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Bloom’s Modern Critical Views


Edited and with an introduction by

Harold Bloom
Sterling Professor of the Humanities
Yale University
©2004 by Chelsea House Publishers, a subsidiary of
Haights Cross Communications.

Introduction © 2004 by Harold Bloom.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be

reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means
without the written permission of the publisher.

Printed and bound in the United States of America.

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Editor’s Note vii

Introduction 1
Harold Bloom
Proust and Time Embodied 17
Julia Kristeva
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 37
Robert Fraser
Zipporah: A Ruskinian Enigma
Appropriated by Marcel Proust 63
Cynthia J. Gamble
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 83
Jan Hokenson
Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia 105
Susan Stewart
Orpheus and the Machine: Proust as Theorist
of Technological Change, and the Case of Joyce 121
Sara Danius
Introduction to Proustian Passions 137
Ingrid Wassenaar
The Vast Structure of Recollection:
from Life to Literature 165
William C. Carter
Albertine’s Bicycle, or: Women and French
Identity during the Belle Epoque 185
Siân Reynolds

The Ending of Swann Revisited 201

Anthony R. Pugh
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte: A Case
for an Extension of the Term? 221
Maureen A. Ramsden
Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty 243
Gabrielle Starr

Chronology 267

Contributors 273

Bibliography 277

Acknowledgments 283

Index 285
Editor’s Note

This revised volume has only my Introduction in common with the earlier
Marcel Proust: Modern Critical Views (1987), since all the essays included here
date from 1993 on.
My Introduction compares Proust and Freud on the psychosexual
origins of jealousy, and then centers upon the odysseys of sexual jealousy in
Swann and in Marcel.
Julia Kristeva, with authentic charm, rightfully gives us a Proust who is
closer to Spinoza than to Heideger, while Robert Fraser contrasts George
Eliot’s powers of observation with Flaubert’s moral withdrawal, antithetical
influences upon Proust.
John Ruskin, another crucial Proustian precursor, is shown by Cynthia
J. Gamble to have provided a model for Odette, Swann’s provocation to self-
destruction, after which Jan Hokenson traces the limits of Japanese
aestheticism in Proust’s vast saga.
Susan Stewart usefully sees Proust turning from a study of the
nostalgias to the happiness of aesthetic apprehension, while Sara Danius sets
Joyce against Proust in their effort to absorb technological change.
For Ingrid Wassenaar, In Search of Lost Time joins itself to the history
of self-justification, after which Proust’s biographer, William C. Carter,
examines his subject’s grand edifice of recollection.
Siân Reynolds subtly presents the fear of women embedded in the
French culture of Proust’s era, while Anthony R. Pugh clarifies the ending of
Swann’s Way.
Maureen A. Ramsden finds Proust’s early Jean Santeuil a guide to the
aesthetics of In Search of Lost Time, while Gabrielle Starr concludes with a
fresh vision of the Proustian aesthetics.



S exual jealousy is the most novelistic of circumstances, just as incest,

according to Shelley, is the most poetical of circumstances. Proust is the
novelist of our era, even as Freud is our moralist. Both are speculative
thinkers, who divide between them the eminence of being the prime wisdom
writers of the age.
Proust died in 1922, the year of Freud’s grim and splendid essay,
“Certain Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality.”
Both of them great ironists, tragic celebrants of the comic spirit, Proust and
Freud are not much in agreement on jealousy, paranoia, and homosexuality,
though both start with the realization that all of us are bisexual in nature.
Freud charmingly begins his essay by remarking that jealousy, like
grief, is normal, and comes in three stages: competitive or normal, projected,
delusional. The competitive or garden variety is compounded of grief, due to
the loss of the loved object, and of the reactivation of the narcissistic scar, the
tragic first loss, by the infant, of the parent of the other sex to the parent of
the same sex. As normal, competitive jealousy is really normal Hell, Freud
genially throws into the compound such delights as enmity against the
successful rival, some self-blaming, self-criticism, and a generous portion of
Projected jealousy attributes to the erotic partner one’s own actual
unfaithfulness or repressed impulses, and is cheerfully regarded by Freud as
being relatively innocuous, since its almost delusional character is highly
amenable to analytic exposure of unconscious fantasies. But delusional
jealousy proper is more serious; it also takes its origin in repressed impulses
towards infidelity, but the object of those impulses is of one’s own sex, and
this, for Freud, moves one across the border into paranoia.
What the three stages of jealousy have in common is a bisexual
component, since even projected jealousy trades in repressed impulses, and

2 Harold Bloom

these include homosexual desires. Proust, our other authority on jealousy,

preferred to call homosexuality “inversion,” and in a brilliant mythological
fantasia traced the sons of Sodom and the daughters of Gomorrah to the
surviving exiles from the Cities of the Plain. Inversion and jealousy, so
intimately related in Freud, become in Proust a dialectical pairing, with the
aesthetic sensibility linked to both as a third term in a complex series.
On the topos of jealousy, Proust is fecund and generous; no writer has
devoted himself so lovingly and brilliantly to expounding and illustrating the
emotion, except of course Shakespeare in Othello and Hawthorne in The
Scarlet Letter. Proust’s jealous lovers—Swann, Saint-Loup, above all Marcel
himself—suffer so intensely that we sometimes need to make an effort not to
empathize too closely. It is difficult to determine just what Proust’s stance
towards their suffering is, partly because Proust’s ironies are both pervasive
and cunning. Comedy hovers nearby, but even tragicomedy seems an
inadequate term for the compulsive sorrows of Proust’s protagonists. Swann,
after complimenting himself that he has not, by his jealousy, proved to
Odette that he loves her too much, falls into the mouth of Hell:

He never spoke to her of this misadventure, and ceased even to

think of it himself. But now and then his thoughts in their
wandering course would come upon this memory where it lay
unobserved, would startle it into life, thrust it forward into his
consciousness, and leave him aching with a sharp, deep-rooted
pain. As though it were a bodily pain, Swann’s mind was
powerless to alleviate it; but at least, in the case of bodily pain,
since it is independent of the mind, the mind can dwell upon it,
can note that it has diminished, that it has momentarily ceased.
But in this case the mind, merely by recalling the pain, created it
afresh. To determine not to think of it was to think of it still, to
suffer from it still. And when, in conversation with his friends, he
forgot about it, suddenly a word casually uttered would make him
change countenance like a wounded man when a clumsy hand has
touched his aching limb. When he came away from Odette he
was happy, he felt calm, he recalled her smiles, of gentle mockery
when speaking of this or that other person, of tenderness for
himself; he recalled the gravity of her head which she seemed to
have lifted from its axis to let it droop and fall, as though in spite
of herself, upon his lips, as she had done on the first evening in
the carriage, the languishing looks she had given him as she lay in
Introduction 3

his arms, nestling her head against her shoulder as though

shrinking from the cold.
But then at once his jealousy, as though it were the shadow of
his love, presented him with the complement, with the converse
of that new smile with which she had greeted him that very
evening—and which now, perversely, mocked Swann and shone
with love for another—of that droop of the head, now sinking on
to other lips, of all the marks of affection (now given to another)
that she had shown to him. And all the voluptuous memories
which he bore away from her house were, so to speak, but so
many sketches, rough plans like those which a decorator submits
to one, enabling Swann to form an idea of the various attitudes,
aflame or faint with passion, which she might adopt for others.
With the result that he came to regret every pleasure that he
tasted in her company, every new caress of which he had been so
imprudent as to point out to her the delights, every fresh charm
that he found in her, for he knew that, a moment later, they would
go to enrich the collection of instruments in his secret torture-

Jealousy here is a pain experienced by Freud’s bodily ego, on the

frontier between psyche and body: “To determine not to think of it was to
think of it still, to suffer from it still.” As the shadow of love, jealousy
resembles the shadow cast by the earth up into the heavens, where by
tradition it ought to end at the sphere of Venus. Instead, it darkens there, and
since the shadow is Freud’s reality principle, or our consciousness of our own
mortality, Proust’s dreadfully persuasive irony is that jealousy exposes not
only the arbitrariness of every erotic object-choice but also marks the passage
of the loved person into a teleological overdetermination, in which the
supposed inevitability of the person is simply a mask for the inevitability of
the lover’s death. Proust’s jealousy thus becomes peculiarly akin to Freud’s
death drive, since it, too, quests beyond the pleasure/unpleasure principle.
Our secret torture-chamber is furnished anew by every recollection of the
beloved’s erotic prowess, since what delighted us has delighted others.
Swann experiences the terrible conversion of the jealous lover into a
parody of the scholar, a conversion to an intellectual pleasure that is more a
deviation than an achievement, since no thought can be emancipated from
the sexual past of all thought (Freud), if the search for truth is nothing but a
search for the sexual past:
4 Harold Bloom

Certainly he suffered as he watched that light, in whose golden

atmosphere, behind the closed sash, stirred the unseen and
detested pair, as he listened to that murmur which revealed the
presence of the man who had crept in after his own departure, the
perfidy of Odette, and the pleasures which she was at that
moment enjoying with the stranger. And yet he was not sorry he
had come; the torment which had forced him to leave his own
house had become less acute now that it had become less vague,
now that Odette’s other life, of which he had had, at that first
moment, a sudden helpless suspicion, was definitely there, in the
full glare of the lamp-light, almost within his grasp, an unwitting
prisoner in that room into which, when he chose, he would force
his way to seize it unawares; or rather he would knock on the
shutters, as he often did when he came very late, and by that
signal Odette would at least learn that he knew, that he had seen
the light and had heard the voices, and he himself, who a moment
ago had been picturing her as laughing with the other at his
illusions, now it was he who saw them, confident in their error,
tricked by none other than himself, whom they believed to be far
away but who was there, in person, there with a plan, there with
the knowledge that he was going, in another minute, to knock on
the shutter. And perhaps the almost pleasurable sensation he felt
at that moment was something more than the assuagement of a
doubt, and of a pain: was an intellectual pleasure. If, since he had
fallen in love, things had recovered a little of the delightful
interest that they had had for him long ago—though only in so
far as they were illuminated by the thought or the memory of
Odette—now it was another of the faculties of his studious youth
that his jealousy revived, the passion for truth, but for a truth
which, too, was interposed between himself and his mistress,
receiving its light from her alone, a private and personal truth the
sole object of which (an infinitely precious object, and one almost
disinterested in its beauty) was Odette’s life, her actions, her
environment, her plans, her past. At every other period in his life,
the little everyday activities of another person had always seemed
meaningless to Swann; if gossip about such things was repeated
to him, he would dismiss it as insignificant, and while he listened
it was only the lowest, the most commonplace part of his mind
that was engaged; these were the moments when he felt at his
most inglorious. But in this strange phase of love the personality
Introduction 5

of another person becomes so enlarged, so deepened, that the

curiosity which he now felt stirring inside him with regard to the
smallest details of a woman’s daily life, was the same thirst for
knowledge with which he had once studied history. And all
manner of actions from which hitherto he would have recoiled in
shame, such as spying, to-night, outside a window, to-morrow
perhaps, for all he knew, putting adroitly provocative questions to
casual witnesses, bribing servants, listening at doors, seemed to
him now to be precisely on a level with the deciphering of
manuscripts, the weighing of evidence, the interpretation of old
monuments—so many different methods of scientific
investigation with a genuine intellectual value and legitimately
employable in the search for truth.

In fact, poor Swann is at the wrong window, and the entire passage is
therefore as exquisitely painful as it is comic. What Freud ironically called
the overevaluation of the object, the enlargement or deepening of the
beloved’s personality, begins to work not as one of the enlargements of life
(like Proust’s own novel) but as the deepening of a personal Hell. Swann
plunges downwards and outwards, as he leans “in impotent, blind, dizzy
anguish over the bottomless abyss” and reconstructs the petty details of
Odette’s past life with “as much passion as the aesthete who ransacks the
extant documents of fifteenth-century Florence in order to penetrate further
into the soul of the Primavera, the fair Vanna or the Venus of Botticelli.”
The historicizing aesthete, John Ruskin say, or Walter Pater, becomes
the archetype of the jealous lover, who searches into lost time not for a
person, but for an epiphany or moment-of-moments, a privileged fiction of

When he had been paying social calls Swann would often come
home with little time to spare before dinner. At that point in the
evening, around six o’clock, when in the old days he used to feel
so wretched, he no longer asked himself what Odette might be
about, and was hardly at all concerned to hear that she had people
with her or had gone out. He recalled at times that he had once,
years ago, tried to read through its envelope a letter addressed by
Odette to Forcheville. But this memory was not pleasing to him,
and rather than plumb the depths of shame that he felt in it he
preferred to indulge in a little grimace, twisting up the corners of
his mouth and adding, if need be, a shake of the head which
6 Harold Bloom

signified “What do I care about it?” True, he considered now that

the hypothesis on which he had often dwelt at that time,
according to which it was his jealous imagination alone that
blackened what was in reality the innocent life of Odette—that
this hypothesis (which after all was beneficent, since, so long as
his amorous malady had lasted, it had diminished his sufferings
by making them seem imaginary) was not the correct one, that it
was his jealousy that had seen things in the correct light, and that
if Odette had loved him more than he supposed, she had also
deceived him more. Formerly, while his sufferings were still keen,
he had vowed that, as soon as he had ceased to love Odette and
was no longer afraid either of vexing her or of making her believe
that he loved her too much, he would give himself the satisfaction
of elucidating with her, simply from his love of truth and as a
point of historical interest, whether or not Forcheville had been
in bed with her that day when he had rung her bell and rapped on
her window in vain, and she had written to Forcheville that it was
an uncle of hers who had called. But this so interesting problem,
which he was only waiting for his jealousy to subside before
clearing up, had precisely lost all interest in Swann’s eyes when he
had ceased to be jealous. Not immediately, however. Long after
he had ceased to feel any jealousy with regard to Odette, the
memory of that day, that afternoon spent knocking vainly at the
little house in the Rue La Pérouse, had continued to torment
him. It was as though his jealousy, not dissimilar in that respect
from those maladies which appear to have their seat, their centre
of contagion, less in certain persons than in certain places, in
certain houses, had had for its object not so much Odette herself
as that day, that hour in the irrevocable past when Swann had
knocked at every entrance to her house in turn, as though that
day, that hour alone had caught and preserved a few last
fragments of the amorous personality which had once been
Swann’s, that there alone could he now recapture them. For a
long time now it had been a matter of indifference to him
whether Odette had been, or was being, unfaithful to him. And
yet he had continued for some years to seek out old servants of
hers, to such an extent had the painful curiosity persisted in him
to know whether on that day, so long ago, at six o’clock, Odette
had been in bed with Forcheville. Then that curiosity itself had
disappeared, without, however, his abandoning his investigations.
Introduction 7

He went on trying to discover what no longer interested him,

because his old self, though it had shrivelled to extreme
decrepitude, still acted mechanically, in accordance with
preoccupations so utterly abandoned that Swann could not now
succeed even in picturing to himself that anguish—so compelling
once that he had been unable to imagine that he would ever be
delivered from it, that only the death of the woman he loved
(though death, as will be shown later on in this story by a cruel
corroboration, in no way diminishes the sufferings caused by
jealousy) seemed to him capable of smoothing the path of his life
which then seemed impassably obstructed.

Jealousy dies with love, but only with respect to the former beloved.
Horribly a life-in-death, jealousy renews itself like the moon, perpetually
trying to discover what no longer interests it, even after the object of desire
has been literally buried. Its true object is “that day, that hour in the
irrevocable past,” and even that time was less an actual time than a temporal
fiction, an episode in the evanescence of one’s own self. Paul de Man’s
perspective that Proust’s deepest insight is the nonexistence of the self founds
itself upon this temporal irony of unweaving, this permanent parabasis of
meaning. One can remember that even this deconstructive perspective is no
more or less privileged than any other Proustian trope, and so cannot give us
a truth that Proust himself evades.
The bridge between Swann’s jealousy and Marcel’s is Saint-Loup’s
jealousy of Rachel, summed up by Proust in one of his magnificently long,
baroque paragraphs:

Saint-Loup’s letter had come as no surprise to me, even though I

had had no news of him since, at the time of my grandmother’s
illness, he had accused me of perfidy and treachery. I had grasped
at once what must have happened. Rachel, who liked to provoke
his jealousy (she also had other causes for resentment against me),
had persuaded her lover that I had made sly attempts to have
relations with her in his absence. It is probable that he continued
to believe in the truth of this allegation, but he had ceased to be
in love with her, which meant that its truth or falsehood had
become a matter of complete indifference to him, and our
friendship alone remained. When, on meeting him again, I tried
to talk to him about his accusations, he merely gave me a benign
and affectionate smile which seemed to be a sort of apology, and
8 Harold Bloom

then changed the subject. All this was not to say that he did not,
a little later, see Rachel occasionally when he was in Paris. Those
who have played a big part in one’s life very rarely disappear from
it suddenly for good. They return to it at odd moments (so much
so that people suspect a renewal of old love) before leaving it for
ever. Saint-Loup’s breach with Rachel had very soon become less
painful to him, thanks to the soothing pleasure that was given
him by her incessant demands for money. Jealousy, which
prolongs the course of love, is not capable of containing many
more ingredients than the other products of the imagination. If
one takes with one, when one starts on a journey, three or four
images which incidentally one is sure to lose on the way (such as
the lilies and anemones heaped on the Ponte Vecchio, or the
Persian church shrouded in mist), one’s trunk is already pretty
full. When one leaves a mistress, one would be just as glad, until
one had begun to forget her, that she should not become the
property of three or four potential protectors whom one pictures
in one’s mind’s eye, of whom, that is to say, one is jealous: all those
whom one does not so picture count for nothing. Now frequent
demands for money from a cast-off mistress no more give one a
complete idea of her life than charts showing a high temperature
would of her illness. But the latter would at any rate be an
indication that she was ill, and the former furnish a presumption,
vague enough it is true, that the forsaken one or forsaker
(whichever she be) cannot have found anything very remarkable
in the way of rich protectors. And so each demand is welcomed
with the joy which a lull produces in the jealous one’s sufferings,
and answered with the immediate dispatch of money, for
naturally one does not like to think of her being in want of
anything except lovers (one of the three lovers one has in one’s
mind’s eye), until time has enabled one to regain one’s composure
and to learn one’s successor’s name without wilting. Sometimes
Rachel came in so late at night that she could ask her former
lover’s permission to lie down beside him until the morning. This
was a great comfort to Robert, for it reminded him how
intimately, after all, they had lived to-together, simply to see that
even if he took the greater part of the bed for himself it did not
in the least interfere with her sleep. He realised that she was more
comfortable, lying close to his familiar body, than she would have
been elsewhere, that she felt herself by his side—even in an
Introduction 9

hotel—to be in a bedroom known of old in which one has one’s

habits, in which one sleeps better. He felt that his shoulders, his
limbs, all of him, were for her, even when he was unduly restless
from insomnia or thinking of the things he had to do, so entirely
usual that they could not disturb her and that the perception of
them added still further to her sense of repose.

The heart of this comes in the grandly ironic sentence: “Jealousy,

which prolongs the course of love, is not capable of containing many more
ingredients than the other products of the imagination.” That is hardly a
compliment to the capaciousness of the imagination, which scarcely can hold
on for long to even three or four images. Saint-Loup, almost on the farthest
shore of jealousy, has the obscure comfort of having become, for Rachel, one
of those images not quite faded away, when “he felt that his shoulders, his
limbs, all of him, were for her,” even when he has ceased to be there, or
anywhere, for her, or she for him. Outliving love, jealousy has become love’s
last stand, the final basis for a continuity between two former lovers.
Saint-Loup’s bittersweet evanescence as a lover contrasts both with
Swann’s massive historicism and with the novel’s triumphant representation
of jealousy, Marcel’s monumental search after lost time in the long aftermath
of Albertine’s death. Another grand link between magnificent jealousies is
provided by Swann’s observations to Marcel, aesthetic reflections somewhat
removed from the pain of earlier realities:

It occurred to me that Swann must be getting tired of waiting for

me. Moreover I did not wish to be too late in returning home
because of Albertine, and, taking leave of Mme de Surgis and M.
de Charlus, I went in search of my invalid in the card-room. I
asked him whether what he had said to the Prince in their
conversation in the garden was really what M. de Bréauté (whom
I did not name) had reported to us, about a little play by Bergotte.
He burst out laughing: “There’s not a word of truth in it, not one,
it’s a complete fabrication and would have been an utterly stupid
thing to say. It’s really incredible, this spontaneous generation of
falsehood. I won’t ask who it was that told you, but it would be
really interesting, in a field as limited as this, to work back from
one person to another and find out how the story arose. Anyhow,
what concern can it be of other people, what the Prince said to
me? People are very inquisitive. I’ve never been inquisitive,
except when I was in love, and when I was jealous. And a lot I ever
10 Harold Bloom

learned! Are you jealous?” I told Swann that I had never

experienced jealousy, that I did not even know what it was. “Well,
you can count yourself lucky. A little jealousy is not too
unpleasant, for two reasons. In the first place, it enables people
who are not inquisitive to take an interest in the lives of others,
or of one other at any rate. And then it makes one feel the
pleasure of possession, of getting into a carriage with a woman, of
not allowing her to go about by herself. But that’s only in the very
first stages of the disease, or when the cure is almost complete. In
between, it’s the most agonising torment. However, I must
confess that I haven’t had much experience even of the two
pleasures I’ve mentioned—the first because of my own nature,
which is incapable of sustained reflexion; the second because of
circumstances, because of the woman, I should say the women, of
whom I’ve been jealous. But that makes no difference. Even when
one is no longer attached to things, it’s still something to have
been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which
other people didn’t grasp. The memory of those feelings is
something that’s to be found only in ourselves; we must go back
into ourselves to look at it. You mustn’t laugh at this idealistic
jargon, but what I mean to say is that I’ve been very fond of life
and very fond of art. Well, now that I’m a little too weary to live
with other people, those old feelings, so personal and individual,
that I had in the past, seem to me—it’s the mania of all
collectors—very precious. I open my heart to myself like a sort of
showcase, and examine one by one all those love affairs of which
the rest of the world can have known nothing. And of this
collection, to which I’m now even more attached than to my
others, I say to myself, rather as Mazarin said of his books, but in
fact without the least distress, that it will be very tiresome to have
to leave it all. But, to come back to my conversation with the
Prince, I shall tell one person only, and that person is going to be

We are in the elegy season, ironically balanced between the death of

jealousy in Swann and its birth in poor Marcel, who literally does not know
that the descent into Avernus beckons. When the vigor of an affirmation has
more power than its probability, clearly we are living in a fiction, the
metaphor or transference that we call love, and might call jealousy. Into that
metaphor, Marcel moves like a sleepwalker, with his obsessions central to The
Introduction 11

Captive and insanely pervasive in The Fugitive. A great passage in The Captive,
which seems a diatribe against jealousy, instead is a passionately ironic
celebration of jealousy’s aesthetic victory over our merely temporal

However, I was still at the first stage of enlightenment with

regard to Léa. I was not even aware whether Albertine knew her.
No matter, it came to the same thing. I must at all costs prevent
her from renewing this acquaintance or making the acquaintance
of this stranger at the Trocadéro. I say that I did not know
whether she knew Léa or not; yet I must in fact have learned this
at Balbec, from Albertine herself. For amnesia obliterated from
my mind as well as from Albertine’s a great many of the
statements that she had made to me. Memory, instead of being a
duplicate, always present before one’s eyes, of the various events
of one’s life, is rather a void from which at odd moments a chance
resemblance enables one to resuscitate dead recollections; but
even then there are innumerable little details which have not
fallen into that potential reservoir of memory, and which will
remain forever unverifiable. One pays no attention to anything
that one does not connect with the real life of the woman one
loves; one forgets immediately what she has said to one about
such and such an incident or such and such people one does not
know, and her expression while she was saying it. And so when, in
due course, one’s jealousy is aroused by these same people, and
seeks to ascertain whether or not it is mistaken, whether it is
indeed they who are responsible for one’s mistress’s impatience to
go out, and her annoyance when one has prevented her from
doing so by returning earlier than usual, one’s jealousy,
ransacking the past in search of a clue, can find nothing; always
retrospective, it is like a historian who has to write the history of
a period for which he has no documents; always belated, it dashes
like an enraged bull to the spot where it will not find the dazzling,
arrogant creature who is tormenting it and whom the crowd
admire for his splendour and cunning. Jealousy thrashes around
in the void, uncertain as we are in those dreams in which we are
distressed because we cannot find in his empty house a person
whom we have known well in life, but who here perhaps is
another person and has merely borrowed the features of our
friend, uncertain as we are even more after we awake when we
12 Harold Bloom

seek to identify this or that detail of our dream. What was one’s
mistress’s expression when she told one that? Did she not look
happy, was she not actually whistling, a thing that she never does
unless she has some amorous thought in her mind and finds one’s
presence importunate and irritating? Did she not tell one
something that is contradicted by what she now affirms, that she
knows or does not know such and such a person? One does not
know, and one will never know; one searches desperately among
the unsubstantial fragments of a dream, and all the time one’s life
with one’s mistress goes on, a life that is oblivious of what may
well be of importance to one, and attentive to what is perhaps of
none, a life hagridden by people who have no real connexion with
one, full of lapses of memory, gaps, vain anxieties, a life as illusory
as a dream.

Thrashing about in the void of a dream in which a good friend perhaps

is another person, jealousy becomes Spenser’s Malbecco: “who quite/Forgot
he was a man, and jealousy is hight.” Yet making life “as illusory as a dream,”
hagridden by lapses and gaps, is Marcel’s accomplishment, and Proust’s art.
One does not write an other-than-ironic diatribe against one’s own art.
Proust warily, but with the sureness of a great beast descending upon its
helpless prey, approaches the heart of his vision of jealousy, his sense that the
emotion is akin to what Freud named as the defense of isolation, in which all
context is burned away, and a dangerous present replaces all past and all
Sexual jealousy in Proust is accompanied by a singular obsessiveness in
regard to questions of space and of time. The jealous lover, who, as Proust
says, conducts researches comparable to those of the scholar, seeks in his
inquiries every detail he can find as to the location and duration of each
betrayal and infidelity. Why? Proust has a marvelous passage in The Fugitive
volume of Remembrance:

It is one of the faculties of jealousy to reveal to us the extent to

which the reality of external facts and the sentiments of the heart
are an unknown element which lends itself to endless
suppositions. We imagine that we know exactly what things are
and what people think, for the simple reason that we do not care
about them. But as soon as we have a desire to know, as the
jealous man has, then it becomes a dizzy kaleidoscope in which
we can no longer distinguish anything. Had Albertine been
Introduction 13

unfaithful to me? With whom? In what house? On what day? On

the day when she had said this or that to me, when I remembered
that I had in the course of it said this or that? I could not tell. Nor
did I know what her feelings were for me, whether they were
inspired by self-interest or by affection. And all of a sudden I
remembered some trivial incident, for instance that Albertine had
wished to go to Saint-Martin-le-Vêtu, saying that the name
interested her, and perhaps simply because she had made the
acquaintance of some peasant girl who lived there. But it was
useless that Aimé should have informed me of what he had
learned from the woman at the baths, since Albertine must
remain eternally unaware that he had informed me, the need to
know having always been exceeded, in my love for Albertine, by
the need to show her that I knew; for this broke down the
partition of different illusions that stood between us, without
having ever had the result of making her love me more, far from
it. And now, since she was dead, the second of these needs had
been amalgamated with the effect of the first: the need to picture
to myself the conversation in which I would have informed her of
what I had learned, as vividly as the conversation in which I
would have asked her to tell me what I did not know; that is to
say, to see her by my side, to hear her answering me kindly, to see
her cheeks become plump again, her eyes shed their malice and
assume an air of melancholy; that is to say, to love her still and to
forget the fury of my jealousy in the despair of my loneliness. The
painful mystery of this impossibility of ever making known to her
what I had learned and of establishing our relations upon the
truth of what I had only just discovered (and would not have been
able, perhaps, to discover but for her death) substituted its
sadness for the more painful mystery of her conduct. What? To
have so desperately desired that Albertine—who no longer
existed—should know that I had heard the story of the baths!
This again was one of the consequences of our inability, when we
have to consider the fact of death, to picture to ourselves
anything but life. Albertine no longer existed; but to me she was
the person who had concealed from me that she had assignations
with women at Balbec, who imagined that she had succeeded in
keeping me in ignorance of them. When we try to consider what
will happen to us after our own death, is it not still our living self
which we mistakenly project at that moment? And is it much
14 Harold Bloom

more absurd, when all is said, to regret that a woman who no

longer exists is unaware that we have learned what she was doing
six years ago than to desire that of ourselves, who will be dead,
the public shall still speak with approval a century hence? If there
is more real foundation in the latter than in the former case, the
regrets of my retrospective jealousy proceeded none the less from
the same optical error as in other men the desire for posthumous
fame. And yet, if this impression of the solemn finality of my
separation from Albertine had momentarily supplanted my idea
of her misdeeds, it only succeeded in aggravating them by
bestowing upon them an irremediable character. I saw myself
astray in life as on an endless beach where I was alone and where,
in whatever direction I might turn, I would never meet her.

“The regrets of my retrospective jealousy proceeded none the less from

the same optical error as in other men the desire for posthumous fame”—is
that not as much Proust’s negative credo as it is Marcel’s? Those “other men”
include the indubitable precursors, Flaubert and Baudelaire, and Proust
himself as well. The aesthetic agon for immortality is an optical error, yet
this is one of those errors about life that are necessary for life, as Nietzsche
remarked, and is also one of those errors about art that is art. Proust has
swerved away from Flaubert into a radical confession of error; the novel is
creative envy, love is jealousy, jealousy is the terrible fear that there will not
be enough space for oneself (including literary space), and that there never
can be enough time for oneself, because death is the reality of one’s life. A
friend once remarked to me, at the very height of her own jealousy, that
jealousy was nothing but a vision of two bodies on a bed, neither of which
was one’s own, where the hurt resided in the realization that one body ought
to have been one’s own. Bitter as the remark may have been, it usefully
reduces the trope of jealousy to literal fears: where was one’s body, where will
it be, when will it not be? Our ego is always a bodily ego, Freud insisted, and
jealousy joins the bodily ego and the drive as another frontier concept,
another vertigo whirling between a desperate inwardness and the injustice of
outwardness. Proust, like Freud, goes back after all to the prophet Jeremiah,
that uncomfortable sage who proclaimed a new inwardness for his mother’s
people. The law is written upon our inward parts for Proust also, and the law
is justice, but the god of law is a jealous god, though he is certainly not the
god of jealousy.
Freud, in “The Passing of the Oedipus Complex,” writing two years
after Proust’s death, set forth a powerful speculation as to the difference
Introduction 15

between the sexes, a speculation that Proust neither evades nor supports, and
yet illuminates, by working out of the world that Freud knows only in the
pure good of theory. Freud is properly tentative, but also adroitly forceful:

Here our material—for some reason we do not understand—

becomes far more shadowy and incomplete. The female sex
develops an Oedipus-complex, too, a super-ego and a latency
period. May one ascribe to it also a phallic organization and a
castration complex? The answer is in the affirmative, but it
cannot be the same as in the boy. The feministic demand for
equal rights between the sexes does not carry far here; the
morphological difference must express itself in differences in the
development of the mind. “Anatomy is Destiny,” to vary a saying
of Napoleon’s. The little girl’s clitoris behaves at first just like a
penis, but by comparing herself with a boy play-fellow the child
perceives that she has “come off short,” and takes this fact as ill-
treatment and as a reason for feeling inferior. For a time she still
consoles herself with the expectation that later, when she grows
up, she will acquire just as big an appendage as a boy. Here the
woman’s “masculine complex” branches off. The female child
does not understand her actual loss as a sex characteristic, but
explains it by assuming that at some earlier date she had possessed
a member which was just as big and which had later been lost by
castration. She does not seem to extend this conclusion about
herself to other grown women, but in complete accordance with
the phallic phase she ascribes to them large and complete, that is,
male, genitalia. The result is an essential difference between her
and the boy, namely, that she accepts castration as an established
fact, an operation already performed, whereas the boy dreads the
possibility of its being performed.
The castration-dread being thus excluded in her case, there
falls away a powerful motive towards forming the super-ego and
breaking up the infantile genital organization. These changes
seem to be due in the girl far more than in the boy to the results
of educative influences, of external intimidation threatening the
loss of love. The Oedipus-complex in the girl is far simpler, less
equivocal, than that of the little possessor of a penis; in my
experience it seldom goes beyond the wish to take the mother’s
place, the feminine attitude towards the father. Acceptance of the
loss of a penis is not endured without some attempt at
16 Harold Bloom

compensation. The girl passes over—by way of a symbolic

analogy, one may say—from the penis to a child; her Oedipus-
complex culminates in the desire, which is long cherished, to be
given a child by her father as a present, to bear him a child. One
has the impression that the Oedipus-complex is later gradually
abandoned because this wish is never fulfilled. The two desires,
to possess a penis and to bear a child, remain powerfully charged
with libido in the unconscious and help to prepare the woman’s
nature for its subsequent sex rôle. The comparative weakness of
the sadistic component of the sexual instinct, which may probably
be related to the penis-deficiency, facilitates the transformation of
directly sexual trends into those inhibited in aim, feelings of
tenderness. It must be confessed, however, that on the whole our
insight into these processes of development in the girl is
unsatisfying, shadowy and incomplete.

Anatomy is destiny in Proust also, but this is anatomy taken up into the
mind, as it were. The exiles of Sodom and Gomorrah, more jealous even
than other mortals, become monsters of time, yet heroes and heroines of
time also. The Oedipus complex never quite passes, in Freud’s sense of
passing, either in Proust or in his major figures. Freud’s castration complex,
ultimately the dread of dying, is a metaphor for the same shadowed desire
that Proust represents by the complex metaphor of jealousy. The jealous
lover fears that he has been castrated, that his place in life has been taken,
that true time is over for him. His only recourse is to search for lost time, in
the hopeless hope that the aesthetic recovery of illusion and of experience
alike, will deceive him in a higher mode than he fears to have been deceived
in already.

Proust and Time Embodied



M arcel Proust (1871–1922) composed A la recherche du temps perdu

between 1913 (the year of the publication of Du côté de chez Swann by
Grasset) and 1922. The last volume, Le Temps retrouvé, published like its
predecessors by Gallimard, was to appear in 1927. Proust is often seen as
being closer in spirit to the symbolists, dandies and assorted decadents of the
fin de siècle than to the sardonic and playful activities of the dadaists,
surrealists and futurists propagated by the First World War, not to mention
the nightmarish cult of the absurd which followed the Second. Yet it was this
man of the nineteenth century who inaugurated the modern aesthetic, and
established a completely new form of temporality. Its function is to sum up,
and make explicit, the ambitions of all the novels that have gone before,
through creating a distinctively new type of Bildungsroman (the German
genre which deals with the hero’s education and intellectual development); in
this case the learning process involves a return journey from the past to the
present and back again. This new form of temporality, furthermore, gives an
X-ray image of memory, bringing to light its painful yet rapturous

From Proust and the Sense of Time, translated and with an introduction by Stephen Bann. © 1993
by Julia Kristeva. English translation © 1993 by Stephen Bann.

18 Julia Kristeva

dependence on the senses. It offers modern readers the chance to identify the
fragments of disparate time which are nowadays dragging them in every
direction, with a greater force and insistence than ever before.
So I would like to begin by putting a question to you, and to myself as
well. What is the time-scale that you belong to? What is the time that you
speak from? In the modern world, you might catch an impression of the
medieval Inquisition from a nationalist dictator who soon finished spreading
the message of integration. (I refer to the Gulf War.) Then you might be
rejuvenated by 150 or 200 years by a Victorian president whose stiff,
puritanical attitudes belong to the great age of the Protestant conquest of the
New World, tempered by an eighteenth-century regard for human rights.
But you are also an onlooker, even if you are not a participant, when people
demonstrate their regression to infancy through civil violence, as in the
recent events in Los Angeles; you witness the futurist breakthroughs of new
musical forms like rap, without for a moment forgetting the wise explanatory
discourses with which the newspapers and the universities try to explain this
sort of thing. Newspapers and universities, by the way, continuing their role
of transmitting and handing down knowledge, also belong to totally different
time-scales. Yes, we live in a dislocated chronology, and there is as yet no
concept that will make sense of this modern, dislocated experience of


Living on the threshold of this disturbing epoch, Proust managed to put

together the shattered fragments in the form of the life of his narrator, who
experiences love and society in accordance with a number of themes which
we may think of as archaic, but are in fact our very own, because of their
polarized and discontinuous logic. For Proust, time is to be psychic time, and
consequently the factor which determines our bodily life. I will argue that
time in fact persists as the only surviving imaginative value which can be used
by the novel to appeal to the whole community of readers.
Things come to have meaning when the I of the writer rediscovers the
sensations underlying them, which are always linked together in at least a
series of two (as in the case of the madeleine offered to me by my mother and
the one offered by Aunt Léonie; the paving stones of the Guermantes
courtyard and those at St Mark’s, Venice). Time is this bringing together of
two sensations which gush out from the signs and signal themselves to me.
But since bringing things together is a metaphor, and sensation implies a body,
Proust and Time Embodied 19

Proustian time, which brings together the sensations imprinted in signs, is a

metamorphosis. It is all too easy to rely on just one word of the title and
conclude that this is a novel about time. Proust uses time as his intermediary
in the search (A la recherche) for an embodied imagination: that is to say, for a
space where words and their dark, unconscious manifestations contribute to
the weaving of the world’s unbroken flesh, of which I is a part. I as writer; I
as reader; I living, loving and dying.
From Homer to Balzac, fiction creates and modifies its own destiny by
offering those who receive it a special field of participation, a distinctive type
of communion: it shows us human passions inextricably bound up with the
unpredictability of nature and the harshnesses of society. Man, society and
being are, for fiction, indissociable. Hence over the period from Rabelais and
Shakespeare to Balzac, fiction has blended the serious with the ridiculous,
and managed to extract from its chosen area the idea of a time which is
specific to the individual—this so-called modern individual whose inner life,
in all its different phases of sorrow, joy or ridicule, weaves its own form of
continuity which is the thread of a destiny.
Proust in no way abandons the ambition of Balzac and Homer—which
is sociological in an explicit way, but conceals a transcendental aim at its
basis. He is concerned to establish a world in which his readers can come and
communicate as if they were in a sacred place: a world where they can
discover a coherence between time and space and their dreams can be
realized, a place which is sadly lacking in modern reality. His Faubourg
Saint-Germain (which in fact corresponds more closely to the Faubourg
Saint-Honoré) fulfils this aim of establishing a social space, which is the very
definition of the sacred in literature. Here it is, majestic as it approaches its
demise, glorious and at the same time ridiculous, no less desirable in the first
pages of the opening volumes than it will be perverted and intolerable by the
final stage, when we see the very impulse that brought it into being by
claiming to draw inspiration from it come full circle in the concept of a Temps
retrouvé (Time Regained). From the start, social life is offered as a spectacle.
We must not take our eyes off it, but we can overtake it by a strategy that
enables us to pass far beyond the social; this strategy consists in delving deep
down into ourselves, in regaining the time of our inner lives, which has been
so subtly reordered that this time now comes to seem the only reality worth
taking into account.
So Proust does not relinquish the obsession of authors from Homer to
Balzac. But he tones it down by linking it with a project which traditionally
belongs to ‘poetry’: this is the exploration of memory, with the ‘I’ unfolding
ideas and images, recalling flavours, smells, touches, resonances, sensations,
20 Julia Kristeva

jealousies, exasperations, griefs and joys—if it succeeds in articulating them.

But to the extent that he offers us the space of memory as a residual area of
value leading beyond the spectacle of worldly life in its drama, Proust also
aligns himself with a tendency of philosophy contemporary with him: one
which, from Bergson to Heidegger, in different ways but with significant
points in common, seeks to understand Being by exploring the obscurities of
Time. Proust goes further indeed, since he puts into words a category of felt
time which cuts through the categories of metaphysics, bringing together
opposites like idea, duration and space, on the one hand, and force,
perception, emotion and desire, on the other; he proposes a psychic universe
of the maximum degree of complexity as the favourable location—the place
of sacred communion—where lovers of reading can meet.
Do we want tales of passion? Of money? Of war? Of life and death?
Without any doubt, we have enough in Proust to keep up with the official
statistics. But this is something quite different. If you will only be so good as
to open up your memories of felt time, there will rise the new cathedral.
Upon the plinth of a project which is by tradition secular and dates back to
the Greeks, Proust’s novel sets up a huge edifice which has instead a biblical
and evangelical provenance. And within this network of interminable social
events, of endless plots, plots and more plots, he situates a person, I, a subject
whose memory cannot be impugned, who is there to bring out the convulsive
truth of this seeming history, to ‘tear off its hundred masks’. I invites you to
do as I does. Read me, and you will be part of the world but without being taken
in by it. I can give you the Divine Comedy of the life of the psyche, not just mine,
but yours as well, ours, that is, the absolute.
In creating this synthesis, in using memory to construct A la recherche
in this way, Proust is adopting an ethical position. He is contrasting the
disarray of the world and of the self with the unending search for that lost
temple, that invisible temple, which is the felt time of our subjective memories.
In taking up his aesthetic stance, he is also adopting a moral position vis-à-
vis the cult of decadence, which he has passed through and, to a great extent,
emerged from; Proust is a moralist therefore, but he is a moralist of outrage.
The felt time in which he invites us to participate is one of sensual excess and
extravagant eroticism, of ruses and betrayals. His sacredness is a sacredness
of ill repute. In bringing it to light with the delicate touches of a Saint-Simon
or a Mme de Sévigné, Proust the dandy of the belle époque makes contact with
us in our contemporary, but also timeless, obsessions. There have been many
people, since Proust, who have applied themselves to enlarging a fragment of
felt time—writers of the nouveau roman have enhanced such fragments as if
they were installing them in a stained-glass window. They may appear to be
Proust and Time Embodied 21

more modern, more elliptical, provocative and ‘transgressive’. But Proust

remains the only one to keep the balance between the violence implicit in the
marginal status of the main character (and the author) of A la recherche, and
the graceful capacity for creating a world, a place of communion in worldly
time. It is this fragile balance that we seem to have lost. Perhaps that is
another reason why Proust, our contemporary, is also so difficult to reach in
his intimate life.


Proust’s notebooks, and his Against Sainte-Beuve (composed between 1905

and 1909), tell us that the plan of A la recherche was fixed by 1908–9. The
eventual text proceeds through successive alterations and adjustments
between 1909 and 1911; then from 1916 onwards we see the final manuscript
notebooks emerging. These had not yet been typed out at the time of
Proust’s death in 1922. In a letter dated 16 August 1908, he confesses to
Mme Straus:

I have just begun, and finished, a whole book. Unfortunately,

leaving for Cabourg has interrupted my work. I am just about to
get back to it. Maybe part of it will appear in serial form in Le
Figaro, but only part of it, for it is too long and unsuitable to be
published in its entirety. But I do want to finish it, to make an
end. Everything is written down, but there is a lot to go over

‘Unsuitable’, ‘long’—Proust already knows how his work will begin

and end, and what will be its chief features—its outrageous contents and its
disproportionate style. The First World War and his illness would delay and
modify his original plan: Proust evidently could not have been aware in 1909
of the various changes that would be introduced in the course of time. But
the central scheme—the approach and the ‘vision’, as he would later refer to
it when speaking of his style—are already in place. In the cork-lined
bedroom on the Boulevard Haussmann, in the month of July 1909, there
begins the metamorphosis of Against Sainte-Beuve into that starting point of
A la recherche which will be Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way). Notebook
3, which dates from this stage, actually contains eight versions of the
narrator’s famous awakening scene—his mind invaded by formless sensations
seeming to come from an adjacent room, just before the appearance of the
22 Julia Kristeva

familiar sounds and lights will bring him to full consciousness.2 ‘Involuntary
memory’ is already there, causing the boiling lava of memories and desires
from the past to coagulate around a present sensation, however slight,
however intense.
So what has been happening between the commencement of Against
Sainte-Beuve and the emergence of this fully fledged project—between 1905
and 1909?



At the end of Time Regained, after bringing up yet again the way in which the
narrator’s experience is structured by the alternation of love and death, with
death darkening love but love wiping out the fear of death, Proust quotes a
line from Victor Hugo: ‘The grass must grow and children have to die.’3 And
he describes the ‘cruel law of art’ which amounts in the first instance to the
romantic notion that suffering and death are necessary for the gestation of
works of art, but concludes with a light-hearted apologia for Manet,
considered as the Giorgione of a period of open-air painting:

To me it seems more correct to say that the cruel law of art is that
people die and we ourselves die after exhausting every form of
suffering, so that over our heads may grow the grass not of
oblivion but of eternal life, the vigorous and luxuriant growth of
a true work of art, and so that thither, gaily and without a thought
for those who are sleeping beneath them, future generations may
come to enjoy their déjeuner sur l’herbe. (III. 1095)

In this context, it is Albertine who is the object of so much love and so

much jealousy. It is her accidental and premature death which has detached
the narrator from sexual desire in the same measure as it has made him
indifferent to death, and has entrenched him all the more securely within
another reality: that of ‘my book’.
The vigorous and luxuriant grass of the work requires a death. A child’s
death? And if so, which child? Albertine? Or the narrator himself, who has
died many times, so he believes, since his childhood: dying at every parting,
every separation, every bedtime which tears him away from his parents, from
his mummy? And what if the child remained in existence only as long as
Proust and Time Embodied 23

there was a mother there? In that event, the mother would have to die in
order for the child to break with his childhood, for him to turn it into a
memory, a time regained. Were he finally to regain all his time, set out in the
space of a book, then the book would indeed be a ‘déjeuner sur l’herbe’: it
would transform the graveyard of the dead children into a pleasure garden,
dedicated to the ambiguous, loving and vengeful memory of a mother who
always loved excessively and not enough—and made you into a child who is
still dying, perhaps, but who has a chance of ultimate resurrection and
maturity in the luxuriant grass of the book.
Mme Proust, née Jeanne-Clemence Weil, died on 26 September 1905,
following a short visit to Evian with her son Marcel, in the course of which,
while staying at the Hôtel Splendide, she suffered an attack of uraemia. The
sudden illness and death agony of the narrator’s grandmother in A la recherche
du temps perdu recall the remorse felt by Proust as a result of his feeble
behaviour at this juncture. Mme Proust first asked to be photographed,
hesitated, and later called it off: ‘She wanted and she didn’t want to be
photographed, wishing to leave me one last image, and yet afraid that it
would be too distressing ... ’4 A collector of photographs, Proust would later
put his family snapshots to blasphemous use, showing them around at the Le
Cuziat brothel.
On her return to the Rue de Courcelles, the dying woman could think
only of her elder son. How would he survive without her? She died while
Proust stayed alone in his room, unable to cope with the sight of his mother’s
death agony.
There is no event that can explain the genesis of a work, not even the
death of a woman like Mme Proust. The book had been maturing for ages,
yet it was mourning his mother that marked the start of a new time-scale and
a new way of life. ‘Since I lost my mother ... ’ Proust often refers to the event
in his correspondence, and he does not attempt to hide his wounds in his
letters to Montesquiou, Barrès and Maurice Duplay.5 The second volume of
Le Côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way; 1921) continually harps on the
illness, suffering and finally death agony of the narrator’s grandmother, as if
intending to lend to salon life, which the young man finds attractive and
empty by turns, an unreal and hallucinatory quality. Yet it is in Sodome et
Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah), published in 1921 and 1922, that the note
of black remorse, anticipated in the earlier works, finally strikes home. This
is the novel of sexual inversion, no less distinct from the childhood memories
of Swann’s Way than it is from the aesthetic theory of Time Regained. It is in
this work, which has been called the most Balzacian of the series, that Proust
makes the clearest allusion, in the form of allusions to the death of the
24 Julia Kristeva

narrator’s grandmother, to the sense of guilt brought about by his mother’s

As the years go on, and the work progresses with them, the scenes of
sexual inversion occupy a more and more important place. Albertine’s
lesbianism is the major stimulus for the blend of jealousy and fascination
which the narrator feels for this young woman. Society figures, not excluding
the irreproachable Prince de Guermantes, turn out to have perverse habits.
The adventures of Charlus with Jupien and Morel reach a high point of
moral and physical cruelty, culminating in the flagellation scene in the
brothel. This homosexual, explicitly erotic mise-en-scène becomes possible
only in Sodom and Gomorrah, and in it the vision which we can now
appreciate to be the real kernel of Proust’s imaginary world, its ‘albumen’ and
‘seed’, crystallizes. The sado-masochism of Sodom and Gomorrah is the truth
underlying eroticism and feeling and, on a deeper level, sado-masochism is the very
bond that brings society together.


The inclusion, in a section entitled ‘The Intermittencies of the Heart’, of the

(grand-)mother’s death gives the narrator the chance not only to recall
childhood memories (his boots and his dressing-gown), but also to discourse
at length on two of the fundamental themes of A la recherche. On the one
hand, the joyful experience of passion is invariably accompanied by a sense
of the nothingness, the mortality and the foreign nature of the loved one, a
combination which engenders delightful forms of suffering. On the other
hand, the faculty of memory which reveals this exquisite duality to us is
lodged in an ‘unknown domain’, ‘in the entire existence of our bodies’, with
the effect that ‘a series of different and parallel’ states of the self are
superimposed, and consequently the self of today can rediscover the previous
self intact, provided that the underlying sensations have the character of
‘intermittencies’: being both violent enough and null at the same time,
tender and listless, combining joy with grief and remorse:

For with the perturbations of memory are linked the intermittencies

of the heart ... But if the context of sensations in which they are
preserved is recaptured, they acquire in turn the same power of
expelling everything that is incompatible with them, of installing
alone in us the self that originally lived them ... without any
solution of continuity, immediately after the first evening at Balbec
Proust and Time Embodied 25

long ago ... I clung to the minute in which my grandmother had

stooped over me. The self that I then was, that had disappeared
for so long, was once again so close to me that I seemed still to
hear the words that had just been spoken, although they were
now no more than a phantasm ... (II. 784) [my italics]

My commentary on this extract is that we are offered a foretaste of

memory as comprising the successive states of the self, and of time regained,
even to the very sensations: the narrator experiences grief, ecstasy and even
indifference in unison with the dramas of sexuality to be made manifest by
the two biblical cities. This implies that the (grand-)mother’s death makes it
possible for violence and remorse to be inserted into the very heart of the
child-narrator’s sensibility, and at the same time it is implied that cruelty is
omnipresent, even in the purity of childhood. Time will be truly regained
only if he rediscovers the particular form of violence—the violence that is,
initially, one of archaic loss and vengeance. That which delights me and
abandons me also kills me; but I am capable of putting to death that which is
my delight.
Yet in this crucial year, 1905, when Proust has already anticipated and
indeed sketched out the theme of inversion (in Jean Santeuil, and Les Plaisirs
et les jours), he has apparently not made a close connection between inversion
and memory’s remarkable capacity of regaining sensations by way of signs.
Nor has he connected this remarkable aspect of memory with the shock
inflicted by his mother’s loss—with her death or her being put to death. The
full intensity of his remorse has to wait for its expression until 1921, the
publication of Sodom and Gomorrah. And yet his sense of guilt echoes
throughout his private correspondence, and gives itself away in the initial
volumes through a number of characters who find their place there, such as
Mlle Vinteuil, before finally, and with a minimal attempt at disguise,
installing the figure of the mother at the heart of all the ‘intermittencies of
the heart’. The mother is at the heart of a primal sado-masochism.


T O D E AT H — O F W H O M ?

The well-known scene of the kiss withheld at the little boy’s bedtime, already
told in Jean Santeuil and repeated in Swann’s Way, has given generations of
readers the image of a mother who is loved voraciously and selfishly. This
was a love which involved, right from the start, a struggle for power, a
26 Julia Kristeva

mingling of violence and passivity, of desire and contrition. For the moment
she yielded, the moment the kiss was granted, the narrator’s anticipated
triumph turned to bitter regret, and suffering began to colour his pleasure in
a foretaste of sado-masochism.6
As early as 1896, in Les Plaisirs et les jours, Proust had written the
‘Confession of a young girl’ whose ‘voluptuous and blameworthy’ eroticism,
though remaining heterosexual, is the cause of her mother’s death.7 Sex is
shown to be intrinsically sadistic, as cruel to the lovers themselves as it is to
their mothers. Proust writes: ‘Now I was beginning to realize in a confused
way that every act which is both voluptuous and blameworthy involves in
equal measure the ferocity of the body taking its pleasure, and the tears and
martyrdom of our good intentions and our guardian angels.’8 It is through
witnessing an erotic scene that the mother of the young girl who speaks these
words is struck with apoplexy and dies.
After the death of Proust’s own mother, we find him on 4 December
1905 at the clinic of Dr Sollier, a specialist in mental and nervous diseases,
with the firm intention of proving that medicine can do nothing in his
particular case. He succeeds, and leaves the establishment after six weeks.
Social and literary life, so it would appear, are better at turning the activity
of mourning into literature. Proust sets up house at 102 Boulevard
Haussmann, and the architect Louis Parent lines his bedroom walls with
cork in 1909: his cell is ready at just the same time as his plan for the work
which will necessitate breaking open this shell, and dominating himself by a
massive act of willpower which will be as delightful to experience as it is
relentless in its effect on others.
From 1905 to 1909, Proust publishes little. Yet one thing that takes our
attention is the article appearing in Le Figaro of 1 February 1907 under the
title ‘Filial Sentiments of a Parricide’. Proust’s notice had been drawn,
shortly after his mother’s death, to an incident in which a person of his
acquaintance, Henri Van Blarenberghe, had killed his mother and then
committed suicide. Proust interpreted this as the aggressiveness of an
Oedipus or an Orestes, known in cruel detail from the Greek texts. The
further commentary which he added from Shakespeare and Dostoevsky was
hardly less cruel. Obviously the murdering son is a criminal, but Proust the
writer seems to be on the point of absolving him when he exclaims: ‘what was
the religious atmosphere of moral beauty in which this explosion of madness
and slaughter took place?’ (CSB, 157). He seems tempted to include himself
in this crime: ‘What have you made of me?’ he asks. ‘What have you made
of me?’:
Proust and Time Embodied 27

If we put our minds to it, there would perhaps be not one truly
loving mother who was not able, on her last day, and often long
before, to address this reproach to her son. Basically, as we grow
old, we all kill those who love us by the preoccupation we cause
in them, by that very restless tenderness which we breathe in and
put ceaselessly on its guard. (CSB, 158–9)

In January 1908 Proust writes ‘Robert and the Kid. Mother leaves on a
journey’, a text which is now lost. The metamorphosis is under way: in 1909,
the plan for a book on Sainte-Beuve turns into a genuine novel. Writing
Against Sainte-Beuve, Proust the essayist explains that it is not through
biography that the work of authors can be explained; talent has its own
rationale, which society cannot comprehend. Here it is not just a matter of
doing away with biography but, more exactly, of going into mourning for it.
Proust takes up the project of Jean Santeuil again and transposes it. He
searches for lost time in the innermost signs of his experience, infusing the
singularity of his own grief into the universal pattern of an intelligence which
is accessible to all. He starts working hard; his reclusiveness increasingly
takes him over. In 1912 the first part of A la recherche reaches its completed
form. In 1913 Swann’s Way is published.
At this stage, Céleste Albaret enters Proust’s service and makes it
possible for him to live in perfect retirement in spite of his very demanding
social life: through this means, and both through and in spite of his asthma,
Proust is able to achieve the extraordinary ascetic life which will enable him
to trace, with a sick but authoritative hand, the word END at the conclusion
of Time Regained.


Straight away, the writer recognizes in his female servant the marks of
motherly love: that of a daughter for her mother, and that of a mother for
her daughter. ‘Your young wife is bored without her mother, Albaret, that’s
all,’ he says to his chauffeur, Céleste’s husband, before taking her into his
service.9 Céleste describes herself, in the year 1913, as ‘a child in spite of my
22 years [Proust was 32] above all because I had only just left my mother’s
tender care behind’.10 Master and servant will combine together in joint
homage to the maternal. ‘I was very fond of Papa. But Mama, the day she
died, took her little Marcel with her.’11 ‘The nice thing about him was that I
sometimes felt like his mother, and at others like his child.’12 ‘Everything
28 Julia Kristeva

affecting mothers and their experiences reminded him of his own and
affected him deeply.’13 ‘It was particularly about my mother that he used to
ask me questions. He would say to me: “It is easy to see that your father was
a good man. But even with the best of men, the bread of human kindness will
never be what it can be with a woman; there is always an outer shell of
roughness. A man can never be the soul of kindness, as your mother seems
to have been.”’ 14
This kindness was, however, in Céleste’s estimation, what Proust had
managed to realize in himself, making him behave in such a way that the
housekeeper, who was herself always taking infinite pains to seek out for him
sole, smelts, gudgeons and fumigating powder, felt herself to be under the
maternal care of her master. ‘Monsieur, I find my mother again in you.’ And,
as Proust explained to Céleste: ‘The thing is, you were made for devotion
like your mother, even if you knew nothing about it. Otherwise, you would
not be here.’15
Never can two beings more disparate in their background and level of
education have been thus brought together in their devotion to the ‘good
mother’, who would fill them both, alternately, with the sublimated love that
binds a child to its mother, and no doubt the writer to his work. The mother
who brings desire and guilt is dead; there remains complicity and the benefit
of mutual silence. Céleste becomes the living relay between the female body
and the book, between the turbulence of eroticism and the definitive form of
the signed text. With a charming naïveté, she admits to having taken the place
of a possible Albertine, an ideal Albertine, who, in her maternal devotion to
the most motherly of sons, allows him not to marry her but to absorb her
into a book:

Not only did I live at his rhythm, but you could say that, twenty-
four hours out of twenty-four, and seven days out of seven, I lived
exclusively for him. I have nothing to do with the person in his
books whom he called ‘The Captive’, and yet I really deserved the

Proust leans on her, and against her, he watches her but does not see
her, he speaks to her and his words rebound off her. This is not a dialogue,
she simply activates the monologue, by relaying and starting it up again; he
forgets her, he gathers her up, she vanishes, as, moreover, does he. There is
no longer any ‘self ’, just the I that speaks across her.
So Céleste and the cork lining of his apartment on the Boulevard
Haussmann, guarantee the air-tightness of the protected environment in
Proust and Time Embodied 29

which involuntary memory remakes and unmakes its tentacular sentences, on

the look-out for sounds, colours and flavours; and at the same time there is
another stage on which the great world keeps up its pretence, sex spends its
fury and, soon enough, the war will arrive to turn existing hierarchies upside
down. A number of authors talk of Proust at this period as being curious to
witness scenes of debauchery. Maurice Sachs mentions rats pierced with
hatpins; M. Jouhandeau the photos of Proust’s mother which were profaned
in front of gigolos, the family furniture which was carried to the Le Cuziat
brothel, the masturbation sessions where the voyeur hid in bed, with a naked
young man before him, responding only to the pleasure of seeing rats devour
one another.17 This entire world expands and stages in the most grotesque
fashion the sado-masochism which the narrator of A la recherche re-creates in
a muted, psychological colouring; it unfolds as a kind of antithesis which
works in conjunction with the writing laboratory where Céleste is the vestal
virgin. The physical stimulus of debauchery serves to excite the senses and
the emotions, with their blend of exaltation and abasement. No one can state
categorically, however, that the pleasure of the childhood memory which has
been given a name—and that of the scraps of paper which are mounting up
all the time in his manuscript—is not as great as, or even greater than, the
sexual intoxication.


So the mother is dead, I have killed her, my grief turns to remorse, I speak
of it before another, I speak to myself, I speak—and all is regained, eternity.
The way has been prepared for the profanation which becomes
possible after two or three years of mourning, in the course of which the
loved person has become blurred in the memory, with no lessening in the
mean time of the ambivalence of a guilt-ridden love.
As early as 1908, in Notebook 1, the hero dreams that his grandmother
is dead, but the actual episode, ‘Death of my grandmother’, is forecast only
in the plan of the 1912 version of the novel. The theme of inversion becomes
steadily more important from 1908 onwards; sketches for the character of
Charlus help to achieve the separation between essay and novel in the
writing of Against Sainte-Beuve, and at the same time this project takes
second place to the strictly narrative undertaking which is to be A la recherche.
Meanwhile, over the years 1908 to 1912, the Proustian idea of profaning the
mother takes root: Notebook 1 refers to ‘the mother’s face in a debauched
grandson’.18 Profanation is seen as a condition of sublimation. In Against
30 Julia Kristeva

Sainte-Beuve we read: ‘The face of a son who lives on, like a monstrance in
which a sublime mother, now dead, placed all her faith, is like the
profanation of a sacred memory.’ In Sodom and Gomorrah, finally, there is this
late addition to the text:

Moreover, was it possible to separate M. de Charlus’s appearance

completely from the fact that, as sons do not always bear a
likeness to their fathers, even when they are not inverts and go
after women, they consummate in their faces the profanation of
their mothers? But let us leave at this point what would be worth
a chapter on its own: ‘profanation of the mother’. (III. 300)

The interweaving of the two themes—inversion on the one hand, and

on the other ambivalence towards the mother resulting in profanation—
comes clearly into view, for example in Notebook 47, which opens with ‘M.
Charlus and the Verdurins’ and continues with the grandmother’s illness.
When he later draws the connection between the death of his grandmother
and that of Albertine, the narrator feels himself to be ‘soiled with a double
assassination’; at least, as Georges Bataille has pointed out, he believes
himself to be responsible for profaning his mother in just the same way as
Mlle Vinteuil profaned the memory of her father: the young girl makes him
die of sorrow, and just a few days later, while still in mourning, enjoys the
embraces of a lesbian lover who spits on the dead man’s photograph. The
sufferings of Vinteuil, who is shocked by his daughter’s sexuality, are
presented to us in place of the description which the reader expects, but will
never receive, of the sorrows experienced by the narrator’s mother in the face
of Albertine (or Albert) coming on the scene:

he saw himself and his daughter in the lowest depths, and his
manners had of late been tinged with that humility, that respect
for persons who ranked above him and to whom he now looked
up ... that tendency to search for some means of rising again to
their level, which is an almost mechanical result of any human
downfall. (1. 162)

In a similar way, however, the narrator’s mother is said to be so aware

of the sufferings of the old piano teacher that she seems to share them from
the inside.
At times when pleasure overtakes him, the narrator feels that he ‘makes
his mother’s soul weep’. Like Mlle Vinteuil, who is an artist in sadism, he
Proust and Time Embodied 31

even comes to believe that sensual pleasure is a form of wickedness in which

he can engulf himself and bury his ideal. For the ideal, which is
uncompromisingly maternal, is so scrupulous and coercive that, to escape
from it, you have to profane it, and drag it down into the bestial world of
pleasure. The complicity which Proust discovers between the requirements
of an ideal tenderness and the depths of transgression which it imposes is
what renders the pervert miserable and, by the same token, deserving of love.
Georges Bataille recognizes the kinship with his own inner experience of the
ecstasies of sin and profanation when he writes: ‘This wish for limitless
horror reveals itself in the end for what it is: the true measure of love.’19
As for Albertine, she appears in the novel only around 1913, almost
exactly at the same time as Céleste is becoming established in the apartment
on the Boulevard Haussmann. Thanks to these two, Albertine and Céleste,
the inversion can be concealed—there is a woman to embody the passion of
the narrator, transposing the feeling that Proust reserves for men—and the
element of profanation gets toned down. Certainly the narrator’s mother
would have no time for Albertine—but surely it is inflicting on her no more
than a polite and conventional form of cruelty that he should desire a woman
in this completely natural way?
Everything conspires in favour of sublimation: the grievous experience
of passion, which has been filtered through mourning and trapped by the
cork-lined wall of the motherly Céleste, can now break out in joy:

Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs, at the

moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their
power to injure our heart; the transformation itself, even, for an
instant, releases suddenly a little joy. (III. 944)

The imagination, the reflective faculty may be admirable machines in

themselves but they may also be inert. Suffering sets them in motion. And
then at least the woman who poses for us as grief favours us with an
abundance of sittings, in that studio which we enter only in these periods and
which lies deep within us. (III. 946)


In the last volume of A la recherche, we are presented with three different

forms of death: Albertine’s accident, the ageing of the main characters, and
the upheaval caused in society by the First World War. Without pausing to
32 Julia Kristeva

look at the aspects of this concern in detail, we can certainly show how
Proust turns didactic, and outlines the way in which linear time can be
transformed into the timelessness of literature. We can follow in Time
Regained the successive stages through which he imposes his logic upon the
innumerable flashbacks, condensations, plots and digressions which made up
the earlier volumes of A la recherche.
As it restores my various, different, relationships with people and
things, my memory fastens upon particular ‘sites’ and ‘places’. But, incapable
of placing them in succession to one another, it sets up ‘revolutions’ around
me as it does around them. In order to take account of this assembly of
‘revolutions’, the book would have to use ‘not the two-dimensional psychology
which we normally use but a quite different sort of three-dimensional
psychology’ (III. 1087).
So through juxtaposing the ‘opposing facets’—as in the face of Mlle de
Saint-Loup, the ‘masterpiece’ which combines the features of a Swann and a
Guermantes, an Odette and a Gilberte—Proust discovers what will be (and
indeed already has been) the ‘spur’ of the book. This will impel the narrator
(it already has impelled him) to create a world as vast as a cathedral, or on a
more modest scale to arrange the pieces of material among themselves as if
making a dress (III. 1090).
The process of reasoning now reaches its fulfilment, and the formula of
A la recherche, its alchemical key, is waiting to be spoken. What the narrator
calls an ‘enhanced’ place in time—perceived by the senses, inaccessible no
doubt but, as the prepositional form ‘à la’ indicates, always beckoning to us,
remaining open and disposable as the self revolves around it—is the notion
of embodied time. The time in which all of our sensations are reflected upon,
as they tie the knot between subjectivity and the external world and recover
once again the sounds that lie beneath the masks of appearance:

This notion of Time embodied, of years past but not separated

from us, it was now my intention to emphasize as strongly as
possible in my work. And at this very moment, in the house of the
Prince de Guermantes, as though to strengthen me in my resolve,
the noise of my parents’ footsteps as they accompanied M. Swann
to the door and the peal—resilient, ferruginous, interminable,
fresh and shrill—of the bell on the garden gate which informed
me that at last he had gone and that Mamma would presently
come upstairs, these sounds rang again in my ears, yes,
unmistakably I heard these very sounds, situated though they
were in a remote past. And as I cast my mind over all the events
Proust and Time Embodied 33

which were ranged in an unbroken series between the moment of

my childhood when I had first heard its sound and the
Guermantes party, I was terrified to think that it was indeed this
same bell which rang within me and that nothing that I could do
would alter its jangling notes. On the contrary, having forgotten
the exact manner in which they faded away and wanting to re-
learn this, to hear them properly again, I was obliged to block my
ears to the conversations which were proceeding between the
masked figures all round me ... (III. 1105)

Then, without warning, appearing like a confession a few lines before

the word ‘END’ is inserted, there comes into play once again the notion of
desire, and nothing less than the desire to destroy, on the extreme boundaries
of cruelty. There is the sense of something coming into view and then being
annihilated, of love and hate: the avowal that desire is in essence a perverse
desire is what makes time regained come full circle:

And it is because they contain thus within themselves the hours

of the past that human bodies have the power to hurt so terribly
those who love them, because they contain the memories of so
many joys and desires already effaced for them, but still cruel for
the lover who contemplates and prolongs in the dimension of
Time the beloved body of which he is jealous, so jealous that he
may even wish for its destruction ... Albertine deep down, whom I
saw sleeping and who was dead.20 (III. 1106) [my italics]

And yet, after this avowal of cruelty, it is formal language that passes on
the message of the perversity at the root of all desire: the ‘monsters’ which
take up their places within us come to form a kind of polytopia—‘a place ...
prolonged past measure—for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the
years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow
accretion of many, many days—in the dimension of Time. The End.’ (III.
The End. Over and beyond the time of jealousy, the time for the
construction of the work now takes over, in so far as the book is itself the
direct replacement for the loved person—could we therefore refer to this
Proustian time (of cruelty, sensation and writing) as a temporality of
concern? Heidegger’s ‘temporality of concern’ incorporates several different
stages: the temporality of disclosedness, the temporality of understanding,
the temporality of state of mind and the temporality of falling.21 Yet desire,
34 Julia Kristeva

in its cruelty, goes beyond the temporality of concern, and opens up a place
in which signs can develop a spatial dimension by building up sensations.
The writer is no philosopher: memory regained bears the imprint of colour,
taste, touch and other forms of experience, whilst a distinctive type of writing
which transgresses all bounds in its richness of metaphor and its embedding
of clauses one within one another at the same time destroys and reconstructs
the world. In the Proustian text the non-temporal nature of the unconscious
(as Freud would have it) goes side by side with an overpowering awareness of
Being. The psychic absorbs the cosmic and, beyond it, Being itself is diluted
in style.
So imaginary experience is not unaware of the temporality of concern.
But it goes beyond it, in a search for joy. Closer in this sense to Spinoza than
to Heidegger, Proust’s fiction reveals fundamental features of the human
psyche. Personally, I enjoy this revelation; I hope that you do too.


