Macksey, “Introduction” to Proust, On Reading Ruskin, xviii.

  13. Sizeranne was instrumental in making Ruskin's thought known in France. But like Ruskin before him, he was highly critical of photographic means of representation, particularly as an art form. See Robert de la Sizeranne, La Photographie est-elle un art? (Paris: Hachette, 1899).

  14. Macksey, “Introduction” to On Reading Ruskin, xix.

  15. Proust, “Pèlerinages ruskiniens en France,” in Contre Sainte-Beuve, précédé de Pastiches et mélanges et suivi de Essais et articles, ed. Pierre Clarac and Yves Sandre (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), 441.

  16. See Proust, On Reading Ruskin, 43.

  17. On the picturesque as an aesthetic category and its significance for the early Ruskin, see Robert Hewison, John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 30-53.

  18. Hewison, John Ruskin, 34-35.

  19. See WJR, 3:169; 14:358-360; 15:353; and 21:236-37.

  20. For other examples of Ruskin's contempt for railway travel, see WJR, 5:380-81; 8:158-59. On Ruskin's attitude toward the railway and its inherent modes of perception, see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, [1977] 1986), 52-64.

  21. Proust, Correspondance, ed. Philip Kolb, 21 vols. (Paris: Plon, 1970-1993), 7:296; hereafter cited as C.

  22. Further, by 1910 a dozen journals and reviews devoted to automobile culture had appeared, proclaiming the triumph of the motorcar and covering new speed records. See Pär Bergman, “Modernolatria” et “Simultaneità”: Recherches sur deux tendances dans l'avant-garde littérarire en Italie et en France à la veille de la première guerre mondiale (Uppsala and Stockholm: Scandinavian University Books, 1962), 16-19.

  23. Ernst Robert Curtius is, to my knowledge, the first critic to have commented upon the importance of speed and motion in Proust's oeuvre; see Curtius, “Marcel Proust,” in Französischer Geist im Neuen Europa (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1925); reprinted as Marcel Proust (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1952), 38-39; 83; 107-9. The most substantial study so far is William C. Carter's The Proustian Quest (New York: New York University Press, 1992), which explores the theme of speed both from a textual and biographical view; see esp. 1-22; 63-91. For an inventory of modern means of transport in Proust, see Roger Kempf, “Sur quelques véhicules,” L'Arc 47 (1971): 47-57. See also Eugène Nicole, “Les inventions modernes dans La recherche du temps perdu,Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Marcel Proust et des Amis de Combray 36 (1986): 528-542.

  24. Maurice Maeterlinck, “In an Automobile” (trans. Alfred Sutro), in his The Double Garden, trans. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905), 172; “En automobile,” in Le Double jardin (Paris: Bibliothèque Charpentier, 1904), 52. Hereafter referred to as “IA,” with page references given to first the English translation and then the French original.

  25. A selected translation of Octave Mirbeau's La 628—E 8 (Paris: Fasquelle, 1908) appears in Bonnard: Sketches of a Journey: Travels in an Early Motorcar (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 1989), with illustrations by Pierre Bonnard (translation into English not credited).

  26. Tom Gunning, “An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film,” in Film Before Griffith, ed. John L. Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), 355-66.

  27. Raymond Fielding, “Hale's Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture,” in Film Before Griffith, 116-7.

  28. My account of these cinematic fairground attractions builds upon Gunning, “An Unseen Energy Swallows Space”; Fielding, “Hale's Tours”; Georges Sadoul, Histoire générale du cinéma, vol. 2, Les Pionniers du cinéma, 1897-1909 (Paris: Editions Denoël, 1947), 100-116; Kenneth Macgowan, Behind the Screen: The History and Techniques of the Motion Pictures (New York: Delacorte Press, 1965), 465-8; and Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 149-76.

  29. Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1997).

  30. “Lev Tolstoy,” appendix in Jay Leyda, ed., Kino: A History of Russian and Soviet Film, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 410.

  31. F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” in Let's Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, ed. R. W. Flint, trans. R. W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli, with a preface by Marjorie Perloff (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Classics, 1991), 49.

  32. Proust reprinted “Impressions de route en automobile” under the title “Journées en automobile,” a name which served as the subtitle to an essay more commonly known as “Les églises sauvées: les cloches de Caen: la cathédrale de Lisieux,” in Pastiches et mélanges (Paris: Gallimard, 1919) and added two footnotes. In one of these footnotes he explains that he chose to recycle parts of the Figaro article in A la recherche du temps perdu; he also points out that in a not-yet-published volume of A la recherche, the publication of the “fragment” about the steeples in Le Figaro would be the subject of almost an entire chapter. My citations refer to “Journées en automobile,” in Contre Sainte-Beuve, précédé de Pastiches et mélanges et suivi de Essais et articles, ed. Pierre Clarac and Yves Sandre (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), 63-69; hereafter cited as “Jea.”

  33. It may well be that Proust, in writing “Impressions de route en automobile,” sought to surpass Maeterlinck's “En automobile.” Both stories are set in the countryside in Normandy; both stress that the motor car enables modern humans to experience as many landscapes and spectacles in a day as would formerly have demanded a whole life-time; both attempt to represent the visual impressions along the road. A great admirer of Maeterlinck's work, Proust repeatedly returned to the celebrated writer and playwright in his literary texts and especially in his letters. He is likely to have read Maeterlinck's “En automobile.” The story was published in Le Double jardin, which came out in 1904, and Proust refers to the volume that same year. Furthermore, as Philip Kolb has noted, in the so-called Carnet de 1908, a notebook containing notes towards Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust alludes to Maeterlinck's motoring piece: “Odeur des automobiles en campagne. Maeterlinck a tort” (Proust, Carnet de 1908, ed. Philip Kolb, Cahiers Marcel Proust, no. 8 [Paris: Gallimard, 1976], 70). Kolb notes, too, that Proust also alludes to the piece when, in The Captive, the smell of petrol reminds the narrator of his automobile excursions with Albertine. In addition, Proust produced a pastiche of Maeterlinck's style; at the end, he touches upon the automobile theme and the excitement of speed (“L'Affaire Lemoine par Maeterlinck,” in Contre Sainte-Beuve, 197-201). If Proust indeed sought to outdo Maeterlinck's motoring piece, it is an impulse that befits what the Martinville episode signifies: the birth of a writer, untouched by the anxiety of influence.

  34. Here as well in the following quote from “Journées en automobile,” my translation is, as far as possible, based on the English translation of the corresponding passages in Swann's Way.

  35. Curtius, Marcel Proust, 83.

  36. In a brief article on Proust's cinematic style, Jacques Nantet suggests that the narrator's car ride as well as the Martinville episode demonstrate how the “lens moves with the narrative”; see Nantet, “Marcel Proust et la vision cinématographique,” Revue des lettres modernes 5.36-38 (1958): 307-12. Renate Hörisch-Helligrath has similarly proposed that Proust's rendering of the car ride is analogous to techniques of cinematic production, although in her essay, too, the suggestion remains undeveloped; see Hörisch-Helligrath, “Das deutende Auge: Technischer Fortschritt und Wahrnehmungsweise in der Recherche,” in Marcel Proust: Motiv und Verfahren, ed. Edgar Mass, Publikationen der Marcel Proust Gesellschaft, vol. 4 (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1986), 22.

  37. That Proust developed what may be conceived of as literary counterparts of cinematographic techniques, especially montage and close-up techniques, was noted by several early reviewers. In Proust scholarship, however, the resonance between Proust's style and cinema has been largely unexplored. As early as 1914 the French writer and painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, in a review of Swann, remarked that “Proust has not so much been keeping a journal as amusing himself with a kind of cinema film, reconstituting the sequences and posing in it himself for several characters, throwing, as the whim takes him, the cloak of one around the shoulders of another, or even wearing it himself” (Marcel Proust: The Critical Heritage, ed. Leighton Hodson [London: Routledge, 1989], 116). Another critic, reviewing La Prisonnière for The Times in 1924, also underscores the cinematic parallel: “No other author that I have ever read comes near Proust in the photographic, or rather kinematographic delineation of a big social ‘crush,’ with its tittle-tattle and back-biting, the snobbery and insolent condescension of its ‘great ladies,’ its occasional epigrams, its bowing and scraping super ignes suppositos, its stifling and noxious atmosphere, its glimpses of queer episodes behind portières and in remote corridors” (Marcel Proust: The Critical Heritage, 269). Benjamin Crémieux, finally, remarked that: “Proust has been described as depicting life in slow motion and this formula has had a certain success. For all that, it is wrong; it is other novelists who depict life speeded up” (Marcel Proust: The Critical Heritage, 289-90). For a more substantial attempt to analyze cinematic modes of representation in Proust, particularly so-called travelings and close-ups, see Jacques Bourgeois, “Le cinéma à la recherche du temps perdu,” Revue du cinéma 1.3 (December 1946): 18-38. Remarkably, Bourgeois goes so far as to argue that Proust anticipates a more “mature” form of narrative cinema—mature because psychologically inflected.

  38. Jeffrey T. Schnapp has similarly observed that the reversal figure—the substitution of immobility for mobility, and vice versa—organizes a great deal of representations of speed and motion in the modernist period. It recurs, he writes, “in nearly every early description of accelerated motion and underlies the design of thrill rides in nineteenth-century amusement parks as well as their cinematic shows: namely, a reversal of perspective such that it now appears as if it is the landscape that is in motion and not the traveler; or, rather, that the landscape is in motion for the traveler.” See Jeffrey Schnapp, “Crash (Speed as Engine of Individuation),” Modernism/Modernity 6.1 (Jan. 1999): 22 (emphasis in the original). Interestingly enough, Schnapp argues that the figure can be traced back as far as to eighteenth-century descriptions of mail-coach travel. My approach differs from his in the sense that I am concerned with the ways in which vehicles in motion—trains as well as automobiles—may serve as visual framing devices and how they, therefore, share an affinity with cinema. Also, I focus on early cinema and turn-of-the-century fairground attractions as simulacra of speed, that is, as means of representation. Combined, these two aspects constitute what I take to be a specifically late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century phenomenon.

  39. Most commentators have read the Martinville episode in the interpretive terms proposed by the novel itself, concentrating on the question of literary creation and the mysteries of perspective, sometimes even extending the reading into mystical or religious terms. Poulet's formal analysis deviates from this pattern. Arguing that in Proust travel is even more miraculous than involuntary memory, Poulet suggests that the travel motif is a structural pretext for bringing together unrelated objects in space. Moreover, contrary to memory, the phenomena that travel conjoins do not depend upon resemblances (Poulet, L'espace proustien [Paris: Gallimard, 1963], 91-105). In Deleuze's view, the Martinville episode fuels what he perceives as the novel's global theme: the hero's apprenticeship in the art of reading signs (Deleuze, Proust et les signes, 2nd ed. [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970], 7-9). For Jean-Pierre Richard, the Martinville steeples are a typically Proustian hermeneutic object, but also an allegory to be unpacked along psychoanalytic lines (Richard, Proust et le monde sensible [Paris: Seuil, 1974], 155-67). According to Diane Leonard, the Martinville episode testifies to Proust's modernism, because it introduces perspectival illusions and the question of depth into Proust's novel (Leonard, “Proust and Virginia Woolf, Ruskin and Roger Fry: Modernist Visual Dynamics,” Comparative Literature Studies 18.3 (September 1981): 333-43). Linda A. Gordon claims that the episode is “a model of the perspectival relationships between subject and object” (Gordon, “The Martinville Steeplechase: Charting the Course,” Style 22.3 (Fall 1988): 402-9). For Howard Moss, the steeples are premonitions, as they embody a slice of Marcel's hidden future: the writerly future. See Howard Moss, The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 87-103. For a stylistic commentary, see Luzius Keller, Proust Lesen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), 229-38.

  40. Keith Cohen has similarly underscored the importance of the episode: “Marcel's experience of seeing the Martinville and Vieuxvicq steeples from a moving coach makes an indelible mark on the text, since it gives rise to the first piece of writing within the text attributed to Marcel himself” (Cohen, Film and Fiction: The Dynamics of Exchange (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 160).

  41. Although the Martinville episode is widely thought of as pivotal episode in Proust's novel, most critics have neglected the fact that it derives from an earlier text. Curtius's Proust study offers an exception, as do Bernard Guyon's and Wolfram Nitsch's articles. Guyon provides a close reading of the Martinville episode, arguing that the episode is a “poetical transposition” of the corresponding piece in Le Figaro. He also maintains that the novel's genesis must be sought in “Impressions de route en automobile” which, on his view, testifies to Proust's greatness as a writer; see Guyon, “Marcel Proust et le mystère de la création littéraire: Essai d'explication des ‘Clochers de Martinville,’” Annales de la Faculté des lettres de Toulouse, no. 1-2 (1955): 37-65. Nitsch discusses the genesis of the automobile motif in Proust at large, his principal aim being to study how Proust's attitude towards the motif changes over the years. He concentrates on the Figaro article, usefully connecting the visual enigmas triggered by the car ride to Elstir's painterly aesthetic; see Nitsch, “Phantasmen aus Benzin: Prousts Automobile in textgeschichtlicher Sicht,” in Marcel Proust: Schreiben ohne Ende, ed. Rainer Warning (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1994), 93-108. Carter has also noted the connections between the Figaro article and the Martinville episode, although he stops short of textual analysis; see Carter, Proustian Quest, 135-37.

  42. Guyon, “Marcel Proust et le mystère de la création littéraire,” 58.

  43. See Victor Graham, The Imagery of Proust (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), 33. Consider, for example, the episode about the death of the writer Bergotte in The Captive, where Proust accomplishes one of his most moving and pregnant images: “They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection” (RTP, 3:186/3:693).

  44. As Proust's 1907 correspondence shows, he spent August and part of September in Cabourg, and went on trips “en automobile fermée” to architecturally significant sites in Normandy. Judging from the letters, “Impressions de route en automobile” appears to have received an enthusiastic response from his friends. See, for example, Proust's letter to Mme. Straus (C, 7:315-6), in which Proust also refers to Agostinelli's admiring letter; and Daniel Halévy's letter to Proust which, as Philip Kolb has suggested, was part of an exchange apropos of the motoring article (C, 7:320-2).

  45. Quoted in Gerald Silk, “The Automobile in Art,” in Automobile and Culture, ed. Gerald Silk (New York: Abrams, 1984), 75. See also Silk's interesting comments on Le Pare-brise (75). It is interesting to note that Matisse executed a series of paintings of landscapes seen through windshields; see Jack Flam, Matisse: The Man and His Art, 1869-1918 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 460-1, 468-9.

  46. Fernand Léger, “Contemporary Achievements in Painting,” in Functions of Painting, ed. Edward F. Fry, trans. Alexandra Anderson (New York: Viking, 1973), 11. Similarly, László Moholy-Nagy, in Vision in Motion, suggests that “motion, accelerated to high speed, changes the appearance of the objects and makes it impossible to grasp their details. There is a clearly recognizable difference between the visual experience of a pedestrian and a driver in viewing objects. The motor car driver or airplane pilot can bring distant and unrelated landmarks into spatial relationships unknown to the pedestrian” (Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion [Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1947], 245).

  47. Proust, “La Bénédiction du sanglier,” in Contre Sainte-Beuve, 202. The pastiche was found after Proust's death, and Philip Kolb has dated it to 1909.

  48. I owe this piece of information to Malcolm Bowie's Proust Among the Stars (London: Harper Collins, 1998), 89. See also his fine reflections on Proust and Giotto (88-90).

  49. Things are more complicated, however, for it is clear that Ruskin's brilliant reading of Giotto's treatment of the angels paved the way for Proust's aerotechnical imagery. In fact, although Ruskin is never mentioned by name in the Padua episode, some of Proust's boldest reflections are indebted to Ruskin: “There is noticeable here,” Ruskin writes in Giotto and His Works in Padua, “as in all works of this early time, a certain confidence in the way in which the angels trust to their wings, very characteristic of a period of bold and simple conception. Modern science has taught us that a wing cannot be anatomically joined to a shoulder; and in proportion as painters approach more and more to the scientific, as distinguished from the contemplative state of mind, they put the wings of their angels on more timidly, and dwell with greater emphasis upon the human form, and with less upon the wings, until these last become a species of decorative appendage,—a mere sign of an angel. But in Giotto's time an angel was a complete creature, as much believed in as a bird; and the way in which it would or might cast itself into the air, and lean hither and thither upon its plumes, was as naturally apprehended as the manner of flight of a chough or a starling” (WJR, 24:72; emphasis in the original).

Frank Rosengarten (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Rosengarten, Frank. “Problems of Structure, Unity and Aesthetic Philosophy.” In The Writings of the Young Marcel Proust (1885-1900): An Ideological Critique, pp. 101-17. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.

[In the following essay, Rosengarten examines narrative structure in Proust's Les Plaisirs et les jours.]

Much of the critical debate about PJ [Les Plaisirs et les jours] has centered around the question of whether it can be considered a structured, unified whole rather than a mere patchwork of miscellaneous pieces. This is an important question inasmuch as the way a writer organizes and arranges the material of a fictional work often reflects the point of view from which s/he has embarked on the task of writing

Proust always paid careful attention to how the parts of his writings related to the whole and the whole to the parts. Bernard Gicquel picks up on precisely this aspect of Proust's mind in pointing out the book's “circular” form, and others have noted its many “correspondences,” to which I shall return later in this chapter. With respect to the Recherche, Proust often felt misunderstood by those who failed to grasp the degree to which he had molded and shaped his material in accordance with well-established principles of architectural design, on the one hand, and musical composition on the other. It would be odd if this trait were not to manifest itself at all in his earlier work, from the time in the summer of 1893 when he decided to gather his scattered writings into a single volume.

Another consideration of a general nature has to do with the philosophy and aesthetics of symbolism, which exerted a strong influence on young Proust, despite his critical distance from it as a school of literary theory and practice. Symbolism's concept of correspondences between the material and the spiritual worlds is a powerful current in Proust's writing. He was an eager disciple of the idea that there is a hidden cosmic order to which the affairs of the earthly human domain are somehow organically connected. His conception of nature as animated by mysterious forces to which the artist is compelled to respond is evident in many of the prose poems of PJ. Proust was also sensitive to the ability of metaphorical language to provide access to the deepest layers of the human psyche. Such language opened up a pathway to truth that was independent and autonomous vis-à-vis traditional logic. As I have previously noted, the techniques of musical composition were also important to Proust. Pierre Costil makes reference to this in his analysis of how “musical construction” became an active force in Proust's evolving “aesthetic of [literary] composition” (Costil 1958, 489).

Important personal concerns and values were at stake for Proust in the publication and critical reputation of PJ. On February 3, 1897, Jean Lorrain published an article on PJ in Le Journal to supplement a review he had written the previous year making fun of the book's “precious and pretentious” style. This time he broadened his attack by alluding to Proust's personal relationships. Anatole France's preface to the book amused him, and he predicted that “Proust's next preface would come from another eminent novelist, Alphonse Daudet, who was quite incapable of resisting the solicitations of his son” (Barker 71). The son Lorrain referred to was Lucien Daudet, Proust's lover at the time. Offended by these insinuations, Proust immediately challenged Lorrain to a duel. The ritual armed encounter took place in the Bois de Meudon, at the Ermitage de Villebon, on February 6, 1897. Seconded by Gustave de Borda and the painter Jean Béraud, a close friend, Proust acquitted himself with a bravery and sang-froid that Reynaldo Hahn, noting Proust's accomplishment in his diary, said “do not surprise me at all” (Notes 54).

Proust had probably had some experience handling guns during his year of service in the Army, and Lorrain may also have had some knowledge of firearms. Despite this, it is possible that the two men did not really intend to duel at all, just pretend to do so. The fact is, however, that Proust faced an opponent who was positioned at close range, and who could easily have killed him without suffering any legal repercussions. Moreover, in a letter to Lucien Daudet written on the same day as the duel, Proust was uncustomarily direct and laconic: “My dear little one, I wasn't touched nor was Lorrain although my bullet landed almost at his right foot” (Mon cher petit: lettres à Lucien Daudet 130). This leads me to believe that he was prepared to die to protect his honor and to defend the integrity of his literary efforts. I would think that his motives were not dissimilar from those that led him to come to the defense of Alfred Dreyfus. In certain circumstances, he could feel as offended by insults to another person as he was to those directed against himself. The duel was among the experiences of his life in which Proust appropriated “the heroic ideal” he had discovered in his student days in the tragedies of Pierre Corneille. That it was also an act which could earn him the respect of a socioliterary milieu he valued highly cannot be discounted. This is how he spoke of the incident about ten years later, as recalled by his housekeeper, Céleste Albaret:

Poor mother! She didn't want me to go. Nor did many other ladies either. But this man had offended me and no one encouraged me to do it; it was I alone who wanted this duel. Jean Lorrain was jealous of the preface that Anatole France had written for my book Les Plaisirs et les jours; he claimed that it was nothing but a salon-like favor to a young socialite suffering the pains of literary ambitions. We exchanged two bullets in the forest of Meudon.

(Albaret 195-196)

This recollection, if accurate, bespeaks an impulse to distinguish himself as a man of courage and honor who resisted the counsel of several women in his life, mainly his mother, who advised him to avoid the confrontation. He seems to have been anxious to disprove once and for all the gossip that categorized him as “effeminate.”1

On the lighter side, but no less significant for what it tells us about Proust's literary intentions and ambitions in the 1890s, was his reaction to a skit titled “Les Lauriers sont coupés” (The laurel trees are cut down). The little play was part of an amateur theatrical performance in which a friend of Proust, Léon Yeatman, imitated his voice and mannerisms with great precision.

