In Search of Lost Time
The Dual Nature of Love
The classical love story, the timeless tale of pairs whose only destinies are to be together, is an abhorred notion to Proust in In Search of Lost Time. Love stories in this Roman-fleuve are not be all, end all events; rather, they are temporary and all-too-human episodes. It is the dream of many little girls to meet their respective Prince Charmings, idealized men who will whisk them away to spectacular weddings in a carriage drawn by the most majestic stallions; and vice-versa, men hold their own romanticized conceptions of true love. Perhaps the beauty of Proust’s literature is that he captures the realism of life. The dismal truth of life is that many people do not live the classical love story. Love is as episodic as Proust writes it to be, and consequently results in perpetual emotional turmoil. Proustian love is a never-ending quest driven by the desire of both carnal pleasure and emotional satisfaction; Proustian love, like many themes in In Search of Lost Time, involves a juxtaposition of both natural science and psychology.Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time during a period of rapid change in the scientific world. The advent of various mechanical inventions complemented the publication of new theories on bodily processes. Because his father was a doctor, and because of his scholarly interest in both the sciences and humanities, Proust became exposed to a variety of important contemporary thinkers of his day. In Search Lost Time adopts a decidedly psychological study of its narrator and its characters, akin to the voyeuristic approach of the novel; psychology is as introspective a science as literature is an ocular art. Many have tried to bridge Proust to Freud; while it is not certain that Proust had ever been influenced by Freud’s assertions on human consciousness and unconsciousness, one can use Freud’s theories to further explore the characters’ psyches.However, Proust does not fail to account for strict biological interpretations of human life. In Search of Lost Time is an overwhelmingly Darwinian creation, with blatant references to The Origin of Species. The work can be dissected into strata and substrata, such geological layers in which the farther down you delve, the richer the material becomes. When reading Proust we find layers of intricate and vivid imagery, often relating to triggers of involuntary memory, in which continual provocation of a trigger, such as a madeleine, will immerse us father into the substrata of the memory. The gaps between the memories are time, but time also acts as a bridge between the memories. Darwinian thought is comparable to this literary tactic because in Darwin’s world, all living things are connected by time . The evolution of species over time graduates all species into one another, just as there is an amalgam of memories in our minds.The danger of Darwin (and even of Freudian ideas) is the challenge presented to permanent classifications of thought we have established. In classical love stories, or any classical fiction for that matter, there is a definite sense of closure; on the contrary, the episodes described in In Search of Lost Time leave the reader with a feeling of uncertainty due to the semi-permanence of love. In this case the quest for certainty is coupled with the quest for love, and the characters continually look for evidence of evolution through memory, and evidence of what is to come based upon this history. Another danger is that because all livings things are related, all share the same basic instincts. The idea that a human can be so greatly reduced to an animal and to primal emotions is indubitably controversial. As animals, the most basic need is to survive. In Darwinian terms survival is accomplished through the prosperity of the species; Proust says, ‘…it is the preservation of the species which guides our individual preferences in love…’ (Within in Budding Grove, 418), thus implying that love is a habit, or a primal instinct that we actively pursue all our lives (Within in Budding Grove, 418). And in keeping with Darwinian thought, it is a game of survival of the fittest, in which the more attractive partners are the greatest objects of desire.Desire, in Proustian love, is equivalent to foreplay. For it is desire that precludes fulfillment, and in the case of many of the characters once the fulfillment is reached, the desire ceases. And at the ending of a love, ‘we are not exclusively attached to the object of that love, but rather the desire to love from which it will presently arise (and later on, the memory it leaves behind) wanders voluptuously through a zone of interchangeable charms-simply natural charms, it may be, gratification of appetite, enjoyment of one’s surroundings-which are harmonious enough for it not to feel at a loss in the presence of any one of them’ (Within in Budding Grove p. 676). The best example of this is seen in Marcel’s loves. In Freudian terms, Marcel was spoiled as a ‘sexual object in the nursing period.’ The scene we are drawn into in Swann’s Way, in which Marcel anxiously awaits his mother’s kiss with an eerily sensual greed, indicates the irresponsible nursing of the mother during this vulnerable age of sexual maturity. Marcel, who at the time is 11 or 12, should really have been weaned off such behavior, but instead the mother, to the father’s encouragement, appeases his desire to receive her kiss. According to Freud, ‘Excessive parental tenderness surely becomes harmful, because it accelerates sexual maturity, and also because it ‘spoils’ the child and makes him unfit to renounce love temporarily, or to be satisfied with a smaller amount of love in life.’ (p. 571) Marcel (the character) is, indeed, both sexually and emotionally precocious, and consequently develops a keen interest in attaining sexual fulfillment, but also acquiring a deep, idealized concept of love he has created. It is reasonable to say that Marcel is in love with his idea of being in love. For example, when he happens upon a peer on the street as she emerges from church, he utters, ‘But it was not only to her body that I should have liked to attain; it was also the person that lived inside it, and with which there is but one form of contact, namely to attract its attention, but one sort of penetration, to awaken an idea in it. (Within in Budding Grove, p. 402) Marcel is preoccupied with engaging in a seduction of both the hormones and the mind. The physical interpretation of love is sex, and after he interpolates his love for Gilberte and Albertine and fulfills himself, he recedes from this sexual aggression because it did not adequately match what his concept of love should be. That he is left unsatisfied with his image of how that love would transpire keeps him brimming with desire. What is interesting is that the girls that he loves, when he is pleasured by them, do not get pleasured themselves, and thus remain attached to Marcel. This is a tempo with Proustian fashion; their desires have not been fulfilled yet.Proust describes his physical desire and his concept of beauty through the use of flower symbolism. Flower symbolism, as Freud analyzed it, although as it is fairly obvious to note, is generally representative of female genitalia. Proust uses flower symbolism to describe many of the partners in his amorous affairs, e.g. on Albertine and her friends: ‘As in a nursery plantation where the flowers mature at different seasons, I had seen them, in the form of old ladies, on this Balbec shore, those shriveled seed-pods, those flabby tubers, which my new friends would one day be’ (Within in Budding Grove, p.644). Notice that in this example, Proust recognizes the impermanence of superficial beauty through biological terms. An interesting prospect arises in the hermaphroditic quality of some flowers, which could interplay with the sexual experimentation that Proust describes in In Search of Lost Time. Though the series is not meant to be an autobiography, there is scholarly opinion that many events occurring in the book were based on actual moments in Proust’s life. There is further speculation that the early sexual experiences of the narrator were based on those Proust had had with men. The choice in names gives way to such theory, since they are merely feminine versions of their masculine counterparts. To continue with the biological imagery, there is conspicuous phallic reference in the tet-a-tet with Gilberte on the Champs-Elysees: ‘…I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb’ (Within in Budding Grove, p. 90). To avoid hyperspeculation of the symbolism, the author will simply conclude that the botanical symbolism is a potent metaphor for the sexual desire Marcel feels. To further emphasize this point, it should be noted the colors he chooses for the flowers-bright pinks-are the colors of the flesh. The science of love is similarly displayed in early scenes from Sodom and Gomorrah, when in the garden, Jupien and Charlus enact a type of mating ritual that would normally occur between the bee and an insect. The purely sexual terms Proust poetically expresses refer to a search for the traditional beauty that Darwinism says is the key to preserving the species. Despite the narrator’s efforts to explore the inner mind of his attractions, the mystique of the body of the organism and the extent of its aestheticism are initial attractions for potential mates. This facet of love that Proust presents the reader is the concept of beauty. What is beautiful? For Marcel and Charlus, it is ‘traditional’ beauty that initially attracts them, but for Marcel, Charlus, and Swann, ‘to love Odette, Gilberte, and Albertine is to assert a belief in the physical existence of human individuality which coincides with a particular human body’ (Bree, p. 135). Although the narrator additionally develops what one would call a deeper concept of beauty, when Proust describes this, one cannot help but think it is merely another eroticism. Odette is not a particularly beautiful woman, but her mannerisms and her style, even if she is a lowly coquette, are admired by high, or at least middle class, society and she is thus allowed to pass for beautiful. When Swann sees her, he is not impressed, but she is instantaneously attracted to him and pursues him. Swann, because his concept of beauty is Darwinian, rejects her, but slowly he falls in love with her because her face reminds him of that in a painting he loves. The association of the face to a pleasant memory is enough to make her beautiful in his eyes. But there is also another side to her beauty, and that is the beauty he sees in her taste; his love