1. Marcel Proust, Correspondance, ed. Philip Kolb (Paris, Plon, 1970–83), vol. IX,
p. 163.
2. Cf. M. Bardèche, Marcel Proust romancier, Les Sept Couleurs (Paris, 1971), vol.
I, p 204.
3. Victor Hugo, Oeuvres complètes, Poésie II (Paris, Laffont, 1985), p. 412: ‘A
4. Proust, Correspondance, Proust to Mme Catusse, vol. X, p. 215.
5. Ibid., vol. V, p. 238; vol VI, p. 28: letters to Maurice Duplay cited in Q. de
Diesbach, Marcel Proust (Paris, Perrin, 1991).
6. Cf. 1.41: ‘It struck me that my mother had just made a first concession which
must have been painful to her, that it was a first abdication on her part from the ideal
she had formed for me, and that for the first time she who was so brave had to confess
herself beaten. It struck me that if I had just won a victory it was over her, that I had
succeeded, as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded, in relaxing her will, in
undermining her judgment; and that this evening opened a new era, would remain a
black date in the calendar.’
7. Proust, Jean Santeuil précédé de Les Plaisirs et les jours (Paris, Gallimard,
Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1971), pp. 91–2.
8. Ibid., p. 95.
9. Céleste Albaret, Monsieur Proust (Paris, Laffont, 1973), p. 19.
10. Ibid., p. 32.
11. Ibid., p. 30.
12. Ibid., p. 117.
13. Ibid., p. 133.
14. Ibid., p. 139.
Proust and Time Embodied 35

15. Ibid., p. 140.

16. Ibid., p. 64.
17. Cf. H. Bonnett, Les Amours et la sexualité de M. Proust (Paris, Nizet, 1985), p.
18. Quoted in Proust, Contre Sainte-Beuve, ed. B. de Fallois (Paris, 1954), p. 282.
19. Georges Bataille, ‘Marcel Proust et la mère profanée’, in Critique, no. 47
(1946), p. 609.
20. The last sentence of this quotation is not to be found in the Penguin Classics
edition, which relies on the earlier Pléiade text.
21. Cf. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans J. Macquarie and Edward
Robinson (London, SCM Press, 1962), pp. 383ff.

The Lamp of Truth: Proust

and George Eliot

O n holiday with his grandmother in Balbec the adolescent boy of A

l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs is prey to sundry appearances. Balbec itself is
an appearance, the successive projections of which disguise its reality: a
rather ordinary upper-middle-class resort on the coast of Normandy. As
these illusions or perceptions peel back, he creeps closer to the truth, or
rather to a stable perception of that which confounds the successive masks
which concealed it. One of more perplexing of these illusions concerns the
‘jeunes filles’ themselves, who at first sight, swanning along the promenade
in happy abandon, appear to possess a certain uniformity of manner: a devil-
may-care athleticism, an almost callous confidence, a careless and concerted
cruelty. At one point one of the girls whose name, he later learns, is Andrée,
skips on to the edge of the bandstand, and discovering in her path the head
of an elderly man of the law settled in a deckchair beneath, executes a leap
that carries her within a few inches of his ears, to the abject terror of the
octogenarian judge but the explosive delight of her companions.
But Andrée is an enigma: at once the most popular and the most
introverted of the band. It is not long before the boy begins to suspect in her
the inverse of the happy physicality she has adopted principally for the

From Proust and the Victorians: The Lamp of Memory. © 1994 by Robert Fraser.

38 Robert Fraser

approbation of others. The attraction she possesses for him is thus that of an
opposite and is of short duration, since at the heart of her lies a personality
at odds with the demonstrativeness that first drew him; something too
closely akin to himself—febrile, neurotic, enclosed:

But for me truly to be able to love Andrée she was too

intellectual, too nervous, too delicate, too similar to me. If
Albertine now struck me as empty, Andrée on the other hand was
replete with something I recognized only too well. I had thought
the first day to have met some cyclist’s mistress on the beach,
eaten up with a love of sport which Andrée now informed me that
she had taken up on the advice of her doctor to ease her
neurasthenia and gastric complaints, but that her finest hours
were those she devoted to translating the novels of George Eliot.
My deception, founded on a misunderstanding as to her nature,
had little importance. But it was the sort of blunder which can
cause love to be born and, if unrecognized and uncorrected, be
the cause of much suffering. (NP, II, 295)

Thus the only kind of suffering Andrée is capable of causing him is one
founded on a categorical mistake. His spiritual alter persona, she will herself
be drawn to her opposite, the very Albertine—shallow and self-serving—that
he must learn to love. In a later volume, La Prisonnière, she will accordingly
occasion the pangs of jealously, but not on her own behalf, for how could she
who beguiles the afternoon hours translating the novels of George Eliot
sustain a threat to one whose self-immersion, whose tastes in reading, so
closely resemble her own?
The ambit of those tastes, intense and self-enclosed, recalls a parallel
passage in Jean Santeuil:

Already when we were tiny there was always some particular book
which we took with us when going to the park, and which we
perused with that extra special love which no other love has ever
since been able to supplant. And even at that very moment we
were attached less exclusively to what the book said than we were
to the texture of the pages we were turning. Today in a
manuscript, in a journal supplement, we will be delighted to
discover a few additional pages of George Eliot or Emerson. But
when we were young the book itself was never distinct in our
minds from that which it was saying. (JS, II, 190)
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 39

The passage occurs in the Begmeil chapter, just after Jean is described
striding on to the sand dunes bearing a volume of Carlyle’s French Revolution,
Proust’s own holiday reading at the time. Unlike the Balbec sections of A la
recherche, this is a form of fictionalised autobiography, and the enthusiasms
adduced are very much the author’s own. It is not for nothing that in A la
recherche de Marcel Proust André Maurois cites George Eliot among the
passions of Proust’s childhood, long before English was one of his
accomplishments.1 If the adolescent of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs
shared the young Proust’s incapacities as well as his enthusiasms, he might
well have appreciated, if not Andrée’s love, at least her offices as translator.


In that capacity, however, she had been anticipated by fifty years. ‘We are
very anxious to get an accomplished translator for Adam Bede’ Eliot wrote to
Geneva in December 1859:

Hitherto I have rejected propositions of translators, for a dread of

having one’s sentences metamorphosed into an expression of
somebody else’s meaning instead of one’s own. I particularly wish
my books to be translated into French, because the French read
so little English; and if there is any healthy truth in my art, surely
they need it to purify their literary air.2

The suspicion of Gallic impurity was one that she constantly expressed
(‘half poisoned by the French theatre’ is how she once described herself to
her publisher John Blackwood), but her correspondent on this occasion,
François D’Albert-Durade, was French Swiss and exempt from the
contagion. Ten years earlier, stricken with grief after the death of her father,
she had arrived in Geneva in the company of Charles Bray and his wife Cara.
The stay was only partially successful in allaying her loss, and it was with
some foreboding that the Brays turned homeward, leaving her in Geneva for
the winter. But in October she wrote to them describing the family with
whom she had found lodgings:

M. and Mme. D’Albert are really clever people—people worth

sitting up an hour longer to talk to .... M. D’Albert plays and
sings, and in the winter he tells me they have parties .... In fact, I
think that I am in just the right place.
40 Robert Fraser


For M. D’Albert, I love him already as if he were father and

brother both. You must know that he is no more than 4 feet high
with a deformed spine—the result of an accident in his
boyhood—but on this little body is placed a finely formed head,
full in every direction. The face is plain with small features, and
rather haggard-looking, but all the lines and the wavy grey hair
indicate the temperament of an artist. I have not heard a word or
seen a gesture from him yet that was not perfectly in harmony
with an exquisite moral refinement.3

Stolidly bourgeois in a respectable Genevan mould, the D’Alberts

possessed for Marian Evans a combination she had seldom before
encountered, and of much use to her at this stage of her life, newly released
from the constraints of her family and an unwelcome friction with her father,
with whom her newfound emancipation of views had brought her at times
into open conflict. For the D’Alberts were Calvinists, heir to an Evangelical
faith free of the mental narrowness she had come to associate with the
superstitious Evangelicalism of the English Midlands, which she was later to
parody in the Dodson aunts in The Mill on the Floss, ‘an Evangelicalism
unknown to Bossuet’. François D’Albert in particular, an artist of no mean
accomplishment and later conservateur of the Athenée, possessed a
generosity of culture she was never to forget. The Brays, who met him on his
one brief visit to the Midlands, thought him a model for Philip Wakeham,
whose bodily affliction he shared along with a certain fawn-like capacity for
devotion. His portrait of her in oils, from a sketch made in Geneva shortly
before her departure, hangs now in Coventry Library (Plate 5). Slender and
tranquil, with none of the magisterial grandeur of the novelist she was later
to become, she looks out from eyes that are both calm and knowing. The
large chin softened and dimpled, the nose tapered and aquiline, she has a
patient and delicate homeliness that might have recommended itself to
Proust, lover of the exceptional in the ordinary, the wayside flower.
When in time D’Albert came to translate five of her books—Adam
Bede, Scenes from Clerical Life, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Romola—
something of the same softening was apparent. Adam Bede in particular, with
its Warwickshire dialect, its portrayal of English Nonconformism, was never
going to be easy. ‘As simple, biblical French as possible will be the best
vehicle’ she advised, and of The Mill on the Floss:
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 41

I can well imagine that you find ‘the Mill’ more difficult to render
than ‘Adam’. But would it be inadmissible to represent in French,
at least to some degree, those ‘intermédiaires entre le style
commun et le style élégant’ to which you refer? It seems to me
that I have discerned such shades very strikingly rendered in
Balzac and occasionally in George Sand. Balzac, I think, dares to
be thoroughly colloquial in spite of French strait-lacing. Even in
English this daring is far from being general. The writers who
dare to be thoroughly familiar are Shakespeare, Fielding, Scott
(where he is expressing the popular life with which he is familiar)
and indeed every other writer of fiction of the first class. Even in
his loftiest tragedies—in Hamlet for example—Shakespeare is
intensely colloquial. One hears the accents of living men.4


This vernacular robustness of Eliot—‘accents of living men’—proved very

appealing to Marcel Proust, who fifty years later read Scenes from Clerical Life
(Scenes de la vie du Clergé), Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss (Le Moulin sur la
Floss) and Silas Marner, all in D’Albert’s translations. To him it spoke of a
certain healthy levity of spirit akin to that which Carlyle had discerned
among spokesmen of reformed religions: Cromwell, Knox, Luther,
Mahommet. In a footnote appended to La Bible d’Amiens he speaks of this
frankness, this healthy and life-accepting wholeness, ‘le rire de Luther’
(‘Luther’s laugh’) as a peculiarly Ruskinian trait, the very quality that led his
master to direct Amiens pilgrims to call in at the patisserie in the high street
before paying their respects to the cathedral of St Firmin.5 Then, with a keen
manoeuvre of the sensibility, but in seeming logical irrelevance, he quotes
Eliot’s description of the curate Mr Gilfil from Scenes of Clerical Life, followed
by a collage of phrases descriptive of Mr Irwine, the vicar of Hayslope from
Adam Bede, some culled from Eliot’s narrative, others from Adam in old age.
But it is characteristic of the softening effect of D’Albert’s translation on
Midlands speech that in French it is hard to distinguish the accents of Adam,
one ‘living man’, from those of the author:

M. Irwine n’avait effectivement ni tendances élevées, ni

enthousiasme religieux et regardait comme une vraie perte de
temps de parler doctrine et réveil chrétien au vieux père Taft ou
à Cranage, le forgeron .... Il n’était ni laborieux, ni oublieux de
42 Robert Fraser

lui-même, ni très abondant en aumônes et sa croyance même

était assez large. Ses goûts intellectuels étaient plutôt païens ....
Mais il avait cette charité chrétienne qui a souvent manqué à
d’illustres vertus. Il était indulgent pour les fautes du prochain et
peu enclin à supposer le mal .... Si vous l’aviez rencontré monté
sur sa jument grise, ses chiens courant à ses côtés, avec un sourire
de bonne humeur .... L’influence de M. Irwine dans sa paroisse fut
plus utile que celle de M. Ryde qui insistait fortement sur les
doctrines de la Réformation, condamnait sévèrement les
convoitiscs de la chair ... qui était très savant. ‘M. Irwine était
aussi différent de cela que possible, mais il était si pénétrant; il
comprenait ce qu’on voulait dire à la minute, il se conduisait en
gentilhomme avec les fermiers .... Il n’était pas un fameux
prédicateur ... mais ne disait rien qui ne fût propre à vous rendre
plus sage si vous vous en souveniez.’

He really had neither lofty aims, no theological enthusiasm: if I

were closely questioned, I would be obliged to confess that he felt
no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners, and would
have thought it a mere loss of time to talk in a doctrinal and
awakening manner to old ‘Feyther Taft’, or even to Chad
Cranage the blacksmith .... He was neither laborious, nor
obviously self-denying, nor very copious in alms-giving, and his
theology you perceive, was lax. His mental palate, indeed, was
rather pagan ... he had that charity which has sometimes been
lacking to the very illustrious virtue—he was tender to other
men’s failings, and unwilling to impute evil .... But if you had met
him that June afternoon riding on his grey cob, with his dogs
running beside him—with a good-natured smile on his finely
turned lips .... I must believe that Mr Irwine’s influence in his
parish was a more wholesome one than that of the zealous Mr
Ryde who ... insisted strongly on the doctrines of the
Reformation ... and was severe in rebuking the aberrations of the
flesh .... ‘Now Mester Irwine was as different as could be; as
quick!—he understood what you meant in a minute. And he
behaved as much like a gentleman to the farmers ... nobody has
ever heard me say that Mr Irwine was much of a preacher ...
nothing but what was good and what you’d be the wiser for
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 43

Regarding England and the English from afar, Proust seems to have
regarded this worldly tolerance of Eliot’s clergymen as intrinsic to Anglo-
Saxon Protestantism: something rounded, fleshy, wholesome, integrity
combined with an avoidance of extremes. For whatever else of her he had
sacrificed, D’Albert had kept the life-accepting humour, to which Proust was
quick to respond, perceiving it as her essence. In an essay on literary fallacies,
‘Sainte-Beuve et Balzac’, he mocks fashionable readers who call themselves
‘intelligent’ while mistaking the very nature of the books that they read:

But for so-called ‘intelligent readers’, the fact that a book is

‘untrue’ or ‘depressing’ is like some personal fault in the writer,
which they are as astonished as gratified to encounter again, even
exacerbated in each succeeding work as if it is something he has
been unable to rectify in himself and which finally lends him in
their eyes the unsavoury character of a person without judgement
who cultivates gloomy ideas and whom it is inadvisable to meet,
with the result that each time the bookseller hands them a Balzac
or an Eliot they reject it saying ‘Oh no. It’s always untrue or
morose [sombre], the last one more so than the others, I don’t
want any more.’ (CS-B, 285)

The blunder into which the putative ‘intelligent’ reader has fallen here
is one that Proust thought intrinsic to nineteenth-century culture, and a
vicious one at that. In his mind it was epitomised by Sainte-Beuve’s weekly
literary column Causerie de Lundi, which regularly contained observations on
the literary world in which an author’s public demeanour was wilfully, and
perversely, confused with the nature of his work. The ‘intelligent’ reader
here is one informed by this perspective, assuming from the Puritanical
reputation attached to the name of Eliot, for example, that her works must
consistently be morose. A literary Sainte-Beuviste is one who confounds an
author with his or her work, assuming that the experience of reading a work
of fiction is very much the same as a meeting with its author: that, just as we
come to expect a certain temperamental consistency in our friends and
acquaintances, and indeed most of those whom we meet on social occasions,
every time we open the cover of a book by a particular writer, the spiritual
sensations to be discovered will recognisable and very much the same.
For Proust, few authors illustrated the futility of this point of view
more poignantly than Eliot. Eliot’s work was no more ‘sombre’ than were her
clerics. Indeed, what Proust seems first to have responded to in it was a
44 Robert Fraser

gentleness and lightness of touch common to subject and narrator.

Affectionate and frank in their social relations, Irwine and Adam are
portrayed with both tenderness and truth. And, playing the Sainte-Beuviste
card in his turn—since none of us is consistent—these were the very range
of sensations that he seems, at least at one stage of his work, to have seen as
being part and parcel of English culture in general. Eliot and Ruskin, for
example, seemed to share them. They were the very qualities found by
Ruskin in the later phases of medieval art as exemplified by the Vierge Dorée
of Amiens: ‘truthful, tender, suggestive’, though it came to seem to Ruskin as
if tenderness were the greater and more durable of these qualities, first since
tenderness was a precondition of the perception of truth, and second since in
the eyes of a compassionate but fallible artist, truth could never be anything
but partial. In a passage from The Two Paths translated by Proust, he plays
with these notions and with a certain ambiguity latent in the word Truth: ‘I
find this more and more every day: an infinitude of tenderness is the chief
gift and inheritance of all truly great men’ (C&W, XVI, 281).


This kinship between Ruskin and herself, so essential to Proust’s

appreciation of her, was one to which Eliot was herself alive, even if the
enthusiasm was not always reciprocated. ‘I venerate him as one of the chief
teachers of the day’, she wrote. ‘The grand doctrine of truth and sincerity in
art, the inspiration of a Hebrew prophet, must be stirring up young minds in
a promising way.’7 This ‘doctrine of truth’ was the subject of her review of
the third volume of Modern Painters, published in the Westminster Review in
1856 where, praising Ruskin’s ‘realism’—‘the doctrine that all truth and
beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature’—she goes
on to paraphrase his distinction between versions of the True Ideal: Purist
Idealism, in which only the noble is portrayed; Naturalist Idealism, in which
the unworthy is portrayed in a ratio harmonious with the worthy.8
She was working on Scenes from Clerical Life at the time, and devising
her own theory of fiction, to which her appreciation of Ruskin has no little
relevance. Two years later, in the great seventeenth chapter of Adam Bede, she
expounded her own doctrine of realism as, amongst other things, the
avoidance of a certain kind of selectivity in art. This is the chapter from
which Proust culls those phrases of Adam’s concerning Mr Irwine: an
imperfect cleric perhaps, short on exhortation and the exposition of doctrine,
no more than moderately learned, preaching no more than maxims. Should
he not have been rendered more perfect, more stringent in teaching and in
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 45

life? Adam’s rejoinder is that he is fitted to both time and place, but
beforehand the narrator makes another point: that human imperfection is
itself a comely thing, and seemly to be represented in fiction:

So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make

things seem better than they were; dreading nothing, indeed, but
falsity, which, in spite of one’s best efforts, there is reason to
dread. Falsehood is easy, truth so difficult. The pencil is
conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin—the longer
the claws, and the larger the wings, the better; but that
marvellous facility which we forsake for genius, is apt to forsake
us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion. Examine
your words well, and you will find that even when you have no
motive to be false, it is very hard to say the exact truth, even about
your immediate feelings—much harder than to say something
fine about them which is not the exact truth.9

Like much of the early portions of Adam Bede, this was written in
Munich in 1858 where Eliot spent the mornings at her desk and the
afternoons in the art galleries viewing Rubens, whose ‘breathing men and
women’ she appreciates in a letter to Sara Hennell,10 but also the minor
Dutch masters—Gerard Dou, Teniers, van Ostade, Breughel, Metsu. These
are the ‘many Dutch paintings’ whose ‘precious quality of truthfulness’ she
praises in Adam Bede, full of homely subjects, domestic humility, plainness
and grossness of the flesh.
The taste for Dutch seventeenth-century painting is something she
shared with Proust, whose essay on Rembrandt emphasises his solidity, his
respect for the physical world, his discovery of beauty in ordinary
circumstances. This sublime ordinariness, this tactility in transcendence, he
found too in Chardin, the objects in whose rooms seemed to him to conspire
in mutual acts of affinity, rendering the mundane timeless.
They are also qualities he thought essential to Eliot. In 1954 a set of
manuscript notes on her work was published, left behind by Proust at his
death. They open: ‘What strikes me in Adam Bede is the painting—attentive,
minute, respectful and sympathetic—of the humblest, most industrious life.
To keep one’s kitchen clean is an essential duty, an almost religious duty and
one full of charm’ (CSB, 656). One remembers the kitchen grange at
Combray, full of gleaming objects, calmness and industrious peace, a poetry
of the domestic. One remembers too, in Jean Santeuil, the night-time range
over which the maid Ernestine presides, offered as something to be
appreciated ‘because it exists’:
46 Robert Fraser

Often at such a moment, opening on tip-toes the kitchen door at

the end of a dingy corridor, Jean was rewarded by a vision of the
night unexpectedly raised at the far end, as if mysteriously
supported by the darkness and the gleaming tiles of the range,
like a balcony at the corner of already dark street lit up by the
fading sun. Just above it drifted a pink vaporous cloud, sustained
to all appearances over a pan by an invisible bed of steam; and,
like sea ripples made diaphanous in the sunset, the quivering
exhalation of a simmering casserole was as though shot through
with flame. On its broad and shining chest the pot bore a bright
impression of the fiery realms beneath, seen by it though invisible
to Jean. Her eye steady in the night which with its red
constellations had already engulfed her kitchen, Ernestine stood
at her post, sagely ruling the fire with her rod of iron, moving the
casserole hither and thither, momentarily prodding with her
wooden spoon, replacing the lid of the stove, seeing that all was
well. (JS, I, 187–8)

For sumptuousness of physical detail, a sort of ethical cum aesthetic

wholesomeness, this rivals the passage in chapter 7 of Adam Bede that
describes the Poysers’ dairy where Arthur Donnithorne meets Hetty Sorrel:
‘such coolness, such purity, such fresh fragrance of new-pressed cheese, of
firm butter, of wooden vessels perpetually bathed in pure water’. Yet where
Eliot’s talents are tactile, Proust’s drive us towards the chiaroscuro of light as
a starting point for the conversion of the mundane into magic. It was the
heightened use of such chiaroscuro, one remembers, that in the first volume
of Modern Painters Ruskin decried as a vice particular to the Dutch painting.
If, in Proust’s manuscript essay on Rembrandt, Ruskin is falsely portrayed as
an admirer, the explanation may well lie in Eliot’s praise of Dutch painters,
and a certain communality of attitude, a stout but jocund homeliness, Proust
sensed between Eliot, Ruskin and the Dutch school: joined, improbably, in
the pantheon of his esteem.

But realism is a difficult term, and there is more than one version of it. If for
Proust the tender truth of Ruskin and of Eliot represented one kind of
realism, French literature offered others. All the signs are that for much of
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 47

the period of his literary gestation Proust was preoccupied by these

alternatives. If Eliot exemplified the realist as ethical commentator, a more
austere and self-denying kind of realism is explored by Proust in his essays
on Flaubert.
The Flaubertian realism he interprets as consisting in stylistic
elimination from the sentence of any taint of subjectivity, its reduction to the
status of observed fact, leaving the onus of interpretation upon reader. What
specifically are eliminated are the personality and views of the author—we
never discover directly, for example, what Flaubert thinks of the adultery of
Emma Bovary—and the volition of the characters, whose actions are
observed without their wishes being stated. The characteristic Flaubertian
sentence is thus one in which the physical object, the res, and the externally
observed pattern of behaviour assume the status of subjects:

Where an action occurs whose various phases of which another

writer would extrude from the motive behind them, we get a
picture the various parts of which no more betray an intention
than if he was describing a sunset. Madame Bovary wishes to
warm herself at the fire. Here is how it is described: ‘Madame
Bovary (nowhere has it been mentioned that she was cold)
approached the fireplace ... ’ (CSB, 300)

For the apprentice Proust there were thus two alternative varieties of
literary realism, almost contemporary though products of different linguistic
cultures. Both were attractive, and both dependent as much on what they
rejected as what they proposed: in Eliot, an ethereality that lost contact with
the gritty essence of things; in Flaubert, a subjectivity that proposed the artist
as unique observer, the coil of motive and the maze of the soul. The single
largest difference between them lay in their articulation of ethical
judgement, which in Flaubert was held in reserve. There was even for Proust
a certain delicious barbarity in this reticence, as with meticulous excision the
author’s sensibility edited itself out. Falling short of the impersonal—as the
bee-mouth sipped, a certain pollen of subjectivity was left on the facts—the
result was none the less a discipline of truthfulness without comment, the
neutral imposition of the actual. The tender realism of Eliot, by contrast, like
that of Ruskin, was one that called attention to its own judgements. Arthur
Donnithorne and Godfrey Cass were not, could never be, seen with the
lidless impersonality with which Flaubert viewed Emma Bovary. For if truth
was an attribute of character as much as of judgement, turpitude in others
was the absence of that truth. And, though Eliot was insistent, along with
48 Robert Fraser

Ruskin, that the unworthy was matter for art as long as it existed in
harmonious equipoise with the worthy, the inclusion was dependent upon
the unworthy being viewed as such. How else then was the world to be
viewed except with judgement, a film that drifted before the eyes, an ethical
varnish on the fictive canvas? In Eliot the objectivity of the fact is
embarrassed less because the conditions of viewing are themselves
unstable—as in the later aesthetic of Monet and Elstir—than because a
certain moral partiality is a qualification of seeing as much as of judging.
These observations may help us to make sense of two different claims
of André Maurois: that the Proust of Jean Santeuil was still captive to the
influence of Flaubert with his passages of measured, external description, and
that ‘C’, the putative narrator of the book, derives another aspect of his
manner from a reading of the great nineteenth-century English novelists:
Dickens, Hardy and Eliot.11 One may go further: that which C, seems to
share with Eliot is a willingness to dilate upon the facts, a constant reaching
out from the particular case to the general maxim. In the preamble that the
two friends who have supposedly rescued the manuscript of the novel after
C’s death append at the beginning, they speak of this discursiveness as
something intrinsic to C’s bearing, both in his work and in his life, and a
noticeable element in the recitations from passages of the book which he
gives for their benefit. It was a tendency they say ‘in the manner of certain
English novelists which he had previously loved’ (JS, I, 53). C is diffident
enough concerning his abilities to consider such digressiveness a weakness,
though for the friends who publish his work posthumously, it is quite
evidently one of its charms. To some extent Jean Santeuil is offered as a novel
in the English manner, the manner I would suggest pre-eminently of Eliot.
Nor does the discursiveness Proust clearly considers intrinsic to this style
represent for the writers of its putative preface any faltering of narrative
focus; the great strength of C’s work, they say, is its ability to portray events
just as they happened: ‘the things that he wrote were rigorously true’. For the
young Proust, trying out his hand at this apprentice novel, we can only
assume that the digressiveness, the ethical candour, was an aspect of that
And yet, stylistically, the spirit of Flaubert is never far absent. Two
ghosts, one English and one French, seem to hover over the text: Jean
Santeuil is a work that is doubly begotten. At times, especially in the early
chapters, the two manners—Flaubertian and Eliotic—flourish side by side.
Many paragraphs, indeed, move from one to the other, as in the description
of Jean’s evening in the kitchen at Etreuilles, immediately before that
evocation of the cooking range:
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 49

Plenty of other moments besides were enjoyable at Etreuilles.

For example when just before dinner Jean went to warm his feet
in the cook’s room, a sort of auxiliary kitchen adjoining the first,
and where, worn out with reading, he listened to her coming and
going while she brushed the boots. It was one of those peaceful
moments when everything seems robed in such beauty as mere
being affords, the charm of which resides within the shadow
crowding the far end of the room where the younger children’s
bed is, in the mellow light bleaching the bed’s foot, in the tic-toc
of the clock, in the face of the cook as she gossips in the
lamplight, in the mysterious depths of the kitchen, lit up by the
red glow from the unseen brazier, where delectable operations
are being executed suggested only by the creaking of casserole
under the fall of spent charcoal, or the sound of frying food
sizzling in the pan. At such moments the voice of the cook
droning ‘How damp your shoes are!’ affects you agreeably
because the sound of her voice is something that exists; just as the
sight of the old pharmacist standing at his window in the glare of
the lamp, preoccupied with making up some compound, is
pleasing since he too exists. The unceasing babble of the stove is
even more pleasant than the cook’s voice since there is no need to
reply to it—but there is hardly any need to pay attention to what
the cook is saying, and in the sprightliness of her look lies
something no less soothing than the warmth of the fire. It is even
delightful to be able to talk to her when one has had too much of
the silence and feels like letting fall a few desultory words. Things
are beautiful for being just what they are, and existence a calm
beauty spread about them. (JS, I, 185–6)


In Eliot such reaching for the philosophical or reflective is invariably

connected with an another tendency: an interest in laws of moral causality
which might serve as equivalents of scientific cause and effect. For ‘the
master key to the understanding of human history’, she wrote in 1851, is

the recognition of the presence of undeviating law in the material

and spiritual world—of that invariability of sequence which is
50 Robert Fraser

acknowledged to be the basis of physical science, but which is still

perversely ignored in our social organization, our ethics and
religion .... The divine yea and nay, the seal of prohibition and
sanction, are effectually impressed on human deeds and
aspirations, not by means of Greek and Hebrew, but by that
inexorable law of consequences, whose evidence is confirmed
instead of weakened as the ages advance.12

Eliot’s ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ here are from Carlyle and Sartor Resartus, but an
interest in law in the wider sense is deeply textured into her later work, where
it emerges as a constant reaching for analogy and example within which the
tergiversations of individual conduct may be enclosed. Proust’s manuscript
notes on Eliot recognise this preoccupation with spiritual law, of which he
seems to have thought her a supreme exponent. For Proust, she inhabited a
universe of patent moral meaning ruled over by a Protestant providence,
severe yet well disposed:

above the chain of our vices and mishaps, a sort of superior order
of a omnipotent providence which converts our evil
incomprehensibly into the implement of our wellbeing (cf. Silas
Marner). Adam loses Hetty, which was necessary if he was to find
Dinah. Silas loses the gold, which was necessary if he was to be
open to the love of the child (cf. Emerson, ‘Compensation’ and
‘Man proposes but God disposes’.) (CS-B, 656)

Few notions of spiritual law had a stronger influence on literature of

the mid-Victorian period, or at one stage on Eliot, than Emerson’s ‘Law of
Compensation’. Eliot had met Emerson during one of his rare visits to
England in July 1848, when she seems to have felt some kind of kinship for
this former Unitarian minister, whose search for a secularised equivalent for
Christian morality closely mirrored her own. Towards the Law of
Compensation itself her feelings, however, were ultimately more mixed,
wary as she became of its debasement into some kind of secular barter and
exchange whereby all forms of renunciation were automatically made up by
some kind of celestial but anonymous accountant.
It is against this soothing notion of compensation with its feeble
reaching out for comfort at all costs that the ethical severity of the closing
chapters of Adam Bede is to some extent aimed. With this feckless and
irresponsible version of Emerson’s law, not so much compensation as
consolation, the mature Eliot would have no truck, discerning in it the
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 51

shadow of a false hope stemming from the Christianity she had abandoned.
Yet Proust is right in finding in her work a version of the law perhaps closer
to the spirit of Emerson: a series of equivalences stretching from one plane
to another, suggesting affinities within the physical and spiritual world.
Thus, though Silas Marner cannot be said to lose his gold in order that he
may find Eppie, it remains true that Eppie is rather a translation of his
avarice, itself a distortion of the need to love, on to a higher plane where she
may serve as his redemption. Nor does Adam Bede lose Hetty in order that
he may gain Dinah. This solution to the plot was suggested to Eliot by G. H.
Lewes after she had begun work on the novel13 and, though from that
moment she worked with this resolution constantly in view, the death of
Hetty and the unexpectedly blossoming love between Adam and Dinah are
in fact quite separate strands. Yet instincts that are starved in Adam by his
early attachment to Hetty are to some extent realised in Dinah, a
psychological gain that, however, stops short of the providential or judicial.
There are many instances of such compensation through elevation in A
la recherche. It is not true to say that Mme Vinteuil loses her father in order
that she may learn to love him; yet his death propels her into an excess of
sadistic hatred, temporarily expressed through her desecration of his
photograph but ultimately rarefied into the devotion that causes her to edit
his manuscripts and thus to bring the Vinteuil septet into being. The
narrator of Albertine disparue does not lose Albertine so that he should learn
to write; it remains true, however, that through losing her he learns of the
fragile nature of the human affections, refractions of an energy that for him
will find itself fulfilment only through the imagination. Compensation of this
subtler sort is frequent in A la recherche and deeply built into the structure of
the work.
The true spiritual laws are for Proust thus variants of the psychological.
This applies equally to the second of his manuscript observations on Eliot:

Progressive nature of capitulations of the will: we leave the

mother of the child in Silas resolved never again to take opium,
and next see her with the bottle empty. X ... resolved never again
to see Hetty, immediately afterwards in her arms. (CS-B, 657)

X is Arthur Donnithorne, who in chapter sixteen of Adam Bede wends

his way to Hayslope parsonage to make a clean breast of his affair with Hetty
Sorrel, but at the crucial moment baulks his confession, and is later found by
Adam with Hetty in his arms. Donnithorne is one of Eliot’s great studies of
the dilatory conscience; another is Godfrey Cass in Silas Marner. A third is
52 Robert Fraser

Bulstrode in Middlemarch who sets himself up as a paragon of virtue and good

deeds while hiding the dreadful secrets of his exploitative past. Like
Donnithorne, Bulstrode is unmasked, but terrifyingly, and in public. Both
men suffer the kind of nemesis that Mr Irwine indicates to Arthur as the
destiny of those who too energetically delude themselves as to the nature of
their own motivations.
Such nemesis, a negative variant of Compensation, is an aspect too of
‘the inexorable law of consequences’ of which Eliot speaks. The
consequences may be material or they may be temperamental, the surrender
to weakness being its own castigation. In this variety of psychological
nemesis Jean Santeuil in particular abounds. Madame Lawrence, whom Jean
and Henri visit in book eight, possesses a ferocious reputation as a snob to
which she has blinded herself through a systematic deprecation of snobbery
in others:

Bit by bit, under the impossibility of passing in her own eyes for
a liar, she finished by believing that what she was saying was the
plain unvarnished truth. She did not think herself a snob for
pursuing duchesses, nor flighty for sleeping with Monsieur de
Ribeaumont. The substantive conduct of her life continued to
carry the mark of these two vices. But when she thought about
them they took on the same colours as her conversation: lively
and engaging. She did not think of herself as doing wrong by
Monsieur Lawrence because she invariably spoke well of him,
and the loyal and heartfelt manner in which she referred to him
always took precedence in her soul when she thought about her
deeds. So she felt quite at ease with her feelings, her species of
fidelity, her way of carrying on. And the words which she so
frequently reiterated were like the tiny dose of morphine which
anaesthetizing her conscience, putting it at peace and spurring
her on to fresh indiscretions, the harsher aspects of which,
previously so glaring, she henceforth quite unnecessarily excused.
(JS, III, 58–9)

A more frivolous punishment for snobbery occurs to the vainglorious

Madame Cresmeyer who, determined to attract to herself the cachet of
having hosted the illustrious artist Bergotte to dinner, submits her own guest
list to Le Figaro, only to wake up the following morning and find to her
chagrin that the typesetter has misread her handwriting and attributed the
honour to another.
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 53

The nemesis inflicted on Madame Lawrence is softened by her

unconsciousness of it—she is ridiculous merely in the eyes of others—while
Madame Cressmayer’s is confined to a mild social embarrassment. Both are
spared the worst extremes of that remorse which Mr Irwine describes to
Arthur as the sharpest punishment reserved for sinners. (‘But surely you
don’t think a man who struggles against a temptation into which he falls at
last, as bad as a man who never struggles a tall.’ ‘No, my boy, I pity him, in
proportion to his struggles, for they foreshadow that inward suffering which
is the worst form of Nemesis.’) The most extreme example of such inner
torment in Jean Santeuil is the Marie scandal in book five. Marie is an old
family friend of the Santeuils who, while building for himself a position of
honour as a pillar of the community and mainstay of the parliamentary
Chamber, has for years been associating with dubious business acquaintances
and indulging in shady speculations. Marie’s nemesis arrives in the form of a
summons to the Ministry of Justice, followed by an abrupt arrest. Like
Bulstrode he has to live to see his deeds denounced in public, in his case in
the Chamber, his feeble efforts to justify himself before which are compared
by the novelist to an unconvincing performance in front of the Convention
by Carlyle’s Saint-Just. But it is in the peculiar quality of his hypocrisy that
he most resembles Bulstrode, a hypocrisy probed before it is judged, and in
the way in which he employs his piety as a way of dulling to himself the
consequences of his acts:

Confronted with himself and the full force of his conscience, he

no longer said ‘I have stolen twenty five thousand francs’, words
which would have been very painful to hear and would have
diminished him in his own eyes, but rather ‘God, I am nought but
a miserable sinner’, words with a more emollient effect. And since
for some time he had listed under the vague words sin or trespass
his own particular sins and trespasses—handling shady money,
embezzlement etc.—the words ‘touching shady money’,
‘embezzlement’ were more and more replaced in his mind by the
words sin and trespass. And since the conditions which separate
us more and more from the rest of our kind never eradicate from
our hearts the desire to be at one with them, to be accounted of
equal worth, the words sin and trespass had in his mind the
immense advantage of reconciling him to the rest of the human
race, since he had only to feel that he shared their common lot,
their collective, original sin. (JS, II, 87)
54 Robert Fraser


In the way in which it gravitates from the particular to the general, in its
pitiless moralism, exposing the misuse of Catholic doctrine as mercilessly as
Eliot unstrips Bulstrode’s specious Evangelicalism, in its uncomfortable
evocation of a sort of inner writhing, the Marie episode is perhaps the most
Eliotic moment in Jean Santeuil. Indeed, at one point the narrator compares
the stupendous wasted effort of writing Jean Santeuil to the gigantic and
abortive effort of Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch to produce a comprehensive
‘Key to All Mythologies’, ‘a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins’. ‘Especially
in matters of work’, remarks the novel’s narrator ruefully, ‘we are all to some
extent like Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch who devoted the whole of his life to
labours the results of which were merely trivial or absurd.’14 Jean Santeuil
indeed marks the high point of Proust’s involvement with the work of
George Eliot, but there is an important sequel.
In January 1910 after heavy rains the Seine rose and burst its banks,
flooding the wide boulevards of the Right Bank. Perched in his second-floor
flat at 102, Boulevard Haussmann, Proust watched apprehensively as the
waters poured across la Place Saint Augustin, threatening to engulf him.
Nervously he wrote to Simone de Caillavet: ‘I will write to your mother
acknowledging her adorable letter when I feel a little better. By then I shall
doubtless have been drowned. In this connection have you read The Mill on
the Floss? If not, I implore you: read it’ (Cor, X, 42)
George Eliot’s tale of a brother and sister growing up in a rural paradise
ruined by mutual dissension and financial crisis would have appealed strongly
to Proust, who probably knew the novel since his boyhood days, but seems
to have re-read it, or at least to have it constantly in mind, in 1910 when he
was working on Du côté de chez Swann, whose Combray sequence evokes its
own land of lost content. In May of that year, writing to his diplomat friend
Robert de Billy about various English writers in whom he was interested, he

German, Italian and very often French literature leaves me

indifferent. But two pages of The Mill on the Floss have made me
cry. I know that Ruskin detested this particular novel, but I
reconcile these two foes in the Pantheon of my imagination. (Cor,
X, 55)

He had been reading volume 34 of the giant Library Edition of

Ruskin’s Works, where in Fiction, Fair and Foul he would have found Ruskin’s
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 55

stout defence of Scott and equally savage attack on Eliot, and The Mill on the
Floss in particular:

There is not a single person in the book of the smallest

importance to anybody in the world but themselves, or whose
qualities deserved so much as a line of printer’s ink in their
description. There is no girl alive, fairly clever, half educated, and
unluckily related, whose life has not at least as much in it as
Maggie’s, to be described and pitied. Tom is a cruel and clumsy
lout, with the making of better things in him (and the same may
be said of nearly every Englishman at present smoking and
elbowing his way through the ugly world his blunders have
contributed to the making of); while the rest of the characters are
simply sweepings out of a Pentonville omnibus. (C&W, XXXIV,

Ruskin’s ire had been drawn by the scene in which Maggie Tulliver and
Stephen Guest ‘forget themselves on a boat’ which carries them further and
further from familiar loyalties’—Stephen from his fiancée Lucy Deane, and
Maggie from her senses: ‘The pride of a gentleman of the old school’, he
spluttered, ‘used to be in his power of saying what he meant, and being silent
when he ought ... but the automatic amours and involuntary proposals of
recent romance acknowledged little further law of morality than the instinct
of an insect, or the effervescence of a chemical mixture.’
In speaking of Maggie forgetting herself, Ruskin spoke truer than he
knew. There is in The Mill on the Floss a peculiar congruency between the
themes of memory and of identity since, supremely in Eliot’s work, memory
here assumes a moral dimension. Of much pertinence to Proust is the
sensation of an authorial presence revisiting its own past, which is composed,
as it were, out of a picture thrown on some inner retina. The pictorial
tactility of the opening, Eliot’s use of the present tense, embody this sense—
‘I remember those large dipping willows ... I remember the stone bridge.’
For Proust this passage was not simply admirable; it was also a model to be
followed. At one point in his notebook of 1908 he simply scrawls himself a
curt reminder: ‘First page of The Mill on the Floss’ (Carnet, 94). The page was
exemplary, I would suggest, for two reasons. First, Eliot’s writing here, with
its feeling of a disembodied memorial presence that is at once congruent with
the protagonist yet evidently distinct from her, is a fragmentary anticipation
of Proust’s own method. Secondly, the territory around the eponymous mill
is, like the Combray that Proust’s narrator evokes in Du côté de chez Swann, a
56 Robert Fraser

landscape since radically altered by circumstance, the flood recounted at the

end of the book having swept much away. The meticulous iteration of
particulars at the beginning, the constant half quotations from Wordsworth’s
‘Immorality Ode’, are thus, like the painstaking reconstruction of a bygone
way of life throughout ‘Combray’, attempts to fix a past that has gone for
ever. In both, nostalgia and a necessary renunciation march hand in hand.
Towards the beginning of Le Temps retrouvé the narrator receives a
letter from Gilberte recounting the changes that have engulfed Combray,
now occupied by the Germans and scene of a battle in the Great War which
has since devastated the environment so painstakingly evoked in Du côté de
chez Swann:

The battle of Méséglise lasted more than eight months; in it

Germans lost more than six hundred thousand men, they
destroyed Méséglise but they didn’t take it. The little path you
loved so dearly and that we called the hawthorn track and where
you pretended to have fallen in love with me during your
childhood .... I cannot convey to you the significance that it has
taken on .... The hill of wheat on which it comess out is the
celebrated Hill 307 so often mentioned in despatches. The
French blew up the little bridge over the Vivonne ... and the
Germans have thrown up others. For a year and a half they held
one half of Combray and the French held the other. (NP, IV, 335)

The loving re-creation of Combray in the Swann volume, undertaken

in full knowledge of these facts, is thus an attempt to restore the self through
a reconstruction of a sense of place. Yet this is not all. In both Eliot and
Proust this attempt to reconstruct with painstaking physicality what is no
longer there is part of a larger scheme: the fixing of the self. In both works
an ability to reconstitute the past is viewed as a test of moral essence. When
Maggie ‘forgets herself in a boat’ she is doubly untrue to herself, not merely
because in a prim Victorian sense she forgets her higher nature, but because,
in a strong and literal sense, she forgets who she is. Since for Eliot, tutored
by the psychologism of George Henry Lewes, personal identity was none
other than this: a cluster of mental associations produced by the influence of
early environment. Each biological organism possessed a memory, which in
turn delineated its identity, the existential but also ethical traits that made
each person him or herself. In Eliot, moral truth is loyalty to this essence,
which existence alone precedes. The theme of The Mill on the Floss is the
creation of Maggie Tulliver; once created, she is essence what she has been.
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 57

In ‘The Great Temptation’, the successive nature of which is explored during

her temporary elopement with Stephen Guest, she eventually turns back to
face certain moral obloquy in Dorcotte. In explaining her decision to
Stephen, it is this desire to restore identity through reconnection with her
past that she stresses: ‘If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?’ By
acting differently, with what Ruskin saw as untutored instinct (a mode of
unhistoric and hence pre-moral freedom), she has no possibility of fulfilling
herself, since she is simply ceasing to be her. This is the substance of the
debate between her and Stephen at Coleport, the thematic rather than
dramatic climax of the novel, in which Stephen asserts the ‘natural law’ of
inclination: that she is, and could only ever be, what she has been, the
product of her past.
The stress on recollection as essence is something Eliot shares with
Proust, whose own psychologism is derived from Bergson with his emphasis
on sudden involuntary influxes of the memory. The narrator experiences
several such moments of revelation, each of which bring him closer to
himself, the self that must write the book. From this destiny his successive
fads—involvement with the aristocratic principle through the Guermantes,
his love for successive women, even his friendships—come gradually to wear
the aspect of distractions. The recognition that they are so comes to the
narrator at the final soirée at the hôtel de Guermantes with the force of a
complete revelation. Only by restoring the past, reworking within himself
the mental associations that make him what he is, will be break from the
cycle and assume the stature of the artist he is capable of becoming.
Yet no sooner is this congruity stated than the immense gap between
Proust’s project and Eliot’s make themselves felt. For the identity re-
established by the narrator at the end of A la recherche is no self-justifying
phenomenon. The narrator only remembers his past so that he may
rearrange it in the dimensions of art. In Proust, finally, the life exists so that
the art may exist. The supremacy of this project—its ascendancy over any
mediocre or intermediary element of realism—is a major component in the
argument of Le Temps retrouvé, which acts, among other things, as a final and
conclusive renunciation of all forms of realism, more especially those that
erect fidelity to everyday fact as the criterion of truth. Here Proust is
shrugging off not simply Zola, with his political interpretation of reality, but
implicitly shrugging off something else that been of greater importance to
him in his own writing, namely the sense, common to both Flaubert and of
Eliot, of everyday life as the focus and touchstone of art. In thus refining his
own philosophy of art as truth to some inner vision, the narrator is confirmed
by the contemplation of
58 Robert Fraser

the very falsity of pretending realist art, which would not be half
so mendacious did we not adopt the custom in life of giving to
our feelings a turn of expression quite other that that of reality,
which nonetheless we eventually take for reality itself. I felt that
I should have no need to embrace the various literary theories
which at one time had distracted me—notably those which
criticism had evolved at the time of the Dreyfus Scandal and had
been taken up again during the war, which tended to ‘drive the
artist from his ivory tower’ and to avoid frivolous or sentimental
themes in favour of great industrial movements, or failing the
mass at least to deal no longer with literary idlers as in the past
(‘I must confess that the portrayal of these useless types makes
me yawn’, Bloch used to remark), but with committed
intellectuals or heros. Besides, even before discussing their
logical content, these theories seemed to me proof positive of
the mental inferiority of those who espoused them—like a well
brought-up child who hears some people at whose house he has
been sent to dine declare: ‘we are straightforward people. There
are no secrets in this house’, and feels that the this denotes a
moral quality inferior to good deeds which do not speak their
name. (NP, IV, 459–60)

‘True art’, he continues, ‘having no need for such declarations of intent,

fulfils itself in silence.’ Such statements are a self-evident attempt to separate
out the notion of ‘truth’ from that of the ‘real’. The culminating aesthetic of
Le Temps retrouvé is, therefore, a renunciation neither of truth nor of
detachment. Both ideals are, however, reworked, for truth becomes truth to
an inner vision, and detachment is achieved through the most revolutionary
of means. It is the final paradox of Le Temps retrouvé that it is through his very
reimmersion in the details of his own past, which must be reworked into
material for art, that the narrator achieves the detachment—both from his
surroundings and from the pressures of the self—that he needs. In The Mill
on the Floss the narrator and Maggie are separate; in A la recherché the narrator
(who is, needless to say, not Proust) and his subject are one. The paradoxical
result of this is to turn the narrator’s past into a self-generated subject that he
himself controls. The resulting closeness to his subject matter confers upon
the narrator a peculiar mastery. Thus while the narrator of The Mill on the
Floss is attempting to re-enter a past from which she (or he—the identity of
the teller is left indefinite) is now excluded, the narrator of A la recherche is
also trying to break into the past, but only that he may then subdue it and
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 59

turn it into something that transcends itself: the book which, through this
unlooked for access to the privileges of memory, he is enabled to compose.
But as in A la recherche the consciousness of the narrator swells to fill
the whole foreground of the canvas, something else very odd and seemingly
perverse occurs.
An interest in the laws governing behaviour is, to be sure, more marked
in A la recherche, where it is responsible for a highly distinctive structure of
interpolation and parenthesis, much of which moves, as in Jean Santeuil,
from the particular to the general, from the fictive to the normative. Again
there is, if anything, a more searching interest than earlier in the ‘successive
nature of surrenders of the will’. Yet at the very point when the whole field
of human conduct is opened up to the narrator for judgement, precisely here
does he stay his hand. Apart from the new narrative perspective, the largest
single innovation separating A la recherche from Jean Santeuil is its
subjugation of the ethical to the psychological, its preference for implicit
over explicit moral comment.
Few individuals in literature surrender their wills more absolutely to
the demands of temperament, for example, than does Monsieur de Charlus.
The effeminacy of his temperament is at first heavily masked by an assumed
virility; it is when in Sodome et Gomorrhe he joins the little band of the
Verdurin faithful that minute mannerisms betray his inversion, disclosed by
the ‘chemistry’ of his body or perhaps by heredity, some remote memory of
the mother. On his return to Paris at the beginning of Le Temps retrouvé, the
narrator intercepts a grotesquely camp invert waddling down the street: it is
M. de Charlus. And in a sorry episode several pages later, the narrator
observes the same M. de Charlus, every scrap of shame gone, being beaten
in chains by soldiers hired for the purpose in a brothel run and maintained
by the ex-tailor Jupien, and waxes Eliot-like on the depravity that causes a
man of sense to ‘chain himself to the rock of pure matter’. But this reflection,
religious in its gravity, is immediately overlaid by another:

at the bottom of it all there lingered in M. de Charlus all his

dream of virility, to be realized if necessary in acts of brutality, all
that interior illumination, invisible to us, but reflecting certain
beams from the cross of judgement, from feudal tortures, lit up
by his medieval imagination .... In short his desires to be bound
in chains, to be beaten, in all their ugliness, betrayed a dream as
poetic as the desire in other men to visit Venice or maintain
ballet-dancers. (NP, IV, 419)
60 Robert Fraser

‘Tout comprendre est tout pardoner.’ There is, in this systematic

narration of the decline of a great man, no less of a sense of moral
consequences than in Proust’s earlier work, but this sense is everywhere
subordinate to a fascination with the workings of the mind. It is indeed
difficult to resist the impression that the narrator of A la recherche regards the
foibles of his human comedy with something approaching relish. The
characteristic mode in which the narrator comments upon the external social
world is thus one of fastidious observation. The difference between the
younger and the older Proust is this: where the narrator of Jean Santeuil,
schooled perhaps by Eliot, watches each surrender of the will with loaded
indictment and regret, the narrator of A la recherche, remembering Flaubert,
ultimately just watches.
At the very end of Le côté de Guermantes there is an episode profoundly
revealing of this difference. The Duc and Duchesse are entertaining Swann
immediately prior to their departure for a soirée at the salon of the Prince.
As they sweep out of the door towards an appointment for which they are
already late, Swann announces in his off-hand manner the diagnosis of his
imminent death. The Duchesse pauses. Should she continue onwards to her
appointment, or pause for anticipatory condolence? She sweeps on, yet as
she enters her carriage the Duc notices that she is wearing black shoes at
variance with her dress. All is delayed so that she should go upstairs to
change them. But as, correctly attired, the couple and their retinue sweep out
of the gates of the Hôtel de Guermantes, the Duke shouts back at Swann
‘And you now, you, don’t get into a flap over these idiots of doctors, damn it.
They’re a pack of donkeys. You’re built like the Pont Neuf. You’ll live to bury
us all!’ (NP, II, 884).
For Proust, the prime exemplars of the moralistic and the impartial
methods were, forever and inalienably, Eliot and Flaubert. Of equal weight
with Flaubert, however, were those who imbibed his method. Among such,
no writer exemplified the starkness of his self-denying ordinance more
emphatically than his disciple and rumoured son: Guy de Maupassant. The
disapproval of the members of the Rouen bourgeoisie who first take
advantage of and then dismiss the prostitute in the story ‘Une Boule de Suif ’
is something that hangs heavy in the air, yet not once is it stated, or even
verbally hinted at. This lesson was one that Proust ultimately took to heart.
In the 1908 notebook he writes himself another curt reminder: ‘Objections
to maxims. | Boule de Suif and Flaubert | [say] as much as preacherly tones
(preface to Middlemarch)’ (Carnet, 92).
There are, says the narrator in connection with the Marie scandal in
Jean Santeuil, two tribes, to one of which each of us by temperament and
The Lamp of Truth: Proust and George Eliot 61

inclination belongs: those who wear their morality on their sleeve and those
who do not. Finally, nothing in the work of Proust more effectively
discriminates between the nature of his genius and that of Eliot than his
authorial restraint in the closing moments of Le côté de Guermantes. For
nothing in Felix Holt the Radical, or in her work as a whole, shouts more
loudly of the callousness of the aristocratic code than that momentary
oversight of the Duc and Duchesse, their failure of the most basic kind of
empathy; yet on its import the author is silent. Thus even as, in his later
work, Proust assumes an Eliotic amplitude of observation, precisely here
does the austerity of his method prove him, in the delicacy of its moral
discretion, a pupil of Flaubert.


1. André Maurois, A la recherche de Marcel Proust (Paris: Hachette, 1949) p. 16.

2. Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (Oxford; Clarendon, 1968) p.
3. The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Yale University Press and
Oxford University Press, 1954-5) vol. I, pp. 316–17; quoted in Haight, George Eliot,
pp. 75–6.
4. The George Eliot Letters, vol. III, p. 374.
5. CS-B, 72–3, citing Ruskin in The Bible of Amiens: ‘stopping as you go, so as
to get into a cheerful temper, and buying some bonbons or tarts for the children in
one of the charming patissier’s shops to the left’ (C&W, xxxiii, 128).
6. CS-B, 74. The quotations from Eliot are from Albert Durade’s translation
of Adam Bede, pp. 84, 85, 226, 227, 228, 230.
7. J. W. Cross, Life of George Eliot (1885) vol. II, p. 7.
8. Westminster Review, April 1856; cited in Selected Essays, Poems and Other
Writings, ed. A. S. Byatt (Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin, 1990) p. 368.
9. George Eliot, Adam Bede (London: Blackwood, 1859) vol. II, pp. 4–5.
10. Haight, George Eliot, p. 259, citing The George Eliot Letters, vol. II, p. 451.
11. Preface to JS, 1, 13–14, citing JS, 1, 53–4.
12. Review of Robert Mackay’s Progress of the Intellect, Westminster Review,
January 1851; cited Byatt, Selected Essays, p. 271.
13. Cross, Life of George Eliot, vol. II, p. 68.
14. JS, II, 252, which, however, has ‘M. Cabusson’.

Zipporah: A Ruskinian Enigma Appropriated

by Marcel Proust1

J ohn Ruskin first visited the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in April 1841 and
noted in his diary: ‘Our last day in Rome I devoted to Sistine Chapel, and
received real pleasure from it’.2 His pleasure on that occasion was due to his
appreciation of Michelangelo’s use of colour, but no mention is made of
Sandro Botticelli. That visit was almost a valediction to Rome: ‘there is
something about it which will make me dread to return’, he also wrote.3
Indeed, Ruskin was not to return to Rome, and the Sistine Chapel in
particular, until 1872, some 31 years later.


Ruskin’s Zipporah4 (figure 1) is a copy of a fragment of a large fresco by

Botticelli, measuring 348.5 by 558 cm on the South Wall of the Sistine
Chapel, about 5.5 metres from the ground, and in some degree of shade. The
fresco is entitled Le Prove di Mosè, literally ‘The Trials of Moses’. However,
in English, it is variously denominated: The Temptation of Moses, The
Temptation of Moses: Bearer of the Written Law, The Life of Moses, Scenes from
the Life of Moses, Moses in Egypt and Midian, Youth of Moses. Botticelli painted
this scene at the request of Sixtus IV, who summoned him to Rome in 1481,

From Word & Image 15, no. 4 (October–December 1999). © 1999 by Taylor & Francis Limited.

64 Cynthia J. Gamble

along with Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli and Pietro Perugino to

decorate the walls of the papal electoral chapel with frescoes. Scenes from
the lives of Moses and Christ were executed on the long walls of the chapel.
The scenes contain typological references to one another, with, for example,
Moses appearing as the prefiguration of Christ.
The Trials of Moses is to be read from right to left, as a Hebrew script,
commencing in the bottom right-hand corner. It conveys different points in
time and in two places (Egypt and Midian, in the Arabian desert near the
Gulf of Akabah): it is a mosaic of the spiritual and the profane, encompassing
human and animal life, murder, contrasting emotions of terror, hatred,
tenderness, compassion. It is a busy canvas, with lots of movement and
activities in contrast to the solid piece of architecture on the right (is it a
synagogue, or a loggia?) which might provide some degree of protection. In
the background, beyond the trees, the hilly landscape of Biblical Egypt and
the wilderness of Midian are visible, and they provide a frame for the
activities. It is also a story related in eight episodes of the life of Moses, as a
circular narrative moving around the well in the centre.


1. The story begins in the right foreground of the fresco, where the
young, angry and impetuous Moses, brandishing a sword, is
murdering the Egyptian taskmaster, whose head has hit the
ground and whose face is convulsed with pain, agony and horror:
‘And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that
he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and
he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.
And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there
was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand’.
(Exodus 2:11–15).5
2. Contrary to the Biblical story, Botticelli depicts two witnesses
who are retreating from the murder. Walking away, to the right,
and contrary to the flow of movement of the painting, a woman
in a blue garment puts her arms protectively around a man: is he
the Hebrew youth who the Egyptian was smiting, or is this a
scene of two frightened spectators, such as a mother and son, or
a husband and wife?
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 65


3. Moses flees into the wilderness in Midian for his safety. He is

depicted by Botticelli almost suspended in flight, turning to the
left and thereby re-establishing the flow of the movement of the
painting. ‘Moses ... dwelt in the land of Midian’ (Exodus 2:15).
The Biblical story continues as follows: ‘Moses ... sat down by a
well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they
came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s
flock. And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses
stood up and helped them, and watered their flock’ (Exodus 2:
4. On the left of Moses in the wilderness, Moses can be seen driving
away from the well the Midianite shepherds who had been a
nuisance to Jethro’s daughters. We do not know exactly what
happened, but the girls had obviously complained to their father.
5. In the centre foreground, the focal point of the fresco or the pivot
of the composition, the youthful Moses is assisting two of Jethro’s
seven daughters. He is hauling water from a deep well with a
silvery coloured bucket or pitcher on a rope and filling a trough
for the sheep of the two girls who stand watching: Zipporah is on
the left facing the reader and her sister is on the right. The black
sheep among the flock is perhaps an omen of trials to come. The
meeting place is portrayed as idyllic and symbolic, with the water
of the well symbolizing life and re-birth, and the well being the
place at which marriages were arranged, and business and other
deals concluded. It was also the scene of revelations and

Not recorded in the fresco are several important events in the life of
Moses, such as Jethro welcoming him to his home, Moses’ marriage to
Zipporah and the birth of a son named Gershom, meaning foreigner or exile
in Hebrew: ‘And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses
Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name
Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land’ (Exodus 2:21–2).

