Regret: On the Contingent and Universal
As the Narrator watches Albertine continue on her way “to join her friends,” he describes his sense of “despair” or regret at not visiting Elstir sooner (582). While he doesn’t linger with this feeling, this remark nonetheless underscores a problem that keeps tripping up the Narrator: he fetishizes beauty, love, and intimacy as ideal pleasures cut off from him (at a far, far distance; inaccessible; unknowable) even as he dramatizes and theorizes the particular social threads and fabrics that connect him to all other figures and characters in the novel. Fixations on the band of young women (on the cyclist, more specifically) deflates his interest in the great Elstir, even though social networks and connections might improve his chances of getting to know the strangers whom he encounters at Balbec. Indeed, the problem of social isolation is an early theme in Within a Budding Grove, and here the theme reappears in the irony that the Narrator’s deferred visit to Elstir becomes the very decision that facilitates his introduction to Albertine and, eventually, to the entire band. Had he not deferred this visitation, he could have sped up the time table of this introduction.
I’m struggling here to articulate conflicting impulses in the novel’s philosophizing: it proliferates general truisms that purport to universality even as the book generates sharp observations of socio-historically contingent and peculiar features of modern French life in transition. Perhaps I’m forcing a connection here between the Narrator’s surprise and despair (and eventual joy) at discovering Elstir’s connection with Albertine, but the novel’s comedic theorizing of love does seem to turn upon a perpetual forgetting of the contingent and changing social networks and fabrics that sustain, obstruct, and reconfigure the possibilities of desire and pleasure.
Indeed, several pages later, after the Narrator identifies Odette as the subject of a remarkable portrait (601; cf. 585) and Elstir as “the ridiculous, depraved painter who’d at one time been adopted by the Verdurins” (604), the novel returns to a mode of universal truth-making. Recognizing judgment in the Narrator’s interrogation about the Verdurins, Elstir chooses not to “[avenge] the injury to his pride” but seeks, instead, “to extract, for the better edification of the young, the element of truth that” the circumstance “contained” (605). A person (“man”) should not regret the follies of their youth “because [they] cannot be certain that [they have] indeed become a wise [person] . . . unless [they have] passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be proceeded” (605). All the nuanced descriptions of the Verdurin clan in “Swann in Love” falls away here into a lesson about wisdom and the development of good / great lives: “. . . it is in accordance with the laws of life and of the mind that we have, from the common elements of life, of the life of studios, of artistic groups—assuming one is a painter—extracted something that transcends them” (606). Which do we value: the derivative truism? Or the thick description?
Lessons from Elstir
This instructive moment is part of a much larger pattern of pedagogical moments in the novel: the dinner with Norpois, the encounters with Charlus, the lunch with Bergotte, the memories of Swann . . . all of which form an important backdrop to the development of the Narrator’s tastes and reflexes of interest and obsession.
See pp. 573–75 (on Balbec church); pp. 652–56 (re: racetrack, yacht culture and fashion, the correspondence between the shape of rock formations and cathedrals); pp. 612–13 (the Narrator’s attention to “still life,” a new capacity inspired perhaps by Elstir’s aesthetics).
“Later on . . .”: An Inventory of Prolepsis (cont.)
Pg. 586: “Later on, when I had become familiar with Elstir’s mythological paintings, Mme Elstir acquired beauty in my eyes also. I understood then that . . .”
Pg. 596: “. . . some years later, the belief, then the disappearance of belief, that Albertine was faithful to me, brought about similar changes.”
Pg. 619: “Nor did it [Albertine’s use of ‘perfectly’ instead of ‘completely’] mean that after this first metamorphosis Albertine was not to change again for me, many times . . . [T]his was merely a second impression and there were doubtless others though which I would successively pass.”
Pg. 620: “. . . I had the impression that I was seeing this picture from another angle of vision, very far removed from myself, realising that it had not existed only for me, when some months later, to my great surprise, on my speaking to Albertine about the day on which I had first met her . . .”
Pg. 629: “. . . Bloch was destined to give Albertine other grounds for annoyance later on.”
Series and Multiples
The passage above about the many metamorphoses of Albertine is part of yet another pattern that, on this read through, becomes rather monotonous by the time we reach this truism about love and women:
If in this craze for amusement Albertine might be said to echo something of the old original Gilberte, that is because a certain similarity exists, although the type evolves, between all the women we successively love, a similarity that is due to the fixity of our own temperament, which chooses them, eliminating all those who would not be at once our opposite and our complement, apt, that is to say, to gratify our senses and to wring our hearts.Proust, Within a Budding Grove, pg. 647
For the Narrator, the differences among versions of a single woman whom he loves (a series of metamorphoses that have the consistency of a style or identity) thus replicates the related series of different lovers, who also seem consistent (despite their differences) with the Narrator’s own aesthetic preoccupations. Cf. the account of coming to know “all the little band,” whom he figures as a “chair of flowers” where “the pleasure of knowing a different one would send [him] back to the one to whom [he] was indebted for it, with a gratitude mixed with as much desire as [his] new hope” (642–43).
Some passages about the seriality / multiplicity of Albertine:
Pg. 580–81: “. . . Albertine and the girl whom I had seen going to her friend’s house were one and the same person . . . [but] I am unable to confer on her retrospectively an identity which she did not have for me at the moment she caught my eye; whatever assurance I may derive from the law of probabilities, that girl with the plump cheeks who stared at me so boldly from the corner of the little street and from the beach, and by whom I believe that I might have been loved, I have never, in the strict sense of the words, seen again.”