The play2 was performed on three evenings, from March 18 to 20, 1897, at the home of Jacques Bizet on the Quai Bourbon. Bizet was co-author with Robert Dreyfus. Larkin Price says that it attracted an “upper crust” audience. The play concerned the literary activities of several members of the Lycée Condorcet circle during the preceding year. Proust was not the only one to be roasted. Bizet, Dreyfus, and Fernand Gregh had often twitted Proust about the cost of PJ, and it was this aspect of the book which they accented in their skit. One part of it, which features Proust, played by Yeatman, a young man, played by Ernest La Jeunesse, and Fernand Gregh, playing himself, reads as follows:

Have you read my book?
No, sir. It is too expensive.
Alas! That is what everyone says. And you, Gregh, have you read it?
I cut it in pieces in order to review it.
And did you find it too expensive as well?
Not at all. There is a lot for the money.
Isn't there? A preface by M. France, 4 francs. Pictures by Madeleine Lemaire, 4 francs. Music by Reynaldo Hahn, 4 francs. Prose by me, 1 franc. Verse by me, 50 centimes. Total, 13 francs 50.
Surely not too much?
But, sir, there is much more than that in the Hachette Almanac, and that costs only 25 sous.

Instead of being amused by the skit, which he heard about from friends since he did not attend the performance, Proust was pained and indignant, according to almost all of his biographers. Why was this the case? Renée Kingcaid provides a possible explanation.

Kingcaid sees the publication of PJ as “an important first gamble” on the part of young Proust to convince his parents, especially his father, that his pursuit of a literary career was a feasible option for him (1992, 36). Her main point is that what Proust feared most of all was literary impotence and premature death. Since the age of nine, he had suffered debilitating asthma attacks, to which he refers frequently in his letters. He was haunted by the thought that this illness would prevent him from realizing his literary aspirations, an especially burdensome fear for a person who saw the creation of a work of art as the summit of human endeavor. Since 1891 he had submitted to his parents' will by following a course in law, which led to a degree in 1895, but the practice of law or of an associated profession was never a realistic life choice for him. Yet what other prospects were there, if a career in literature and philosophy, the two fields which he felt he was born to cultivate, turned out to be illusory? Some of this anxiety may explain why he made such an intense effort to mobilize a wide network of friends and colleagues to stimulate interest in PJ. What all of this amounts to in practical terms is that the close to three years Proust spent finding a publisher, working with Madeleine Lemaire and Reynaldo Hahn, inducing Anatole France to write a preface to the book and recommend it to publishers, and giving advanced notice of his writings by publishing them in Parisian journals, were years of travail, of anxiety over his future that the publication of PJ somewhat allayed.

Proust referred several times to PJ as a book of “little pieces” without serious claims on the reader's attention. But this typically self-effacing remark, like his calling the contents of his new book “things of the imagination and sensibility, the two ignorant Muses that one does not cultivate,”3 are offset by two other letters, one to Mme Sauvage de Brantes (née Louise de Cessac) on June 12, 1896, the book's date of publication, the other three years later, to his friend Viscount Clément de Maugny.

The letter to Mme de Brantes continues the self-deprecating tone, but it does so in a manner that lets us understand how different his various writings appeared to him in book form from how they appeared when they were first published separately in periodicals. The intervening effort he had put into the task of gathering them up in a single volume is what stands out, implicitly, in his homage to Mme de Brantes:

To Madame de Brantes:

so that she will deign to accept the respectful homage of this book whose only value will remain that of having pleased her when it was scattered and formless, and to which the benevolence of her sympathy—in this circumstance alone I will not say the clear-sightedness of her intellect and her taste—has given distinction and elect status.

(Corr. [Correspondance,] 2: 74)

Gathered in a single volume, the many “little pieces” were no longer “scattered and formless.” They had assumed an order, a new reason for being, which he, the author, had given to them.

Clément de Maugny was probably Proust's most intimate friend among the French aristocracy during the 1890s; intimate in the sense that they related to each other as equals and shared many interests in common. Now and then Proust was de Maugny's guest at the family's fourteenth-century château, and he refers to his friend's kindnesses and generosity during the preceding three years, from 1896 to 1899, when Proust was prey to many disappointments. In a letter written on July 13, 1899, acknowledging de Maugny's sympathetic attention to his problems after the publication of PJ, he spoke of the emotional pain he had experienced years earlier, during a period in his life when de Maugny did not know him. It was in this context that he presented his book to his friend. Here is the relevant part of the letter:

Often we show a friend who only got to know us much later a photograph of when we were a child. The same holds true for this book which introduces you to a Marcel whom you did not know. May I say it? You who have seen me in pain, without ever having made me suffer from a mistake in tact, from a lack of compassion, which is also quite rare, you have seen the birth and dissipation of sadnesses that will not seem very different to you from those depicted in this book. What makes us cry changes but our tears resemble each other. It seems to me that, involved so closely with my pains during these years when you were my confidant and friend, you will feel more than others what these pages still retain of storms that will not return ever again.

(Corr. 2: 291-292)

This letter expresses something of the personal suffering that Proust associated with his first literary efforts. PJ marked a beginning and an end for him; it documented his emotional life in disguised and fictional form, a stage in his life when he was still unsure of the direction that his future writing would take. But at the same time the letter is indicative of a certain detachment from early experiences that allowed him to place them in a different framework than would have been possible in earlier years.

A question needing brief commentary concerns the book's disparate genres. My point of view on this characteristic of the book is simply that the organic connection between these writings is not essentially generic but philosophical and symbolic; it is to be found in the vision of life that inheres in them. By this I do not mean that a short sketch or prose poem may not have originated in a side of Proust's personality and experience that was substantially different, say, from the one revealed in his short stories. Yet the links between the shorter items and the longer ones are, in several instances, noteworthy. For example, the painterly prose of “Les Regrets, rêveries couleur du temps” alludes to the same sense of fleeting time and of the “derisory” nature of certain illusions that permeates several of the short stories. The idea that beauty, like all spiritually inspired values, is not in things themselves but in the mind of the artist in “Promenade” (A walk) is what—in perverted and illusory form, to be sure—gives the fantasies of “Violante” and “Mélancolique villégiature” their interest as travesties of idealism in which “the omnipotence of thought”4 leads to misery and loneliness in contrast to the fulfillment experienced by the artist. Throughout the collection, in almost all of its parts large and small, one senses Proust's passionate attachment to a conception of art that does not refuse but, rather, delights and finds inspiration in the most ordinary and humble aspects of life. Human passions, ideals, hopes, illusions, memories—all combine with a reverential attitude toward natural beauty to endow this collection with its own particular charm and cohesiveness.

An example of the book's unity despite the generic diversity of its “little pieces” can be seen in the “Fragments de comédie italienne,” where Italian comedy serves as a metaphor for contemporary society in the stylized form of masked faces, affectation, foolishness, self-delusion, pretension, assumed identities, sudden changes of character and fortune—a whole array of situations in which individuals play strange roles and display unpredictable, often contemptible, behavior toward themselves and toward others. This is the lot, or threatened fate, of Proust's lovers in the short stories (as it will be for many characters of the Recherche), the only remedies for which are either the epiphanic moments that precede death or the liberating effects of artistic creation. For Proust, there are no others.

Bernard Gicquel was the first to devote systematic study to features of PJ that made it a “composed work.” He argued that themes, images, and situations in the book “respond to each other, reflect each other, evoke each other” even at some distance, and in this respect convey a sense of organicity. They suggest “an underlying order” far more significant than mere chronology, an “intentional placement” that substitutes for chronology “an aesthetic order desired by [Proust's] mind.” Gicquel made much of the centrality of the Portraits, situated in the exact middle of the collection, surrounded on both sides by four stories or cycles of short pieces. This order manifested a “geometric arrangement” of its parts. He concluded from the position of the château drawings at the beginning and end that this was Proust's way of giving the book “a circular order” not dissimilar, he noted, from the “cyclical” collections of poems that were popular in the Middle Ages. Originally a symbol of the return of the seasons, the circle becomes in PJ the very image of time, of those “days” alluded to in the title. Furthermore, Gicquel maintained, the story “La Mort de Baldassare Silvande,” with its five chapters, contains the essential five themes of PJ: worldly vanity, sensuality, imagination, will, and death.

Luzius Keller's commentary in the 1988 German edition of PJ (Freuden und Tage 277-287) is the other critical work that, joining Gicquel's essay, has gone furthest in arguing that PJ is constructed according to a compositional principle that gives Proust's youthful writings a “new shape and meaning.” He stresses the centrality of art as a theme and as a unifying principle of the book, and the “symmetrical” arrangement of its various materials. Like Kingcaid, he points out the prevalence of “decadent” themes (forbidden loves, confessions, matricide, suicide, illness and so on) seen against a “broad intertextual horizon” including such names as St. Augustine and Thomas à Kempis.

Keller considers “La Mort de Baldassare Silvande,” written in 1894 and revised in 1895, as a summary or recapitulation of Proust's writing up to that point, a sort of prefiguration of the book as a whole. This story, he believes, mirrors Proust's entire aesthetic experience, from Augustine to the French moralists, from Anatole France to Tolstoy, from Montesquiou to Hahn. Montesquiou's presence can be seen in the decadent aestheticism and elaborate finery of Baldassare's existence (exotic animals, a collection of musical instruments, the coat of arms), while Hahn's influence in Proust's life is reflected, among other links, in the title of the story inasmuch as the letters of “Reynaldo” are concealed within the name “Baldassare Silvande” except for the o and the y taken from “Vicomte” and “Sylvanie.” However farfetched this may seem, what we know about Proust's fondness for verbal play gives Keller's observation more than speculative value.

Keller's main point is that the book is arranged in such a way as to convey the notion that art and death are the means through which several of Proust's characters become aware of the “factitiousness” of so much of human life and approach the threshold of “truth and essentiality.” This idea is certainly present, whether or not the arrangement of the materials in the book is meant to highlight it. Baldassare and Honoré, in the first and last stories, “pay for an instant of authentic life with life itself.” At the same time, Keller regards Gicquel's thesis concerning a “negative” and a “positive” valence as very questionable. He prefers, as do I, to see the unity of the book as residing more in its philosophical standpoint, in its tendency to focus on “the fluctuations and forces” of the world, than in its structural features per se.

Keller introduces another possible source of unity by looking at the book's pastiches and at how its many epigraphs play upon a series of interpenetrating themes. Proust used the devices of imitation, parody, and pastiche as forms of commentary on some of his favorite writers; for example, “Violante,” “Oranthe,” and “Bouvard et Pécuchet” were essentially “stylistic studies” of Anatole France, La Bruyère, and Flaubert. To this Keller adds two other observations. First, he maintains that the shifts in narrative viewpoint that mark “La mort de Baldassare Silvande” and “Mélancolique villégiature” imply “a critical reflection on literature,” that is, a self-conscious manipulation of narrative methods rather than a formal error committed by a novice writer. Second, and more important as far as the work in its entirety is concerned, he argues that in PJ Proust strings together forms of expression, fashionable trends, and beloved authors belonging to the latter decades of the nineteenth century. His motive in doing so, Keller believes, was to provide a “panorama of fin-de-siècle literature,” a kind of overview of contemporary literary currents. This interpretation runs the risk of overstating a fruitful idea, yet when we look at Proust's subsequent writing, culminating in the Recherche, and note that he incorporated into these works theories and views on contemporary painting, music, and literature, it does not seem off the mark to read PJ from this panoramic perspective.

The pastiche, remarks Léon Deffoux (187), is a form of satire without malice, a spoofing without ill will, as distinguished from parody, which uses “grosser artifices,” and aims at making the ideas and the style of a writer an object of ridicule, usually in a theatrical and burlesque manner. Both pastiche and parody are forms of irreverence, but in the case of pastiche the irreverence can also be an indirect way of paying homage to a writer whom one admires. Jean Milly observes pertinently that pastiche was a “permanent activity” of Proust, a mode of literary appropriation through which he could at one and the same time pay tribute to writers who were important to him and “free himself from influences that were too strong, in order to achieve his independence, his full capacity as an original creator” (1970, 37). In other words, if this general point of view has validity, we would be entitled to add the word “critical” to Keller's characterization and call PJ “a critical panorama of fin-de-siècle literature.”5

In his 1993 study of PJ, Pierre Daum approaches the work from a rather rigorously structuralist point of view. But he also identifies some of the book's stylistic traits, its rhythms and sonorities, and its alternating tones of lyricism and moralism. He sees the book as essentially a series of “studies of human souls.” According to this view, then, the unity of PJ is more psychological than philosophical, more intimate and introspective than ideological, as I have defined this last term.

Daum examines an aspect of Proust's writing in PJ about which there has been relatively little commentary. He characterizes several of the stories as having extremely vague temporal and spatial coordinates, as bearing very few traces of historicity, of rootedness in a specific time and place. I strongly agree with this perception. The stories seem to be detached from time, as if they were intended to be fables rather than conventionally realistic accounts of human experiences. The “mythic,” otherworldly tales of one of Proust's literary friends and idols, Henri de Régnier (1864-1936), may have been the crucial influence pushing him in this direction. Stories such as “La Mort de Baldassare Silvande,” “Violante,” and “Mélancolique villégiature,” and shorter pieces such as “Rencontre au bord du lac” (Encounter by the lake) and “L'Etranger” (The stranger) seem suspended in time, despite a few allusions to things and people reminiscent of Parisian society in the 1890s. The often abstract, fabular atmosphere in PJ reflects young Proust's desire to retreat into a timeless realm where ideal types could act and ideal situations could unfold free of the real historical determinants of human thought and action. His intention was to highlight the universal significance of his characters' inner lives and relationships. He wanted to suspend his readers' attachment to the world by transporting them to the imaginary domain of abstract elemental forces at work in human destiny. Either he gives his characters names—Baldassare, Violante, Madame de Breyves, Heldémone, Adelgise, Oranthe, Cardenio, M. de Laléande—that have an exotic or un-French sound, or he gives them no name at all, as in “Rencontre au bord du lac” and “Rêve” (Dream).

This does not mean that PJ lacks critical bite. On the contrary, Proust's critique of a self-indulgent, wasteful, superficial society is evident. What it means, however, is that he wanted his criticism to transcend the moment in which the stories were written, so that the reader would feel free to attach a general human significance to them rather than associate them with a specific social milieu. Too much historical material could spoil the subtler workings of fantasy. Proust was after the general, the universal, the “laws” of human nature as revealed in similar and recurrent situations.

It seems to me that we gain access to Proust's ideology precisely through these attempts to protect a domain of fabular purity from the contaminations of history. He shared this need with many other artists and writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That he eventually transcended his penchant for the timeless fable in favor of a resolute psychological realism, as seen in the Recherche, is one of the things that sets him apart from many other writers of his generation.

PJ reflects Proust's readings of Kant and Schopenhauer, as Anne Henry has demonstrated in her study of Proust's aesthetic theory. The philosophy and implicit ideology of Proust's early writings are testimony to his assimilation of certain notions about the nature of the human mind, about art, and about the relationship between empirical and ideal truth that derive in part from the two German thinkers. If, as I have claimed, the unity of PJ consists to a significant extent in its philosophical premises, then German idealist and neo-idealist thought must be taken into account.

Raymond Williams's characterization of the history of modern aesthetics as “in large part a protest against the forcing of all experience into instrumentality (‘utility’), and of all things into commodities” (Marxism and Literature 151) is pertinent to the reasons why Proust and many of his contemporaries found Kantian thought to be congenial to their aesthetic and moral perspectives.

Kant based much of what he said in Critique of Pure Reason on the assumption that human beings possess and exercise a faculty of pure a priori cognition inherent in the mind and not dependent on empirical evidence. The proper tests of such cognition, he argued, were universality and necessity. He applied the term “transcendental” to all knowledge “which is not so much occupied with objects as with the mode of our cognition of these objects, so far as this mode of cognition is possible a priori” (Kant 1934, 38).

In this regard, Kant continued, what was of interest to him philosophically speaking was not the nature of “outward objects” but the properties of the mind, of the subjective knowing entity. “The object of our investigations,” he said, was not to be sought without, but altogether within ourselves. Kant did not, however, discard or minimize the role that objective knowledge played in human cognition. There were at bottom two sources of human knowledge, sense and understanding. By the former, objects were given to us; by the latter, thought. Building on these premises, Kant went on to present the foundational principles of his “transcendental aesthetic” philosophy that required a distinction between empirical intuition, which works on all phenomena given to us through the senses, and pure intuition, which exists a priori in the mind, the preliminary abode of thought.

Both space and time, Kant reasoned at a decisive turning point of Western philosophical thought, were concepts that could be spoken of only from the human point of view. Space, he said, was not a form that belongs as a property to things, but was rather the form of all phenomena as they are perceived by the subjective condition of the sensibility; objects remain quite unknown to us in themselves. What we call outward objects are nothing but “mere representations of our sensibility” (47).

Kant considered time “the formal condition a priori of all phenomena whatsoever.” While space was the form of our “external intuition,” time was nothing but the form of our “internal intuition.” Time inheres not in objects themselves but solely in the subject (or mind) that intuits them. The conclusion he drew from all this was what made his thought exceptionally appealing to the mind and sensibilities of writers such as Proust, who were looking anxiously for a way out of the constraints imposed by various forms of materialist and positivist thought.

The key point to be made here is that, instead of embracing a dialectical and historical materialist approach to problems of knowledge and perception, Proust—following a growing number of writers and artists in the nineteenth century in an ever-expanding movement of thought that culminated in the symbolism and spiritualism of the century's last decades—embraced Kantian idealism as it was expounded in part in the famous “Introduction” to Critique of Pure Reason. In his “general remarks on transcendental aesthetic,” Kant wrote as follows:

We have intended to say that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of phenomena; that the things which we intuit, are not in themselves the same as our representations of them in intuition, nor are their relations in themselves so constituted as they appear to us; and that if we take away the subject, or even only the subjective constitution of our senses in general, then not only the nature and relations of objects in space and time, but even space and time themselves disappear; and that these, as phenomena, cannot exist in themselves, but only in us. What may be the nature of objects considered as things in themselves and without reference to the receptivity of our sensibility is quite unknown to us. We know nothing more than our mode of perceiving them, which is peculiar to us, and which, though not of necessity pertaining to every animated being, is so to the whole human race. With this alone we have to do. Space and time are the pure forms thereof; sensation the matter. The former alone can we cognize a priori, that is, antecedent to all actual perception; and for this reason such cognition is called pure intuition.


This revolutionary affirmation of idealist thought6 also found expression in the pages of Kant's Critique of Judgment, where he presented what he called his “Analytic of the Beautiful” (Kant 1963). In this work, explains Walter Cerf, we find ourselves immersed in a series of “dualisms” and “binary oppositions” that lie—as Jacques Derrida, Barbara Johnson, Joseph Buttigieg and others have told us—at the very core of Western metaphysical discourse. They form the conceptual horizons of the Kantian philosophy of pleasure: the metaphysical concept of the soul-body dualism, the epistemological concept of the subject-object scheme, and the concept of the cause-effect relation. Indeed, everything Proust wrote, from the early stories and prose poems to the later masterpiece, is difficult to imagine without the philosophical underpinnings provided by this essential dualism inherent in Kantian idealist thought. The soul-body dualism goes back many thousands of years, attaining in Christian philosophy a preeminent place of honor, but it was only in its specific elaboration by Kant and his followers that it became fully accessible to and assimilable by writer-philosophers such as Proust, who needed a spiritualist grounding for his theory of art but one that was couched in terms that were free of explicitly religious connotations. This he found in Kant, especially in the way Kant applied his thought to problems of knowledge and aesthetics.

Kant's aesthetics rested on the distinction between impure pleasure and pure pleasure, the latter untainted by the senses. What he envisioned was a theory of the beautiful which, on the one hand, was separate and autonomous vis-à-vis the senses, yet on the other hand could help form a part of the bridge between the analysis of cognition and the analysis of morality. In other words, he accorded autonomy to the aesthetic, but at the same time insisted on its ultimate relation with moral judgment.

What stands out for our purposes is Kant's assertion that the judgment of taste, which is the faculty of judging the beautiful, is not logical but aesthetic, which in turn cannot be other than subjective. This feeling for the beautiful, he argued, was rooted in the human capacity for pure disinterested pleasure, as opposed to the pleasure that rests entirely on sensation. The judgment of taste is merely contemplative; it has no object or rationale beyond a disinterested enjoyment of the beautiful in and for itself. Kant was committed, avers Dieter Henrich, “to the view that beauty and all other elementary and purely aesthetic qualities depend exclusively on the formal arrangement of a perceived manifold” (54-55). If this is the case, we can see why Proust was uncomfortable with some of the implications of Kantian aesthetic purism, since he wanted to reintroduce into aesthetic philosophy the notion of humanity's moral life and destiny, to which the experience of art could add vital elements. He was not prepared to isolate “form” from “content” in writing or in the other arts. But this is an aspect of Proustian thought that remains somewhat unclear. It does not seem to me that he was ever entirely ready to align himself with a formalist aesthetics resting on the presumed Kantian theory that it is design and composition “which are the proper objects of pure judgment” (Kant 1963, 31).

