216. (Marcel Proust)

In the sixth volume of Recherche, Proust approaches Tennyson: the section of The Fugitive entitled “Grieving and Forgetting” is an extended elegy, an expression of grief and mourning that is also a reflection on grief and mourning. For Proust, however, the grief and mourning for Albertine prompts an elegy for desire (which is a dimension of love), whereas Tennyson’s grief and mourning for Hallam provokes an elegy for hope (also a dimension of love). That is, Proust’s chapter and Tennyson’s poem both take in, as is often noted, more than the death of an individual: they take in the death for a feeling that attached to, was found out in and by the knowledge of an individual. For Tennyson, that feeling was hope; for Proust, desire; when the individuals die, they leave in their wake, as their wake, the impossibility of either. Both hope and desire, of course, are shadowed by memory, identity, permanence, and by the apprehension that hope and desire, abstract as they are, are knowable fully only by the touch and physical presence of another life. Each elegy is tactful in the bodily pains of mourning for the loss of another’s living form.

They are shadowed also by the thought of waste. For Tennyson, the thought of waste is prospective: if nothing tends to a worthy end, if hope is not possible, then the world is rife with waste. For Proust, the thought of waste is oblique and other; it is more similar, I think, to the waste that we find in Shakespeare’s plays when what is not necessary becomes irreplaceable. Proust expresses the thought in terms of what is necessary and what is indispensable. Either given the state of the manuscript at the time of his death, or else given the subject matter itself, he does so twice:

“It was in the course of this last year, as long as a century to me—so often had Albertine changed position in relation to my thoughts between Balbec and her departure from Paris, and also, independently of me and often without my knowing it, changed in herself—that I must place the whole of that happy life of tenderness which had lasted so short a while and which yet appeared to me with an amplitude, almost an immensity, which now was forever impossible and yet was indispensable to me. Indispensable without perhaps have been in itself and at the outset something necessary, since I should not have known Albertine had…”

“In any case, if this life with Albertine was not in its essence necessary, it had become indispensable to me.”

In both of these, the implication is that she was not necessary initially, but became so over time. But “in its essence necessary” and “in itself and at the outset something necessary” suggests another sort of a necessity, as “irreplaceable” itself implies necessity, but sets it in a special light: what is irreplaceable is necessary for a particular shape, a particular form, but not a necessity for any shape or form to exist; it is a condition of a particular instantiation, rather than general possibility: to self, rather than to life. In his elegy for desire, unlike in Tennyson’s elegy for hope, the possibility of desire in general cannot compensate for the loss of this particular desire, attached at is it to the self who is constituted by that desire, as Proust’s narrator is. Proust’s elegy clings not only to desire, but to the self, and the range of selves (since he writes often of multiple selves, of a stratification of self) that will be lost if this particular desire is lost.

Albertine has never become necessary for the continuation of the narrator’s life, for the possibility of a proliferation of future selves; but she has become necessary for a series of selves that is at least unified by their relation to her.

Hence, when Andree visits the narrator:

“Andree abandoned Albertine to me, but dead, and having lost for me not only her life but retrospectively a little of her reality, now that I saw that she was not indispensable and unique to Andree who had been able to replace her with others.”

The thought that another person is necessary for a self, or for a nexus of selves, is found in the “dead selves” of the first section of “In Memoriam” too. That the selves of hope or desire are multiple but also single bears on the problem of unity of both the poem and Proust’s novel as a whole—all the more so, since it is so deeply situated within the first-person pronoun and perspective. From the same elegiac chapter:

“So that the long plaint of the soul which thinks that it is living shut up within itself is a monologue in appearance only, since the echoes of reality alter its course, and a given life is like an essay in subjective psychology spontaneously pursued, but providing from a distance the “plot” for the purely realistic novel of another reality, another existence, the vicissitude of which come in their turn to inflect the curve and change the direction of the psychological mechanism”

The tension between a unified self and a fractured perspective of self is, in Tennyson’s poem, manifested in the structure of the poems, its uneasy relationship to psychological (if not narrative) progress, and its being, as is entirely possible, both organically coherent and contingently spontaneous.

In Proust’s novel, that tension is expressed in the openness of the narrator’s imagination colliding with the dread of a habitual deadening to the world. The possibility is expressed in terms that Joyce, with lemon soap and Leopold Bloom’s occupation, would have appreciated:

“We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s “Pensees” in an advertisement for soap.”

But with such open possibility, the world can become an Abyss (hence the reference to Pascal), in which self is scattered. Desire closes the possibility somewhat—while preventing, so long as it is active, the deadening into habit that Proust, in this section more than any other, dreads. Desire, that is, can allow for repetition without habit, and the proliferation of selves, each of which is alive, rather than the calcifying or petrifying of self that habit achieves. Desire, Proust suggests, allows us to feel the abyss beneath us, to put something of ourselves everywhere, and to multiply self, without losing the sense that an underlying “I” unites them together, at least in each instant of its perception.

On both sides of the dilemma waste is possible: on the one hand, a squandering of possible selves that might have been; on the other, an excessive proliferation of selves that, lacking all unity, is a waste.

Albertine was indispensable to the narrator’s desire; that desire is the function that generates the selves that the narrator has and will become.

But now, in “Grieving and Forgetting,” she is dead, and rather than desire Albertine, the narrator can only desire the desire he once felt, desire that it be possible again (similarly Tennyson is most hopeful for hope itself). In this section, more than others, therefore, the proliferation of selves threatens to become a repetition of selves. Since the object of desire no longer sustains an independent existence, the narrator’s proliferation of selves becomes mired in the moment of loss. The narrator’s repetition of the claim that Albertine became indispensable, and remains indispensable, and irreplaceable, comes close to repetition because, fixed as he is on a desire that has no living, temporally progressing object, the narrator has nowhere to go, no genuinely new selves to generate.

“Grieving and Forgetting,” like “In Memoriam,” can feel, by apt design, costive in its proliferation, cramped in its sprawl; it wastes both by retaining too much and by generating in excess, and the retention is motivated by a hope that further generation of that self is possible, and the generation motivated by the fear that, without its incessant activity, nothing will be retained.

Like “In Memoriam,” “Grieving and Forgetting” demonstrates the fecundity of an imagination demonstrating its full capacity for liberty in order to return to a space of confinement beyond which it feels it would not be recognizably itself.


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