6. Upwards, in the left half of the fresco, Moses is guarding Jethro’s

sheep on Mount Horeb, better known today as Mount Sinai:
‘Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest
66 Cynthia J. Gamble

of Midian; and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and
came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb’ (Exodus 3:1). He
is dressed in a short, yellow tunic, not a long robe, and is
removing his shoes,7 for he is on Holy Ground, in obedience to
the Lord’s command from the Burning Bush, which burned but
was not consumed. ‘Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from
off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’
(Exodus 3:5).
7. In the top left-hand corner, Moses, now barefoot, is kneeling
before the Lord who appears above a burning bush. The Lord
told Moses that he was destined to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt
into the promised land of milk and honey. ‘And the angel of the
Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a
bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and
the bush was not consumed’ (Exodus 3:2).
8. In the bottom left-hand corner, Moses, now ‘fourscore years old’
(Exodus 7:7), leads the Exodus of the Jews carrying their various
belongings and the spoils of the Egyptians as they had been
instructed by God: ‘Every woman shall borrow of her neighbour,
and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and
jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your
sons, and upon your daughters: and ye shall spoil the Egyptians’
(Exodus 3:22 and cf. 12:35–6). The Bible story details other
possessions they took: ‘flocks, and herds, even very much cattle’
(Exodus 12:38). Among this departing crowd, with its variety of
characters, Botticelli’s fresco depicts an older, rather matronly
Zipporah in a blue dress, accompanied by her two sons,
Gershom, holding a little dog, and, beside him, the younger son,
Eliezer, mentioned in Exodus 18:4.

From Botticelli’s Le Prove di Mosè, Ruskin copied four scenes: Zipporah

(RF 880), Sheep (RF 879),8 Sheep (RF 1167) and Gershom’s Little Dog
(whereabouts unknown). Charles Fairfax Murray also copied two scenes:
Gershom and His Dog (private collection) and Moses and His Family Leaving
Midian (Sheffield R 312).
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 67


Ruskin, the Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, records his progress on painting
Zipporah in his Diary of 1874, during a 7-month tour of the Continent, of
which 6 months were spent in Italy. He started work in 1874 and on 17 April
wrote: ‘A delightful day yesterday at Sistine ... ’, followed by ‘Still pleasanter
day of work on Botticelli’ on 18 April. His entries for May record his progress,
and single-mindedness, and to a lesser extent his method of work:

Tuesday 5 May 1874: ‘Y[esterday] began sheep in Sistine Chapel,

Wednesday 6 May: ‘Y[esterday] began Zipporah in pencil’.
Thursday 7 May: ‘Y[esterday] good work in Sistine.’
Saturday 9 May: ‘A good day y[esterday] on Zipporah; deciphered
her pretty hem of dress’.
Sunday 10 May: ‘Up in good time, after sound sleep, my work
prospering. If only I can keep myself in good temper and health ....
Y[esterday] after standing from ten to two at work on Zipporah,
I walked up Monte Mario’.
Tuesday 12 May: ‘An utterly dark day, and main difficulties in
Zipporah, tired me dreadfully yesterday. I must not let this
happen again’.
Thursday 14 May: ‘Finished Zipporah down to her feet yesterday’.
Friday 22 May: ‘ ... I sadly tired, necessarily, in finishing Zipporah,
and all despondent and wrong minded in evening’.
Saturday 23 May: ‘Y[esterday] a singularly good day—on Zipporah’.
Whit-Sunday 24 May: ‘Y[esterday] practically finished Zipporah,
though I shall retouch here and there. She has taken me
altogether 15 days, begun on the 6th and three Sundays, one
festa, and a lost Monday intervening. The paper added to the
difficulty not a little, and not being quite near enough for
measurement—and at least a week of dark days. So that, well
prepared and under ordinarily favourable circumstances, I can
assuredly do such a figure in a fortnight’.9

Ruskin seemed well satisfied with his fortnight’s work for he wrote to Charles
Eliot Norton on 19 June 1874: ‘I’ve done Botticelli’s Zipporah successfully’.10
Details of particular artistic problems Ruskin encountered during the
copying of Zipporah are, unfortunately, singularly lacking: but one special
68 Cynthia J. Gamble

difficulty seems to have been that of deciphering the hem of her dress,
already referred to in his diary of 9 May. Later in that same year Ruskin drew
particular attention to Zipporah’s dress and to what he considered as
Botticelli’s ‘ill done’ lettering around the border, a characteristic he had
observed in several of Botticelli’s pen drawings with so-called inscriptions,
beautifully drawn, but which could not be read: ‘In copying Botticelli’s
Zipporah this spring, I found the border of her robe wrought with characters
of the same kind, which a young painter, working with me, who already knows
the minor secrets of Italian art better that I [Ruskin is referring to Charles
Fairfax Murray], assures me are letters—and letters of a language hitherto
undeciphered’.11 Ruskin was a talented linguist who could read Greek, Latin,
Italian and French: his unwillingness to decipher the characters or even to
attempt to identify them is, therefore, all the more surprising. I have
examined closely Ruskin’s copy of Zipporah, and the lettering resembles
Etruscan to some extent, thus reinforcing the Etruscan tradition and presence
in Italian art. Since the Etruscan alphabet is based on Greek, Ruskin would
have had no difficulty in deciphering the lettering. His uncharacteristically
casual approach to the problem suggests that he did not wish to decipher the
message and preferred to maintain the aura of mystery and ambivalence
around Zipporah. He did not want to see the message on the border of her
robe which may have destroyed his reconstruction of Zipporah-Athena.

III. J O H N R U S K I N ’ S Z I P P O R A H -AT H E N A

Ruskin’s lecture on 4 December 1874, on Botticelli,12 revealed an important

discovery he had made earlier that year, that Botticelli was a pivotal link
between the civilization of pre-Christian Greek-influenced Etruria and
Christianity: Ruskin had observed the striking similarity between the olive
leaves on a cornice of the church of the Badia of Fiesole, the old capital of
Etruria and birthplace of Botticelli, and in Botticelli’s work: ‘There’s no gap
and scarcely any difference between these garlands of golden olive of Etruria
before Christ and the utmost beauty of leaf drawing of ... Botticelli’.13 This
conjunction of two seemingly disparate elements, the Etruscan and Christian
traditions, co-existed in Botticelli’s Zipporah, the Gooddess-shepherdess or
‘shepherd maiden’,14 a figure from Greek mythology and from a Biblical
story: she is Ruskin’s ‘Etruscan Athena, becoming queen of a household in
Christian humility’.15
Ruskin lent his facsimile of Zipporah to an exhibition in Brighton in
1876, together with his woodcut of Athena copied from a Neck Amphora in
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 69

the British Museum, London (figure 2).16 His explanatory note for the
catalogue is a particularly pertinent, focused exposé of the interconnectedness
of Zipporah and Athena.
The powerful masculinity of Athena, the Greek virgin Goddess of
Wisdom, War and Weaving, the protectress of eternal virginity and the
embodiment of chastity, is usually depicted in classical Greco-Roman art as
an imposing and physically strong, fearless woman, a warrior ready and
dressed to fight with her breastplate, helmet, carrying a shield and a spear as
Goddess of War (or a distaff as the Goddess of Weaving and the Domestic
Arts). This may appear at first sight to be in stark contrast with Zipporah’s
timid nature as witnessed at the well when Zipporah, together with her
sisters, was unable to cope with some troublesome shepherds. For Ruskin,
Botticelli’s Zipporah is a closer representation of Athena as Goddess of
Weaving and Domestic Arts.
Ruskin, in his Brighton catalogue entry of 1876, states clearly t
importance to him of Zipporah: ‘Botticelli, trained in the great Etruscan
Classic School, retains in his ideal of the future wife of Moses every essential
character of the Etrurian Pallas, regarding her as the Heavenly Wisdom
given by inspiration to the Lawgiver for his helpmate; yet changing the
attributes of the goddess into such as become a shepherd maiden’.17 He then
examines in considerable detail the dresses of Athena and of Zipporah and
shows that ‘every piece of the dress [of Athena] will be found to have its
corresponding piece in that of Zipporah’.18 About the chiton or linen robe
with the peplus or mantle, Ruskin writes:

There is first the sleeved chiton or linen robe, falling to the feet,
looped up a little by the shepherdess; then the peplus or covering
mantle, very nearly our shawl, but fitting closer; Athena’s, crocus
coloured, embroidered by herself with the battle against the
giants; Zipporah’s, also crocus coloured, almost dark golden,
embroidered with blue and purple, with mystic golden letters on
the blue ground; the fringes of the aegis are, however, transposed
to the peplus; and these being of warm crimson complete the
sacred chord of colour (blue, purple, and scarlet), Zipporah being
a priest’s daughter.19

Ruskin’s transposition and his detection of what Jeanne Clegg calls

‘iconographical resonances’20 continue as he compares Athena’s aegis, often
represented in mythology as a goatskin fringed with snakes, with Zipporah’s
goatskin satchel, her lance to Zipporah’s reed.
70 Cynthia J. Gamble

The aegis of Pallas becomes for Zipporah a goatskin satchel, in

which she carries apples and oak (for pleasure and strength); her
lance becomes a reed, in which she carries her wool and spindle;
the tresses of her hair are merely softened from the long black
falling tresses of Athena; a leaf of myrtle replaces the olive [leaf].
The scarcely traceable thin muslin veil over her breast represents
the part of the aegis which, in the Pallas, is drawn with dots,
meaning soft dew instead of storm.21

The effect of this deconstruction and reconstruction of Zipporah, and to a

lesser extent Athena, is to redefine her as her uncertain identity begins to
emerge. The fusion of these two virgins results in the charged and
heightened sexuality of Zipporah-Athena, and consequent lesbian
proclivities. Simultaneously, the androgynous nature of the women is
suggeste by the phallic symbolism of the lance-reed. A detailed examination
of Zipporah’s feet in Ruskin’s copy reveals a heavy masculine shape and form,
and her lower legs appear hirsute: characteristics not apparent in Zipporah’s
This interpretation, this overwhelming desire to see Athena in
Zipporah, and vice-versa, is an act of Ruskinian idolatry that prefigures
Swann’s idolatry of Zipporah-Odette in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps
perdu. A close reading of Ruskin’s text, with its echoes of Queen of the Air, as
the red figure of Athena on the amphora becomes a blaze of colour, raises
some questions and doubts. For example, is Zipporah really carrying a
‘goatskin satchel’? Or is it a wreath? Is Zipporah wearing a chiton? Her lower
garment looks more like Oriental trousers. Is Zipporah at the well carrying
‘apples and oak’? In this partial misreading of Zipporah’s garments, Ruskin
projects onto Zipporah what he wants to see, reminiscent of his and Proust’s
misreading, of the hawthorn at Amiens Cathedral.22
The warrior aspect of Athena, so prominent on the amphora, has been
sublimated by Ruskin who has given pre-eminence to nobility and
domesticity, juxtaposed in his moral interpretation of Zipporah. His initial
interest in Zipporah during his 1872 visit to Rome was as a model of his ideal
woman combining the noble qualities of a princess with those of a
‘workwoman’.23 He then compared Zipporah with Ursula, the industrious
princess ‘in a plain house-wifely dress [who] talks quietly [to her father,
while] going on with her needlework all the time’24 depicted by the Venetian
artist Vittore Carpaccio in his triptych of 1490–95, L’Arrivo degli Ambasciatori
inglesi presso il Re di Bretagna, which opens the Saint Ursula cycle in the
Accademia, Venice. Ruskin’s interpretation of Ursula is in terms not
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 71

dissimilar to those used for Zipporah: but other art historians have
understood Ursula to be ticking off on her fingers the conditions for her
marriage, while her father listens wearily.25 Ruskin had focused on
Zipporah’s housewifely qualities in letter 20, 5 July 1872, in Fors Clavigera,
when he remarked that ‘the girl who is to be the wife of Moses, when he first
sees her at the desert-well, has fruit in her left hand, but a distaff in her
right’.26 In a note to this letter, Ruskin modified this initial observation and
commented: ‘More accurately a rod cloven into three at the top, and so
holding the wool. The fruit is a branch of apples; she has golden sandals, and
a wreath of myrtle round her hair’.27 The evergreen myrtle was a symbol of
love and peace in the classical Greco-Roman period, and in the Renaissance
it represented conjugal love and fidelity: it was often part of a bridal
headpiece. The unreal bride that Ruskin was seeking and idealising was
always inaccessible, in a Carpaccio or a Botticelli painting.

IV. M A R C E L P R O U S T ’ S Z I P P O R A H -O D E T T E

Botticelli’s Zipporah was, therefore, a fascinating subject for Ruskin,

consciously and unconsciously, with her duality at different levels and
heightened tension due to these juxtaposed elements. For Proust, also, this
very same Zipporah played an important role in A la Recherche du Temps
perdu, translated by Terence Kilmartin as In Search of Lost Time.
Charles Swann is a rich dilettante, a hedonist who prefers High Society
to High Art, an art collector who nevertheless has a sensitive appreciation of
art and who is writing a book on Ver Meer but who lacks the application to
complete it. Works of art, therefore, play a not unimportant role in his life.
The focus of Swann in Love is the analysis of Swann’s relationship with
Odette de Crécy, tracing the rise and fall of his love culminating in his
marriage to Odette at a point when he realises he no longer loves her and
about whom he exclaims: ‘To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve
longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t
appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type’.28 It is also the story of the self-
destruction of Swann.
Swann’s disappointment, indeed agony, in love is in part due to his
manner of conducting his artificially created love-affair. Only when he
realises that he has ceased to be in love with Odette is he able to see her, as
he had done at the very beginning of their acquaintance, in a transparent and
rational way. Her true features, her defects to which he had been blind, or
which he had assigned to oblivion during his passionate pursuit, become
72 Cynthia J. Gamble

apparent: ‘Odette’s pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn
features, her tired eyes, all the things which ... he had ceased to notice since
the early days of their intimacy’.29 Other features of Odette’s that Swann had
repressed were ‘her cheeks ... sometimes mottled with little red spots’ that
‘distressed him as proving that the ideal is unattainable and happiness
mediocre’.30 Julia Kristeva maintains that Swann’s imagined love for Odette
starts the moment he dissociates her from her real body, with its many
defects, and replaces it with the virgin Zipporah: the ‘chair abîmée’ becomes
a ‘museum piece’ with which he has a sexual relationship.31
Swann begins to construct an artificial Odette when, on his second visit
to her apartment, he is ‘struck by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah,
Jethro’s daughter, which is to be seen in one of the Sistine frescoes’.32 On
that occasion, Odette, ‘not very well’, receives him

in a dressing-gown of mauve crêpe de Chine, drawing its richly

embroidered material over her bosom like a cloak. Standing there
beside him, her loosened hair flowing down her cheeks, bending
one knee in a slightly balletic pose in order to be able to lean
without effort over the picture at which she was gazing, her head
on one side, with those great eyes of hers which seemed so tired
and sullen when there was nothing to animate her’.33

There are distinct echoes of Zipporah in this portrait of Odette, in the

depiction of the hair, and the tilt of the head, the richly embroidered cloak-
like garment, the pose and the eyes.
Swann’s feelings for Odette are, from that moment, developed and
regulated uniquely through the intermediary of art and especially Botticelli’s
Zipporah. He had created an artificial woman. ‘He placed on his study table,
as if it were a photograph of Odette, a reproduction of Jethro’s daughter’.34
This must be a reproduction of Ruskin’s copy of Zipporah, isolated from the
rest of the Biblical story (as Odette is presented out of context, without a
family or a past) and which was reproduced, in black and white, as a
frontispiece to Volume XXIII, published in 1906, of The Complete Works of
John Ruskin, edited by Cook and Wedderburn, and which Proust owned.
Proust’s mother had already given him the Cook and Wedderburn set so far
published for his New Year’s present in January 1905. Proust had on several
occasions praised the magnificent pictures in these volumes.35 Was the
absence of colour in the Odette-Zipporah metaphor, apart from the
reference to the mauve dressing-gown, due to the fact that Proust was basing
his observations on the black-and-white reproduction? Proust never visited
Rome: neither did he see Ruskin’s original watercolour copy.
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 73

Swann reconstructs Odette à la Zéphora and gazes ‘in admiration at the

large eyes, the delicate features in which the imperfection of the skin might
be surmised, the marvellous locks of hair that fell along the tired cheeks’.36
In this extreme form of iconolatry, Swann is overcome by fetishism as
Zipporah becomes both a visual representation and a reincarnation of Odette
as Swann takes hold of Zipporah-Odette and grasps her close to his heart. In
this moment of illusionary physical possession, Swann’s desire for Odette is
realised and a kind of compensatory mechanism is released: ‘The vague
feeling of sympathy which attracts one to a work of art, now that he knew the
original in flesh and blood of Jethro’s daughter, became a desire which more
than compensated, thenceforward, for the desire which Odette’s physical
charms had at first failed to inspire in him’.37 The more Swann looks at the
black-and-white reproduction of Botticelli’s Zipporah, the more he believes
he is in love with Odette: ‘When he had sat for a long time gazing at the
Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed even
lovelier still, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he
would imagine that he was holding Odette against his heart’.38 This is not
dissimilar to Ruskin’s absolute desire to read Athena in Zipporah, and vice-
versa, and beneath this surface mask can be substituted the name and
personage of Rose La Touche. For Zipporah had certainly been an object of
desire or at least flirtation for Ruskin, clearly evident in his letters to Joan
Severn in which Zipporah is an ‘enchantress’, a ‘pretty Zipporah’ who should
‘make some people jealous’.39 Ruskin writes in a sexually explicit way
revealing his repressed sexual desires: he confesses that he has ‘nearly driven
[himself] quite wild today with drawing little Zipporah’s chemisette’ with his
urge to see Zipporah’s breasts.40
And vice versa, the more Swann looks at Odette’s face, the more he

remarked Odette’s resemblance to the Zipporah of ... Botticelli ...

He no longer based his estimate of the merit of Odette’s face on
the doubtful quality of her cheeks and the purely fleshy softness
which he supposed would greet his lips there should he ever
hazard a kiss, but regarded it rather as a skein of beautiful,
delicate lines which his eyes unravelled, following their curves
and convolutions, relating the rhythm of the neck to the effusion
of the hair and the droop of the eyelids, as though in a portrait of
her in which her type was made clearly intelligible.41

After the face, Odette’s entire body is imbued with Botticelli’s Zipporah, as
perfection incarnate: ‘[Swann] stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco
74 Cynthia J. Gamble

were apparent in her face and her body, and these he tried incessantly to
recapture thereafter, both when he was with Odette and when he was only
thinking of her in her absence; and, although his admiration for the
Florentine masterpiece was doubtless based upon his discovery that it had
been reproduced in her, the similarity enhanced her beauty also, and made
her more precious’.42 Odette is becoming more and more unreal, as she is
transformed from cocotte into a Botticelli maiden, in what Richard Bales
described as a ‘rush for substitutes’.43 The magic contained in the words
‘Florentine masterpiece’ enabled Swann ‘like a title, to introduce the image
of Odette into a world of dreams and fancies which, until then, she had
been debarred from entering, and where she assumed a new and nobler
In the confines of Odette’s carriage, as it rumbles along a Paris street,
Swann’s first physical contact with this ‘tart [and] a kept woman’45 who feigns
coyness and virginity, is also conducted through the metaphor of Botticelli’s
paintings of women:

[Swann] ran his other hand upwards along Odette’s cheek; she
gazed at him fixedly, with that languishing and solemn air which
marks the women of the Florentine master in whose faces he had
found a resemblance with hers; swimming at the brink of the
eyelids, her brilliant eyes, wide and slender like theirs, seemed on
the verge of welling out like two great tears. She bent her neck,
as all their necks may be seen to bend, in the pagan scenes as well
as in the religious pictures.46

On other occasions, when Swann, metaphorically transformed by

Proust as a blind, mythical unicorn,47 is listening with enhanced hearing to
Vinteuil’s sonata with its little phrase being played over and over again,
‘vilely’48 on the piano by Odette, she

would look at him sulkily, and he would see once again a face
worthy to figure in Botticelli’s Life of Moses; he would place it
there, giving to Odette’s neck the necessary inclination; and when
he had finished her portrait in tempera, in the fifteenth century,
on the wall of the Sistine, the idea that she was none the less in
the room with him still, by the piano, at that very moment, ready
to be kissed and enjoyed, the idea of her material existence, would
sweep over him with so violent an intoxication that, with eyes
starting from his head and jaws tensed as though to devour her,
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 75

he would fling himself upon this Botticelli maiden and kiss and
bite her cheeks.49

Odette-Zipporah creates a dialectical tension in Swann: on the one hand he

wants to treat her as a virgin; on the other hand his carnal appetite, his desire
to rape and violate her as an object (the museum piece to which I have
already referred) are overwhelming.
Swann felt many misgivings about Odette at the beginning of their
relationship, regarding ‘the quality of her face, her body, the whole of her
beauty’, which were constantly revived at ‘the mere sight of her in the flesh’;
however, ‘those misgivings were swept away and that love confirmed now
that he could re-erect his estimate of her on the sure foundations of aesthetic
principle’.50 So making love to Odette, which for Swann ‘would have seemed
natural and but moderately attractive’, now takes on a different dimension
and as if ‘to crown his adoration of a masterpiece in a gallery, ... [became]
supernaturally delicious’51 in the supreme act of consummation like the
Perpetual Adoration in the Mass.
To cope with Odette’s secret life when she is not with Swann, he
suppresses its very existence by means of painting, so that it becomes ‘with
its neutral and colourless background, like those sheets of sketches by
Watteau upon which one sees here, there, at every corner and at various
angles, traced in three colours upon the buff paper, innumerable smiles’.52
So Swann weaves a fantasy world of his ‘love’ for Odette, built solely
on his imagination and the superimposition of Zipporah onto Odette and
substitution of Odette for Zipporah. It is a fragile delusion destined to lead
to disappointment. The metamorphosed Odette is imbued with qualities that
she does not and can never possess: ‘an inestimably precious work of art, cast
for once in a new, a different, an especially delectable metal’.53 Swann enjoys
the romantic idea of being in love, for he ‘was once more finding in things,
since he had fallen in love, the charm that he had found when, in his
adolescence, he had fancied himself an artist; with this difference, that the
charm that lay in them now was conferred by Odette alone’.54 By being in
love, Swann feels that he acquires an identity.
Proust is severely critical of Swann for debasing a work of art to elevate
both the idea of love and a woman with a dubious past and present. Although
Swann has found erotic, yet ephemeral excitement via Zipporah, he has
failed to plumb the meaning of the original painting—in fact he has not even
tried. Similarly, he has failed to comprehend the layers of personality that
comprise Odette. Swann has failed because he is a diletante and aesthete,
with a fine knowledge of art which he squanders. The fact that Swann, this
76 Cynthia J. Gamble

‘célibataire de l’art’,55 is condemned to a sterile life and early death from

cancer serves to emphasize his wasted and artistically barren life. There is a
chilling analogy with Proust’s early life.
This fantasy world serves to conceal the true identity, to Swann, of
Odette, a woman without a past. As George Stambolian commented: ‘By
comparing Odette with Zipporah Swann attempts to hide her different
reality’.56 This also confuses the reader’s perception of his character, thus
paralleling life itself and the problems of identity and communication. Swann
too deliberately conceals his identity from Odette—he wears a mask, as he
does on so many other occasions such as during his visits to the narrator’s
family in Combray, and when at the Verdurins’. Like Zipporah, Odette is an
amalgam of contradictory and contrasting tendencies, such as her bi-
sexuality and unclear sexual orientation, her ugliness and charm which co-
exist and create tension.
Botticelli’s Zipporah and Ruskin’s copy of Zipporah had a crucial role
in the development of Swann’s love affair with Odette, by inciting and
inflaming Swann’s desires, yet at the same time creating a screen which
concealed the true nature of the woman.

V. M I S S S A C R I PA N T —O D E T T E

To what extent does Swann know Odette through the mediation of

Zipporah? Swann marries an imagined Odette–Zipporah without a known
past that he can reconstruct, like the façade of a building without foundations
and rooms. In a later volume of Proust’s novel, Within a Budding Grove,
Odette’s hidden past will be revealed through the medium of another
painting, not Zipporah, but Miss Sacripant, and through the vision of the
fictitious artist, Elstir.
The events take place many years before Swann in Love when Proust’s
polymorphous/polytemporal narrator, as an adolescent, visits Elstir’s studio
for the first time. His attention is caught by one painting in particular,
entitled Miss Sacripant and dated October 1872. It is a painting of a young
woman ‘in a close-fitting hat not unlike a bowler, trimmed with a ribbon of
cerise silk; in one of her mittened hands was a lighted cigarette, while the
other held at knee-level a sort of broadbrimmed garden hat .... On a table by
her side, a tall vase filled with pink carnations’.57 As the young narrator
looks, his doubts grow and he wonders whether ‘the strange attire of a female
model is her costume for a fancy-dress ball, or whether, ... the scarlet cloak
which an elderly man looks as though he had put on in response to some
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 77

whim of the painter’s is his professor’s or alderman’s gown or his cardinal’s

cape’. The older narrator posits an explanation for the uncertainty: ‘The
ambiguous character of the person whose portrait now confronted me arose,
without my understanding it, from the fact that it was a young actress of an
earlier generation half dressed up as a man’. But the younger narrator,
standing in front of the watercolour, is confused by the fact that ‘the bowler
beneath which the hair was fluffy but short, the velvet jacket, without lapels,
opening over a white shirt-front, made me hesitate as to the period of the
clothes and sex of the model, so that I did not know exactly what I had before
my eyes, except that it was a most luminous piece of painting’.58
The sexuality of the person oscillates, revealing the androgynous
nature of Odette: her sexuality does not have fixed boundaries, as in many of
Elstir’s seascapes. This transvestite costume is worn by a young actress, with
‘the lines of the face [along which] the latent sex seemed to be on the point
of confessing itself to be that of a somewhat boyish girl, ... vanished, and
reappeared further on with a suggestion rather of an effeminate, vicious and
pensive youth, then fled once more and remained elusive’.59
The contrast between ‘the dreamy sadness in the expression of the
eyes’ and the provocative costume ‘belonging to the world of debauchery and
the stage’ disturbed the young narrator who could only interpret the facial
expression as ‘feigned’ in order ‘to enhance the provocation’.60
The contemplation is abruptly and unexpectedly interrupted by Mme
Elstir, at which moment Elstir hastily and furtively hides this painting of a
woman with whom he had had a relationship. It is some time later before the
moment of revelation when the young narrator utters: ‘It couldn’t be Mme
Swann before she was married?’61 Elstir’s stunning silence spoke loudly, for
‘the portrait was indeed that of Odette de Crécy’.62
The very title of the painting suggests the sitter’s connections with the
world of the Music Hall where it was fashionable to use the title Miss,
implying a degree of titillating erotica. Miss Sacripant was also the stage
character that Odette played in Paris when she was introduced to Swann by
the homosexual, and previously married, Baron de Charlus. The name
Sacripant is derived from the Italian male character Sacripante in Boiardo’s
Orlando innamorato and has now acquired the meaning in French of a ‘rogue’
or ‘good for nothing’. Through the choice of name, the bisexuality is very
explicit, but hidden owing to its connotations with the world of fashion and
the Music Hall.63 The Miss also suggests the unmarried status of the subject,
or at least the implied status in this case for Odette de Crécy was the
estranged wife of the Comte de Crécy, and enables the subject sexual
freedom of choice, if so desired, without the constraints of marriage.
78 Cynthia J. Gamble

It was Odette’s unclear and ill-defined sexuality that tortured Swann

during his pursuit and courtship: he suspected her of lesbian proclivities and
he also suspected her of relationships with other men. Both counts he found
impossible to prove, yet his instincts were correct. In the course of Proust’s
novel, the truth about Odette and her dubious past would gradually unfold
and would reveal that Swann’s doubts were well-founded. Yet the truth about
Odette’s inner self had been captured by the artist Elstir, and read and
understood correctly by the narrator–writer of In Search of Lost Time who had
deciphered the portrait of Miss Sacripant. Elstir had succeeded in
discomposing the contrived, superficial appearance of Odette, what Proust
calls the ‘artificial harmony’,64 to reveal her multiple layers and the harsh
truth she wished to dissimulate.
After the publication of Du Côté de chez Swann, Proust revealed in an
interview with André Arnyvelde in 1913: ‘I have tried to imitate life, where
the unsuspected aspects of a person suddenly reveal themselves to our eyes.
We live next to beings whom we think we know. What is lacking is the event
that will make them suddenly appear different from the way we know
them’.65 The event that revealed to the narrator unsuspected facets of
Odette was seeing Elstir’s painting of Miss Sacripant. The event that
revealed to Ruskin the critical role of Botticelli was the conjunction of two
unexpected things, the Etruscan olive branch on the Badia in Fiesole and in
Botticelli’s paintings.


Botticelli’s Zipporah was enigmatic for Ruskin and for Proust’s Swann.
Whereas Ruskin, the real-life art critic, provides an in-depth analysis and
interpretation through Athena, bringing out the tension of the dialectical
nature of the painting, its conjunction of two civilizations, religions, yet at
the same time expressing continuity, Swann is unable to delve deeply and to
interpret Zipporah as a Renaissance masterpiece; he uses this painting solely
to obtain ephemeral satisfaction in love. Swann’s is a fruitless act of idolatry
and one which will be severely reprimanded and condemned by Proust. It is
the adolescent narrator in Proust’s novel who experiences a moment of
revelation when, through his critical abilities, he identifies Miss Sacripant as
Odette de Crécy.
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 79


1. This is an extended version of a lecture given to the Ruskin Programme,

University of Lancaster on 12 February 1998. I am grateful to Professor Robert
Hewison for the initial invitation and to all members of the Ruskin Programme who
contributed to the stimulating and challenging discussion that followed the seminar.
2. Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse (eds), The Diaries of John Ruskin,
1835–1889 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956), p. 175.
3. Ibid., p. 173.
4. The Ruskin Foundation, (The Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster)
[hereafter RF ], 880.
5. The Biblical quotations throughout are from the authorised King James
version of The Holy Bible.
6. For a discussion of the role of the well, see A. Abécassis, La Pensée Juive, vol.
1. Du Désert au Désir (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1987), pp. 78–82.
7. It is interesting to note that his shoes appear more comtemporaneous with
the time of Botticelli than with that of Moses.
8. For a discussion of Ruskin’s copying of sheep, see Cynthia Gamble,
‘Ruskin’s sheep’, in The Ruskin Programme Bulletin, no. 16 (University of Lancaster,
April 1998), pp. 13–15.
9. I am grateful to The Ruskin Foundation for permission to consult the
manuscripts in The Ruskin Library, and to compare the manuscript with the Diaries
edited by Evans and Whitehouse. The only obvious small change in the diary quoted
above is the fact that Ruskin does not underline Zipporah, italicized in Evans and
10. E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn (eds), The Complete Works of John Ruskin,
in 39 vols (London: George Allen, 1903–12). This edition will, henceforth, be
referred to as cw, followed by the volume number and the page(s); ibid., XXXVII, p.
11. CW, XXII, p. 427.
12. Ibid., XXIII, pp. 265–79.
13. Ibid., pp. 269–70.
14. Ibid., p. 479.
15. Ibid., p. 275.
16. Reproduced, in reverse, in CW, XX, p. 242, pl. IV. The woodcut was
produced by Burgess, who no doubt cut it from a drawing Ruskin made, hence
Ruskin’s reference to ‘my woodcut of the Attic Pallas’ (ibid., XXIII, p. 479). The Neck
Amphora, reference GR 1837.6–9.28 (E268), is in the Canino Collection, in Room 11,
at the British Museum. It is about 2 feet high, and has been dated as c. 480 BC. It is
from Nola in Southern Italy.
17. Ibid., pp. 478–9.
18. Ibid., p. 479.
19. Ibid.
20. Jeanne Clegg and Paul Tucker, Ruskin and Tuscany (Sheffield: Ruskin
Gallery, Collection of The Guild of St George in association with Lund Humphries,
1993), p. 112.
21. CW, XXIII, p. 479.
80 Cynthia J. Gamble

22. Cynthia Gamble, ‘Proust–Ruskin perspective on La Vierge Dorée at

Amiens Cathedral’, Word & Image, IX/3 (1993), pp. 270–86.
23. CW, XXVII, p. 347; Fors Clavigera, letter 20, August 1872.
24. CW, XXVII, p. 347.
25. For example, Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art, 4th edn
(London: Thames & Hudson, 1994 [1970]), p. 407.
26. CW, XXVII, p. 347.
27. Ibid.
28. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. I. Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott
Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (London: Chatto &
Windus, 1992), p. 460.
29. Ibid., 1, pp. 459–60.
30. Ibid., p. 267.
31. Julia Kristeva, Le Temps sensible, Proust et l’expérience littéraire (Paris:
Gallimard, 1994), p. 42.
32. Moncrieff and Kilmartin, In Search of Lost Time, 1, p. 267.
33. Ibid., p. 267.
34. Ibid., p. 270.
35. Correspondance de Marcel Proust, 21 vols, vol. 5, ed. Philip Kolb (Paris:
Plon, 1970–93, vol. 5 1979), p. 42; IV, p. 326, n.3: VI, pp. 75–6.
36. Moncrieff and Kilmartin, In Search of Lost Time, 1, p. 270.
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid.
39. Manuscripts quoted in Clegg and Tucker, Ruskin and Tuscany, p. 94.
40. Ibid.
41. Moncrieff and Kilmartin, In Search of Lost Time, 1, pp. 268–9.
42. Ibid., p. 269.
43. Richard Bales, Proust: A la Recherche du Temps perdu. Critical Guides to
French Texts (London: Grant & Cutler, 1995), p. 57.
44. Moncrieff and Kilmartin, In Search of Lost Time, 1, p. 269.
45. Ibid., p. 288.
46. Ibid., p. 280.
47. Juliette Hassine, Esotérisme et Ecriture dans l’æuvre de Proust (Paris: Minard,
1990), pp. 143–55.
48. Moncrieff and Kilmartin, In Search of Lost Time, 1, p. 284.
49. Ibid., p. 286.
50. Ibid., p. 269.
51. Ibid., pp. 269–70.
52. Ibid., p. 289.
53. Ibid., p. 270.
54. Ibid., p. 287.
55. Marcel Proust, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu [edition publiée sous la
direction de Jean-Yves Tadié, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade] (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), p.
56. George Stambolian, Marcel Proust and the Creative Encounter (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 128.
57. Moncrieff and Kilmartin, In Search of Lost Time, II, p. 494.
A Ruskinian Enigma Approppriated by Marcel Proust 81

58. Ibid.
59. Ibid., p. 495.
60. Ibid.
61. Ibid., p. 508.
62. Ibid., p. 509.
63. Jean-Yves Tadié, Marcel Proust (Paris: NRF Gallimard, 1996), p. 496, n.2.
64. Moncrieff and Kilmartin, In Search of Lost Time, II, p. 509.
65. Quoted by Stambolian, Marcel Proust, p. 245. The text of the interview is
in Philip Kolb and Larkin B. Price (eds), Marcel Proust: Textes Retrouvés (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1968), p. 222.

Proust’s japonisme:
Contrastive Aesthetics

N o detail is single in Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu, that “stately

cycle of repetition,” as Henry Sussman termed the novel. Large motifs and
minute details recur, in patterns that establish a duologue of particular and
general, layering thematic constructs and interweaving such rhetorics of
stratification as those of law, science, ethnicity (Sussman 213–3). The
particular is freighted with thematics and, since Proust’s protagonist is also
an apprentice learning his art, the largest aesthetic themes inform the least
detail. As Sussman suggests, aspects of an orchid or a brothel, for instance,
fit into the intertwined narratives of heterosexual and homosexual romances.
These in turn interrelate to “comprise entire counter-systems of thought and
structuration operational throughout the text,” and produce, among other
things, parables of reproduction and autofecundity, or models of writing
To read the Recherche as counter-systems of thought in this way is
particularly useful when considering one pattern of details that has rarely
been noted in the Recherche: Proust’s many references to Japanese arts. Jean
Rousset has shown how the allusions to the Mille et une nuits, those childhood
tales fantastically free of the time-space constraints of canonical French
fiction, provide Marcel with a literary model, first encountered on the dinner
plates at Combray and only much later understood as a prose alternative to

From Modern Language Studies 29, no. 1 (Spring 1999). © 1999 by Northeast Modern Language

84 Jan Hokenson

realist fiction. However, to assume that every reference to “orient” indicates

“Proche-Orient” is to miss the parallel pattern of allusions to the “Extrême-
Orient” of Japanese visual arts. Proust’s larger, overarching structure
combines both sets of Oriental arts, the Arab tales and the Japanese arts, into
a counter-system of non-European aesthetics active throughout the text.
The Japanese allusions in particular function contrastively to highlight the
impasse in canonical Western aesthetics (thus replicating the Impressionists’
experience in discovering ukiyo-é, the Japanese prints) and to reveal to
Marcel new possibilities for writing.
Klaus Berger describes a moment of stylistic crisis in Western painting
at the end of the illusionist or mimetic tradition (with Renoir, for example,
admitting, “I had come to the end of Impressionism .... I was in a blind alley,”
2). Like Gabriel Weisberg and Siegfried Wichmann, Berger depicts japonisme
as a sudden visual influx of completely new and original form, prompting
“the recognition, admiration, adoption, and reinterpretation of an Eastern
way of seeing” (3). When the first woodblock prints arrived in Paris in about
1862 they set off a wave of enthusiasm for Japanese art that crested decades
later, moving out from the ateliers to sweep across Europe like a craze in the
fin-de-siècle. Impressionism, the poster movement, art nouveau, were
currents in the widening stream of japonisme.1 The first prints were dazzling:
the strange discordant compositions, the brilliant reds and yellows, the
simple stylized figures, the odd cropping and silhouetting, the indifference to
frame, the decentered perspective, the bold overlays and transparences.
Edmond de Goncourt was the first to realize that the phenomenon known as
japonisme was far more than a fashion. Contemporaries described it as the
discovery of a new aesthetic continent, and Goncourt pronounced it a
revolution in European aesthetics. Today art historians echo Klaus Berger’s
judgment that japonisme was a shift of Copernican proportions, marking the
end of European illusionism and the beginning of the modern.2
Like the painters, whom they often defended in art reviews and
criticism, writers also exulted at the “new” Japanese art. Huysmans extols
things Japanese in A Rebours. Zola praises the woodblock as “naturaliste” in
“Le Naturalisme au Salon,” and incorporates Japanese prints into Au
Bonheur des dames and L’Oeuvre. The Goncourts’ painter-protagonist in
Manette Salomon tries and fails to equal the art of the prints, and Les Frères
Zemganno among other texts contains pointed reference to Japanese
artworks.3 But Proust overshadows all such precedents in his magisterially
reflexive use of the Japanese aesthetic.
Through the three thousand pages of the Recherche, the monumental
dimensions of Proust’s novel are so vast and complex that they often seem to
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 85

conceal, beneath the brilliant details of French social comedy, Marcel’s

purpose of aesthetic innovation. During the fictional years of apprenticeship,
learning the lessons of the traditional and the new French painters,
composers, and writers, Marcel despairs of ever finding a subject for a unique
literary creation of his own, until at the final Matinée he discovers
unconscious memory, then metaphor, then a method for rendering this text
as his book of human subjectivity in Time. By that point most readers have
forgotten that in “Combray” the entire verbal edifice emerged, in metaphor,
from a single cup of tea, and that the only analogy for the process—and the
implied aesthetic—was Japanese:

comme dans ce jeu où les Japonais s’amusent à tremper dans un

bol de porcelaine rempli d’eau, de petits morceaux de papier
jusque-là indistincts qui, à peine y sont-ils plongés, s’étirent, se
contournent, se colorent, se différencient, deviennent des fleurs,
des maisons, des personnages consistants et reconnais sables, de
même maintenant ... l’église et tout Combray et ses environs, tout
cela qui prend forme et solidité, est sorti, ville et jardins, de ma
tasse de thé. (I.47–48)

The narrator had been struggling in vain to pinpoint his memories,

wondering whether the past would ever reach the clear surface of his
consciousness. It is not surprising that Proust invokes Japanese arts at
perhaps the single most crucial moment in the novel. Thereafter the whole
relationship—memory, metaphor, genre—remains to be worked out. But it
is here, at the gateway to the “recherche,” in the first full operation of
involuntary memory, that Proust constructs a japoniste metaphor for the
bringing to consciousness. The Japanese porcelain bowl is homologue to the
modernist’s cup of linden tea. As becomes clear in the course of the novel,
what matters most in this scene, aside from the initiatory invocation of the
Japanese aesthetic, is the sudden transformation of banal matter (paper bits)
magically metamorphosed into a new order of reality, at once imaginative,
imagistic, and in fluid motion. As figure for the man’s art, this is a Japanese
child’s game, preface in metaphor for a French childhood resurrected from
time and given living reality in art, in the equally fluid elements of
consciousness and language.
Proust weaves the vast tapestry of the Recherche with such japoniste
allusions. Readers have usually levelled the orientalisms together as historical
markers of the era 1880–1915, to show that Proust accurately chronicles the
popular fancies of his age.4 With both Odette and Albertine slinking in
86 Jan Hokenson

kimonos, Madame Verdurin crowing about her “salade à la japonaise,” even

Monsieur de Norpois ranting about Bergotte’s “chinoiseries de forme,” one
can easily dismiss it all as yet another modernist’s Orientalism, trite and
faintly racist. Previously, however, in the 1920’s when japonisme was still
prevalent in Paris arts and literature, William Leonard Schwartz included
the Recherche in his survey of Far-Eastern similes by French writers, The
Imaginative Interpretation of the Far East in Modern French Literature:
1800–1925 (1927). He too saw Proust as primarily a social chronicler and
complimented his historical accuracy (in 1879 Odette’s apartment teems with
Oriental bric-à-brac, in 1887 she mixes Japanese lanterns and silks with
Chinese procelains and French eighteenth-century furniture, and by the end
of the Dreyfus affair she has only French eighteenth-century décor). But
Schwartz added that “Proust, like Goncourt and Huysmans, makes
occasional use of similes which depend for their effect upon an acquaintance
with Japanese art” (106), quoting two examples without further comment.
And indeed it would have been difficult for Proust not to have encountered
Japanese art. It was pervasive in a variety of forms in the salons he visited,5
in the concerns of Le Mensuel, La Revue Blanche, and other reviews he wrote
for,6 in the lives and the work of painters, composers, friends he used as
models for his own characters.7
Young Proust in 1890 sent japoniste comic verses to his friends,
including the more somber “Ton esprit, divin Chrysanthème” (Cahier Marcel
Proust 120), which is a noteworthy bit of japonaiserie only because it shows
Proust engaging, as more than passive spectator, in the Belle-Epoque craze
and casting his engagement into a proto-japoniste quatrain. Proust personally
went to at least one japoniste painter’s studio, Vuillard’s atelier in Cabourg
(the original of Elstir’s “laboratoire”), and Vuillard made a drawing, now lost,
of Proust, Montesquiou, and Delafosse at dinner in the Bois in 1903.
Japanese artistic interests were so strong among these groups circulating
around Montesquiou, Painter reports, that the Comte de Gruffulhe’s
patriotism (and probably homophobia) was outraged. “‘They’re a lot of Japs,’
he said, meaning esthetes” (I.149).
As a young man Proust was surrounded by things Japanese, and, from
the evidence of his novel, learned to discern basic principles of the aesthetic.
His good friend Marie Nordlinger, the Englishwoman who helped him
translate Ruskin, worked on Japanese cloisonné and enamels in Bing’s atelier
(Cahier Marcel Proust 191n).8 Proust was devastated when Nordlinger left
France for America in 1905 to arrange exhibits of Japanese prints for Bing
(Painter II.25). She often sent Proust Japanese gifts from the gallery when he
was feeling particularly ill, and he was fascinated by them. It was she who
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 87

gave him the cut-paper pellets to immerse in water. “Proust was suffering
from asthma, and this ‘fluvatile and inoffensive spring, these miraculous and
hidden flowers’ touched him profoundly, amid the desolation of the season
he dared not see, with a memory of seasons buried in childhood. ‘Thanks to
you,’ he wrote, ‘my dark electric room has had its Far-Eastern spring’” (qtd
Painter II.15). He was so impressed with the bonsai that in 1907 he ordered
three more from Bing’s when struggling to write a review of Anna de
Noailles’s Les Éblouissements. In that review and later in his novel (III.130), he
alludes to the bonsai as emblems of the immensity that can be held within a
single line of poetry. Proust concisely and accurately identifies their chief
aesthetic property when he replies to Nordlinger, “the Japanese dwarf trees
at Bing’s are trees for the imagination” (qtd Painter I.3). In the review he

Je ne sais si vous me comprendrez et si le poète sera indulgeant à

ma rêverie. Mais bien souvent les moindres vers des
Éblouissements me firent penser à ces cyprès géants, à ces sophoras
roses que l’art du jardinier japonais fait tenir, hauts de quelques
centimètres, dans un godet de porcelaine de Hizen. Mais
l’imagination qui les contemple en même temps que les yeux, les
voit, dans le monde des proportions, ce qu’ils sont en réalité,
c’est-à-dire des arbres immenses. Et leur ombre grande comme la
main donne à l’étroit carré de terre, de natte, ou de cailloux où
elle promène lentement, les jours de soleil, ses songes plus que
centenaires, l’étendue et la majesté d’une vaste campagne ou de la
rive de quelque grand fleuve.9

Why does Proust even mention Hizen (the Kyushu region famous for
Japanese procelain), the provenance of the ceramic container? What matters
to him is the conjunction of nature and art. The small tree, shaped to
resemble the giant cypress, is set or based in the finest example of Japanese
porcelain artistry. As art the bonsai is greater than nature because free of time
(in “ses songes plus que centenaires”), set in art to invite the imagination to
recreate the centuries-old cypress in the mind. And even as nature the bonsai
is less than “real,” being an iconic representation of the other, greater reality
of the giant tree. The art of bonsai, particularly its dual essence as art-nature,
induces in Proust in 1907 a “rêverie” which he will continue to develop in his
contrastive aesthetics in the Recherche.10
Among the leading Impressionists who were fervent japonistes, Proust
singled out Whistler, Moreau, and especially Monet. In the 1890s, in
88 Jan Hokenson

Monet’s period of serial paintings, Proust was quite ill but he made an effort
to attend the Monet exhibit at the Durand-Ruel gallery, and as late as 1907,
during Monet’s period of water-lily paintings (and in the same year as the
visit to Vuillard’s studio), Proust still hoped to visit Monet and his garden at
Giverny.11 In the Recherche Proust uses Monet’s work as model for Elstir’s studies of
cathedrals and Normandy cliffs and for his own descriptions of water-lilies on the
Vivonne. One of Monet’s rare explanatory comments on his work, made to La Revue
Blanche’s art critic Roger Marx about the water-lily studies, indicates the aesthetic
perspective that Proust shared and developed in the novel: “If you insist on forcing me
into an affiliation with anyone else for the good of the cause, then compare me with
the old Japanese masters; their exquisite taste has always delighted me, and I like the
suggestive quality of their aesthetic, which evokes presence by a shadow and the whole
by a part .... The vague and indeterminate are expressive resources that have a raison
d’être and qualities of their own; through them, the sensation is prolonged, and they
form the symbol of continuity” (qtd Berger 312).
Like Monet’s, Proust’s japonisme proceeds not from specific artworks or
even art forms. It is rather an affiliation with an entire aesthetic, and it is
rendered as such in the novel, in cumulative allusions and reflexive import.
Proust embraces particularly the evocative power of suggestion, the
rendering of fugitive impressions, the crucial blanks or incompleteness—
indeterminacies opening imaginative possibilties (for narrator and reader),
and the sensory appeal in swift delicate strokes of line and color. Proust is
astute at mining the comparative possibilities of Japanese arts, the prints and
paintings in particular, and the subtlety and complexity of his allusions reflect
Marcel’s progress as the proto-artist. Marcel’s japoniste initiation into a new
aesthetic, probably mirroring Proust’s own experience, is not as overt as the
structured allusions to Saint-Simon, Racine, and the rest of Marcels’
pantheon of French writers. For it is less exclusively literary, thus less
intimately webbed with Marcel’s specifically literary ambitions, and is more
connected to other arts, as an inter-arts phenomenon, that is, an aesthetic.
Marcel is something of a pilgrim through his European heritage, beginning
with Giotto and the gothic cathedrals and proceding through the centuries
to Anatole France and the Impressionists. Proust positions the Recherche as
the acme of European arts and Marcel as the literary innovator. The Japanese
aesthetic appears intermittently, working like a counter-system to clarify the
limitations of Marcel’s inherited Occidental aesthetics.

Proust’s japonisme operates at two levels in the Recherche, in discourse and in

story, to use Emile Benveniste’s terms. As in the scene of the madeleine, the
deft japonisme in the narrator’s own discourse is reflexive of the text’s large
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 89

goals as artwork in its own right, and occurs chiefly in Combray and Le Temps
retrouvé, in the origins and in the apotheosis of the text. Also, when the
characters comically repeat the worst abuses of the Japanese aesthetic, as in
the Verdurins’ mawkish jokes about “la salade japonaise,” the narrator mocks
mercilessly, as he always derides the mere social uses of art. Like a code
within a code, the comic targets are indexes of value, and form a counter-
discourse to the narrator’s own aesthetic judgment and practice.
At the level of story, the dozens of allusions to Japanese woodcut prints,
paintings, language, gardens, costumes, toys and games, can be sorted into
three types.
First, Proust satirizes the socialites’ frivolous abuses of japonisme,
chiefly in the boudoirs and the salons. Swann is appalled at Odette’s craze for
chrysanthemums but, on his first visit to her apartments, he ultimately lets
himself be inveigled by her Orientalisms, including her silk cushions and her
“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,” I.220). Swann particpates in this travesty of
the Japanese object, and its relation to light, as the narrator suggests by
casting into japoniste allusion his refrain that comfort and art are
incompatible. As lover, Marcel replicates Swann in dithering over the
beloved’s inane enactments of the worst abuses of the Japanese aesthetic
which, again, is invoked at the decisive origin of the affair. Marcel has
scruples but, always attracted to corrupt women and decadent men, “ce qui
me décida fut une dernière découverte philologique” (II.357). He is both
aghast and excited by her corrupt speech, including the worst gibberish from
Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème (“Oui, me répondit Albertine, elle a l’air
d’une petite mousmé”). To Marcel the proto-japoniste writer, the linguistic
hybrid mousmé is like ice in the mouth (“nul [mot] n’est plus horripilant”).
The whole scene burlesques Loti’s colonialist erotics, and Marcel is titillated
despite himself: “Mais devant ‘mousmé’ ces raisons tombèrent ... ” The affair
begins on a distinct note of japoniaiserie. Marcel is more self-aware than
Swann, and he does not participate in Orientalist fakery so much as
manipulate it, remaining, he thinks, superior to its degradations.
A similar set of satiric allusions proceeds from the Verdurins’ salon.
Aside from predictably garbled judgments on such japonistes as Whistler, the
most recurrent travesty concerns the running joke about “la salade
japonaise,” which begins as a silly in-joke, the characters’ coy way of letting
others know they have been to see Dumas fils’ play Francillon.12 But soon we
learn that the Verdurin salad contains western potatoes. It is another
aesthetic hash, on a par with the Japanese porcelains jostling among the
90 Jan Hokenson

Verdurins’ Louis XIII vases, mindlessly making counter-systems inter

changeable. Unschooled in the integrity of French traditions and following
Orientalist fashions, the petit clan degrade both. By the time of the Goncourt
pastiche, this tiresome salad13 had become so hyperbolically Japanese that
even the Verdurins’ potatoes are (in Proust’s satire of Edmond de Goncourt’s
dilettantish japonisme) “des pommes de terre ayant la fermeté de boutons
d’ivoire japonais” (III.712). In the culinary as in the erotic realms (always
subtended by literary targets, chiefly Loti and Goncourt), such witless abuses
of japonisme produce contemptible hybrids and deformations. They enable
amusing satire while contrasting with others’ more serious uses of things
Japanese. Such comic japonisme is clever, and consistently aimed at stupidity
or ignorance, forms of the idolatry of art which entices Swann and which
Marcel learns to disavow.
The second type of japoniste allusion at the level of story occurs among
the artistocrats. Almost everyone but Marcel’s mother, his grandmother, and
the artists Elstir and Vinteuil are guilty of japonisant folly at some point in the
Recherche. The Guermantes characters are just as prey to fashion, although
they are associated with its creative aspects that will engage Marcel. At her
soirée in Le Côté des Guermantes Madame de Villeparisis is painting a japoniste
view, which no one can identify until the Duchesse de Guermantes points out
that it resembles the apple blossoms on a Japanese screen. Later even
Charlus, in a rare creative endeavor that associates him with the artistic
sensibility if not with true painting, paints a fan for the Duchesse, notably a
japoniste scene of black and yellow irises. The Duc and Duchesse de
Guermantes collect paintings from Elstir’s japoniste period, which Marcel
studies in their library. In such ways they exhibit more aesthetic
discrimination in things Japanese than the Verdurins and the lovers.
The third set of allusions, still at the level of story, appears in the
subtext of Marcel’s artistic aprenticeship. These concern the japonisme of the
finest painters of the period, chiefly Whistler, Degas, Manet, Monet,
Moreau, and of course Elstir. They have attained the Japanese “way of
seeing,” in Berger’s phrase, that Marcel is only slowly acquiring. On one
occasion, for instance, just before his first visit to Elstir’s studio, he makes a
(retrospectively) significant association with the prints but foolishly does not
pursue it. In his room at Balbec, lying in bed and musing on the images of
the sea reflected in the glass on the bookcases, Marcel considers the natural
beauty of the sunset over the sea and ponders various artistic analogues. But
he miscontrues the relationship between the world reflected and the
reflections that shift with the light like changing exhibits of paintings:
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 91

Une fois c’était une exposition d’estampes japonaises: à côté de la

mince découpure du soleil rouge et rond comme la lune, un
nuage jaune paraissait un lac contre lequel des glaives noirs se
profilaient ainsi que les arbres de sa rive, une barre d’un rose
tendre que je n’avais jamais revu depuis ma première boîte de
couleurs s’enflait comme un fleuve sur les deux rives duquel des
bateaux semblaient attendre à sec qu’on vint les tirer pour les
mettre à flot. Et avec le regard dédaigneux, ennuyé et frivole d’un
amateur ou d’une femme parcourant, entre deux visites
mondaines, une galerie, je me disais: “C’est curieux, ce coucher
de soleil, c’est différent, mais enfin j’en ai déjà vu d’aussi délicats,
d’aussi étonnants que celui-ci.” (I.804–5)

Wisely, Marcel recognizes the link between the Japanese “couleurs si vives”
and his childhood, but then (“dédaigneux, ennuyé et frivole”) he dismisses
the thought. In the Japanese model, Marcel has just seen for himself that
cloud and lake lack a line of demarcation; this is the famous lesson of the
Elstir seascapes, that water and sky lack a line of demarcation like the two
interchangeable halves of literary metaphor, but Marcel cannot apprehend
the importance of what he is seeing nor of the Japanese association. He
discerns analogies in the seascapes with Monet and Whistler, even noting the
butterfly signature that Whistler developed to mime the Japanese hanka (or
seal). But it is only thirty pages later, after his visit to Elstir’s studio, that
Marcel can assimilate Japanese analogies to his own aesthetic development.
The structure of this visual perception in his hotel room continues to
structure Marcel’s nascent japonisme: vaguely associated with the purity of
childhood impressions and artistic beginnings (of Marcel, and primitively of
Art), it is reflected against books, on the “vitrines de la bibilothèque,” in
interreflections of literature and painting that he alone can make real, in
ultimately writing this book.
Elstir’s fictional career repeats those of Whistler and other
Impressionists, beginning in historical or mythological studies and moving
into an extended period of japonisme, then developing a mature style. Marcel
regrets that none of the paintings in Elstir’s studio reflect his Japanese
period, “celle où il avait subi l’influence du Japon,” which Marcel had read
about in an English art review and which he knows is represented in the
Guermantes’ collection (II.835). His momentary delight at the japoniste
sunset, when he was unable to isolate the metaphoric land-water relations
from his own reality, anticipated this aesthetic discovery in the studio. He
sees it clearly in Elstir’s painting of the Port of Carquethuit which
92 Jan Hokenson

“comparant la terre à la mer, supprimait entre elles toute démarcation.”

Proust positions Japanese art as a new way of seeing, which Elstir has already
assimilated in painting and which Marcel intermittently experiences.
In such ways, Proust portrays Belle Epoque japonisme as a social amuse-
ment, grotesque in the worst salons or dilletantish in the best, but always a
fashionable contrast to its concurrent role as formative apprenticeship in
At the level of discourse, it is after this point in A l’Ombre des jeunes filles
en fleur that the narrator’s japoniste practice, initiated in “Combray,” begins to
merge with Marcel’s own artistic reflections. In “Combray,” after ending his
prologue on the japoniste magic of the madeleine, the narrator then moves
immediately into evocations of Combray and its environs, as remembered.
These scenes and sites so impress the child Marcel as to constitute his “moi
essentiel,” and in their description Japanese references evoke (a) a non-
European relation to nature, (b) imaginative activity in the mind, and (c)
evanescence and fugitive impressions in art.
Initially the narrator carries the burden of both Orientalisms, the
Near-Eastern and Far-Eastern, sowing the text with allusions that the child
is too young to understand. Thus for instance in “Combray,” in the long
passages describing the water-lilies on the Vivonne, the narrator lingers over
each color, form, and glint of light in the floating flower-beds. He notes that
in late evening the bed of the stream seems no longer green but blue, “d’un
bleu clair et cru, tirant sur le violet, d’apparence cloisonné et d’un goût
japonais” (I.169). Elsewhere pinks and whites are so clear they seen “lavées
comme de la porcelaine,” and forms are so visible in the clear water they
seem midway between fluidity and fixity in permanent form. The narrator is
practising a literary impressionism that transposes Monet’s “nénuphars” into
text, as such terms as “jardin céleste” and the japoniste allusions suggest, while
rendering the literal impressions Marcel is receiving as those of a generic
“goût japonais.”
Crucial moments in the narrator’s discursive passages on Marcel’s
aesthetic apprenticeship often contain such japoniste allusions. In the moment
when Marcel is still joyous at having experienced the spires at Martinville
dancing free of time-space constraints, and has just initiated his literary
career with his first composition, the narrator notes the boy’s sudden
pleasure at a japoniste vision of apple blossoms silhouetted against the sunset.
But this profound aesthetic joy is inextricably associated with the single most
painful loss in the novel, his mother’s goodnight kiss, and the bridge between
them is again Japanese:
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 93

Mais quand sur le chemin de retour ... il n’y avait plus qu’à
prendre une allée de chênes bordée d’un côté de prés appartenant
chacun à un petit clos et plantés à intervalles égaux de pommiers
qui y portaient, quand ils étaient éclairées par le soleil couchant,
le dessin japonais de leurs ombres, brusquement mon coeur se
mettait à battre, je savais qu’avant une demi-heure nous serions
rentrés et que ... on m’enverrait me coucher sitôt ma soupe prise,
de sorte que ma mère, retenue à table comme s’il y avait du
monde à dîner, ne monterait pas me dire bonsoir dans mon lit. La
zone de tristesse où je venais d’entrer était aussi distincte de la
zone où je m’élançais avec joie, il y avait un moment encore, que
dans certains ciels une bande rose est séparée comme par une
ligne d’une bande verte ou d’une bande noire. (II.182–3)

The narrator depicts the familiar japoniste view of silhouetted blossoms

at sunset as signal for the child’s greatest fear and loss. The “dessin japonais
de leurs ombres” is the hinge between artistic joy and emotional pain, a focal
aesthetic midpoint between these two “zones” that will constitute the dual
worlds of the novel. Proust practises a literary japonisme for its imagery of
indeterminate demarcations. As though to underscore the association, he
continues to elaborate this visual “goût japonais” in the balance of the
passage, using a well-known motif from the woodblocks by Hokusai and
Hiroshige:14 “On voit un oiseau voler dans le rose, il va en atteindre la fin, il
touche presque au noir, puis il y est entré .... Et de la sorte c’est du côté de
Guermantes que j’ai appris à distinguer ces états qui se succèdent en moi ... ”
It is first in japoniste imagery and terms of description that Marcel learns the
essential reality—what he will later term the “vérité profonde”—of his
successive selves. However deeply interior the truths to which they point
him, the japoniste analogues remain pictural and exterior, integral with the
natural scene.
Marcel learns in A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur to use the familiar
spears of apple blossoms in the Japanese manner, keeping a branch in his
Paris room so that he may imagine the trees at Combray. The iconography
of japoniste blossoms and silhouetted light has acquired considerable force by
the time of Marcel’s visit to Elstir’s studio. By the end of Sodome et Gomorrhe
he can instantly perceive how “l’horizon lointain de la mer fournissait aux
pommiers comme un arrière plan d’estampe japonaise” (II.781). In exaltation
at such natural beauty summoning associations with Japanese art, the
aesthetic role of the “estampe japonaise” is now overt, and the associated
sense of pain remains: “Mais elle [cette beauté] touchait jusqu’aux larmes
94 Jan Hokenson

parce que, si loin qu’elle allât dans ces effets d’art raffiné, on sentait qu’elle
était naturelle ... ” The pain in this scene of resplendent springtime,
producing Marcel’s last moment of almost unalloyed joy in nature, procedes
from the knowledge that it will vanish and die because it is not art, even the
Japanese art that catches nature on the wing and in the instant, but nature.
These are the vanishing moments that Marcel must learn to record in
writing (as the narrator is doing in japoniste prose) to preserve them from
time. The allusions to the woodblock prints are increasingly associated with
artistic creation.
It is the narrator who points out in japoniste terms how badly Marcel
blunders with Gilberte on the Champs Elysées (he should have been content
to love her at a distance without worrying whether the image corresponds to
the reality, “imitant ces jardiniers japonais qui, pour obtenir une plus belle
fleur, en sacrifient plusieurs autres,” I.401). In Du Côté de chez Swann Marcel
is too young to envision love like a Japanese garden, which cultivates
representations of absence rather than entrammelling realities.15 But later in
Le Temps retrouvé, by the time he visits Gilberte de Saint Loup at Swann’s old
house (“un peu trop campagne”), it is Marcel who implicitly criticizes her for
not having japoniste wallpaper: “ces grandes décorations des chambres
d’aujourd’hui où sur un fond d’argent, tous les pommiers de Normandie sont
venus se profiler en style japonais” (III.697).
This particular allusion operates, like the wooblock sunset reflected on
the glass at Balbec, to introduce an aesthetic problem and its imminent
resolution. In this scene, Marcel is again musing in bed, on the eve of his
retreat from Paris into a sanitorium, and remembers seeing a sun-splashed
image of the Combray church spire reflected that morning on the bedroom
windowpane. Like the absent japoniste wallpaper that he only imagines, the
Church spire was only an image, yet more real in its suggestiveness than the
actual church, than the florid realistic European wallpaper on the walls:
“Non pas une figuration de ce clocher, ce clocher lui-même, qui, mettant
ainsi sous mes yeux la distance des lieues et des années, était venu ... s’inscrire
dans le carré de ma fenêtre” (III.697–8). He now “sees” imagined and
remembered images as superior ones, and the language for the Japanese
wallpaper and the crucially telescopic Combray spire are interchangeable
(“sont venus se profiler,” “était venu ... s’inscrire”). Marcel is still unaware of
the importance of this perception for his later aesthetic of metaphor as time-
space telescope. Instead of pursuing the thought, he turns to read the Journal
of the Goncourts, and finds it so banal that he abandons his literary ambition.
With Proust’s extraordinary skill at literary mimicry, he could have
used several contemporary writers for the final pastiche. It is no accident
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 95

that, against the background of Marcel’s increasing sophistication in Japanese

aesthetics, he uses France’s leading, if pompous and outdated japoniste.16
Following Marcel’s wide readings in French literature and his disquisitions
on Tolstoy and Dostoevski, the Goncourt Journal brings him to the
European literary present and notably to the first instance in the Recherche of
literary japonisme. The Loti was only burlesqued, but the Goncourt is
ostensibly quoted. As Jean-Yves Tadié says, this “pastiche le plus important ...
confronte deux moments du temps, deux mondes, deux esthétiques [la
littérature classique et le roman proustien], deux genres littéraires” (606). As
such a focal moment in the apprenticeship, the Goncourt pastiche is also the
last bit of satirical japonaiserie and the main literary link between Marcel’s
story and the narrator’s japoniste discourse. The narrator uses their ham-
fisted japonisme as an index of the Goncourts’ failure as writers to reach
deeper truths about the social comedy and to discern aesthetic value.
The Goncourt text inverts the basic features of japonisme. The first
indication occurs immediately, when the Goncourts dither over Verdurin’s
book on Whistler by praising the surface “joliesses.” Then they adore the
way the Verdurin table is decorated, “rien qu’avec des chrystanthèmes
japonais,” and of course the Japanese salad, even its presentation on Chinese
plates. Most telling, by contrast with Marcel’s later reflections, Proust has the
Goncourts comparing the light effects of sunset on Trocadero buildings to
pink pastries (III.712). The pastiche scrambles some two dozen Orientalist
allusions (including a movable room in the Mille et une nuits) with neither
taste nor any aesthetic discrimination. The Goncourts’ japonisme, far from
adding to French literature new artistic perspectives or methods, is merely
decorative veneer and boring.
The pastiche ends abruptly and, without transition, the narrator
resumes years later, as Marcel is strolling through wartime Paris one evening
during the black-out. The wartime prologue introduces the novel’s final
section, leading to Marcel’s apotheosis as an artist in his own right, and its
first long (three-page) paragraph is largely a function of literary japonisme.
The Japanese allusions are prominent not only in Marcel’s visual
apprehensions of the capitol but also in his French and European aesthetic
references articulating what he sees in artistic terms.
The first sentence adapts a familiar motif from Hokusai, that of small
dark smudges against a distant sky which, upon close examination, are
revealed to be birds in flight (III.734). But then these smudges become
airplanes. The japonisme once restricted to natural beauty now obtains in the
wartime city. Moonlight now silhouettes buildings and trees—not in the
precious Goncourt style of a social japonisme producing pink pastries, but
96 Jan Hokenson

actually “en style japonais,” in an authentic transposition of the Japanese

aesthetic to the scenes of Paris in snow and this entire “vision d’Orient”
(III.737). The emphasis is no longer on resplendence but on simplicity,
purity of line and form, spare vivid contrasting colors, delicacy of method,
and suggestion of unstated essence; moreover, the Japanese aesthetic is allied
with the European, in one mature dual vision:

Les silhouettes des arbres se reflétaient nettes et pures sur cette

neige d’or bleuté, avec la délicatesse qu’elles ont dans certaines
peintures japonaises ...