Proust made only a few explicit references to Schopenhauer, yet the German thinker appears to have had a certain appeal for him based on the fact that, even more resolutely perhaps than Kant, he gave to art a distinctive place in human experience, but did so by accenting concerns and considerations that had not played any real part in Kant's scheme of things. Schopenhauer introduced into Western philosophy an Eastern component that gave to the material world a transitory, illusory quality. For Schopenhauer, “the ideality of time and space” was the key to all true metaphysics because “it made way for an order of things quite different from what is found in nature” (20). But he noted in typically pessimistic fashion that most people were incapable of entering this different order; they were victims of foolish illusions about sensual gratifications and so “the very thing they allowed to slip by unappreciated and unenjoyed was just their life, precisely in the expectation of which they lived” (22). Something of this attitude can be detected in Proust's way of analyzing the role of illusion in the general problematic of human existence.

Schopenhauer's reflections on the qualities of “genius,” one of whose characteristics was the ability “to see the universal in the particular,” led him to another notion that, theoretically, was to play an important part in Proust's aesthetics, namely that “the kind of knowledge of the genius is essentially purified of all willing and of references to the will; [from which it follows] that the works of genius do not result from intention or arbitrary choice, but that genius is here guided by a kind of instinctive necessity” (87). This idea fascinated Proust as a principle of literary and artistic creation, although it conflicted with another aspect of his world view, which was that “thought” and therefore conscious reflection were what gave true dignity to works of art.

Where Schopenhauer left his mark on Proust was in Schopenhauer's reflections on the relations between history and art, the former seen as displaying “the transient complexities of a human world moving like clouds in the wind, which are entirely transformed by the most trifling accident” (107), the latter a realm in which what was of permanent and universal value could find its fulfillment in lasting works of the creative imagination. In this concept, Schopenhauer felt that he had identified a crucial element of the “philosophy of the moderns,” which derived largely from Berkeley and Kant but purified of the tendency to discount the necessary dialectical relationship between the thinking subject and its object of thought.

Much of what Proust had to say both in fictional and in critical form was grounded in the presuppositions and principles of idealist philosophy, even if he tempered some of its more mystical features—as seen especially in Schopenhauer—in favor of what Mieke Bal calls his “visual poetics” resting in turn on a theory of knowledge

that does not separate the domain of the mind from that of the body, in other words, that does not separate the cognitive, the affective, the aesthetic, and the sexual domains. Rather it explores all avenues, however unusual they may be, that lead to the discovery of new aspects of the real by means of sensations, experiences, and the very pores of one's being. It is for this reason that we can treat Proust as a philosopher and even view him in the same light as the greatest philosophers of this century.


Bal's formulation allows us to see what distinguishes Proust's philosophy of art from that of his idealist forebears. The material world has a palpable presence in Proust's writing that, even if still bound by the constraints of dualistic thinking, adheres to and illuminates sense experience in an admirably realistic manner.

I have referred several times to the work of Anne Henry as a helpful guide to Proust's early intellectual and literary development. This is an appropriate moment in which to say a few words about her contribution to Proust studies.

The singular distinction of her work is that it mixes a thorough analysis of the philosophical foundations of Proust's ideas, especially concerning the nature and purposes of art and literature, with a series of critically acute judgments that effectively demystify much of what had passed up to then for Proust's absolute originality and transcendent genius. In her hands, Proust returns definitively to the fold of French writers at the turn of the century who shared intellectual interests, political and moral concerns, and literary aspirations. In an earlier essay on PJ, she discovered “troubling resemblances” between some of Proust's stories and prose-poetic evocations and those of other writers of the time, among whom she singled out Tolstoy to document what she felt amounted to “plagiary” on Proust's part, instances where he had “pillaged” motifs and devices from the great Russian novelist and short-story writer (Henry 1973). I shall discuss these so-called “plagiaries” in chapter 8.

In Marcel Proust: Théories pour une esthétique, a massive study only a small part of which will be mentioned here, Henry resumes her inquiry into the armamentarium of philosophical notions on the basis of which, she argues, Proust built his world view and produced his fictional universe. These notions turn out to be those of the entire European Romantic heritage, which drew copiously from German thinkers, especially from aesthetic and moral philosophers such as Schelling and Schopenhauer. Proust was also shaped, philosophically speaking, by Slavic influences (Tolstoy and Dostoievsky) and of course by French philosophers, from his own philosophy instructor Alphonse Darlu to Gabriel Séailles, Jules Lachelier, and Emile Boutroux. It is entirely possible that Darlu, in addition to inculcating into his responsive student a reverence for truthseeking at all costs, was also responsible for sensitizing him to French social questions, as seen from a radical-socialist point of view (Bonnet 1961, 46, 57, 68). It was Darlu as well who exposed the young writer to the thought of Immanuel Kant, which Proust regarded as “the Himalaya” of moral philosophy (Henry 34).

Henry points out that Proust derived his understanding of the “unconscious” not from Freud, whose writings played no direct role whatever in his conception of human personality, but from Karl von Hartmann's The Philosophy of the Unconscious, published in 1869. Henry feels that this work was an important source of Proust's pessimism about the ability of human beings to exert rationally motivated control over their behavior. Proust did not take Hartmann's pessimism as far as some others did, yet it may very well be that his view of love as inevitably “illusory” and even pathological in nature, and his recourse to art as the sole means with which to redeem an otherwise empty existence, stemmed in some measure from Hartmann. I would think, however, that in this realm Proust was probably the interpreter of his own life experience, for which he then found confirmation in philosophy and psychology.

Henry makes much, but with rather slight evidence, of a turn or shift toward aesthetics in Proust's thinking in the mid to late years of the 1890s. The evidence for this turn consists of three articles, the first on the liberating power of music, which he regarded as the queen of the muses (CSB [Contre Sainte-Beuve] 367-372), the second on Chardin and Rembrandt (CSB 372-382), the third on symbolism, where he challenged the poetic authority of Stéphane Mallarmé and his disciples (CSB 390-395). In these articles, especially the last two, Proust was performing an intellectual exercise that paralleled the approach he took in PJ, where music, poetry, and painting join forces thematically and even typographically in a tribute to the sisterhood of the muses. What one finds in these three articles is an effort to raise the arts to a spiritual, a sacred level. Henry connects this sudden exaltation of art with the frequently mentioned letter Proust wrote in September of 1893 to his father, where he humbly yet confidently declared himself to be unfit for anything in life except philosophy and literature, and with the lectures given by Emile Boutroux on modern philosophy, which Proust attended at the Sorbonne in 1894-95. It was in this state of mind, Henry maintains, that Proust read and was marked forever by Schelling's System of Transcendental Idealism and by the thought of Schelling's French disciple, Gabriel Séailles.

Henry treats Proust's philosophical formation with deep seriousness, and she enlarges our understanding of his emerging world outlook. The only problem in her approach is that her focus on intellectual history is so intense that she loses sight of a broader historical contextualization that would have given her analysis of Proust's ideas more connections with the practical experiential world.

A recent critical study that sheds further light on Proust's aesthetic philosophy is Anthony Albert Everman's Lilies and Sesame: The Orient, Inversion, and Artistic Creation in A la recherche du temps perdu (1998). Everman ascribes Proust's way of conceptualizing art to the influence of Kant, Schelling and Schopenhauer, whose thought “posits that the creation of art falls under the domain of génie, an interiorized, subjective, irrational yet transcending force with ostensible roots, perceived by certain Europeans, in the ascetic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism” (157). Flowing from this root assumption is the idea that artistic creation is the fruit of the individual creator's feeling of marginality, of separation and estrangement from the norms of society, for such a condition allows the artist to see beneath appearances, to unearth and reveal what society prefers to conceal out of fear that knowledge of the “truth” of human affairs will subvert the established order of things. One form of estrangement is that of the sexual “invert,” who quite literally “overturns” accepted notions about what is and what is not the truth of human sexuality. Sexual difference is a key component of the Proustian vision of the world, Everman argues. It is closely linked to the notion of “Orientalism” in that the Orient, for Proust, is associated with a realm of being where the imagination and aesthetic sensibilities can have free play to express themselves, and where there can be “reconciliation between the components of a fragmented personality” (34). Thus, in Proust's scheme of things, what most members of modern society take to be aberrational turns out to be precisely the key to that crucial “difference” vital to creative life.

Whether, as Everman seems to think, Roland Barthes was correct in seeing “inversion” as not only a dominant structure of the Recherche but also as “a source of delightful surprise and jouissance on the part of the reader and the protagonist” (70) is difficult to say. But what can be said with some degree of confidence is that at least two of the novel's principal “homosexual” characters, Charlus and Albertine, are, although morally ambiguous, the embodiments of a special fascination and “beauty” that other so-called “normal” characters do not possess. They incorporate an aspect of reality that Proust urgently wished to reveal, one that depended on his need, derived in part from his own “marginal” sexuality, to undertake an “outing” of much of the society represented in his novel (91).

Everman penetrates the psychological and social attitudes that lay behind Proust's depiction of contemporary French society at a time when one way of life and conception of the world with roots in the remote feudal past were being definitively replaced by a new bourgeois Weltanschauung. His study allows us to see motifs and character types in Proust's early writing that anticipate the ideology of “Orientalism” in the Recherche.


  1. Douglas W. Alden thought that Proust's challenge to Lorrain was not surprising in a young man who “at the time took feudal society seriously,” meaning, in this instance, personal honor and physical courage (1938).

  2. On this incident, see Barker 72-73; Price, Materials 64, 95-96; and Leon 85-86.

  3. Letter to Charles Grandjean, November 13 or 20, 1893, Corr. 1: 255-256.

  4. Freud's phrase in chapter 3, “Animism, Magic, and the Omnipotence of Thought,” of Totem and Taboo, ed. and trans. James Strachey, introduction Peter Gay (New York: Norton., 1989), 94-124.

  5. See Silvain Monod's very funny pastiche of Proust's style in the Recherche called “A la recherche de Clémentine,” in Pastiches, 236-243.

  6. In a notebook entry on Flaubert written around 1910 that remained unpublished until 1971, Proust spoke of Flaubert as a “grammatical genius” who, in his own domain, had initiated a “revolution of vision” comparable to the change in thought effected by Kant. “[Flaubert's] revolution of vision, of the representation of the world that flows—or is expressed—from and by its syntax, is perhaps as great as that of Kant in moving the center of knowledge of the world to the soul” (CSB, 299-302). Proust looked upon Kant's philosophy as having become so thoroughly incorporated into the mental life of Western civilization as to be an unquestioned reality taken for granted by its beneficiaries. It should be recalled that Alphonse Darlu had introduced Proust to Kant in 1888-1889 in a course of study at the Lycée Condorcet, a course supplemented in private lessons given to Proust at his home by Darlu.

Allen Thiher (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Thiher, Allen. “Proust and the End of Epistemic Competition.” In Fiction Rivals Science: The French Novel from Balzac to Proust, pp. 167-215. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Thiher explores Proust's attempt to reconcile science and art in his fiction.]

Chaque jour j'attache moins de prix à l'intelligence.
[Each day I value intelligence less.]

—Proust, Contre Sainte-Beuve.


1826: Lobachevsky lectures on a non-Euclidian geometry in which more than one parallel to a given line goes through a given point.

1854: Riemann's essay Uber die Hypothesen, welche der Geometrie zu Grunde liegen develops non-Euclidian geometry with treatment of how distance and curvature can be defined generally in n-dimensional space.

1871: Proust born. Flemming uses dyes to study cellular division.

1874: Boutroux publishes his critique of determinism in De la Contingence des lois de la nature.

1887: Michelson and Morley report failure to measure relative velocity of earth and aether, finding that the velocity of light is constant in all directions.

1889: Poincaré initiates the study of modern dynamic systems with publication of his paper on the three-body problem.

1889: The leading anti-Kantian in France, Bergson, publishes Matière et mémoire, a study of two types of memory. With Bergson in mind, Renan publishes next year L'Avenir de la science.

1900: Planck publishes paper on black box radiation in which he postulates the discontinuous emission of discrete packets of energy called quanta.

1904: Lorentz develops mathematics to interpret Michelson and Morley experiment by showing that contraction of length and dilation of time could occur to instruments in the direction of the movement.

1905: Einstein publishes paper containing special theory of relativity, which, in abolishing absolute notions of space, time, and mass, explains the results of the Michelson and Morley experiment.

1907: Minkowski describes the space-time of Einstein's relativity theory with four-dimensional “Minkowski space.”

1909: Poincaré publishes Science et méthode, one of several works for a general public in which he epouses conventionalist epistemology and rejects the axiomatic approach to mathematics.

1913: Proust publishes Du Côté de chez Swann, first volume of A la Recherche du temps perdu.

1916: Einstein finishes his general theory of relativity.

1919: Eddington verifies a prediction of general relativity by measuring the deflection of starlight at the edge of the sun during an eclipse.

After Zola, naturalism remained a dominant influence on fiction, in France and throughout the Western world, for decades. It remains, in fact, a model for fiction that aims at a seizure of the world refusing any form of transcendence. But even as Zola was writing, modernist forms of fiction began to appear, often created in the attempt to get around what seemed to be naturalism's submission to science. Literary history often presents the development of modernism as an overcoming of naturalism. In its rejection of naturalism, modernism promoted fictional works that, using myth and symbol, attempted to find realms of essential revelation that somehow transcend the historical world, often conceived as the world of fallen experience. This world, bereft of any transcendental workings, was, after Flaubert and Zola, rather much the exclusive domain of naturalist fiction. It was also the world in which took place science's cognitive endeavors, and for which science could claim to be the final arbiter. And so, seemingly wishing to avoid rivalry with science, modernism often sought to lay bare another realm in which literature could claim to have priority in its search for truth and knowledge.

The development of modernism in France is undoubtedly best illustrated by Marcel Proust's novel A la Recherche du temps perdu, which can be translated “in [re]search of time lost.” (Montcrief's borrowing from Shakespeare's Remembrance of Things Past is evocative, but inaccurate.) Proust's title implies that his novel is research into a realm not usually open to science—unless one finds an oblique reference to paleontology in the title, which is not inapposite. Science, as we will see, is hardly absent from the novel, for Proust set out to reconcile science and art by granting them separate but equal domains. From this perspective, Proust's novel is, on the one hand, a key work of the early twentieth century for understanding the modernist reaction to the imperial claims of science, and, on the other hand, the key work for understanding how this rivalry came to an end. To effect this reconciliation that ends competition, Proust's novel offers an extraordinary counterpoint of literary realism and modernist transcendence. Reconciling realism and the modernist thirst for transcendence, it relocates literature's epistemic quest so as to dispense with literature's rivalry with science and grant literature its own object of knowledge.

Proust did not achieve this transition by ignoring his novelistic predecessors. On the contrary, he self-consciously built upon their work. His critical reflections on Balzac and Flaubert, for example, view them in clearly epistemic terms. In commentary on Balzac found in Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust assesses the writer's capacity to confound the real and the imaginary in such a way that fictional and real scientists exist on the same plane. By implication, research in fiction and research in reality have the same ontological status for Balzac, which Proust takes to be a positive contribution to the development of fiction. In evaluating Flaubert's rhetoric in Madame Bovary in his “A propos du style de Flaubert”—one of the most important pieces of Flaubert criticism—Proust saw in Flaubert's rhetoric nothing less than an epistemological revolution in fiction nearly equivalent to what Kant did with his theory of knowledge. This is not a point of view that I have disputed in the preceding pages. I add that what Proust learned from Balzac and Flaubert, as well as from Zola, was precisely an epistemological lesson about drawing upon science for models describing social dynamics in time, and a capital lesson about transforming the narrator into an epistemological agent. We will discuss these issues in some detail presently.

From a slightly different perspective, A la Recherche is a far-reaching attempt to reconcile the scientific worldview with the artistic possibility of vouchsafing poetic value to the individual life. In his novel, Proust wants to find a space in which poetic salvation can be achieved in spite of the relentless reduction of the world, by science and by naturalism, to a world that can be described, if not explained, by deterministic laws. Proust does this by redefining the epistemic function of literature by drawing directly upon scientific epistemology to justify his demonstration that literature can have access to realms that science cannot describe. With this demonstration using science's own epistemology, Proust's novel presents a way of ending the sense of rivalry literature had felt with science. Considerations of literary history buttress this conclusion, since it is accurate to say that, after Proust, the European novel has rarely sought to rival science on its own terms. In part, this conclusion came about because the development of science, especially of sciences like molecular biology and quantum mechanics, meant that it was no longer useful or credible for literature to claim to rival science. But this historical development also came about because Proust, more systematically than any other writer I can name, developed an epistemic viewpoint that ended literature's desire for rivalry by declaring this rivalry untrue to the nature of literary knowledge. Proust was hardly alone, or even the first, to make this point, but he made it in a kind of summation whose scope no other writer approaches.

As critics have often noted, Proust drew upon developments in modern poetry as a springboard for the creation of his novel. Proust's accomplishment can be best grasped if we understand that his work is, in many respects, the culmination of the search for a unique form of experience that characterized the quest undertaken by symbolist poetry—a quest for experience conceived as a unique form of knowledge. In Proust's novel we can find reflections of both the antagonistic rivalry with science that symbolist poets felt and their attempt to render this rivalry nugatory by achieving transcendence through poetry. Modernism inherited from symbolist poetry, in France and elsewhere, the forms designed to get around science's imperial claims to regiment knowledge. One response to these claims was that poetry proclaimed itself to be an autonomous realm in which the individual could find transcendental revelation through poetic form. Thus understood, poetry can be seen as making a counter-claim in that it proposed to offer access to superior epistemic spaces not accessible to science. Proust took up the task of finding a transcendental form, but not simply, as was the case of some poets, with the idea of simply rejecting science. Proust was interested in science and, by the time he began writing, had assimilated virtually all the major questions that science was addressing at the beginning of the twentieth century—and this with a sense of the epistemological stakes that few writers, or scientists for that matter, have ever shown. Proust wanted to deal with science on its ground and in its own terms so as not to limit the epistemic issues a novel can embody. His novel demonstrates that fiction offers knowledge that at once uses what science offers and then goes beyond science to offer its own knowledge of a realm inaccessible to science.

A corrective reexamination of the historical context is a good starting point for delineating Proust's understanding of epistemic issues as well as what he took from other writers. Therefore, I am going to deal at some length with the literary and then the scientific context in which Proust's novel takes on its full meaning as the culmination of a century of developments. To this end, it is relevant first to sketch out scientists' attitude toward science, since Proust's encounter with science takes on full meaning only when viewed against the backdrop of science's self-understanding. Then we may turn to poets' attitudes toward science and knowledge.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many scientists viewed science as a soon-to-be-completed task, especially as far as the basic laws of nature—or the laws of physics—were concerned. There was a widespread belief that, with Maxwell's work on electromagnetism, physics had practically arrived at, to use a more recent expression, the final theory. (Physicists enjoy telling the anecdote according to which the young Max Planck was supposedly told to give up physics since there would soon be no problems left to solve.) This smugness, if that is the right expression, was coupled in many quarters with a positivistic belief that epistemological questions had largely been resolved. Parallel to this belief in the final theory, there developed at the same time a revolt against the self-satisfied imperial attitude of positivistic philosophy, such as we have already seen when Zola's Doctor Pascal finds himself on the defensive as he undertakes to save humanity through science. Finally, there was also, among the more thoughtful scientists of the latter part of the nineteenth century, a feeling of disquiet that there were really too many problems in the details of the worldview proposed by Newtonian celestial mechanics and dynamics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism. For example, for these scientists it was not at all clear that Maxwell's new theory unifying electromagnetic phenomena was consonant with Newtonian mechanics. In France, as he worked on unresolved problems of celestial mechanics, Henri Poincaré was among those scientists who hardly saw the end in sight. In Germany, young Max Planck was another, and the solution he found in 1900 for quantifying black box radiation would lead to nothing less than quantum mechanics. But during the final decades of the nineteenth century, the radical changes to come in physics after 1900 were hardly apparent.

The nineteenth-century revolt against science was not entirely the work of poets, nor does it begin, as some assume, entirely with romantic writers. For our purposes, several French poets concerned with science and writing in the wake of romanticism are most relevant for understanding what Proust was about when he set out to develop an epistemology for literature. One should read back through three generations of post-romantic poets—Valéry, Mallarmé, and Baudelaire—to understand the literary epistemology that impressed Proust as he sought to enlarge the epistemic sphere that he had found in Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. And one should undertake this reading without assuming that all poets were hostile toward science. In his Literature and Technology, Wylie Sypher has argued quite pertinently that in fact most poets throughout the nineteenth century were actually favorably disposed (or indifferent) toward science. Blake notwithstanding, the English romantics were largely empirically inclined and took great interest in the physics and chemistry of their time. It is only after Poe, and largely in France among the next generation of poets—or among the symbolists in general—that poets like Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry elaborated on Poe's ideas and attacked openly the claims of scientists to be the final arbiters of knowledge. A literary epistemologist, Poe was something of an amateur scientist himself, not only for his conception of poetry as a mathematics of feeling, but, I note with some amusement, also in his plagiarizing treatise on conchology that brought Cuvier's work to a popular public. Poe was not a simple figure: he wanted to be a scientist of verse, and his French followers were duly impressed by the scope of his ambitions.

