Saturday, August 19, 2006

Reading Through Proust's Binoculars

Roger Shattuck, in his book Proust's Binoculars: A Study of Memory, Time, and Recognition in "A la recherche du temps perdu", posits that this novel is a book of disenchantments.

The privileged moments experienced by the narrator define his "profoundest sense of reality--a fleeting recreation of the past in the present, conferring a rare and pleasurable sensation of timelessness."

The narrator speaks of looking at his experiences at the Guermantes' dinner party through an "interior stereoscope." He speaks of seeing things double in time as one might see something double in space. This is the basis for Shattuck's theory, that Proust's idea of memory is a "stereoscopic or stereologic consciousness which sees the world simultaneously (and thus out if time) in relief." He makes the meaning of this idea clear, and reveals the form and reason of the novel's structure of interval and forgetting: "Merely to remember something is meaningless unless the remembered image is combined with a moment in the present affording a view of the same object or objects. Like our eyes, our memories must see double;..." The novel is structured, and the narrator's experiences revealed, in the binocular nature of human vision: "the disagreement between the two different versions of space which reach our consciousness from two separated eyes." It is the combination of slightly dissimilar images in memory that provides the most accurate perceptions.

Part of the feeling of intimacy so many have noted may be a result of what Shattuck calls "a series of inconglomerate thought processes" by which we identify and follow the narrator. It is an unusual mixture of personal memories described with the thoughts as they happened, and past events reconstructed with thoughts in hindsight.

Proust's first uncompleted novel, Jean Santeuil, was discovered about twenty years after his death. Justin O'Brien found in it the germ of In Search of Lost Time, although Proust "has not yet learned to orchestrate his themes. The greatest value of this volume ... is to make the world appreciate at last the ingenious composition of his more familiar definitive work--the very quality upon which, as it was least apparent at first, he himself most insisted." In a letter to Paul Souday, Proust wrote, "My composition is veiled and its outline only gradually perceptible because it unfolds on so vast a scale."

Shattuck believes that forgetting in the novel is just as important as remembering, that having forgotten provides the temporal distance between memories that gives relief similar to that rendered by the spacial distance between our eyes. As a working formula for the novel, we can see the reason behind its length, and are provided with a clue in the brilliant final paragraph of the overture, which closes the opening so satisfactorily that it could stand alone, while at the same time acts as the most beautiful opening sequence to the grand drama which follows, most specifically:
I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy....
My reading of "Swann in Love" is about three-quarters complete, and it is proving to be a joyful, painful, detailed section. The binocular vision in the macrocosm of the novel is here presented in microcosm, as Swann goes through every possible nuance of love. As we make the following points about Swann in love, we might put aside the image of a cup of tea for the more telling image of a cattleya, the flower which, for Swann and Odette, becomes a verb.

Swann's appreciation for a phrase of music launches his love for Odette. His comparison of Odette to works of art begs the question, does he love her solely for her resemblance to a painting he admires; or does his admiration of a painting predispose him to love her?

Swann's love takes on for him the elements of religion in a certain class of men:
the perpetual sacrifice which they are making of their comfort and of their practical interests has engendered a spiritual charm.
Later, when, engulfed in jealousy, Swann begins to long for death, it is
in order to escape not so much from the keenness of his sufferings as from the monotony of his struggle.
Odette takes on supreme importance in Swann's life. The narrator observes
Other people are, as a rule, so immaterial to us that, when we have entrusted to any one of them the power to cause so much suffering or happiness to ourselves, that person seems at once to belong to a different universe, is surrounded with poetry, makes of our lives a vast expanse, quick with sensation, on which that person and ourselves are ever more or less in contact.
We wonder how, for it seems inevitable, Swann will ever free himself from Odette.

