Saturday, August 22, 2009

"All are sick with some form of the ideal," or, It's time again for Proust

August is waning, and the air carries a feeling that, as Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence pointed out earlier this week, Tove Jansson described perfectly in The Summer Book:
It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin.
The weather suits my annual August return to Proust, a tradition I copied from a poet friend, Carrie Olivia Adams; this year, I'm closing out my second time through the whole cycle, reading Finding Time Again in the 2002 translation by Ian Patterson.

In anticipation, I turned last week to Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise (1948), because I vaguely remembered Connolly expressing dissatisfaction with In Search of Lost Time. I was surprised at how close he comes to outright dismissal:
He exhibits, beyond all others, the defect of the Mandarin style; the failure of the writer's intellectual or emotional content to fill the elaborate frame which his talent plans for it. The honeycombs continue to develop, but fewer and fewer pollen-bags are emptied into them. There are many great passages where the complexity is worthy of the emotion expended on it, where very subtle and difficult truths are presented in language that could only express them if difficult and subtle.

Notwithstanding, now that the element of novelty and cult-snobbery has worn off, much of Proust, as of his master Ruskin, must stand condemned. He is often repetitive and feeble; the emotions of envy, jealousy, lust, and snobbishness around which his book is built, though they generate an enormous impetus, are incapable of sustaining it through twenty or thirty volumes; Swann's jealousy of Odette is enough without Proust's jealousy of Albertine, Saint-Loup's of Rachel and Charlus's of Morel and if the emotions repeat themselves, so also do the stories, the situations, the comments, parentheses, and cliches. Proust will remain a great writer, but his titles to fame my have to be reconsidered.
Few would argue that there are not parts of In Search of Lost Time that could be trimmed or tightened, but Connolly's critique is far, far too broad. In so coolly dismissing the repetitive patterns of the book, he reduces what is in reality recurrence, echo, and commentary to something akin to laziness or failure of imagination. More important, what he identifies as "envy, jealousy, lust, and snobbishness" might more productively be grouped together under the more general--and more important, for far more empathetic--concept of longing, an emotion with which one would assume the perpetually dissatisfied Connolly to be quite familiar.

Edmund Wilson is far more generous, and far closer to correct, in his treament of Proust in Axel's Castle (1931):
All [Proust's characters] alike are suffering from some form of unsatisfied longing or disappointed hope: all are sick with some form of the ideal. Legrandin wants to know the Guermantes; Vinteuil is wounded in his love for his daughter; Swann, associating the beauty of Odette with that of the women of Boticelli, ridiculously and tragically identifies his passion for her with his neglected aesthetic interests.

Connolly is much closer to the mark in his indictment of the slash-and-burn nature of Proust's satire:
He was modern enough to attack the values of this world but he had nothing to put in their place, for their values were his own, those of the narrator in the book who spends his life in going to parties and watching snobs behave but is never a snob himself. . . . [W]hat in fact he declares is that nothing changes except the small social set which he admired in his youth and which fell to pieces. . . . There was a new face with an old title in a box at the opera--but the title and the box are always there, coveted and prized by the ruling class of six or seven countries; there are no new ideas, no revolution in wisdom, no reversals of taste, nobody to declare that they never want to see an opera again.
This is a version of the common criticism of the satirist: that by destroying everything and offering nothing to replace what he's savaged, he leaves the reader feeling inclined, not to revolution or fundamental change, but to resignation. If it's all really that bad, why bother trying to change anything?

Here, too, Wilson provides a strong rebuttal. After describing some of the scenes of greatest cruelty in the novel--including the Guermantes's callous disregard of Swann's awkward confession of his impending death--Wilson first offers a more suitable and balanced assessment of the aims of Proust's satire:
Proust has destroyed, and destroyed with ferocity, the social hierarchy he has just been expounding. Its values, he tells us, are an imposture: pretending to honor and distinction, it accepts all that is vulgar and base; its pride is nothing nobler than the instinct which it shares with the woman who keeps the toilet and the elevator boy's sister, to spit upon the person whom we happen to have at a disadvantage. And whatever the social world may say to the contrary, it either ignores or seeks to kill those few impulses toward justice and beauty which make men admirable. It seems strange that so many critics should have found Proust's novel "unmoral"; the truth is that he was preoccupied with morality to the extent of tending to deal in melodrama. Proust was himself (on his mother's side) half-Jewish; and for all his Parisian sophistication, there remains in him much of the capacity for apocalyptic moral indignation of the classical Jewish prophet.
From there, he reminds us that, contrary to Connolly's assertion, Proust does offer us counter-examples:
[W]e begin to understand why Proust finds these realities so inacceptable, as we become aware of the standards by which he judges them. These standards are supplied, on the one hand, by such artists as Bergotte, the novelist, and Vinteuil, the composer; but on the other hand, by Swann and by the narrator's mother and grandmother. . . . The world is different from Combray, not merely because Combray is provincial, but because the world is the world and occupied with the things of the world. It is not really Combray itself, but the example of his mother and grandmother, with their kindness, their spiritual nobility, their rigid moral principles and their utter self-abnegation, from which Proust's narrator sets out on his ill-fated adventures among men.
Against the cynical and grasping world of society, Proust sets a conception of strength of character, of a kindness and dignity so fundamental that even when our longings make us ridiculous--as Swann's pursuit of Odette can't help but do--they can never make us cruel or small.

It is, as Wilson notes, a deeply moral vision, and while its backwards-looking, conservative vision may not be the first step towards the revolution for which Connolly seems to be asking, it unquestionably answers his charge that Proust offered no alternative to the values of the society he condemns.

And now to submit to Proust's obsessions and watch this late-summer Saturday slip away.

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