The symbolists took up Poe's view of poetry as the science of emotion, and so Sypher argues ingeniously that the symbolist poets, from Poe through Mallarmé and Valéry, relied upon technique in a way that suggests that they believed in the same methodological axioms as the scientists. For these poets, method was all—it was the key to elevating literature and making of it a form of epistemic exploration. In short, through the proper method, literature could offer superior knowledge. This belief in methodology, in the wake of Poe, is exemplified by Proust's contemporary, Valéry, born in 1871, the same year as Proust. Notably, the young Valéry's Introduction à la méthode de Léonard da Vinci (1894 in its first version) defines “rigor” for poetry as essentially the same as scientific rigor.1 The idea of rigor is derived from Valéry's definition of intelligence. He calls intelligence the “discovery of relations” in places where we did not previously see “the law of continuity.” This definition echoes the definition of science as the knowledge of relations, not of substances, that the physicist Poincaré often formulated (1160). In his Introduction à la méthode, Valéry explicitly refers to Poincaré's work, stating that he has found in Poincaré's description of the scientific mind an analogy for the autonomous workings of the artistic mind. In science as in poetry, as Valéry sees it, the creative mind engaged in epistemic inquiry must attempt to seize itself in its own workings. Analogous to a scientist, Valéry sees the poet as enacting a drama of epistemic bootstrapping. Wanting to emulate scientific rigor—and in no way hostile to the values of science—Valéry tries to formalize the idea that the mind itself, in seizing itself, is the privileged locus of knowledge that the poet can explore. Valéry calls this self-reflexive seizure the “double mental life.” In this movement of self-seizure, thought develops as a series that can be “brought to the limit” so that all possibilities of intellection can be seen. With this comparison of self-reflexive thought with the limit procedure taken from calculus, Valéry aims at showing that intellection is a method that produces meaning, leading the “mind to foresee itself, to image the ensemble of what was going to be imagined in detail, and, with the effect of the succession thus resumed” one arrives at the “condition of every generalization” (1162-63).

Valéry claims that this procedure is “an operation that, known by the name of recursive reasoning” gives to “analyses their extension.” Valéry alludes to Poincaré's concept of mathematical induction, and this allusion points up the way Valéry would like to incorporate the very idea of a mechanism—here the rule given by a recursive procedure—to show that artistic creation can be defined as a method given by pure intellection. What is important here is that the intellect is defined in scientific terms: intellection is a question of procedure and method. Proust, undoubtedly another reader of Poincaré, also accepts this definition, and yet he draws somewhat different conclusions from those that Valéry accepts. For Proust, the intellect is an epistemic tool that nonetheless is separate from the epistemic realm to which literature aspires. As we shall presently see, this belief figures prominently in the way Proust constructs his novel so as to separate the work of the autonomous intellect from the work of imaginative recall. For Valéry, Poincaré's concept of recursive reasoning shows the autonomy of mind. This is essential: Poincaré's example allows one to argue the autonomy of mind on the basis of what mind does, not on the basis of what it is, as in the case of Kant. No a priori categories are involved. The autonomy of the mind is then used to argue for the mind's founding role in grounding knowledge. For Proust, this view of the autonomy of mind is a key for the very structure of his novel as well as the rhetoric of narration: his narrator quite literally demonstrates this autonomy in demonstrating the operations of his mind.

To move back a generation from Proust and Valéry, we see that comparable concerns with the mind's autonomy were found earlier in Mallarmé's attempt to expel the irrational, the contingent, and the aleatory from literature. Mallarmé, the most tortured symbolist of all, was driven by a desire to render revelation mathematically certain in the sense that poetic revelation would exclude anything contingent from the oracular knowledge poetry should offer. The quest for certainty is a late nineteenth-century leitmotif, brought about in part by the triumph of empiricism and its doctrine that all knowledge of the world is contingent. And the quest for certainty was also brought about in part by epistemological difficulties in mathematics, for the arrival of non-Euclidian geometries placed the very foundations of mathematics and epistemological certainty in doubt. In literature, Mallarmé's anguish about the contingent nature of knowledge produced a dismay analogous to the consternation many felt about the elaboration of non-Euclidian geometries. If anything is certain, it is that Mallarmé lived uncertainty as a kind of prolonged anguish, and much of his work is a self-referential exploration of the impossibility of grounding poetic revelation in an autonomous affirmation of itself. Mallarmé's quest for certainty was to find final formulation in Le Livre, or Mallarmé's “Book,” a projected work that would offer an embodiment of logos—with which the Book would found being. In this never-finished oracle, Mallarmé wanted to present the revelation of universal relations as a book of poetry, which is to say, epistemic revelation conceived as the Orphic explanation of the earth.

Mallarmé's notes published under the title of Le Livre are cryptic, to say the least, and function more like a thought experiment than a work in any ordinary sense. In a suggestive interpretation, Steven Cassedy sees in them Mallarmé's vision of dance, conceived as the incarnation of mathematics: “It is the genius of algebra having been geometrized, the final expression of how the idea, the Logos, passes from the mathematics of pure number and pure relation to the mathematics of concrete form to assume the status of an aesthetic, but entirely phenomenal, object.”2 From this perspective, Mallarmé's idea of an absolute book was the dream of “a pure network of numerical relations between a limited number of suggestive and emblematic terms (“Drame,” “Mystère,” “Idée,” etc.)” (1072). In this interpretation, it is striking that we again find Poincaré's concept of knowledge as a series of relations, a description of forms through mathematical symbolism, that the poet would reveal. This revelation should act as a kind of privileged knowledge that abolishes the contingent and the hated groundless nature of being that nearly drove Mallarmé to suicide.

For programmatic purposes, Mallarmé's book did not really need to exist. Like Plato's ideas or like some fictional book dreamed of in a novel, the very idea of the Book as the embodiment of all relations was enough to suggest that certain knowledge might exist somewhere—at least in the fictional realm in which certainty could be postulated as (fictionally) existing. Like a resumé of Borges's library of Babylon, Mallarmé's Book was to embody an ideal, autonomous nature. As such it would be a realm of transcendental revelation that must exist somewhere if it can be imagined to exist at all—if only in another work of fiction. From a Proustian perspective, then, we can say that the Book suggests the existence of a book of revelation, or a certain form of knowledge, that is only found in a fictional realm because only fiction has the autonomy to vouchsafe existence to certainty. Literature appears then as a discourse that might supplant mathematics as the guarantor of certainty in a world where the philosophy of science and especially mathematics was losing its belief that there could be certain knowledge at all. Mathematicians were asking, sometimes with anguish equal to Mallarmé's, “What could be certain if Euclid no longer was?” The answer might be in the Book, in which certainty is certain because it cannot be imagined otherwise. Proust's idea of certain knowledge lies in germ here as the work of the imagination on impressions that are certain because one cannot have any other impressions than the ones that the imagination entertains—more on this conceptual conundrum presently.

The mathematically inclined rationalist Valéry and mystical nihilist Mallarmé offered Proust their models and metaphors for a poeticized mathematics (or vice versa) grounded in a thirst for transcendence and certainty—but no real belief in any transcendental realm characterized either poet. However, if we go back to an even earlier generation, it seems Baudelaire was willing to entertain the hypothesis that there might be a transcendental realm, one needing fiction to exist—and a fair amount of hashish. Baudelaire is a singularly important spokesman for literature in its confrontation with science's epistemic imperialism because he was one of the most important rhetoricians for developing strategies of revelation. These strategies aim at revelations that science cannot rival, and these were strategies Proust was to make his own. Baudelaire's opposition to science, in defense of poetry, led him to rhetorical ploys that foreshadow directly the way Proust sought to elude the limits on knowledge imposed by science. Baudelaire's defense of poetry is based on the belief that poetic language can reveal the essence of particular moments and that these moments, in their absolute specificity, effect a disclosure of a truth that science cannot encompass. As we will see, the Proustian doctrine of essence is a rather direct borrowing from Baudelaire's celebration of the divine particular.

Baudelaire's refusal to allow science to usurp the role of arbitrator of knowledge turns on his rejection of the idea that there are a limited number of worlds literature can entertain. In addition to the world Newton described, the world sometimes taken to be the real one, Baudelaire maintained that there are many worlds to be revealed and known. An indefinite number of epistemic realms exist that poetry can explore. And Baudelaire concluded that, if there is a plurality of possible epistemic realms, these realms of revelation lie outside the generalizing framework imposed by classical physics to define reality. Opposing the limits of Kantian rationalism, Baudelaire claims that any individual world is as worthy of epistemic exploration as that Newtonian-Kantian world defined by the parameters of public space, time, and motion. This claim derives from his belief that there is particular knowledge limited to the individual subject. Baudelaire's reasoning here opens the way for Proust's exploration of the knowledge of the particular stored in human memory, because individual memory, for both Baudelaire and Proust, is one of those worlds lying outside the confines of Kantian epistemology.

Baudelaire's poetical works propose to explore these individual worlds, although typically his poems also portray the impossibility of dwelling in any realm of transcendental revelation longer than the moment of intoxication that offers access to that realm. If one turns from his poems to his critical writing, one finds that Baudelaire spells out, with clarity and with less irony than in his poems, his refusal to allow science to claim all epistemic space. In his critical writing, Baudelaire elucidates, with great self-consciousness, the self-defensive position of the nineteenth-century poet who wants to carve out a realm outside of science. Baudelaire believed that, if he were not successful in finding a specific object for poetic activity, he would be reduced to the role of a simple versifier who, were he to make truth claims, could only repeat the truths science has discovered. Rejecting in effect the Keatsian claim that truth is beauty, Baudelaire separated out the realms of truth, beauty, and duty, declaring each to be the object of a different type of inquiry. Truth is found by science, beauty by poetry, though Baudelaire says the novel may represent a mixed discourse in which both truth and beauty are present. This view foreshadows Proust's conception of the novel, since in his novel the truths of scientific determinism exist as the framework in which the revelation of the unique truth of subjectivity takes place.

Finally, in Baudelaire's economy of discourse, beauty is conceived as separate from ethics and truth. As Baudelaire puts it in an essay on Gautier, beauty is the product of a discourse that takes itself as its own object: “La poésie ne peut pas, sous peine de mort ou de déchéance, s'assimiler à la science ou à la morale; elle n'a pas la Vérité pour objet, elle n'a qu'Elle-même” [Poetry cannot, under pain of death or degradation, assimilate itself to science or ethics; it does not have the Truth as its object, it has only Itself].3 Whatever be the ultimate origins of the doctrine of the autonomy of art, in Baudelaire's theory this doctrine is part of a defensive posture directed against the encroachment of imperial science as well as the imperialism of moralizing discourses that would reduce poetry to a repetition of the ethical truths of triumphant bourgeois ideology.

Baudelaire's doctrine of the autonomy of poetry does not preclude its having an epistemic function, though poetry's task does not consist simply in the enunciation of Truth. In writing on his contemporary Victor Hugo, Baudelaire celebrates those thinkers like a Fourier or a Swedenborg who revealed that the world is made up of analogies. Perhaps it is not inapposite to suggest that these thinkers undertook something like the disclosure of the relations that, as Poincaré later said, it is science's task to reveal. Baudelaire drew the conclusion that poets, like other thinkers, can reveal analogies: “Chez les excellents pöetes, il n'y a pas de métaphore, de comparaison ou d'épithète qui ne soit d'une adaptation mathématiquement exacte dans la circonstance actuelle, parce que ces comparaisons, ces métaphores et ces épithètes sont puisées dans l'inépuisable fonds de l'universelle analogie, et qu'elles ne peuvent être puisées ailleurs” [One inevitably recalls Poe in translating Baudelaire into Poe's language, or back into Poe's language: In the work of excellent poets, there is no metaphor, no simile or epithet that is not the equivalent, within the present circumstance, of a mathematically exact adaptation, because these similes, metaphors, and epithets are extracted from the inexhaustible stock of universal analogy and they can be extracted from nowhere else] (705). One wonders how a rhetorical figure can be mathematically precise. The answer is that Baudelaire has used a figure here, one comparing figures to equations, to suggest that poetic rhetoric can serve a function analogous to that of scientific language couched in mathematical formalism. In defining an epistemic realm for poetry, Baudelaire says that this realm is accessible, metaphorically, through the same analogical precision through which the world of classical dynamics is accessible: through metaphorical language that can be as exact in its translation of reality as mathematical equations. In a sense, Baudelaire conceives of the task of literature to be a parallel research program to physics, a program whose conjectures supplement or complement the realm of truths that empirical science offers. There is a historical difference between Proust and Baudelaire in this regard. Proust's search begins two generations later when Newtonian dynamics, though still accepted, had lost its claim to be the universal paradigm for knowledge. Baudelaire may have surmised that this was the case, but, by 1890, it was clear to all who were scientifically literate that Newtonian dynamics did not offer the only way to describe the world.

Baudelaire did not need the end of the Newtonian consensus to find concrete examples of what he meant by the exploration of multiple worlds. For example, in Victor Hugo's work in La légende des siècles, Baudelaire finds a concrete example of poetic conjecture that properly fulfills the mission of poetry. Baudelaire finds in the Hugo who wrote “La pente de la rêverie” a demonstration of the limits of mathematical reasoning: In Hugo, much as in Balzac, the reader sees that the paradoxes involved in unity and infinity cannot be resolved (709). Baudelaire finds in Hugo that literature and science have separate domains, separate realms, for which each is best suited—even if it seems that science proposes a model that literature is tempted to emulate and not the contrary. Baudelaire's is a somewhat contradictory position: Poetry should owe nothing to science, though science is nonetheless a model for truth or knowledge that poetry is obliged to recognize. The tension created by this contradictory mixing of prescriptive and descriptive aesthetics runs throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. It is a tension that finds its most ambitious expression in Proust's novel, in Proust's demonstration that literature has no ethical role per se, for his novel is an epistemic project that can incorporate both the truth of science and knowledge of subjective worlds.

Baudelaire's own resolution of this tension comes in some of the major poems of Les Fleurs du mal, these “flowers of evil” that enact and celebrate the attempt to escape from the world of tedium or ennui, or in short, the world of time. The rhetoric in these poems points the way to Proust's use of images for garnering nonintellectual knowledge of the individual who lives in a world of universal laws obeying temporality. For Baudelaire, the world known by intellection is the mechanical world of classical physics over which clocks rule as absolutes. Newton's belief in absolute time is the starting point for Baudelaire's poems that want to overthrow the intellectual tyranny of physics by destroying the emotional tyranny of clocks. Escape from this world of absolute temporality begins nonetheless with the recognition of the primacy of the material world, a primacy recognized as much by Proust as by Baudelaire, though Proust no longer recognizes the primacy of absolute time. In Baudelaire, this recognition underwrites the possibility of mechanically manipulating matter so as to change states of consciousness, or what we might call the creation of knowledge through pharmacology (349). Realms outside of science's purlieu can be found with stimulants—like poetry or hashish, eros or wine—that propel the mind outside of itself into a new world:

Cette acuité de la pensée, cet enthousiasme des sens et de l'esprit, ont dû, en tout temps, apparaitre à l'homme comme le premier des biens; c'est pourquoi, ne considérant que la volupté immédiate, il a, sans s'inquiéter de violer les lois de sa constitution, cherché dans la science physique, dans la pharmaceutique, dans les plus grossières liqueurs, dans les parfums les plus subtils, sous tous les climats dans tous les temps, les moyens de fuire, ne fût-ce que pour quelques heures, son habitacle de fange.

[This sharpness of thought, this enthusiasm of the mind and the senses, must have, in every era, appeared to humanity as the greatest of goods; that is why, considering only immediate voluptuous rapture, and without worrying about violating the laws of our constitution, humanity has sought in physical and pharmaceutical science, in the strongest liquors, and in the most subtle perfumes, in every climate and every era, the means to flee, be it only for a few hours, its little abode of filth.]

(“Le Poëme du haschisch,” 348)

The experience of flight is the goal of art, or art as intoxication, which is to say, art affords a nonintellectual experience that is a revelation of worlds that do not belong to science and the intellect. Experience is not reducible to some intellectual proposition, though it is an epistemic state involving knowledge of a unique realm. Using a rhetoric based on metaphor and analogy, Baudelaire says that poetic experience is direct knowledge of a superior realm beyond the intellectual realm of classical physics, which redeems existence, at least momentarily. And because poetic experience redeems a moment that is unique to the individual, it is a more valuable state of knowledge than knowledge provided by universal scientific laws. Or so argues Baudelaire in defense of nonintellectual knowledge.

After Baudelaire, the goal of poetry is often proclaimed to be the communication of this unique revelation, if communication is the right word to describe the perception of unmediated knowledge. Proust was especially sensitive to the potential contradiction found in the desire to communicate a unique, individual experience through the language composed of general concepts that poetry is obliged to use. From this perspective, it may appear that Baudelaire makes of the very notion of poetic experience a contradiction: a poem as language is a verbal communication, but a poem as poetic experience is unmediated knowledge. The very idea of communication presupposes mediation by a structure of communication—be it linguistic, iconic, or whatever. Baudelaire's rhetoric is motivated by his attempt to get around the difficulty of seizing unique experience through the mediation of universal concepts.

Baudelaire's poetic use of language points directly to Proust's attempt to find, in the language of his fictional discourse, a way of communicating a privileged experience that only literature can know: in brief, a nonintellectual knowledge that science cannot duplicate. In the exactitude of figurative language—mathematical or not—Baudelaire saw the key to the communication of experience uncontaminated by the intellect. The revelation of unsuspected relations, afforded by tropes, is in fact constitutive of this experience of unique knowledge. These relations can be revealed, for example, by poetical analogies, as in Baudelaire's famous poem “Correspondances.” In this sonnet, an entire world of analogies springs from the relations perceived in correspondences among the senses. The relations are abstract, but they are given only in the figures created by the language of immediate sensation.

Or, equally apt for Proust, other relations are discovered in analogies between past and present when the poetic text evokes perfumes that call up the past, as in a sonnet like “Le Parfum.” A brief excursus on “Le Parfum” can serve as an introduction to Proust's rhetoric and lead us from Baudelaire's epistemic dreams into Proust's novel. The first quatrain of the sonnet, “Le Parfum,” evokes, with a question, a world found in a moment of sensuality. With ironic directness, Baudelaire asks if the reader has ever been intoxicated by odors:

Lecteur, as-tu quelquefois respiré
Avec ivresse et lente gourmandise
Ce grain d'encens qui remplit une église,
Ou d'un sachet le musc invétéré?
[Reader, have you sometimes breathed in
With intoxication and slow delight
This grain of incense which fills a church
Or the deep-seated musk of some sachet?]

This question is followed in the next stanza by an indirect answer. Baudelaire presents an analogy that defines the poetic experience as knowledge of the past re-created sensually in the present. One inevitably thinks of Proust's description of the pastry called a madeleine and the cup of linden tea that generate his narrator's discovery of time past in the opening section of A la Recherche:

Charme profond, magique, dont nous grise
Dans le présent le passé restauré.
Ainsi l'amant sur un corp adoré
Du souvenir cueille la fleur exquise.
[Profound and magic spell in which we are made drunk
By the past restored in the present.
So a lover, bent over an adored body,
Gathers the exquisite flower of memory.]

As Baudelaire's lover caresses the beloved, the full intoxication occurs when the past is fully restored in the present. The odors of the present moment find an analogy with odors in the past and, through the sensual relation thus revealed, allow the past to invade the present.

The sonnet's tercets draw the conclusion that this privileged sensual experience is analogous to the experience of a religious plenitude produced by the odors in a church full of incense:

De ses cheveux élastiques et lourds,
Vivant sachet, encensoir de l'alcôve,
Une senteur montait, sauvage et fauve.
[From her elastic and heavy hair,
A living sachet, a censer for the boudoir,
Was arising an odor, one wild and animal-like.]

The sachet and the censer are likened to the mistress's heavy hair in the web of analogies linking the altar, the boudoir, and the poem itself, at once present in the past, and present as the fullness of an experience lying beyond whatever we can know through mere intellection. The final tercet stresses that it is a uniquely sensual realm that is (or was) the source of our experiential elevation:

Et des habits, mousseline ou velours,
Tout imprégnés de sa jeunesse pure,
Se dégageait un parfum de fourrure.
[And from her clothes, be they muslin or velvet,
Quite saturated with her pure youthfulness
Was emanating a perfume of fur.]

Baudelaire's sensualism proposes a triumph for poetry over the world, though this victory is fleeting and hence ironic in its evanescence, since the reader inevitably feels that the tedium of the physical world is ready to assert itself as the bedrock of existence. Baudelaire's ironic poses, and the contradictory affirmations of his mystical materialism, seem to cry out for the creation of an artwork that at once affirms the knowledge of the material world, described in all its deterministic grimness by science, while it offers permanent knowledge of a realm that might escape from reductionist materialism.

In other words, Baudelaire's paradoxes seem to call out for the creation of a literary work that is at once a novel incorporating the knowledge of the laws of physical necessity, and a poem offering unique knowledge of an individual realm that transcends the world of intellection. Later symbolists seemed to point out by example that the pursuit of pure transcendence could only result in empty gestures or celebrations of failure. Mallarmé showed that poetry, pursued as a celebration of its impossible transcendence, could result only in a cryptic knowledge of its own impossibility. Attempting to circumvent the failure that is the glory of Mallarmé's poetry, Valéry's work showed that poetry can also offer knowledge of its own conditions of possibility. However, Valéry knew well that this self-reflective knowledge would fail to satisfy the writer or reader wanting knowledge beyond the text's knowledge of itself. Valéry dramatized this desire in his poem “Le Cimetière marin,” with its portrayal of the life forces that inevitably blow open the sheets of paper that seek to enclose the text upon itself. In fine, the work of these major symbolist poets suggested the possibility of a literary creation consonant with the truths of the scientific intellect, but which went beyond these truths. In the wake of the symbolists, Proust understands that such a work would offer knowledge of a transcendental realm of unique experience and would also account for its own operation through a self-reflexive epistemic justification of its existence. This, in essence, is what we find in Proust's A la Recherche du temps perdu—this and a vision of an objective world ruled over by scientific law.