The focus on “nettes et pures” is exact and aesthetically accurate, as is the

balance of the passage equilibrating the japoniste silhouettes with those
familiar from the high backgrounds in Italian Renaissance painting:

... ou dans certains fonds de Raphaël; elles étaient allongées à

terre au pied de l’arbre lui-même, comme on les voit souvent
dans la nature au soleil couchant ...

The silhouetted trees again “s’élèvent à intervalles réguliers,” but on a city


une prairie paradisiaque, non pas verte mais d’un blanc si éclatant
à cause du clair de lune qui rayonnait sur la neige de jade, qu’on
aurait dit que cette prairie était tissue seulement avec des pétales
de poiriers en fleurs. (III.736)

Like a pendant to the narrator’s first extended japoniste prose in “Combray,”

on the fluid water-lilies of the Vivonne with their effulgent sunlight and with
their Dantesque undertones, this is a glacial landscape approaching fixity, not
infernal now but paradisiacal, dazzling in its simplicity and grace. The white
pear blossoms and the “neige de jade” keep the aesthetics of the japoniste
perspective clear, as does the rest of the long description of icy fountains,
starkly silhouetted houses, the woman at the window, ending on “le charme
mystérieux et voilé d’une vision d’Orient.” Taken out of context, the final
words are often cited as an allusion to the Arab tales, but they are an integral
part of Proust’s japonisme in which the aesthetic of the Japanese prints
amplifies Marcel’s vision. Marcel now commands the entirety of his aesthetic
heritage, which includes the japonisme that trained Elstir’s vision and has now
helped train his.
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 97

Following immediately after the Goncourt pastiche, overleaping years

left in silence or in literally blank space on the page, this extended passage
counters it like a rebuttal. This is what japonisme can do in verbal art: reunite
scattered motifs in a tight iconography of seeing and rework them in a new
vision of a cityscape compounded of anterior thematics, from Combray to
Balbec and from natural images to refined artifice, lending the modern writer
the amalgamated vision of East and West for use in his own unique creation.
As Marcel proceeds to the Matinée, fully prepared for the discoveries he is
to make, there are no more Japanese allusions until the novel recommences,
coming to consciousness in the japoniste cup of tea.
In the modernist round of the novel, then, Proust’s japonisme serves
subtly and recurrently to advance the apprentice’s progress preparatory to
the writing of this text. In society, in love, in paintings and in artworks, the
diverse japonisme of other characters trains his eye and challenges his
aesthetic and literary judgment to develop an authentic “goût japonais.” The
narrator’s prose japonisme in “Combray” is painterly, imbedding the boy’s
first strong visual and emotional impressions, and his first efforts at writing,
in visual imagery often derived from the prints. Certain iconic images, such
as japoniste apple blossoms and silhouetted trees, later reappear in typically
Proustian fashion, threading childhood memories through adult impressions
and, increasingly, artistic reflections. Isolated japoniste views, including
seascapes and sunsets, grow in intensity and complexity until Marcel learns
to plumb, rather than dismiss their uniqueness in his visual and artistic
experience. In artistic method, indeterminacy holds the lesson of metaphor.
Contrast offers a depiction of successive selves. Suggestion reflects the truth
of imaginative completion of absent wholes from parts. Throughout his
japonisme Proust stresses two continuous refrains, an emotional sadness in
pain at impending loss (associated with the evanescence of beauty in nature)
and an imaginative reconstruction of absent or concealed essence, that is,
anticipatory grief and retrospective creation. In both cases, as in the Recherche
as a whole, Japanese art delicately depicts natural beauty that is completed by
the mind in revery, first on the artwork then on itself. Proust’s several uses of
japoniste imagery reflected on glass recapitulate in graphic terms the mental
process, the inward turning from Japanese art which is always positioned
between nature and imagination.
Many elements fuel Marcel’s apprenticeship, and japonisme is only a
minor vein running through the whole. The care and consistency with which
Proust deploys it, however, signal its importance to the text’s primary artistic
aims and methods. To miss Proust’s japonisme can lead to skewed readings,
particularly of such focal components as the madeleine, the Vivonne, the
98 Jan Hokenson

wartime prologue. In her fine analysis of oral elements in the teacake, for
instance, Julia Kristeva notes the Japanese metonymy but like most readers
overlooks its artistic import, and instead infers a geographical function aimed
at establishing a maximum distance between the birthplace and a foreign
country (Kristeva 48–9). Several such puzzling references fall into place once
Japan is recognized as the provenance of a new aesthetic—not only to the
Impressionists but also to Marcel. Such Japanese allusions work together to
build a counter-system to the impasse Marcel has reached in his heritage as
a modern Western writer.
The artist-figures, for instance, rise or fall in japoniste terms. Because
Marcel must become the only great writer, the literary equivalent of Elstir in
painting and Vinteuil in music, Marcel twice repeats that the painter spent
years studying Japanese art (the second time occurs apropos of the
Guermantes collection, when Marcel reiterates that Elstir “avait été
longtemps impressionné par l’art japonais,” II.125). But the novelist Bergotte
is not allowed a japoniste period, being instead insistently associated with
mere “chinoiserie.” Norpois refers to his “chinoiseries de forme,” and even
the “petit pan de mur jaune” in the Vermeer painting, which exposes to him
his own limitations as a writer, is likened to a specimen of Chinese art,
revealing to Bergotte the pointlessness and aridity of all art, including his
own. It is again Norpois who dismisses such “symboliste” writing (in terms
once used by Proust) as hothouse products of Mallarmé’s chapel.17 Bergotte
and the previous generation are relegated to an arid Orientalism, quite
notably not japoniste. Ultimately, it is the literary figures who matter most to
Marcel’s success. Proust positions him to succeed where others fail,
dismissing Bergotte’s Orientalism as superficial and mocking the
“horripilant” japonisme of his most celebrated predecessors in this vein, Loti
and the Goncourts. Unlike them, but like Elstir, Marcel enjoys a true
japoniste apprenticeship. He learns the “way of seeing” present in Japanese
arts, and integrates it into his own novelistic vision and historical reflections.
The global aesthetic summa that is the Recherche becomes, in turn, his legacy
as a writer.
Proust’s contrastive use of Japanese arts to articulate Marcel’s aesthetic
originality helps explain, I think, why some readers find the Recherche
“Buddhistic.” Paul Claudel, French ambassador to Japan (1921–27) and a
literary japoniste himself, was the first to note that Marcel’s posture toward
nature recalls religious properties of the Japanese aesthetic. In 1912, in the
course of explaining the concept of mono no aware in Japanese painting and
poetry, Claudel wrote:
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 99

[La nature] tremble à tous moments sur la limite de l’ineffable! Il

s’agit de la surprendre à l’instant voulu, si fragile! .... C’est ce que
certains mystiques japonais appellent le sentiment du Ah! en
anglais le Ah! awareness. (Il y a aussi certains pages à ce sujet dans
l’oeuvre de Marcel Proust.)18

Marguerite Yourcenar called the Recherche “cette oeuvre si bouddhiste, par la

constation du passage [du temps], par l’émiettement de toute personnalité
extérieure, par la notion du néant et du désir ... ”19 Yourcenar recognized
that such observations are useful only to a point, and that most Buddhists
would dispute such basic Proustian concepts as “la psychologie dans l’espace”
or the ontic function of metaphor. Recently, however, the art historian Yann
Le Pichon has suggested that Marcel’s rapt attention to the natural object
(such as the hawthorns) might be the result of Zen teachings in “la
disponsibilité intrinsèque du peintre pour s’adonner à l’éveil parfait,” or in
Proustian terms “[au] moi essentiel.”20 Obviously Proust is a major figure in
the shift from mimetic to affective poetics in French narrative. But I doubt
that he actually considered the Buddhist metaphysics underlying Japanese
aesthetics, beyond perhaps general queries about the notion of an impersonal
subject.21 At the least, however, it is certain that in A la Recherche du temps
perdu Proust uses the formal properties of the Japanese aesthetic
contrastively, to challenge outworn mimetic assumptions and to point the
way for new ambitions in French literature.


1. Philippe Burty coined the word in his article “Japonisme” (La Renaissance
artistique et littéraire [May 1872] 25–6) to designate “a new field of study” in Japanese
art and aesthetics (see Weisberg xi). Although popular usage today scarcely
differentiates between terms, art historians make the useful distinction that japonisant
designates someone who collects or studies Japanese arts without creatively
reworking them, and japoniste denotes someone who applies Japanese principles and
models in Western creative works. Thus the gallery-owner Durand-Ruel was a
japonisant but Monet was a japoniste. Champfleury coined the noun japoniaiserie in
1872 as a pejorative term for what he considered mindless popular enthusiasm for
Japanese arts and curios, but the only surviving pejorative is japonaiserie; thus
Toulouse-Lautrec “did not lapse into mere japonaiserie.” See Berger 210.
2. See Edmond de Goncourt, Journal for 9 April 1884; Berger 1–2.
3. The only extensive survey of such Japanese allusions by French writers is
William Leonard Schwartz’s The Imaginative Interpretation of the Far East in French
Literature: 1800–1925 (Paris: Champion, 1927) which is primarily a catalogue of
100 Jan Hokenson

similes and includes mention of Huysmans and the Goncourts’ Les Frères Zemganno.
In 1981 Elwood Hartman amplified Schluartz’s Japanese section in his article
“Japonisme and Nineteenth-Century French Literature” (Comparative Literature
Studies 18.2 [June 1981]: 141–66). Earl Miner surveyed British writers’ usage in The
Japanese Tradition in British and American Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1958).
More recently, Michel Butor sketched a few French writers’ ideas of Japan in Le Japon
depuis la France (Paris: Hachette, 1995). After the present article was completed, Yann
le Pichon published a short meditation “L’Influence du japonisme dans l’oeuvre de
Proust” (Revue des Deux Mondes [October 1996]: 125–39), outlining a notion of
Proust’s inspiration by Zen; see note 19 below.
4. In 1997, while this article was in press, Luc Fraisse published his
monograph Proust et le japonisme (Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg,
1997) showing in fine detail the japonisant milieu of Paris in the Belle Epoque
(Fortuny gowns, Gallé glass) as social background to the novel; Fraisse does not
pursue Proust’s use of the Japanese aesthetic as a whole, primarily because of what he
considers Proust’s habitual mixture of Orients—Japanese, Persian, Chinese—and
consequent absence of an “emploi exclusif du motif japonais” (37).
5. For instance, it was at Hélène Bibesco’s salon that he met Pierre Loti (whom
young Proust had proclaimed his favorite novelist—along with Anatole France,
another japonisant—and who was the author of the wildly popular Madame
Chrystanthème) and that he regularly talked with the japoniste painters Bonnard and
Vuillard (Painter I.54, 57, 195). So reverent was his admiration for the great japoniste
Whistler, one of the originals for Elstir, that Proust surreptitiously kept a pair of
gloves the painter had left behind after their meeting at Méry Laurent’s villa. She and
her famed lovers, Degas then Mallarmé, had become “converted,” says Painter, “to
Japanese art,” and Proust was not the only one who went to the villa to meet the
leading practitioners of japonisme (Painter I.218, Tadié 308).
6. For example, during the period when Proust was a member of the rédaction
of Le Mensuel (November 1890 to September 1891) the review published, among
other japonisant pieces, an article in July of 1891 by Proust’s friend Raymond Koechlin
about Edmond de Goncourt’s new book Outamaro (Tadié 144 n.4). It was Félix
Fénéon, long-time editor of La Revue Blanche, who coined the phrase “Bonnard
japonard,” and who directed many of the japonisant interests of the review; see Joan
Ungersma Halperin, Félix Fénéon, Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, New
Haven: Yale UP, 1988: 232–4.
7. Robert de Montesquiou, for example, had been a noted collector of
Japanese art since first encountering it at the Exposition of 1878, schooling his taste
with the advice of Heredia, the Goncourts, and Sarah Bernhardt, as he recounts in his
memoirs Les Pas effacés. Montesquiou created a notoriously effete “oriental” sanctum
in his apartments on the Quai d’Orsay, possessed a wealth of fine Japanese artworks
plus five major books of Japanese art history by the 1920’s, and employed the
gardener Hata to build a Japanese garden at his later residence in the Rue Franklin,
which Proust often visited, and then another at Versailles. (See Montesquiou 118,
123, 181–4, 216–24; Schwartz 92–3). Montesquiou is remembered less for such
japonisant poems as “Thérapeutique” than for other writings and his role as literary
model to Huysmans and Proust.
8. Samuel Bing was the leading importer of Japanese art from about 1874 to
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 101

1914, as well as owner of one of the finest, and most often exhibited, private
collections of classical and modern Japanese art in Paris; it was he who founded the
influential review Le Japon artistique (1888–91). Proust apparently bought Japanese
artworks from Bing’s as gifts, including “une garde de sabre pour [Robert de] Billy”
(Tadié 424). See Gabriel Weisberg. Art Nouveau Bing: Paris Style 1900, Catalogue for
the travelling Smithsonian Exhibition, New York: Abrams, 1986.
9. Proust’s review “Les Éblouissements par la comtesse de Noailles” was first
published in Le Figaro (15 June 1907), and reprinted in Nouveaux Mélanges in 1954;
the text quoted here is from Proust, Essais et articles, ed. Pierre Clarac and Yves
Sandre, Paris: Gallimard, 1994, pp.229–41:237. Proust notes that one poem so well
renders sensation, “fugace” but prolonged in the text, that it seems to him “une des
plus étonnantes réussites, le chef-d’oeuvre peut-être, de l’impressionnisme littéraire”
(my emphasis, 239).
10. Without referring to the bonsai metaphor, Jean-Yves Tadié suggests that
this review of Eblouissments “contient une esthétique,” based on metaphor used as
“impressionnisme littéraire,” quoting the review: “c’est la métaphore qui ‘recompose
et nous rend le mensonge de notre première impression,’ la comparaison qui
‘substitue à la constation de ce qui est, la résurrection de ce que nous avons senti (la
seule réalité intéressante)’” (Tadié 581–2).
11. At Giverny Proust would have seen the Japanese bridge over the water-
lilies, not to mention the hundreds of Japanese prints that still hang in the painter’s
house. There is no record of whether Proust ever carried out this intention; see
Painter I.207, II.94; Tadié 598. Monet began the water-lily studies around the turn of
the century, exhibited some of them periodically in Paris then many of them in Paris
in 1909, and completed them in 1922. On Proust’s relations to the painters, see the
still useful study by Maurice Chernowitz, Proust and Painting (NY: International
University Press, 1945), and Marine Blanche’s Poetique des tableaux chez Proust et chez
Matisse (Birmingham, AL: Summa, 1996).
12. In this play from 1887, at a dinner party one character asks why the salad
is called “la salade japonaise,” and receives the comic reply, “Pour ce qu’elle ait un
nom; tout est japonais, maintenant” (Act I, Scene 2)
13. This mise en abîme, of the Verdurins’ Japanese salad within a pastiche of a
famous japoniste describing the Verdurin’s Japanese salad, is a common structure in
Proust’s passages on artworks. See Peter Collier, “La mise en abyme chez Proust,” in
Philippe Delaveau, ed., Ecrire la peinture (Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1991)
14. The Japanese motif of the bird flying from shadow into light or vice versa
was used by several French painters and by such writers as the Goncourts in Manette
Salomon and Paul Claudel in L’Oiseau noir dans le soleil levant. Other common motifs
include the eddying waters, the cresting wave, the silhouetted blossoms, the bridge,
the snow-dusted branch, the alighting bird, the slanting rain; on such motifs, see
Wichmann 74–153.
15. The narrator replicates this japoniste lesson in La Prisonnière, with love
letters and a kimono. After Marcel watches Albertine sleeping, he stares at her
kimono draped over a chair; the interior pocket contains her letters, and Marcel is
alternately desperate to read them and fearful of discovering proof of her infidelities,
“Mais (et peut-être j’ai eu tort) jamais je n’ai touché au kimono .... ce kimono qui
102 Jan Hokenson

peut-être m’eût dit bien des choses” (III.73–4). The contrasting Japanese
associations, around the two women and two sets of letters, measure the distance
from childish hopes to cynicism.
16. Jules and Edmond de Goncourt were prominent collectors of Japanese art
and defenders (inventors, they once claimed) of japonisme, as described in their
autobiographical La Maison d’un artiste; following Jules’s death, Edmond de Goncourt
published Outamaro, le peintre des maisons vertes (1891) and Hokousaï (1896). See
Hubert Juin, “Préface” to Edmond de Goncourt, Outamaro, Hokusaï (Paris: Union
Générale d’Editions, 1986) 5–16. Although they were early pioneers in the japonisant
movement along with Félix Braquemond and Philippe Burty, they disliked modern
japoniste painting and were soon sidelined as interpreters of the Japanese aesthetic by
Louis Gonse, Samuel Bing, Henri Focillon and others less committed to the
Goncourt’s focus on the miniature and the exotic. See Berger, Wichmann; also
Deborah Johnson, “Reconsidering Japonisme: The Goncourts’ Contribution,” Mosaic
24.2 (Spring 1991): 59–71.
17. In “Contre l’obscurité,” originally published in La Revue Blanche (15 July
1896), Proust inveighs against the willed obscurities of the Symbolists; rpt in Proust,
Essais et articles 86–91.
18. Paul Claudel, Oeuvres en Prose, eds. Jacques Petit and Charles Galpérine,
coll. Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1965): 524.
19. Letter of Marguerite Yourcenar to Jean Mouton (7 April 1968), Yourcenar
Archive, Harvard University; qtd. in Elyane Dezon-Jones, “De l’universalité des
influences: un écrivain peut en cacher un autre,” in Maria Jose Vazquez de Parga, ed.,
L’Universalité dans l’oeuvre de Marguerite Yourcenar. 2 vols. Tours: Société
Internationale des Etudes Yourcenariennes, 1994 and 1995; II [1995]. 23–33: 32
20. Yann Le Pichon’s brief essay on “L’Influence du japonisme dans l’oeuvre
de Proust” (Revue des Deux Mondes [October 1996]: 125–39), appearing after the
NEMLA session on Proust and the completion of this article, cites some additional
letters referring to Japanese art, some references in Jean Santeuil, mentions Odette’s
furnishings, but focuses on the japonisme of the Impressionists as Proust’s models and
on the Zen-like “émotions esthétiques” of Marcel in nature. Le Pichon perhaps
overstates the case for Zen in Proust, but clearly the Japanese concept of the artist as
translator of affect into signs of the natural world merits consideration in studies of
Proust’s aesthetic ideas. As Le Pichon says, Proust’s japonisme is a “sujet quasi inédit
et pourtant évident” (125).
21. For a discussion of Japanese “affective-expressive” poetics, versus Western
mimetic traditions, see Earl Miner, Comparative Poetics: An Intercultural Essay on
Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990)


Berger, Klaus. Japonismus in der westlichen Malerei: 1860–1920. Munich: Prestel-

Verlag, 1980. Trans. David Britt. Japonisme in Western Painting From Whistler to
Matisse. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics 103

Butor, Michel. Le Japon depuis la France. Paris: Hatier, 1995.

Cahier Marcel Proust 10: Poèmes, ed. Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier. Paris:
Gallimard/NRF, 1982.
Kristeva, Julia. Proust and the Sense of Time. Trans. Stephen Bann. New York:
Columbia UP, 1993.
Le Pichon, Yann. “L’Influence du japonisme dans l’oeuvre de Proust.” Revue des Deux
Mondes (October 1996): 125–39.
Martins Janeira, Armando. Japanese and Western Literature, A Comparative Study.
Tokyo: Tuttle, 1970.
Montesquiou, Robert de. Les Pas effacés. 3 vols. Paris: Emile-Paul, 1923.
Painter, George D. Marcel Proust: A Biography. 2 vols. NY: Random House, 1959.
Proust, Marcel. A la Recherche du temps perdu. 3 vols. Eds. Pierre Clarac and André
Ferré. Paris: Pléiade/Gallimard: 1954
Rousset, Jean. Forme et signification. Paris: Jose Corti, 1984.
Schwartz, William Leonard. The Imaginative Interpretation of the Far East in Modern
French Literature: 1800–1925. Paris: Champion, 1927.
Sussman, Henry. The Hegelian Aftermath: Readings in Hegel, Kierkegaard, Proust, and
James. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.
Tadié, Jean-Yves. Marcel Proust. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
Weisberg, Gabriel et al. Japonisme: Japanese Influence on French Art 1845–1910.
Catalogue for the Exhibition, Cleveland, 1975. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum
of Art, 1975. Rpt 1988.
Wichmann, Siegfried. Japonisme. Trans. Olivier Séchan. Paris: Chêne: 1982.

Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia

Y ou 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

From Raritan 19, no. 2 (Fall 1999). © 1999 by Raritan: A Quarterly Review.

106 Susan Stewart

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
Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia 107

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
108 Susan Stewart

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 nonbeing into time experience: subjects
have awareness of the past no longer lived and of a future not yet lived. By
introducing nonbeing 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
Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia 109

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
110 Susan Stewart

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
Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia 111

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.
112 Susan Stewart

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 sleep-walks 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 this cult of grief
for our dead, we pay an idolatrous worship to the things that they loved.”
Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia 113

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
114 Susan Stewart

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 goodnight, 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
Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia 115

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
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 antisemitism 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
116 Susan Stewart

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
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
Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia 117

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
118 Susan Stewart

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
Proust’s Turn from Nostalgia 119

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.

Orpheus and the Machine: Proust as Theorist

of Technological Change, and the Case of Joyce

L egend has it that when Orpheus sang and played his lyre, not only fellow
mortals but also trees and rocks, even wild beasts, were stirred by the sublime
sounds he produced. After the premature death of his young wife Eurydice,
the grieving hero descended to the netherworld in the hope of rescuing her.
He sang so beautifully that Hell was moved; even the Furies were
spellbound, shedding tears for the first time. Orpheus was allowed to take
Eurydice away with him on one condition, that both of them refrain from
looking back until they had reached the land of the living. Walking in silence,
they had almost reached the upper world when Orpheus wanted to ensure
that his beloved was still behind him. He turned around; his gaze met hers.
“See, again the cruel Fates call me back,” Eurydice cried, “and sleep seals my
swimming eyes. And now farewell!” She vanished from sight, absorbed for
the second time by the regions of the dead. For months on end, Orpheus
roamed the world voicing his grief, but in vain. His fate was sealed when the
women of Thrace tore his body to pieces and threw the limbs into a river. In
Virgil’s rendering of the myth, Orpheus’ head floated down the current, his
“disembodied voice” calling “with departing breath on Eurydice—ah, poor
Eurydice!” Whereupon the banks echoed: “Eurydice, Eurydice.”1
The Orpheus myth revolves around love and death, around the powers
of the gods and the vanity of humans, but it also tells a story about the eye

From Forum for Modern Language Studies 37, no. 2 (April 2001). © 2001 by Oxford University

122 Sara Danius

and the ear: about the all-pervasive desire to look and the deadly power of
the gaze, about the pleasures of listening and the animating power of the
voice. In short, it is an allegory of the senses and, hence, of aesthetics.2
Throughout the history of aesthetic discourse, sight and hearing have been
privileged over taste, smell, and touch. Sight and hearing are more readily
disposed to abstraction, and this is partly why they have enjoyed such
prominence in the history of aesthetics. According to Hegel, for example,
sight and hearing are essentially theoretical senses. For this reason, they are
also ideal senses. Taste, smell, and touch, by contrast, are practical senses.
They involve consumption of the work of art in one way or other, and this
must not be, for Hegel thinks of the work of art as an ideal site where spirit
(Geist) and matter intersect. A privileged blend of pure sensuousness and
pure thought, exteriority and interiority, art for Hegel is the sensuous
objectivation of spirit. Consequently, only the eye and the ear are capable of
respecting the integrity and freedom of the work of art. Of sight and hearing,
however, hearing is the most ideal sense. It is the ear, and the ear only, that
may establish the ideal correspondence between the inner subjectivity of the
perceiver and the spiritual interiority of the object perceived. In this way, the
perceiving subject receives and so in a sense corresponds to the object whose
ideal, because spiritual, interior is mediated by the sounds it emits. Unlike
the eye, then, the ear succeeds in apprehending both material objectivity and
interiority, all at once.
Such an idealist theory of aesthetic perception is circumscribed by a
long philosophical tradition—the metaphysics of presence. Consequently, it
is also marked by a certain historicity. Discussing Hegel’s hierarchy of the
senses, Jacques Derrida suggests that Hegel could not imagine the machine,
that is, a machine that functions by itself and that works, not in the service
of meaning [sens], but rather in the service of exteriority and repetition.3
Derrida does not state it explicitly, but it is clear that after the advent of
devices for reproducing sound, the sense of hearing can no longer be thought
of as a priori ideal. Devices such as the telephone and the phonograph strip
sound of what Hegel would call its soulful interiority, and the sensory
experience of acoustic phenomena henceforth has to resort to an ever-
reproducible exteriority. Of course, the same is true of sight: its assumed
ideality is exploded in the wake of inventions such as photographic means of
recording visual data. In short, from now on the potentially sublime
operations of the eye and the ear know an internal cleavage.
Few early twentieth-century writers have dramatised this aesthetic
crisis as effectively as Marcel Proust. Describing the advent of modern
technology, from the telephone and electricity to the aeroplane and the
Proust as Theorist of Technological Change 123

automobile, Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927) offers numerous

reflections on how technology affects human experience, particularly sensory
experience.4 The film-maker Raul Ruiz’s adaptation of Proust, Time Regained
(1999), is particularly sensitive to these aspects of Proust’s tale. Ruiz even
invents scenes not to be found in the novel: in one sequence, the young
narrator operates a film camera, as though the entire novel springs out of a
cinematographic vision; in another, Vinteuil’s sonata is broadcast over a so-
called théâtrophone, a popular telephone service that served to transmit music
performances to listeners in the privacy of their home.
But Proust’s novel more than dramatises technological change; it also
delineates a psychology of such transformation, a psychology that may be
grasped as a theory in its own right. I am thinking, in particular, of two
episodes in The Guermantes Way (1920–21), the one revolving around a
telephone conversation, the other reflecting upon photography. Read
together, these episodes offer a meditation on the historicity of habits of
listening and seeing.
Proust as theorist? Such a perspective has been elaborated before.
Malcolm Bowie, in his brilliant study of the epistemology of jealousy in
Remembrance of Things Past, maintains that Proust’s novel is “one of the most
elaborate and circumstantial portrayals of the theorising mind that European
culture possesses”.5 And Siegfried Kracauer, in his widely influential Theory
of Film (1960), approaches Proust as theorist of photography, basing his
ontology of the photographic image in an analysis of the episode where
Proust’s narrator reflects upon how he beholds his grandmother with a
photographic eye.6 But Proust as theorist of technological change? Surely
nothing could be further removed from the great themes of the novel: the
primacy of involuntary memory, the priority of subjective time, and the
virtues of immediate sensory experience. Yet, such a perspective alerts us to
the richness and intelligence that inform Proust’s book, demonstrating that
vast portions of it hardly fit into that famous cup of tea. The second
advantage—and this is what I shall dwell on in this essay—is that the theory
embedded in Proust’s episodes on telephony and photography yields a
convenient point of departure for distinguishing the complex ways in which
technologies of perception help reconfigure habitual ways of listening and
seeing in the modernist period at large and, ultimately, how such change
makes available new sensory domains that open themselves to artistic
exploration, particularly in the realm of the novel. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a
case in point. Indeed, to juxtapose Proust and Joyce, as I propose to do in this
essay, is to historicise some of the most characteristic formal aspects of
Joyce’s 1922 epic.
124 Sara Danius

Proust’s telephone episode relates the narrator’s very first telephone

conversation with his adored grandmother.7 Transported across vast
distances, from Paris to Doncières, her voice hits his ear as though for the first
time—“a tiny sound, an abstract sound”.8 What amazes the narrator is that
although the two of them are spatially separated, their conversation is
simultaneous; indeed, despite the spatial distance, they share one and the
same temporality. Put differently, the aural impression of the grandmother’s
voice fails to coincide spatially with the visual impression of her bodily
presence. For the narrator, this insight is deeply unsettling, and it
immediately acquires symbolic proportions. But it also awakens the theorising
mind whose speculative intelligence animates long stretches of Remembrance
of Things Past. Turning around the dissociation of the eye and the ear, of what
can be seen and heard, the uncanny experience triggers a Proustian
psychology of telecommunication that stretches over half a dozen pages:

It is she, it is her voice that is speaking, that is there. But how far
away it is! [ ... ] A real presence, perhaps, that voice that seemed
so near—in actual separation! But a premonition also of an
eternal separation! Many were the times, as I listened thus
without seeing her who spoke to me from so far away, when it
seemed to me that the voice was crying to me from the depths out
of which one does not rise again, and I felt the anxiety that was
one day to wring my heart when a voice would thus return (alone
and attached no longer to a body which I was never to see again),
to murmur in my ear words I longed to kiss as they issued from
lips for ever turned to dust. (REM 2: 135 / RTP 2: 432)

In short, the narrator discovers his grandmother’s voice. Detached and

disembodied, it hits him in all its baffling abstraction. Meanwhile, he also
realises that he used to identify what he now perceives as “voice” by matching
it with her face and other visual features. It is a dialectic moment, for what
henceforth appears as having been an organic system of signification has just
been sundered; and at the same time, this horizon of signs stands before him,
suddenly and visibly revealed, now that it has been lost: “for always until
then, every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been
accustomed to follow what she said on the open score of her face, in which
the eyes figured so largely; but her voice itself I was hearing this afternoon
for the first time” (REM 2: 135 / RTP 2: 433).
Proust as Theorist of Technological Change 125

The narrator discovers not merely his grandmother’s voice; now that
he perceives her “without the mask of her face”, he also hears, for the first
time, “the sorrows that had cracked [her voice] in the course of a lifetime”.
Dwelling inside her is a figure whom he has never yet apprehended, a figure
inhabited by time. The narrator realises that his grandmother will die, and
die soon, and the psychological impact of this insight is irreversible:

“Granny!” I cried to her, “Granny!” and I longed to kiss her, but

I had beside me only the voice, a phantom as impalpable as the
one that would perhaps come back to visit me when my
grandmother was dead. “Speak to me!” But then, suddenly, I
ceased to hear the voice, and was left even more alone [ ... ]. It
seemed to me as though it was already a beloved ghost that I had
allowed to lose herself in the ghostly world, and, standing alone
before the instrument, I went on vainly repeating: “Granny!
Granny!” as Orpheus, left alone, repeats the name of his dead
wife. (REM 2: 137 / RTP 2: 434)

In this remarkable passage, Proust explicitly inscribes the telephone episode

in the Orpheus myth, thereby reworking the Greek tale in a number of
unexpected yet characteristic ways. Indeed, it is Proust who interprets the
myth, adapting it to the cultural imaginary of the machine age, and not the
other way around. But there is more to the episode. What the narrator
intimates is that a whole new matrix of perceptual possibilities is sliding into
place, one that transforms both the perception of voice (forms of audibility)
and the perception of visual appearance (forms of visibility). In other words,
the narrator perceives her bodily appearance as though for the first time. The
experience of the disembodied voice thus elicits a new understanding of that
bodily entity from which the voice has been detached.
This, indeed, is confirmed by the episode which follows a few pages
later; I shall refer to this passage as the camera-eye episode. Once these two
sections are read in tandem, as I believe they should be, and as I believe
Proust meant them to be, an interesting pattern begins to emerge. The
narrator is on his way to pay his grandmother a visit, compelled to do so by
the telephone conversation and its uncanny revelation of a phantom
grandmother, shaded by her age and future death: “I had to free myself at the
first possible moment, in her arms, from the phantom, hitherto unsuspected
and suddenly called into being by her voice, of a grandmother really
separated from me, resigned, having [ ... ] a definite age” (REM 2: 141/RTP
2: 438). Upon his arrival, the narrator enters the drawing room, where he
126 Sara Danius

finds her busy reading a book. Because she fails to notice his presence, she
appears to him like a stranger. He, too, feels like a stranger, observing her
appearance as he would that of any old woman. To make matters worse, she
appears precisely like that ghostly image which he so desperately wanted to
banish from his mind: “Alas, it was this phantom that I saw when [ ... ] I
found her there reading” (REM 2: 141/RTP 2: 438).
The grandmother has become pure image. Why does this stand out to
his naked eye? Because she has withdrawn her gaze; indeed, it is her failure
to look at her grandson that makes him discover, for the second time, her
double. During the telephone conversation, her eyes and face failed to
accompany her voice, thus anticipating that eternal separation called death.
Here, too, she is shrouded in invisibility, for sitting in the sofa is not the
grandmother but her doppelgänger. Disembodied and deterritorialised, she
literally emerges as a spectral representation of herself. I stress this point
because Proust’s episode shares an affinity with Walter Benjamin’s notion of
the aura. Benjamin approaches aura in two ways: in terms of spatio-temporal
uniqueness, and in terms of the gaze; and these perspectives merge in his
reflections on photography in the 1930s.9 In mechanically reproducing the
visual real, the photographic image strips the object of its unique presence in
time and space; at the same time, photography makes the past look at us,
but—and this is Benjamin’s vital point—we cannot look back. For this
reason, photography is linked to death. Yet there is nothing Orphic in a
photograph. In Benjamin, it is not the gaze itself that is deadly; it is the
failure to meet the gaze of the other that is deadly. The history of the decline
of aura is also the history of an increasing inability to meet the intentional
and unique gaze of the other, be it an object, a human being, or history.
It is therefore all the more interesting that Proust’s narrator, in order
to explain how the uncanny sight of the grandmother was possible, should
draw on the language of photography. Not only does he create an analogy
between himself and a professional photographer; he also proposes that
during those brief moments before his grandmother realised his presence,
his gaze was operating like a camera. The photographic metaphor then
sparks a Proustian essay which sets out to explain why we perceive our loved
ones the way we do, and why these perceptions are always and necessarily
faulty. In the process, Proust the narrator is joined by Proust the
psychologist. Their dialogue shuttles between experience and theory,
between local observations and general laws:

We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated
system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them,
Proust as Theorist of Technological Change 127

which, before allowing the images that their faces present to

reach us, seizes them in its vortex and flings them back upon the
idea that we have always had of them, makes them adhere to it,
coincide with it. How, since into the forehead and the cheeks of
my grandmother I had been accustomed to read all the most
delicate, the most permanent qualities of her mind, how, since
every habitual glance is an act of necromancy, each face that we
love a mirror of the past, how could I have failed to overlook what
had become dulled and changed in her, seeing that in the most
trivial spectacles of our daily life, our eyes, charged with thought,
neglect, as would a classical tragedy, every image that does not
contribute to the action of the play and retain only those that may
help to make its purpose intelligible. (REM 2: 142 / RTP 2:

In order to drive home his point concerning the alienating vision inherent in
the camera, Proust adds yet another example. This scenario, too, rehearses
the contrast between what we expect to see, although we may not have
realised it, and what we actually perceive:

But if, instead of our eyes, it should happen to be a purely

physical object, a photographic plate [plaque photographique], that
has watched the action, then what we see, in the courtyard of the
Institute, for example, instead of the dignified emergence of an
Academician who is trying to hail a cab, will be his tottering steps,
his precautions to avoid falling on his back, the parabola of his
fall, as though he were drunk or the ground covered in ice. So it
is when some cruel trick of chance prevents our intelligent and
pious tenderness from coming forward in time to hide from our
eyes what they ought never to behold, when it is forestalled by
our eyes, and they, arriving first in the field and having it to
themselves, set to work mechanically, like films [pellicules], and
show us, in place of the beloved person who has long ago ceased
to exist but whose death our tenderness has always hitherto kept
concealed from us, the new person whom a hundred times daily
it has clothed with a loving and mendacious likeness. (REM 2:
142 / RTP 2: 439)

In an attempt to explain his grandmother’s sudden alienation before his gaze,

the narrator splits the category of visual perception into two: the human eye
128 Sara Danius

and the camera eye. Marked by affection and tenderness, human vision is
necessarily refracted by preconceptions; and such a lens prevents the
beholder from seeing the traces of time in the face of a loved one. In effect,
the beholder sees not the person, merely his or her preconceived images of
the person, thus continuously endowing the loved one with a “likeness”.
Memory thus prevents truth from coming forward.
The camera eye, on the other hand, is cold, mechanical and
undistinguishing. It carries no thoughts and no memories, nor is it burdened
by a history of assumptions. For this reason, the camera eye is a relentless
conveyor of truth, and so it is that the narrator catches sight of a new person,
hitherto unknown and unseen, who now flashes into the present: “for the
first time and for a moment only, since she vanished very quickly, I saw,
sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick,
vacant, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, a dejected old
woman whom I did not know” (REM 2: 143 / RTP 2: 440). The deadly power
of the photographic gaze has struck the grandmother, that once so familiar
and self-evident being who, like Eurydice on the verge of light, instantly
vanishes from sight and disappears into the shadows. All that is left behind is
a phantom image. To be sure, the narrator’s uncompromising image of his
grandmother is bound to evaporate as soon as she lifts her eyes and
recognises him. Yet for him those seconds have nevertheless hinted at her
impending death. From now on the narrator’s perception of his grandmother
is scarred by her difference from herself. Her persona is split into two, her
uncanny double superimposed upon her seemingly ever-pre-given self.
It should be clear by now just how intricate Proust’s treatment of
technologies of perception is in Remembrance of Things Past. What starts as a
reflection on telephony and the discovery of the disembodied voice ends as a
meditation on photography and how it changes the perception of visual
appearances. In other words, the narrator’s effort to grasp the experience of
speaking to his grandmother on the telephone motivates a psychology of
visual perception as well. Read in this way, Proust offers a germinal theory of
how the emergence of technologies for transmitting sound such as the
telephone paves the way for a new matrix of perception, in which not only
sound but vision also turn into abstract phenomena. What is more, Proust
suggests that the perceptual habits of the eye and the ear begin to function
separately, each independent of the other, each in its own sensory register.
An episode in the last volume of the novel, Time Regained (1927),
testifies to the consequences of such technological change. Set in the mid-
1920s, the scene unfolds at a social gathering where the narrator is
reintroduced to an old friend. The latter expresses delight at meeting again
Proust as Theorist of Technological Change 129

after so many years. A caesura follows, because the narrator, perplexed and
confused, fails to identify the person in front of him, although the voice is
familiar enough:

I was astonished. The familiar voice seemed to be emitted by a

gramophone [phonographe] more perfect than any I had ever
heard, for, though it was the voice of my friend, it issued from the
mouth of a corpulent gentleman with greying hair whom I did
not know, and I could only suppose that somehow artificially, by
a mechanical device [true de mécanique], the voice of my old
comrade had been lodged in the frame of this stout elderly man
who might have been anybody. (REM 3: 985 / RTP 4: 522)

The gentleman’s voice, rising out of the body as though of its own accord, is
here rendered as a non-corporeal, hence foreign, element. It is the
defamiliarising image of the gramophone that so drastically disconnects the
voice from its bodily source. What is more, the mechanical metaphor strips
the old acquaintance of human qualities such as consciousness and agency,
thus reducing him to a non-human entity, indeed, to a thing. These images
serve to underscore the narrator’s insistent efforts to match his perception of
the voice with his perception of the friend’s exterior and, at the same time,
they prefigure his utter inability to do so:

He stopped laughing; I should have liked to recognise my friend,

but, like Ulysses in the Odyssey when he rushes forward to
embrace his dead mother, like the spiritualist who tries in vain to
elicit from a ghost an answer which will reveal its identity, like the
visitor at an exhibition of electricity who cannot believe that the
voice which the gramophone [phonographe] restores unaltered to
life is not a voice spontaneously emitted by a human being, I was
obliged to give up the attempt. (REM 3: 985–6 / RTP 4: 523)

Rich in images and allusions, this passage turns on the tangible discrepancy
between the narrator’s aural impressions and his visual experience. What
marks the representation of this encounter, and what sets it apart from the
telephone scenario, is that the dissociation of the eye and the ear, of what can
be seen and heard, has already happened. The differentiation of seeing and
hearing both precedes and inscribes the narrator’s account of the event.
Whereas the telephone episode contemplated the experience of an abstract
130 Sara Danius

voice and, by implication, how the aural impression of the voice fails to
coincide spatially with the visual impression of the speaking body, this scene
contains within itself the very experiential effects that the previous one
reflected upon. For if the telephone episode ultimately ponders the spacing
of production and reception, of sonic origin and transmission, the present
scenario both presupposes and enacts that logic of spacing. That is to say,
the representation of the narrator’s failure to recognise his friend from long
ago is organised precisely by that matrix of perception—the dissociation of
the eye and the ear, the abstraction and reification of sensory experience—
that the narrator, in The Guermantes Way, took upon himself to grasp and
explain. In effect, then, the representation of the old friend’s voice presumes
the essential internalisation of the very experiential effects that the telephone
and camera-eye episodes set out to chart. The phonographic metaphor
confirms the implicit dialectics at work. In the telephone episode, the
narrator reflected upon the experience of the pure and abstract voice,
intimating that it is enabled by a technology for communicating at a spatial
distance. To this sound machine we may now add the phonograph, a
mechanical device that makes it possible to strip sound not only of its spatial
source but also of its temporal origin.10 From now on, the voice and other
acoustic phenomena are, potentially, subject to endless reiteration and
In this way, then, Proust’s telephone and camera-eye episodes articulate
a theory of how a new division of perceptual labour comes into play, one that
bears on both the habits of the ear and those of the eye. For although each
of these two processes of abstraction may be traced back to its own relatively
distinct technological lineage, their experiential effects—reification,
autonomisation and differentiation—are fundamentally interrelated.
Mutually determining one another, the abstraction of the visual is inherent
in the abstraction of the aural, and vice versa. Meanwhile, as Proust’s own
phonographic imagery demonstrates, the new optical and acoustic worlds
propelled by such technological change open up realms of representation
that readily lend themselves to artistic experiments. From photography to
telephony, from phonography to cinematography: technological
transformation helps articulate new perceptual domains, charging the
modernist call to make the phenomenal world new. Proust’s novel thus offers
a way of understanding the mediated nature of so many characteristic formal
innovations that are to be found in numerous modernist works. Joyce’s
Ulysses offers a particularly rich example.
Proust as Theorist of Technological Change 131


In Ulysses, each sensory organ appears to operate independently and for its
own sake. What is more, each sensory organ, particularly the eye, tends to
perform according to its own autonomous rationality, as though detached
from any general epistemic tasks. “His gaze,” Joyce writes, “turned at once
but slowly from J. J. O’Molloy’s towards Stephen’s face and then bent at once
to the ground, seeking” (U 7.819–20).11 The trivial activity of looking is here
rewritten as an event in itself. To look is no longer a mere predicate to be
attached to a subject; the predicate has been unhinged from the subject and
operates independently, endowed with an agency all its own. By the same
token, voices in Ulysses also tend to lead an utterly independent life,
physiologically as well as syntactically: “The inner door was opened violently
and a scarlet beaked face, crested by a comb of feathery hair, thrust itself in.
The bold blue eyes stared about them and the harsh voice asked:—What is
it?” (U 7.344–7). Or, to take another example: “Miss voice of Kennedy
answered, a second teacup poised, her gaze upon a page:—No. He was not.
Miss gaze of Kennedy, heard, not seen, read on” (U 11.237–40).
The dissociation of the visual and the aural runs through Joyce’s
narrative from beginning to end. Indeed, despite the stylistic variegation that
characterises Ulysses, this feature persists throughout the eighteen episodes of
the novel, coming to the fore especially in the first two episodes,
“Telemachus” and “Nestor”. The opening of “Telemachus” dwells on how
Stephen Dedalus and his two friends Buck Mulligan and Haines rise, chat
and have breakfast in the Martello Tower. The first sentence introduces a
perky Buck Mulligan and how he, “stately” and “plump”, comes down the
staircase. Wearing a yellow dressing gown which flutters round his body like
a priestly mantle, he greets his half-awake friends with loud cries. A few
sentences later, Stephen Dedalus enters the scenario. At the same time, Joyce
introduces a characteristic stylistic device, a trademark visualising technique
which, in various ways and with varying intensity, will be deployed
throughout Ulysses. This is how the implicit narrator details Stephen’s visual
perception of Buck Mulligan: “Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy,
leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking
gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light
untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak” (U 1.13–16).
Within the space of a few paragraphs, the visual representation of
Mulligan, whom we just observed proceeding from the stairhead and into the
room as though in a full-length portrait, has shrunk to a face. In fact, his face
has been turned into a thing which, furthermore, takes on a life of its own.
132 Sara Danius

The horselike face is said to shake and gurgle all by itself, even bless a
somewhat irritated Stephen. Dehumanised and reified, Mulligan’s face floats
like a hairy oval before the reader.
Subsequently, Mulligan brings his shaving utensils to the parapet,
lathers his cheeks and chin, and begins to shave, meanwhile chatting with
Stephen. “His curling shaven lips laughed and the edges of his white
glittering teeth. Laughter seized all his strong wellknit trunk” (U 1.131–3).
Significantly, Joyce does not write that Mulligan is laughing, but that his lips
are; likewise, Mulligan is not seized by laughter, but his stomach is. Joyce
represents Buck Mulligan’s body—that is to say, his lips, teeth and torso—as
responding to external stimuli as though its reactions were mere reflexes,
bypassing the control of some centrally-operating intentionality. Mulligan’s
physical appearance turns into a miniature spectacle before the reader.
The aesthetic effect of such passages, so common in Joyce, depends
upon the differentiation of the human body, whose various parts are then
autonomised and, furthermore, endowed with an agency all their own. In
this introductory episode, as so often in Ulysses, Joyce’s implicit narrator
builds upon a narratological aesthetic that aims at defamiliarisation. The
narrator, one could say, keeps to what he perceives, not to what he knows is
there. In this way, Joyce’s aesthetics reveals deep affinities with that of Proust,
although Joyce pushes that aesthetic program to an extreme.
When Mulligan is about to descend into the tower, leaving Stephen to
ruminate over his dead mother, Stephen’s visual perception of his
roommate’s bodily movement is rendered as it presents itself to his eyes.
Temporarily frozen by the entrance frame through which he is disappearing,
Mulligan’s figure thus appears as an optical outline:

His head halted again for a moment at the top of the staircase,
level with the roof:
—Don’t mope over it all day, he said. I’m inconsequent. Give
up the moody brooding.
His head vanished but the drone of his descending voice
boomed out of the stairhead [ ... ]. (U 1.233–8)

All Stephen perceives is a head. From a visual point of view, Buck Mulligan’s
bodily whole has been bisected by the frame through which he passes. There
is a striking affinity between Stephen’s image and a photographic frame, that
instant freezing of time and movement. From a rhetorical point of view,
Mulligan’s visual Gestalt has been substituted for a synecdoche, his thing-like
head being the sign that stands in for the whole and whose shape can be
Proust as Theorist of Technological Change 133

observed for a few more moments.12 But what, exactly, is the whole, the
The passage suggests that Stephen’s perceptual experience of
Mulligan’s descent is processed in two different registers. On the one hand
there is Stephen’s visual impression, and on the other, the auditory one. Each
is distinct; indeed, each is separate and independent of the other:

Buck Mulligan’s voice sang from within the tower. It came nearer
up the staircase, calling again. Stephen, still trembling at his soul’s
cry, heard warm running sunlight and in the air behind him
friendly words.
—Dedalus, come down, like a good mosey. Breakfast is ready.
Haines is apologising for waking us last night. It’s all right.
—I’m coming, Stephen said, turning.
—Do, for Jesus’ sake, Buck Mulligan said. For my sake and for
all our sakes.
His head disappeared and reappeared. (U 1.281–9)

What is heard is not joined together with what is seen; and what is seen is in
its turn a mere slice of the whole. The multi-sensory hermeneutic horizon,
the all-embracing Gestalt, refuses to take shape. Aligning himself with a
modernist aesthetic that aims to render what is perceived rather than what is
known, Joyce challenges traditional ways of describing movement, gestures
and action, and with them, the idea of “organic” modes of perception. At the
same time, such a pronounced desire to represent what is heard and,
furthermore, to represent it in a register that is radically separate from what
is seen, may usefully be considered in the light of those late nineteenth-
century acoustic technologies that mediate the new matrices of perception,
turning the sense of sight and that of hearing into quasi-ideal senses. Indeed,
Joyce’s mode of representing Stephen’s sharply differentiated sensory
impressions in the Martello Tower scene is refracted through a perceptual
matrix enabled by technologies for transmitting and reproducing the real,
acoustic and visual technologies alike.
No wonder, then, that Joyce’s novel abounds with reified voices and
autonomous eyes. One further example will suffice, drawn from “Nestor”,
the second episode. Stephen is in the classroom teaching his rather unwilling
students history. All of a sudden they are alerted to a sound:

A stick struck the door and a voice in the corridor called:

134 Sara Danius

They broke asunder, sidling out of their benches, leaping

them. Quickly they were gone and from the lumberroom came
the rattle of sticks and clamour of their boots and tongues. (U

This stylistically sophisticated miniature scene serves to characterise

Stephen’s sensory apparatus. Beginning with a voice stripped of its author,
the passage proceeds to render the students’ sudden movements in all their
visual purity, only to close with sounds, more specifically, with the acoustic
phenomena issuing from the lumberroom. Stephen stays behind with one of
the students, Sargent, who needs extra assistance, until

In the corridor his name was heard, called from the playfield.
—Run on, Stephen said. Mr Deasy is calling you.
He stood in the porch and watched the laggard hurry towards
the scrappy field where sharp voices were in strife. [ ... ]
Their sharp voices cried about [Mr Deasy] on all sides: their
many forms closed round him, the garish sunshine bleaching the
honey of his illdyed head. (U 2.181–98)

Represented as thing-like and autonomous entities, the boys’ voices act on

their own, as though bypassing screens such as the cortex, spreading their
sharp vibrations all the way to the veranda where Stephen is standing.
Meanwhile his visual impression of the boys’ appearances fades. Gradually,
they blend into so many optical outlines surrounding the stingy headmaster
whose hair-colour stands out as a sunny exclamation mark.
A monument to the autonomy of the eye and the ear, Ulysses is both an
index and an enactment of the increasing differentiation of sight and hearing
in the modernist period. Joyce’s style thus registers the subterranean effects
of those technological events that Proust reflects upon. Indeed, once we
place Joyce’s mode of representing visual and acoustic impressions alongside
the theory of sensory differentiation and reification embedded in Proust’s
novel, we realise the great extent to which the very experiential effects that
Proust’s narrator contemplates effectively inscribe some of the most
persistent stylistic aspects of Ulysses.
At the same time, the advent of modern technologies of perception
fuels the pre-eminently modernist imperative to “make it new” (Ezra
Pound), and nowhere as palpably as in Joyce. Technology emerges as an
occasion for launching new idioms: it restructures the prose of the world,
Proust as Theorist of Technological Change 135

yielding opaque signatures that demand to be read and decoded. But this also
means that Joyce’s aesthetics of perception comes into being as a solution to
a historical problem—how to recover and represent the immediacy of lived
experience in an age when modes of experience are continually reified by,
among other things, the increasingly powerful emergence of technologies for
reproducing the visual and audible real. In pursuing absolute immediacy,
Joyce’s aesthetics of perception seeks to name the everyday anew; and this is
why, in Ulysses, the imperative to make you see and hear is so often an
aesthetic end in itself, utterly divorced from processes of knowledge and
Joyce’s aesthetics of perceptual immediacy is thus inscribed by a
historically specific discourse where the empirical materiality of the body is
posited as the privileged site of aesthetics and where perception has become
an aesthetically gratifying activity in its own right. Such a discourse, as I have
argued, becomes possible in the period which sees the emergence of
technologies for reproducing the visual and audible real. The high-
modernist aesthetics of perception I have been discussing in this essay thus
feeds on a historical irony that is as palpable as it is inevitable: the more
abstract the world of observation becomes, the more corporeal is the notion
of the perceiver. And this bodily realm is no longer necessarily of a
generalised, transcendental order, as in the aesthetic theories of, say,
Baumgarten, Kant and Hegel. Indeed, the sensory body is no longer a
universal notion. Rather, the aesthetic now tends to be located in a particular
body, a concrete, singular and mortal body.


1. Virgil, Georgics, with an English translation by H. Rushton Fairclough,

revised by G. P. Goold (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 257. I have
also relied on Bulfinch’s Mythology (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) and Mythologies,
ed. Yves Bonnefoy, trans. Wendy Doniger (Chicago: Chicago University Press,
2. Etymologically, the meaning of the term “aesthetics” springs out of a cluster
of Greek words that designate activities of sensory perception in both a strictly
physiological sense, as in “sensation”, and a mental sense, as in “apprehension”.
Aisthetikos derives from aistheta, things perceptible by the senses, from aisthethai, to
perceive. For a full etymological explanation, see H. G. Liddell & R. Scott, Greek-
English Lexicon, 9th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
3. Jacques Derrida, “The Pit and the Pyramid: Introduction to Hegel’s
Semiology”, in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 71–108.
136 Sara Danius

4. For an inventory of the cultural imaginary of the telephone in Proust’s time,

see Le Téléphone à la Belle Époque (Brussels: Éditions Libro-Sciences, 1976).
5. Malcolm Bowie, Freud, Proust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 65.
6. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), pp. 14–20 et passim. In Kracauer’s last
work, Proust’s episode also plays an important role; see History: The Last Things Before
the Last (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 49–52, 82–6, 92–3.
7. Proust’s telephone episode has a rich prehistory. An early version appears in
Jean Santeuil, in the pages relating Jean’s first telephone conversation with his
mother; see Jean Santeuil, 3 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1952), Vol. 2, pp. 178–81. In 1907,
Proust published an expanded version of the episode in a piece on reading in Le
Figaro. He then revised the episode once again and made it a part of The Guermantes
Way. On the genesis of the episode and its vital role in Remembrance, see Paul Martin,
“Le Téléphone: Étude littéraire d’un texte de M. Proust”, parts 1–3, Information
littéraire 21 (1969), 233–41; and 22 (1970), 46–52, 87–98.
8. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff &
Terence Kilmartin, 3 vols (New York: Vintage, 1982), Vol. 2, p. 432; A la recherche du
temps perdu, ed. Jean-Yves Tadié et al, 4 vols (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,
1987–1989), Vol. 2, p. 135. Page references, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text,
indicate first the English translation (REM) and then the French original (RTP).
9. See Walter Benjamin, “A Small History of Photography”, in One-Way Street
and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott & Kingsley Shorter (London: NLB,
1979), pp. 240–57; “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in:
Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1988),
pp. 217–51; and “Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, in: Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in
the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1973), pp. 109–54.
10. For a cultural history of the gramophone and its impact on notions of
acoustic representation, see Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans.
Geoffrey Winthrop-Young & Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1999), pp. 21–114. See also Kittler’s Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael
Metteer, with Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 229–64.
11. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, with Wolfhard Steppe &
Claus Melchior (New York: Random House, 1986). References cite episode number,
followed by line number.
12. Alan Spiegel has usefully related Joyce’s visual style to cinematic modes of
representation, focusing in particular on Joyce’s “method of fractured and cellular
narration and description, of rendering wholes by their parts”. In Spiegel’s view, this
feature represents “the characteristic formal procedure of Joyce’s modernism” (Fiction
and the Camera Eye: Visual Consciousness in Film and the Modern Novel [Charlottesville:
University Press of Virginia, 1976], p. 64).

Introduction to Proustian Passions

Les ‘quoique’ sont toujours des ‘parce que’ méconnus.

(i. 430; tr. ii. 9)

1. A N A L L E G O R I C A L O P E N I N G

T he whole of A la recherche du temps perdu is a distension in pursuit of

intention. When the adult Marcel recollects the impression he had had as a
child of Giotto’s Vices and Virtues, from the Arena chapel in Padua, he tells
us how Envy’s fat serpent ‘remplit si complètement sa bouche grande
ouverte’ that ‘l’attention de L’Envie—et la nôtre du même coup—tout
entière concentrée sur l’action de ses lèvres, n’a guère de temps à donner à
d’envieuses pensées’ (i, 80; tr. i. 95). Hard to say whether the serpent is
moving inwards or outwards, from this description. Hard also to say what
Envy is. But the work of disgorging or being engorged with envy is surely
strenuous and painful, and brings on an involuntary and empathetic
imitation in those who look at it. The images of these allegories, among
them the figures of Justice and Injustice, do not give the child much pleasure:

Malgré toute l’admiration que M. Swann professait pour ces

figures de Giotto, je n’eus longtemps aucun plaisir à considérer

From Proustian Passions: The Uses of Self-Justification for A la recherche du temps perdu. © 2000
by Oxford University Press.

138 Ingrid Wassenaar

dans notre salle d’études, où on avait accroché les copies qu’il

m’en avait rapportées, ... une Justice, dont le visage grisâtre et
mesquinement régulier était celui-là même qui, à Combray,
caractérisait certaines jolies bourgeoises pieuses et sèches que je
voyais à la messe et dont plusieurs étaient enrôlées d’avance dans
les milices de réserve de l’Injustice. (i, 80–1; tr. i. 95–6)

Envy has her serpent to contend with and so can be contained within the
framework of her allegorical representation. Between Justice and Injustice,
however, despite their graphic separation in the Scrovegni chapel, where
they are painted opposite one another, there is, for the child Marcel, some
kind of dangerous seepage. For, briefly superimposed upon the plan of the
Italian chapel (which the narrator of A la recherche has not seen at this
moment in the narrative) is the church of Saint-Hilaire. In the middle
ground between two allegories, two chapels, and two narratorial voices,
separated both temporally and spatially, there is the confusing opportunity
for an agon. The young Marcel, overwritten by the mature Marcel, sees that
tragic contest played out by teams who seem to keep changing sides:
‘enrôlées d’avance dans les milices de réserve’ are the Just who are rehearsing
as understudies for the infinitely divisible role of Injustice.
Judith Shklar, in her brilliant essay The Faces of Injustice, describes
Giotto’s Ingiustizia and La Giustizia, for the purposes of her liberal political
argument in favour of listening to victims. She says ‘Injustice does not appear
to suffer at all; he seems completely affectless’ (p. 48). Of Justice, she tells us:
‘Her face is benign. But apart from that it is expressionless, as one might
expect of the impartiality appropriate to a personification of justice. We can
certainly feel afraid of Injustice, but Justice radiates no emotional appeal’ (p.
103). Separated by a chapel floor in Italy, by many pages of Shklar’s reasoned
argument against complacent models of justice that take the wrongdoer’s
part over the suffering victim’s, Justice looks impassively on and Injustice
looks impassively aside, as each performs their allotted role. These are
modern allegories, a far cry from the Furies turned to Eumenides by Athena’s
persuasive words (and her silky-voiced threat of violence: ‘No need of that,
not here’) as retributive revenge was displaced by distributive justice in
Aeschylus’ Oresteia.1 The balanced opposition of Justice and Injustice is a
lateral one, rather than the threatening imposition of a vertical hierarchy:
they seem to offer a human rather than an ideal choice of moral actions. Yet
their similarity lies in their indifference. And when later in his life the adult
narrator of A la recherche meets ‘des incarnations vraiment saintes de la
charité active’, he finds that ‘elles avaient généralement un air allègre, positif,
Introduction to Proustian Passions 139

indifférent et brusque de chirurgien pressé’. The ‘visage antipathique et

sublime de la vraie bonté’ is also indifferent (i, 81; tr. i. 97).
Justice is aloof, Injustice couldn’t care less, and Goodness is a bossy
matron. While we, Proust’s pampered readers and Giotto’s confident
viewers, feel sure of being able to tell the difference between these three
versions of indifference, we should perhaps remind ourselves that those
telling differences only emerge through an act of interpretation. On the face
of it, indifference will always look the same. Marcel the child’s confusion over
which of the jolies bourgeoises are batting for which moral team is not only a
Combray question, reserved for the innocence of unpolluted, idealized
childhood and its revivification in comforting cups of tisane (i. 47; tr. i. 55).2
It is—or rather Proust is arguing it should be—a question that preoccupies
and pervades the entire field of human experience. The question, and it is the
governing question of this study, is how are we to judge self-justification?

