219. (Marcel Proust)

The last volume of Proust’s great novel is, from the sado-masochistic fantasies of Baron de Charlus in the first half, to the final party given by the Princesse de Guermantes (formerly Mme. Verdurin) in the second, a reckoning with the body as a vessel not just for life in time, but for time itself. The meditations on the body resemble, intersect with, and then develop and transcend, the novel’s earlier reflections on names, those verbal guarantors and links of identity over years. In the final volume, sometimes a names and sometimes a body surprise the narrator’s memory: a body he had known under one name has, through inheritance or marriage, been introduced under another, or else a person whose body has been transformed beyond recognition, is identified by a name to which the body no longer seems to belong. It is a meeting of what is the most arbitrary, contingent, and worldly proof of identity (a name) with what is the most ineluctably immediate and undeniable (a body); both can be divested and invested with significance unexpectedly, and both can denote significances of the boldest inconsistency. Everything that Proust does in the novel serves this (but not solely this) end of character, of person, understood as the arc of name and body, not extended over, but manifest extensions of time itself; to know their arc, to know oneself knowing it across an arc of self-consciousness, is to gain purchase on time, to step beyond into what Proust tells us, in the profound epiphany he experiences as he waits to enter to the party of Princesse de Guermantes, is somewhere “timeless.” This foothold in the eternal, he then suggests, art provides. Such an arc of identity, the final volume argues, with beautiful incongruities and unfinished layers of draftsmanship answering, like an affirmation of its boldest claims, can be known not only nominally, by way of names, but somatically, by the perception of bodies and by the consciousness of one’s own body over time. In the final passage, Proust’s recollection of hearing the peal of bells as he waited as a child for the departure of Swann from his parent’s house in Combray, brings him to see, in the totter of the aged Duc de Guermantes, the challenge of representing bodies as they are, not only objects in space, but pockets extending deep in time.

 

This notion of Time embodied, of years past but not separated from us, it was now my intention to emphasize as strongly as possible in my work…

…When the bell of the garden gate had pealed, I already existed and from that moment onwards, for me still to be able to hear that peal, there must have been no break in continuity, no single second at which I had ceased or rested from existing, from thinking, from being conscious of myself, since that moment from long ago still adhered to me and I could still find it again, could retrace my steps to it, merely by descending to a greater depth within myself. And it is because they contain this within themselves the hours of the past that human bodies have the power to hurt so terribly those who love them…

…And I felt, as I say, a sensation of weariness and almost of terror at the thought that all this length of Time had not only, without interruption, been lived, experienced, secreted by me, that it was my life, was in fact me, but also that I was compelled so long as I was alive to keep it attached to me, that it supported me and that, perched on its giddy summit, I could not myself make a movement without displacing it. A feeling of vertigo seized me as I looked down beneath me, yet within me, as though from a height, which was my own height, of many leagues, at the long series of the years…

…And I was terrified by the thought that the stilts beneath my own feet might already have reached that height; it seemed to me that quite soon now I might be too weak to maintain my hold upon a past which already went down so far. So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved for them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure, for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves—in Time.

 

To figure forth the genuine bodily dimensions of life, representing time-in-the-body and the-body-in-time, has been, then, the task of the novel, with the body of the narrator in time set up and against the bodies of the great characters. For the realist novel, and for realism more generally, the task of representing time-in-the-body, or, drawing on Proust’s language, the time that a body contains, has been effected (Proust of course is not the first to effect it) through the representation of habit, punctuated by deviations from habit that reveal traumas, memories, and lines of a life formerly suppressed. Proust has himself, through most of the novel, been preoccupied with the deadening force of habit, as well as the character it establishes. But for Proust to accomplish his task, to gauge the proper scale of a human life, and to weigh and assess the time it fills and that fills it, he must, he tells us repeatedly, do something other than habit; and so we are presented not with habit but with successions of habits, sometimes overlapping, sometimes separated by inexplicable chasms, sometimes clashing and at other times effacing one another. And the incongruity of each range of habit is itself tense with the incongruity of bodily transformations, even as the bodies, like the habits they perform, remain recognizably, queerly themselves—so that, however altered from what they were, at any given moment, a character’s body might tremble with the possibility of being again, or seeming again, to be what it was. A body transforms with habit, but as the body transforms, it changes also what habits are permissible, possible, or likely, and those two shifts, the one against the other, are the domain of the novelist’s art, to which he is not exempt, his own self plunging into the years, even resembling a monster to rival Charlus, Guermantes, Albertine, Francoise, or Saint-Loup.

Sometimes, too, the inconsistencies resolve, by memory and perspective, into heroic harmony:

I recalled his arrival the first time at Balbec, when, in an almost white suit, with his eyes greenish and mobile like the waves, he had crossed the hall adjoining the great dining-room whose windows gave on to the sea. I recalled the very special being that he had then seemed to me to be, the being for whose friendship I had so greatly wished. That wish had been realized beyond the limits of what I should ever have thought possible, without, however, at the time giving me more than a very slight pleasure; and then later I had come to understand the many great virtues and something else as well which lay concealed beneath his elegant appearance. All this, the good as well as the bad, he had given without counting the cost, every day, as much on the last day when he advanced to attach a trench, out of generosity and because it was his habit to place at the service of others all that he possessed, as on that evening when had run along the backs of the seats in the restaurants in order not to disturb me.

 

 

 

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