Proust, like Baudelaire, desired to find for literature a field of inquiry that is at least as valuable as the one defined by science. Like Valéry, he was respectful of science, of the science that included by the time Proust was writing such new theories, ideas, and disciplines as Darwinian biology, the medical revolution based on microbiology, the nearly completed systematic classification of modern chemistry, Maxwell's field equations, Poincaré's early formulations of relativity, and, after the reception of non-Euclidian geometries, the now-generalized recognition that mathematical creation had no a priori limits. By the early twentieth century, the epistemic space carved out by science had become far larger, in a relatively short time, than the world described by Newton and Laplace, those emblematic mechanical thinkers whom Baudelaire mentions with distanced respect. Proust's science includes of course Newton and Laplace, but as rethought by epistemologists like the Parisian philosopher Boutroux or, more importantly, Poincaré. For by the early twentieth century, any consideration of the world of science in France, or Europe, had to take account of the work of the most influential modern French mathematician and theoretical physicist, Henri Poincaré. After considering the French symbolists and some ideas about Proust's relation to them, we can gain much by considering Proust's work in the light of the thought of an emblematic scientist like Poincaré. Poincaré is not well known among literary historians, though he dominates the physics and mathematics of the time, and no history of epistemology is complete without considering Poincaré along with Mach, Duhem, and Boltzmann. In the French context, his thought offers the most influential scientific epistemology Proust contemplated as he began working on A la Recherche du temps perdu.

Poincaré's work is quite diverse. Anticipating Einstein, Poincaré proposed an early version of a theory of relativity shortly before Einstein published his 1905 paper on the special theory of relativity. In working on the difficulty of calculating the mutual attraction of three centers of gravitation—the three body problem—Poincaré developed some of the early work upon which chaos theory is based. The fact that Valéry borrows his procedure for defining mind from Poincaré underscores that Poincaré had become in France the public model of the scientist as thinker, especially for his role in debates concerning the foundation of mathematics. For example, Poincaré's writings were at the center of debates in which questions about the foundations of mathematics inevitably led to concern about the nature of knowledge and certainty. Poincaré's role was especially visible in the debate set off at the time by the dissemination of ideas in France about non-Euclidean geometry. The debate, argued in widely read journals, was between, on one side, Kantians who defended the a priori necessity of Euclidean geometry and, on the other side, positivists and empiricists who rejected the metaphysical idealism Kant's position implied. In her important study of the role of non-Euclidian geometry in art, Linda Henderson stresses Poincaré's role in bringing this debate to a wide public:

The importance of the French debate was twofold. It gave non-Euclidean geometry currency in Paris among intellectuals, and out of this debate emerged the definitive statements on this subject by Henri Poincaré, the mathematician-scientist and writer who, more than any other individual, was responsible for the popularization of non-Euclidean geometry in Paris. …

In 1887 Poincaré first published his theory that the axioms of geometry are neither synthetic a priori nor empirical, but are conventions, a view now generally accepted as the solution to the controversy.4

Poincaré's conventionalism rejected the experimental nature of geometry, as well as its a priori nature, since the belief in the a priori nature of mathematics argued against the possibility of establishing new geometric systems. And it was now obviously the case that the mind is capable of new geometries.

Poincaré's conventionalism seemed to entail that one was free to chose the geometry one found most convenient, for neither Euclidean nor Lobachevsky's geometry were true or false. Poincaré made this conventionalism into a coherent epistemological doctrine that Proust, as well as Valéry, took to heart, for the doctrine made mathematics seem more like art: Mathematical formalisms were viewed as a product of the human mind that one could use according to one's needs. Yet there was a loss to the viewpoint. Certain truth no longer belonged to the ontology of mathematics and, by implication, to physical systems constructed as mathematical deductions. The “conventional” nature of mathematics entailed the conclusion that truth was a matter of use, not of ontology, and with this conclusion one could no longer point to mathematics as a body of certain truths about the world. Certainty no longer seemed to belong to a world that science could describe in any number of different ways.

Poincaré himself pushed the point about what we today call the underdetermined nature of reality when he argued that conventionalism in mathematics carries over to physics and other sciences:

If a phenomenon carries with it a complete mechanical explanation, it will carry with it an infinity of other explanations that will equally as well account for all the particularities revealed by experiment.

And that is confirmed by the history of every part of physics; in optics, for example, Fresnel believed in vibration that was perpendicular to the plane of polarization. Newmann thought it was parallel to this plane. Scientists looked for a long time for a “experimentum crucis” that would allow a decision between these two theories and one could not be found.5

The choice of a theory is guided, as Poincaré puts it, by considerations where “the personal contribution” is very great, though considerations like elegance and simplicity are also usual. Conventionalism, describing the epistemological underdetermination of reality, undermines the belief in certainty as a form of a priori necessity. Kant's epistemology founders here, as do the Newtonian underpinnings of the realism of a preceding century of realist writers, and Zola's future-oriented epistemology suddenly seems rather naive: The theory of progress is largely emptied of theoretical content when any conceivable number of theories may work, now or later. (From Poincaré and Mach through Popper and Quine, there is in this regard a continuity.)

The conventionalist epistemology elaborated by Poincaré finds strong resonance in the aesthetic modernism of a writer like Proust, for whom certain truth cannot be given by science, because science's generalized laws, in their contingency, have probability, but no certainty. Certainty would have to be granted by some necessity that science does not deal with and that not even mathematics can vouchsafe. Recognizing that epistemic necessity is not found in the objective world of science, Proust, in resonance with Poincaré, allows his narrator to develop the idea that certainty may be found in the subjective world of unique experience. Actually, it is hardly necessary that Poincaré be Proust's direct source, for one could just as well argue that Poincaré and Proust share a common epistemology that developed in reaction to the loss of certainty at the end of the nineteenth century. And going beyond Poincaré as it were, Proust affirms that certainty and necessity can characterize knowledge if that knowledge is granted by unique experience, because of the nature of what is unique: It can only be what it is. In this move, Proust seems to have taken a cue from Mallarmé, for his narrator argues, implicitly, that fiction, by its autonomy, can create a realm in which certainty can exist because it can be imagined to exist. Poincaré leads to Mallarmé (and to Borges), and from this perspective Proust's novel appears to be a quest that stakes out an epistemic space outside of those realms carved out by science: Proust's narrator can find certain knowledge if he can gain access to that subjective realm that is not subject to the underdeterminism Poincaré ascribes to the objective world known by the various sciences.

It cannot be said that Proust or his narrator flaunts any relation to Poincaré. In fact, Proust makes only one reference to Poincaré in the course of A la Recherche du temps perdu. This reference occurs when a character, the aristocratic Saint-Loup, says in conversation that Poincaré has shown that mathematics isn't all “that certain.” One may wonder whether Saint-Loup has been a diligent reader of Poincaré, but his comment mirrors public reaction to the debates on scientific epistemology that had been widespread in France and in Europe in general. Saint-Loup's comment on Poincaré points up that certainty and uncertainty were public issues in France, and that something as esoteric as concern about the foundations of mathematics, brought about by non-Euclidian geometry, could occupy the aristocracy of Faubourg Saint-Germain. Saint-Loup's reference to certainty shows that epistemological and scientific questions were being asked, at the beginning of the twentieth century, in works by scientists and, as we see, by novelists.

As Proust's novel itself centrally demonstrates about literature, novelists as well as mathematicians can be concerned with apodictic structures or procedures that grant certain knowledge. The criteria by which certainty is granted or recognized may vary from one discourse to another, as may what exactly certainty even means. Proust, as much as any thinker or writer, was well aware that the difficulty of defining certainty exists in direct proportion to the anguish one may feel upon needing some certainty in a world in which one finds merely probable truth, or uncertainties. With an intellectual rigor perhaps unparalleled in literary history, Proust framed the question of the certainty of artistic truth in direct response to the uncertainties of the intellect that scientific conventionalism portrays. At this juncture, we find again a potential rivalry between literature and science, for the claims to certain knowledge could lead to claims of superiority. In Proust, this rivalry is actually defused by Proust's concept of artistic truth, for artistic truth, as we shall see presently, is really complementary or symmetrical to scientific truth. The essential point to grasp here, the starting point for understanding Proust's intellectual context, is the way in which Proust frames the question of certainty in terms that mirror the emerging epistemological consensus for which Poincaré, mathematician and epistemologist, set out the basic terms in a series of his nonmathematical works, the most popular of which was La Science et l'hypothèse (Science and Hypothesis) of 1902.

To allay the doubts some readers may now be entertaining, I will concede that Poincaré is not a thinker whose name is usually coupled with Proust's. My point is of course that it should be (and indeed has been in the very most recent book I have read on Proust, Nicola Luckhurst's Science and Structure in Proust's “A la recherche”). Bergson and Einstein are more usual names bandied about when it comes to intellectual analogies, though a little scrutiny shows that these names are not especially relevant. Proust knew Bergson's work, but Bergson's concepts about time are not Proust's. I do not believe that Proust really made much use of Bergson, or that Proust even knew much about Einstein before late in his life. Einstein did not become a media star before Eddington's 1919 expedition affirmed that gravity could bend light and thus offered an important and widely acclaimed confirmation of Einstein's general relativity theory. If a meaningful comparison can be made between Proust and Einstein—and an argument can be made for analogies—this overlap is a question of coincidence, not influence, for Einstein and Proust were subject to the same intellectual developments.

The reference made by Proust's narrator in “Combray” (1913) to time as the “fourth dimension” of spacial reality is a reflection not of Einstein's relativity theory, but of Poincaré's claim that, if we were to receive a different education, we could localize phenomena of the exterior world in non-Euclidian space or even in a space with four dimensions. Consider the chapter on “Space and Geometry” in Science and Hypothesis:

Beings with minds like ours, and having the same senses as we, but without previous education, would receive from a suitably chosen external world impressions such that they would be led to construct a geometry other than that of Euclid and to localize the phenomena of that external world in a non-Euclidian space, or even in a space with four dimensions.

As for us, whose education has been accomplished by our actual world, if we were suddenly transported into this new world, we should have no difficulty in referring its phenomena to our Euclidean space. Conversely, if these beings were transported into our environment, they would be led to relate our phenomena to non-Euclidean space.


Not only does Poincaré grant us the power to perceive four dimensions, but he even imagines that we could visualize Lorentz transformations, that is, we could perceive that objects get smaller as they approach the speed of light. Poincaré was a scientist with an imagination that a novelist might well envy. In any case, perceiving a fourth dimension seems to have been an idea that Proust found quite congenial.

With such ideas as these, Poincaré was close to formulating a theory like Einstein's relativity theory, but only close. As Martin Gardner points out, neither Lorentz nor Poincaré imagined that time was relative to an inertial framework. This was the great conceptual step that Einstein took, in which he rejected Newton's premise that one time permeated the entire cosmos.6 If it does not seem that Einstein's ideas influenced Proust, it does seem plausible to say that Proust's relativizing his narrator's position in time parallels what Einstein developed in building on Poincaré, Lorentz, and others in framing the theory of special relativity in 1905. What seems most probable is that Proust drew directly upon Poincaré for an image of space that allowed the affirmation of the non-Euclidian image that time is a dimension of space. And with this, Proust was empowered to set free his narrator's inner space, making all in the novel relative to it, and inventing, as it were, his own special theory of relativity.

Equally fundamental is the way Proust interpreted Poincaré's type of epistemology in his search for ideas that might vouchsafe certainty to art as a form of knowledge. In a very real sense, Proust used the loss of certainty in mathematics and science that he found in Poincaré or in the wake of Poincaré. The loss of absolute certainty in science is the springboard that offered Proust grounds for arguing for the certain knowledge that he seeks in art.

Proust's narrator knows of course that the physical sciences do offer a type of truth; and, in dealing with knowledge, Proust's narrator alludes frequently to scientific paradigms that dictate truth about reality. As part of its epistemic premises, the novel accepts that medicine and physiology, as well as classical mechanics and thermodynamics, describe an objective world—by definition, that is their realm. The narrator explicitly accepts science's role in allowing us to know contingent reality. All contingent reality should be amenable to description by laws, and in fact Proust's narrator actually extends the range of phenomena described by laws beyond what science had really accomplished in the early twentieth century (or today). He constantly evokes, for example, the “laws” that putatively dictate the development of individuals and culture in time. Proust's narrator accepts for contingent, objective reality, moreover, the descriptive power of the positivist hierarchy of discourses. This hierarchy proposes that every level of epistemic analysis is subject to a superior determination by the laws of the next, more general level of discourse. On one level, for instance, Proust's narrator declares that there are specific social laws, and that these are then subject to the higher and more general laws of temporality, by which we might think of thermodynamics and entropy. There are the specific laws of the body and the mind, which are then subject to determination by the more general laws of physiology and, above all, the laws of the heredity invented by nineteenth-century medicine. Like an unending research project, Proust's novel needs its three thousand pages to document how these putative laws dictate the way society and characters develop—for the laws of physics and physiology are so many examples of the most general “laws of time” at work. Time is the space these laws need—much time—for their realization.

This aspect of Proust's narration may seem at times to present something of a caricature of determinism, and it is at this point that we see that Zola's influence is very strong, in spite of Proust's critical remarks about naturalism. Consider, for example, when, after hundreds of pages, the narrator begins to discover that he himself offers one more example of the way hereditary laws determine character development. Zola would certainly have approved of the development that leads to the discovery by Proust's aging narrator that he has come to resemble, not only his father, but above all, his Aunt Léonie, the old maniac who refused to leave her room in Combray—the room that was the center of the child's paradise recalled and re-created in “Combray” at the novel's beginning. As a young man, the narrator thought that he was, in every important respect, the opposite of the aunt who found reading to be a waste of time. As a mature man, he discovers that his aunt's character has come to rivet him, too, to his bed, where he endlessly meditates in jealousy upon his lover, Albertine: “Or, bien que chaque jour j'en trouvasse la cause dans un malaise particulier, ce qui me faisait si souvent rester couché, c'était un être, non pas Albertine, non pas un être que j'aimais, mais un être plus puissant sur moi qu'un être aimé, c'était transmigrée en moi, despotique au point de faire taire parfois mes soupçons jaloux, ou du moins de m'empêcher d'aller vérifier, s'ils étaient fondés ou non, c'était ma tante Léonie” [Now, even though each day I found a cause for it in a particular discomfort, what made me remain so often in bed was a being—not Albertine, not a being that I loved—but a being having more power over me than a loved being, one who had transmigrated into me and was despotic enough to quiet my jealous suspicions, or at least to stop me from going to see if they were grounded or not, and that being was my Aunt Leonie].7 Transmigration is Proust's mythic equivalent of inheritance; it is his translation of the laws of the transmission of character traits that dominates the development of all characters in A la Recherche with a mechanical rigor in which only late nineteenth-century medicine could believe. From Saint-Loup to the Baron de Charlus, every Proustian character is ruled mechanically by laws that model one's flesh and pick one's sexual preferences, that color the eyes and determine posture and gait, and that cause tics and manias.

If the narrator constantly consults a barometer because his father did so maniacally, this suggests that Proust also had in mind a neo-Lamarckian theory of the acquisition of traits. But this is only one of many theories that can be evoked with regard to what the narrator frequently calls the laws of time, as well as the laws of the soul, the laws of the body and its development. These are all so many laws or paradigms that are interlinked to create a deterministic tapestry portraying decline, hereditary transformations, and death as the inevitable pattern of human existence. When at the novel's outset, the older narrator looks back upon his childhood to ask if his entire past is dead, he is implicitly making appeal to a number of frameworks that make sense of such a question. He knows that thermodynamics, physiology, and hereditary science all spell out death as the end product of human development. But these truths granted by science are contingent in that any number of scientific models could be used to explain them. There is no necessary or certain truth in science, only the indifferently used laws that could be replaced by other laws to explain what one perceives, for these laws are the product of our intelligence. And these products of intellect are unable to reach the truth of our subjective world, because, as the narrator says, this world is locked up in nonintellectual sensations: “Il en est ainsi de notre passé. C'est peine perdue que nous cherchions à l'évoquer, tous les efforts de notre intelligence sont inutiles. Il est caché hors de son domaine et de sa portée, en quelque objet matériel (en la sensation que nous donnerait cet objet matériel) que nous ne soupçonnons pas” [And so it is with our past. We waste our effort when we attempt to evoke it; all our intellect's efforts are useless. It is hidden outside of the realm of the intellect and its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would offer us) whose existence we do not suspect] (1:44). As Baudelaire's work demonstrated—and which the narrator seemingly fully accepts—only sensation can get around the limits of intellect and provide the substantive plenitude that restores knowledge of our subjective world. Knowledge is, in this regard, conceived as a fullness of things in their sensorial richness. Here we should recall Baudelaire's practice with regard to the contradictions of immediacy: in a literary work, sensation must be captured by linguistic means, by images and metaphors, and by the rhetorical structure in which these images are embedded. The writer's task is, as Mallarmé's nonexistent Book suggested, to find the images and the rhetorical structure that can offer access, in a fiction, to a world of certainty that exists therein because of the autonomy of fictional discourse: fiction itself guarantees certainty, because there is no alternative to certainty's existence if it is declared to exist. (Or, more prosaically, it is not a contingent statement to say, “Madame Bovary's eyes are blue.” Nor can I imagine that she does not exist once the novel declares that she does.)

One of the goals of Proust's novel is to describe the necessity and hence certainty that Proust's narrator finds in the fullness of his own subjective truth. So the novel must show, convincingly, that subjectivity has a certainty that contingent truth does not have. An understanding of the novel's rhetorical structure is the key to understanding how one can meaningfully speak of the necessity of a unique experience or revelation. The work's rhetorical structure is designed to give access to the narrator's certain knowledge, and Proust's rhetorical ploys take on their complete meaning when they are considered as part of his narrator's epistemic quest aiming at a certainty science cannot offer. The center for this certainty is the knowing subject in the novel, the first-person narrator. Proust's first-person narration is told by a self-observer whose scope is limited to the world of his, the narrator's, subjectivity (with the notable exception of the nearly omniscient narration, about a time before the narrator's birth, that he offers in Un Amour de Swan). The narrator self-consciously knows he can deal only with what I call the narrator's own inertial reference frame: the narrating self is the framework of reference for all that happens in the novel. This framework determines how time and space are perceived in the work. Temporality is an absolute for Newtonian cosmology, and for the realm of contingent truths that rely upon that cosmology, but the novel's subjective time and space exist relative to the narrator. The effect of the rhetorical structure is to remove the narrator's subjective space from the realm of objectivity so that subjectivity is separate from the realm wherein science and its laws rule supreme.

The first pages of the novel work to “delocalize” the narrator. He is often sleeping, or present in chambers, in which space is uncertain. The boundary lines separating dream, aesthetic perception, and perception of reality are blurred as the narrator wanders in memory. From the outset, the narrator is situated so that there is no absolute narrative space that can be called the present space of narration. All dynamics in the novel, and all development therein, is recorded and measured in a space that is defined strictly relative to the narrator: he is the only framework for viewing the novelistic world. Yet, as many students have complained, it is never clear where he may be located. The net effect of this separation of narrative voice from the world is that even time recalled exists finally as a function of the self outside of the coordinates of space and time. This is the sense of the narrator's dictum when he says that a man who sleeps holds in a circle about himself the thread of the hours, the order of years and of worlds (1:5). Proust is willing to ascribe absolute time to science's domain, the domain of laws that destroy the body, but he reserves for his narrator's epistemic realm another version of time, the time in which the narrator functions in a space defined by the narrator's sensations.

The temporality of the work's rhetorical structure is grounded in Proust's use of verb tenses. For example, the first sentence in the novel gives us a narrator who says, rather bizarrely, that he has gone to bed early for a long time—“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” In this opening sentence, the composed past tense functions somewhat like the English present perfect tense in that it seems to relate a past act to the present moment, or the fictional present in which the novel is narrated. The past is thus situated relative to a present moment that is the present moment of the fiction's enunciation. Logically, it is only in the present moment that the narrator can narrate his past life unfolding in the imperfect tense, the tense of the repetition of acts carried out in the past. The imperfect tense, the French imparfait, is the tense the narrator often uses to describe the mechanical unfolding of repetitive events, when the events are not clearly unique events narrated in the literary past tense, the passé simple. At times he also uses the imperfect for events that seem logically to have been unique occurrences, but the imperfect endows them with a sense of repetition that transforms them into eternally repeating acts of memory. In this way the novel's temporal framework is polarized between the unnamed present moment of narration and the imperfect tense that describes the past for a narrator who is situated outside that past. In a sense, the present-tense narrator, who is never situated in the novel, is outside the temporal flow governed by the laws of time ruling over objective reality. The reader only knows, or vaguely feels, that the narrator is narrating in a present moment because the passé composé, or composed past, is used by the narrator, albeit only a few times in the course of the novel. This tense, each time it is used, situates the narrator in a present moment, a moment of dreaming or awakening, lying outside the temporal flow of ordinary experience. This tense thus contrasts with what is usually narrated in the imperfect tense, though sometimes in the literary past tense, the tenses used for those contingencies that can be described by the laws of time, the laws that bring matter to dissolution. The passé composé relates a past to a transcendental present moment of narration.

