Sunday, 13 November 2011

Swann's way and the Guermantes way

Proust describes in one paragraph the difference between Swann's way and the Guermantes way and how he feels about each. It is the most difficult paragraph to follow in the book so far and I intend to dwell on it for a bit to see if I can get a grip on it. Although it is expressed simply enough, the meanings behind Proust's words are difficult to unpick.

He starts off by saying that in the village of Combray, where he and his family have come to spend their summer holidays, there are these two routes which are diametrically opposed, indeed which route is taken is determined by whichever door of the house one chooses to leave by. He does not just mean that they head in opposite directions. I think that he also wants to establish that they represent something diametrically opoosed to the narrator but it is not clear what that is.

Proust also refers to Swann's way as the Meseglise way as it leads to Meseglise-la-Vineuse.and says that "Meseglise was to me something as inaccessible as the horizon, which remained hidden from sight, however far one went, by the folds of a country which no longer bore the least resemblance to the country around Combray".

Photo: footpath to Moor Lane, East Surrey. Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence.

Just prior to this he has said that he cared more about the journey to Meseglise and never knew anything about the place itself. I think the later description is a continuation of that thought, in that he has an idea in isolation of an end point to the jouney to Meseglise but no idea of the nature of that end point. Meseglise is in fact like the horizon - it is there as a concept but not as an actual place one can stand in. You cannot visit the horizon as it will always move away from you and this is how Proust, now, feels about Meseglise (presumably at the time it was possible for him to visit there - eveytime he went Swann's way, in fact, notwithstanding the fact that he says he never knew anything about the place).

He also says that the horizon remained hidden from sight. This seems illogical since the horizon is simply where the sky meets the land, marking how far one can see. But if there is a line of trees, say, in the way then where the sky meets the trees is known as the visible horizon, implying that the actual sky meeting land horizon is in fact invisible. So if one goes the Meseglise way one never gets to see as far as one might because of the undulations of the land.

Proust compares this with the Guermantes way of which he says "Guermantes, on the other hand, meant no more than the ultimate goal, ideal rather than real, of the 'Guermantes way', a sort of abstract geographical term like the North Pole or the Equator". Guermantes is not a concept like the horizon, or Meseglise, but an abstract non-place. I am going to admit defeat at this point. Proust's meaning is not clear to me and I think he is allowing his desire to write poetically to obscure any real meaning. He has failed to make clear a real distinction between these two routes and as managed to describe both of them as abstract non-places or concepts.

Photo: Vanguard Way to Moor Lane, East Surrey. Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative commons licence .

I'll have to think some more about this.

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