2. C R I T I C S , P H I L O S O P H E R S , P S Y C H O L O G I S T S , AND WORDS

The terms in which I will put forward the answer, or the answers, to this
question, as Proust experiments with them throughout his novel, rely almost
entirely on intimate readings of the text. This book puts forward an
important component of the Proustian cognitive and conceptual apparatus,
which has not been analysed before, and the consequences of which show A
la recherche du temps perdu to be an impressive contribution to ethical debate.
My study sets out the intensive hermeneutic endeavour undertaken by
Proust’s narrator to push to its limits the possibilities of self-justification.
Proust, we hardly need reminding, has chosen to write a first-person and
retrospective fiction. He asks what judgement is, and how we arrive at our
judgements, by way of the first-person voice. This reminder raises further
questions about the approach I have taken to what I have to say about A la
recherche du temps perdu, which I will take a few moments to answer now.
The almost overwhelming difficulty facing Proust’s account-givers and
his readers alike is the sheer volume, not only of his own output, but of
studies written about both man and novel, studies upon studies of these
things. Seventy-five years after the death of a writer who has taken on the
stature of a Shakespeare or a Dante as one of European literature’s ‘greats’,
so many brilliant novelists and critics have put forward the vital appraisals of
A la recherche by now embedded as the fixed truths about this text: Wilson,
Shattuck, Beckett, Bersani, Poulet ... the list goes on.3 To study the critical
texts written about A la recherche is to realize with humility and amazement
140 Ingrid Wassenaar

how well Proust’s novel was read even in the fizz of publishing hype during
and just after his lifetime. There is, because of all this interest in the novel, a
Proust currency, a set of keywords which mean Proust: madeleine, mère,
grand-mère, jeunes filles, jealousy, Elstir, Bergotte, Vinteuil, mémoire
involontaire, Time, Swann. A secondary and biographical swathe: snob, social
satirist, neurotic, homosexual, Dreyfus Affair, crowd around behind. What
more remains to be said? To propose a new study of A la recherche du temps
perdu seems like an act of wilful idiocy.
Yet, while every critic, of course, addresses the issue of Proust’s
choosing to write in the first person, therefore shifting the focus of his novel
with explosive force into the subjective mode, no one seemed to be
answering to my satisfaction a very basic question: was this a morally good
or bad decision? Proust’s novel is a vast, highly textured, minutely wrought
exposition of what the world looks like from one point of view, a
sophisticated, well-read, jealous, nervous, leisured point of view. That much
is perfectly clear. But what of the fear, shuttled constantly between novelist
and narrator, of boring a reader by going on at such length about one life?
What of the strategies of persuasion by which a writer might try or expect to
keep such a reader’s interest, or make her believe the account worthwhile,
honourable, true? How to make the balance work between telling subjective
and unverifiable truths, and allowing for counter-critique, contestation,
rebuff, rejection? How much mileage might there be in a narrative strategy
which sought to take account pre-emptively of all such counter-arguments: a
supreme effort to work out a foolproof method of ensuring a reader’s trust by
accommodating all her suspicions, fears, and hostility into the very point of
view she might reject?
This series of questions becomes more interesting with every further
addition and permutation of it, for it raises difficult theoretical issues about
the limits of answering questions about self-justification using the material of
self-justification, along the lines of Alan Turing’s notorious Halting Problem.
If you ask a piece of self-justification such as ‘but I didn’t mean to hurt you’,
to justify itself, would you get an answer with a firm foundation, or a further
piece of self-justification? One kind of answer would be ‘I didn’t mean to
hurt you, I did x because I love you’. No firm foundation for truth or
reliability is on offer, we must take on trust that the ‘I’ tells the truth, and
either accept or reject the answer. The emphasis has been brought to bear
upon the credibility of ‘I’ as a criterion for trustworthiness. Another kind of
response, however, might be ‘I knew you were going to ask me to justify my
self-justification “but I didn’t mean to hurt you”, and so here, before you say
anything else, are x further justifications of that statement’. Here, the
Introduction to Proustian Passions 141

emphasis has been shifted onto the statement, away from the ‘I’. Straightaway
we can see that acts of self-justification work hard to attribute and distribute
intention, interpretation, and meaning-bearing emphasis to useful-looking
parts of verbal utterances, in attempts to escape censure and judgement
through apparent exposure. Attempts to confront and head off this self-
justificatory work of redistribution will themselves cause further evasion,
mobility, internal division, and multiplication: like chasing mercury droplets
around a petri dish with a knife and fork.4
The answer to the moral problem of self-justification, if there is one,
then, is clearly not going to come from Proust himself, nor from his
correspondence, nor from the testimony of any of his friends, because we
would not be able to bracket lies and self-interest out of their ‘answers’.
Discovering how to judge whether or not self-talk is justifiable, might,
however, yet lie in listening to the way in which that question itself is treated
within the confines of A la recherche du temps perdu, in hearing how a series of
different kinds of linguistic experiment is set up to monitor either self-
justification or its by-products in language. Figuring the inquiring reader as
a listener, of course, might introduce its own problems, but we will deal with
these as we proceed, and should offer ourselves a dispensation from worry
about them ahead of time.
By the same token, no one ready-made critical methodology, or
interpretative toolkit, seemed to me mobile or dynamic enough to generate
a satisfactory answer about Proustian self-justification. A feminist reading of
A la recherche, for example, while it would prove the undoubted misogyny in
the novel, would not necessarily be able to answer questions about how
judgements are made or should be made. In this book, theoretical concepts
and methods have been considered and appropriated from a wide range of
recent critical thinkers, without allegiance being sworn to any. Reference has
been made to broadly structuralist and post-structuralist writers, to
psychoanalysis, to narratology, and to writers on Proust whose aims have
seemed, in the course of researching the concept of self-justification, to offer
a springboard to my own. Any single explicit hermeneutic methodology
(even if such an illusory beast were to exist) applied onto the text of A la
recherche du temps perdu would sooner or later run up against its own formal
constraints, would, in discovering that which it had sought, recover merely
its own original premises. Self-justification describes a special area of speech
act typified by the attempt to persuade a listener of the speaker’s credibility.
But such a definition takes no account of the variety of such speech acts, or
whether there are in fact important differences between them. It also seems
to rule out of account the very subjectiveness, the messiness, of what it is to
142 Ingrid Wassenaar

persuade, the arguments that might ensue, the pain of neediness, of not
being believed, the sheer hard work that might go into finding watertight
justifications for dubious actions, and just how much self-justification might
be going on in the world. So the desire itself (to find out more about the
functioning of self-justification inside Proust’s novel) is what should
encourage us to listen flexibly to the workings of the text, to gather material
for assessment, to be prepared to modify, or abandon experiments, or
become very interested indeed in why certain kinds of experiment seem to
throw up repetitious rather than different answers.
W. V. Quine’s brilliant four-page essay, ‘On Simple Theories of a
Complex World’, points out some ‘causes for supposing that the simpler
hypothesis stands the better chance of confirmation’.5 He notes that if ‘we
encompass a set of data with a hypothesis involving the fewest possible
parameters, and then are constrained by further experiment to add another
parameter, we are likely to view the emendation not as a refutation of the first
result but as a confirmation plus a refinement’ (p. 245). This is not to be
interpreted as a licence to produce only simple hypotheses, such as ‘if the
earth is flat then we might fall off its edge’, but it does remind us to avoid
putting all our own hypothetical parameters into one pre-emptive basket
before hearing how Proust conducts his self-justificatory experiments.
The obvious drawback to this kind of adaptive, flexible, and dynamic
methodology is its undoubted potential to wander down garden paths, or fall
into drowning pools of doubt and curlicues of minute adjustment. Yet
experimental research into the linguistic functioning of the moi, of the kind
that Proust undertakes in A la recherche du temps perdu, positively demands
this kind of scientific protocol, and we should not be afraid to work with the
problems it will cause us.
I will be reading with an awareness that a first-person retrospective
narrative implicitly seeks, in reconstructing a teleology which has already
unfolded, to remember it, both in the sense of recalling a process, and that
of putting a process back together. Blanchot reads this as Proust’s search to
experience a quasi-mystical simultaneity of different temporalities: ‘certains
épisodes ... semblent-ils vécus, à la fois, à des âges fort différents, vécus et
revécus dans la simultanéité intermittente de toute une vie, non comme de
purs moments, mais dans la densité mouvante du temps sphérique.’6 This is
the kind of vision of Proust’s writing which, to my mind, most unfortunately
reinforces the oft-touted idea that Proustian subjectivity is all about being
bound up in a nostalgic contemplation of personal past. It also runs the risk
of nudging A la recherche into the category of book in which other
subjectivities count only for the material they might offer an experience-
Introduction to Proustian Passions 143

hoarding introspective first-person consciousness. A la recherche du temps

perdu responds only partially to such a description. Nostalgia and
introspection have their part to play in the Proustian psyche. But Proust
himself does so much work with these aspects of human cognitive
functioning that, unless we are very careful, even loving descriptions of his
writing can come to sound like apologies for it.
As commentators have been at pains to analyse, the Proustian
narratorial voice is itself composed of many, sometimes ambiguously
differentiated, even conflicting agencies.7 I do not intend to repeat the work
of that important analysis here. Once we have seen and understood the
elasticity and mobility built into Proust’s use of the narratorial convention, it
is enough to carry it with us as we read, and to be prepared at times to signal
instances of special relevance to points in hand about self-justificatory
activity. No work on Proust can entirely avoid the question of who is
speaking and when, but it should not be allowed to take over all forms of
argument about A la recherche.
Sartre, in 1943, offered the following analysis of what is meant by
caractère, and used as an exemplary literary text Proust’s A la recherche du temps
perdu. Sartre’s brief comments brilliantly summarize and orchestrate one of
the central questions that Proust experiments with in his work. I will quote
Sartre’s points in full:

le caractère n’a d’existence distincte qu’à titre d’objet de

connaissance pour autrui. La conscience ne connaît point son
caractère—à moins de se déterminer réflexivement à partir du
point de vue de l’autre—elle l’existe [sic] en pure indistinction,
non thématiquement et non thétiquement, dans l’épreuve qu’elle
fait de sa propre contingence et dans la néantisation par quoi elle
reconnaît et dépasse sa facticité. C’est pourquoi la pure
description introspective de soi ne livre aucun caractère: le héros
de Proust ‘n’a pas’ de caractère directement saisissable; il se livre
d’abord, en tant qu’il est conscient de luimême, comme un
ensemble de réactions générales et communes à tous les hommes
(‘mécanismes’ de la passion, des émotions, ordre d’apparition des
souvenirs, etc.), où chacun peut se reconnaître: c’est que ces
réactions appartiennent à la ‘nature’ générale du psychique. Si
nous arrivons (comme l’a tenté Abraham dans son livre sur
Proust) à déterminer le caractère du héros proustien (à propos
par exemple de sa faiblesse, de sa passivité, de la liaison singulière
chez lui de l’amour et de l’argent) c’est que nous interprétons les
144 Ingrid Wassenaar

données brutes: nous prenons sur elles un point de vue extérieur,

nous les comparons et nous tentons d’en dégager des relations
permanentes et objectives. Mais ceci nécessite un recul: tant que
le lecteur, suivant l’optique générale de la lecture, s’identifie au
héros de roman, le caractère de ‘Marcel’ lui échappe; mieux, il
n’existe pas à ce niveau. Il n’apparaît que si je brise la complicité
qui m’unit à l’écrivain, que si je considère le livre non plus comme
un confident, mais comme une confidence, mieux encore: comme
un document. Ce caractère n’existe donc que sur le plan du pour-
autrui et c’est la raison pour laquelle les maximes et les
descriptions des ‘moralistes’, c’est-à-dire des auteurs français qui
ont entrepris une psychologie objective et sociale, ne se
recouvrent jamais avec l’expérience vécue du sujet.8

Marcel Muller quotes this passage, but his criticism of it, that Sartre’s
comments are applicable to any first-person narrative, and therefore miss the
specificity of ‘le véritable secret du je proustien’, itself misses Sartre’s point.9
What has been so coruscatingly pinpointed is the agonizing fulcrum across
which the Proustian narrator—in all of his temporal manifestations, moods,
and agencies—and the reader of first-person confessional texts are delicately
poised and interlocked. Character appears only when complicity is broken,
when reader–narrator identificatory patterns and cycles and compulsions are
undone, when the narrator is seen no longer as everyman, but as a particular,
neurasthenic, possibly hysterical, would-be novelist. Grateful as we must be
to Muller for offering Proust criticism a multipartite taxonomy formalizing
the interconnections between, and independent statuses of, the narratorial
selves (Héros, Narrateur, Sujet Intermédiaire, Protagoniste, Romancier, Écrivain,
Auteur, Homme, Signataire), these terms seem to deprive the first-person
narrative of its relationships to external objects and selves, whether in or
beyond the confines of the text, and it is upon these relationships and the
kinds of processes they inaugurate that my study focuses.
A retrospective first-person novel, as the narratologist Gérard Genette
so convincingly demonstrates, will both manipulate and suffer from periodic
attacks of prolepsis and paralepsis.10 Genette’s tough-minded and careful
attention to the workings of Proust’s narrative offer a sound methodological
principle informing the way in which I read, but my argument, in showing
how self-justification works and is put to work, does not attempt to construct
a new narratology of A la recherche. The main point I take from Genette’s
work is that great attention must be paid, when studying works of
confessional fiction, to what we might term a rhetoric of reliability. A
Introduction to Proustian Passions 145

temptation is automatically built into the reconstructive narrative enterprise

to produce an improved and stylized version of the lost original (experience,
or histoire). Like the genre of autobiography, first-person retrospective
fiction strives to tell the truth of subjective experience, but yearns for the
wider claim that such truth should be a universal truth. Augustine’s
Confessions, Rousseau’s similarly titled Les Confessions, Constant’s Adolphe,
Fromentin’s Dominique, Gide’s récits: all are characterized by, and to be
included in an intertextual history of, first person retrospective fiction,
confession narratives, and autobiography.11 I deliberately blur the distinction
between the three genres here, because it is the confessional mode, and not
its generic history or histories, which detains me: my focus is the human
speaking subject in the movement and moment of offering a justification for
his or her actions, thoughts, intentions, or motives—or indeed the attempts
he or she might make to conceal them.12
Dennis Foster reads the act of confession by focusing on the aspect of
complicity between confessing subject and listener: for Foster, confessional
narrative takes place ‘between two substantial, unsettled subjects’. He goes
on: ‘By “subject” I do not mean an autonomous, centred being that founds
the individual, but that representation of the self, particularly as it is
objectified through language. The subject is that aspect of the self available
to understanding.’13 This is a useful working definition of the speaking
subject, which I want to retain, although Foster’s emphasis, in other parts of
his introduction, on guilt as prime motivation for confession is not part of my
definition of self-justification. I define self-justification as an act of speech
seeking pre-emptively to ward off attack which the subject fears might take
the form of exclusion, rejection, deprivation, abandonment. The main
prompting for an act of self-justification, then, is the desire to avoid pain,
rather than the desire to confess guilt, although, of course, some kinds of
self-justification might very well take the form of a confession of guilt. It
would hardly constitute a discovery to announce that Proust wrote about
guilt at ambivalence felt towards parents, particularly the mother. Nor would
there be much of an argument in the assertion that A la recherche is a
justification of Marcel Proust’s life to his mother. I will attempt to avoid that
particularly well-trodden significatory matrix, but we should take a moment
to see why the answer to self-justification does not, as it were, lie with the
It is, undeniably, psychoanalytic criticism of A la recherche that has been
most concerned with the novel’s questions of morality, but these have tended
to stay at the level of the subjective or individual quest for ‘self-discovery’,
such as Lejeune’s disturbingly smug essay on narcissism, masturbation, and
146 Ingrid Wassenaar

creativity, Doubrovsky’s La Place de la madeleine, or Baudry’s work.14 Their

other main manifestation is as readings of castration/artistic sterility
complexes, such as Riffaterre’s work on the ‘Med-’ tag:

Add to this linguistic mechanism the diegesis of the myth; add the
interplay of Andromeda and the monster, the strand as the stage
of a plight common to her and to the jellyfish turned monstrous
woman, top it with the homophony of Andromeda’s last syllables
and Medusa’s first, and we understand how easy it is for the -med-
morpheme to stand for woman and for the monstrous or negative
component in the sign system designating a woman. Hence the
displacement of androgyne, within which man and woman were
united but equal, by Andromeda that opposes desirability in man
and terror in woman, a terror suffered or a terror inflicted.
Hence, a valorization of the mediating last syllables (meda) made
into an egregious symbol of unhappy or dangerous femininity.15

Riffaterre’s work, which seeks to demonstrate ‘how fantasies and repressed

drives are born of a lexical coincidence rationalized into semantic identity’,
can quickly seem less like analysis than meddling, or worse, misogynistic
Too many psychoanalytic readings of A la recherche concentrate on such
maternally directed, guilt-riddled early nuggets of the Proustian textual
palimpsest as ‘La Confession d’une jeune fille’, ‘Avant la nuit’, and
‘Sentiments filiaux d’un parricide’, reading these in combination with the
Montjouvain scene (i. 157–63; tr. i. 190–7).16 These kinds of readings see
enormous significance in the 1906 idée de pièce given to René Peter, a friend
of Debussy’s, during a visit to Versailles, a play project also mentioned in a
letter to Reynaldo Hahn.17 As Painter notes in his biography, with a typically
bluff yet apologetic tone, this sketch for a play has: ‘a preposterous but
significant plot, about a sadistic husband who, though in love with his wife,
consorted with prostitutes, said infamous things about her to them,
encouraged them to answer in kind, and was caught in the act by the injured
lady, who left him, whereupon he committed suicide.’18 The list of ghostly
avant-textes which might be (and are) triumphantly held aloft as proof of
Marcel Proust’s ambivalence towards his mother goes on and on.19 These
early texts are basically seized upon to license psychoanalytic readings
informing us that Proust’s ‘œuvre faisait de lui sa propre mère’.20 But apart
from telling us little about the way Proust’s writing behaves, the underlying
Introduction to Proustian Passions 147

misogyny at work in this kind of criticism risks reducing literary critical

psychoanalytic discourse itself to a dubious grudge against what might be
termed a Gestalt ready-made of the obstinately absent, love-denying
If psychoanalytic readings of A la recherche do not tempt me as a
methodological approach, then perhaps another critical discourse to step
inside, this time one which certainly does not run the risk of leaving figural
stones unturned, might be deconstructive literary criticism. It is precisely the
foundationalist aspiration written into any first-person fiction or
autobiography, for subjective truth to be apodictic or universal truth, which
deconstructive literary criticism is at pains to expose and question. For
Proust, some of the best deconstructive criticism remains Paul de Man’s
demonstration (again, using the Giotto allegories) that Proust inscribes his
text with its own unreadability.21 The careful attention de Man pays to
rhetorical tropes in the genre of autobiographical confession, in ‘Excuses
(Confessions)’, which looks at key childhood incidents in Rousseau’s
autobiography, is part of a welcome return to the study of rhetoric in literary
criticism generally.22
While the careful textual analysis of these thinkers attracts me,
however, the aporia in which they sometimes find their endings, or the
unwarranted hostility with which they sometimes treat literary texts, do not.
Autobiography criticism, especially deconstructive criticism of auto-
biography, tends to pounce triumphantly on evidence of self-justification.
Self-justificatory moments are, in general for this type of criticism, held to
offer proof that the subject of autobiography has acknowledged, however
fleetingly, the impossibility of telling the truth about the self, or of
constituting selfhood as some whole and totalizable entity or quantity in
writing. Self-justificatory moments can tend to function for deconstructive
criticism as proof that autobiographers do not know themselves, or do not
know that they will always fail to know themselves; that autobiographers are
to be sternly told off for thus dallying with their readers’ sympathies, and that
it is the task of deconstruction to unmask and reprimand this underhand
This, however, begs the whole fascinating question of why acts of self-
justification attract such scapegoating, such a moral high tone, even if it is
couched in the terms of seemingly objective or neutral criticism. After all, in
A la recherche, Marcel is perfectly open about both the sources which might
inspire him to write a novel, and the difficulties of maintaining personal self-
belief and public credibility when those sources are revealed as being entirely
148 Ingrid Wassenaar

Grave incertitude, toutes les fois que l’esprit se sent dépassé par
luimême; quand lui, le chercheur, est tout ensemble le pays
obscur où il doit chercher et où tout son bagage ne lui sera de
rien. Chercher? pas seulement: créer. Il est en face de quelque
chose qui n’est pas encore et que seul il peut réaliser, puis faire
entrer dans sa lumière. (i. 45; tr. i. 52)

Deconstruction is certainly not a nihilistic or sceptical enterprise.

Indeed in recent years, much thought has gone into its potential as an ethical
discourse.23 The triumph of textual blind spots and their location can,
however, without some willingness in the critic to be confused and moved by
literary texts, lead to a type of complexity in critical writing which has not
arisen in the texts themselves. There is complexity enough in Proust’s A la
recherche du temps perdu, together with vast tracts of it that are never read
critically, and the sense of these two important points is another part of what
motivates my study. Blanchot strays perhaps too near a repetition of the early
understanding of A la recherche, which decided the novel was a celebration of
interiority, solitary withdrawal, and wistfulness.24 Deconstructive analyses of
A la recherche, on the other hand, too often repeat the problem, also that of
much psychoanalytic writing on this text, of focusing too narrowly on only a
handful of incidents in the text, rather than seeking to read across its span.
Deconstruction has its own blind spot, which is a failure to allow the texts it
reads to speak and be heard.
Having spoken at such length about what I will not be doing, it is
perhaps time to return to what will be included. This is certainly a study
about psychological processes but it is also a phenomenological study that
considers very closely the relations dramatized and given signification
between speaking subjects and a variety of object-types. With that in mind,
I will bring some of Freud’s metapsychological thinking into what I argue
about self-justification, sometimes for comparative and sometimes for
analytical purposes. Freud’s willingness as a thinker to undertake speculative
forays into the wilder hinterlands of mental functioning, with all the risks of
experimental failure that such a venture entails, offers sometimes astonishing
points of purchase on Proust’s narrative experimentation.25
I will also have occasion to look at genetic material, earlier rough
drafts so usefully published in the most recent Pléiade edition of A la
recherche in the form of Esquisses. I am in general, however, suspicious of
genetic criticism, since the task of sifting through variants sometimes results
in readings which cannot move easily between early drafts and an
interpretation of the ‘final’ state of a given text. But as a text-handling
Introduction to Proustian Passions 149

theory of some rigour, generated as an adjunct to the vast editorial

operation of producing a variorum edition such as the new Pléiade Proust,
it forces readers of A la recherche to bear in mind the fragility of any idea that
texts are ‘finished’.26

3. A S H O RT H I S T O RY OF S E L F - J U S T I F I C AT I O N

Self-justification finds its definition, in French as in English, subsumed under

the definitions given of justification. Le Grand Robert tells us that the noun
justification comes from the medieval theological Latin justificatio, with
appearances of Justificaciun around 1120. It denotes the ‘action de justifier
quelqu’un, de se justifier’. Its synonyms include décharge, défense, excuse,
compte, explication, argument, raison, apologie, preuve. Its theological usage is as
the ‘rétablissement du pécheur en l’état d’innocence, par la grâce’.
Justification also signifies, in the world of book-printing, the ‘action de
donner aux lignes la longueur requise’; ‘longueur d’une ligne d’impression,
définie par le nombre de caractères’. From around 1521, the expression
justifier une ligne means ‘la mettre à la longueur requise au moyen de blancs’.
Justifier, the transitive verb, signifies ‘rendre juste, conforme à la justice’
(rare, 1564); ‘innocenter (quelqu’un) en expliquant sa conduite’; ‘rendre
(quelque chose) légitime’ (towards 1585); ‘faire admettre, ou s’efforcer de
faire reconnaître comme juste’ (seventeenth century); ‘confirmer (un
jugement, un sentiment)’; and ‘montrer comme vrai, juste, réel, par des
arguments’ (1368, Ordonnances des Roys de France). Autojustification, ‘le fait de
se justifier soimême’, makes its lexicographical début only in the mid-
twentieth century.
In English, the noun justification stands generally for the ‘action of
justifying or showing something to be just, right, or proper; vindication of
oneself or another; exculpation; verification’.27 It also has specific theological
connotations (‘the action whereby man is justified, or freed from the penalty
of sin, and accounted or made righteous by God’); a judicial sense (‘the
showing or maintaining in court that one had sufficient reason for doing that
which he is called to answer; a circumstance affording grounds for such a
plea’; and the same use in printing (1672) as its translation has in French.
The OED tells us that ‘Protestant theologians regard justification as an act of
grace ... through imputation of Christ’s righteousness’, while Roman Catholic
theologians ‘hold that it consists in man’s being made really righteous by
infusion of grace, such justification being a work continuous and progressive
from its initiation’ (my emphasis).
150 Ingrid Wassenaar

Self-justification is thus neatly contained, for lexicographers, by the

definition of justification, as just one among many of the forms the latter
might take. The ‘self ’ is treated as one more unit to be shifted from a minus
to a plus rating by the activity of justification.
We should bear in mind, however, that self-justification is a term with
an active philosophical as well as a psychological history, albeit a fragmentary
one. André Lalande’s 1926 Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie tells
us that the primitive use of justification was to ‘rendre ou de se rendre juste’.
His definition goes on: ‘Puis, par affaiblissement du sens primitif, se dit de
tout acte par lequel on réfute une imputation ou même par lequel on la
devance, en montrant qu’on est dans son droit (soit moral, soit logique),
qu’on avait raison de dire ce qu’on a dit, ou de faire ce qu’on a fait’ (i. 552).
Justification, then, has apparently lost its medieval emphasis on justice, and
seems to have come to be used for a situation in which self-defence,
refutation, or pre-emptive assertion of any kind take place in language.
Lalande gives as his examples two thinkers. Nicolas Malebranche,
theologian, scientist, and philosopher (1638–1715), considers justification in
De la recherche de la vérité.28 Théodule Ribot (1839–1916), the influential
experimental psychologist, subsequently refers to Malebranche’s writing
when discussing justification in La Logique des sentiments.29 Understanding
their views is crucial to discovering how Proust deals with this slippery
concept, since it serves to emphasize how revolutionary Proust’s treatment of
self-justification is. The limitations and exclusions which comfortably shield
Malebranche and Ribot are essentially Proust’s starting-point. They have no
equipment to deal with the rigours of self-justification—Proust effortlessly
goes on building it.
Both Malebranche and Ribot examine justification from the
perspective, not of its linguistic manifestations, but of its connection to the
workings of reason. Malebranche is interested in how we make reasons for
ourselves to support feelings; in other words, of how we construct a mental
foundation to suit our underlying desires. Ribot, writing two centuries later,
is keen to delineate a strict compartmentalization of the reasoning produced
by different kinds of affect, in order to classify (but in the process, distribute
moral worth to) psychological functioning.
Malebranche did not make a distinction between faith and reason.
Although an admirer of Descartes, he held that God was the sole cause and
source of divine reason, surpassing our own imperfect reason; and that God
was the operator of some kind of correspondence between external objects
and human ideas. But he also held, to a certain degree, that the human will
is free. In ‘Que toutes les passions se justifient’, he starts with the assumption
Introduction to Proustian Passions 151

that human desire, once ignited, seeks justification from reason, in order to
achieve its ends (those of pleasure) in human actions. His introduction enacts
a mini-allegory: ‘L’esprit est tellement esclave de l’imagination, qu’il lui obéit
toujours lorsqu’elle est échauffée. Il n’ose lui répondre lorsqu’elle est en
fureur, parce qu’elle le maltraite s’il résiste, et qu’il se trouve toujours
récompensé [de quelque plaisir], lorsqu’il s’accommode à ses desseins’ (p.
In fact, Malebranche’s seemingly general introduction relies on
exclusion. The difference between esprit and imagination turns out to have,
not a universal, but an ideological bent: the self-effacing, humorous
introductory allegory neatly shifts its author out of the line of fire, into
alignment with the audience to whom the ensuing discussion is addressed, by
allowing the gender of esprit to signify a personality-type: that of the hen-
pecked man. The discussion seems to proceed from the assumption that no
one is exempt from justification’s effects, when actually a split has been
introduced into the conception of ‘one’ that relies on the French
grammatical tradition of gendering nouns: that part of ‘one’ which is esprit is
implicitly also ‘masculine’, while that which is imagination is implicitly
feminized. His categories of mental functioning are thus also implicitly
anthropomorphized and thrust into a narrative context of the amorous
relation. But let us not be too concerned for the moment with the difficulties
of finding a neutral language in which to speak about mental functioning.
There is still Malebranche’s argument to follow.
Building upon his model of the cringing esprit, his aim is apparently to
expose the dependencies that exist, but that are disguised, between the
promptings of désir, and the judgements that are passed in order that désir
may be satisfied and also securely justified: ‘le désir nous doit porter par lui-
même à juger avantageusement de son objet, si c’est un désir d’amour; et
désavantageusement, si c’est un désir d’aversion. Le désir d’amour est un
mouvement de l’âme excité par les esprits, qui la disposent à vouloir jouir ou
user des choses qui ne sont point en sa puissance’ (p. 146). A continuous
circuit must be set up, in which it is desire’s responsibility to act as dynamic
current, in order that supporting moral judgement may continue to prompt
the step between impulse and action in the world. In this triangular
structure, the âme, having fallen a prey to les esprits, first of all creates and
then disowns désir, or the dynamic of justification. The justificatory circuit
must operate independently once it has been set up.
Positive moral judgements thus become a function of the plaisir that
the ‘objet de nos passions’ affords us, since l’esprit can form no judgements
by itself: ‘l’esprit ne peut concevoir que la chaleur et la saveur soient des
152 Ingrid Wassenaar

manières d’être d’un corps’ (p. 147). Yet by the same token, ‘il est très facile
de reconnaître par la raison, quels peuvent être les jugements que les passions
qui nous agitent forment en nous’ (p. 147). Precisely because raison, in
opposition to the esprits, is unable to make a subjective link between an object
and its inherent moral worth, it is simultaneously, Malebranche asserts, the
perfect instrument for recognizing a situation in which desire has initiated
the judgement-forming circuit, and for calculating the étendue (p. 147) of the
judgements and thus the violence of the desire. Desire takes over
responsibility from the esprits and even from passion, for instigating moral
judgements. Reason, on the other hand, is still supposed to be able to judge
in a detached manner the justificatory judgements it has itself offered desire.
Désir finds itself helplessly in the middle. It is judged by raison, from which
it is simultaneously deriving justifications to support the actions of the âme.
Yet the âme, which has been excité par les esprits, refuses to declare itself the
real initiator of the justificatory loop.
Malebranche tries to make this complex and highly allusive model
work by turning to empirical examples: ‘L’expérience prouve assez ces
choses, et en cela elle s’accommode parfaitement avec la raison’ (p. 147). A
discursive switch shifts the argument from the erotic to an apparently neutral
epistemological domain: ‘le désir de savoir, tout juste et tout raisonnable qu’il
est en lui-même, devient souvent un vice très dangereux par les faux
jugements qui l’accompagnent’ (p. 147). ‘Le désir de savoir’ is another name
for curiosité, and Malebranche adopts the position of the moraliste to
condemn its falsifying dangers. Every form of knowledge, he maintains, has
‘quelque endroit qui brille à l’imagination, et qui éblouit facilement l’esprit
par l’éclat que la passion y attache’ (p. 149), but the light of truth only
appears when passion subsides. This would seem clear enough, but his most
important point is yet to come.
The most serious impediment to detached reasoning, for Malebranche,
is when an animating passion ‘se sent mourir’, because it seems to contract
‘une espèce d’alliance avec toutes les autres passions qui peuvent la secourir
dans sa faiblesse’:

Car les passions ne sont point indifférentes les unes pour les autres.
Toutes celles qui se peuvent souffrir contribuent fidèlement à leur
mutuelle conservation. Ainsi, les jugements qui justifient le désir
qu’on a pour les langues ou pour telle autre chose qu’il vous
plaira, sont incessamment sollicités et pleinement confirmés par
toutes les passions qui ne lui sont pas contraires. (p. 149; my
Introduction to Proustian Passions 153

It is this mutuelle conservation of passions which is the real source of danger

to reason. If the passion of desire operated on its own, he argues, the only
judgement it would be able to obtain from reason would be one agreeing that
possession of the desired object was a real possibility; in other words, passion
would only be able to slip the most basic feasibility study past reason:

Mais le désir est animé par l’amour; il est fortifié par l’espérance;
il est augmenté par la joie; il est renouvelé par la crainte; il est
accompagné de courage, d’émulation, de colère et de plusieurs
autres passions qui forment à leur tour des jugements dans une
variété infinie, lesquels se succèdent les uns aux autres et
soutiennent ce désir qui les a fait naître. (p. 150)

Stylistically the most impressive sentence in Malebranche’s text, it also

complexifies the dynamic looping it has described desire as performing, by
splitting désir into a fully interconnecting set of moving passion parts. But the
very impressiveness and dynamism of this textual demonstration do much to
undermine his careful progression towards rejecting justification as a
corrupting influence on reasoning.
In Malebranche’s justification model, desire is expected to keep a
circuit going between the âme and raison, which was supplying the âme with
justificatory reasoning for the pursuit of its goal. The responsibility for the
functioning and maintenance of this circuit can then be disowned by both
the âme and raison, the former by pretending to be passive, the latter by
pretending to be detached. Reason benefits, by being released from the
pestering by desire for justificatory reasoning, and the âme benefits from that
justificatory reasoning.
If the desiring circuit were to suffer some kind of intermittent fault, a
kind of desiring short-circuit, or power failure, however, reason and the âme
would suddenly be deprived of their mutually beneficial but unacknowledged
relationship. The two components of mental functioning would be linked,
paradoxically, only by indifference. And we might speculate that, however
short this period of linkage of âme and raison by indifference, it is too closely
imitative of a state of inertia, or death, to be borne, which is why other types
of link, not always justificatory, are imported as soon as possible to replace it.
Malebranche represents mutuelle conservation as an irritating side-effect
introduced by the passions, since to approve it would sound too much like
approving justification over reason. Yet this mutual conservation practised by
the passions might have much more to tell us about human survival than
moralizing disapproval can allow into its modelling.
154 Ingrid Wassenaar

The final section of Malebranche’s discussion of justification is at once

uncannily astute and highly suspect. He uses a physiological model of how
sense impressions travel to the brain, ‘d’une manière propre à former des
traces profondes qui représentent cet objet’ (p. 150):

[Ils plient] et rompent même quelquefois par leur cours

impétueux les fibres du cerveau, et l’imagination en demeure
[longtemps] salie et corrompue; car [les plaies du cerveau ne se
reprennent pas aisément, ses traces ne se ferment pas à cause que
les esprits y passent sans cesse] .... Ainsi les passions agissent sur
l’imagination, et l’imagination corrompue fait effort contre la
raison en lui représentant à toute heure les choses, non selon ce
qu’elles sont en elles-mêmes afin que l’esprit prononce un
jugement de vérité, mais selon ce qu’elles sont par rapport à la
passion présente afin qu’il porte un jugement qui la favorise. (p.

This fascinating model of interconnection between a neurological and a

moral vision of the human mind remains inextricably involved in the
rhetorical and metaphoric signifying systems by which it is represented. No
firm purchase seems possible upon either a purely material explanation of the
workings of the brain, or upon the explanatory metaphors by which names
for these workings also escape back into theological and moral interpretative
traditions. Explanation is suspended between spirit, flesh, and language. And
when Malebranche, whose text so successfully enacts the interdependence of
explanatory metaphor with what it seeks to explain, tries to leap clear of his
own language, in order to propose a kind of empirical sociological study
which would divide people into different kinds of justifying groups, we find
his text meshed up in what it had seemed merely to be describing from an
external perspective:

Si [l’]on considère maintenant quelle peut être la constitution des

fibres du cerveau, l’agitation et l’abondance des esprits et du sang
dans les différents sexes et dans les différents âges, il sera assez
facile de connaître à peu près à quelles passions certaines
personnes sont plus sujettes, et, par conséquent, quels sont les
jugements qu’elles forment des objets. (p. 151)

In wanting justification to be read off from physiology, Malebranche

suddenly seems to deny the sophisticated interconnective cognitive
Introduction to Proustian Passions 155

modelling he has just been attempting. Malebranche has been caught in his
own self-justificatory noose. His starting-point had been empirical: ‘Il n’est
pas nécessaire de faire de grands raisonnements pour démontrer que toutes
les passions se justifient; ce principe est assez évident par le sentiment
intérieur que nous avons de nous-mêmes, et par la conduite de ceux que l’on
voit agités de quelque passion: il suffit de l’exposer afin qu’on y fasse
réflexion’ (p. 146). His conclusion tries to rejoin a supposedly empirical
science, that of physiology. Yet his exposition, or his exposure, of how the
passions justify themseves, has required speculative leaps of investigative
imagination, and brave conclusions about cognitive modelling. His argument
implodes when he tries to make cognitive models fit with the physical brain,
because there is no flexibility in his model which would allow in subjectivity.
Malebranche’s exposition of justification fails by screening out the writer and
intended readership.
Théodule Ribot, philosopher and experimental psychologist, who
later concentrated on psychopathology, writing in Proust’s lifetime, profers
a very different reading of justification. In La Logique des sentiments, he seeks
to divide affective modes of reasoning into five distinct groups: ‘passionnel,
inconscient, imaginatif, justificatif, mixte ou composite’.30 ‘Le
raisonnement de justification’ opens with a categorical and unambiguous
denigration of this kind of affective reasoning: it is, Ribot sneers, ‘la plus
simple, la plus enfantine, la plus banale de toutes’ (p. 111). For Ribot,
justification is: ‘engendrée par une croyance ferme et sincère qui se refuse à
être troublée et aspire au repos. Le raisonnement de justification est
nettement téléologique. Malgré quelques apparences de rationalisme, il
appartient au type affectif pur se manifestant dans sa plus grande pauvreté’
(p. 111). For Malebranche, the act of justification had been an animating, if
corrupting, influence connecting, however inappropriately, the âme to
reason. But for Ribot, exactly the opposite is true: justification appears to be
an agent of death and destruction in human reasoning. The croyance aveugle
which causes the justificatory act, he says, is itself prompted by a need for
‘l’affirmation de l’individu dans son désir et son sentir les plus intimes’ (p.
111). He calls justification’s tenacity ‘une manifestation partielle de l’instinct de
la conservation’ (p. III; Ribot’s emphasis): ‘Mais si inébranlable qu’elle
paraisse, le doute la traverse au moins par moments. Il s’ensuit une rupture
d’équilibre mental qui appelle un remède. C’est le raisonnement de
justification’ (p. 112).
Justification, he asserts, is what happens when our instinct for self-
preservation is overcome, or interfered with by doubt. Justification, instead
of functioning as the connective circuitry between two kinds of mental
156 Ingrid Wassenaar

functioning, desire and reason, as it did for Malebranche, is here the name
given only to what causes ruptures and intermittences in mental circuitry.
Ribot takes as examples political fervour, theoretical moralizing, and
religious faith. He argues that moral thinkers rely on ‘une tendance
maîtresse, une préférence individuelle, une subjectivité qui, dissimulée sous
cet appareil logique, guide vers une fin posée d’avance’ (p. 112). They wish
to found their thought on a priori concepts that do not need empirical
justification, and yet smuggle in subjective and teleological material along
the way of their reasoning. ‘Les vrais croyants’, on the other hand, take the
events thrown at the world by God, and interpret them according to a fixed
pattern: ‘Sans s’inquiéter d’un double illogisme, ils déclarent que les voies de
la Providence sont impénétrables, mais ils essaient de les justifier’ (p. 113).
They try to work backwards, justifying disaster after the event, so that they
can continue to cling to their belief systems.
A sudden shift takes place in Ribot’s argument here, from the relatively
safe ground of people he calls normal (but justificatory), to the quicksands of
reasoning among aliénés, people with persecution complexes. For them,
apparently, ‘le raisonnement de justification est sans cesse en action’ (p. 113).
He refuses, however, to go further into this subject, although he is willing to
assert that justificatory reasoning operates at the same pitch in both the sane
and the mad, an assertion which would seem to require more qualification: is
justificatory reasoning, then, a function of insanity? Might the states of
madness and health be linked through justificatory reasoning?
He next asserts that, because his study is ‘consacré au raisonnement
affectif ’ (p. 113), he does not intend to pursue a line of reasoning which
would take him into an examination of the unconscious prejudice affecting
all so-called pretence at scientific objectivity: historians, theologians, and
philosophers, he says, are all prey to this. He accuses, for example, Nietzsche
of falling into the same dialectic trap which the latter accuses Kant of doing:

Dans tous les cas de ce genre, la forme est celle de la logique

rationnelle. La structure du raisonnement est ferme, sans lacunes,
irréprochable; mais c’est un état d’âme extra-rationnel qui a
l’initiative et la haute direction. Ce qui paraît démonstration n’est
que justification. La logique de la raison semble maîtresse; en
réalité, elle est servante. On s’y trompe, parce que l’édifice
logique, bâti par des ouvriers habiles et subtils, n’a pas les
apparences naïves du raisonnement affectif où le dénouement est
connu d’avance. (p. 114)
Introduction to Proustian Passions 157

His final section is a grudging afterthought on raisonnement de consolation,

which is ‘né du besoin de trouver un remède à la douleur morale’ (p. 114):
‘un effort pour restituer, par des moyens artificiels, la quantité de vie et
d’énergie perdues’, in order to combat the effects of ‘les malheurs de
l’existence’ (p. 115). It consists in ‘la mise en valeur d’états passés ou futurs
propres à compenser le présent’ (p. 115). The genre of compensatory
writing, the ‘Consolation’, he attributes to Seneca and other rhetoricians, but
‘le simulacre de raisonnement qui le constitue reste vivace dans toutes les
formes de condoléance journalière’ (p. 115). Casually, Ribot dispenses with
an entire area of human activity, our everyday dealings with pain, sorrow, and
misery. Justificatory reasoning, even if it helps soothe pain? Away with it, ‘tis
Ribot has no hesitation in using an accusatory language which hopes to
place justification well outside his own position as arbiter and judge. But
beginning with unequivocal rejection of the concept, and a description of it
as parasitic on the poorest kind of rationality, he proceeds to undermine his
own statement with every succeeding example brought in. The more
categories he includes as using justificatory procedures to obtain their ends,
the more complex and multi-jointed the concept becomes, and the more its
separable but interconnected forms and parts rebound on Ribot’s text. His
own logic relies explicitly on separation: his very attempt at divisive
categories of affective reasoning demonstrates his belief that language
consists in neutral semantic units, whose combination does not result in a
self-reflexive flow, which starts to mean more than its producer intended. In
Ribot’s short essay, the whole of philosophy, indeed the activity of thought
attempts of any kind, seems to disappear into an underworld of impossibility.
No one, no one at all, knows how to think. Except perhaps the one man left
standing, the exclusive omniscient, Ribot himself? This is wildness of a
totalitarian kind, disturbingly persuasive in its scathing sweeps, yet reduced
to a precarious foothold in serious danger of undermining itself so
completely that it too disappears into the gulf left by the implosion of
There is a good reason for having examined so deeply two bad analyses
of self-justification. As part of Proust’s exposure to and immersion in a long
history of philosophy and psychology, these two close commentators on my
governing concept are also part of the overall history of ideas soundlessly
informing A la recherche du temps perdu and against which the novel project
slowly took shape.31 Malebranche the philosopher who tolerates but gently
mocks a conceptual category of reasoning, and Ribot the psychologist who
strives to hold at bay a threatening component of mental functioning, may
158 Ingrid Wassenaar

be seen as two kinds of hook holding up the intellectual backdrop upon

which Proust’s experimentation in subjectivity is conducted. Their analysis
contributes a set of thoughts, attitudes, and terminologies which will recur as
the study proceeds, and to which the main missing ingredient supplied by
Proust’s rigorous investigation of justification is, very precisely, self.


I need to make just two more points before going on to summarize my book’s
argument. The first is a kind of bookmark, to tell us how far we have already
come in getting to grips with the concept of self-justification. ‘A work that
aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in
every line.’32 Conrad’s injunction to the artist seems to refer to a perfectionism
which is also bound up in the relation between the art-maker and the art-
receiver, or reader, or consumer, or viewer. Proust, sometime in the murky
Contre Sainte-Beuve gestation period of 1908–9, has a similar note, but it is a
self-directed one, a goad and a goal. ‘Au fond’, he says, ‘toute ma philosophie
revient, comme toute philosophie vraie, à justifier, à reconstruire ce qui est.’33
Proust’s emphasis, at this melting-pot period out of which emerges a first-
person narrator, is vitally different from Conrad’s: for Proust, it is an
ontological drive which spurs him to completion; for Conrad, completion is
arrived at by satisfactorily arranging the presentation of the artwork. The
perfectionism injected into the whole course of the Proustian narrator’s
experience, and his concurrent or retrospective writing about it, is massive,
general, total; Conrad’s is local, measured, focused. Among the plethora of
other lustrous subjects Proust inspects: the functioning of Time, the workings
of Memory, the needs met and dispatched by Habit, the language of flowers,
the Dreyfus Affair, monocles, manacles, the Pompeian Métro, the calle of
Venice, he has rigorously analysed, articulated and then run to ground the
multiform modes of a very particular set of cognitive functions and relations.
Proust, of course, though it is a very felicitous ‘of course’, and my second point,
has thus built into his narrator’s perfectionism its own greatest blind spot.
Wittgenstein puts it this way: ‘Justification by experience comes to an end. If
it did not it would not be justification.’34 For Marcel, ontological
considerations are inextricably meshed with empirical methods of analysis,
which translates, as we will hear, into a powerful capacity to split open
apparently stable justifications into their component self-justificatory parts.
How then am I going to show you self-justification in action? Making
use of the new Pléiade edition of A la recherche du temps perdu, Brunet’s
Introduction to Proustian Passions 159

concordance of the novel, Le Vocabulaire de Proust, and the electronic

concordancing capacities of FRANTEXT (both of which are based on the
previous 1954 Pléiade edition of the text), it is the purpose of this study to
show the contents of various Proustian textual laboratories, each conducting
separate, but ultimately interconnected, linguistic, psychological and moral
experiments upon the possibilities offered by self-justification.35
The book divides into three parts. The first section examines the
workings of three of the set-piece salon and soirée scenes. Party-going, that
most unlikely of domains for research purposes, yields up some strange self-
justificatory performances which are almost always passed over or giggled at
without their vital significance as notes on acceptability being analysed.
If self-justification towards an external world perceived as intolerant
and indifferent is clearly important in A la recherche, occupying large swathes
of Le Côté de Guermantes and Sodome et Gomorrhe, other questions arise from
its study. The second part of the book divides into three subsections. They
look, in bald terms, at rhetoric, metaphor, and characterization.
Digression is the subject of Chapter 2. One of the most beloved of
Proustian stylistic features, digression is a trope which builds a seductive play
into rhetorical organization. Alarmingly, however, it is not far from seductive
play to defensive strategy of avoidance or evasion. Stopping in the middle of
digressions, rather than announcing triumphantly that there are digressions
in the novel, enables us to pursue a surprising, and painful line of argument
from parties to people, in other words, between group functioning and
relationships with individuals.
This line of argument that moves via the bulges of digression in A la
recherche resolves itself in the third chapter into a model for self-justification.
My model shows how self-justification works in two directions in A la
recherche. Vulnerability and doubt might be said to facilitate a dynamic
engagement with the outside world, to the extent that admission to
inadequacy opens a channel for the admission of alterity. They are also,
clearly, mental states prone to blockage. The figure of the cloison is suggested
as a focus of narratorial engagement with an intimate external reality, which
demonstrates Marcel’s investigative skills but also the site of their potential
failure. The cloison is a semi-permeable partition, a temporary screen which
divides spaces internally, and enables the transmission of sound but not of
light. It is used in the text both figurally and literally. Chapter 3 shows how,
while justifying himself to the outside world can be seen as a learnable skill,
even a necessary defence mechanism, based on imitation and disguise, self-
justification in relation to the discovery of homosexuality at the beginning of
Sodome et Gomorrhe, or the narrator’s realization that he has lost a source of
160 Ingrid Wassenaar

unconditional love with the death of his grandmother, hints at its potential
to mutate into wilful self-protection.
We now have a great deal of evidence about self-justification going on,
so to speak, outside the narrator: mindstuff he can see or hear, and only very
occasionally feel. So far, self-justification has been safely contained as
something that happens to other people. The final subsection, however,
continues work begun in the cloison chapter, to question the safety of that
detached spectacle. It investigates a particular difficulty apparent in the
matter of Proust’s characterization. Characters in the text who seem at first
sight straightforwardly comic, or one-dimensional, turn out to represent a
potential threat to the narratorial self, and we will need to spend some time
considering what Marcel does about this.
The first two sections of the study, then, show how Marcel justifies
himself in relation to external criteria. But when all of these external means
of measurement are removed, self-justification takes on an entirely new
aspect. In the final section of the argument, an investigation of the processes
of mourning is undertaken. Marcel mourns Albertine throughout Albertine
disparue in a solitary narrative of distress. It is a section of the text rarely
analysed, and reveals how Proust allows the different aspects of self-
justification to fuse, with devastating results.
This is a very new vision of how A la recherche du temps perdu works, an
epistemological and hermeneutic dilemma on active duty in the novel. And,
in due course, the claims that Proust makes about the uses of self-
justification, as they are presented in the text, will themselves suggest some
deeply troubling and painful conclusions. These will be conclusions first
about what Proust has written. In the second place, my conclusions are about
how literature makes an impact upon the world only and precisely to the
extent that it arises from intimacy with the world.


1. Aeschylus, The Oresteia: The Eumenides, l. 839.

2. Vital as the madeleine moment is, I do not intend to dwell upon it in this
study. Too many others have preceded me. Perhaps the most noteworthy of recent
times is Serge Doubrovsky’s psychoanalytic account, La Place de la madeleine (1974),
which has done a great deal to direct psychoanalytic literary criticism away from
‘psychobiography’, and promoted, along with the profoundly important narratological
work carried out by Gérard Genette, delicate attention to Proust’s use of language.
3. Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle (1931); Roger Shattuck, Proust’s Binoculars
(1964); Samuel Beckett, Proust (1965); Leo Bersani, Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life
and of Art (1965); Georges Poulet, L’Espace proustien (2nd edn. 1982).
Introduction to Proustian Passions 161

4. Compare J.L. Austin’s ‘A Plea for Excuses’, Philosophical Papers (1961).

Austin points out that flaws in linguistic functioning show how that functioning takes
place: ‘the breakdowns signalized by ... various excuses are of radically different kinds,
affecting different parts or stages of the machinery, which the excuses consequently
pick out and sort out for us’ (p. 128).
5. See The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (1966), 245.
6. Maurice Blanchot, Le Livre à venir (1959), 32–3.
7. See principally Marcel Muller, Les Voix narratives dans la recherche du temps
perdu (1983).
8. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Être et le néant (1943), 398–9.
9. Les Voix narratives, 15–16.
10. See Gérard Genette, Figures III (1972). For ‘prolepsis’ (anticipation), see
p. 82; for ‘paralepsis’ (here the narrator knowing too much for the formal, temporal,
and epistemological constraints within which he seems to be functioning), Genette’s
own neologism, see pp. 211–12. For more of Genette’s narratological work on Proust,
see ‘Métonymie chez Proust’, Figures III, 41–63, and of course the much more
detailed ‘Discours du récit’ in the same book, pp. 65–273; but also other essays, such
as ‘Proust palimpseste’, Figures I (1966), 39–67; and ‘Proust et le langage indirect’,
Figures II (1969), 223–94.
11. Augustine’s Confessions, c. 397; Rousseau’s monumental Les Confessions,
composed between 1764 and 1770, appeared posthumously from 1782; and his Les
Rêveries du promeneur solitaire and three dialogues, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques
supplemented this vast autobiographical exercise; Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe was
published in 1816; Fromentin’s Dominique was first published in serial form in La
Revue des Deux Mondes (April–May 1862); André Gide published L’Immoraliste in
1902, La Porte étroite in 1909, and La Symphonie pastorale in 1919.
12. See, however, for more detailed analysis of the genre of autobiography in
France and Europe than I can give here: Philippe Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique
(1975) and his Je est un autre (1980); John Sturrock, The Language of Autobiography
(1993); Michael Sheringham, French Autobiography (1993); Paul Jay, Being in the Text
(1984). This is an ever more fully theorized (and circumscribed) critical field, drawing
its methodologies particularly from speech act theory, psychoanalysis and
deconstruction. Autobiography has fascinating siblings in witness or testament
narrative, particularly of the Holocaust; see e.g., Elie Wiesel, La Nuit (1958). Michel
Foucault is the obligatory starting-point for critique of confession, see Histoire de la
sexualité, i, La Volonté de savoir (1976).
13. Dennis A. Foster, Confession and Complicity in Narrative (1987), 3.
14. Philippe Lejeune, ‘Écriture et sexualité’, Europe (1971); Jean-Louis
Baudry, Proust, Freud et l’autre (1984).
15. Michael Riffaterre, ‘Compelling Reader Responses’, in A. Bennet (ed.),
Reading Reading (1993), 100.
16. To be found, respectively, in JS 85–96 (written between 1892 and 1895,
for Les Plaisirs et les jours); JS 167–70 (1893); CSB 150–9 (based on the van
Blarenberghe matricide in 1907). Compare also ‘Violante ou la mondanité’ (1892), JS
29–37. A novella suppressed from Les Plaisirs et les jours was L’Indifférent (1896), ed.
Philip Kolb (Gallimard, 1978), which has received renewed interest recently. See Julia
Kristeva, Le Temps sensible (1994), 21–3. Kristeva’s interest is in the name of its
162 Ingrid Wassenaar

heroine, who suffers from a man’s indifference (because of his secret obsession with
brothels and prostitutes): it is, naturally, Madeleine.
17. 18 or 19 Sept., 1906 (Corr. vi. 127). See Baudry, Proust, Freud, 29.
18. George D. Painter, Marcel Proust (1990), ii. 64.
19. Here is Proust’s comment on the reversible transmission of characteristics
between mother and son in Jean Santeuil: ‘Peu à peu, ce fils dont elle avait voulu
former l’intelligence, les mœurs, la vie, avait insinué en elle son intelligence, ses
mœurs, sa vie même et avait altéré celles de sa mère’ (JS 871).
20. Baudry, Proust, Freud, 41. Antoine Compagnon demonstrates how casually
ingrained this maternal guilt topos has become in readings of Proust’s work, with
uncritical commentary on Proust’s so-called Baudelairean fascination with the
love–hate maternal relationship (see Proust entre deux siècles (1989), 160–5).
21. In ‘Reading (Proust)’, Allegories of Reading (1979), 57–78. See also
‘Autobiography as De-Facement’, MLN 94 (1979), 919–30, on prosopopoeia as the
trope of autobiography. Jonathan Culler has also written brilliantly on individual
rhetorical devices. See among other writings, his essay, ‘Apostrophe’, diacritics, 7
(1977), 59–69.
22. De Man, Allegories of Reading, 278–301.
23. See, for an example of this trend, Simon Critchley, The Ethics of
Deconstruction (1992).
24. For a good overview of early responses to Proust’s writing, see Leighton
Hodson (ed.), Marcel Proust: The Critical Heritage (1989). For responses by
contemporary writers, see Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust (1983), 153–231.
25. See Malcolm Bowie, Freud, Proust and Lacan (1987), for excellent analysis
of these points of theoretical crossover, fusion, and complementarity.
26. See the journal series Bulletin d’informations proustiennes. Genesis is the
organ of the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes (ITEM/CNRS). A measure
of the recent interest in the critical and theoretical possibilities offered by genetic
criticism can be seen in the publication of an issue of Yale French Studies, 89 (1996),
devoted to the subject.
27. It comes from late Latin, justification -em, in Augustine, etc.; comparable
with the 12th-cent. French justification (in Godefroy, Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue
française, perhaps the immediate source).
28. Nicolas Malebranche, ‘Que toutes les passions se justifient, et des
jugements qu’elles [nous] font [faire] pour leur justification’, De la recherche de la vérité
(1674–5), 3 vols. (Vrin, 1962), ii. 146–51.
29. Théodule Ribot, ‘Le Raisonnement de justification’, La Logique des
sentiments (1906; 5th edn. Alcan, 1920), 111–15 (p. 111).
30. André Lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (1993), i. 552.
31. See Kristeva, Le Temps sensible, 307–37, for an excellent summary and
analysis of Proust’s exposure to contemporary philosophy and psychology through his
school and university education, an exposure which took in a range of approaches
from the idealism of Schopenhauer’s concentration on Will, to Gabriel Tarde’s
resolutely cultural interpretation of society.
32. Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897; preface, 1914), 3.
33. Cahier 29. N. a. fr. 16669, publ. in CSB as part of ‘Notes sur la littérature
et la critique’, p. 309.
Introduction to Proustian Passions 163

34. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G. E. M. Anscombe

(1953), 136, §485.
35. Étienne Brunet, Le Vocabulaire de Proust, 3 vols. (1983); Marcel Proust, A
la recherche du temps perdu, 3 vols. (Gallimard, 1954), Online, FRANTEXT Base de
données textuelles du francais (, Internet.
FRANTEXT has an extremely useful concordancing programme. Its use as a labour-
and time-saving device cannot be over-estimated. The concordancing programme
can search not only for single-word instances, but also for word clusters, verb
declensions, and collocations. Lists of pertinent quotations may then be conveniently
downloaded and studied. At this time, the only difficulty is the subsequent page-
referencing work required in order to locate the word-pattern discoveries in the
1987–9 edn. of A la recherche, but this will be resolved when the first CD-ROM
hypertext edition of the text is put together, with esquisses, a publishing event that
cannot be far off.
W I L L I A M C . C A RT E R

The Vast Structure of Recollection:

from Life to Literature

I n Paris, on Saturday, 3 September 1870, as news of the humiliating defeat

of the French by the invading Prussian army at Sedan spread throughout the
capital, Dr Adrien Proust, a middle-aged Catholic bachelor, a grocer’s son
originally from the small provincial town of Illiers, married Jeanne Weil, the
Jewish daughter of a wealthy Parisian family. At twenty-one, the beautiful,
dark-haired woman was fifteen years younger than the bridegroom. No one
knows how they met, but it is likely they were introduced at a government
sponsored event or social gathering. Adrien had recently risen to the top
ranks in public health administration and Jeanne’s family had many
connections in official circles.
Marcel was born the following July at Uncle Louis Weil’s estate at
Auteuil where Jeanne’s family usually spent the summer months. The house,
built of quarrystones, was large, with spacious rooms, including a drawing
room with a grand piano and a billiard room where the family sometimes
slept to keep cool during heat waves.1 In fine weather Louis and his guests
enjoyed the large garden with a pond surrounded by hawthorn trees, whose
blossoms Marcel was also to admire in his other uncle, Jules Amiot’s garden
in Illiers.
Marcel’s mother possessed a lively mind, an unfailing sense of humour,
a profound appreciation of literature and music, combined with common

From The Cambridge Companion to Proust, edited by Richard Bales. © 2001 by Cambridge
University Press.

166 William C. Carter

sense and a firm belief in traditional bourgeois values. Her influence would
be the most important in Proust’s life. Jeanne and her mother, Adèle,
supervised his cultural education, exposing him to what they considered the
best works in literature. In Jean Santeuil, the mother initiates Jean into the
love of poetry by reading to him from Lamartine’s Méditations, Corneille’s
Horace and Hugo’s Contemplations. Jean’s mother believes that good books,
even if poorly understood at first, provide the child’s mind with healthy
nourishment that will later benefit him. When Marcel was older, his mother
and grandmother read with him the great seventeenth-century works, of
which he acquired a special understanding and appreciation. He came to love
the tragedies of Jean Racine, whose masterpiece Phèdre in its depiction of
obsessive, destructive jealousy haunts the pages of In Search of Lost Time.
Adrien’s sister, Élisabeth, had married Jules Amiot, who operated a
successful notions shop in Illiers at 14, place du Marché, opposite the church
of Saint-Jacques. It was to the Amiots’ house in the rue du Saint-Esprit that
Adrien returned with his wife and two young sons, Marcel and Robert,
during the Easter holidays, when the town was at its best, offering wild
flowers and trees in bloom that Marcel adored. The Prousts travelled by rail
from Paris to Chartres, where they changed trains for the short ride to Illiers.
Seen from afar as the train approached, Illiers was contained in its steeple,
just as is Combray in the Search:

Combray, de loin ... n’était qu’une église résumant la ville, la

représentant, parlant d’elle et pour elle aux lointains, et, quand on
approchait, tenant serrés autour de sa haute mante sombre, en
plein champ, contre le vent, comme une pastoure ses brebis, les
dos laineux et gris des maisons rassemblées. (I, 47)

[Combray at a distance ... was no more than a church epitomising

the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it to the horizon,
and as one drew near, gathering close about its long dark cloak,
sheltering from the wind, on the open plain, as a shepherdess
gathers her sheep, the woolly grey backs of its huddled houses.]
(I, 56/65)

Jules indulged his passion for horticulture by creating a large pleasure

garden, just beyond the banks of the gently flowing Loir River. He called it
the Pré Catelan, after a section of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. On the
south end of the garden a magnificent row of hawthorn trees rose up a slope,
leading to a large white gate that opened onto fields of blue cornflowers and
From Life to Literature 167

brilliant red poppies fanning out to the west and south on the plain towards
Méréglise and the château of Tansonville. The Pré Catelan became the
model in Swann’s Way for Charles Swann’s park at Tansonville near
Combray.2 It must have seemed natural to Marcel, who often played in the
Bois near Auteuil, for his Illiers uncle to name his own garden after the one
in Paris. The name held in common by the two principal gardens of his
childhood may have provided the first linking in Marcel’s mind of the two
spaces, Auteuil and Illiers, that inspired Combray.
In Illiers, Marcel visited his elderly grandmother Proust who lived in a
modest apartment. Relatively little is known about her except that she was an
invalid cared for by an old servant, which makes her a more likely model for
the hypochondriacal Aunt Léonie in the Search than Élisabeth Amiot,
generally considered the original. Adrien took his sons on walks to show
them where he had played as a child. He pointed out how two different
topographies join at Illiers: the Beauce, a flat, windy plain that, as it moves
westward, meets Le Perche, whose hilly terrain is ravined by streams rolling
down to feed the Loir River. The defining features of Combray’s fictional
topography approximate those of Illiers where the two walks—one the
landscape of an ideal plain, the other a captivating river view—embody, for
the child Narrator, two separate worlds.
As Adrien and his boys made their way back from Tansonville, it was
the steeple of Saint-Jacques, appearing now and then in the sky as they
mounted a hillock or rounded a bend, that beckoned them home. Proust
later used a motif from the church’s sculpted wood as one of the most
powerful symbols of his art. On either wall behind the altar stands a wooden
statue of a saint above whose heads are placed scallop shells. Such shells are
the emblem of Saint James (Jacques in French) and, in the Middle Ages, were
worn by the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The church
of Saint Jacques was a stopping point on the route to Spain. The shells also
provide the form of the little cakes known as madeleines, symbol of a key
revelation in the Narrator’s quest to find his vocation as a writer. Proust
would remember the connection between the pilgrims and the madeleines,
when he described the cakes in the Search: ‘the little scallop-shell of pastry,
so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds’ (I, 46; I, 54/63).
On his walks through the river country north of Illiers, Marcel spied on
Mirougrain, the large manor house built on a slope overlooking a water-lily
pond. Proust remembered the impressions evoked by this mysterious
dwelling later when creating the composer Vinteuil’s house in the Search. He
took the name of the old mill, Montjouvin, but used the setting and
atmosphere of Mirougrain for the lesbian love scene between Vinteuil’s
168 William C. Carter

daughter and her friend. The names of the streets, old inns, manor houses
and ruined churches of Illiers and its surroundings, such as Tansonville,
Méréglise, Montjouvin, Saint-Hilaire, rue de l’Oiseau flesché, were to live in
Proust’s memory and imagination, until he used them, with slight alterations
or none at all, as part of the material out of which he constructed Combray,
a place that exists only in his book.
A story that Proust wrote in his early twenties depicts the goodnight
kiss drama from his childhood, generally thought to have taken place at
Auteuil.3 In ‘La Confession d’une jeune fille’ [‘A Girl’s Confession’], a
woman, dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, confesses her weakness that
led to tragedy. Although she had given up her lewd behaviour to become
engaged to a fine young man, she succumbed one evening to the temptations
offered by an attractive guest. Her mother, who happened to catch the
daughter and visitor in a passionate embrace, fell dead from the shock. As the
girl lies dying, she recalls her childhood and the tender, loving relationship
with her mother. Until she reached fifteen, her mother left her every summer
at a country home. The child, like Marcel, dreaded more than anything
separation from her mother. Before departing, the mother used to spend two
days with her, coming each evening to her bed to kiss her goodnight, a
custom the mother had to abandon because ‘j’y trouvais trop de plaisir et
trop de peine, que je ne m’endormais plus à force de la rappeler pour me dire
bonsoir encore’ (JS, p.86) [‘it caused me too much pleasure and too much
pain, because due to my calling her back to say goodnight again and again I
could never go to sleep’].4 This is the prototype of the crucial goodnight kiss
scene in the Search that sets in motion the Narrator’s long quest to regain his
lost will and become a creative person.
In the Search, it is the mother’s habit to give the child Narrator one last
kiss before going to bed. On nights when company prevents her from
coming to his room, he is particularly upset. On one such night, he waits up
for her and then implores her to remain with him. She does not want to yield
to his nervous anxiety, but the usually stern father intervenes and capriciously
tells her to stay with the boy. The child, incredulous at the easy violation of
a strict rule, feels guilty for having caused his mother to abandon her
convictions. He will spend the rest of his life trying to recover the will he lost
that night and to expiate the wrong done to his mother. This scene illustrates
how Proust eventually learned to make his private demons serve the plot and
structure of his novel.
It was probably during the fall visit of 1886 to Illiers that Marcel, at
fifteen, knew that he wanted to be a writer. He had brought along Augustin
Thierry’s history, The Norman Conquest of England, considered a masterpiece
From Life to Literature 169

of historical narration. As he read page after page of vivid, picturesque

narration, he was captivated. In an early draft of Du côté de chez Swann, Proust
evokes this reading in the context of the Narrator’s visit to Combray:

Je lisais dans la ‘salle’ au coin du feu la ‘Conquête de l’Angleterre

par les Normands’ d’Augustin Thierry; puis quand j’étais fatigué
du livre, quelque temps qu’il fît, je sortais: mon corps resté
immobile pendant ces heures de lecture où le mouvement de mes
idées l’agitait sur place pour ainsi dire, était comme une toupie
qui soudain lâchée a besoin de dépenser dans tous les sens la
vitesse accumulée. (Textes retrouvés, pp.178–9.)