The passé composé is the tense, at the beginning of the novel, first used to recall all of Combray and the narrator's childhood in their complete fullness. This recall is effected through the images re-creating the sensations of the past after the narrator finds, through the sensual associations sparked by a pastry and a linden tea, that his childhood past has been restored to him. He then declares, using the passé composé, “tout Combray et ses environs, tout cela qui prend forme et solidité, est sorti, ville et jardins, de ma tasse de thé” [all of Combray and its surroundings, all of that which can acquire form and solidity, the city and the gardens, has arisen/arose from my cup of tea] (my emphasis, 1:48). Combray is restored in all its fullness and, therewith, the narrator can entertain the certain knowledge of his past re-created as a present—in the form of the narration called “Combray.” However, the act of narration itself never coincides with what is narrated, and the narrator never coincides with himself as the character who, in the novel's past experience, is subject to the laws governing the novel's unfolding. The past can explode into the present moment of narration, but it never ceases being a past that unfolded according to the laws of time.

To recapitulate, the goal of Proust's narrator is to shape a work of art that respects and, indeed, uses the laws of time and reality, the laws of physics and physiology, at the same time that the narrator seeks a perception offering certain truth. Since certainty cannot exist in the realm of contingent laws, certain truth must exist in a realm where these laws hold no sway. Many indifferent laws can be invoked to describe the world that is essentially underdetermined, as Poincaré's epistemology describes it. This is the world of the aleatory that Mallarmé deplored and from which Baudelaire sought escape. Opposed to this domain is that unnamed realm inhabited by the narrator-observer who looks from his narrative framework upon the world and, in so doing, finds a perspective that is not subject to contingency—for he discovers that his perceptions cannot be inscribed in any deterministic matrix that would reduce them to some expression of a scientific model. At this point, the narrator can say that contingency is transformed into necessity. Contingent impressions can be converted into a realm characterized by necessary knowledge, at least when the artist successfully embodies his or her random sensations or perception into a work of art. The work of art is a realm of necessity because it is unique to that artist and to that subjective framework of reference that is different from all others. This knowledge is certain knowledge, because it can have no other status. In its uniqueness it defies contingency. Memory of the two ways at Combray, or of the church at the center of the village, gives knowledge of necessity as it offers a revelation of the subject's world, one that necessarily can be no other than what it is, or rather was.

Hopefully these remarks throw light on the idea that Poincaré's epistemological theory parallels the belief in the artist's unique perception in other, important ways. For the grounds for the belief that the artist can escape the deterministic laws of the universe, as described by classical physics and physiology, are strongly implied by Poincaré's general epistemology. This epistemology was crucial in the demise of the belief in determinism, and with the demise of the belief in Laplacian totalizing determinism, the artist could feel justified in the belief that there might be realms sheltered from the iron hand of deterministic laws. Specifically, the loss of belief in determinism resulted in large part from the interpretation of work in physics undertaken by Poincaré on the three body problem, or the unsolved problem of how to determine the mutual gravitation attraction of more than two bodies. As I shall presently elaborate, there are reasons to believe that Proust was quite attentive to the implications of the three body problem. The unsuccessful attempt to work out the dynamics of the attraction among three bodies was generally taken to signify the end of the theoretical possibility of prediction granted by a total determinism. By the end of the nineteenth century, the problem was already a long outstanding one, for work on the three body problem had begun a century earlier. After Newton's laws of motion had successfully described the attraction between two bodies, the next step in celestial mechanics was to try to find equations that could account for the motions of three bodies, but the complexity of the problem defied resolution.

Belief in determinism depended very much on successfully resolving this problem: extrapolations from Newtonian mechanics had allowed Laplace to claim that, if a sufficiently powerful mind were to know the position of every atom in the universe, then this mind could calculate the future of the entire cosmos. Laplacian hubris foundered not on the infinite number of equations needed for these predictions, but rather on what could be said about three bodies. The historian of mathematics Morris Kline has shown that a loss of certainty came to afflict mathematics as well as physics when the mathematics necessary for three mutually attracting bodies proved intractable. In commenting on how the three body problem affected the very ontology of mathematics, Kline points out that it also severely eroded the foundations of determinism: “The core of this problem is the question of the mutual gravitational effect of three bodies on each other. If one could devise a procedure to determine the perturbing effect of a third body, this procedure could be used to determine the perturbing effect of a fourth body, and so on. However, exact solution of the general problem of the motion of even three bodies has not been obtained even today.”8 Proust does not entirely reject Laplacian claims for determinism, at least not for the ordinary world of objective reality for which his narrator offers numerous examples of deterministic laws that rule over the body and society. But he is certainly willing to accept as an epistemic principle that determinism has its limits.

My minimum claim here, then, is that the underdeterminism formulated by Poincaré, and by his contemporary epistemologists like Mach and Duhem, provided some of the motivation that led Proust to postulate a realm in which determinism does not hold sway. This is the subjective realm to which objective reality is always relative in its representation in a work of art, or the inertial framework of the artist's self, the framework provided by the limited perception of Proust's narrator-artist. Underdeterminism cuts in two directions, however, for there are limits of which one must be aware to understand Proust's strategy. In a sense, it affirms that the subjective realm is primary because, in the determination of what we know, the subject has the power to opt for an indefinite number of models and laws with which we chose to describe reality. What the subject cannot opt for, what the subject must accept as a necessity, is the subject's own unique world of sensation and perception once the subject has experienced that world.

For Proust and his conception of the novel, the following aspect of Poincaré's type of epistemology is perhaps most important: with his sense of relativity, Poincaré went so far as to deny that perception was determined by any geometry intrinsic to the nature of things in space. If we think the world exists in three dimensions, this is an effect of habit, or that “law” of psychology that Proust, after Poincaré, made into the dominant law of mind. But, as Poincaré states, we could live in two dimensions, or four dimensions—those four dimensions that Proust's narrator found in the church at Combray. Perception itself is radically underdetermined by Poincaré. This claim parallels Proust's affirmation that the artist's perception offers a unique truth that escapes from the rule of law. Poincaré proposes a comparable vision of the freedom of perception, in “Space and Geometry,” when he says that there are no laws intrinsic to the nature of perception: “[the association of ideas] … is the result of a habit; this habit itself results from very numerous experiences; without any doubt, if the education of our senses had been accomplished in a different environment, where we should have been subjected to different impressions, contrary habits would have arisen and our muscular sensations would have been associated according to other laws.”9 At this point, Poincaré argues, we could use either Euclidian or non-Euclidian geometries to describe or even to perceive the real. It is a question of habit. Proust translates this notion in radical fashion by allowing his narrator to escape from habit in his own subjective realm where, at the novel's outset, he is situated outside of the ordinary world of space and time. It is in this context escaping context that the narrator makes the claim that, as a sleeping man, he escapes the empirical laws and patterns that habit usually accepts, for, to use Moncrief's translation, he “has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host.” Conventional laws governing matter and perception no longer necessarily hold, no more than do the metric conventions that habit accepts for ordering the perception of space and time.

In brief, Proust's strategy is to use a classical scientific model to talk about a deterministic world exterior to the narrator, but a relativist and conventionalist model to talk about the subjective world of the narrator's unique perception. He applies the lessons he learned from Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola for fashioning the laws of history and society, but he calls upon Baudelaire and Mallarmé for rhetoric and concepts that illuminate the world of subjectivity. This mix corresponds, interestingly, to Baudelaire's idea that a novel is a mixed genre, containing, in Proust's case, objective truth and self-sufficient poetic correspondences. In the wake of Baudelaire, but with more epistemological rigor and considerably less irony, Proust staked out the realm that Baudelaire demanded for the realm of poetic self-sufficiency. Finally, might we not see that in creating his world of unique impressions, Proust arrived at the “idea” that Flaubert despaired of ever finding in the world of mechanical phenomena, the fallen world of viscera driven by laws that only science seemed capable of describing?

Poetic self-sufficiency derives from the writer's impressions, for they are the unique material that forms the truth of the narrator's world and hence the certain truth of art as found in the novel. These impressions are not contingent, though they owe their existence to chance. But once they are given to the narrator, they are his necessary material for certain truths. This material is a necessity in the sense that the narrator should find the entire first section of the novel, “Combray,” in a fortuitous encounter when he tastes a bit of pastry that he has dipped into a cup of linden tea. In this chance encounter, the narrator overcomes all the contingencies of ordinary existence, which is to say that this experience cannot be explained by those deterministic paradigms that, unfortunately, condemn us to death. Moreover, the experience born of linden tea is a direct translation, from poetry to fiction, of Baudelaire's doctrine of correspondences, but one occurring as an epistemic experience contrasting with the world of laws. The narrator's present sensations coincide with sensations he experienced in the past, and, through the correspondence between the two, the past is resurrected in the present. All of Combray surges forth as the living paradise of the narrator's youth. In this moment “Combray” is, for the narrator, a form of necessity that escapes contingency.

Proust thus begins his novel with a demonstration of the certain truths of Combray that the narrator must then later recover, having lived himself through the years of experience that constitute the novel, with its portrayal of characters and society that begins in a time before the narrator's childhood and unfolds until some time after World War I. At the end of this period, after the War, the narrator discovers the meaning of artistic experience in the context of the novel itself in discoveries that take place many years after the episode with the madeleine. At the end of the novel, he discovers what the episode with the madeleine meant, as the reader sees in the long analysis that the narrator proposes in Le Temps retrouvé, wherein the narrator explains that he has discovered that subjective life is too complex to be described by deterministic law. Interestingly for our argument, this analysis takes place after the narrator realizes that art is analogous to science in their common study of relations. In a moment of self-reflection, he thinks about the music of the composer Vinteuil. At the same time, he reflects upon what he calls the materialist hypothesis—“celle du néant”—or the hypothetical nothingness to which we, as material beings, are destined by the laws of physiology and physics that govern our bodies.

The narrator wonders if Vinteuil's musical phrases were the expression of certain inner states analogous to what he had experienced in tasting the madeleine dipped in linden tea in “Combray.” What in these states, he asks, made them different from any other experiential state? The simple fact that Vinteuil's musical phrases resist analysis does not necessarily mean that there is something more real in them than in ordinary reality, the “material” reality that the mind encounters everywhere. The spirit of doubt, he says, suggests rather that the states produced by the musical phrases cannot be analyzed precisely because they place in action too many forces: “ils mettent en jeu trop de forces dont nous ne nous sommes pas encore rendu compte” (3:381). In speaking of the analysis of forces, Proust suggests that the reduction of artistic states to component elements is too complex to be resolved—a complexity to be understood on the order of the three body problem. There can thus be no deterministic resolutions of the forces that would allow them to be described by some contingent law. But this is not surprising: artistic states arise from a subject's inner world, and this subjective realm is where one also finds the origins of the choice of a deterministic model. It is the subject's choice to use a given deterministic model that, then imposed through force of habit, grants the knowing subject its operational power—something the narrator suggests at the novel's beginning when he wonders if the immobility of the things around us is forced on them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else. The subject's inner world must therefore lie outside the realm of simple determinism. Poincaré's type of conventionalism seems evident here, for the knowing subject determines epistemic conventions—and not the contrary.

At the end of the novel, the narrator returns from a long absence he spent in a sanatorium. This is when he finally understands the nature of art, for, upon returning to society, he experiences a revelation analogous to the one he had experienced at the novel's beginning with the linden tea and the petite madeleine. Going to a social gathering, he is crossing the Guermantes's courtyard when he unexpectedly undergoes a series of epiphanies in which various present sensations recall their exact equivalent that occurred once in his past. After this renewed experience of the resurrection of a living past, after this contingent encounter with his own unique reality, the narrator can now analyze the artist's task to escape from contingency. By understanding this task, he can understand why he has failed to be a writer, and why, throughout the course of the novel, he has been able only fruitlessly to ponder upon his desire to be a writer. Before the epiphanies in the courtyard, he had already realized that he could not be a true artist if he merely registers in his work general essences (3:718), or if he is content simply to describe general laws (3:719). Saying that intellectual performances, typical of the naturalist novel, and such as are undertaken by the Goncourt Brothers, offer only sterile joys, the narrator offers a muted critique of naturalism. In this critique, he translates Baudelaire's attitude toward intellection and objective truths, for these truths of science are not essential to the goals of art—and this in spite of the fact that A la Recherche has just devoted nearly three thousand pages to these truths.

After the experience in the courtyard, the narrator comes to the full realization that the realm of artistic experience is a unique reality: it cannot be analyzed using the Kantian coordinates of space and time, the metric province of classical analysis. Now facing the prospect of death after a long period of illness, he discovers that his task as a successful novelist would be the re-creation of the perceived real. And so he sees that for the remainder of time that he has yet to live, he must undertake the exploration of the reality of multiple sensations that are too complex to be reduced by analysis. These sensations must be freed from the patterns imposed by conventional perception and habit and laid bare as the realm of a unique and necessary truth outside the ken of science. This revelation is nonetheless an epistemic endeavor, though different from the discovery of relations that science undertakes.

The question is open as to whether the narrator will be able to write a novel, or if in fact he has achieved his task precisely with the novel A la Recherche that we readers have in hand. It is tempting to say, and many have said, that the novel is circular and narrates its own coming into being, but there is nothing in the novel that says this is case—or that this is not the case. The fiction of the narrator's presence outside of time suggests in fact that the novel's narrated events never coincide with the space of narration. It stretches our imagination to conceive that the narrator is an epistemic quester outside the realm circumscribed by time and space, and thus outside the deterministic realm of conventional science. But it does appear that Proust intended that the novel's recall of the narrator's unique experience be experienced as the fiction of something like a nontranscendental transcendence. For only in fiction does it appear that we can find that noncontingent realm wherein are found those unique truths the narrator likens to essences, and which are more like the contrary of any Platonic essence. Only in fiction, as Mallarmé's example proposed, can one find the enactment of a unique truth that is necessary, as necessary as the narrator's subjective fiction that discovers noncontingent truth in a contingent world.

The nature of artistic truth, as the narrator sees it, is perplexing. Sensation in this world is the point of departure for the creation of what Proust's narrator calls extra-temporal essences (3:871). These are not Platonic ideas or abstract essences located outside of temporal experience. Rather, they are the unique states that contain within them the temporality of the (fictional) moment of perception. This notion is perhaps best illustrated when the narrator says, about his recalled perceptions of the church at the center of Combray, that time is its fourth dimension. Proust's essences are in fact quite anti-Platonic, if by Platonic we mean an essence devoid of temporality. Proust's essences are also the antithesis of what the classical scientist describes when he uses some metric framework that situates the real in terms of absolute time and space. The only frame of reference for these essences is the artistic self that must find some appropriate language for communicating them—literary, musical, or painterly. Once this language is found, once a framework is established, then, to quote Montcrief's translation, the artist can “reestablish the significance of even the slightest signs by which the artist is surrounded” (2:1014), for every aspect of the artist's unique experience can be converted into noncontingent meaning and certain truth. This is the realm of transcendence, and it is not as paradoxical as I may have implied, if we are willing to grant to the ontology of art a space that is not contingent.

In his analysis of his future task as a writer, the narrator says that the artist's work is symmetrical to the scientist's research. With this comparison, the narrator calls to mind Poincaré's description of the model-making work of the scientific mind, though really with reverse symmetry. Rather than with the objective demonstration of invariant reality that scientists seek in an experiment, artists must start with the only reality they immediately possess—the reality of their subjective perception. The artist's objective intelligence can intervene only after he or she has found a realm of truth in subjective experience:

Seule l'impression, si chétive qu'en semble la matière, si insaisissable la trace, est un critérium de vérité, et à cause de cela mérite seule d'être appréhendée par l'esprit, car elle est seule capable, s'il sait en dégager cette vérité, de l'amener à une plus grande perfection et de lui donner une pure joie. L'impression est pour l'écrivain ce qu'est l'expérimentation pour le savant, avec cette différence que chez le savant le travail de l'intelligence précède et chez l'écrivain vient après.


[Only the subjective impression, however inferior the material may seem to be and however improbable the outline, is a criterion of truth and for that reason it alone merits being apprehended by the mind, for it alone is able, if the mind can extract this truth, to lead the mind to a greater perfection and impart to it a pure joy. The subjective impression is for the writer what experimentation is for the scientist, but with this difference, that with the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes, and with the writer it comes afterwards.]

(trans. Montcrief, 1001-2)

The comparison also suggests another way in which scientist and writer are united, for if the artist, like the scientist, is not constrained by any absolute system of reference, nonetheless constraints exist by the very nature of research. The comparison obliges one to recognize that both artist and scientist are subject to constraints. The mind is not free to choose its world, whatever be the conventions chosen to explain this world. Once the artist has chosen the area to explore, the world imposes its limits. These limits are immediately encountered when the narrator makes his own decision to write: “Ainsi j'étais déjà arrivé à cette conclusion que nous ne sommes nullement libres devant l'oeuvre d'art, que nous ne la faisons pas à notre gré, mais que, préexistant à nous, nous devons, à la fois parce qu'elle est nécessaire et cachée, et comme nous ferions pour une loi de la nature, la découvrir” (3:881) [Thus I had already come to the conclusion that we are not at all free in the presence of the work of art to be created, that we do not do it as we ourselves please, but that it existed prior to us and we should seek to discover it as we would a natural law because it is both necessary and hidden] (trans. Montcrief, 2:1002). The material for art awaits to be discovered before the artist turns to discovery. The artist makes a discovery in that what he or she finds is always already there, in the artist, as the necessary world hidden from the immediately conscious realm of the present moment.

With this affirmation, we touch again on the seemingly dichotomous nature of modern scientific epistemology that Proust embodies in his novel. This epistemology oscillates between being realist and antirealist. In its antirealism, it says that phenomena are underdetermined. In its realism, it declares limits of reality that cannot be transgressed. Antirealism allows that there can be as many laws and models, or theories and worlds, as there are scientists and artists. But realism points out that the world imposes a limit, specifically the invariant relations that, in spite of being invariant, may be assumed and used by different models or modes of explanation. Poincaré affirms these limits when he states, for example, that the principle of the conservation of energy is a “limit imposed on our freedom” to chose the physical models that seem best to fit our purposes.10 Proust affirms the same when he recognizes that the artist must accept the world that is given to him, even though it is randomly imposed by the artist's chance experience. In this random encounter, the artist encounters the unique laws of unique experience.

In accepting what the mind finds as a limit to its freedom, in accepting what is imposed upon it, the mind finds certainty within itself. This viewpoint is as true of Poincaré's epistemology of mathematics as of Proust's vision of the artist's certainty. Poincaré recognizes that scientific truth is largely a product of reasoning through recurrence. In fact, in La Science et l'hypothèse, he describes both empirical statements and mathematical statements as products of induction. Empirical induction can only result in contingent statements—uncertain because they are about the exterior world so that “they rest upon a belief in a general order of the Universe, an order that is outside of us.”11 But mathematical induction imposes itself as a form of certitude because, faced with the infinite recurrence that characterizes mathematical propositions, the mind recognizes, in direct intuition, its own power to make such infinite extensions. The certainty that mathematics offers is a property of the mind, and the fact that the world allows mathematics to be used is a tribute to the mind. One sees finally how close Poincaré's philosophy of mathematics is to Proust's vision of the novel when one considers that Poincaré says that the material world is there to allow us to become conscious of the mind's power (30). Mathematical certainty arises from the mind's own structure, an idea that the mathematician pointedly affirms: “Mathematical induction, which is to say, demonstration through recurrence, imposes itself … because it is simply an affirmation of a property of mind itself” (31). Analogously, we have seen that the Proustian narrator discovers that his artistic truths are endowed with certainty because they are part of mind itself, the artistic mind that finds its own truths to be certainties because they are properties of that mind.

Both at the novel's beginning and at its end, the narrator's reflections upon his discovery of his past contain a meditation upon mind. In the narrator's own mind he discovers the past that is first resurrected by the accidental encounter with the pastry and a cup of herbal tea. Or as he says after tasting the petite madelaine, “Je pose la tasse et me tourne vers mon esprit. C'est à lui de trouver la vérité. Mais comment? Grave incertitude, toute les fois que l'esprit se sent dépassé par lui-même; quand lui, le chercheur, est tout ensemble le pays obscur où il doit chercher et où tout son bagage ne lui sera de rien” [I put down my cup and turn toward my mind. It is the mind's task to find truth. But how to do this? Great incertitude, every time that the mind feels itself outreached by itself; when he, the seeker, is altogether the dark country where he must undertake his search and in which all his mental baggage will be of no use] (45). This is what the narrator defines as creation: the search by the mind within the mind itself for those relations of experience that are now properties of the mind that undertakes the search. The symmetry with science, or at least with Poincaré's science, is inverse, since the artist's mind seeks the certainty of the particular, rather than the general law of recursion. But, as Valéry had early proposed in comparing art with Poincaré's recursive reasoning, the production of certainty is the same: through the mind's seizure of its own procedures.

Proust's demonstration of the artist's task seems especially close to Poincaré's description of the scientist's work in yet another important respect. The narrator makes a critique of literary realism that is analogous to Poincaré's critique of epistemological naïveté. Poincaré frequently stressed that science does not describe things in themselves: all one can know, as Valéry also echoed in describing epistemic relations, are the relations between things. Comparably, toward the end of the novel, Proust's narrator rejects the “sad realism” that tries to give a “miserable account sheet” (3:885) of the lines and surfaces of things in themselves. He maintains that the artist's task is analogous to the scientist's search for relations, since artistic truth begins only when the artist takes two objects and posits a relationship between them. The unique truth of the artist's experience is rendered through the description of relations, and in Proust it is usually metaphor that produces artistic truth by describing, from the artist's viewpoint, what Poincaré repeatedly calls “les rapports entre les choses”—the relations between things.

