Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Intermittancies of the Heart

I'm drinking some Ceylon tea, it's mid afternoon and I've been lying on my couch slowly reading the opening strains of Swann In Love. It's refreshing how Proust is able to switch from countless descriptions of the rustic life in Combray to the more incisive, dynamic examination of the intermittencies of the heart. No longer is he dwelling on hawthorn trees and churches, sunsets and the complex odors of Aunt Leonie's room; he has turned his eye to the intricacies of relationships, the many shadings and gradations that exist and fluctuate between people, their passions and preoccupations.

Proust speaks with an absolutely authoritative voice. I paused after reading the section in which Swann first begins to become beguiled by Odette's relatively artless praising of his home and himself, her naive construction of a romantic bond out of half hearted gestures and disinterested invitations. He speaks with such authority that the reader is easily convinced without pausing for reflection on whether he actually agrees with Proust.

"And so, at an age when it would appear - since one seeks in love before everything else a subjective pleasure - that the taste for a woman's beauty must play the largest part in it, love may come into being, love of the most physical kind, without any foundation in desire."

Swann is entranced, beguiled by Odette's singing of the song of love, and begins to move alongside her despite his not having been attracted to her at the outset. Her siren's call is exactly that which so alarmed Marcel's uncle when she sought to construct and establish ties between herself and Marcel's parents in the Combray section, that natural, charming, illusion building habit of taking small scraps and creating works of art around them. Swann, jaded, content with enjoying the sensation of being in love over the actual ardor of love itself, is so gently and sweetly trapped that he never realizes at which point the power shifts from his own indifferent hands to hers.

Is this possible? Can one, having lived a rich life full of passion, love the pleasure of loving, and not the direct object of the passion itself? I am reminded of the cuckoo bird, who insinuates an egg into the nest of others, who's instincts cause them to rear the large, ugly chick as if it were a precious child of their own. Odette takes advantage of the lingering memories of love that still hang in the air from the passage of Swann's former lovers, and clothes herself in those sensations by evoking them artlessly. So camouflaged, she becomes the cuckoo in Swann's nest, not attractive in and of herself, but entwined in the strings of his heart through the use of her siren song.

This raises the question: how does one ever know if they're falling in love with the person, or with an eidolon that that person has managed through coincidence or fortune to evoke? If asked, Swann would no doubt aver that he loved Odette; he might be puzzled at the source of his passion if pressed, but would hold firm that it was she he adored. I suppose it is only through time that the illusion may founder on the rocks of reality, but then again, Swann never does awaken from his dream. He persists, contorting himself and his love for Odette to fit the facts as they come, refusing to release his madness. How can we ever truly know the object of our love?

How can we ever assure ourselves that we love the reality of them, and that they love the reality of whom we are in turn? Can love ever be more than an exercise in self delusion and wishful thinking? Is our love for another ever really more than a manifestation of our own preoccupations and desires, projected onto another who serves only to provoke them in us in the first place?

(I was going to finish this post on that note, but was suddenly struck by an earlier passage in the Combray section where Proust explains the ingenuity of the first writers in creating their characters on paper:

“It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called 'real people.' But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a decided improvement. A real person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift...

The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one's soul can assimilate. After that it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in
ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes.”

The true Odette holds no attraction for Swann, but her words and actions draw him into making of her a character in the tale of his own heart; he creates an Odette, and is held in thrall by this marvelous creature. I believe that Proust is saying we all do this to some degree; take a real person, and then color them in with our own hues and desires, create them anew in our minds and hearts, and then suffer accordingly when the reality falls short of our dreams and desires. This is not a weakness on our part, as it seems to be in Swann when taken to an extreme, but rather a basic human limitation that we all must deal with, that forces us all to become novelists of our own lives.)


Blogger Stefanie said...

You ask questions that I think are at the core of the books. It seems Proust does not think we can ever fall in love with the real person, we always make them into something else and fall in love with that. I find it interesting that Proust never makes any kind of judgment on the matter, at least not yet, saying whether the nature of the way we tend to love is good or bad.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

I agree with Stefanie -- important questions! I'm interested and troubled by the way Proust is always moving past the real person and toward the image we have of that person in our minds. I agree that what we know of other people and things is really our construction of them -- the version of them we create in our minds -- but I do wonder if Proust ends up denigrating the real by his insistent focus on the mind.

3:46 PM  

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