Pg. 595: “. . . each time I saw [Albertine] she was to appear different.”
Pp. 597–98: “Since my first sight of Albertine I had thought about her endlessly, I had carried on with what I called by her name an interminable inner dialogue in which I made her question and answer, think and act, and in the infinite series of imaginary Albertines who followed one after the other in my fancy hour by hour, the real Albertine, glimpsed on the beach, figured only at the head, just as the actress who ‘creates’ a role, the star, appears out of a long series of performance, in the first few alone.” [We’ll return to this important passage below and connect it with pp. 647–48.]
Pg. 617: “At the moment when our name rings out on the lips of the introducer . . . she to whose presence we have been longing to attain vanishes: indeed, how could she remain the same when . . . in the eyes that only yesterday were situated at an infinite distance . . . the conscious gaze, the incommunicable thought which we were seeking have just been miraculously and quite simply replaced by our own image painted in them as in a smiling mirror?”
Pg. 621: “. . . I felt myself honour bound to fulfil to the real the promises of love made to the imagined Albertine.”
On Style, on Aging
These passages on Albertine and the shifts and consistency of the Narrator’s desire seem thematically and conceptually related to his observations about Elstir, his style, and his own preoccupations with certain faces. See pp. 586–89; 601–04.
See also his meditations on the changes that occur over time to faces as they age. Cf. pgs. 588, 643–44.
The theme of consistency across a series of changes really anchors many of the concerns of this volume (and the novel in general). It connects the Narrator’s observations about Albertine as a series of imagined people with the serial link between Gilberte and Albertine; it may also account for the friction I note above between the novel’s insistence on universalizing and on particularizing; moreover, it seems to manifest in the image of Odette in “transvestite costume” (585), a portrait that captures a “fraternal charm” (584). The Narrator elaborates:
Along the lines of the face, the latent sex seemed to be on the point of confessing itself, and reappeared further on with a suggestion rather of an effeminate, vicious and pensive youth, then fled once more and remained elusive. The dreamy sadness in the expression of the eyes, by its very contrast with the accessories belonging to the world of debauchery and the stage, was not the least disturbing element in the picture. One imagined moreover that it must be feigned, and that the young person who seemed ready to submit to caresses in this provoking costume had probably thought it intriguing to enhance the provocation with this romantic expression of a secret longing, an unspoken grief.Proust, Within a Budding Grove, pg. 585
Important connection have been made, I imagine, between this passage about a masculine Odette and Swann’s fear of her lesbianism as well as the Narrator’s observations about Legrandin’s boyish daughter and the effeminacy of Saint-Loup and Charlus. Many critics have elaborated Proust on sex, gender, and sexuality. I’m sure others have also investigated the following questions: What insight does this cluster of passages about gender-crossings bring to the novel’s effort to reconcile identity and difference? Series and multiplicity? Transformation and consistency? Style and cliche? His shift from a taste for stormy seas and the ocean’s immemorial indifference to human society to a taste for sun and for human fashions (pp. 657–59)?
On Love (Yes, Again)
Related to almost everything I’ve noted above, I want to end these reflections with an important passage on the flatness of the beloved’s character. Immediately following the passage that places Albertine in a series with Gilberte, Proust writes:
They are, these women, a product of our temperament, an image, an inverted projection, a negative of our sensibility. So that a novelist might, in relating the life of his hero, describe his successive love-affairs in almost exactly similar terms, and thereby give the impression not that he was repeating himself but that he was creating, since an artificial novelty is never so effective as a repetition that manages to suggest a fresh truth. He ought, moreover, to note in the character of the lover an index of variation which becomes apparent as the story moves into fresh regions, into different latitudes of life. And perhaps he would be expressing yet another truth if, while investing all the other dramatic personae with distinct characters, he refrained from giving any to the beloved. We understand the characters of people to whom we are indifferent, but how can we ever grasp that of a person who is an intimate part of our existence, whom after a while we no longer distinguish from ourselves, whose motives provide us with an inexhaustible source of anxious hypotheses, continually revised? Springing from somewhere beyond our intellect, our curiosity about the woman we love overleaps the bounds of that woman’s character, at which, even if we could stop, we probably never would. The object of our anxious investigation is something more basic than those details of character comparable to the tiny particles of epidermis whose varied combination from the florid originality of human flesh. Our intuitive radiography pierces them, and the images which it brings back, far from being those of a particular face, present rather the joyless universality of a skeleton.Proust, Within a Budding Grove, pp. 647–48
What a passage. Really remarkable, especially since it exposes the flatness not only of Odette’s character in “Swann in Love” and of Albertine and the little band here in “Place-Names: The Place” but, in addition, the flatness of women in much (sexist / misogynistic) canonical literature. Proust doesn’t mean to expose literary sexism / misogyny, I imagine, but, rather, to justify the psychological and emotional realism of novels that leave the beloved hollow, flat, and at the margins of its hero’s quests and adventures.
How much do (philosophical) readings of Proust pick up on this feature of his universalizing? How the position of the novel’s theorizing is not a neutral point of view but a thoroughly parochial one?
Indeed, in speculating on a truth that might help explain why so many fictional beloveds remain flat, empty, incomplete, and skeletal, Proust produces, instead, an alibi for fellow male writers. What are the consequences of treating this alibi as if it expressed a truth about lovers’ anxieties? That treats their anxiety as fundamental to a universal model of love?