The narrator's theory of art is fully articulated at the end of the novel, but it is consciously demonstrated largely at the novel's beginning, especially in the use of images and metaphors in the creation of the narrator's childhood in the village Combray. I recall that this recollection of the plenitude of a unique childhood springs from the experience that the madeleine once gave the narrator when he was already an adult, but before he had come to understand fully his task as a writer. Notwithstanding the mature narrator's supposed lack of comprehension, the opening section, called “Combray,” gives the reader the most glorious concrete demonstration of the theory that the narrator finally elaborates in the novel's conclusion, Le Temps retrouvé. In “Combray,” the reader finds the creation of the fullness of the time that the narrator experienced himself as an adult in the act of remembering, and which the narrator then narrates from a fictional transcendental standpoint that escapes time. In re-creating—or recalling—the fullness of the past, Proust calls upon the lesson of symbolism, for the narrator's recall of the specific quality of this past experience is achieved by the use of metaphor and analogy. Not only can metaphor re-create the sensual qualities of the past as the child lived it, but metaphor presents the analogies that also describe, when they do not create, the relations that exist among sensations whose uniqueness is, or was, the uniqueness of the past. Metaphor brings about knowledge of the unique event. In this sense, each metaphor is an epistemic event.

Perhaps the most intriguing example of re-creation of the past in “Combray” is found in the remembrance of the young narrator's first attempt at writing. His writing can be quoted, and with this quoting in the text itself the narrator restores the past through the reproduction of past writing that perforce is enunciated in the present moment. In his youthful writing, the narrator describes three church steeples seen in the distance one day during an excursion in a carriage. The choice of three bodies does not seem fortuitous. It is quite plausible that the description of three churches is Proust's oblique way of paying homage to Poincaré's work on the three body problem—and Proust can be as recondite in his allusions as the narrator's great aunts when they pay cryptic compliments to Swann. An allusion to the scientist seems implicit in the relativistic way that Proust's narrator describes the motion of these three steeples changing their position relative to the continuous motion of the carriage in which the young narrator found himself as he began to write a description of them. Moreover, at this moment in his youth, when he decides to describe his impressions of the three steeples, the narrator anticipates, through the act of writing, his later ideas about writing. The literal quotation of his youthful writing allows the older narrator to offer a metaphorical description that is also a demonstration of a discovery of the unique truth of the past that metaphor can bring about.

Calling the steeples “flowers,” and then “three maidens of legend,” the youthful narrator describes how the steeples change position, though of course their movement only reflects the relative position of the moving observer. As the narrator's position changes, the steeples “move” metaphorically about, “timidly seeking their way, and, after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, slipping one behind another, shewing nothing more, now, against the still rosy sky than a single dusky form, charming and resigned, so vanishing in the night” (trans. Montcrief, 1:182) [“je les vis timidement chercher leur chemin et, après quelques gauches trébuchements de leurs nobles silhouettes, se serrer les uns contre les autres, glisser l'un derrière l'autre, ne plus faire sur le ciel encore rose qu'une seule forme noire, charmante et résignée, et s'effacer dans la nuit”] (1:140). With these metaphorical motions, the three bodies have danced out their relations in a ballet that successfully describes the unique truth of that moment for a youthful narrator who is suddenly very happy—for could one not say that, with these metaphors, the boy narrator solved, artistically and with certainty, the three body problem? He has resolved it through the web of metaphors that relate three bodies in their mutual metaphorical attraction.

With this “solution” to the problem of knowledge in art, with this demonstration of the necessity of the artist's truth, Proust brought to a closure the epistemic rivalry with science that novelists, throughout the nineteenth century, had felt with tremulous anxiety. Proust's modernist solution for the rivalry closed a chapter in literary history, though Proust proposed a solution that relatively few writers have sought to imitate. If Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola have had an untold number of imitators, Proust's work is, by its own epistemic declaration, unique. Perhaps few subsequent writers have felt that they could rival science by incorporating science and then going beyond it to offer an epistemic realm that escapes the realm of contingent truths. The history of twentieth century literature and its relation to science is quite heterogeneous. On the one hand, as exemplified by Sartre's ferocious parody in La Nausée (Nausea) of Proust's escape from contingency, a later generation of French writers no longer felt that an epistemic encounter with science was a viable issue for the novel. Or as one might infer from the savage satire of scientific research written by the doctor who signed Céline to his first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), many later writers have been actively hostile to science. On the other hand, without any feeling of rivalry, many twentieth-century French writers have drawn upon science as a source of intellectual renewal. Queneau's constant use of science for his own thought experiments in fiction are a telling example, as is Robbe-Grillet's justification of his experimentation by reference to post-Heisenberg epistemology. In any case, few writers of later generations in France seem interested in, or are perhaps capable of, rivaling science on its own terms. And if one surveys the European literary landscape, perhaps only the Austrian Robert Musil stands out as a writer who, shortly after Proust, sought to liberate literature from any feelings of subordination toward science by transforming the novel into an epistemological instrument second to none. Or at least Musil tried.

To conclude, we might speculate that Proust brought the rivalry to a close for another, more generous reason, and one that many find quite valid today. To use a notion presented at the outset of this study, let us entertain the idea that Proust restores a separation of literature and science that goes back at least to the seventeenth century, the one first described when Pascal set forth the opposition between l'esprit de finesse and l'esprit de géométrie. The former, the mind knowing through finesse or intuition, has to deal with an infinite number of principles, and thus can easily go astray; whereas the latter, or the mind knowing through mathematics, will rarely go astray if it follows the simple reasoning involved in deductive chains of thought. Mathematical and scientific reasoning owes its strength to the narrowness of its field, whereas knowledge of humanistic issues is more difficult because it is more diffuse. In rejecting the claims of analysis against subjectivity and its complexity, Proust restored a modernist version of Pascal's esprit de finesse to its position as an epistemic equal to the scientific mind, and, in so doing, freed the writer from envy of the “mere geometric mind”—as Pascal had phrased it. I offer this comparison to help understand why fiction in the twentieth century has avoided the head-on collision with science that one finds in Balzac and Zola, and, in a sense, in Proust himself. In A la Recherche du temps perdu, Proust has recourse to a doctrine of “two cultures,” to borrow C. P. Snow's famous coinage, in which literature and science share a certain mutual responsibility for offering two different types of knowledge of the world. On the one hand, science has its varied protocols for truth, many of which turn upon quantification. On the other hand, mind, for most of its operations, does not function according to some algorithm, as Pascal might have said, and which a contemporary physicist like Roger Penrose often does say. The conclusion then imposes itself that, as Proust argued, literature as knowledge of the mind offers unique knowledge that can be had in no other way. For, in principle, and not just in practice, there is no quantification that can offer knowledge of the self when the self is the locus for all epistemic operations. Knowledge of the self can only be had in the immediate seizure of the self's multiple certainties, and, for this, literature is a privileged tool. Of course, we have always known that literature grants us knowledge of ourselves and others, but it is reassuring to have the greatest modernist novel show us that we have garnered knowledge from it, and about it, and hence about ourselves, that we could get nowhere else.


  1. Paul Valéry, Oeuvres, ed. Jean Hytier, vol. 1, 1157. In this edition, Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci is part of Variété.

  2. Cassedy, “Mallarmé and Andrej Belyj: Mathematics and the Phenomenality of the Literary Object,” 1070.

  3. Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Y.-G. Le Dantec, 685.

  4. Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, 15.

  5. Poincaré, The Foundations of Science, trans. George Bruce Halsted, 181. Halsted's translation includes three works by Poincaré: Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, and Science and Method. Translation slightly changed.

  6. Gardner, The Relativity Explosion, 48.

  7. Proust, A la Recherche du temps perdu, vol. 3, 78-79.

  8. Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, 61-62.

  9. Poincaré, The Foundations of Science, 69.

  10. Poincaré, The Foundations of Science, 158.

  11. Poincaré, La Science et l'hypothèse, 30.


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Gardner, Martin. The Relativity Explosion. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Genette, Gérard. Figures. Vol. 1. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966.

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Etienne. Philosophie anatomique. Paris: Mequignon-Marvis, 1812-1815.

Gershman, Herbert S., and Kernan B. Whitworth, eds. Anthologie des préfaces de romans français. Paris: Julliard, 1964.

Grant, Eliot. Zola. New York: Twayne World Author Series, 1966.

Hacking, Ian. The Emergence of Probability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Henderson, Linda. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Horvath, R. A. “Les idées de Quételet sur la formation d'une discipline statistique moderne sur le rôle de la théories des probabilités.” In Quételet et la Statistique de son époque, ed. Robert A. Horvath. Szeged: Acta Universitatis Szegediensis, 1976, Tomus 23, Fasciculus 3.

Jacob, François. La Logique du vivant: Une histoire de l'hérédité. Paris: Gallimard, 1970.

Jacobs, Alphonse, ed. Gustave Flaubert-George Sand: Correspondance. Paris: Flammarion, 1981.

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Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What Is Enlightenment? Trans. Lewis White Beck. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1959. In Kant, Werke. Vol. 6. Frankfurt: Insel, 1964.

Kavanagh, Thomas. Enlightenment and the Shadows of Chance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Kenner, Hugh. Flaubert, Joyce, Beckett: The Stoic Comedians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962.

Kline, Morris. Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

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Robin Mackenzie (essay date July 2002)

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SOURCE: Mackenzie, Robin. “Proustian Doubles: Patterns of Duality and Multiplicity in À la recherche du temps perdu.Forum for Modern Language Studies 38, no. 3 (July 2002): 291-301.

[In the following essay Mackenzie explores the contradictory patterns of dualism and fragmentation in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.]

Man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point [and] I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.1

As readers of Proust's Correspondance, and indeed attentive readers of À la recherche, will be aware, Proust was a fervent admirer of Stevenson's fiction. Specific intertextual echoes of this admiration are not easy to find; if we are looking for traces of Stevenson's influence, or of Proust's reading of Stevenson, in À la recherche, we may have to settle for something more pervasive and diffuse (though no less significant for that). As Maya Slater argues in one of the very few published works to make the connection between the two writers, a crucial affinity is undoubtedly the preoccupation with the plural nature of the self.2 This plurality, and in particular the interplay of dual and multiple models of subjectivity, is the main focus of this article.

Of course, Stevenson and Proust were not alone, or indeed untypical, in their interest in these questions. As Rosemary Jackson states: “Accumulated evidence […] indicates a gradual erosion of ideas of psychic unity over the last two centuries. Long before Freud, monistic definitions of self were being supplanted by hypotheses of dipsychism (dual selves) and polypsychism (multiple selves).”3 Both hypotheses (as Jackson calls them) play a part in the complex plotting of patterns of subjectivity which we find in À la recherche. My intention in the following pages is to trace the interactions and tensions between these two coexisting, but also competing, paradigms of the self in Proust: self as double and divided, on the one hand, and as fragmented, dispersed and multiple, on the other.

A strong version of what we might call the dualist hypothesis is articulated by Thomas de Praetere, in an article entitled “Contradiction de Proust; Logique(s) de Proust”:

Une de ces lois, c'est la simplicité des êtres, qui ne sont pas protéiformes comme on le prétend parfois, mais doubles, compréhensibles chacun par l'application d'un seul couple de contrastes qui le résume parfaitement.”4

For de Praetere, then, selves in À la recherche are not plural and discontinuous, moi multiples evolving through a series of discrete avatars; instead, they change according to a rhythm of reversal, or inversion: “On peut donc rester soi-même ou devenir le contraire de soi, mais il est impossible, à strictement entendre cette phrase, de devenir autre chose que soi, un ‘autre chose’ qui serait sans rapport avec ce qu'on a été.”5 De Praetere cites various examples in support of this contention: the most obvious, and compelling, is Robert de Saint-Loup, the great womaniser who by the final volume has become predominantly and actively homosexual. But the pattern can be extended to other figures: M. Vinteuil, the timid bourgeois music teacher of Combray who turns out to be a bold musical innovator; even Marcel's father, the stern disciplinarian who nevertheless unbends sufficiently to allow the boy's mother to spend the night in his room, thus breaking all the hallowed rules of his upbringing.

This reading of Proustian selves and their evolution seems at first sight persuasive; but one could question whether these antithetical reversals, these binary oppositions unfolding over time, do not reflect a change in the narrator's vision of the characters as much as a transformation in the characters' behaviour or psychology: a subjective rather than an objective phenomenon. That most antithetical of Proustian figures, the Baron de Charlus, would provide a good example of this: signs of his homoerotic tendencies are not difficult to decipher from his early appearances in the novel, and yet Marcel himself is not aware of them, or at least cannot make sense of the strangeness of the impression Charlus makes, and the intensity of his interest. The shift clearly occurs in Marcel's perception, rather than in the behaviour or proclivities of the character as they are shown in the course of the novel.

Moreover, de Praetere's neat reversals and antitheses tend to break down with those figures who are a more constant focus of Marcel's attention and desire. The obvious example is Albertine, who is presented overwhelmingly in terms of multiplicity, dispersion and fragmentation. There are innumerable instances of this: perhaps the most celebrated is the famous “Cubist” kiss, Marcel's first (successful) attempt to embrace Albertine, where, as he draws closer to her, we find a series of facets, or fragments, of her face described in rapid succession:

Bref, de même qu'à Balbec, Albertine m'avait paru différente, maintenant, comme si, en accélérant prodigieusement la rapidité des changements de perspective et des changements de coloration que nous offre une personne dans nos diverses rencontres avec elle, j'avais voulu les faire tenir toutes en quelques secondes pour recréer expérimentalement le phénomène qui diversifie l'individualité d'un être et tirer les unes des autres comme d'un étui toutes les possibilités qu'il enferme, dans ce court trajet de mes lèvres vers sa joue, c'est dix Albertine que je vis.6

In this instance, the multiplicity and fragmentation are primarily perceptual, though there is a clear indication that the visual shifts correspond to, are indeed a condensation of, Albertine's psychological mutability—“toutes les possibilités qu'[elle] enferme”. This motif of the multiple, and multifarious, Albertine, recurs throughout the text: “Hélas! Albertine était plusieurs personnes!” laments the narrator in the course of one of those tortuous and interminable interrogations to which he subjects Albertine in La Prisonnière, when a hitherto unsuspected—or perhaps suspected, but hitherto unconfirmed—facet of Albertine's sexual activities, or at least inclinations, is inadvertently revealed.7 This impression of multiplicity is further reinforced in the way Marcel remembers Albertine after her death—as a heart-rending and devastating sequence of fragmentary images:

Grande faiblesse sans doute pour un être, de consister en une simple collection de moments; grande force aussi […] [C]et émiettement ne fait pas seulement vivre la morte, il la multiplie. Pour me consoler, ce n'est pas une, c'est d'innombrables Albertine que j'aurais dû oublier. Quand j'étais arrivé à supporter le chagrin d'avoir perdu celle-ci, c'était à recommencer avec une autre, avec cent autres.8

The shifting, elusive, plural nature of the beloved exemplifies one of the more tantalising lois générales of subjectivity proposed by the narrator: coherence of character is a function of the indifference of the perceiver. Indifference immobilises the object of perception, whereas desire multiplies or fragments it:

Je ne dis pas qu'un jour ne viendra pas où, même à ces lumineuses jeunes filles, nous n'assignerons pas des caractères très tranchés, mais c'est qu'elles auront cessé de nous intéresser […]. Leur immobilité viendra de notre indifférence.9

Patterns of reversal and dédoublement, then, tend to attach to less powerfully cathected figures, those who are not the object of any especially intense desire on Marcel's part. In contrast, the greater the subjective investment in the other, the more fragmentary and multiple that other appears. This contention can be extended to, indeed tested against, that ultimate object of desire (at least in a narcissistic perspective): the narrator's self, who is perhaps the best example of an agglomeration of moi multiples in À la recherche.

Examples of his infinite variety abound: there is the explicit statement of the impermanence of the self, when the narrator, in the early pages of “Noms de pays: le pays”, evokes the fading of his love for Gilberte:

Le moi qui l'avait aimée, remplacé déjà presque entièrement par un autre, resurgissait […]. Or, […] ce propos aurait dû me paraître oiseux, mais il me causa une vive souffrance, celle qu'éprouvait un moi, aboli pour une grande part depuis longtemps, à être séparé de Gilberte. [my italics]10

This motif of la mort du moi can be incorporated in the broader narrative rhythm, and thematic complex, of intermittence: les intermittences du cœur, which affect Marcel so powerfully when he returns to Balbec after the death of his grandmother, clearly involve a discontinuity in the desiring subject. As the narrator says:

À n'importe quel moment que nous la considérions, notre âme totale n'a qu'une valeur presque fictive, malgré le nombreux bilan de ses richesses, car tantôt les unes, tantôt les autres, sont indisponibles […]. C'est sans doute l'existence de notre corps, semblable pour nous à un vase où notre spiritualité serait enclose, qui nous induit à supposer que tous nos biens intérieurs […] sont perpétuellement en notre possession.11

As the narrator makes clear, intermittence, this emotional discontinuity of the self, is very much linked to memory—“aux troubles de la mémoire sont liées les intermittences du cœur”.12 And memory is of course, in a famous comparison in Le Temps retrouvé, likened to a multitude of sealed vessels: “[L]e geste, l'acte le plus simple reste enfermé comme dans mille vases clos dont chacun serait rempli de choses d'une couleur, d'une odeur, d'une température absolument différentes.”13

All these things tend towards a view of a plural and (one could almost say) polymorphous subjectivity, which has often been taken as the distinctive feature of Proust's description of the self. Proust's friend and editor, Jacques Rivière, writing in the 1920s, identifies this as the major contrast between Proustian and Freudian constructions of subjectivity: where Freud sees the mind as dynamic, dualistic and conflictual, Proust presents it as more static and pluralistic, composed of a multitude of more or less self-contained systems:

[C]e n'est pas une conception dynamique de ces rapports [entre conscient et inconscient] qui y est latente. Et c'est la grande différence de notre auteur avec Freud […] que cette conception qu'il a d'une parfaite articulation—ou d'une parfaite étanchéité—réciproque des différents systèmes psychiques.14

So far, then, there seems to be an opposition emerging between subjective-internal and objective-external apprehensions of self. The narrator tends towards a moi multiples model when mapping his own subjectivity, or that of figures (like Albertine) in whom he has a powerful investment of desire; but he slips back into a more dualistic vision of personality, emphasising reversals and oppositions, when plotting the nature and development of other, more emotionally distant characters. But as one might expect, this opposition is itself too broad to be completely convincing: we find patterns of antithesis, reversal and doubling emerging also in the narrator's reflexive accounts of self and interiority. A good example of this appears in the famous description of the dreaming self in the opening pages of the novel:

[J]e n'avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier; il me semblait que j'étais moi-même ce dont parlait l'ouvrage: une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François 1er et de Charles Quint.15

Much has been written about the significance of the three elements of the moi du rêve; they have understandably been presented as three of the foundational metaphors of self, and work, and self-as-work, in À la recherche.16 But the crucial point for this argument is simpler: the dreaming self in Proust is permeable and Protean, and it tends to blur the boundaries of that most fundamental of dualities, between subject and object.

Of course, the “objects” which the subject merges with (or into) are not all unproblematic emblems of duality. Churches in À la recherche—from Saint-Hilaire to metaphorical cathedrals—tend to be complex and composite structures, made of many parts; quartets are not obviously characterised by duality, either in form or in instrumentation; the monarchs' rivalry is perhaps the only one of the three elements which is characterised by a clear and conflictual opposition. The dédoublement motif does, however, emerge more strongly in the images of a subsequent dream: Swann's dream, at the end of Un amour de Swann, which represents a (thankfully transient) resurgence of his love for Odette. Admittedly, this dream does not unfold in Marcel's psyche; but it is narrated very much from within (the focalisation is resolutely internal), making it quite as important in mapping patterns of subjectivity as any of the dreams dreamed by Marcel. In this dream, Swann is walking along a coastal path with various (and variously) significant others—Odette, Forcheville (in the guise of Napoléon III), an androgynous Mme Verdurin, the painter Elstir, and a mysterious young man wearing a fez, whom Swann cannot at first identify:

Le jeune homme inconnu se mit à pleurer. Swann essaya de le consoler. “Après tout elle a raison”, lui dit-il en lui essuyant les yeux et en lui ôtant son fez pour qu'il fût plus à son aise. “Je le lui ai conseillé dix fois. Pourquoi en être triste? C'était bien l'homme qui pouvait la comprendre.” Ainsi Swann se parlait-il à lui-même, car le jeune homme qu'il n'avait pu identifier d'abord était aussi lui; comme certains romanciers, il avait distribué sa personnalité à deux personnages, celui qui faisait le rêve, et un qu'il voyait devant lui coiffé d'un fez.17

As in the opening dream of the église-quatuor-rivalité, much has been written about this;18 once again, I want to skirt the hermeneutic complications and emphasise a few structural points. First and most obvious of these is the importance of doubling in what one could perhaps call the Proustian “dream-work”. Swann's dream seems not to obey the canonical Freudian principle of economy, as exemplified in the dream-work device of condensation.19 Instead, entities split, if not multiply, in the dream: this is certainly the case with the jeune homme en fez, Swann's alter ego within the dream, representing the earlier moi who is still besotted with Odette. The figure of Napoléon III is more conventional, in Freudian terms: the doubling effect does not occur within the dream, but between what Freud would call latent dream-thoughts and manifest dream. There are clearly other currents of meaning and association feeding into the figure of Napoléon (ideas of empire and domination, to cite the most obvious): he is composite as well as double. But the narrator does not mention the ancillary meanings; what he stresses is the forme maîtresse of duality, which is clearly presented as the most significant of the dream's operations.