[I read, in the ‘living room’ by the fireside, Augustin Thierry’s

The Norman Conquest of England; then, when I tired of reading, I
went out, no matter what the weather: my body, which in the
long spell of immobility while reading for hours, during which
the movement of my ideas kept it moving in place so to speak,
was like a wound up top which, when suddenly released, felt the
need to let go, to expend the accumulated energy in every
direction.] (Translation mine.)

In the final version, the situation is the same, but the book is
unspecified. The Narrator realises, as he walks through the forest, that
despite his great desire to express himself as forcefully as the authors he
loves, he is incapable of doing so. He expels his pent-up energy and
frustrations by shouting and beating the trees with his umbrella. The passage
illustrates one of Proust’s most successful narrative tricks, used with
variations throughout the Search: he tells us in dazzling prose about his
inability to write!

Voyant sur l’eau et à la face du mur un pâle sourire répondre au

sourire du ciel, je m’écriai dans mon enthousiasme en brandissant
mon parapluie refermé: ‘Zut, zut, zut, zut.’ Mais en même temps
je sentis que mon devoir eût été de ne pas m’en tenir à ces mots
opaques et de tâcher de voir plus clair dans mon ravissement.
(I, 153)

[Seeing upon the water, and on the surface of the wall, a pallid
smile responding to the smiling sky, I cried aloud in my
enthusiasm, brandishing my furled umbrella: ‘Gosh, gosh, gosh,
170 William C. Carter

gosh!’ But at the same time I felt that I was in duty bound not to
content myself with these unilluminating words, but to
endeavour to see more clearly into the sources of my rapture.]
(I, 186/219)

The ebullience Marcel felt during such readings created in him an urge to
uncover and express the hidden secrets, the profound meaning of the
impressions stored up during his walks. And he had made an invaluable
discovery: he must devote his life to literature. But how? And what would he
write about?
One day while playing in the garden along the Champs-Élysées,
Marcel met Marie de Benardaky and fell in love. Once he met Marie,
nothing mattered more than the afternoon trek to the garden to find the
‘pretty, exuberant’ girl with the open, winsome smile whom he remembered
as ‘the intoxication and despair of my childhood’ and one of ‘the great loves
of my life’ (see Corr. XVII, 175, 194). In Jean Santeuil, where Proust describes
his infatuation, Marie appears with her real name (JS, p.46). His crush on
her evolved into the Narrator’s adolescent love for Gilberte.
But Marcel was not attracted solely to girls. He wrote classmates letters
expressing affection, recriminations and invitations to have sex (see Selected
Letters, I, 10–11). Many of his adolescent letters are remarkable because he
used them, not simply to express his emotions, but to analyse his feelings and
try to comprehend his motivations and those of his classmates. He played
roles and assigned different attitudes to his friends. This practice, begun at
such a young age, combined with his extraordinary sensitivity, which allowed
him to put himself in another’s place, served him well when, as a mature
writer, he began creating fascinating, multifaceted characters.
After high school, Marcel received invitations to Paris’s leading salons
where he met many prominent socialites, such as Charles Ephrussi and
Charles Haas, both successful Jews who moved at ease in the art world and
in high society and who served as models for Charles Swann. At Madeleine
Lemaire’s salon Proust met aristocrats, artists and political figures.
Celebrated actors Sarah Bernhardt and Réjane, both models for the Search’s
La Berma, often attended, as did writers Pierre Loti, Jules Lemaître and
Anatole France. Madeleine, who loved music, offered her guests the occasion
to listen to Paris’s most celebrated composers. One might hear Camille
Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet, or Gabriel Fauré at the piano playing their own
works or accompanying a singer. Here Proust met the darkly handsome
Reynaldo Hahn, only nineteen and already successful as a composer and
performer. Soon he and Marcel were inseparable. Madeleine, who insisted
From Life to Literature 171

upon silence during performances, provided the primary model for Proust’s
domineering hostess Mme Verdurin, who, like Lemaire, refers to the
members of her salon as the ‘faithful’.
Madeleine introduced Proust to Robert de Montesquiou and begged
the conceited, irascible count to be kind to the intimidated youth.
Montesquiou, recognising Marcel’s potential as an admiring disciple, invited
him to call. The count, arbiter of taste and epitome of aristocratic hauteur,
poet, artist, and critic, supplied Proust, over the years, with the major
ingredients for one of his most famous characters, the disdainful,
vituperative, homosexual Baron de Charlus.
Between his twentieth and twenty-fifth birthdays, Proust wrote many
stories that were published in reviews or in the volume Les Plaisirs et les jours,
illustrated by Madeleine Lemaire and prefaced by Anatole France. These
stories present important themes that were fully developed and orchestrated
in the mature novel. In L’Indifférent, a novella about desire, Marcel described
the fear of imminent death from suffocation. He likened an asthmatic child’s
experience of breathlessness to the feeling of panic and doom that overcomes
the lover upon learning that the beloved is to depart on a long voyage:

Un enfant qui depuis sa naissance respire sans y avoir jamais pris

garde, ne sait pas combien l’air qui gonfle si doucement sa
poitrine ... est essentiel à sa vie. Vient-il, pendant un accès de
fièvre, dans une convulsion, à étouffer? Dans l’effort désespéré de
son être, c’est presque pour sa vie, qu’il lutte, c’est pour sa
tranquillité perdue qu’il ne retrouvera qu’avec l’air duquel il ne la
savait pas inséparable.5

[A child who has been breathing since birth, without being aware
of it, does not realise how essential to life is the air that swells his
chest so gently ... But what happens if, during a high fever or a
convulsion, he starts to suffocate? His entire being will struggle
desperately to stay alive, to recapture his lost tranquillity that will
return only with the air from which, unbeknownst to him, it was
inseparable.] (My translation.)

Asthma, first experienced by Proust at age ten, reminded him of the sheer
terror that overtook him when he learned that his mother was leaving on a
trip and, eventually—when he had become so dependent on her presence—
even when she came to kiss him good night. L’Indifférent tells the story of
Madeleine who falls helplessly in love with Lepré, a man who cannot return
172 William C. Carter

her affection. She finally learns that he leads a secret life that explains his
indifference to decent women. He can only make love to prostitutes, whom
he pursues relentlessly. A similar trait is given to Swann, a highly eligible
bachelor who, rather than making a good marriage and settling down,
prefers to seduce servant girls.
‘Avant la nuit’ [‘Before Nightfall’], written in 1893, was Proust’s first
published work about a future major theme in the Search: same-sex love. The
character Françoise incarnates and legitimises homosexuality; like the
heroine of ‘La Confession d’une jeune fille’, she shoots herself. Before dying,
Françoise observes that Socrates, a wise and just man, tolerated
homosexuality. After acknowledging the superiority of procreative love, she
argues that when the purpose of lovemaking is not procreative, there can be
no ‘hierarchy among sterile loves’, and, therefore, it is no more immoral for
a woman to find pleasure with another woman than with a man. Françoise’s
final justification for such love is aesthetic. Since both female and male
bodies can be beautiful, there is no reason why ‘une femme vraiment artiste
ne serait pas amoureuse d’une femme. Chez les natures vraiment artistes
l’attraction ou la répulsion physique est modifiée par la contemplation du
beau’ (JS, p.170) [‘a woman who is truly an artist should not fall in love with
another woman. Among those with truly artistic natures, physical attraction
or repulsion is modified by the contemplation of beauty’: my translation].
These justifications for homosexual desire are refined and expanded in the
Search, where Proust became the first novelist to depict the continuum of
human sexual expression.
In these early stories, Proust treated themes that he was to develop
until they became uniquely his. In ‘L’Éventail’ [‘The Fan’] a lady paints on a
fan memories of her salon, a ‘little universe ... that we shall never see again’.
This notion of moments rescued from oblivion, illustrated by the minor art
of fan painting, states his main theme: time lost—and regained. But, like the
fan painter, Proust remained, until he was nearly forty, an artist in a minor
genre, rendering exquisite little pieces that might easily go unnoticed.
‘La Fin de la jalousie’ [‘The End of Jealousy’] focuses on another
major Proustian preoccupation. Honore is in love with Françoise, with
whom he has enjoyed a passionate, secret liaison. A gentleman friend tells
him that Françoise is easy to possess, but too arduous in her affairs. This
remark transforms Honoré, who becomes extremely jealous and
interrogates Françoise, who swears she has always been faithful. This story,
Proust’s favourite from his early years, possesses the dynamics of nearly all
the erotic relationships in the Search. The two most fully developed of these,
Swann’s obsession with Odette and the Narrator’s with Albertine, follow the
From Life to Literature 173

pattern of emotions that bind Honoré and Françoise. The lies that Honoré
tells Françoise, as he attempts to trick her into making revelations, are the
models for Swann’s jealous interrogations of Odette and the Narrator’s of
In 1895, Marcel and Reynaldo, vacationing in Brittany, reached the
village of Beg-Meil where, on a hill overlooking the sea, they found a small
hotel. It was here that Marcel most likely began drafting Jean Santeuil.
Proust’s encounter with Thomas Alexander Harrison, an American
expatriate, inspired the character known as the writer C, aspects of whom
Proust would use in the Search for Elstir who, like Harrison, is a painter.6 A
text combining Proust’s impressions of Beg-Meil and Lake Geneva sketches
a key theme: the phenomenon of memory ignited by a physical sensation, the
examination of which leads him to conclude that our true nature lies outside
time. One day Jean is driving through farmland near Geneva, when he
suddenly sees the lake:

En apercevant ainsi la mer (c’est presque la mer à cette heure-là)

au bout de la route ... Jean s’est aussitôt souvenu. Et voici qu’il la
voit belle, qu’il en sent le charme, de cette mer d’autrefois, en la
retrouvant là devant lui. Et soudain toute cette vie de là-bas qu’il
croyait inutile et inutilisée lui apparaît charmante et belle ...
quand le soleil baissait avec la mer devant soi. (JS, pp.398–9)

[Looking at the sea (at this hour it had almost the appearance of
the sea) at the end of the road ... Jean suddenly remembered. He
saw it before him as the very sea he once had known, and felt its
charm. In a flash, that life in Brittany which he had thought
useless and unusable, appeared before his eyes in all its charm and
beauty ... when the sun was setting and the sea stretched out
before him.]7

Then he wonders about the nature of the extraordinary phenomenon he is

experiencing and sees that what the poet needs to feed his imagination is
memory experienced in the present, containing both the past and now. Jean
then recalls a similar experience, provoked by the smell of a seaside villa
where he and his family had vacationed:

Toute cette vie, toutes ses attentes, ses ennuis, sa faim, son
sommeil, son insomnie, ses projets, ses tentatives de jouissance
esthétique et leur échec, ses essais de jouissance sensuelle ... ses
174 William C. Carter

essais de captation d’une personne qui plaît ... cette odeur a

enveloppé tout cela. (JS, p.400)

[The whole of that period of my life, with its hopes, its worries,
its hungers, its hours of sleep or sleeplessness, its efforts to find
joy in art—which ended in failure—its experiments in sensual
gratification ... its attempts to win the love of someone who had
taken my fancy ... all were caught up and made present in that
smell.] (p.408)

Shortly after 25 December 1898, Proust wrote to thank Marie

Nordlinger for her Christmas card. In his meditative letter he touched on
topics that pre-occupied him and would form the philosophical
underpinnings of his future work: the soul and its encasement in the body,
the passage of time and, through time, the slow, unconscious accumulation
of memories, largely ignored by the superficial, egotistical self. Sounding the
depths of his being, Proust perceived only a faint echo indicating the
unknown treasures that might lie buried beneath the sands of time. The
scent of tea and mimosa furnishes the sesame that opened, at least briefly in
1898, the door to the treasure trove. He spoke first about Christmas cards
and other symbols and why we need them:

Si nous n’étions que des êtres de raison nous ne croirions pas aux
anniversaires, aux fêtes, aux reliques, aux tombeaux. Mais comme
nous sommes faits aussi d’un peu de matière, nous aimons à
croire qu’elle est quelque chose aussi dans la réalité et nous
aimons que ce qui tient de la place dans notre cœur en ait aussi
une petite autour de nous, qu’elle ait, comme notre âme l’a en
notre corps, son symbole matériel. Et puis au fur et à mesure que
Noël perd pour nous de sa vérité comme anniversaire, par la
douce émanation des souvenirs accumulés il prend une réalité de
plus en plus vive, où la lumière des bougies ... l’odeur de ses
mandarines imbibant la chaleur des chambres, la gaité de ses
froids et de ses feux, les parfums du thé et des mimosas nous
réapparaissent enduits du miel délicieux de notre personnalité
que nous y avons inconsciemment déposée pendant des années,
alors que—fascinés par des buts égoïstes—nous ne la sentions
pas, et maintenant tout d’un coup elle nous fait battre le cœur.
(Corr. II, 269–70)
From Life to Literature 175

[If we were creatures only of reason, we would not believe in

anniversaries, holidays, relics or tombs. But since we are also
made up in some part of matter we like to believe that it too has
a certain reality and we want what holds a place in our hearts to
have some small place in the world around us and to have its
material symbol, as our soul has in our body. And while little by
little Christmas has lost its truth for us as an anniversary, it has at
the same time, through the gentle emanation of accumulated
memories, taken on a more and more living reality, in which
candlelight ... the smell of its tangerines imbibing the warmth of
heated rooms, the gaiety of its cold and its fires, the scent of tea
and mimosa, return to us overlaid with the delectable honey of
our personality, which we have unconsciously been depositing
over the years during which—engrossed in selfish pursuits—we
paid no attention to it, and now suddenly it sets our hearts to
beating.] (Selected Letters I, 180)

Proust must have recognised the importance of these insights, since he

transposed them for a scene in Jean Santeuil inspired by another of his muses,
the young and beautiful poet Anna de Noailles, to whom he gave the fictional
name Vicomtesse Gaspard de Réveillon. Proust attempted to state the
importance of such intoxicating, fleeting episodes, like the one evoked by tea
and mimosa, that inspire creativity:

Nos poèmes étant précisément la commémoration de nos

minutes inspirées, lesquelles sont déjà souvent une sorte de
commémoration de tout ce que notre être a laissé de lui-même
dans des minutes passées, essence intime de nousmême que nous
répandons sans la connaître, mais qu’un parfum senti alors, une
même lumière tombant dans la chambre, nous rend tout d’un
coup jusqu’à nous en enivrer et à nous laisser indifférents à la vie
réelle dans laquelle nous ne la sentons jamais, à moins que cette
vie ne soit en même temps une vie passée, de sorte que dégagés
un instant de la tyrannie du présent, nous sentons quelque chose
qui dépasse l’heure actuelle, l’essence de nous-même. (JS, p.521)

[Poems being precisely the commemoration of our inspired

moments which in themselves are often a sort of communication
of all that our being has left of itself in moments past, the
concentrated essence of ourselves which we exude without
176 William C. Carter

realising that we are doing so, which a perfume smelled in that

past time, a remembered light shining into our room, will
suddenly bring back so vividly, that it fills us with ... intoxication,
so that we become completely indifferent to what is usually called
‘real life’, in which it never visits us unless that life be at the same
time a past life, so that freed for a moment from the tyranny of
the present, we feel something that spreads out beyond the actual
minute, the essence of our being.] (p.464; ‘the essence of our
being’ is omitted from the English translation.)

In the Search, Proust turns this around, as hinted here, and says that
moments of vivid, spontaneous memory and their conscious application in
the creative process form the real life and that our daily life in its habitual,
vain actions is a life lived on the surface, and hence, a life lost.
The letter to Marie and the draft in Jean Santeuil where Lake Geneva
recalls Beg-Meil are Proust’s first known gropings for the elucidation of the
key moment in his novel: the experience he called involuntary memory.
These early attempts to describe and comprehend this phenomenon indicate
there was not one extraordinary moment in Proust’s life when he bit into a
madeleine and, in a frenzy of inspiration, began writing the Search. Proust
recognised, as early as Jean Santeuil, that the key to his work lay submerged
in the past. He saw the rich potential of such experiences, saying they were
‘alive on a higher level than memory or than the present so that they have
not the flatness of pictures but the rounded fullness of reality, the
imprecision of feeling’ (Jean Santeuil, p.409). But he was years away from
discovering how to make them serve a novel’s plot. Around 1899, unable to
create a plot and find the right point of view, he abandoned Jean Santeuil.
From 1900–05 Proust translated John Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens and
Sesame and Lilies. This arduous work, entailing the study of French history,
geography, architecture and the Bible, proved crucial to the development of
Proust’s own style and aesthetics. In ‘Sur la lecture’ [‘On Reading’], the
preface to his translation of Sesame and Lilies, Proust wrote: ‘Il n’y a peutêtre
pas de jours de notre enfance que nous ayons si pleinement vécus que ceux
que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre, ceux que nous avons passés avec un
livre préféré’ (CSB, p.160) [‘There are perhaps no days of our childhood we
lived so fully as those we believe we let slip by without having lived them,
those we spent with a favorite book’].8 Books were more than words on
paper; the novels he had loved in childhood held the power to evoke the
places in which he had first read them: ‘s’il nous arrive encore aujourd’hui de
feuilleter ces livres d’autrefois, ce n’est pas que comme les seuls calendriers
From Life to Literature 177

que nous ayons gardés des jours enfuis, et avec l’espoir de voir reflétés sur
leurs pages les demeures et les étangs qui n’existent plus’ (CSB, p.160) [‘If we
still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no
other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that
have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and
the ponds which no longer exist’].9 The beginning of the preface, with its
shifts in time and place, is an early sketch for the first paragraph of the Search,
where the Narrator in bed, falling asleep while reading, is uncertain of where
he is, who he is, and even what he is, since in his slumbering state he confuses
his own identity with that of the book he is trying to read. The preface ends
with another resurrection of the past. Readers of the preface cannot have
known—nor could Proust himself—that they were being given a foretaste of
On New Year’s Day, 1908, Mme Straus gave Proust five little
notebooks from a smart stationery shop. Thanking her in a February letter,
he indicated that he had a new project and was eager to ‘settle down to a
fairly long piece of work’ (Selected Letters II, p.348). The first of these
notebooks, known as Le Carnet de 1908, bears annotations for various
projects that slowly converge and lead to the Search.10 One episode, evoking
childhood memories, shows his little brother Robert being forced to part
with his pet kid. Robert was eventually written out of the story altogether
and the lengthy scene reduced to twenty-five lines when the Narrator bids
farewell to his beloved hawthorns at Combray (I, 143; I, 173–4/203–4). Other
autobiographical elements are found here. The Narrator’s mother,
encouraging him to be brave while she is away, quotes inspiring passages
about courage from Latin and French authors. For several years, Proust
made entries in the notebook regarding topics and themes, lists of names that
might serve for characters, and sensations: odours of rooms, bed sheets,
grass, perfume, soap, food, capable of reviving the past. The Carnet of 1908
served as a memo pad and, later, as an inventory of sections already written.
As the 1908 text progressed from essay to fiction, the theme of homosexual
love, nearly absent from Jean Santeuil, became a major topic. In the Search
Proust analyses erotic love in heterosexual and homosexual couples, showing
that the obsessions of desire and jealousy are the same and doomed to failure
because they are based on illusions.
In July, Proust listed the six episodes he had written (Le Carnet de 1908,
p.56). The first was ‘Robert and the Kid’, followed by ‘the Villebon Way and
the Méséglise Way’. The two place names, the first from a château near
Illiers and the other from a nearby village, indicate he had found the ‘two
ways’, one of the major unifying elements of the Search. Another key episode
178 William C. Carter

was the mother’s goodnight kiss. The last episode on the list concludes the
story: ‘What I learned from the Villebon Way and the Méséglise Way’.
Proust had conceived an apprentice novel, in which the neurotically
dependent Narrator grows up to explore the two ways of his world—that of
the landed gentry and Paris salons—fails to find happiness in erotic love, and
explores the world of homosexuality. Proust’s novel would be circular in time
and space. As a child the Narrator believed the two ways led in different
directions and must remain forever separated, but as an adult, he discovers
the ways are joined by a circular path. Having completed his quest, the
Protagonist understands, at last, the true nature of his experience, is fully
endowed as a creative person and ready to write the ideal version of the story
we have just read.
However, Proust’s latest efforts to write a novel were again undermined
by self-doubt. Overwhelmed by all that he wanted to say and his inability to
shape and focus the material, he felt a sense of urgency: ‘Warnings of death.
Soon you will not be able to say all that.’ Then Proust judged himself severely:
‘Laziness or doubt or impotency taking refuge in the lack of certainty over the
art form.’ He was stymied by the same challenges regarding plot, genre, and
structure that had made him abandon Jean Santeuil. He asked the questions
left unanswered a decade earlier: ‘Must I make of it a novel, a philosophical
study, am I a novelist?’ (Le Carnet de 1908, pp.60–1).
Before he felt confident that he had found his story, Proust made one
more detour in pursuing his goal, this time by way of Sainte-Beuve. In late
1908, Proust bought a quantity of school notebooks. By August 1909, he had
written nearly 700 pages of an essay attacking the eminent critic’s method
and legacy. Some of these drafts anticipate the Search. By mid-December
Proust found himself at an impasse. He wrote to Georges de Lauris and
Anna de Noailles, whose literary judgement he trusted, and asked each to
indicate the better of two ideas for attacking Sainte-Beuve:

La chose s’est bâtie dans mon esprit de deux façons différentes ...
La première est l’essai classique, l’Essai de Taine en mille fois
moins bien (sauf le contenu qui est je crois nouveau). La
deuxième commence par un récit du matin ... Maman vient me
voir près de mon lit, je lui dis que j’ai l’idée d’une étude sur
Sainte-Beuve, je la lui soumets et la lui développe.
(Corr. VIII, 320–1)

[The idea has taken shape in my mind in two different ways ...
The first would be a classical essay, an essay in the manner of
From Life to Literature 179

Taine, only a thousand times less good (except for the content
which I think is new). The second begins with an account of a
morning, my waking up and Mama coming to my bedside; I tell
her I have an idea for a study of Sainte-Beuve; I submit it to her
and develop it.] (Selected Letters II, 416)

In drafts for the introduction to Against Sainte-Beuve, Proust wrote that

his old cook ‘offered me a cup of tea, a thing I never drink. And as chance
would have, she brought me some slices of dry toast.’ As soon as he dipped
the toast in the tea and tasted it ‘je ressentis un trouble, des odeurs de
géraniums, d’orangers, une sensation d’extraordinaire lumière, de bonheur’.
[‘Something came over me—the smell of geraniums and orange-blossoms, a
sensation of extraordinary radiance and happiness.’] He concentrated on the
taste of the toast and tea ‘qui semblait produire tant de merveilles, quand
soudain les cloisons ébranlées de ma mémoire cédèrent, et ce furent les étés
que je passais dans la maison de campagne ... Alors je me rappelai ... ’ (CSB,
p.212) [‘which seemed responsible for all these marvels; then suddenly the
shaken partitions in my memory gave way, and into my conscious mind there
rushed the summers I had spent in the ... house in the country. And then I
In his critical remarks about Sainte-Beuve, Proust is writing as himself
in a fictional situation, imagining a conversation with his mother. This
invented setting for a real person (Proust) commenting on another real
person and his work (Sainte-Beuve) served as the incubator for the
emergence of the Narrator’s full voice. In the Sainte-Beuve passages
describing involuntary memory, Proust began to transmute his lived
experience and his invented ones into the Narrator’s life. We can see the
transition from essayist to novelist in many notations from Le Carnet de 1908.
A strange but remarkably fecund symbiosis is being created in which Proust
is himself and not himself as the Narrator. Although highly autobiographical,
the Search is a true novel. The Narrator, who resembles Proust in many ways,
is different in others. Although remarkably well informed about
homosexuality, he desires only women. His mother, unlike Jeanne Proust, is
not Jewish nor is the hero’s father a distinguished medical luminary. By the
time he finished his novel, Proust would have created what is perhaps the
richest narrative voice in literature, a voice that speaks both as child and as
man, as actor and as subject, and that weaves effortlessly between the present,
past and future.
While writing about his dilemma as an author, Proust had been tracing,
without seeing it, the answer to the question that had tortured him for so
180 William C. Carter

long. The Search is about a man who cannot write and spends his life
pursuing the wrong paths (lost time, wasted time), until at the very end, ill,
discouraged, and growing old, he discovers that his vocation is to write the
experience of his life—now that he understands it at last and can transpose it
into a work of fiction. This moment of illumination is described in Time

Alors, moins éclatante sans doute que celle qui m’avait fait
apercevoir que l’œuvre d’art était le seul moyen de retrouver le
Temps perdu, une nouvelle lumière se fit en moi. Et je compris
que tous ces matériaux de l’œuvre littéraire, c’était ma vie passée;
je compris qu’ils étaient venus à moi, dans les plaisirs frivoles,
dans la paresse, dans la tendresse, dans la douleur, emmagasinés
par moi, sans que je devinasse plus leur destination, leur
survivance même, que la graine mettant en réserve tous les
aliments qui nourriront la plante ... je me trouvais avoir vécu pour
elle sans le savoir, sans que ma vie me parût devoir entrer jamais
en contact avec ces livres que j’aurais voulu écrire et pour
lesquels, quand je me mettais autrefois à ma table, je ne trouvais
pas de sujet. Ainsi toute ma vie jusqu’à ce jour aurait pu et n’aurait
pas pu être résumée sous ce titre: Une vocation. (IV, 478)

[And then a new light, less dazzling, no doubt, than that other
illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art
was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time, shone suddenly
within me. And I understood that all these materials for a work of
literature were simply my past life, I understood that they had
come to me, in frivolous pleasures, in indolence, in tenderness, in
unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the
purpose for which they were destined or even their continued
existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a
reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a
plant ... I began to perceive that I had lived for the sake of the
plant without knowing it, without ever realising that my life
needed to come into contact with those books which I had
wanted to write and for which, when in the past I had sat down at
my table to begin, I had been unable to find a subject. And thus
my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have
been summed up under the title: A Vocation.] (VI, 258–9/304)
From Life to Literature 181

In 1909, while vacationing at Cabourg, Proust wrote Mme Straus and

told her: ‘ ... I’ve just begun—and finished—a whole long book’ (Selected
Letters II, 445–6). This ‘whole long book’ was the earliest draft of the Search,
the opening section ‘Combray’, which establishes the major characters,
locations, themes, and the conclusion, in which the Narrator understands the
lessons from his apprenticeship. The most important word in the letter is
‘finished’. Since the days when he struggled unsuccessfully to complete Jean
Santeuil, Proust had never been able to finish any work of fiction because he
lacked the story and point of view. He had at last found the ideal structure
for his narrative skills. Proust never composed in a linear manner or
according to an outline. He always worked like a mosaicist, taking a
particular scene, anecdote, impression, image, and crafting it to completion.
In his manuscripts, there are many notes to himself about such bits, ‘To be
placed somewhere’, or, if a remark or trait, to give it to a certain character or
perhaps to another. As he composed and orchestrated the rich Proustian
music, the structure expanded to include the war years and the Albertine
cycle, partly influenced by his love for the doomed chauffeur Alfred
In the summer of 1911, Proust wrote René Gimpel, who had
connections with the Japanese art world, to inquire if he knew

le petit jeu japonais ... qui consiste à mettre des petits papiers
dans l’eau [lesquels] se contournent devenant des bonshommes
etc. Pourriez-vous demander à des Japonais comment cela
s’appelle, mais surtout si cela se fait quelquefois dans du thé, si
cela se fait dans de l’eau indifféremment chaude ou froide, et
dans les plus compliqués s’il peut y avoir des maisons, des arbres,
des personnages, enfin quoi. (Corr. X, 321. Proust’s emphasis.)

[the little Japanese ... game that consists in soaking little scraps of
paper in water which then twist themselves round and turn into
little men, etc. Could you ask someone Japanese what it’s called,
and especially whether it’s sometimes done with tea, whether it’s
done with either hot or cold water, and in the more complicated
ones whether there can be houses, trees, persons, or what have you.]
(Selected Letters III, 43–4, and n. I. Proust’s emphasis.)

Proust had returned to the image of tea and toast (from the essay on Sainte-
Beuve) for the passage on involuntary memory, adding the madeleine dipped
in tea and expanding the metaphoric role of the Japanese pellets to explain
182 William C. Carter

this phenomenon that revived the past. He intended to place the scene in the
Combray section where it is the first such episode. He was curious about the
pellets’ capacity to form houses and people because when the Narrator bites
into the tea-soaked cake, the sensations that overwhelm him evoke the entire
village from his lost youth:

Et comme dans ce jeu où les Japonais s’amusent à tremper dans

un bol de porcelaine rempli d’eau, de petits morceaux de papier
jusque-là indistincts qui, à peine y sont-ils plongés s’étirent, se
contournent, se colorent, se différencient, deviennent des fleurs,
des maisons, des personnages consistants et reconnaissables, de
même maintenant toutes les fleurs de notre jardin et celles du
parc de M. Swann, et les nymphéas de la Vivonne, et les bonnes
gens du village et leurs petits logis et l’église et tout Combray et
ses environs, tout cela qui prend forme et solidité, est sorti de ma
tasse de thé. (1, 47)

[And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by

filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces
of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the
moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour
and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid
and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden
and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and
the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the
parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings,
taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens
alike, from my cup of tea.] (1, 54–5/64)

The conclusion of the madeleine scene summarises the experience of

involuntary memory, the means by which the Narrator can regain his past,
whose elements he will, upon the discovery of his vocation, examine,
comprehend, enrich and transpose into a work of art:

Quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres,
après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus
vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur
et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se
rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à
From Life to Literature 183

porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable,

l’édifice immense du souvenir. (1, 46)

[When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people

are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and
smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial,
more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like
souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the
rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable
drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.] (1,


1. See Denise Mayer, ‘Le Jardin de Marcel Proust’, Cahiers Marcel Proust,
nouvelle série 12, Études proustiennes 5 (1984), 14.
2. In 1971, on the centennial of Proust’s birth, Illiers officially changed its
name to Illiers-Combray, in a brilliant public-relations initiative and unique example
of reality yielding to fiction.
3. In a letter written after his mother’s death, Proust recalled his ‘childhood
when she would refuse to come back ten times and tell me goodnight before going
out for the evening’. See Corr. VI, 28.
4. Marcel Proust, Pleasures and Regrets, trans. Louise Varese (New York:
Crown, 1948), p.32.
5. L’Indifférent, introduced and edited by Philip Kolb (Paris: Gallimard, 1978),
pp.42–3. By coincidence, the last sentence quoted contains two words that are the
keys to the Search: loss and recapture.
6. Philip Kolb, ‘Historique du premier roman de Proust’, in Saggi e ricerche di
letteratura francese, IV, 1963, 224.
7. Jean Santeuil, trans. Gerard Hopkins (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1956), p.408.
8. On Reading Ruskin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), p.99.
Translation slightly modified.
9. On Reading Ruskin, pp.99–100.
10. Le Carnet de 1908 transcribed and edited by Philip Kolb, Cahiers Marcel
Proust, nouvelle série 8, 1976.
11. See Marcel Proust, On Art and Literature, trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner
and with an introduction by Terence Kilmartin (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997),
p.19. See also Against Sainte-Beuve and Other Essays, translated with an introduction
and notes by John Sturrock (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), pp.3–4.

Albertine’s Bicycle, or: Women and French Identity

during the Belle Epoque

Seul, je restai simplement devant le Grand-Hôtel [ ... ] quand [ ... ] je vis

avancer cinq ou six fillettes, aussi différentes, par l’aspect et par les façons,
de toutes les personnes auxquelles on était accoutumé à Balbec, qu’aurait
pu l’être, débarquée on ne sait d’où, une bande de mouettes [ ... ]. Une de
ces inconnues poussait devant elle, de la main, sa bicyclette.
—Marcel Proust, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs.1

I t is often suggested that French identity was reconstructed during the early
years of the Third Republic, after the trauma of the Franco-Prussian war and
the gradual elimination of attempts to revive either the monarchy or the
Empire. The consolidation of republican institutions, and the national and
republican pride instilled in French children through the primary school
under Jules Ferry in the 1880s, are convincingly portrayed by historians such
as Eugen Weber, in his Peasants into Frenchmen (1977), as contributing to a
unitary sense of nationhood.2 Weber’s very title, however, points to some
gender trouble. This turns up again in Benedict Anderson’s analysis of
‘imagined communities’, in which France is a constant presence.3 The
collectively imagined community often turns out in Anderson’s book to be
male-centred, with a recurring note of ‘fraternity’, of violence (‘dying for the
nation’), and even of ‘reassuring fratricide’, located in previous internal civil

From Literature & History 10, no. 1 (Spring 2001). © 2001 by Manchester University Press.

186 Siân Reynolds

strife. With the overtly masculine language of fraternity being so closely

linked to identity, what kind of national identity, one might inquire, were
women supposed to adhere to? Although during the period usually known as
the Belle Epoque, French women were beginning to see some changes in their
status, they were still excluded from citizenship and from many civil rights
taken for granted by men.
Fin-de siècle republican ideology explicitly viewed the role of women, as
in the Jacobin republic a hundred years earlier, as reproductive. The French
state asked them to produce citizens, not to be citizens themselves.
Anticlerical politicians moreover considered women overly subject to the
influence of the Catholic Church, a question which was long to bedevil their
claims for the suffrage. But while historical discussion of French national
identity has tended to marginalize women, they are extraordinarily present
in the literary and iconographic history of Belle Epoque France. This was not
a society without women, rather it was an age when relations between the
sexes were a major and much-discussed preoccupation. This paper will argue
that attempts to construct a unitary French identity were in conflict with an
alien notion: that of the New Woman, ‘landed none knew whence’, as Proust
described his first sight of Albertine and her friends.
Let me start with a cultural event often viewed as emblematic of Belle
Epoque France: the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. The entry to the
site was marked by an ornamental gate (‘Porte Monumentale’) of a
staggeringly lurid nature, covered with newly-invented electric light bulbs
and topped by a statue described as ‘La Parisienne’. Paul Morand, a small
boy at the time, later described this effigy, in Paris 1900, as ‘une sirène
chapeautée au bateau de la Ville de Paris, à jupe plate, rejetant au vent un
manteau du soir en fausse hermine’.4 The Parisienne departed from the
familiar allegorical representations of women. Paris in the 1900s was filling
up with statues, a process sometimes described as ‘la statuomanie’. They
were either of fullyclothed men—politicians, scientists, heroes of the
Republic—or of less than fully-clothed women, allegories of the Republic.
But the Parisienne was a woman fully-clad in contemporary costume.
Despite her symbolic hat, she was recognizable as a ‘real’ woman,
significantly depicted as fashionable and frivolous: Belle Epoque iconography
showed women as essentially decorative. At the same time, one of the
pavilions at the Exhibition was the Palais de la Femme. This idea had
originated in the United States, and had figured at the World’s Fairs of
Philadelphia (1876), New Orleans (1884), and especially Chicago (1893), but
it was the first time it had appeared in Paris. The French version of the
Women’s Pavilion was less serious than its American counterparts: described
Women and French Identity during the Belle Epoque 187

in the official report as ‘delicately elegant’, it had a basement devoted to

‘woman’s dress, hygiene and coquetry’. A series of waxworks depicted ‘la
journée d’une mondaine, depuis l’heure du thé matinal jusqu’à la parure pour
le théatre ou pour le bal, en passant par la promenade au bois dans une
victoria impeccablement attelée’.5 There was also a library stocked with
books by women authors, a theatre, art gallery, and of course a patisserie and
restaurant. Meanwhile in another building in Paris, an international
conference about women’s rights was taking place—one of three women’s
conferences organized under the aegis of the Exhibition. There was a strong
American presence, though the American delegates complained that French
issues had predominated, and pressed their French colleagues to constitute a
branch of the International Council of Women—which they eventually did
in 1901.6
My argument will concentrate on the French notion of ‘woman’ as
symbolized by ‘la Parisienne’, and the clash with an American concept of ‘the
woman question’. The hypothesis which underlies what follows is that the
turn of the century was a time when France, the fashionable destination of so
many travellers and tourists, was under insistent pressure as never before
from Anglo-American culture. A number of destabilizing influences found
their way in, but were very strongly resisted by the dominant French culture.
This was neither the first nor the last time that this happened, but the cracks
and contradictions introduced then would run through French culture to the
present, creating areas of conflict and resistance, or reformulation of what
Frenchness was. One of the principal ‘Trojan horses’ during the Belle Epoque
was the New Woman. How much change in women’s status and identity
could ‘Frenchness’ absorb?
The New Woman was a genuinely Anglo-American creation, the label
itself first coined in an article by Ouida in an American journal in 1894.7 She
was a cultural construct, but the models had been in circulation some time.
Literary sources include Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Chernichevsky’s What is
to be done? In George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs Warren’s Profession, written in
1894 (not performed until 1902 because too immoral), Mrs Warren’s
daughter, Vivie, is instantly recognizable as a new woman. Shaw’s stage
directions describe her as ‘a sensible, able, highly-educated young
middleclass Englishwoman. Age 22. Prompt, strong, confident, self-
possessed’; she shakes hands with ‘a resolute and hearty grip’. Vivie rides a
bicycle, prominently displayed on stage, has just ‘tied with the third
wrangler at Cambridge’, but intends to be an actuary and make a lot of
money—inspiring a male character to remark that she makes his blood run
188 Siân Reynolds

Some American scholars, notably Mary-Louise Roberts and Christine

Stansell, have begun looking at the New Woman in a French context, but
interestingly the Anglo-American version could not be said to transfer easily
to France. To take just one aspect of the New Woman, her healthy
athleticism was in part the result of organized sport in girls’ schools,
something which was not on the whole to be found in France. There were of
course plenty of strong, forceful individual French women, but Christine
Stansell suggests that ‘New Women’ often take on the characteristics of the
vamp or the femme fatale in Europe, inspiring fear rather than respect, let
alone comradeship.9 The term ‘femme nouvelle’ does not appear to have
caught on in France during this period, and when it does it appears to be
associated with foreign influence. A Doll’s House was not performed in France
until 1895, although it had been played in English in 1879; conservative
critics associated it with an alien kind of modernism. As an article in the
conservative L’Illustration put it on 10 February 1894, before Antoine’s Paris
production had been seen: ‘Ibsen, Hauptman, Maeterlinck—Sweden,
Germany, Belgium—a triple alliance against the spirit of France: it will resist
them.’10 Was there any space for a new French woman? Putting it briefly, by
the late 1890s, girls in France had started to receive a better education than
ever before. The Jules Ferry laws had created not only state primary
schooling for girls in every village, but also girls’ lycées and the superstructure
of écoles normales and écoles normales supérieures. The woman schoolteacher
becomes a core participant in almost any political and feminist activity from
this period. The very first women were entering universities—in very small
numbers, true, but it was no longer impossible. Thirty-two women were
attending the Paris medical faculty in 1879, most of them foreign. By 1914,
there were 578. In 1900, there was a total of 624 French women students in
all faculties—their number exceeded that of foreigners only in 1912–13. One
should not of course exaggerate the progress made by 1900–1905;
educational change took more than one generation to work through.
It was also a time when women’s economic activity began to become
more statistically significant in jobs other than traditional farming or
partnership in a small shop or firm. The post office for example was well on
the way to being ‘feminized’ in 1906: 22% of its employees were women. In
the same census, in 1906, 170 women per thousand were to be found in
‘commercial professions’, compared to 82 in 1866. Women clerks and typists
were starting to appear, though not in dramatic numbers. Women worked in
factories, in sweatshops and as outworkers, and in a range of fairly traditional
jobs, as well as these new ones. In 1906, there were 206,000 domestic
servants in Paris, 11% of the population, and 83% of these were women.
Women and French Identity during the Belle Epoque 189

They were hardly being emancipated by such work, but it meant that many
were leaving their native villages to become Parisians, leading a very
different life from their mothers and grandmothers.11
While the Belle Epoque could hardly be called an age of opportunity for
Frenchwomen, it was nevertheless an age when old structures were starting
to creak and leak. Very schematically, we could point to the inventions of
those metallic geared machines, the typewriter, the sewing-machine and the
bicycle, which had all arguably made more difference to women’s lives than
to men’s. The sewing-machine was both a boon and a shackle—it made
sewing easier, but swelled the numbers of women working at home for
desperately low wages sewing garments. Similarly, training in typewriting
soon became a woman’s passport to a white-collar office job (mainly after
1914), but it would confine most such women to subordinate positions as
underpaid typists for years to come. The bicycle however really can be
regarded as a symbol of liberation: it enabled women to get about in a fairly
safe and rapid way, and it began to make a difference to their clothes and
deportment. Ottilie McLaren, a Scottish pupil of Rodin’s who studied
sculpture in Paris in the late 1890s, rode to the studio on her bike:

I bike à l’américaine as the nicest French people do: a short skirt

about 4 or 5 inches below the knee and long gaiters which go
right to meet the knicker-bockers in case of one’s skirt blowing
up. I always strap mine down.12

Note the American reference.

Ottilie McLaren was an example of a phenomenon about which I have
written elsewhere: the invasion of Paris by English, American and other
foreign women art students in the 1890s and 1900s.13 These foreign
students, who came to France as a land of freedom and excitement, disrupted
the long-established studio tradition in which virtually the only women
present were artists’ models (ironically, many models were Italian
immigrants). Paradoxically, neither Paris nor any other city was liberty hall
for most French women: foreign women in France were literally foreign
bodies, operating by different rules. French bourgeois society in particular
was still strongly marked by practices and habits of the nineteenth century,
and the experience of foreign women in France is one of culture clash. Shari
Benstock in Women of the Left Bank suggests that Edith Wharton and Natalie
Barney, who in their various ways frequented avant-garde and bohemian
circles, were ‘guests of a culture whose secret heart they never penetrated’.14
190 Siân Reynolds

A L B E RT I N E ’ S B I C Y C L E

Is that secret heart to be glimpsed in Proust? Yes and no. The second part of
this paper suggests that the New Woman, seen as in some sense non-French,
sent a shudder through his world. Proust is at once a reliable and an
unreliable source for a historian of the Belle Epoque. He did not of course set
out to paint a realistic picture of his society, still less of ‘women’, in the style
of Zola; nevertheless, we know him to have drawn on obsessive observation
of those around him, consciously and unconsciously. Proust, as the
photographic evidence tends to show, frequented the rarefied society of well-
to-do Paris, in which women were important players. Unlike in most history
books, women are everywhere in A la recherche, conducting games of power
and love. The emotional economy of this novel, I would argue, provides us
(rather surprisingly) with some kind of context for the New Woman. To
illustrate the point, let us look briefly at four of the important women who
appear in it, all of them French: Françoise, the family servant, Odette de
Crécy, who becomes Mme Swann, Madame Verdurin, the society hostess,
and Albertine, the narrator’s young lover. To give some chronological
perspective, Proust himself was born in 1871. Gérard Genette’s projected
chronology of his novel has the narrator (‘Marcel’) and his exact
contemporary Gilberte Swann being born rather later than that, in 1878.
Françoise, Odette and Mme Verdurin are from an older generation than the
narrator, being adults before he was born, while Albertine is supposed to be
a little younger than him.15
Françoise, a sort of compendium of la vieille France, with her
picturesque habits of speech, her prejudices and her networks of power and
communication among other servants, is a rather monstrous creation, for
whom Proust probably drew on several family servants. But it is not difficult
to locate her in a context where servants stayed many years with their
families, becoming intimate with them and in time-honoured ways exerting
the power of the powerless. J.-B. Duroselle, in his book re-titled La France de
la Belle Epoque (1972 and 1995), has a section on domestic servants in which
he cites several life-stories. For example, Françoise Remeniera, born in 1864
in the Corréze, was a sharecropper’s child who watched over the sheep as a
girl. After her husband’s death from tuberculosis, she became a wet-nurse in
a Parisian family, sending money back home to the village for her three
children, who stayed with relatives, and whom she saw only in the summer.
In 1899, she entered the service of another Paris household, where she stayed
until her death in 1946, being completely devoted to this family and they to
her. She had no real holidays or days off, apart from the three weeks in the
Women and French Identity during the Belle Epoque 191

year when she returned to the village. She reportedly ended up feeling more
at home with the family she served.16 Duroselle remarks of this life-story
that it is both touching and almost incomprehensible to us today—yet we can
easily recognize Proust’s Françoise in this biography. She has a daughter for
instance, who is only infrequently mentioned. In terms of a French identity,
if I can put it this way, Françoise represents a countrywoman, a woman of the
people, a source of mystery and fascination to the bourgeois narrator.
Brusque and kind, devious and long-suffering, she could be recruited for a
Barrèsian tradition of Frenchness rooted in ‘the people’ or ‘in the soil’, her
attitude to her employers being loyal yet cynical, traditional, yet in obscure
ways rebellious.
Odette de Crécy is also a construct of a traditional kind, in its 1890s
manifestation: the beautiful demi-mondaine, mistress to one or more rich and
powerful men, but nevertheless received after a fashion in Parisian polite
society—though not in the narrator’s bourgeois family home at Combray,
even after she had married Charles Swann, the family friend. Originals
whom Proust is said to have had in mind are Laure Hayman and Liane de
Pougy. Odette is painted in a very hostile way much of the time, and the
reader is left in no doubt about the superior intelligence, sophistication and
to some extent moral fibre of Swann, who ends up reflecting that he has
‘gâché ma vie pour une femme qui n’était pas mon genre’, ruined his life ‘for
a woman who wasn’t even my type’. Odette is unfaithful, ungrateful, silly,
snobbish and so on. Yet at the same time, both for Swann and for the
narrator, Odette holds an extraordinary fascination. In terms of the novel’s
structure, she is located as the older sophisticated woman enchanting the
narrator during his youth. In a passage at the end of Du côté de chez Swann,
he remembers her with nostalgia in the Bois de Boulogne, either in simple
elegance ‘à pied, dans une polonaise de drap, sur la tête un petit toquet
agrémenté d’une aile de lophophore, un bouquet de violettes au corsage [ ... ]
traversant l’allée des Acacias’, or in magnificent contrast lounging
negligently in

une incomparable victoria, [ ... ] ses cheveux maintenant blonds

avec une seule mèche grise ceints d’un mince bandeau de fleurs, le
plus souvent des violettes, d’où descendaient de longs voiles [ ... ]
aux lèvres un sourire ambigu [ ... ].17

We are invited to think that this vision dates from the 1880s or 1890s,
since this is one of the few passages in the novel where the narrator really
steps out of the frame to look back. He has returned to the Bois de Boulogne
192 Siân Reynolds

in about 1912, trying to recall past visits, only to see in place of victorias
motor-cars driven by moustachioed mechanics, and to find a horrifying
transformation in women’s fashions:

Mais comment ces gens qui contemplent ces horribles créatures

sous leurs chapeaux couverts d’une volière ou d’un potager,
pourraient-ils même sentir ce qu’il y avait de charmant à voir
Mme Swann coiffée d’une simple capote mauve ou d’un petit
chapeau que dépassait une seule fleur d’iris toute droite?18

The same passage, a page or two earlier, contains another precise historical
reference in the form of a typical Proustian joke. The narrator recalls an
older man remarking to him of Odette that he slept with her the day
MacMahon resigned (that is, 30 January 1879, just after the narrator’s—and
Gilberte Swann’s—birth, according to Genette’s chronology). However the
overall tone of the passage is elegiac: the elegant procession of victorias
(think of the 1900 Pavillon de la Femme) had vanished by 1912. Perhaps a few
of the old demi-mondaines were still there, but like wraiths or damned spirits,
shadows of what they were (‘vieilles et qui n’étaient plus que les ombres
terribles de ce qu’elles avaient été’ [I, 427]). The narrator stands forlorn; the
sun’s face is hidden.
Proust here tells us quite directly that Odette is from the old world.
She belongs with a society which would be completely swept away by the
Great War, but which was already fading. In that world, the ‘pattern in the
carpet’ of French urban society was a double standard for men and women,
a kind of sexual tapestry which was not exactly prostitution, but a set of
relationships between men and women based on money, adultery and
hypocrisy. 14% of deaths in the 1900s were due to syphilis. It was a world of
sex, lies and victorias, if you will; a world in which the Duc de Guermantes
could boast of sending a telegram reading ‘Impossible venir, mensonge suit’.
(This untranslatably brief formula could be decoded as: ‘Can’t make it:
transparent excuse follows.’) It was still a world in which, as Charlotte
Perkins Gilman reminded her readers in 1911, La Rochefoucauld had said
there were thirty good stories in the world and twenty-nine of them could
not be told to a woman. Proust was caught, like many of his generation,
between nostalgia for this world and a reluctant attraction towards the new—
his narrator treats both Françoise and Odette with wistful affection, but also
with a critical eye. Indeed, he provides a transparently scornful narrative
about Odette and her traditional feminine wiles. He shows even less
sympathy for a tougher, and in a way more successfully modern character,
Women and French Identity during the Belle Epoque 193

Mme Verdurin; but he falls in love with an ‘thoroughly modern girl’,

Mme Verdurin is a monstrous creation, combining details from a
number of society hostesses of the Belle Epoque. She likes to think she is of
advanced views, particularly in art, and collects painters, writers and
musicians, who are coded references to people like Whistler, Franck and so
on, representing the modern. She is a bundle of contradictions, but after an
initial wobble (‘she was ferociously antisemitic’), Proust decided that he
would make her salon a Dreyfusard one, while Odette’s would be
nationalistic. One of the models for Mme Verdurin’s salon was that of Mme
Arman de Caillavet, whose ‘great man’ was Anatole France. She really was a
Dreyfus supporter, like Proust himself, and suffered socially to some extent
as a result, since the Faubourg Saint-Germain remained anti-Dreyfusard
with only very rare exceptions (represented, rather unconvincingly, in the
novel by the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes. It is not then so very
strange—though the narrator expresses dismay at this ending—that Mme
Verdurin should end up as the second Princesse de Guermantes in Le Temps
The point I would make about Mme Verdurin, however, is that it was
from exactly this kind of person, and this pro-Dreyfus milieu—though
predominantly from the Jewish and Protestant women of the upper
bourgeoisie—that some of the leaders of the French feminist movement also
came. Cécile Brunschvig, for instance, who later became the grande dame of
French feminism, though younger, came into this category. It is a nice irony
that her husband, Léon Brunschvicg, was a schoolfriend of Proust’s and one
of the originals for the narrator’s annoying friend Bloch.19 Feminism is a
particular aspect of the Verdurin type of modernism, but it never ruffles the
surface in A la recherche—and one dreads to think what Proust would have
done with it had he troubled to notice it. We shall return to feminism after
looking at the last Proustian woman, Albertine.
The story of the narrator’s agonizing relations with Albertine, in La
Fugitive, La Prisonnière, etc., are to some extent marked by Proust’s relations
with Monsieur Agostinelli, his chauffeur, and other young men. But it is as a
particular kind of young woman that Albertine appears in the novel, in A
l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. The narrator first meets her at the seaside
resort of Balbec, as one of a ‘petite bande’ of frightening girls, full of energy,
who jump over old gentlemen in deck chairs and thoroughly intimidate the
asthmatic young Marcel. The girl later identified as Albertine is provided
with a bicycle.
194 Siân Reynolds

Une de ces inconnues poussait devant elle de la main, sa

bicyclette; deux autres tenaient des clubs de golf et leur
accoutrement tranchait sur celui des jeunes filles de Balbec, parmi
lesquelles quelques-unes, il est vrai, se livraient aux sports mais
sans adopter pour cela une tenue spéciale.20

The reader is given several glimpses of this bicycle-pusher:

une fille aux yeux brillants, sous un ‘polo’ noir, qui poussait une
bicyclette avec un dandinement de hanches si dégingandé, en
employant des terms d’argot si voyou et criés si fort quand je
passais auprès d’elle parmi lesquels je distinguai cependant cette
phrase fâcheuse de ‘vivre sa vie’ [que] je conclus [ ... ] que toutes
ces filles appartenaient à la population qui fréquente les
vélodromes, et devaient être les très jeunes maîtresses de coureurs
cyclistes. En tous cas, dans aucune de mes suppositions, ne
figurait celle qu’elles eussent pu être vertueuses.21

We might note several things about this passage. Firstly, Proust’s narrator is
analysing these strange creatures according to the ‘old world’ of Odette. He
reacts with hostility to the idea of games-playing and loud speech from a
woman, the use of slang terms, and most of all the claim to independence
(‘live my own life’). Secondly, the French text at this point is full of anglicisms:
polo, golf, clubs. Incidentally, Albertine’s bicycle was probably English-made,
since Britain was the world’s chief supplier of bicycles in 1895–1900. To make
Albertine sufficiently threatening on her first appearance, Proust is using all
the stage-props of the ‘New Young Woman’, including foreign, particularly
English influence. A few pages further on, he reinforces this point with a
description of the way Albertine speaks. Not only does she use slang terms
like ‘tram’ and ‘bike’, but she affects an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ delivery:

En parlant, Albertine gardait la tête immobile, les narines serrées,

ne faisait remuer que le bout des lèvres. Il en résultait ainsi un son
traînard et nasal dans la composition duquel entraient peut-être
des hérédités provinciales, une affectation juvénile de flegme
britannique, les lecons d’une institutrice étrangère et une
hypertrophie congestive de la muqueuse du nez.22

Space forbids more examples, but I will hazard from these extracts the
view that, whatever the relation between Proust’s writing and his
Women and French Identity during the Belle Epoque 195

environment, and whatever he later does with the poetics of desire, his initial
depiction of Albertine and her friends as sporty aliens is significant. We see
these female characters through a discursive narrative (Proust’s), one which
is drawing on the discourses of others, while also challenging them by the
way he writes his novel. But he is not challenging all the discourses of his day.
In the male Parisian upper-class discourse of his time, women were, as
Simone de Beauvoir would later put it, the Other. There was a certain
agreement among men about that. In terms of the conceptualisation of
French national identity, I could quote a parallel taken from Sharif Gemie’s
book on nineteenth-century revolutions:

Nationhood might be constituted around a shared sense of

conflict or, less violently, diversity. In other words, while
monarchists and republicans might disagree about every element
of their respective interpretations of the French past, they might
still both agree about which moments constituted the crucial
moments of division.21

French men might disagree about many things during the Belle Epoque but
arguably they shared a certain patriarchal discourse about women. Perhaps
patriarchal is not quite the right word—it seems inappropriate for Proust,
who consistently undermines his narrator and puts him in embarrassing
situations. A better term is ‘fraternal’. We may not think of Proust as being
a particularly ‘fraternal’ writer in the republican sense, but in practice he
enjoyed the fraternity of various all-male groups: men about town,
exsoldiers, ex-law-students, homosexuals, would-be young novelists, etc.
The fraternal discourse about women encompasses la Parisienne and the
cocotte in the Bois de Boulogne, and at some remove it shades into the
political iconography which put up statues of beautiful (arguably maternal)
goddesses of the Republic and Liberty all over Paris—but hardly any of real
women. It does not extend to comradeship with sporty young women.
Albertine’s role in A la recherche is that of an impossible partner for the
narrator: she is eventually killed off in a riding accident.
How could Belle Epoque women respond to such a discourse? They
could accept it and work entirely within it (like Odette); they could seek to
turn it to advantage by modifying it a little (Mme Verdurin); or they could
break with it and challenge it. The challenge could be cultural (New
Woman) or political (feminist). Proust’s generation, whether or not he
noticed it, witnessed the growth of second-wave feminism in France. The
movement had to contend with fairly entrenched antifeminism in political
196 Siân Reynolds

circles. Governments of the turn of the century celebrated many centenaries

related to the 1789 Revolution. They put up the Eiffel Tower in 1889; in
1894, they celebrated the centenary of Condorcet’s death (without
mentioning his championing of the rights of women). Ten years later, in
1904, the French Civil Code had its centenary and despite the fact that it had
been composed by and for Napoleon, rather than by the revolutionaries, the
occasion was used as yet another celebration of the Republic (on the eve of
Separation from the Church). Contemporary feminists however saw the
Code as enshrining principles which deprived women of their rights. In
particular, it made a distinction, not applied to men, between married and
unmarried women. The married woman had no real civil status in her own
right, only through her husband. Feminists did organize protests at the time,
though they were neither huge nor spectacular compared to what was
happening in Britain. However most historians of French feminism are
agreed that during the decade after 1900, feminism was attracting support in
many quarters. A number of particular but real amendments were made to
the Code Civil: for example, a wife was granted the right to do what she
wanted with her earned income (1907). A head of steam for suffrage and
other rights was gathering by the spring of 1914, and one of the biggest
feminist demonstrations ever was held at the statue of Condorcet in July
1914—an unfortunate piece of timing.25 What the demonstrators chiefly had
to contend with was the dread of ridicule among French women: the very
idea of a demonstration for women’s rights in the world of A la recherche
sends a shiver down the spine, when one thinks what Proust might do with
it. The Condorcet demonstration, which the organizers tried to keep
decorous, was very different in tone from the meeting of American women
at Seneca Falls in 1848—over sixty years earlier—which had robustly
declared: ‘In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small
amount of misconception, misprepresentation and ridicule; but we shall use
every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.’25


The cementing of nationhood and republicanism that took place during the
first half of the Third French Republic—the creation of an ‘imagined
community’—was indeed based on a literal fraternity. One of the
components that was taken for granted, and therefore virtually unmentioned,
in creating French nationhood—at least as constructed in textbooks, books
on republicanism, standard histories, histories of nationalism and national
Women and French Identity during the Belle Epoque 197

identity—was the unchanging nature of French women. They had to

continue being what it was thought they had always been, and not change
into something weird and modern, ‘landed none knew whence’.
My concluding point therefore is that the kind of Frenchness which
was voluntarily being constructed during the Belle Epoque had among its
components a view of desired relations between the sexes which did not
disturb fraternity. This went with some fear and distrust of contemporary
women, is shown in Proust’s portraits of some of the women in his narrator’s
life. Women were potentially disruptive and needed to be defused in some
way. What happened at this time however was that an even more disruptive
woman than the French variety—the English suffragette, the American New
Woman, the foreign German or Russian art student—was arriving on the
scene. Some of Proust’s best friends actually did marry American heiresses to
industrial fortunes: Boni de Castellane married Anna Gould, and the prince
le Polignac married Winnaretta Singer, of the sewing-machine family, whose
sister also married a French aristocrat. There is a condescending and rather
lighting reference to an American woman who has married into the French
‘beau monde’ in Le Temps retrouvé. But comradely equality, to which some lip
service was paid in New Woman circles in American and Britain, in Shaw’s
plays for example, was not an option.
In the short term—and perhaps even in the long term—the resistance
which French culture was able to put up to this gender-based threat was
successful, subtle and determined. One method was to stave off women’s
suffrage until it could be no more postponed, in 1944. We might even extend
the argument of this article to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon Allies, whose
support the French provisional government needed in 1944, were a not
entirely negligible influence on the decision from the Consultative Assembly
in Algiers. Secondly, there was a forceful cultural image of French women as
being ‘not ridiculous’, hating excess, being sensible, pragmatic, having a
special view of sexual relations which meant knowing how to deal with men,
and avoiding the ideological stances of their Anglo-Saxon sisters. French
feminists of the middle years of the century, who included many determined
characters, were active in the various international women’s associations
which held meetings in Paris or at the League of Nations in Geneva; but one
often senses their discomfort at the cultural milieu in France which expected
‘sophisticated’ rather than ‘militant’ behaviour. This distinction can be
traced through a rhetorical tradition, mostly masculine in origin, but
nevertheless taken up even today by a number of French women who
consider themselves feminists. I am thinking here of Elisabeth Badinter,
Mona Ozouf, Françoise Giroud, who have all written in recent years of the
198 Siân Reynolds

gulf between American feminists—characterized as strident, man-hating,

positive-discriminating, politically-correct—and the sensible, ‘feminine’,
charmingly different Frenchwoman who can conduct a civilized conversation
with men.26 One could argue that ‘French identity’ for much of the twentieth
century, up to and including the 1960s, depended on an internalization of this
dichotomy. Equally, it might be suggested that the most recent fin de siècle
(from the 1970s to the present) has seen previously unthinkable changes in
the status and life experience of French women, of which the very recent
parity campaign is a rather striking example. The statue of the Parisienne
shattered when it was taken down from its pedestal in the autumn of 1900.
Might one suggest that a different Belle Epoque for French women has come a
hundred years later, as the avant-garde Albertines of today ride off on their
mountain bikes to become bankers and rocket scientists?


1. Marcel Proust, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, in A la recherche du temps

perdu (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1962), vol. I, p. 788. All
further references to the French are from this edition. ‘I was simply hanging about in
front of the Grand Hotel [ ... ] when I saw coming towards me five or six young girls,
as different in appearance and manner from all the people whom one was accustomed
to see in Balbec as could have been, landed there none knew whence, a flock of
seagulls [ ... ]. One of these strangers was pushing, as she came, with one hand, her
bicycle’ (tr. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Within a Budding Grove [London, 1922], p. 122).
2. Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France
1870–1914 (London, 1977).
3. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and
Spread of Nationalism (London, 1993).
4. ‘[A] siren clad in a tight skirt, her hat in the shape of a ship representing the
city of Paris, caught in the pose of flinging back an evening cape of artificial ermine.’
Quoted in Pascal Ory, Les Expositions universelles de Paris (Paris, 1982), pp. 81–82 (my
5. On the Palais de la Femme as it was called, see Alfred Picard, Rapport,
Exposition Universelle de Paris 1900 (Paris, 1906), vol. IV, p. 212. [‘(T)he day of a
society lady, from her morning cup of tea to dressing for an evening at the theatre or
a ball, by way of a ride through the Bois [de Boulogne] in an impeccably turned-out
victoria’—my translation.] A victoria was a light, open-topped, four-wheeled carraige.
6. On the 1900 women’s and feminist conferences, see Laurence Klejman,
Florence Rochefort, L’Égalité en marche: le féminisme sous la IIIe République (Paris,
1989), p. 137 ff., also Steven Hause with Anne Kenney, Women’s Suffrage and Social
Politics in the French Third Republic (Princeton, 1984), p. 36 ff. The founding
conference of the Conseil National des Femmes Françaises, which affiliated to the
International Council of Women, was held in April 1901.
Women and French Identity during the Belle Epoque 199

7. Ouida, ‘The New Woman’, North American Review, 158 (1894), 270–76. See
Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de siècle (Manchester,
1997), pp. 2, 8, 35–36 and passim.
8. George Bernard Shaw, Mrs Warren’s Profession, in Plays Unpleasant (London,
Penguin edn, 1946), pp. 212, 215.
9. Unpublished papers on the New Woman in France, delivered at the 1999
Berkshire conference on Women’s History, Rochester, NY. Cf. James F. McMillan,
France and Women 1789–1914: Gender, Society and Politics (London, 2000), ch. 10, who
also sees ‘the New Woman’ in the Anglo-American style as a doubtful presence in
10. Quoted in Christophe Charle, Paris fin de siècle: culture et politique (Paris,
11. For full details, based on up-to-date research on the social circumstances
of women in fin-de-siècle France, see McMillan, France and Women, chs 10–12.
12. Manuscript letter from Ottilie McLaren to William Wallace, National
Library of Scotland, Wallace Papers: MSS 21535, 27 November 1897.
13. S. Reynolds, ‘Running Away to Paris: Expatriate Women Artists of the
1900 Generation from Scotland and Points South’, Women’s History Review, 9:2
(2000), 327–44.
14. Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900–40 (London, 1987), p.
15. Gérard Genette, Figures III (Paris, 1972).
16. J.-B. Duroselle, La France de la ‘Belle Epoque’, 2nd edn (Paris, 1992), pp.
17. Proust, A la recherche, vol. I, p. 419. ‘[O]n foot, in a “polonaise” of plain
cloth, a little toque on her head trimmed with a pheasant’s wing, a bunch of violets in
her bosom, hastening along the Allée des Acacias’; ‘[in a] matchless victoria [ ... ] her
hair now quite pale with one grey lock, girt with a narrow band of flowers, usually
violets from which floated down long veils [ ... ], on her lips an ambiguous smile [ ...
]’ (tr. C. S. Scott Moncrieff, Swann’s Way (London, 1922), pp. 276–77.
18. Proust, A la recherche, vol. I, pp. 425–27. ‘How can the people who watch
these dreadful creatures hobble by, beneath hats on which have been heaped the
spoils of aviary or garden-bed—how can they imagine the charm that there was in the
sight of Mme Swann, crowned with a close-fitting lilac bonnet, or with a tiny hat
from which rose stiffly above her head a single iris?’ (tr. Swann’s Way, pp. 284–86).
19. On Proust’s circle and the so-called originals of some of the characters in
A la recherche, see George Painter, Marcel Proust (London, 1965). Cécile Brunschvicg
(née Kahn, 1877–1946) is referred to in all histories of French feminism in the
twentieth century; see for example Hause and Kenny, Women’s Suffrage.
20. Proust, A la recherche, vol. I, p. 788. ‘One of these strangers was pushing
as she came, with one hand, her bicycle; two others carried golf-clubs; and their attire
generally was in contrast to that of the other girls at Balbec, some of whom, it is true,
went in for games, but without adopting any special outfit’ (tr. Within a Budding
Grove, p. 122).
21. Proust, A la recherche, vol. I, p. 793. ‘[A] girl with brilliant laughing eyes
and plump colourless cheeks, a black polo-cap pulled down over her face, who was
pushing a bicycle with so exaggerated a movement of her hips, with an air borne out
200 Siân Reynolds

by her language, which was so typically of the gutter and was being shouted so loud
when I passed her (although among her expressions I caught that irritating “live my
own life”) that [ ... ] I concluded [ ... ] that all these girls belonged to the population
which frequents the racing-tracks, and must be the very juvenile mistresses of
professional bicyclists. In any event, in none of my suppositions was there any
possibility of their being virtuous’ (tr. Within a Budding Grove, p. 128).
22. Proust, A la recherche, vol. I, p. 877. ‘In speaking, Albertine kept her head
motionless, her nostrils closed, allowing only the corners of her lips to move. The
result of this was a drawling nasal sound, into the composition of which there entered
perhaps a provincial descent, a juvenile affectation of British phlegm, the teaching of
a foreign governess and a congestive hypertrophy of the nose’ (tr. Within a Budding
Grove, p. 246).
23. Sharif Gemie, French Revolutions 1815–1914: An Introduction (Edinburgh
1999), p. 10.
24. On feminist campaigns of this period see Hause and Kenney, Women’s
Suffrage, passim; McMillan, France and Women, ch. 12.
25. Quoted here from a facsimile of the Declaration, kindly sent me by my
forme student Ingrid Omand.
26. On the unsuspected riches of French feminism between the wars, see
Christine Bard, Les Filles de Marianne: histoire des féminismes 1914–40 (Paris, 1995); on
international links, see S. Reynolds, France Between the Wars: Gender and Politic
(London, 1996), ch. 7. On the debate over French vs American feminism, see
‘Femmes: une singularité francaise?’, Le Débat, 87 (Oct.–Nov. 1995), 117–46.
Significantly these writers have on the whole been unsympathetic to the recent parity
campaign, on the background to which see Danielle Haase-Dubosc, ‘Sexual
Difference and Politics in France Today’, Feminist Studies, 25:1 (1999), 183–210; since
that article appeared, new legislation has been introduced in France to ensure the
equal representation of men and women in all elections where the list system is used
(excluding therefore the National Assembly, but covering most other elections).

