Monday, 5 March 2012

Duality in Proust

I have reached the end of Combray, the first part of Swann's Way. I wonder whether Proust is setting up a system of duality in his novel. I have already written about how there are two walks the narrator's family like to take, the Guermantes way and the Meseglise way, and how the Meseglise way and its hawthorns become associated in the narrator's mind with the person of Mlle Swann. Later he describes seeing  her Mme de Guermantes in church and associating her person with the Guermantes walk. He juxtaposes one person with the other in how he considers Mlle Swann looks at him dissdainfully while considering that Mme de Guermantes looks at him with affection. He thinks about how the sights and smells on each of the walks set him in mind of his imagining of the personalities and qualities of the two ladies. Meanwhile the narrator is pondering a future literary career for himself (and produces a tentative early text) but worries that he has nothing of substance to write about:

"suddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight reflected from a stone, the smell of a road would make me stop still, to enjoy the special pleasure that each of them gave me, and also because they appeared to be concealing beneath what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to approach and seize from them, but which despite all my effort, I never managed to discover."

I wonder whether this is to be the narrator's literary purpose, to unpick meaning behind sensation, or to assign meaning to sensation since for the author they will amount to the same thing.

" I would still seek to recover my sense of them by closing my eyes, I would concentrate upon recalling exactly the line of the roof, the colour of the stone, which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me to be teeming, ready to open, to yield up to me the secret treasure of which they were themselves no more than the outer coverings."

In the course of this first part of the novel the author has travelled from an imposition of his feelings upon sensation, as when the biscuit dipped in milk transports him, to sensation as the carrier, and the protector, as well as the delivery mechanism for the feelings. He has gone from feelings originating within himself transplanted onto sensation, to sensations originating from an external stimulus imposing feelings upon him, even if he is unaware of what these feelings are. This is obscure and I am not sure a correct reading but it is how it strikes me.

"It was certainly not any impression of this kind that could or would restore the hope that I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming an author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of any intellectual value, and suggesting no abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity of mind; and in that way distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt whenever I had sought a philosophic theme for some great literary work. "

I wonder whether Proust is setting up his philosophic theme while detailing the narrator's struggles to identify one. This would be neat if it is indeed what he is doing.

Proust sums up by writing that the Meseglise and Guermantes 'ways' (and here he uses inverted commas around ways to make explicit the fact that they represent not just walks but types of being and types of experience) have combined in him groups of different impressions "for no reason but that they had made me feel several separate things at the same time". He foretells how this causes him problems in the future when he, for instance, wishes to re-esatablish an acquaintance without realising that the acquaintance reminds him of a hedge of hawthorns in blossom and it is the latter that he desires to experience.

"When, on a summer evening, the resounding sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is along the 'Meseglise way' that my fancy strays alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of falling rain, the odour of invisible and persistent lilac trees."