Nevertheless, the opposition of dual and multiple in the dream is very labile, and liable to collapse or at least crumble under closer scrutiny. This is exemplified in a metaphor occurring a little further on in the narration of Swann's dream:

Car, d'images incomplètes et changeantes Swann endormi tirait des déductions fausses, ayant d'ailleurs momentanément un tel pouvoir créateur qu'il se reproduisait par simple division comme certains organismes inférieurs.20

The balance, or interplay, here is quite subtle: the organismes inférieurs reproduce by division, splitting (dualism motif), but the result is proliferation, multiplicity. Such metaphors of what we might call biological regression—reversion to more rudimentary forms of life—are highly significant in À la recherche, especially in the charting of the deeper, unconscious reaches of the mind, where dream, memory, even creativity have their origins. The interconnection between the instinctual and unconscious (on the one hand) and the most subtle and sophisticated mental operations (on the other) plays a major part in the narrator's ideology, his system of ideas and values, in À la recherche: the reinstatement of the claims of “intuition” and instinct in mental life, their crucial role in the play of mental forces, is an almost monotonously recurring theme.21 Here, though, it is presented in more vivid and imagistic form, in the two metaphors of division and doubling we have found in Swann's dream, drawn from the apparently distant domains of novel-writing and the zoology of rudimentary organisms.

There is another avatar, or manifestation, of doubling in À la recherche which carries considerable implications for the mapping and plotting of the self that so preoccupies the narrator. In the episode in question, doubling is an element in the action (what Genette would call the histoire) rather than in the narration (récit): it is motif rather than metaphor, scene rather than simile. This double does not emerge from within the self, generated by the energies of the unconscious mind (though it certainly triggers in Marcel a complex and deep-seated emotional response); instead it visits the self from outside, as a mirror image, a reflection of himself which Marcel glimpses as he is dining in a restaurant with Saint-Loup and Rachel (the latter's mistress). The passage shows a complex interplay of dual and multiple, and is worth quoting at length:

Le cabinet où se trouvait Saint-Loup était petit, mais la glace unique qui le décorait était de telle sorte qu'elle semblait en réfléchir une trentaine d'autres, le long d'une perspective infinie; et l'ampoule électrique placée au sommet du cadre devait le soir, quand elle était allumée, suivie de la procession d'une trentaine de reflets pareils à elle-même, donner au buveur, même solitaire, l'idée que l'espace autour de lui se multipliait en même temps que ses sensations exaltées par l'ivresse et qu'enfermé seul dans ce petit réduit, il régnait pourtant sur quelque chose de bien plus étendu en sa courbe indéfinie et lumineuse, qu'une allée du “Jardin de Paris”. Or, étant alors à ce moment-là ce buveur, tout d'un coup, le cherchant dans la glace, je l'aperçus, hideux, inconnu, qui me regardait. La joie de l'ivresse était plus forte que le dégoût; par gaieté ou bravade, je lui souris et en même temps il me souriait. Et je me sentais tellement sous l'empire éphémère et puissant de la minute où les sensations sont si fortes que je ne sais si ma seule tristesse ne fut pas de penser que le moi affreux que je venais d'apercevoir était peut-être à son dernier jour et que je ne rencontrerais plus jamais cet étranger dans le cours de ma vie.22

This passage is traversed by a series of significant thematic oppositions: depth and surface, truth and illusion, confinement and expansion—and of course duality and multiplicity (in fact, singularity, duality and multiplicity: the binary opposition is here displaced by the introduction of a third term). It is also characterised by the ambivalence Marcel feels towards his mirror image, which is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive feature of the episode.

The initial opposition, introduced just before the passage quoted, sets art (authentic existence) against ennui (that classic symptom of le temps perdu):

Je me dis alors: “Je n'ai pas trop à regretter ma journée; ces heures passées auprès de cette jeune femme ne sont pas perdues […]”. Je me le disais parce qu'il me semblait que c'était douer d'un caractère esthétique, et par là justifier, sauver ces heures d'ennui.23

The motif of the aesthetic will tend to recede as the passage continues, but considerations of temporality underpin much of what follows—and in the first instance, the value and meaning of Marcel's inebriation. This is compared, though not in a straightforward and unqualified way, to the drunkenness he experienced as a younger man at Rivebelle: “À force de boire du champagne avec eux, je commençai à éprouver un peu de l'ivresse que je ressentais à Rivebelle, probablement pas tout à fait la même.”24 The narrator says no more than that the quality of the experience is different; but that difference does not appear to be a positive one, since this experience lacks the aesthetic dimension of Rivebelle, where Marcel's intoxication generates a heightened, metaphoric mode of vision which transforms the relative banality of the scene.25 Here, in a characteristic move, the narrator associates different selves with different qualities and degrees of inebriation:

Non seulement chaque genre d'ivresse […] mais chaque degré d'ivresse, et qui devrait porter une ‘cote’ différente comme les fonds dans la mer, met à nu en nous, exactement à la profondeur où il se trouve, un homme spécial.26

The depth-surface polarity is not the only one here; more striking is the interplay of confined and constricted spaces (“petit cabinet”, “petit réduit”) and the impression, however illusory, of more or less unlimited expansion (“le long d'une perspective infinie”, “sa courbe indéfinie et lumineuse”). This opposition maps neatly—more neatly than is usual in such a metaphorically complex text—on to that of singularity and multiplicity, which is however complicated by the omnipresent figure of duality (Marcel is after all looking at himself in a mirror). Emblems of the singular are the “glace unique” and the “buveur solitaire […] enfermé seul”, in whom singularity takes on negative connotations of isolation and solitude. Duality appears most obviously in the motif of the mirror, and Marcel's reflection therein; and more subtly, on a linguistic level, in the interplay of first- and third-person which dominates the latter part of the passage. Multiplicity is generated by the mirror, with “une trentaine de glaces” giving rise to “une trentaine de reflects” and a more general expansion of space around the solitary toper.

Given the difficulties of visualising the multiple reflections issuing from the single mirror, it is tempting to read this scene—as Weber reads the famous scene at the Opéra in the opening pages of Le Côté de Guermantes27—as a description of a fantastic space, a projection of the narrator's desire as it plays with(in) these notions of single, dual and multiple. The single, the unique, the self-contained—certainly one focus of Proustian (narratorial) desire—is reflected, or refracted, into a proliferation of images, very much as the unity of the Proustian self is dispersed and fragmented as it passes through the lenses of memory and language.

So much for the more abstract patterns of representation and meaning, of mimesis and semiosis; it would surely be a partial reading that failed to take account of the feelings, the emotional and at times visceral reactions of the intoxicated Marcel, and the retrospective narrator, to the reflected image, the insubstantial double in the mirror. These reactions are strikingly ambivalent: the mirror self is “hideux”, “affreux”, inspiring “le dégoût”, but also strangely appealing and affecting (Marcel smiles at his reflection, regrets that it is so transient, that he will in all likelihood never encounter this shadowy second self again). The sympathy Marcel feels comes in part from his generalised drunken euphoria, as the text makes explicit; but the reader suspects that the ambivalence has a deeper source than mere drunken benevolence, that it is not just contingent on Marcel's inebriation but contains a measure of the veritas that is proverbially to be found in vino.

The revulsion Marcel feels towards his mirror self recalls the reaction of protagonist to Doppelgänger in much fantastic literature—a reaction often theorised with reference to the category of the uncanny. For Freud, the uncanny occurs when “infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression”28—in this instance, presumably by the unexpected sighting of the reflection in the mirror. Freud goes on to argue that the double, like other manifestations of the uncanny, only becomes frightening, arouses anxiety, after repression; it triggers a “regression to a time when the ego was not yet marked off sharply from the external world and other people”.29 The original double “wore a friendly aspect”;30 it is central to the Freudian narrative of emotions that anxiety can result from the repression of various emotions, including originally pleasurable ones.31 As for the benevolence Marcel feels towards his mirror self, we could take it as a remnant of the narcissistic pleasure the child experiences when looking at his/her own image—the scopophilic impulse which Freud discusses in “Instincts and their Vicissitudes”,32 and which will prove so pivotal in Lacan's theories of the development of the ego.33 Marcel, his inhibitions weakened by alcohol, might feel this pleasure more keenly, or at least consciously, than the retrospective narrator, with his protective (or repressive) veneer of moral-aesthetic disapprobation.

So much for psychoanalytic readings of Marcel's mirror scene; but what might the mirror self signify within a more specifically Proustian frame of reference? One possibility would be to see in this merry toper a self immersed, innocently and unconsciously, in the flow of time—“sous l'empire éphémère et puissant de la minute”—and therefore blissfully unconcerned with those impressions and memories which the narrator seeks to approfondir in his effort to recover lost time, and with it, a permanent core of self. The Marcel in the mirror is a celebrant of the ephemeral, not a Deleuzian interpreter of signs or an aesthetic explorer of hidden regions of the psyche. The episode would then dramatise the narrator's ambivalence towards this transient moi: revulsion at the degenerate symbol of wasted time, but also attraction towards the unreflecting euphoria of the drunken self, relieved (for a while) of the burden of expression.

This would go against the grain of traditional readings of À la recherche which have tended to stress the movement towards the unification and integration of Marcel's moi multiples within an overarching aesthetic (metaphoric) framework of subjectivity: this is the process described so powerfully in Le Temps retrouvé. Of course, this reading of Proust's novel has been under more or less constant attack since the advent of la nouvelle critique in the 1960s, which sought to expose the gaps, the elements of fragmentation and discontinuity, that the narrator's ideology does not quite manage to conjure away.34 The dédoublement motif tends in the same centrifugal direction; patterns of duality and multiplicity in À la recherche do not resolve unproblematically into unity.

Johnnie Gratton, in an article devoted to the place of the magic lantern (and especially of Golo) in “Combray”, memorably asserts that the underlying movement, the “compulsive telos”, of Marcel's desire is given in the formula 1 + 1 = 1: what he wishes for is the suppression of difference, the possibility of fusion with the desired other.35 The mirror episode we have been examining tends to confirm this, though with a slightly different emphasis: fusion with the other, even the other self (as it were), remains firmly in the realm or register of desire. It remains imaginary, in an everyday as well as a Lacanian sense. The remnants of that image/mirage of the unified self can be viewed in dualistic or pluralistic mode, and most completely perhaps as an interplay between these two paradigms. And it is an interplay, rather than simply a juxtaposition or opposition: patterns of dual and multiple often emerge from the same nucleus of imagery, as we have seen with the dividing micro-organisms of Swann's dream or the proliferating reflection in Marcel's mirror.


  1. R. L. Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Weir of Hermiston, ed. E. Letley (Oxford, 1998), p. 61.

  2. M. Slater, “Literary Allusions in Proust's Goncourt Pastiche”, Romance Studies 12 (1988), 55-64.

  3. R. Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London & New York, 1981), p. 86.

  4. T. de Praetere, “Contradiction de Proust; Logique(s) de Proust”, Les Lettres romanes 45 (1991), 63-76 (p. 65).

  5. “Contradiction de Proust”, p. 66.

  6. M. Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, ed. J.-Y. Tadié, 4 vols (Paris, 1987-89), Vol. II, p. 660.

  7. RTP III: 840. This is the notorious “casser le pot” episode.

  8. RTP IV: 60.

  9. RTP III: 574.

  10. RTP II: 3-4.

  11. RTP III: 153-4.

  12. RTP III: 153.

  13. RTP IV: 448.

  14. J. Rivière, Quelques progrès dans l'étude du cœur humain, repr. in Cahiers Marcel Proust 13 (Paris, 1985), p. 133.

  15. RTP I: 3.

  16. See in particular S. Doubrovsky, La Place de la Madeleine (Paris, 1974), pp. 179-83; D. de Agostini, “L'Écriture du rêve dans À la recherche du temps perdu”, in: Études proustiennes V (Paris, 1984), pp. 183-211 (pp. 183-6).

  17. RTP I: 373.

  18. See in particular J. Bellemin-Noël, “‘Psychanalyser’ le rêve de Swann?”, Poétique 8 (1971), 447-69; M. Grimaud, “La Rhétorique du rêve”, Poétique 33 (1978), 90-106; and for an unusual political reading, M. Sprinker, History and Ideology in Proust (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 66-84.

  19. See S. Freud, Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, ed. J. Strachey & A. Richards (Harmondsworth, 1973), p. 205. For a more detailed treatment, see S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, ed. J. Strachey & A. Richards (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 383-413.

  20. RTP I: 373.

  21. The most blatant example is the equation of génie and instinct in RTP IV: 458.

  22. RTP II: 469-70.

  23. RTP II: 468-9.

  24. RTP II: 469.

  25. For the role of Rivebelle, see J.-P. Richard, Proust et le monde sensible (Paris, 1974), p. 30; A. Ushiba, L'Image de l'eau dansÀ la recherche du temps perdu” (Tokyo, 1979), pp. 111-19; R. MacKenzie, “Intoxication and Metaphor: the Role of Rivebelle in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu”, Dalhousie French Studies 51 (2000), 58-69.

  26. RTP II: 469.

  27. S. Weber, “The Madrepore”, Modern Language Notes 87 (1972), 915-61.

  28. S. Freud, “The Uncanny”, in: Art and Literature, ed. A. Dickson (Harmondsworth, 1985), pp. 335-76 (p. 372).

  29. “The Uncanny”, p. 358.

  30. “The Uncanny”, p. 358.

  31. “The Uncanny”, p. 363. See also, for a more detailed account, S. Freud, “Instincts and their Vicissitudes”, in: On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, ed. A. Richards (Harmondsworth, 1984), pp. 105-38.

  32. “Instincts and their Vicissitudes”, pp. 126-30.

  33. See (in the first instance) J. Lacan, “Le Stade du miroir”, in: Écrits I (Paris, 1966), pp. 89-97.

  34. For a good general statement of this, see J. Gratton, “Textual Interaction in ‘Combray’: The Instance of Golo”, Dalhousie French Studies 2 (1980), 66-87 (pp. 66-7).

  35. “Textual Interaction in ‘Combray’”, p. 86.

Margaret Topping (essay date autumn 2002)

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SOURCE: Topping, Margaret. “Proust's Orient(alism).” French Studies Bulletin 84 (autumn 2002): 10-3.

[In the following essay, Topping discusses Orientalism in Proust's fiction.]

In Le Côté de Guermantes, the third volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, the mature narrator exposes the dangers of preconceptions:

C'est ainsi qu'un cousin de Saint-Loup avait épousé une jeune princesse d'Orient qui, disait-on, faisait des vers aussi beaux que ceux de Victor Hugo ou d'Alfred de Vigny et à qui, malgré cela, on supposait un esprit autre que ce qu'on pouvait concevoir, un esprit de princesse d'Orient recluse dans un palais des Mille et Une Nuits. Aux écrivains qui eurent le privilège de l'approcher fut réservée la déception, ou plutôt la joie, d'entendre une conversation qui donnait l'idée non de Schéhérazade, mais d'un être de génie du genre d'Alfred de Vigny ou de Victor Hugo.

(II, 406)1

The West's appropriation of a largely imagined, exotic ‘Other’, and the creation of reductive stereotypes of the Orient—here lampooned by Proust—has, of course, been most famously analysed by Edward Said. ‘The Orient’, Said writes,

was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences […] The Orient is the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilisations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.2

Indeed, the very term ‘Orientalism’ connotes for Said ‘the high-minded executive attitude of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century European colonialism’.3 Convincing re-evaluations of Said's Orientalism continue to emerge, however, including, in recent years, John MacKenzie's 1995 study Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts.4 MacKenzie's study demands recognition of the celebratory handling of the Orient by western culture, the cross-fertilization of East and West as regards intellectual and artistic activity, and the consequent slipperiness of the binary oppositions which are so often established between the two. What is more, even if both French and British writers have, as Said suggests, exploited ‘a kind of free-floating mythology of the Orient’,5 they have also sometimes subverted it. For example, according to Said, Flaubert associates the Orient, in all of his novels, with ‘the escapism of sexual fantasy’.6 However, whilst Emma Bovary's and Frederic Moreau's daydreams are indeed ‘packed with Oriental clichés’ of harems, princesses, princes, slaves, veils, dancing girls and boys, and fragrant ointments, the point is precisely that these are their daydreams.7 Flaubert harnesses clichés of the East in order to create his own parody of the ‘cliché-babbling lover’.8 And so too with Proust, as this brief discussion aims to show with reference to Odette's aesthetic tastes.9

Proust did not travel to the East; his knowledge of it is secondhand, gleaned from painting, music, and his literary predecessors. Yet he characteristically grasps plurality and diversity in his encounter with the Orient. Penetrating sham stereotypes, he transcends and, with a certain irony, subverts the conventional image of the Orient as the embodiment of ‘sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, [and] unlimited desire’.10 In fact, at the very moment when Proust seems to be engaging in the kind of monolithic myth-making on which the Orientalist edifice described by Said is built, subtle anomalies of tone, style or context are quietly deconstructing what may at first sight appear to be wholesale endorsement of the Orientalist myth. For example, the young narrator's fascination with, and idealization of the former cocotte Odette, in Du côté de chez Swann, are inextricably linked to the Chinese and Japanese fashions with which she surrounds herself. To the naive young narrator, she is mysterious, unknowable, seductive, and enjoys an existence other than his own. Her ‘orientalism’ is the emblem of that. Offering the young narrator a treasured insight into her intimate life, for instance, Odette receives him wearing ‘des robes de chambre japonaises’, and makes him more comfortable by propping him up with cushions embroidered with Chinese dragons, as previously, in the earliest stages of their relationship, she had done with Swann:

Elle l'avait fait asseoir près d'elle dans un des nombreux retraits mystérieux qui était ménagés dans les enfoncements du salon, protégés par d'immenses palmiers contenus dans des cachepots de Chine, ou par des paravents auxquels étaient fixés des photographies, de nœuds de ruban et des éventails. Elle lui avait dit ‘Vous n'êtes pas comfortable comme cela, attendez, moi je vais bien vous arranger’, et avec le petit rire vaniteux qu'elle aurait eu pour quelque invention particulière à elle, avait installé derrière la tête de Swann, sous ses pieds, des coussins de soie japonaise qu'elle pétrissait comme si elle avait été prodigue de ces richesses et insoucieuse de leur valeur.

(I, 217)

Luc Fraisse, in his study of Proust et le Japonisme surmises that this Oriental setting may have been inspired by Pierre Loti's Mme Crysanthème, an association which creates a doubtless deliberate link between the ‘personnage inverti’ of Loti's novel, Odette, and later Albertine who also appears ‘en robe de chambre’.11 As such, Proust might appear to be naively subscribing to the stereotype which equates the East with the exotic and the exotic with the erotic. Yet in the case of the narrator's vision of Odette, it is significantly the young narrator for whom she possesses an eastern mystique, the same young narrator who will subsequently turn his admiring gaze to the aristocracy. They, through his transforming optic, will become the gods and goddesses of classical mythology only later to be demythologized in a self-ironizing retrospective on the part of the mature narrator. In other words, Proust is consciously exploiting this ‘free-floating mythology of the East’ in order to underscore the young narrator's naive fascination with Odette. Equally in his evocation of the Orient in the context of Odette's seduction of Swann, Proust is not the unquestioning perpetrator of a hackneyed vision of the East; rather, he is gently satirizing not only Odette's frequently noted bad taste, but also the contemporary fad for all things Oriental, a fad which—as is suggested by the ironic aside in the following quotation—has none the less been comfortably westernized. The inauthentically elaborate entrance to Odette's apartment is described as follows:

Un escalier droit entre des murs peints de couleur sombre et d'où tombaient des étoffes orientales, des fils de chapelet turcs et une grande lanterne japonaise suspendue à une cordelette de soie (mais qui, pour ne pas priver les visiteurs des derniers conforts de la civilisation occidentale, s'éclairait au gaz) montait au salon et au petin salon.

(I, 216)

The sheer excess and eclecticism of the décor provide the perfect illustration of the ‘lois d'imitation’ which, according to the sociologist Tarde, govern collective life: ‘un petit nombre d'inventeurs [sont] bientôt suivis par la foule des copieurs’ writes Fraisse, and the favourite god of the France of the period becomes, as Brichot points out, ‘le dieu chinois Je-Men Fous’.12

A transition thus occurs both in Proust's presentation of Odette and in his handling of the Orient. The erotic (because exotic) space which she inhabits and which is visited by the young narrator is transformed into a tawdry lair, whilst the young narrator/protagonist who buys into the fantasized Orientalist stereotype subtly evolves into the mature narrator/writer who playfully contests that stereotype. The East is not therefore appropriated by Proust in the terms proposed by Said. Rather, its appropriation by contemporary fashion (a fashion overdone by Odette) is mocked as a grotesque distortion of what is for Proust a source of genuine beauty.


  1. M. Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu, 4 vols, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris, Gallimard, 1987-89).

  2. E. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London, Penguin, 1995), pp. 1-2.

  3. Said, p. 2.

  4. J. Mackenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (Manchester, MUP, 1995).

  5. Said, p. 53.

  6. Said, p. 190.

  7. Ibid.

  8. D. Roe, Gustave Flaubert (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1989), p. 61.

  9. I have discussed further aspects of Proust's metaphorical handling of the East elsewhere. See ‘Les Mille et Une Nuits Proustiennes’, in Essays in French Literature, 35-36 (November 1988-99), 113-30, and ‘The Proustian Harem’, in MLR, 97, 2 (2002), 300-11.

  10. Said, p. 188.

  11. L. Fraisse, Proust et le Japonisme (Strasbourg, Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 1997).

  12. Fraisse, p. 33.


Marcel Proust World Literature Analysis