The Ending of Swann Revisited

N o reader of Proust has reached the end of Du côté de chez Swann without
being puzzled by the ending of the volume. After the 184 pages of
“Combray” and 191 pages of “Un Amour de Swann” (in the Pléiade edition),
both manifestly constructed with great care, the last part has a mere forty-
five pages, of which eleven form a prelude which seems to announce far more
than what we read in the sequel, and twelve comprise a spectacular
conclusion in two parts: in the first, the young protagonist drags the long-
suffering Francoise to the Bois de Boulogne to see Odette Swann drive by;
in the second, we are told that the man who is narrating the story in the
present has recently (“cette année”) revisited the Bois to see the autumn
leaves, and he looks back with poignant nostalgia to the days, now gone
forever, when the Bois was colored by the elegance of Mme Swann and by
his unconditional admiration for her.1
Between the prelude and this conclusion, there are just a few pages
outlining the early stages of the protagonist’s calf-love for Gilberte. The
reader who continues and opens the next volume, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en
fleurs, finds the sequel to the pages on Gilberte (“Autour de Madame
Swann”), followed in turn by a section where the protagonist is in
Normandy, coveting other girls, and we realize that the prelude we read in
the first volume was preparing us for this new episode. The rigorous

From Modern Philology 99, no. 3 (February 2002). © 2002 by The University of Chicago.

202 Anthony R. Pugh

structure is again evident, and we are left wondering why Proust chose to
break his first volume at such an awkward place, obliging himself to invent a
conclusion at a point where the narrative line required none.
The answer to the reader’s question was given over fifty years ago in a
pioneering Modern Philology article by Robert Vigneron, who was able to
show, using Proust’s correspondence, that the conclusion to the first volume
was a makeshift affair, forced on Proust when his editor pointed out that the
material Proust had supplied for volume 1 was too copious and that he would
have to make the break between the volumes earlier.2 Vigneron demonstrated
that part of the present ending was transferred from the ending of what we
now call “Autour de Madame Swann,” and he argued that the pages about the
Bois set in the present were added after November 1912, citing Proust’s
(frustrated) desire to visit the park at that time. With meticulous precision,
and much ingenuity, Vigneron reconstituted the route Proust had followed,
the hesitations and the compromises he was obliged to tolerate.
In general terms, Vigneron’s demonstration has stood the test of time,
and one has to salute the insights of someone working from incomplete
evidence. Now, however, the evidence at our disposal is massive. It is
therefore time to revisit the question and give a fuller account than Vigneron
was able to do, even if in the most general terms our conclusion (that the
ending was due to the exigencies of commercial publication) is unchanged.
The new evidence is of two kinds. Vigneron relied on what letters had been
published, which he dated, and on secondhand information about the galley
proofs, derived from Albert Feuillerat’s study and hypothetical
reconstruction of the first version of the summer in Normandy.3 We now
have far more letters than we had then, and as a consequence, we are more
confident about the dates of the letters. Moreover, we have virtually all the
exercise books that Proust used to elaborate and rework the various parts of
his novel, along with the typescript that was the intermediary between the
latest of the manuscript cahiers and the first proofs produced by his editor
Bernard Grasset in 1913; these proofs are also accessible. These documents
do not always yield their secrets without a struggle, but if we are as
meticulous in our day as Vigneron was in his, we can reconstitute the stages
which led to the text we are saddled with.


Proust began work on his novel in 1909. His method was to rewrite his novel
several times, each time amplifying, augmenting, and rearranging. The first
The Ending of Swann Revisited 203

‘version,’ if we allow that term, simply noted ideas for key incidents, some of
them elaborated for a few pages; there is nothing of Gilberte.
Later in 1909 Proust produced a version of “Combray” which,
although it was not complete, he felt ready to give to a typist at the end of
the year. In this version, Swann has a daughter. She is mentioned in the first
part (the protagonist’s mother inquires after her when Swann visits them at
Combray).4 She also appears in the sketches for a continuation to the
typescript, seen by the protagonist one day as he and his parents walk past
Swann’s property.5
With the typescript behind him, Proust could tackle “Un Amour de
Swann” and the Normandy episode, with the various “jeunes filles.” Gilberte
emerges out of that double preoccupation. This is one of the few places
where our documentation appears to be incomplete. In the cahier numbered
27,6 there are references such as “Voir [dans] manuscrit” or “dans le 1er
Cahier” that imply a source which we do not have. Cahier 27 opens with
material for “Un Amour de Swann,” after which Proust turned to Gilberte,
beginning (fol. 13) with a “Plan,” which includes the two sentences
“Emotion pour Swann[,] pour sa mère au bois” and “Je retrouve aux
Champs-Elysées ses [amis del.] amies, son institutrice,” numbered 2 and 1,
respectively. So we know that from the beginning, there was to be an incident
taking place at the Bois. The narration that follows covers the first stages of
the adolescent boy’s love for Gilberte. It includes (fols. 34–42a) an incident
corresponding to the indication on the “Plan” “Emotion ... pour sa mère au
bois,” reproduced in the Pléiade edition as Esquisse LXXXIV (Pléiade, pp.
983–86; cf. Pléiade, pp. 409–14). In this version the young boy first sees
Mme Swann, attended by a group of admirers, at the Bois when he is with
his father, and Swann greets them. This prompts the protagonist to enlist
Françoise in his regular trips to the Bois, and he is sometimes fortunate
enough to be noticed by Mme Swann. Once he is with his great-uncle, and
his indiscreet effusive greeting embarrasses the older man. At the end of this
sketch is the germ of M de Norpois’s revelations concerning Odette’s male
friends and the reason that Swann married her, both subsequently developed
in A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (cf. Pléiade, p. 457). Here the informant
is simply “un collègue de mon père.”
Late in 1911, the typescript of “Un Amour de Swann” complete,
Proust applied himself to the task of producing a manuscript of the sequel
that could be typed out. For the section on Gilberte, he started with Cahier
20, ran into several obstacles, and began again in Cahier 21, continuing in
Cahier 24. On those occasions when the text of Cahier 20 was deemed
adequate, Proust would not bother to copy it out, and when he came to
204 Anthony R. Pugh

number his pages for his typist, he weaved from one exercise book to another
in a complex way, which, to her credit, the typist (aided by Proust’s
amanuensis Albert Nahmias) generally managed to follow.
In Cahier 20 the first stages of the relationship are worked over many,
many times. One incident, sketched quite early in the exercise book (fols.
24–29), tells us that on inclement days, the protagonist anxiously watched to
see if the sun would come out (cf. Pléiade, p. 388). This phase includes his
invitation to Gilberte’s house and (to precede that invitation) the dinner with
a former ambassador, M de Monfort (later Norpois), who encourages the
protagonist in his ambition to become a writer and who actually dines with
the Swanns (cf. Pléiade, pp. 426 ff.). Proust then rewrote some of the earlier
incidents. The youth is obsessed with all things to do with Swann: the maître
d’hôtel (cf. Pléiade, p. 409, lines 7–12) and Gilberte’s parents, especially
Swann himself (cf. Pléiade, p. 399, line 25, to p. 400, line 2). He tries to
imitate Swann (cf. Pléiade, p. 406, line 36). He sees Mme Swann more rarely,
he says, because she did not much like to be seen in public with a teenage
daughter. But he did come across her once, by chance (cf. Pléiade, p. 411).
At that point on folio 50, Proust wrote “Morceau sur le Bois,” but he did not
follow it up. On the facing page, we find (centered) “[Morceau sur le Bois
del.]” and then centered on the line below: “Paris.” We may assume that he
had in mind to go back to the pages in Cahier 27 and revise them in order to
use them here. From folio 50 to folio 58 of Cahier 20, Proust returned to the
episode briefly sketched a few pages earlier: the visit of M de Monfort.
Proust constantly reread Cahier 20 when he amplified and improved
his text in Cahiers 21 and 24. The first of the amplifications was a completely
new episode, preparing for the dinner, for which he created a new character,
the actress La Berma. This gives a new thread to the tapestry of themes
connected with the dinner and the conversation. When Proust went back to
Cahier 20, in order to incorporate the nine pages describing the
conversation, he decided that he would allow Monfort/Norpois a role in
persuading his father to lift the interdiction on visits to the theater. Striking
the words “Morceau sur le Bois” (that incident would have to come
somewhat earlier), he copied the introductory remark of Cahier 21 (fol. 4; his
mother suggested going to the theater to hear La Berma, Pléiade, p. 430, line
41, to p. 431, line 5), followed in turn by a new paragraph saying that
Monfort had influenced his father’s decision to let him go to the theater (fols.
49v–50v, Pléiade, p. 431, lines 6–27). This leads smoothly into the existing
sentence on Cahier 20, that Monfort influenced his father concerning the
boy’s desire to write (fols. 50–51, Pléiade, p. 431, line 30 ff.). A one-sentence
transition was all that was needed (Pléiade, p. 431, lines 28–29).
The Ending of Swann Revisited 205

In Cahier 24, the second of the exercise books in which Proust

expanded the text of Cahier 20, he returned to the question of the boy’s
fetishism for all things associated with Swann. The young boy trots
Françoise round to the Bois, to the carriage entrance of the Swanns’ house,
to the street where Swann goes to visit his dentist. This corresponds to the
“Emotion pour Swann” in the 1910 plan. The allusion to the Bois is not
We see, then, that the intention of describing the spectacle of Mme
Swann at the Bois de Boulogne was always part of the plan, and that the
incident was in fact written, in the version preceding the mise-au-net of 1911.
In 1911, however, it was reduced to a simple mention. In 1911 the only
comparable incident to be written out came at the end of the episode, after
the young man has become a familiar visitor at the Swanns’ house. We must
count this as a second visit, independent of the one alluded to in Cahier 24
and drafted, in 1910, in Cahier 27. It comes, or came, at the very end of
Cahier 24. The relevant pages were torn out, but we can identify them from
a dossier of “fragments manuscrits” (NAF 16703) and reconstitute the
original version.
As we now have it, Cahier 24 ends with folio 65, just after Proust has
begun to say that the protagonist’s parents did not appreciate his frequenting
the Swanns, to say nothing of Bergotte. Two pages plus the flyleaf were
removed from Cahier 24 at this point; all three have left their physical trace
behind in the cahier. One is now in NAF 16703, fol. 208, mounted so that the
recto side (which is what interests us here) appears to be the verso. It
continues directly from the end of fol. 65 (“Cet homme pervers et qui
n’appréciait pas M de Norpois/m’avait trouvé”; cf. Pléiade p. 563, line 27),
and we can call it fol. 65.2. We do not appear to have the next page (fol. 65.3),
but it was still there when these pages were typed, and the typescript went as
far as the end of the discussion of Bergotte.7
The same dossier (NAF 16703, fol. 207) contains the missing flyleaf of
Cahier 24 (which we can call fol. 65.4). If we put it together with fol. 208r
(that is, the verso of the page we have identified as fol. 65.2 of Cahier 24), we
find a text describing Mme Swann at the Bois de Boulogne. Once again the
typescript enables us to reconstitute the missing page. We can see that Proust
went from Pléiade, p. 564, line 41, immediately to a conclusion, beginning at
Pléiade, p. 624, line 27, using the flyleaf (fol. 65.4) and the versos of folios
65.3 and 65.2. The conclusion leads off with the words “Quand j’eus
commencé à connaître Mme Swann, une fois que les beaux jours furent
venus, comme je savais qu’avant le déjeuner (etc),” as Pléiade, p. 624, lines
27–28, and it continues to Pléiade, p. 630, line 6, in a shorter version.8
206 Anthony R. Pugh

The ending just defined arrives somewhat abruptly, and it is not

surprising to find that Proust wished to insert more material between the
discussion of Bergotte and the conclusion. When he paginated Cahier 24,
therefore, he left the conclusion unnumbered. The last page numbered is
folio 65.2, although the next page, on which the episode was concluded, was
probably also numbered in sequence. One would expect the typescript to
have extended to the end of the episode, but the portion that was typed stops
at the bottom of folio 65, in the middle of a sentence, and we see that Proust
has explicitly written “finir ici.” On the following page he has written “Ne
pas s’occuper de cette page,” evidently an instruction to Nahmias, who
prepared the often confusing manuscripts for the typist. This is surprising; if
the exercise book was still intact when Nahmias received it, one would expect
each of the two instructions to be two pages further along; if he had already
removed the three pages, in order to work further on the conclusion, the
“finir ici” would be a way of avoiding unnecessary questions about what to
do next, but there would then be no point in writing on the following page.
It is possible to date this activity. Proust warned Nahmias on February
23 that he had more work for him, and on March 1 he said that he was just
about ready to embark on this collaboration.9 Proust sent Nahmias the
manuscript of the Gilberte section, with an explanation of the way he had
paginated it, in a letter which may reasonably be assigned to the beginning
of March (Correspondance 11:86 [letter 40]).10 On March 29, Proust sent
Nahmias a check for him to settle with the typist (Correspondance 11:84 [letter
Proust therefore spent some time on a new sequel and conclusion to
the main text of Cahier 24. No text describing the first visit to the Bois was
supplied to the typist, and the second visit was set aside. A whole new
segment was written on the delights experienced by the protagonist once he
has been accepted as a regular visitor to the Swann household. In this way a
portrait of Mme Swann is insinuated into the text and prepares us for the
closing incident. All of this happens in another exercise book, cataloged as
Cahier 23, beginning at folio 10. At its end (fol. 18), Proust appears to be
about to evoke a time when the protagonist knew Gilberte only at the
Champs-Elysées and would admire Madame Swann’s toilette. Thus the first
visit is given the status of a flashback, following the second in the narrative
sequence, and pointing the contrast between now and then. The lines are
struck, however, as Proust had second thoughts.
The dossier NAF 16703 contains seventeen sheets, paginated from 1 to
17, taken from an unidentified exercise book (fols. 190–206).11 What we find
there are the two passages not yet written: not only the first visit to the Bois,
The Ending of Swann Revisited 207

but what we can call the third visit, undertaken in the present by the narrator.
The passage begins “Pour [l’del] apercevoir [Madame Swann add], sachant
qu’elle s’y promenait autour du lac [sic]” (cf. Pléiade, p. 409, line 34),
implying that it followed directly a text which ended with the name of Mme
Swann. At the break where the true epilogue (the third visit) begins, Proust
took a new sheet (“7,” fol. 196). The text of this final portion is not quite
complete; it finishes at “une majesté dodonéenne” (Pléiade, p. 419, line
33).12 By concluding with the narrator, writing from the standpoint of the
present, Proust neatly balances the opening of the entire novel: “Longtemps
je me suis couché de bonne heure.”


This new concluding portion was typed by Miss Hayward, the English
stenographer who had typed the first part of “Un Amour de Swann” at
Cabourg in 1911.13 When, exactly? The answer to this question depends on
how we date a letter to Nahmias in which Proust is quite explicit about her
first task (Correspondance 11:25–26 [letter 4]): “La chose commence par une
vingtaine de pages détachées que j’ai mises dans le cahier rouge. Elles se
suivent, elles ont une pagination spéciale (Ayez la bonté de paginer 560 la
première feuille de dactylographie qui sera faite ... Cher Albert, y aurait-il
possibilité de votre part à ce que vous choisissiez comme dactylographe Miss
Hayward, celle de Cabourg, elle est à Paris et m’a demandé de la
recommander.)”14 The letter has been variously assigned to October 1911
and to January 1912, but May 1912 seems a far more likely date.15 In view of
the fact that the first typist appears to have been paid off at the end of March
1912, it would appear that Miss Hayward came back on the scene no earlier
than the end of March or the beginning of April. The most plausible date is
later still: mid-May. A gap of six weeks since having Cahier 24 typed would
have allowed Proust time to work at “Noms de pays: le pays,” which is where
he wanted Miss Hayward to start once she had typed the new ending to
“Noms de pays: le nom.”16 Miss Hayward left Proust’s employ in June 1912,
which puts paid to Vigneron’s hypothesis that the idea of including a nostalgic
evocation of the Bois came to Proust only after he had tried unsuccessfully to
go there in company with Mme Straus in November 1912.17 It is true that the
first of the letters Proust wrote to Mme Straus on the subject seems to
attribute the idea to her and that there are a couple of similarities between the
text of the letter and that of the novel, but the hypothesis falls by virtue of the
undoubted fact that the sentence in question had been typed in the spring of
208 Anthony R. Pugh

1912 and revised in the summer.18 A fortiori, we cannot postpone the visit to
the following year, as the old Pléiade edition did.19
Miss Hayward typed this conclusion and “Noms de pays: le pays”
before she tackled the new material on the protagonist’s cultivation of Mme
Swann (Cahier 23, now greatly augmented). Because folios 65.2 and 65.3 had
not been typed, they are paginated 1 and (presumably) 2, and the text of
Cahier 23 starts with page 3 and runs to 17. This was to be followed by the
second visit, those three pages detached from Cahier 24. They have been
renumbered to follow the “17” of Cahier 23.20 The page numbers of the
typescript are adjusted so that the pages Miss Hayward typed first, beginning
at page 560, follow in sequence.
The typescript therefore gives us the proper conclusion to the narrative
of “Autour de Madame Swann” and a three-part coda: the second visit, the
first visit remembered as a flashback, and the third visit. The first visit, we
remember, had originally been conceived as part of the first half of the
Gilberte story. That, of course, is where it will finally be located. The
transition from the second series of visits to the Bois to the preadolescent
pilgrim, found on the typescript, is uncommonly awkward.21 But for the
time being, that is where it stays. The typescript was heavily corrected, but
the organization was not altered.
Subsequently, however, Proust added to the typescript a new transition
to move from the second series of visits to the Bois into the earlier visits,
before the protagonist knew Mme Swann. The text, which Proust improved
when he himself copied it from one copy of the typescript to the other, is
reproduced as part of variant b to Pléiade, p. 626 (from Pléiade, p. 1427, line
11: “Mais la beauté”). The idea is that he would not have found Mme Swann
so elegant had he not had a predisposition to believe it: “Et cette croyance
aurait dû naître en moi un peu plus tôt, quand mon amour pour Gilberte ...
me faisait considérer22 tout ce qui entourait la fille de Mme Swann comme
doué d’une existence extraordinaire, comme incomparable au reste.” He
wonders if she recognized in him the young adolescent of two years before.
This addition leads into the evocation of earlier excursions to glimpse Mme
Swann. It was a last-minute correction to the typescript; the vast majority of
the changes were made, in 1912, on what is conventionally called the
“second” typescript, and copied to the “first” by Proust’s valet, Nicolas
Cottin, but the change we are considering was sketched on the first
typescript and copied by Proust himself onto the “second” one.23
The typescript Proust sent to Bernard Grasset in March 1913 therefore
included the three visits at the end of the long section on Gilberte, with the
The Ending of Swann Revisited 209

first visit sandwiched between the second and third. Maybe Proust would
have come to realize that the first visit would have been more fitting where
he had originally located it, as part of the ritual followed by the young boy,
attached to all that was part of Gilberte’s world. But we cannot know, for
things took a different turn.


It was soon obvious that the first volume was excessively long.24 The first run
of galley proofs, begun on March 31 and finished June 7, comprised ninety-
five “placards” (hereafter “pl.”) or galleys (eight pages each).25 Allowing for
the inevitable expansions that would take place when Proust corrected the
galleys, we can understand why there are references to a volume of 800 pages.
The pages concerning Gilberte run from pl. 53 to pl. 75, dated from
May 15 to June 6. The necessity of breaking the first volume earlier than was
intended surfaces in a letter Proust wrote to Grasset around June 24. Proust
is sending back the first forty-five galleys, and he explains why he did not
return the last fifty sheets earlier: “Comme je vous avais dit, j’étais très
impatient de savoir à combien de pages nous allions ... Je vois maintenant que
j’ai reçu toutes le premières épreuves, que le volume aurait plus de 700 pages,
chiffre que nous avons dit de ne pas pouvoir dépasser. Je vais donc être obligé
de reporter au commencement du deuxième volume ce que je croyais la fin
de celui-ci (une bonne dizaine de placards) ... une fin n’est pas une simple
terminaison et ... je ne peux pas couper cela aussi facilement qu’une motte de
beurre. Cela demande réflexion et arrangement. Dès que j’aurai pu trouver
comment finir, c’est-à-dire très prochainement, dans quelques jours, je vous
renverrai les premières et les secondes épreuves.”26 In like vein, Proust told
Louis de Robert that there were ninety-five galley sheets and that he would
finish the volume at an earlier point (Correspondance 12:211 [letter 94]), and
to Jean Cocteau he wrote: “J’ai dû couper la fin du premier volume car cela
faisait 850 pages, et ainsi cela en fera 670” (Correspondance 12:222 [letter 99]).
Proust was probably thinking of the passage identified earlier as page 633 of
the typescript, which comes on pl. 83 of the galley proofs (see n. 24 above).
At that point was a truly purple passage, on the view of the sunlit sea from
the bedroom window of the hotel in Normandy where the protagonist is
staying with his grandmother. The appropriateness of these paragraphs to
conclude the volume is demonstrated by the fact that Proust moved them
from that position to the actual end of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs,
leaving just two paragraphs in the original place.27
210 Anthony R. Pugh

Unfortunately, that very acceptable compromise had to be abandoned,

as it would leave the first volume still too long. The letter to Cocteau, and
several others from the first ten days of July, imply that Proust was thinking
about ending the volume earlier still. Robert, he told Cocteau, wanted him
to plan separate volumes of 400 pages each, but Proust refused to
countenance breaking before page 500: “mais ce sera affreux.” He said
something similar to Robert himself: “Le volume n’aura pas huit cents pages,
mais environ six cent quatre-vingts. Si vous y attachez une énorme
importance, je me résignerai peut-être à le couper pas tout à fait au milieu et
à le faire de 500 pages environ” (Correspondance 12:217–18 [letter 97]). But
soon after that he told Robert that it would be unthinkable to finish before
page 550, so he might as well allow himself 660 (Correspondance 12:224 [letter
100]). Other correspondents were brought into the discussion, including
Georges de Lauris, to whom Proust wrote on July 11: “La difficulté est que
des petits volumes, la chose est trop en train pour que ce soit encore possible.
Ce que je ferai comme petit volume si je m’y résigne, ce sont des volumes de
520 pages, chaque page étant le double d’une page ordinaire. Or je me
demande si c’est la peine de tout bouleverser, d’avoir une fin de volume idiote
pour cela, quand un premier volume de 700 pages allait si bien”
(Correspondance 12:228–29 [letter 102]). By the next day, Proust had settled
for a first volume of 500 pages. Grasset nailed him down: “Il est donc
entendu que vous me renverrez corrigées les 500 premières pages destinées
à constituer notre premier livre, après y avoir fait toutes les modifications
destinées à en assurer l’unité” (Correspondance 13:396 [letter 228]).
Proust does not seem to have considered breaking where “Noms de
pays: le nom” yields to “Noms de pays: le pays” (pl. 75/7; the division is not
signaled on typescript or galley proofs) nor at the point when the protagonist
receives an invitation to have tea with Gilberte at her home (pl. 67). The
break would come, he decided, before the long episode of the dinner with
Norpois (Pléiade, p. 408, line 38, on pl. 59; the passage which now follows
Pléiade, p. 408, line 38, was originally located at the beginning of the section,
before Pléiade, p. 405, line 17). But he would have to rework the previous
pages, so that the volume did not seem to end on a muted note. His first idea
was to conclude with the “rayon de soleil sur le balcon.” In the end he
abandoned this idea and returned the incident to its original place, but on the
third proofs, it appears at the end of the volume.28 In the passage moved
(from Pléiade, p. 388, line 40, to p. 392, line 21) there are two incidents, both
moving from despondency to happiness. In the first incident, the transition
to joy is effected by the sight of a shaft of sunlight on the balcony; in the
second, by the arrival of Gilberte at the Champs-Elysées. The two incidents
The Ending of Swann Revisited 211

have been reversed in order to end with the poetic passage on the sunlight.
The inversion is not very convincing. Proust had to add two new transitional
sentences, both awkward (see Pléiade, p. 390 “variant a” and p. 392 “variant
a”). The passage that had originally served as a transition between the two
halves (Pléiade, p. 390, lines 13–32) was moved and attached to a later
passage that brought in the same character, the old lady reading the Débats
(Pléiade, p. 398, line 17, p. 398 “variant a”).
The galleys preserved in NAF 16753 show something of this
modification. The last columns of pl. 55 have been removed in order to paste
pl. 55/6c–8a (Pléiade, p. 388, line 40, to p. 390, line 13) after pl. 56/2
(following Pléiade, p. 392, line 21).29 The new link connecting Pléiade, page
392, line 21, to page 388, line 40 (p. 392 “variant a”) has been added by hand.
The rest of pl. 55/8 (bcd) was attached to pl. 56/1 (fol. 26v), and from it pl.
55/8c (the old lady reading the Débats) was struck. That was because the
passage had originally served as a transition between the two halves and was
no longer relevant. So Proust incorporated it in a later passage by attaching
another copy of column 8c to pl. 58/2.30 A page number (59, changed to 60)
has been written on pl. 55/8bcd, indicating that the newly organized passage
was to go in after pl. 59 (from which columns 7b and 8 would have been
removed).31 The number 56 has been written onto pl. 56/3. On this set,
therefore, Proust’s intentions are to be inferred from the new page numbers.
Proust may have made his new arrangement clearer on the set which went to
the printer. We do have a trace of this other set. The break on Pléiade, p.
388, which comes at line 39 on the set we have been considering, was actually
made three lines earlier on the third proofs (we call the bridging lines pl.
55/6b),32 and in NAF 16753 there is a second copy of pl. 55/3b–6a which
does just that [NAF 16753 fol. 25]).
We can assume, then, that when Proust sent the galleys back to
Grasset, they concluded with the sunlight on the balcony, inserted after the
description of the young boy’s fascination with the world of the Swanns. As
we have said, at this stage the page on the “pilgrimages” (Pléiade, p. 408, line
39, to p. 409, line 33) came before the other examples of his fetishism
(Pléiade, p. 405, line 17, to p. 408, line 38).
Other evidence shows that Proust returned this material to Grasset at
the end of July.33 He had already sent off the first forty-five galley sheets, on
May 23 (Correspondance 13:384 [letter 218]), and they had formed the basis of
the “second” proofs, going to p. 318, three-quarters of the way through “Un
Amour de Swann,” and dated from May 30 to July 15.34 In his instructions
sent on July 29 to Charles Colin, the printer, Louis Brun, Grasset’s secretary,
212 Anthony R. Pugh

speaks of “les premières épreuves corrigées des placards 45 au placard 60, au

bas duquel se terminera le premier volume,” but he immediately adds “car les
placards 60 à 95 feront partie d’un deuxième volume” (Correspondance 13:399
[letter 231]). It is unlikely that the galleys returned by Proust went beyond
pl. 59/7a, augmented by the “rayon de soleil.” But we have seen that Proust
numbered one copy of the transferred sunlight episode 60, and if he did the
same on the copy sent to Grasset, that would make sense of Brun’s apparent
The printer set to work with a will, and the third set of proofs are dated
from July 31 to September 1. The pages on the sunlight, with the two halves
inverted, have of course been moved to follow after NP 408, where they
would have closed the first volume in a poetic, if not very relevant, manner.
By the time he corrected the page proofs, however, Proust had come up with
a better idea. It may have been the passing reference to going to the Bois
which suggested to Proust that a more effective solution still would be to use
the first visit to the Bois, which figured on the galleys as a flashback at the very
end of the Gilberte portion of the novel, to end the first volume. As we have
seen, a place had always been reserved for a mention of the Bois at this point.
Once Proust received the new proofs (at the beginning of September),
he could incorporate his new ending into them. He restored the episode of
the sunlight to its rightful place (toward the bottom of p. 478 of the proofs),
with the two halves in their original order, and with the original transitional
paragraph (pl. 55/8c) reinstated. Rather than use the last pages of the new
proofs (pp. 500b–504), with complicated written indications to show the new
order, he went back to his galleys and inserted into the set of proofs he
returned to the printer (NAF 16756) a fresh copy of pl. 56, preceded by pl.
55/6c–8.35 On this set Proust included the whole of pl. 56, not just the first
two sheets, and he cut pl. 55/6 after, and not before, the sentence we identify
as pl. 55/6b (Pléiade, p. 388, lines 36–39).36 Pages 479–84 of the proofs are
therefore replaced by the ten pages of the galley proof (pl. 55/6b–7 are
considered a single page), and the text of the third proofs resumes with page
485.37 Proust had to copy a few lines at the end of the intercalation, as pl.
56/8 does not quite join onto page 485 of the proofs (fol. 106).
The next modification involved moving the opening page of the
concluding section and putting it at the end (pp. 408–9). This change was
undoubtedly occasioned by the need to make a smooth transition into the
new ending, which would have the protagonist waiting at the Bois de
Boulogne to see Mme Swann pass. The switching back of the two halves of
this section meant moving the second half of page 495 and the top half of
page 496, and putting them into page 500.38
The Ending of Swann Revisited 213

As for the actual ending, we have seen that Proust had prepared his
galleys, and so all he had to do was to attach them. So, following page 409,
line 32, we have pl. 74/1b to 75/6. Because nothing is ever simple with
Proust, we have to add that pl. 74/5–8 is missing, though it is needed for the
coherence of the narrative.39 On the copy of pl. 74 which Proust transferred
(NAF 16753, fols. 62v–63r), he wrote in blue pencil at the top of pl. 74/1, “ne
fait pas partie de ma fin nouvelle,” and on pl. 74/2, “C’est à peu près ici que
commence la nouvelle fin” (this indication should have come two lines before
the bottom of pl. 74/1; again, Proust’s intentions would have been made
more precise on the proofs sent to the printer). After pl. 75/6, Proust has
added by hand the next lines (taken from pl. 75/7), followed by the word
‘Fin’. On the copy which would have stayed at the original place, Proust has
conserved only pl. 74/1 and pl. 75/7–8, with the lines that were transferred
struck out (NAF 16753, fol. 60v). The nine galley sheets that were
transferred are paginated 501–9. The page proofs were not sent back to
Grasset until October 10 (Correspondance 13:401 [letter 233]).
Traces of the rethinking of the ending can be found in letters around
the beginning of September. Toward the end of August, Proust offered to
send Lucien Daudet “si cela pouvait vous amuser de parcourir les épreuves
de mon premier volume (car hélas, le livre sera divisé—et stupidement sans
qu’on puisse dès le premier volume se douter de ce que cela sera, en trois
volumes)” (Correspondance 12:254 [letter 115]). He did send Daudet his
proofs, within two days.40 Daudet read them immediately, and Proust replied
to his comments at length. In his reply, he wrote: “J’avais justement envie de
vous écrire parce que j’ai eu l’idée d’interpoler un peu les dernières pages que
vous avez (ou plutôt de leur rendre leur ordre primitif) et d’ajouter pour la
fin du volume quelques pages qui venaient plus loin et que vous n’avez pas”
(Correspondance 12:257 [letter 116]). Shortly after this, Proust wrote to
Robert: “Je ne laisserai pas la fin telle que vous l’avez lue. Je n’allongerai
cependant pas le livre. J’ajouterai seulement cinq ou six pages qui se trouvent
au milieu du second volume et qui feront un couronnement un peu plus
étendu” (Correspondance 12:271 [letter 119]).
Vigneron observed that the new ending went beyond “five or six” pages
(“Structure,” p. 462) and assumed that only the first half (the first visit) was
considered and that the epilogue proper (the third visit) was added later, to
make the conclusion even stronger. The proofs, however, do not support
this, and we know that the epilogue was always connected to the
protagonist’s earliest memories of the Bois. One sympathizes with Vigneron
all the same. The published ending of volume 1 is just too spectacular for the
214 Anthony R. Pugh

The next set of proofs, the fourth, incorporates the new ending. Proust
sent Lucien Daudet a copy of the last pages, with an explanation of how the
previous pages had been changed. “Je vois des inconvénients à finir par ce
morceau, mais j’y vois de grands avantages ... Vous jugerez bien si cela
termine mieux que le soleil sur le balcon.”41 He told Daudet that the only
difference between the new text and the one Daudet had read was that “le
jour de neige, les jours où je vois du soleil sur le balcon” would come
“quelques pages plus haut,” and he continues, “Et ce n’est qu’après eux que
je mettrais (ce qui en ce moment est un peu avant): ‘Les jours où Gilberte ne
venait pas.’” This account of what he had done to his text does mention the
two principal changes, but it is very elliptical, and it did not really help
Daudet to reconstitute the full passage, of which he received only the new
ending. Vigneron unfortunately had his own idea of the original order, based
chiefly on internal evidence, and it has no basis at all in reality (“Structure,”
pp. 440–42 and p. 442, n. 47). He deployed much ingenuity in showing how,
when the last page was moved, it necessitated moving the others and
redistributing them in order not to render incoherent some of the detail in
what Proust had already in place.42 As I have said, the proofs tell a different
tale; the order Vigneron finds incoherent was already there. The
“inconvénients” which Vigneron details all go back to the time when Proust
paginated his cahiers.


Vigneron’s explanation of the ending of Du Côté de chez Swann, which

overwhelms a narrative that had barely begun, is sound in its general thrust,
but not in the details. What emerges when we marshall all the evidence now
available to us is that Proust already had the solution to his problem, which
was to end volume 1 with a first visit to the Bois—something already drafted
in the very first sketches and alluded to in the typed version. But by bringing
forward a third visit, admirably suited as a conclusion if the volume had been
able to reach the climax of the second visit, and placing it at the end of
“Autour de Madame Swann,” Proust frankly overstretched his material. It
would be unethical to meddle with the text Proust approved, however
reluctantly, but nothing prevents readers from postponing their reading of
the third visit to the end of “Autour de Madame Swann.” It works extremely
One could add a curious postscript. Another pioneer in the field of
genetic studies on Proust, Albert Feuillerat, was able to track down a
The Ending of Swann Revisited 215

sufficient number of proofs of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs to

demonstrate Proust’s original intentions for that volume (see n. 3 above). He
too overstated his case, arguing that Proust’s modifications marked a decline
in poetic sensibility, and Feuillerat lost credibility as a result. But in one
respect his research has not been challenged: following Feuillerat, everyone
assumes that the girls themselves were not intended by Proust for the first
visit to Normandy, that they were introduced at a late stage in the
elaboration of the second volume. But just as there was always an idea to have
a “Morceau sur le bois” in the first pages of the section on Gilberte, so too
do the manuscript cahiers show that Proust always thought of populating his
seaside resort with a group of enigmatic schoolgirls. The exercise books of
1910 are full of experiments involving these girls. But Proust constantly
came up against the difficulty of organizing the episodes suggested by his
teeming brain, and when he was faced with the challenge of producing a
readable draft of his novel, he shelved the idea. Only when he was tackling
his second volume seriously did he reintroduce the girls. By that time,
however, the contents of volume 2 had been announced, without the girls,
and they do not figure in Grasset’s proofs. But they were there, waiting in the
wings, and this time it was the freedom afforded by the war, and not the
constraints of a publisher’s deadline, which pushed Proust into restoring his
original intentions.


A shorter version of this article was delivered as a paper at the Proceedings of the
Proust Colloquium held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in April
2000 and will appear in Proust in Perspective: Visions and Revisions, edited by Armine
Kotin Mortimer and Katherine Kolb, to be published by the University of Illinois
Press in 2002, copyright 2002 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
1. Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu, ed. J.-Y. Tadié et al., 3 vols.
(Paris: Gallimard, 1987–89), 1:409–14 and 414–20, quotation on 1:414. Subsequent
references to this edition appear in the text, cited parenthetically as Pléiade by page
and line numbers; unless otherwise stated, all references are to vol. 1.
2. Robert Vigneron, “Structure de Swann: Prétentions et défaillances,” Modern
Philology 44 (1946): 102–28; reprinted in his Etudes sur Stendahl et sur Proust (Paris:
Nizet, 1978), pp. 430–66. Hereafter the 1978 reprint will be cited parenthetically in
the text as “Structure.”
3. Albert Feuillerat, Comment Marcel Proust a composé son roman, Yale Romanic
Studies 7 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1934).
4. This reference does not survive in the published novel, but it will be found
in “variant a” to p. 21 of the Pléiade edition: see Pléiade, p. 1104.
216 Anthony R. Pugh

5. Pléiade, p. 135. The typescript of 1909 did not go further than p. 134, line
2, although the manuscript cahier that Proust was following contained about twenty-
five pages on the “deux côtés.”
6. The numbers attributed to the cahiers by the Bibliothèque Nationale de
France classify the exercise books according to the part of the novel most implicated
and within each division follow a chronological sequence. The numbers are therefore
not in themselves a guide to the chronology, although they are not arbitrary. Cahier
27 has the call mark NAF [nouvelles acquisitions françaises] 16667, placed where it is
because most of it has to do with Normandy, which will be part 4 of the novel.
7. Pléiade, p. 564, line 41. The previous page (fol. 65.2) took us to Pléiade, p.
564, line 16 (“tous les plus beaux raisonnements que j’aurais pu faire, toutes les”). The
typescript shows that the next word was “louanges” (later changed to “tous les
8. Pléiade, p. 624, line 27, to p. 625, line 23; p. 625, line 23, to p. 626, lines 22
and 26–39; then p. 629, lines 32–36, and p. 630, lines 3–6 differently ordered (see p.
626 var. b). The missing page evidently included Pléiade, p. 626, lines 7–19; as those
dozen lines would not have filled a manuscript page, we know that there were lines
scored out, possibly first versions of the passage that was typed, but we cannot
speculate further.
9. Marcel Proust, Correspondance, ed. Philip Kolb, 21 vols. (Paris: Plon,
1970–93), 11:46, 51 [letters 17 and 20]. All subsequent references to the
correspondence are cited parenthetically in the text as Correspondance by volume and
page numbers followed by letter numbers in brackets.
10. Kolb places this letter at the very end of March. His argument is based
on an allusion to Nahmias’s father (“J’ai tellement souffert que je n’ai pas encore
écrit à Monsieur votre Père”), which he says appears to follow one made in a letter
dated with certainty March 29 (“Avez-vous dit à monsieur votre père combine je lui
étais reconnaissant. Je n’ose pas après si longtemps lui écrire”; Correspondance 11:85
[letter 39]). It seems to me more likely that the second reference must follow the first
after a gap sufficiently long to have made Proust guilty for not having found time to
11. Folios 190–206. Nahmias indicates that the pages come from a “cahier
noir,” which might point to Cahier 23. It is obvious from the appearance of the
exercise book, however, that nothing is missing from Cahier 23 at this point. Most of
the exercise books Proust used at this period were black.
12. The last two pages were much rewritten before Proust came to the version
we read now. The text of all the second half of this epilogue (from the middle of p. 9
to the end) is reproduced as Esquisse LXXXVI, Pléiade, pp. 988–91.
13. The entire manuscript, which went as far as the end of “Noms de pays: le
pays,” was typed out, with two carbon copies. Only a few pages of the third run
survive, but most of the other two runs are in the Bibliothèque Nationale collection,
NAF 16730–16732 (commonly, if inaccurately, known as the first typescript) and
16733–16735 (the so-called second typescript). It was typed in stages, in 1909 (16730
and 16733, three-quarters of “Combray”), 1911 (the rest of “Combray” plus 16731
and 16734; “Un Amour de Swann,” begun at Cabourg by Miss Hayward and
completed and in part retyped in Paris by someone else), and 1912 (16732 and 16735;
“Noms de pays: le nom,” typed as far as fol. 65 of Cahier 24 in March and completed
The Ending of Swann Revisited 217

by Miss Hayward in May–June; and “Noms de pays: le pays,” entirely typed by Miss
Hayward in June).
14. The twenty loose pages are obviously the seventeen sheets we have just
described, the typescript of which does indeed begin at p. 560. The “cahier rouge” is
not Cahier 22, as Kolb suggests (see his n. 3), but Cahier 70, which was not known at
the time vol. 11 of the Correspondance was published. Cahier 70 is the manuscript for
“Noms de pays: le pays,” i.e., the Normandy section, which comes directly after
“Autour de Madame Swann.”
15. The first editor, Henri Bonnet, in the Bulletin de la Société des Amis de
Marcel Proust 7 (1957): 280–81, dated it September or October 1911; see also his
study Comment a été conçu “A la recherche du temps perdu” (1959; reprint, Paris, 1971),
p. 125. Kolb assigns it to early January. Kolb’s dating rests on a remark in a letter to
Robert de Billy that Kolb plausibly dates January 19, in which Proust says, “il faut que
je finisse pour la dactylographe les dernières pages de mon premier chapitre”
(Correspondance 11:32 [letter 11]). But it seems reasonable to assume that Proust was
referring there to the whole of the Gilberte Swann section, whereas the request to
Nahmias accompanies another part of the typescript altogether, the one which starts
at the end of “Noms de pays: le nom” and continues with “Noms de pays: le pays.”
The traditional dating is accepted by the Pléiade editor: see Pléiade, pp. 1284–85; and
J.-Y. Tadié, Marcel Proust (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), p. 676. Françoise Leriche (“Une
nouvelle datation des dactylographies du Temps perdu à la lumière de la Correspondance,”
in Bulletin d’informations proustiennes 17 [1986]: 7–20) suggested early June (p. 12); and
Shuji Kurokawa (“Remarques sur le manuscript et la dactylographie du ‘Récit de
Cricquebec’” [Paris: unpublished memoir, 1988]) adopted this suggestion (p. 70).
16. Letters 4, 66, and 78 of Correspondance 11, addressed to Nahmias and dated
January, May, and June by Kolb, should all, in my view, be reassigned to mid-May.
They clearly belong in sequence.
17. Correspondance 11:239, 291 [letters 128 and 148]. See Vigneron,
“Structure” (n. 2 above), p. 462, n. 69. The note in the Pléiade edition also implies
the connection (Pléiade, pp. 1280, 414, n. 1).
18. The manuscript mentions “feuilles mortes” and his difficulty in sleeping
(but in a different connection from letter 128). The word ‘nostalgie’ (letter 148) is not
imported into the novel until the typescript is corrected (see Pléiade, p. 414 var. b),
but that still antedates the letters to Mme Straus.
19. See the “chronologie de Marcel Proust” in Marcel Proust, A la recherche
du temps perdus, ed. Pierre Clarac and André Ferré, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1954),
1:xxxix. In an article which counts as my opus 1 (“A Note on the Text of Swann,”
Adam International Review 260 [1957]: 101–4), I pointed out (p. 104) that the
statement that comparison of the fourth and fifth proofs shows that the passage was
added in the autumn of 1913 is ill founded. The other piece of “evidence” accepted
in that article, and the conjecture that Proust added the third visit when he made the
transfer, can however no longer be sustained.
20. Cahier 23, fol. 18 is p. “17,” and the two sheets we have (65.4 and 65.2v)
are pp. “18” and “20.”
21. 409 var. a, “Alors, rien ne me causait plus d’émoi ....” We need to restore
the words omitted at the end of the sentence on p. 1278, which should read “et jouait
aux barres avec sa fille.”
218 Anthony R. Pugh

22. Word omitted from the Pléiade transcription.

23. Copied from NAF 16732, fols. 157–58, to the margin of NAF 16735, fol.
163, continuing on fol. 164. On the identity of the copyist, see my article, “Sur le
copiste de la première dactylographie,” in the Bulletin d’informations proustiennes 31
(2000): 23–30.
24. “Votre manuscript contient une matière formidable,” Grasset wrote on
March 5 (Correspondance 20:632 [letter 368]). Proust had entertained doubts as early
as the end of the previous October, when he told another editor he approached that
if it should prove quite impossible to accommodate all the typescript in one volume,
he would suggest breaking at p. 633 of the typescript (Correspondance 11:257 [letter
135]). I discuss this suggestion in the next paragraph of the main text.
25. The eight pages of each galley have been pasted on the two inside pages
of a large double sheet. NAF 16753 contains several such sheets, of a run which
Proust corrected. Consequently pl. 1 (for example) is on the sheets foliated 1v and 2r.
NAF 16754 likewise contains several sheets, of a set Proust did not correct. Neither
set is complete. These two sets are independent of the one which was corrected tidily
and sent to the printer (see n. 36). We can see from the next proofs that the
corrections received by the printer do not entirely coincide with those we read on the
sets that we have. The first 52 galleys of the set which went to the printer’s were
bought by the Bodmer Foundation in Geneva in June 2000, but unfortunately pl.
53–59 were not with them. We use the code pl. 56/1 (etc.) to indicate the first column
of galley 56, and where we have to distinguish different portions of a column, we use
suffixes, thus: pl. 55/6a, pl. 55/6b, and pl. 55/6bcd, where we include more than one
unit. Vigneron’s argument that there were more than ninety-five galleys (“Structure,”
p. 437, n. 43) does not hold water.
26. Correspondance 13:392 [letter 225]. Volume 13 of Kolb’s edition of the
Correspondance is devoted to 1914, but several letters of 1913 came to light too late for
inclusion in vol. 12 and are included in vol. 13 as an appendix.
27. Pléiade, 2:65, lines 20–21. We see from variant 64b that the passage began
with the lines now at 305, lines 15–37 and (with a different link) 306, lines 11–17, and
from 65c that it concluded, after several lines that have disappeared, with 306, lines
20–34. It can be conveniently read in Richard Bales, ‘Bricquebec’: Prototype d’ “A
l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs” (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 115–21.
Vigneron identified the allusion correctly (“Structure” [n. 2 above], pp. 459–60, n. 59,
also p. 431, n. 4), though his conjecture that it came on pl. 88 was not quite right. See
also Pléiade 2:1367, n. 2, 1490, and 306, n. 1.
28. The Bibliothèque Nationale has two runs of the third proofs, one
uncorrected (NAF 16757) and one corrected (16756).
29. Placard 55 is NAF 16753, fols. 23v and 24r; pl. 56 is fols. 26v and 27r.
30. The pagination of the galleys skipped from pl. 56 to pl. 58. On fol. 28v of
16753 (pl. 58), traces remain of this half sheet: just the very end of each line, the rest
having been cut out when this provisional solution was abandoned and the original
text restored. It was taken from a virtually uncorrected set of galleys, NAF 16754,
where col. 8 has been cut after 8a (fol. 95r).
31. The last two sheets of pl. 59 (NAF 16753 fol. 31r) are both missing. The
The Ending of Swann Revisited 219

first lines of pl. 59/7 would have been copied, one assumes, onto the following page
(the one marked “60”).
32. The Pléiade variant (390a) records the new transition (between 408:38
and 390:33) as it appears on NAF 16753. One can see from the third proofs that the
text sent to the printer gave a longer transition at this point, which included the three
lines of 388, adapted to the new context.
33. Proust left Paris hastily on July 26, and the printer, Louis Brun,
acknowledged receipt July 29 (Correspondance 12:236 [letter 106] and 13:398 [letter
34. This is recorded correctly on p. clix, but wrongly on p. cxxxii, where the
final date is given as September 1. Kolb (n. 9 above) makes the same mistake
(Correspondance 12:207, n. 2), as does Tadié (n. 1 above; p. 705, n. 7), and more
spectacularly, the Pléiade editors, who speak of “les 95 placards des deuxièmes
épreuves” (Pléiade, p. 1049). September 1 is the last date stamped on the third proofs.
For the second proofs, the printer needed galley 46, returned July 13 (Correspondance
13:397 [letter 229]).
35. The antecedent of these transferred pages is in NAF 16753 (fols. 23v–24r,
pl. 55/1–6b).
36. The most plausible explanation for the omission of pl. 55/6b is that Proust
had his working copy, which broke at line 40, in front of him, and he made the same
cut without thinking. He added the missing sentence by hand to p. 478 of the third
proofs. It is surprising that he did not cut pl. 56 after the second column, as the text
of pl. 56/3–8 had already been set by the printer. The only difference, which could
have been handled simply by striking the lines he no longer wanted, was that the
paragraph stuck onto pl. 56/7, which came from pl. 55/8, had to be restored to its
original position as the transition between the two halves of the sunlight episode. It
would not have had to be recopied, as it was in place on pl. 55/8.
37. The inserted galleys are paginated (by Proust) pp. 479–85, 485bis, 485ter,
485quater. Page 485 of the proofs is now renumbered 485quinque.
38. Proust took pp. 495–96 (each pair of pages is of course printed
recto/verso), and cut it into two. Page 495a he attached to p. 494 (NAF 16757, fol.
110), with the result that p. 496a appears to be attached to p. 493 (it is struck out),
and he turned the lower half round, so that one sees p. 496b first, with p. 495b, struck,
on the back (fol. 111). Page 497 follows (fol. 112). Another copy of p. 495 (lower half)
and p. 496 (top half) was inserted into p. 500, but only for a portion of p. 495; the rest
is written in by hand.
39. They are still in 16753, as fol. 61r. NP says that pp. 411:28 to 414:39 were
suppressed, suggesting it was to make space, but this seems arbitrary. Proust is not
likely to have started his cut in the middle of a sentence which just happened to be
where the two halves of the galley divided. I fancy that all that happened was that the
pl. 74/5–8 got left behind by an oversight.
40. Lucien Daudet, Autour de soixante lettres de Marcel Proust, Cahiers Marcel
Proust, vol. 5 (Paris: Gallimard, 1929), p. 67; quoted by Kolb in Correspondance 12:256,
n. 6 (see n. 9 above).
41. Correspondance 12:287–88 [letter 128]. This letter is unfortunately difficult
to date (see Kolb, p. 288, n. 2), but it was probably written toward the end of October.
The reference to a mistake (“entêté” for “étêté,” 414:41) does not help, as the fourth
220 Anthony R. Pugh

proofs give “un seul, étêté, petit, trapu,” and Proust has simply moved the word so
that it follows “trapu.” For a full list of the possible “inconvénients,” see Vigneron,
“Structure” (n. 2 above), p. 464.
42. “Structure,” pp. 463–64. Vigneron posited an original order which was
coherent, but which had to be upset when Proust revised his ending. But the original
order is what Vigneron gives in his n. 72 (with the proviso that his units 4 and 5 were
reversed), presented as if it were the result of the changes forced upon Proust.

Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte:

A Case for an Extension of the Term?

[S]’il est facile de décrire négativement les brouillons par ce qu’ils ne

sont pas, il est beaucoup plus difficile de définir leur véritable spécificité
[ ... ]. (Lebrave 11)
[L]a genèse d’un poème ou d’un roman n’obéit pas entièrement à un
programme préexistant, et n’est régie ni par un processus unique, ni par
un finalisme simple, ni même par le développement harmonieux d’un
modèle; la perte, la dérive, l’imprévu ont une fréquence hautement plus
probable que l’économie, la linéarité assurée, le prévisible. Genèse non
pas organique, mais relevant plutôt de la combinatoire, d’une logique
autre que celle du déterminisme de cause à effet. (Levaillant 13)

T he definition of an avant-texte has undergone numerous changes on the

way to what continues to be, in the case of some critics, a rather reluctant
acceptance of the term and its import in literary criticism. The main debates
have centred around the documents to be included in the term avant-texte,
the relation of the avant-texte to the finished work or texte, the definition of
the term texte, and the general purpose and validity of this branch of literary
criticism. The aim in this discussion is twofold: to suggest, given the unstable
boundaries dividing the texte from the avant-texte, a wider definition of the
term avant-texte, and to examine, in the light of this discussion, the special
case represented by Proust’s corpus, and in particular his early novel Jean

From Dalhousie French Studies 58, (Spring 2002). © 2002 by Dalhousie University.

222 Maureen A. Ramsden

Santeuil which, it will be argued, had an important role in the macrogenesis

of À la recherche du temps perdu.
The liberation of the texte from its structuralist isolation led to a tacit
acknowledgement of the possible value of sources outside the texte in
elucidating its full significance. This meant that the texte could be viewed in a
wider context—its historical, cultural, literary, linguistic, and finally, genetic
perspective. The term avant-texte, coined by Jean Bellemin-Noël, appeared
both to free the new area of genetic studies from its early association with the
work on ancient manuscripts, and to establish the purpose and perimeters of
this field of study. He defined the avant-texte as “l’ensemble constitué par les
brouillons, les manuscrits, les épreuves, les « variantes », vu sous l’angle de ce
qui précède matériellement un ouvrage, quand celui-ci est traité comme un
texte, et qui peut faire système avec lui” (1972:15).
However, although the term was taken up by most critics, there has
been no consensus as to its exact meaning; the various assumptions it makes
can be challenged. For example, the definition of a texte, in reference to
which an avant-texte is usually defined, is itself problematic.1 Bellemin-Noël
distinguishes between le texte, defined as “le texte « définitif » ou plus
exactement le dernier état d’une élaboration, signé par l’écrivain” and
l’ouvrage, defined as “un écrit particulier publié sous la signature de
quelqu’un (l’écriture); les dimensions n’importent pas: livre, article, poème
isolé—pourvu qu’il y ait un titre et un point final” (1972:17 and 14).
However, difficulties over definitions immediately arise. At what point
can a work, published or unpublished, finished or unfinished, be accepted as
a texte? The texte has, for example, been seen as a chance occurrence, as
simply the end, one possible end, of a series of avant-textes (Melançon 53).
This is doubly the case when a work has not been given the final imprimatur
by the author. An author can even move between different brouillons, back
and forth, until one version is designated (by him/her or an editor) as texte.
There are cases of changes in later editions and in the typed copies and the
proofs. Baudelaire, for example, was forced by censorship to produce a very
different second edition of the Fleurs du mal from the one he originally
published, and the edition which is published today, with the “condemned”
poems appearing in appendices, was not sanctioned by Baudelaire.2
The distinction made between a public (published) texte versus a
private (unpublished) texte is equally problematic (Grésillon 1994:16).
Pascal’s Pensées are an obvious, much-quoted case. Despite their original
form as avant-textes, an unfinished work, they are now a much published,
public texte and have acquired the status of a canonical work. What then of
Bellemin-Noël’s idea that a finished, published work should be signed by the
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 223

author (or given the final imprimatur) (1972:17)? The definition of a texte
becomes increasingly problematic, leading Jacques Petit to state that “[l]e
texte n’existe pas.”3
Rather than simply suggesting a closed and rather narrow definition of
a texte, Marion Schmid has discussed different factors which are brought into
play when an avant-texte is finally published and accepted as a canonical texte
(1998). They include the style of a particular writer and the point at which
he decides on publication. They can also involve the important role of an
editor, who decides to present unfinished work for publication, and his
involvement in its general presentation: “What we consider to be a text
depends, first, on the literary æsthetics of individual authors (and, by
extension, on which documents they decided to release to the public) and,
second, on what has been established and presented as a text by publishers
and editors” (Schmid 1998:20).
Louis Hay cites four commonly received factors in the acceptance of a
texte: “auteur, œuvre, lecteur, société” (153). He thus adds the dimension of
the acceptance of the reading public, with its particular literary and cultural
norms, to the factors already cited by Marion Schmid. Another useful
approach to the problem is offered by Thanh-Vân Ton-That, in his
discussion of Jean Santeuil.4 He suggests that the means of defining a work
as a texte lies in the degree of completion at what he terms the external and
internal level of the work: “l’inachèvement peut être externe, lorsque l’œuvre
développée et bien construite semble brusquement interrompue, comme
privée de sa fin attendue; ou bien l’inachèvement est interne et touche des
unités plus réduites, non pas le texte dans sa globalité, mais un chapitre, une
phrase, voire un mot, d’où l’impression d’éclatement et d’instabilité” (17).
Thus the external level appears to relate to the overall plan and
structure of the work, essential to its overall understanding, while the
internal level concerns smaller units of the work—a level on which some
incompletion does not upset the transmission of the essential meaning of the
work. The definition of texte therefore seems to rely on a dynamic interplay
concerning a combination of factors whose relative importance might
change with the work of individual writers.
The definition of an avant-texte is equally problematic. The avant-texte
can appear in different guises. The material form which the avant-texte
commonly takes—the plans, brouillons, ébauches—depends, as Marion Schmid
has pointed out, on the particular writer and his style of writing. Most
nineteenth-century writers such as Zola and Flaubert, known as
“programmatic” writers, planned their work ahead in great detail, leaving
large numbers’ of plans, scénarios, brouillons, mises au net and also notes on
224 Maureen A. Ramsden

historical events (Schmid 1998:xv, and also 43-44, where she notes the
importance of Louis Hay’s work in this area). Here the approach reflects a
particular aim and genre. Writers such as Proust and Joyce, known as
“immanent” writers (their method being described also as écriture à processus),
seldom used written plans, but would allow their work to develop in the act
of writing (Schmid 1998:xv and 43-44). Their avant-texte therefore mainly
consists of brouillons.
The definition of the avant-texte has also depended on its relation to
the finished work or texte. As mentioned above, an avant-texte, for long not
considered as publishable material, is often viewed essentially as a private
texte, as opposed to the public nature of the published texte (see Grésillon
1994). The private texte can also be seen as inferior to the public texte. When
the texte is considered to be the perfected version at the end of a period of
trial and error, the brouillons are, by definition, the imperfect versions in this
process. The avant-texte is therefore seen as unfinished, unclear, and
therefore not worthy of publication. As Bellemin-Noël expresses it, “[les
brouillons] portent témoignage d’un labeur et du passage de l’imperfection à
la perfection” (1977:5).
In addition, the avant-textes can be seen as part of a teleological process,
as necessary workings and reworkings—recognisable different stages in the
evolution of the final texte. Acknowledging the fact that the later brouillons are
often potential units of texte, and can even change status several times in the
course of revisions, corrections and editions, Bellemin-Noël has seen the
avant-texte as being defined in retrospect—when the finished work has been
established (1977:6). Furthermore, the public texte itself can be reclaimed by
the writer as he makes changes in later editions and thus the texte can be said
to revert to the status of an avant-texte.
However, a narrow definition of avant-texte, seen from a teleological
perspective, can also bring about the exclusion of large amounts of material
which can appear to represent very different departures from the material
admitted in the final texte, and of seemingly little relevance in the
development of the texte. Nevertheless, the material which was rejected by
the writer in the development of his final texte is important for the ideas,
themes and stylistic methods he chose to leave aside when he embarked on
new directions, and must therefore be included in the term avant-texte and
given equal importance. As Grésillon remarks:

Les manuscrits littéraires nous confrontent en effet bien souvent

à cette image des sentiers qui bifurquent, indéfiniment, créant des
réseaux et des trames, embrassant toutes les possibilités, toutes les
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 225

virtualités, tous les excès jubilatoires qui ont existé pendant le

temps de l’écriture et qui auraient pu, n’eût été la funeste biffure,
devenir texte. (1994:12)

A further problem relating to the definition of the avant-texte, which is

not often considered, is that of the relation of earlier works of the writer to
a later texte. Intertextual references and echoes are commonly studied, but
are there any circumstances in which the earlier works of a writer should be
included in the avant-texte of a later work? If the earlier works of a writer
have been published with his/her consent, we would argue that they must be
considered as discrete textes, with their own individual significance, rather
than as avant-textes for a later work. However, although Flaubert wrote
several such discrete works which were published before his L’éducation
sentimentale in 1869, he also wrote an earlier work which was also called
L’éducation sentimentale, in 1845, which he did not publish. He comments as
follows on this work, written in his youth: “Novembre suivra le chemin de
L’éducation sentimentale, et restera avec elle dans mon carton indéfiniment.
Ah! Quel nez fin j’ai eu dans ma jeunesse de ne pas le publier! Comme j’en
rougirais maintenant!”5 Flaubert thus points out the lack of maturity in his
early work, but can it be said that the first Éducation sentimentale acted as an
avant-texte for the later work? The question of this particular case cannot be
answered in this discussion, but Bellemin-Noël suggests general criteria
which might be adopted when analysing such cases. His definition of avant-
texte, which includes material which can be seen to “faire système” with the
finished texte, could encompass earlier unfinished works (1972:15). Although
Bellemin-Noël’s definition is somewhat broad here, the questions it raises
will be analysed later in the discussion, as the need to examine closely, and
even to question past definitions of the term avant-texte is of particular
importance in a study of the avant-texte in Proust’s corpus.
Finally, a further important shift in critical thought meant that the
avant-texte itself came to be viewed as an autonomous work by critics, a view
which seemed to be strengthened by the publication of many avant-textes in
recent years. Raymonde Debray-Genette, for example, describes this trend
as follows:

si l’on a pensé jusqu’ici la génétique en termes d’évolution, le plus

souvent même en termes de progrès, il semble qu’il faudrait
incliner à la penser en termes de différence, lui accorder un
fonctionnement plus autonome, lui accorder sa propre poétique.
226 Maureen A. Ramsden

Thus the avant-texte appears as an important public texte in its own

right, and even threatens to invade the literary space of the texte. In 1971,
Ponge, for example, published the avant-texte of his own poem Le pré (poem
of 1964), together with the poem itself in La Fabrique du pré. As Grésillon
and Lebrave express it, “Ponge [ ... ] annule la frontière entre avant-texte et
texte en publiant à côté le texte et son brouillon” (9).6
Thus when is a work a texte and when is it an avant-texte? There appear
to be no very clear-cut distinctions between them. Not only are the frontiers
continually changing, even the question of their literary hierarchy can be
called into question. The finished texte can be said to mark out what is finally
excluded as avant-texte (Bellemin-Noël 1977:6). Equally it can be stated that
it is the avant-texte which has, by a process of evolution, given rise to the
texte. Once we move away from the isolated, structuralist notion of texte, the
borders between texte and avant-texte become less clearly defined:

Sorti de sa clôture et de sa fixité, de son unicité et de la nécessité

du ne varietur, le texte s’ouvrait sur l’ensemble mouvant et fragile
des « avant-textes », sur la multiplicité des états possibles in statu
nascendi. (Grésillon 1990:18)

The problem of the boundaries between texte and avant-texte is

particularly pertinent in Proust’s case, and a wider definition of the term
avant-texte (and also of the term texte) would seem to be called for. As
mentioned above, rather than drawing up detailed scénarios or plans (as in the
case of Flaubert), Proust used mainly brouillons, many of which were very
close to the “final” texte (Schmid 1998:xv and 44). In addition, the canonical
work, À la recherche, was not finished when he died. There are also difficulties
in establishing boundaries due to the particular temperament and health
problems of the writer (one wonders whether he would ever have finally
completed his opus), the method he used in writing, and also the nature of À
la recherche—a modern work which has the potential to expand infinitely on
an internal level. As Jean-Yves Tadié expresses it, “seule la mort l’a empêché
de tout refaire, de tout métamorphoser—de ce qui n’était pas encore publié”
Proust, who preserved a large quantity of the manuscripts of both his
finished and unfinished works, was very aware of the importance the avant-
texte might come to assume in the eyes of critics and he was wary of
misinterpretations. In his correspondence Proust, alluding to his
manuscripts, voices this concern: “Or la pensée ne m’est pas très agréable
que n’importe qui (si l’on se soucie encore de mes livres) sera admis à
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 227

compulser mes manuscrits, à les comparer au texte définitif, à en induire des

suppositions qui seront toujours fausses sur la manière de travailler, sur
l’évolution de ma pensée [ ... ].”8 It can be argued that such
misunderstandings have indeed taken place concerning the status of Proust’s
early works, and that the term avant-texte has been given too narrow a
definition in regard to the works, and in particular Jean Santeuil, which
preceded À la recherche.
Proust’s work as a whole is commonly divided by the critics into the
early works, Contre Sainte-Beuve, which is situated at the mid point and is
seen as a turning point in the work as a whole, and the final, public texte, À
la recherche du temps perdu. The early works include various articles, Les
plaisirs et les jours (1896, 1924), and Jean Santeuil. Les plaisirs et les jours is
usually dismissed as a dilettante work, whereas Jean Santeuil, though
unfinished, is generally accepted as a texte, but one which is of little
importance in comparison with À la recherche, and even Contre Sainte-Beuve,
an unfinished work also seen as a public texte.
Considering first of all the three major works as textes, Jean Santeuil has
twice been published as a novel (1952, 1971b), and Contre Sainte-Beuve has
been published twice as a work in its own right, with a different emphasis
between the narrative and critical strands in each edition (1954, 1971a). For
any reader who has no knowledge of the background to the publication of À
la recherche, the work might be seen as a finished texte, with some obvious
errata and omissions. Given this situation, is it possible to challenge the
status of Jean Santeuil, Contre Sainte-Beuve and even À la recherche as textes?
Is it also possible to class both earlier unfinished works, Jean Santeuil and
Contre-Sainte-Beuve, as avant-textes for the “unfinished” À la recherche?
Looking at the claims of À la recherche to be a canonical work, the most
compelling argument for considering the published novel as a texte is the fact
that Proust himself intended to publish this last work, and publication was
already well advanced when he died in 1922. As Louis Hay expresses it, “[la
décision de l’auteur] tranche le cordon ombilical de la genèse et fait basculer
l’avant-texte dans le texte” (154). Thus the large amount of avant-texte which
existed for the volumes published during Proust’s lifetime was excluded from
the final texte, so creating the boundaries between texte and avant-texte.
However, the imprimatur had not been given to the last volumes of À
la recherche, from La prisonnière to Le temps retrouvé, when Proust died. Thus,
although Proust’s intention to publish the final volumes of À la recherche was
clear, the later volumes contained much material about which Proust had not
always made a clear decision regarding publication, and much work was left
for the editors before the texte could be presented to the public. Given the
228 Maureen A. Ramsden

personality of the writer and the modernist cultural climate, Proust might
indeed have continued to expand his novel. The final sentence of Le temps
retrouvé, as Tadié has pointed out, was reworked several times and the word
“fin” appears in an earlier version, before the fourth and final version of the
sentence, so that it does not appear, physically, at the end of the manuscript
(1986:84). As Gérard Genette expresses it, “[j]amais [Proust] n’aura connu
l’authentique achèvement de cette œuvre, qu’il crut achevée en 1913, qui ne
l’était plus en 1914, qui ne l’était pas encore en 1922, et qui ne le sera jamais”
(9). On the other hand, a certain degree of incompletion does not mean that
a work must be rejected as a texte. As Ton-That has pointed out, an important
element in examining incompletion in a work is the level on which it is
found—internal or external.
However, the status of À la recherche as a texte can also be challenged on
the level of the amount of intervention of the editors. The NRF completed
publication of the posthumous works, having taken over responsibility for
the whole work in 1919, when they published À l’ombre des jeunes filles en
fleurs. The first editors, with the help of Proust’s brother, simply acted as
intermediaries in an attempt to be true to Proust’s intentions. Pierre Clarac
and André Ferré, in the Pléiade edition of 1954 (3 vols.), and later Jean-Yves
Tadié, in the Pléiade edition published between 1987 and 1989, used the
NRF edition for the work published during Proust’s lifetime. However they
differed in the text they presented for the unfinished volumes. Tadié points
out that all the latest corrections were not available to the editors in 1954:
“Nous avons pu améliorer le texte posthume, en rétablissant des corrections
voulues par Proust, en insérant des passages laissés en notes par nos
prédécesseurs [ ... ]” (Proust 1987:I:clxxii). Speaking of Tadié’s edition,
Marion Schmid has remarked that “most critics agree that the new Pléiade
provides the most authoritative text of À la recherche du temps perdu to date”
(1995:56). The published texte had thus on the whole been considerably
improved at the internal level.
Thus on the level of the near completion of the external structure (and
to a lesser extent the internal structure), as well as the work’s acceptance by
the public, there is considerable justification for calling À la recherche a texte.
The overall shape and thrust of the novel had been clear from the first drafts
and facilitated the editor’s work. As Proust himself explained, “[l]e dernier
chapitre du dernier volume a été écrit tout de suite après le premier chapitre
du premier volume. Tout l’ « entre-deux » a été écrit ensuite.”9 The strength
and clarity of the novel’s external structure was largely in place when Proust
died. As concerns the internal structure, in relation particularly to the
unfinished volumes, the amount of material Proust might finally have
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 229

included and any further additions he might have made cannot be known.
The method of his writing, as described by Bernard Brun, shows a “stellar
approach” (“écriture en étoile” [5]). This was reproduced in the structure of
the novel so that any set of units or echoes could be added to in order to
produce further links and echoes. The absence through incompletion of
several links in the narrative, or some slight confusion regarding names and
characters, is of little importance given the novel’s overall richness and
coherence. As Bellemin-Noël expresses it, “[le texte] nous est offert comme
un tout fixé dans son destin” (1979:116). Finally, the idea of the acceptance
of a texte by the reader and the public is particularly helpful when
considering À la recherche. Though at first it was misunderstood, even by the
well-known publishing house NRF, the novel was finally published, and both
the finished and unfinished volumes were accepted by the reading public.
(Du côté de chez Swann was published by Grasset in 1913 and the NRF finally
agreed to publish all of Proust’s novel to date in 1919. À la recherche was also
awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1919.) At the literary and cultural level the
special qualities of this modernist novel, which itself embraced
incompleteness, were thus recognised by the editors and the reading public.
The case of Contre Sainte-Beuve is more complex. Though Proust had
intended to have the work published, he seemed unable to decide between
writing a more formal essay of literary criticism and presenting his ideas in
the form of a narrative piece, woven around the ideas of the literary critic,
Sainte-Beuve, and it remained an unfinished project in Proust’s lifetime
(Schmid 1998: Part II, chapter 2). Proust shows his hesitation over form in a
letter to a friend, Madame de Noailles, in 1908:

La première [étude] est l’essai classique, l’Essai de Taine en mille

fois moins bien [ ... ]. La deuxième commence par un récit du
matin, du réveil. Maman vient me voir près de mon lit, je lui dis
que j’ai l’idée d’une étude sur Sainte-Beuve, je la lui soumets et la
lui développe. (1981:321, no. 171).