One evening like any other, sure of meeting Odette at the Verdurins', Swann arrives to find she has already gone, and he goes in desperate search of her through the city. He is so affected by her absence that, from then on, he does anything to avoid the
possibility of a fresh outbreak of the heart-sickness which had manifested itself in him that evening, when he had failed to find her at the Verdurins'.
Proust continues to beautifully dissect love, showing Swann engaged in copying Odette's habits, adopting her opinions, and
being initiated into every one of the ideas in Odette's mind, of feeling that he had an equal share in all her tastes.
Swann recognises that other men found Odette a fascinating and desirable woman, which further arouses Swann's own desire
to secure the absolute mastery of even the tiniest particles of her heart.
After an offer of "cattleya" is rejected by Odette, Swann's suspicions take hold of him, and he subsequently makes a fool of himself by spying at the window, which he mistook for Odette's, of two old gentlemen. This experience becomes for Swann an occasional involuntary memory. From this comes the answer to one of my first questions: is there such a thing as voluntary forgetting?
To determine not to think of it was but to think of it still, to suffer from it still.
And when Swann forgets his sufferings, a word casually uttered, like a madeleine soaked in tea, had the power to resurrect in him the same bodily pain of the actual experience of his act of jealousy.

One of the first examples of disenchantment revealed by the binocular perception described by Shattuck comes when Odette manipulates and lies to Swann about seeing him. He suspects nothing in her words to him, but vaguely recalls in her expression a sorrow that he had seen once before, and then, he remembers:
it was when Odette had lied, in apologising to Mme. Verdurin on the evening after the dinner from which she had stayed away on a pretext of illness, but really so that she might be alone with Swann.
It is at this time Swann examines Odette's letters, and finds one she has written to M. de Forcheville which sets in motion the full expression of Swann's jealousy, extending, so far, for twenty-five thousand words.

Another minor example of the binocular perception comes when Mme. Verdurin uses the same words to express her rage at Swann as Francoise used at Combray when the chicken refused to die.

Swann's recognition of his sufferings provides strong reasoning behind the need for binocular perception in time in order to fully understand our experiences:
since it had been with a regular progression, day after day, that Odette had chilled towards him, it was only by directly contrasting what she was today with what she had been at first that he could have measured the extent of the change that had taken place.
Dr. Cottard, one of the guests at the Verdurins', murmurs a witty euphemism:
"I must just go and see the Duc d'Aumale for a minute."
However, the good doctor has not heard Forcheville's pun about the serpent-a-sonates, and it must be explained to him. Unfortunately, the edition we have does note offer any footnotes that might explain these plays on words to English readers. Perhaps those with the Davis translation can shed some light?

One final observation: reading Proust, at least in the Moncrieff translation, makes one, unconsciously perhaps, tend to think and write, if not in wholly digressive phrases, or subordinating clauses, at least with an abundance of commas.

5 Comments:

Blogger Alan said...

This is a very interesting view ( excuse the pun!!) of Proust which I have not come across before. Thanks for your examples which make a great deal of sense in stereoscopic terms. I will certainly bring this type of analysis to some of my reading. More comment later perhaps.

On puns: Cottard's euphemism for lavatory relates in part to the "male" of Duc d'Aumale and to the pronunciation of "au" as "eau" which is water in French.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Very interesting Quillhill. I like the binocular analogy. Some of your examples are verbal, but do you think the binocular idea explains Proust's deailed focus on objects and their roles as instigators of memories?

I'm reading the Davi translation and I find that my sentences are also getting longer :)

9:58 AM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

Here is what the note from the Davis translation says:

"The Marquise Diane de Saint-Paul, a brilliant pianist and scandal-monger, was known in Proust's circle as the 'serpent a sonates,' or 'sonata-snake.' The nickname is a play on the word for rattlesnake, serpent a sonnettes."

2:15 PM  
Blogger Quillhill said...

Thanks Alan and Dorothy for the elucidation.

Stefanie, these examples are my own application of how I understand Shattuck's theory. His primary focus is on characters, how they are not what they first seem, and the narrator's ultimate understanding when he sees the differences at the end.

6:11 PM  
Blogger AC said...

The book you pointed out sounds really good. It helps to think about Proust on that vast, macrocosmic scale. I read different volumes of Proust in different translations, first Moncrieff, and then the assorted Penguin translators, and all of them left me quite long-winded.

12:05 AM  

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