208. (Marcel Proust)

To illuminate Proust, consider Zola, who aspires, like Proust to a mythic scale, and whose novel Germinal is an epic of social change, the hero being a class of workers, a mass; like Proust, Zola is the novelist as social theorist. For Zola, all men are insects, but the insects are to pitied, admired, not despised or condescended to. The novelist, after all, is a man himself. For Proust, all men are gods, transformed by desire and distinction, but they are gods of no greater standing than the myths in which men no longer believe, capable therefore of being seen through as partygoers or actors playing roles, but both magnificent and absurd by the ambition of the roles they play.

The Homer of the Iliad is the master of Zola. Ovid is the master of Proust, who like Ovid, knows well the desire he describes; The Recherche weaves the mode of the Metamorphosis with the mode of the Elegies and Ars Amatoria. That is another way of saying that Proust’s first-person narrator moves from raconteur of the myths to minor deity, remaining in either case both attached by admiration and fantasy, and detached in the knowledge that the fantasy is susceptible to the vicissitudes of desire and to the impossibility of social identity.

In Proust’s novel, distinction and desire make deities and mythic creatures out of men and women, and are likewise the engines of the changes they undergo (the stability of identity and relation they yield is habit, but habit that might be broken). Distinction and desire are also the extremes that compromise the dignity of self-will, of agency, of power that might claim respect and dignity: the former (distinction) is so social, so entirely relational and dependent on the mysterious perceptions and shifting configurations of others as to make those who chase after it too zealously seem servile, and the latter is too unknowable and inarticulate to endow those at its mercy with full selfhood.

Proust sees the peril for his gods, nymphs and nereids, and can laugh through their brilliance, even as he basks in their glow. He also can find some to respect, who manage, however precariously and inconstantly, to exercise a sense of self that is not reducible to either; the sense of self is, for Proust, almost always a matter of habituation, and so he can manage those whose habituation is neither conditioned chiefly by a quest for distinction nor by the vicissitudes of desire—if habituation is even possible with either distinction and desire, both restless, themselves defined by constant change.

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