Proust did not resolve this problem for Contre Sainte-Beuve; he effectively
abandoned the work, and both unfinished versions were left in manuscript
Despite its unfinished state, Contre Sainte-Beuve was finally published in
1954 with a preface by Bernard de Fallois, and also in 1971, by Pierre Clarac
and Yves Sandre. The editors of these editions played a much bigger role in
presenting the unfinished material than did the editors of À la recherche.
Bernard de Fallois, for example, even assigned a title to the work and to the
230 Maureen A. Ramsden

different sections of it, and where there were several versions of a passage, he
selected one for publication (Proust 1954:27). He also brought together, in
his edition, the parts of Contre Sainte-Beuve which existed in the form of an
essay, and those which had the form of a narrative. In the 1971 edition, Pierre
Clarac retained both the title and the general arrangement of the fragments
of text of the first edition. However, Clarac and Sandre focus on the
manuscripts relating to the critic Sainte-Beuve, omitting the narrative
elements of the manuscripts (Proust 1971a:829).
However, the status of Contre Sainte-Beuve as texte might be challenged
in relation to both editions. It can be argued that the work, in its original
state, especially at the external level (the arrangement of the nucleus of the
principal ideas), was not sufficiently advanced to categorise Contre Sainte-
Beuve as a texte. In addition, the question of the form the work was to take
had not been resolved. De Fallois, in his introduction to the texte, himself
concludes that “Contre Sainte-Beuve au fond n’est pas un livre: c’est le rêve
d’un livre, c’est une idée de livre” (Proust 1954:28).
Tadié argues against both editions, seeing the first as being
representative of Proust’s aims, but too selective, while the second presents
only the argument against Saint-Beuve’s method of criticism and neglects the
narrative elements of the work. In Tadié’s view it was Proust’s attempt to
bring together such an abundance of material, while at the same time
attempting to reconcile two very different stylistic approaches, which led him
to abandon his original idea. Forme and fond were seemingly irreconcilable,
with the result that “[c]e livre inachevé explosait sous l’effet des tensions
internes” (1986:79).
However, rather than setting all the material aside, Proust began to
develop the narrative side of Contre Sainte-Beuve and parts of it reappear,
often somewhat changed, in different episodes and parts of À la recherche.
Maurice Bardèche describes the turning point as follows: “[Proust a essayé]
d’illustrer en quelque sorte la théorie qu’il professait en en montrant des
applications. Mais en montrant ces applications, c’était son roman que
Proust écrivait sans le savoir très clairement peut-être” (168). De Fallois cites
six episodes found among the feuillets intended for Contre Sainte-Beuve which
reappear in À la recherche: “la description de Venise, le séjour à Balbec, la
rencontre des jeunes filles, le coucher de Combray, la poésie des noms et les
deux « côtés »” (Proust 1954:11).
Thus Contre Sainte-Beuve assumes a rather schizophrenic existence.
Parts of the work, presented in two very different editions, were published
and given textual status, and parts of it have been claimed as avant-texte for
À la recherche (Tadié 1983:19). However, it can be argued that these “textes”
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 231

should have been published as avant-textes both because Proust did not
intend them to be published as textes and because they remained incomplete
on both the internal and the external level. Finally, and somewhat
paradoxically, Contre Sainte-Beuve can also be considered to have been
finished, rather than abandoned, because it becomes the novel À la recherche
(Tadié 1986:83).
What then of the status of the early “novel” Jean Santeuil, begun in
1895 and abandoned in 1900? Both the number of years that separate the
writing of Jean Santeuil from that of À la recherche, and the very different
reading experience they provide, mean that, to date, little work has been
done on establishing links between À la recherche and Jean Santeuil, though
there has been a lot of discussion concerning the links between Proust’s final
novel and Contre Sainte-Beuve.10 Proust had intended to write a novel, but
left the work unfinished and, more importantly, unpublished. It might
therefore, as a private piece of writing and as an unfinished manuscript,
appear to bear some of the important characteristics of an avant-texte. Tadié
describes the original manuscript as “mille pages, réparties en chapitres
inachevés, non classées, et finalement abandonnées par l’auteur” (1983:15).
However, the manuscript was published posthumously in the guise of a
novel, first by Bernard de Fallois in 1952, and then by Pierre Clarac in 1971.
As in the case of Contre Sainte-Beuve, it was the first editor who gave the
overall title of Jean Santeuil to the work, as well as subtitles to the many short
sections in this confused mass of manuscripts. He also organised the work by
reference to the finished novel À la recherche (Tadié 1983:123 and 139). Thus
the canonical, finished work was, paradoxically, made to serve as an avant-
texte to the earlier unfinished work. Clarac describes De Fallois’ approach as

Il a rassemblé ces pages détachées en chapitres suivis qu’il a

groupés euxmêmes en dix parties. Pour donner à l’ouvrage ainsi
agencé une cohésion apparente, il a dû procéder à des
interversions et à des suppressions, amalgamer des
développements distincts, modifier parfois les noms propres.
(Proust 1971b:981)

The 1971 edition is more faithful to the unfinished original, leading

Clarac to express his reservations about the approach adopted as follows: “[ ... ]
ce n’est pas sans scrupule que nous livrons au public une œuvre que son
auteur a gardée pour luimême et n’a pas achevée” (Proust 1971b:986). There
are numerous examples of unfinished sections and sentences and unfinished
232 Maureen A. Ramsden

or missing words.11 Consequently, many of the different sections end

abruptly and appear unfinished. In the section to which Clarac has given the
title “[Le « parc » au petit jour]” not only is the last word incomplete, but
the full meaning of the long sentence which attempts to express Jean’s
impression of the effect of the weak sunlight in an overcast sky, both on
himself and on his surroundings, is also unfinished:

Il faisait lourd. Mais Jean avait beau se plaindre de ce temps: le

long du chemin plutôt brillant qu’ensoleillé, dans les champs au
bout desquels la présence du soleil se trahissait par un vague
rayonnement [ ... ], et dans les iris pendant quelques instants
éclairés de plus en plus jusqu’à étinceler, puis replongés dans
l’ombre, il se sentait vivre à la fois dans cette journée et dans des
journées pareilles d’autrefois; il avait le sentiment d.... (Proust

Titles have been suggested by the editor for the many sections and
subsections of the novel to which Proust had not given a title or chapter
heading. However, unlike the practice of the earlier edition, the titles
invented by the editors are placed in square brackets, which once again
highlights the incompletion of the text. For example the first “chapter,” as
marked by Proust, becomes the prologue in the 1971 edition, and the
unfinished introduction, consisting of no more than about twenty lines of
text, is placed before the prologue (Tadié 1983:123). The first section is
named “[Enfance et adolescence]” (1971b:202), with subsections such as: “[le
baiser du soir]” (202), “[« Jean aimera la poésie »]” (211), “[le collège]” (230).
The general rule used by Clarac in organising the material was a mixture of
chronology and associated themes (Proust 1971b:982). However, some
episodes do not have any clear point of insertion in the work, and these are
presented in a separate section of “Fragments” at the end of the 1971 edition
Proust’s manuscript was not only incomplete, much of it had not been
put in any order. As Clarac points out, “[d]ans la première phase de son
travail Proust lui-même ignorait quelle place il assignerait aux diverses idées
qui traversaient son esprit” (Proust 1971b:982, n. 2). More importantly,
Proust reveals in his correspondence that, although he had written many
pages of his first novel, it was not near completion because he had not
discovered the overall “message” which he wished to convey. Thus in
September 1896, in a letter to his mother, Proust wrote: “[ ... ] si je ne peux
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 233

pas dire que j’aie encore travaillé à mon roman dans le sens d’être absorbé
par lui, de le concevoir d’ensemble [ ... ], le Cahier que j’ai acheté et qui ne
représente pas tout ce que j’ai fait, puisque avant je travaillais sur des feuilles
volantes—ce cahier est fini et il a 110 pages grandes” (1976:124, no. 65).
The result of the unfinished nature of the manuscripts and of the
different editing styles is that the reader is presented with two rather
different “textes” in the 1952 and 1971 editions. De Fallois and Clarac do not
always agree on what material should be included or completed in their
editions, or on the order and general mode of presentation of the material to
be adopted. In the 1952 edition, the text is divided into both parts, which are
numbered, and also into named chapters within the parts. There are in
addition unnamed sections where a break in the text appears within a
chapter. “Headings” or loose indications of the content of a part are given at
the beginning of each new section of the text. Some of these headings are the
same as the chapter titles. In Part I of the 1952 edition (61-131) the first four
titles are “Les soirées de Saint-Germain,” “Les soirées de Dieppe,” “M.
Sandré,” and “Marie Kossichef.” Three of these titles belong to a chapter but
the exception, “M. Sandré,” belongs to a section within a chapter (probably
in “Les soirées de Dieppe,” though M. Sandré is also mentioned in the
chapter headed “Marie Kossichef”).
The 1971 edition is divided into named parts and subsections (often in
square brackets, showing that they are the work of the editor). There are no
obvious divisions into chapters. The titles and content of these subsections
do not always correspond with the divisions in the 1952 edition. However,
the second part or section of the novel (concerning the Santeuil family’s stay
with relations in the country), begins in the same way in both editions:
“Quelquefois à Pâques, quand M, Santeuil n’avait pas trop à faire [ ... ]”
(1952:135, 1971b:277). The first chapter of Part II of the 1952 edition is
entitled “Étreuilles” and the second chapter is named “Journées de vacances”
(135, 143). The material found in the first four divisions of the second part
or section of the 1952 edition is given the titles “La maison d’Étreuilles,”
“Lilas et pommiers,” “Les rues,” “Ernestine,” etc. (the titles being given at
the beginning of the second section [133]). In the 1971 edition, the second
section has the overall title of “[À Illiers]” and covers much of the same
material as the earlier edition. The first five divisions or subsections, given in
square brackets and thus added by the editor, are as follows: “[Arrivée],”
“[Lilas et pommiers],” “[Lilas et aubépines],” “[Petite ville dévote],” and
“[Ernestine]” (1971b:277, 278, 280, 281). However, the divisions into
subsections within each part of the 1971 edition are much more numerous
than in the 1952 edition; some sections only consist of half a page of material.
234 Maureen A. Ramsden

Looking more closely at the placement of the material within the

different sections, it is evident, as stated above, that the content and the order
of the material, as well as the means of dividing it into chapters, parts and
sections, differ in the two editions. An example of the different ordering of
material in the two editions concerns the descriptions of the family gathering
for lunch while staying at Étreuilles or Illiers, the changing position of the
dining-room chairs before and during meals, and the description of the
family’s leisurely digestion. In the 1952 edition, in Part II, chapter 2, entitled
“Journées de vacances,” there is a reference to the fact that Jean often returns
home for lunch to find the chairs already around the dining-room table
(154). This is followed by a reference to the days when he spends much of
the morning reading in front of the dining-room fire and the chairs, at this
early hour, are still aligned against the wall (154). The description of the
family enjoying a leisurely digestion follows this account without any obvious
link (155-58). In the 1971 edition the order appears even less logical. The
reference to the leisurely digestion comes immediately after the return of
Jean and his grandfather from the park, just before the meal begins (Part II,
“À Illiers,” section entitled “[Farniente après le repas]” [1971b:286-89),
while the descriptions of the chairs, set either around the table, or against the
wall in the dining-room, appear several sections later (in the section entitled
“[Après le déjeuner”] [304-05]).
Such differences in the text of the two editions of Jean Santeuil are
largely due to the unfinished nature of the work which, as in the case of
Contre Sainte-Beuve, was published posthumously, and which also owed much
to the intervention of the different editors, who undertook to present the
works in a readable form. However, it is questionable whether Proust’s
intentions concerning this work were clear enough to warrant their
publication as textes. More importantly, the texte lacks closure because Proust
himself had not discovered any satisfactory overall plan for his novel. When
Proust appears to abandon a project, as in the case of both Contre Sainte-
Beuve and Jean Santeuil, it is not to begin something new, but to present the
same nucleus of inspiration in a different way in an effort to translate his
vision. Is it not therefore possible to argue that Proust later reworked the
material of Jean Santeuil in À la recherche to the extent that it became an
avant-texte of the canonical work? In fact Proust drew widely from the
material of his first novel as he did from Contre Sainte-Beuve. Jean Santeuil
reveals many echoes of À la recherche and could be said to pave the way for
the later novel. As Clarac observes:

Il n’y a pas à se demander pourquoi il a abandonné Jean Santeuil.

Il ne l’a pas abandonné. Tous les thèmes qu’il portait en lui et
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 235

autour desquels s’organisera son œuvre maîtresse y sont déjà

posés, moins objectivement qu’ils ne le seront dans la Recherche,
plus étroitement rattachés au détail et aux hasards de sa propre
vie. C’est de Jean Santeuil (et non de Contre Sainte-Beuve !) que la
Recherche est sortie [ ... ].” (Proust 1971b:983)

Although Clarac might be said to be overstating the case here in seeing Jean
Santeuil as a more important source for À la recherche than Contre Sainte-
Beuve, many episodes and characters, as well as the method of their
presentation, found in À la recherche, were prefigured in Jean Santeuil.
Therefore, using the criteria discussed above, Jean Santeuil can be usefully
analysed as an avant-texte for À la recherche.
Looking first of all at the material of Jean Santeuil in comparison with
that of À la recherche, it is evident that Proust reworked not only the
characters and episodes of his early work, but also the themes.13 Thus many
of the headings, which have been added by the editor to the different
episodes in Jean Santeuil, find their echo in the résumé of the latest Pléiade
edition of the novel (Proust 1987), although there are changes in both the
names of the characters and of places. Many of the characters of À la
recherche, particularly those found in “Combray,” were first introduced in
Jean Santeuil. These include members of the child’s close family, such as his
parents (the rather authoritarian, but unpredictably kind father, and the
much-loved mother from whom the child can hardly bear to be separated,
particularly at night), and the great-aunt (Madame Servan or Sureau in Jean
Santeuil and tante Léonie in À la recherche).14 Many episodes and themes
found in À la recherche are also prefigured in Jean Santeuil. Episodes which
occur in both novels include the drame du coucher (sometimes referred to as
“le baiser du soir”) and the description of wealthy arriviste social circles, such
as the Cresmeyer family, which resembles, in its obsession with social
prestige, the Verdurin clan in À la recherche. On the level of themes, many of
the experiences in love described in À la recherche are prefigured in Jean
Santeuil. These include the young hero’s visits to the Champs-Élysées, where
he develops an obsession for a playmate (Marie Kossichef in Jean Santeuil
and Gilberte Swann in À la recherche) who does not form part of his social
circle. Thus both young heroes experience the way in which separation
increases and even creates their feelings for the loved one. In terms of an
artistic vocation, Marcel’s poetic sensibility is already apparent, to a limited
extent, in Jean Santeuil as shown, for example, by the way in which Jean
shares Marcel’s love for the hawthorns, particularly the pink variety
(1971b:330-33). Although there are some allusions in Jean Santeuil to the
236 Maureen A. Ramsden

hero’s desire to write, they are much less numerous and less emphasis is
placed on them than in À la recherche (for example, 1971b:211-15).
There are, of course, obvious differences between Jean Santeuil and À
la recherche. In Jean Santeuil there is a much larger amount of biographical
detail. There is also greater interaction between the hero and his family,
including their often violent disagreements. In addition, in the early work we
learn more of the hero’s days at the lycée, including Jean’s experiences in M.
Beulier’s “classe de philosophie,” while there are few references to Marcel’s
schooldays in À la recherche. Memory, one of the cornerstones of À la
recherche, is treated only briefly in Jean Santeuil (for example, 1971b:247-48
and 897-98 in the “Fragments divers”), as are the generalisations, in the form
of maxims, which are a more important part of À la recherche. An example in
the earlier novel would be the comment on the lack of harmony in the
feelings which people experience towards each other at different times:
“Hélas! les heures n’apportent pas à chacun les mêmes pensées” (1971b:412).
There are also some similarities and differences in the two novels on
the level of technique. The early novel was a product of Proust’s youth when
he was still searching for his material and, more importantly, for a means of
expressing it. The structure of the early novel follows, to some extent, the
chronological order of Jean’s life. In À la recherche, on the other hand,
Marcel’s love of literature and his slow discovery of his artistic vocation are a
more important part of the basic structure of the novel. One of Proust’s
greatest difficulties in Jean Santeuil was to transform the particular
experiences of life into the more widely familiar and useful material of
fiction. In the quotation placed by the editors just before the opening of Jean
Santeuil, Proust points out his difficulties over form: “Puis-je appeler ce livre
un roman? C’est moins peut-être et bien plus, l’essence même de ma vie
recueillie sans y rien mêler, dans ces heures de déchirure où elle découle. Ce
livre n’a jamais été fait, il a été récolté.”15 Jean Santeuil is written in the third
person, rather than the first person found in À la recherche. This point of view
appears to distance the reader from the experiences of Jean, the central
character. The preface (originally chapter one of the work) has a similar aim.
In addition, some of the episodes are grouped, as in À la recherche, by
association, in a stellar structure (cf. Brun). The many abrupt endings to the
different sections can be seen as pointing to a structure designed by means of
association. Tadié even suggests that this technique was not simply a manner
of working, but points to an integral part of Proust’s style (1986:76). Such
techniques are characteristic of a modernist work such as À la recherche. It is
therefore possible to state that Jean Santeuil fulfils a very important criterion
of an avant-texte—that of being part of the developmental process
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 237

(“système,” to use Bellemin-Noël’s term) which gave rise to À la recherche.

Not only are there similarities and differences between the two works on the
level of both content and technique, but the differences can be seen as part
of an overall development which made the later novel possible.
In conclusion, therefore, the status of Proust’s major works, both as
textes and as avant-textes, can be challenged. Both Jean Santeuil and Contre
Sainte-Beuve have been published and largely accepted as textes, though this
status, given their state of incompletion on the external as well as the internal
level, is questionable. Both works were left mainly in the form of notes and
brouillons by Proust, who did not intend to publish them. Their appearance
as finished textes is mainly the work of editors. On the other hand, À la
recherche can be accepted as a texte because it shows completion on the
external, if not the internal level, and was intended for publication by Proust.
The fact that Proust incorporated large parts of Contre Sainte-Beuve into À la
recherche means that Contre Sainte-Beuve has quite rightly been considered as
an avant-texte. Contre Sainte-Beuve was not completed or published mainly
because Proust failed to find a suitable form for his material. He had
experimented with both a narrative form and a dialogue, but continued to
pose the question: “Faut-il faire un roman, une étude philosophique? Suis-je
romancier?” (Carnet I, fol. 2, quoted by Bardèche 171). Given these
circumstances, the important links between Jean Santeuil and À la recherche
have been neglected for too long. Proust constantly drew on this earlier
material on the level of both fond and forme. In Jean Santeuil it can be argued
that Proust experimented with different forms, as in the pastiches, but failed
to develop a suitable technique for presenting his ideas. At the same time he
was impelled to move in yet another direction, to depart from the familiar
chronological and causal structure of nineteenth-century realist fiction, and
experiment with a more modern stellar structure in which groups of episodes
develop out of one another by association. The fact that the experience of
reading Jean Santeuil and Contre Sainte-Beuve is so different from that of
reading À la recherche can be explained by the fact that, though Proust often
worked and reworked the same material, his use of the material in terms of
his style and vision changed quite radically.
In Proust’s work the term avant-texte has thus a wider definition than is
commonly the case. It includes not only the carnets, the cahiers and separate
sheets of brouillons, but also an unfinished earlier work, Contre Sainte-Beuve,
which evolved into the later novel before its own form had been finally
established. More importantly, the avant-texte must include the early
unfinished novel, Jean Santeuil, whose contribution, both in terms of content
and the working out of a final form for À la recherche, is too often overlooked.
238 Maureen A. Ramsden

À la recherche du temps perdu, which grew out of this material, is a

narrative work underpinned by Proust’s theory of art. It is a work which
broke away from the the realist Jean Santeuil, whose subject concerns the
process of writing. The more didactic Contre Sainte-Beuve, which, in
manuscript form, is both a discussion about Proust’s ideas on art and a
narrative, can be seen as a crossroads. À la recherche is a modernist work
which demonstrates its own æsthetic, rather than simply stating it as in
Contre Sainte-Beuve. Bardèche’s description of the role of the different avant-
textes for À la recherche can be applied both to Contre Sainte-Beuve and to Jean

Était-il vraiment indifférent d’apprendre, en étudiant ces

manuscrits, que Proust avait écrit la Recherche du temps perdu
pendant toute sa vie [ ... ], et fallait-il négliger la constatation
qu’on pouvait faire alors, que Proust avait construit son œuvre
avec une certaine quantité d’éléments préfabriqués dont un grand
nombre étaient déjà « fondus » et prêts dès les années de jeunesse
de l’écrivain, qu’il essaya ensuite de combiner et de « monter »
selon différentes formules et dont l’assemblage ne donna
finalement un chef-d’œuvre que lorsque Proust eut découvert le
« rythme » selon lequel ils allaient pouvoir s’ordonner? (12-13)

Closer inspection also shows that the whole corpus of Proust’s work,
and especially Jean Santeuil and Contre Sainte-Beuve, is a continual reworking
of one novel, which itself barely emerges in canonical form from the mass of
avant-textes. As Ton-That expresses it, “[ ... ] toute l’œuvre de Proust pourrait
être placée sous le signe de l’inachèvement” (26). Contre Sainte-Beuve is a
work of criticism which is turned in upon itself. It becomes self-reflexive; it
contains the germ of explicit auto-criticism, which enables Proust to move
on to the final phase in his writing. Both Contre Sainte-Beuve and also the
early “novel,” Jean Santeuil, were instrumental in fashioning the final work,
both by what they contributed, in reworked form, and by what they
withheld, so that new routes could be pursued. This led to the emergence of
a modern novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, part of which remained
unfinished at the internal, but not at the external level, and which is itself a
texte, characterised by its potential for the endless reworking of its
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 239


1. In this discussion, a looser, working definition of a texte will be used as a

starting point—that of the completed or nearly completed work which, if not
published, was at least intended for publication by the author.
2. The first edition of Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, consisting of 100 poems
and five sections, appeared in 1857. The second edition of 1861 contained 126 poems
in all, and six divisions, including a new section, “Tableaux parisiens.” However,
several poems from the first edition, censored by the courts, were omitted. They
have, however, been included in some posthumous editions.
3. Petit in Les manuscrits, quoted by Hay 147.
4. Ton-That looks at different levels of incompletion in Proust’s first novel,
Jean Santeuil, including whether the incompletion is internal or external.
5. Preface to his first Éducation sentimentale of 1845 (see Flaubert 19).
6. Grésillon refers here to the study by Anis. Proust also allowed publication
of a page of his original manuscript in a volume of his work published as a special
edition; he refers to it in a letter (1981:295).
7. However Proust, in a letter to Paul Souday in 1919, stated firmly that he
would finish his work: “Je veux tout de même [ ... ] vous donner l’assurance qu’il n’y
a pas besoin de ma mort, comme voulait bien le dire un critique, pour que je cesse
d’écrire À la recherche du temps perdu” (1981:536).
8. Letter (1922) to M. and Mme Schiff (1993:372–73, no. 259).
9. Letter (1919) to Paul Souday (Proust 1981:536).
10. Many such studies have appeared in the Cahiers Marcel Proust and the
Bulletin d’informations proustiennes. See also Clarac.
11. Proust had however numbered some parts of the work, including chapter
1, inserted as a prologue in the Pléiade edition. The page sequence, numbered by
Proust in the manuscript, starts at page 1 and finishes at page 105 (numbered pp.
20–87 in the manuscript), or pp. 202–242 in Clarac’s edition. See Clarac in Proust
12. For other examples, see the end of the section entitled “[Matinée au
jardin]” (Proust 1971b:300). The sentence could be considered finished, but not the
idea which is only broached. On p. 245, at the end of the section entitled “[M.
Sandré],” the sentence is barely begun before it is broken off.
13. See other exemples in greater detail in Marc-Lipiansky 227–39.
14. See Ramsden on the evolution of the character of the great-aunt (Mme
Servan or tante Léonie) from Jean Santeuil to À la recherche.
15. This fragment is used as a prefatory note in the printed texte in the 1952
and in the 1971 editions (1971 b:181), though a longer version is used in the latter.
240 Maureen A. Ramsden


Anis, J. “Préparatifs d’un texte : La fabrique du pré de F. Ponge.” Langages 69 (March

Bardèche, Maurice. Marcel Proust romancier. Paris: Les Sept Couleurs, 1971.
Bellemin-Noël, Jean. 1972 Le texte et l’avant-texte : les brouillons d’un poème de Milosz.
Paris: Larousse.
——. 1977. “Reproduire le manuscrit, présenter les brouillons, établir un avant-
texte.” Littérature 28:3–18.
——. 1979. “Lecture psychanalytique d’un brouillon de poème : « Été » de Valéry.”
Essais de critique génétique. Paris: Flammarion. 103–49.
Brun, Bernard. “Avant-propos.” Bulletin d’informations proustiennes 21 (1990):3–5.
Clarac, Pierre. “La place du Contre Sainte-Beuve dans l’œuvre de Marcel Proust.”
Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France 5–6 (1971):804–14.
Debray-Genette, Raymonde. Métamorphoses du récit : autour de Flaubert. Paris: Seuil,
Flaubert, Gustave. L’éducation sentimentale. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1980.
Genette, Gérard. “La question de l’écriture.” Recherche de Proust. Paris: Seuil, 1980.
Grésillon, Almuth. 1990. Proust à la lettre: les intermittences de l’écriture. Charente: Du
——. 1994. Éléments de critique génétique: lire les documents modernes. Paris: Presses
universitaires de France.
Grésillon, Almuth, and Jean-Louis Lebrave. “Avant-propos.” Langages 69 (March
Hay, Louis. “« Le texte n’existe pas » : réflexions sur la critique génétique.” Poétique
16 (1985):147–58.
Lebrave, Jean-Louis. “Lecture et analyses des brouillons.” Langages 69 (March
Levaillant, Jean, ed. Introduction. Écriture et génétique textuelle. Lille: Presses
universitaires de Lille, 1982). 11–24.
Les manuscrits : transcription, éditions, signification. Colloque. Paris: CNRS-ENS, 1975.
Marc-Lipiansky, Mireille. La naissance du monde proustien dans Jean Santeuil. Paris:
Nizet, 1974.
Melançon, Robert. “Le statut de l’œuvre : sur une limite de la génétique.” Études
françaises 28 (Autumn 1992):49–65.
Proust, Marcel. 1896. Les plaisirs et les jours. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.
——. 1924. Les plaisirs et les jours. Paris: Gallimard.
——. 1952. Jean Santeuil. Pref. Bernard de Fallois. Paris: Gallimard.
——. 1954. Contre Sainte-Beuve. Ed. Bernard de Fallois. Paris: Gallimard.
——. 1971a. Contre Sainte-Beuve. Eds. Pierre Clarac and Yves Sandre. Bibliothèque
de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard.
——. 1971b. Jean Santeuil. Eds. Pierre Clarac and Yves Sandre. Bibliothèque de la
Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard.
——. 1976. Correspondance. Ed. Philip Kolb. Vol. II. Paris: Plon.
——. 1981. Correspondance. Ed. Philip Kolb. Vol. VIII. Paris: Plon.
Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte 241

——. 1987. À la recherche du temps perdu. Ed. Jean-Yves Tadié. 4 vols. Bibliothèque de
la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1987–89.
——. 1990. Correspondance. Ed. Philip Kolb. Vol. XVIII. Paris: Plon.
——. 1993. Correspondance. Ed. Philip Kolb. Vol. XXI. Paris: Plon.
Ramsden, Maureen A. “Un autre Marcel ? Analyse structurelle et génétique du rôle
de la tante Léonie dans « Combray ».” Bulletin d’informations proustiennes
Schmid, Marion. 1995. “Teleology and Textual Misrepresentation: The New Pléiade
Proust.” French Studies Bulletin (Autumn):15–17.
——. 1998. Processes of Literary Creation: Flaubert and Proust. Oxford: Legenda. Tadié,
Jean-Yves. 1983. Proust. Paris: Belfond.
——. 1986. “Proust et l’inachèvement.” Le manuscrit inachevé : écriture, création,
communication. Paris: CNRS.
Ton-That, Thanh-Vân. “L’inachèvement dans Jean Santeuil.” Bulletin d’informations
proustiennes 25 (1994):17–26.

Ethics, Meaning,
and the Work of Beauty

L iterary study may currently appear to be invested in a reexamination and

revaluation of the aesthetic.1 The reasons for such a renewed interest in
beauty and its kin equally may seem obvious from some perspectives. One
narrative posits that aesthetics is the late-twentieth-century answer to
ideology, a can’t-we-all-get-along response to the perceived fracturing of the
academy brought about by ideological and critical conflict. Such an
approach, though satisfying in the way of all neat reductions, is only about as
accurate as one might expect; it is, like many a Victorian heroine, no better
than it should be. In some cases, this explanation may be correct, but a turn
to aesthetics can be differently explained and holds different value for critics
who recall the powerful role aesthetics plays in Enlightenment philosophy, a
legacy whose revision was at the heart of the critical theory of Jauss, Lyotard,
Foucault, and their followers. The response in the 1990s to the barely
accessible complexities of such theory has been, at its best, to resituate
literary criticism, to integrate theoretical acuity within accessible writing
about art and culture. In the drive to bring theory and practice closer
together, the aesthetic, as a theory of the relationships between readers and
texts, raises compelling interest. Hand in hand in recent years with a turn to
history, the discontinuities and processes through which texts and meaning
are made, we find a turn to beauty, a mode of sensibility through which texts

From Eighteenth-Century Studies 35, no. 3 (Spring 2002). © 2002 by the Johns Hopkins
University Press.

244 Gabrielle Starr

enter into and change the worlds of the people who read them. But the
return to the aesthetic, like the return to history, raises significant questions
about how literary studies as a discipline is constituted, and at the core of the
conflicts surrounding turns to aesthetics—both in the eighteenth century
and at the start of the twenty-first—are problems of labor and meaning.
Recent work by critics like Elaine Scarry has made bold and intelligent
statements about the potential of the aesthetic, but in turning to aesthetic
theory, many contemporary critics tend to reenact the melding of categories
at the heart of the emergence of eighteenth-century British aesthetics:
aesthetic experience and aesthetic inquiry are compressed and frequently
conflated, and aesthetic inquiry is, in turn, all but replaced by ethics or
hermeneutics. This pattern is in part the result of giving precedence to the
Shaftesburian tradition of aesthetic theory. As Ronald Paulson points out,
most literary study of the aesthetic proceeds from Shaftesburian assumptions
and suppresses or ignores the serious challenges offered to this strain within
the eighteenth century by “less respectable” thinkers like Hogarth.2 This
essay sketches a pattern common to ethical and hermeneutic approaches to
the aesthetic both then and now, examining the reasons aesthetics tends to
become an appealing object of contemporary theory-as-hermeneutics and a
de facto domain within the larger field of ethics. In opposition to this
tradition, I bring together works by Hogarth, Swift, and Proust—an unlikely
grouping, perhaps—in order to explore what happens when the temptations
of hermeneutic and ethical approaches to the aesthetic are held, even briefly,
at bay. The pressing questions are those of discipline. First, if aesthetics
matters, what does aesthetic inquiry produce that no other form of
questioning can? And second, what role might both the question and its
answers play in current reformulations of literary study?
The merging of aesthetic inquiry with ethics or hermeneutics has its
most explicit statement in the eighteenth century and is reinforced by late-
twentieth-century critique. Major texts in the early years of British and
continental aesthetics tend to emerge as answers to problems that on the
surface do not concern the aesthetic at all. The theories of aesthetics
promoted early in the century by Shaftesbury or Hutcheson are, in large
part, a response to the perceived moral crudity and inadequacy of Hobbesian
philosophy. Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) undertakes to resolve
the foundations of both public and private virtue as a rebuttal of “licentious
systems” like Mandeville’s utilitarian approach to vice (and simultaneously
provides the framework by which a capitalist economy can be made a civil
one). Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) steps in to resolve the apparent
conflict between the first and second Critiques and to reconcile or unite
Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty 245

freedom and necessity.3 It is thus that Enlightenment aesthetics becomes

tempting fruit: to quote Terry Eagleton, the aesthetic often seems ready or
able to “intervene,” to function “as a dream of reconciliation,” but its
peculiarities also make it seem an answer to scholarly dreams of
interpretation.4 The apparent position of aesthetics as a cultural and
intellectual in between—mediating questions of cognition, gender,
economics, class, national identity, even ethics—means it seems the perfect,
if overdetermined, subject for critical dissection.
For twentieth-century critics like Derrida, De Man, or Eagleton,
Enlightenment aesthetics is accordingly the object of a landmark
hermeneutic enterprise. For De Man, aesthetics holds within itself a fracture
“fatal” to the culturally enforced unity of philosophy and ideology. Derrida
finds aesthetics at the heart of what he reads as the fundamental
Enlightenment antipathy to insuperable difference. Eagleton argues that
aesthetics provides a key support for the precarious stability of the bourgeois
liberal subject.5 For these theorists, aesthetics does a lot of work, holding up
precariously balanced philosophical projects and offering a way to challenge
their integrity. Whatever aesthetics may be, its critical capital comes from
the way it performs in larger systems. Aesthetics in this sense is a discipline
par excellence, mediating larger cultural practices and concepts to shape
knowledge so that it is eminently serviceable. Aesthetic theory then becomes
a critique of this disciplinary role.
Such an understanding of aesthetics makes a great deal of sense: the
ease with which the aesthetic slips into other disciplinary modes seems one
of its fundamental characteristics in the Shaftesburian vein of the tradition.
When Shaftesbury turns to beauty, it is a turn to the social, the fruit of a care
for the relationships between judging subjects.6 A judgment of beauty is the
considered product of societal commitments, the actions and claims of a
conversational circle of educated men and women. Aesthetic judgments
signify the productive commerce of social beings; they take on meaning
through their implications of community and can be made to build it. This
is the essence of the Whiggish common sense Shaftesbury places at the basis
of taste. Common sense signifies a “sense of public weal, and of the common
interest; love of the community or society, natural affection, humanity,
obligingness, or that sort of civility which rises from a just sense of the
common rights of mankind, and the natural equality there is among those of
the same species.”7 Shaftesbury’s grounding of beauty, even in “sense,”
requires social support. What is intriguing here is an oft-noted characteristic
of Shaftesbury’s thought: the relative indeterminacy of the borders of the
philosophical or disciplinary areas surrounding taste (ethics in particular).
246 Gabrielle Starr

It would not be amiss to wonder, given Shaftesbury’s arguments,

whether for him there really could be any such thing as aesthetics at all.
There is of course nothing in British philosophy called “aesthetics” (prior to
Alexander Baumgarten’s 1750 treatise) in the same way that there is “ethics”
or “metaphysics,” but noting neither the absence of a name nor the absence
of a classical model gets at the heart of the peculiarity of aesthetics as it
comes into being. It is also insufficient, though certainly correct, to note that
Shaftesbury tended to combine disciplinary modes throughout his writing.
The problem is at bottom one of ground: on what basis might one stake a
claim to aesthetics, to its importance, disciplinary integrity, and coherence?
This is not a Kantian question about the (supposed) autonomy of aesthetic
objects, nor is it simply the more familiar Shaftesburian question about the
status of an aesthetic judgment (as disinterested and, hence, independent).
My concern here is rather the constitutive boundaries of the aesthetic as a
mode of inquiry; it is also eventually, though not isomorphically, about the
constitutive shape of aesthetic experience. If aesthetics is merely the lesser
sibling of ethics, does it require its own tools, terms, or inquiry at all? Could
we not merely be satisfied with its ontological and disciplinary superiors?
And finally, as I stated the question above, the problem of aesthetics as
discipline or branch of knowledge is this: what does aesthetic inquiry provide
that ethical, political, historical, or hermeneutic inquiries do not?
The recognized necessity of finding an aesthetic “ground”—sometimes
as a basis for taste, sometimes as a basis for pleasure, sometimes as
ontological principle—is apparent in almost every significant essay on the
subject in the period. There are, in general, two methods of approaching the
issue. First, as with much neoclassical literary criticism, there is the
possibility that aesthetics, understood as a science of art, is rulebound. In
cases such as this, aesthetics is less a philosophical discipline than a practicum
for artists and viewers, and any need for grounding is satisfied by providing
rules of creation or criticism.8 Aesthetics is grounded in natural law, and
aesthetic judgments are justified by that law. In more theoretical treatises, the
rules of art as juridical ground usually appear subordinate to the implications
of taste as a cross-disciplinary principle, as in Hutcheson’s Inquiry into the
Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725). While Hutcheson does not
equate the moral sense and the sense of beauty, he gives them the same
ground, arguing that our internal perception of ideas and objects allows us to
find beauty in actions (and hence in virtue) as well as in objects of sight or
hearing: “The Author of Nature has much better furnish’d us for a virtuous
Conduct, than our Moralists seem to imagine ... : He has made Virtue a
lovely Form, to excite our pursuit of it; and has given us strong Affections to
Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty 247

be the Springs of each virtuous Action.”9 Beauty in this formulation does not
have a unique ground in the mind or the world; the perception of beauty is
a specific result only of God’s interest in our motivations.10 While ethics may
be closely related to aesthetics, God’s law of justice is spelled out with a
clarity and precision that no aesthetic induction based on taste could ever
match. The ground of aesthetic taste is analogic and relative to the ground
of neighboring philosophical divisions.
Even without an explicitly moralist standard of origin, early-eighteenth-
century theories of the aesthetic tend to make its ground relative and
designate its primary field of jurisdiction as mediation between competing
goods and values. This is true of Joseph Addison’s arguments in The Spectator;
he links aesthetics and morality, but he grounds his discussion of beauty in
faculty psychology.11 The imagination emerges as the faculty of perception
most profoundly associated with the aesthetic. For Addison, the imagination
is introspective, working through an inner eye, but it is also perceptual,
oriented toward the outside world. As he puts it in The Spectator n. 411 (1712),
“[T]he Pleasures of the Imagination ... arise from visible Objects, ... when we
have them actually in our view” as well as “when we call up their Ideas into
our Minds by Paintings, Statues, Descriptions, or any the like Occasion.”12
The pleasures of vision are pleasures of the imagination because they are not
the result of qualities that inhere in objects but rather of things the mind does
to our perceptions: producing the sensation of color from the perception of
reflected light, for example. The imagination, even more than sight, is the
faculty that has the potential to link our inner and outer worlds.
Much like the sense of beauty, the Addisonian imagination is a
mediating force, doing work that reconciles individual with community,
inside with outside. However, the balance between the presumed privacy of
any emotional or aesthetic experience and its communal properties is not an
easy one—it must be elaborately theorized (by Shaftesbury or Smith) and
carefully maintained, just as the balance between imagination as
introspection and perception must be defended against the problems of the
quixote and the solipsist (as in the cases of Charlotte Lennox or Samuel
Johnson). Beauty, to take one aspect of aesthetic experience, must be saved
for the ethical and communal because without due care, it seems to lead to
private, unconsidered consumption. Unless beauty is absorbed into a
discourse of use, discipline, and balance, it seems somehow incomplete—for
critical purposes. To meet this problem, aesthetic experience is supposed by its
theorists to work to create ethical community; by implication, aesthetic
criticism seeks to make beauty produce some meaning that goes beyond itself.
Aesthetic criticism disciplines beauty, assigning it duties of its own.
248 Gabrielle Starr

Beauty is not enough in the early years of British aesthetics, and it

remains so in recent aesthetic inquiries, even in those whose authors claim
allegiance to beauty itself. One of the best of recent books on the subject,
Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, seeks to defend beauty from
antagonists who assert its ideological perversion or insufficiency. Scarry
points out that latter-day critics of beauty tend to see the beautiful object as
liable to ethical violation; in being wantonly seen and adored, it is objectified.
From the other end, the judging subject is seduced without regard to the
ethical demands of being in the world. In defending beauty against these
attacks, Scarry and other critics like Emory Elliot and Isobel Armstrong
follow the pattern of eighteenth-century critics before them, situating beauty
in regard to community practices: for Scarry, justice and a foundational care
for object and world (something like what Heidegger associates with Dasein);
for Elliot, an inclusive literary practice and canon; for Armstrong, a radical,
democratic aesthetic.13 Scarry does not equate beauty with justice (nor does
she explicitly discuss Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hogarth, or many other
theorists), but in a much more considerable move, argues that beauty prepares
us for justice, providing training in features of ethical life that are
indispensable to being and pursuing the just: “Through its beauty, the world
continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care.”14 Such
perceptual care becomes the basis of a broadened and refined attention to
justice: “Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the
aliveness ... of our world, and for entering into its protection.”15 This
proposition, though attractive, is loose; the connection is temperamental,
“voluntary,” tenuous, and nowhere near the clear call of necessity that
generally belongs by right to ethical principles (although ethical necessity
could be debated, too). There is potential for a category mistake here, and
aesthetic experience and aesthetic inquiry may be collapsed. Beauty itself, I
venture to uphold, teaches little about justice (history offers few examples to
support a claim to such educative power); Scarry’s investigation of beauty,
however, may be more productive. As Shaftesbury before her, Scarry holds
that aesthetic inquiry and education step in to fill the gaps aesthetic
experience appears to leave behind.16
The odd form of labor that Scarry posits—beauty’s work as preparation
for justice—is not its only task. Scarry’s suture of beauty and justice goes side
by side with her concern for the training and shaping of individuals
responsive to the beautiful, eager participants in the imagined communities
built around it. Beauty becomes the foundation of an academic community,
too, one whose ethical standards are tied up in attitudes of care. In all of these
cases, beauty is expected to be a workhorse of magnificent proportions, and
Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty 249

it is to “work” in our discipline or in our lives by meaning something else.

Aesthetic criticism here is both ethical and hermeneutic, interpreting beauty
as object or experience and showing how it points to something else, to our
capacities for justice or to our capacities to teach, learn, and read. What
might the investigation of beauty offer on its own?
Given the examples of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Smith, Scarry,
Eagleton, De Man, or Derrida, it might appear that thinking the aesthetic all
but requires its immediate translation into something else, whether it is
ethics, ideology, or politics; aesthetics may well be uninteresting without
such transformation. The problem begins with the fact that, as Armstrong
puts it, aesthetics fundamentally involves affect, and for affect, “[W]e have no
(or few) terms of analysis.”17 To think about what aesthetics “means”—
usually a hermeneutic process—seems, perhaps tautologically, more
“significant” than any other approach. The treatment of inquiry in the realm
of aesthetics as interpretation of aesthetic relations is a tactical choice and as
such has clear value even if, by translating aesthetics, it leaves the aesthetic
behind. On the other hand, ethics trumps aesthetics, and this replacement
may seem, also tautologically, “right.” If ethics is the supreme legislator of
our existence as humans, there ought to be nothing wrong with ultimately
referring the aesthetic to the ethical; but treating aesthetics as ethical inquiry
fails to answer aesthetic questions—that is, if aesthetics makes sense at all.
Hogarth believed it did, and his deferral of ethics and interpretation in
favor of affect is probably one of the reasons that far fewer literature scholars
pay serious attention to the Analysis of Beauty (1753) than to works more
concerned with interpretation, works like Shaftesbury’s Characteristics (1711)
or Burke’s Enquiry (1757).18 Against the assumptions of dominant strains of
aesthetic inquiry, both then and now, Hogarth’s work is revolutionary. The
strength of his contribution comes not only from his challenging the stance
of disinterestedness fundamental to Shaftesbury’s aesthetics but also because
he argues that the search for an ethical equivalent of beauty is the product of
and leads to a misunderstanding:

It is no wonder this subject [beauty] should have so long been

thought inexplicable, since the nature of many parts of it cannot
possibly come within the reach of mere men of letters; otherwise
those ingenious gentlemen who have lately published treatises
upon it ... would not so soon have been bewildered in their
accounts of it, and obliged so suddenly to turn into the broad, and
more beaten path of moral beauty; in order to extricate themselves
out of the difficulties they seem to have met with in this.19
250 Gabrielle Starr

Hogarth refuses the complicated and, for him, disingenuous stance of

connoisseurship, a pretence toward knowledge that substitutes schema for
experience. Hogarth will not displace the beautiful with anything else,
especially with an ethics like Shaftesbury’s. Hogarth thinks and imagines in
material terms—those of pleasure and of form. For him, form is not the
suspiciously abstract entity contemporary scholars tend to associate with
formalism; it is, at its best, always embodied, the material completion of a
smokejack, a pineapple, or a woman (to use Hogarth’s examples).
What is difficult about Hogarth, but centrally important, is that two
things are in play. There is always a call to ethics in human life; this call (for
some of us) insists that Hogarth’s pineapple, a line, and a woman are in no
way equivalent, and that ignoring this inequality, even for a moment, is
unacceptable. Yet, any automatic ethical condemnation of Hogarth’s ideals of
beauty would be faulty because aesthetic relationships are not all-defining.
Beauty is just one part of the complex web that ethical analysis works to
resolve in any instance, and theorization of ethical standards based on an
abstraction from aesthetic conduct ignores the contingency of the aesthetic
and the boundedness of all emotional experience. Ethical condemnations of
the aesthetic do it the disservice of granting it a legislative and definitive
power it otherwise lacks. Beauty is smaller than that and is only one part of
any encounter in the world.
It would be foolish to argue that the beautiful, the sublime, or the ugly
does not have ethical, social, or hermeneutic importance: Paulson’s critique
of The Analysis reveals that with clarity. But what must be emphasized even
more strongly is that neither ethics nor hermeneutics can answer aesthetic
questions. The Analysis opens up the question of what happens if, even for a
moment, the unique disciplinary potential of aesthetic experience is made
central. Hogarth stops with what he considers irreducible—what he calls the
serpentine line.20 If there is any significance to this line, any reason for its
aesthetic value, it is its incitement to pursuit:

It is a pleasing labour of the mind to solve the most difficult

problems .... The eye hath this sort of enjoyment of winding
walks, and serpentine rivers, and all sorts of objects, whose forms
... are composed principally of ... the waving and serpentine lines.
Intricacy in form, therefore, I shall define to be that peculiarity in
the lines, which compose it, that leads the eye a wanton kind of chace,
and from the pleasure that gives the mind, intitles it to the name
of beautiful. (33; italics original)
Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty 251

Hogarth extends this criterion to the nonvisual from the start and puts the
question of labor firmly onto the mind and not onto beauty itself. The mind’s
desire to pursue challenges is the foundation of the pleasures of aesthetics.
This has formal consequences, but coming from within (the mind) rather
than from without (objects with definite form), it does not have a formal
origin. The pleasure associated with a particular composition depends upon
the mental response to visual or intellectual challenge; form itself is not
legislative and is crafted in response only to a mental principle, the
requirement that the mind be enticed to pursuit (or as Coleridge might say,
drawn on by pleasure).21 The aesthetic is thus freed from dependence on its
manifestation—problems can be as beautiful as waterfalls, and sensory
perception does not rule the day.
To return to the question I introduced earlier, the test that aesthetic
inquiry must face is not how it violates, complicates, supports, or rewrites the
ethical but what, if any, unique information aesthetic inquiry produces and
what, if any, unique role aesthetics plays in human experience. Hogarth’s
inquiry into aesthetics suggests that aesthetic experience involves a mental
drive (something prefiguring perhaps Schiller’s play drive—a strain of
investigation that has born excellent fruit in recent philosophical inquiry,
most notably in the work of Kendall Walton). Hogarth argues that the
unique role aesthetics plays is that it structures appetites (both physical and
mental).22 An aesthetic structure of appetite is one that privileges pursuit
over attainment.23 Aesthetics, then, is not grounded in objects or in
perception but in the way individual subjects approach both ideas and things.
Hogarth’s use of a mental principle to ground the aesthetic is
suggestive, opening up broader possibilities for modeling aesthetic thought.
Based on readings of the relationship between aesthetics and the imagination
in Swift and Proust, I suggest it is possible to imagine other answers—
literary answers—to the question of the possibilities of aesthetics. I here
juxtapose eighteenth-and twentieth-century literary texts by making an
appeal to eighteenth- and twentieth-century aesthetic theories that enact
similar relations. The juxtaposition of Swift and Proust offers a literary
dimension to the historical trace I pursue in aesthetic criticism. Scarry turns
to Proust to support her claims about beauty, and in doing this, turns to a text
that melds the two principal strains of early eighteenth-century approaches
to the beautiful. Proust’s pursuit of memory is a pursuit of beauty that has
passed away, a project deeply compatible with Hogarth’s The Analysis.
However, while Proust celebrates the importance of pursuit in the
experience of beauty, his work also participates in the Shaftesburian vein of
aesthetic thought, valuing disinterest and connoisseurship. This double
252 Gabrielle Starr

involvement is a useful reminder that theoretical oppositions are not always

realized in their purity, and it offers a starting point for comparatist analysis.
Scarry cites an excerpt from À la recherche du temps perdu to illustrate an
attitude of care toward the beautiful, a desire to prolong contact with it, to
keep it close and safe. For Scarry, the impulses to create art, to think in an
aesthetic manner, and even to procreate, are born of a desire to make beauty
eternal, to reproduce the beautiful both as something and as someone in the
world, as in the opening of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence: “From fairest
creatures we desire increase,/That thereby beauty’s rose might never die.” In
her view, this is one of the basic reasons why beauty prepares us for justice.
Proust’s ceaseless return to the beautiful valorizes care for both the fragility
of aesthetic experience and the fragility of those of us who live it; human
fragility is at the basis of Scarry’s ethics and Proust’s urgency. In the episode
Scarry cites, Marcel sees a beautiful milkmaid on the train to Balbec:
“Flushed with the glow of morning, her face was rosier than the sky. I felt on
seeing her that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become
conscious anew of beauty and happiness.”24 This woman is unlike any other
Marcel has seen:

So, completely unrelated to the models of beauty which I was

wont to conjure up in my mind when I was by myself, this
handsome girl gave me at once the taste for a certain happiness ...
that would be realized by my staying and living there by her side
.... 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 .... 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. She fastened on me her penetrating
gaze, but doors were being closed and the train had begun to
move. I saw her leave the station and go down the hill to her
home; it was broad daylight now; I was speeding away from the
dawn. (706–7; Pléiade 2: 17–18)

Scarry draws some general hypotheses about experiences of beauty from this
and similar passages. First, no two aesthetic experiences are alike. Second, an
experience of beauty is unique not just because of the singular character of
every object of beauty, but because each experience is tied to a unique
moment of perception, whose exact terms can never come again, even in
Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty 253

imagination. Proust, however, goes on to point out something about this

episode that Scarry neglects: what happens when beauty encounters the
pressures toward “general and disinterested” analysis? The train pulls out,
and the sunlight of the girl’s face disappears:

But alas, she must be forever absent from the other life towards
which I was being borne with ever increasing speed, a life which
I could resign myself to accept only by weaving plans that would
enable me to take the same train again some day and to stop at
the same station, a project which had the further advantage of
providing food for the selfish [intéressée], active, practical,
mechanical, indolent, centrifugal tendency which is that of the
human mind, for it turns all too readily aside from the effort
which is required to analyze and probe, in a general and
disinterested [générale et désintéressée] manner, an agreeable
impression which we have received. And since, at the same time,
we wish to continue to think of that impression, the mind prefers
to imagine it in the future tense, to continue to bring about the
circumstances which may make it recur—which, while giving us
no clue as to the real nature of the thing, saves us the trouble of
recreating it within ourselves and allows us to hope that we may
receive it afresh from without. (707–8; Pléiade 2:18)

Human beings have problems with the unique; gripped in habit, we may
want to make beauty like other things, and this is not always good. Having
experienced a moment of beauty, we wish, in Proust’s view, to call it up
wholesale; if we cannot get the thing itself, we want to be “practical” about
it, to approximate it as closely as possible, and to keep thinking it is in our
possession even if it is not. The drive to reproduce and hold on to beauty in
words, images, art, memory, even theory (the drive at the core of Scarry’s
argument), can transform beauty into something else. If beauty and truth, as
Shaftesbury claims, are forever wrapped up together—“For all beauty is
truth”—it is perhaps because beauty moves those who see it, feel it, or think
it to the metaphorical or analogic, and it is also thus that beauty seems (but
only seems) to resist the analytic.25 Making metaphors is good, even
desirable—no one could regret Proust’s metaphors—but both maker and
reader must recognize them for what they are.
Each transformation through metaphor may produce new beauty,
which itself may be interrogated, analyzed, and enjoyed, as long as viewers
recognize that newness and transformation. However, when the impulse to
254 Gabrielle Starr

transform and refigure shifts from the purely metaphorical to the analogic,
problems multiply. If the metaphorical belongs to the experience of beauty,
the analogic seems to belong to aesthetic criticism, where beauty is often
placed in analogic relation to truth or justice.26 The movement that beauty
may initiate—one toward metaphor, analogy, and even desire—is not itself
beauty and can, in fact, turn us away from the aesthetic entirely. Proust gives
us a reminder of the slippery relation of aesthetic experience to aesthetic
criticism: as with the dreamer Marcel, in the desire to analyze and interpret,
theorists can be drawn away from the goal and may end up doing something
more like substitution than analysis. They—perhaps we—may only imagine,
repeatedly, the figure of the milkmaid. The imagination, whether critical or
creative, can be habitual, and instead of really linking us with the world, can
just turn us closer in upon ourselves. This is what happens when theorists
turn beauty into an ethical or hermeneutic shadow of itself.
It is useful to think about what the resistance of metaphorical or
analogic translation of aesthetic experience can produce. Scarry turns to
Proust for a literary exemplar; in returning to the eighteenth-century origins
of her Shaftesburian ethical position (and seeking an alternative to it), I turn
to an eighteenth-century author, Swift, who has closer affinities to the
aesthetic positions of Hogarth than those of Shaftesbury.27 Swift is acutely
aware of the contests that may be staged between ethics and aesthetics (often
framed for him in terms of real and imaginary value), and he provides a
contemporary context for interrogating the tensions surrounding the
aesthetic, whether political, literary, or ethical. At first glance, we find
ugliness much more than beauty in Swift. Compare the ideal scene that
appeared in Proust with what approximates a satirical version of it in
Gulliver’s Travels (1726). In Brobdingnag, the land of the giants, Gulliver sees
a horrible version of a milkmaid:

The Nurse to quiet her Babe ... was forced to apply the last
Remedy by giving it suck. I must confess no Object ever
disgusted me so much as the Sight of her monstrous Breast,
which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the
curious Reader an Idea of its Bulk, Shape and Colour. It stood
prominent six Foot, and could not be less than sixteen in
Circumference. The Nipple was about half the Bigness of my
Head, and the Hue both of that and the Dug so varified with
Spots, Pimples and Freckles, that nothing could appear more
nauseous: For I had a near Sight of her, she sitting down the more
conveniently to give Suck, and I standing on the Table.28
Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty 255

This milk bearer is no maid, and her breast, while being nearly large enough
to make the simile work, is nothing like the sun. With Marcel, the milkmaid’s
face produces elaborate similes born of or linked to the desire to prolong
contact with the beautiful and renew it in the imagination. Marcel wants to
make images for himself more and more like that of the woman, but the
Nurse’s breast for Gulliver is beyond “compare.”
The hermeneutic possibilities here are enormous. We have two images
of women laden with milk, one an object of beauty and desire, the other, of
loathing and fascination. Ethical complications are readily apparent—issues
of objectification, distance, colonization.29 All of these compete for
attention, and they come from the combination of aesthetic experiences with
other aspects of the mind. Ethical and hermeneutic principles reveal some of
the political and psychological implications of this passage as well as of the
aesthetic experience that is depicted or that may be produced: but what
happens once these strains of inquiry have come into play? The startling
thing to realize is that Gulliver’s experience of disgust and the experience of
reading about it approach an exaggeration of the experience of reading about
Marcel’s experience of beauty. This is to s