is perpetuated by his vanity, because he develops an interest in her simply since she has developed one in him. Based on this episode, there are clearly psychological factors involved in finding love. In fact, what Freud has to say on the concept of beauty is that ‘it is rooted in the soul of sexual stimulation and signified originally that which is sexually exciting. The more remarkable, therefore, is the fact that the genitals, the sight of which provokes the greatest sexual excitement, can really never be considered ‘beautiful’ (Freud, p, 536).Swann’s love for Odette gradually becomes more intense. It is built upon the vanity he originally felt when she originally showed interest in him. Of course it is the desire of anyone to be seen as great in the eyes of others; Swann wishes to preserve that as Odette. Swann becomes dangerously jealous, but persists in loving her Bree’s essay on love in In Search of Lost time states it is ‘multiplicity of oneself that constitutes happiness’ (Bree p. 153). As Swann loses this so-called multiplicity, or erotic projection of the self, his desire grows exponentially and he will stop at nothing to keep Odette. Hence, the concept of masochism is introduced, on which Freud says, ‘Certain perverted tendencies regularly appearing in contrasting pairs, which in view of the material to be produced later, if of great theoretical value’ (Frued, p. 537). In other words, the intense love Swann felt for Odette was coupled by the intense pain he inflicted upon himself by letting Odette take advantage of his affection while she hustled France. What perpetuates this masochism? Every pain contains within it the possibility of a pleasurable sensation, and that is what the love thrives on. Love is a disease, Proust says, it is ‘a permanent strain of suffering which happiness neutralizes, makes potential only, postpones, but which may at any moment become, what it would long since have been had we not obtained what we wanted, excruciating’ (Within in Budding Grove, p. 214). It feeds on the desire of the lover to be accepted by his or her lover. It is the annihilation of the self, and the desire to completely devote oneself to a cause that will ideally return the favor. In Swann’s love, he made a fatal pact that destroyed his life and his standing in society so that he could be with a woman who satiated his vanity. It was a superficial goodness that he could attain with anybody, but he chooses Odette to devote all of himself to because she had initially presented that feeling to him. In contrast to portions of the narrator’s love, Swann’s love is hardly driven by sexual desire, and almost wholly instigated by strong, primal sentiments of vanity and envy, which are, interestingly enough, two of the seven deadly sins. When Swann finally realizes that his love for Odette was a ‘false scent’, he utters one of the most powerful lines in love stories: ‘To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!’ (Shattuck, p. 81; Swann’s Way, p. 543)When each love episode ends, the most emotionally involved person is somehow altered; the actual experience of love has been obliterated little by little until it is almost entirely forgotten. (Bree, p. 133). The only traces of the episode, no matter how consumed the lover has been by the affair during its course, are forgotten entirely except in a few images. The self is preserved, though slightly altered. To put it in terms of evolution, the lover has acquired characteristics from the love. This presents an inherent contradiction within the Proustian love story. While it seem absolutely more plausible to live a life of episodic loves than to have the one love of your life that you fill every photo album and journal you will ever purchase with pictures of, I do not believe in the total annihilation of the self during a love, and do not believe that love can only occur when there is such an annihilation of the self. While Proust tends to have a more pessimistic outlook on love, I feel the reason why none of the characters have been particularly successful at love is because they are obsessed with either annihilating the one they are with (as in the case of the narrator), or annihilating themselves (as in the case of Swann). The classical love story describes is a mutual respect for one another, which none of the characters seem to have, or have only a very limited amount of it for something completely meaningless, e.g. Swann’s association of Odette to art, Marcel’s fascination by Albertine’s presence on the beach. A love story need not be classical to contain feelings of reciprocal adoration for significant things. The human reality of love is not entirely as unfortunate as Proust makes it out to be, and while he accurately describes the biological nature of love, his emotional and psychological interpretations of love leave me unsatisfied. Perhaps a tragic experience in his love life, regardless of his insistence on distorting the autobiography of In Search of Lost Time, has tainted his own insights and those of his characters.Work Cited1. Bree, Germaine. Marcel Proust and Deliverance From Time. New Brunscwick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955.2. Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.3. Proust, Marcel. Within a Budding Grove. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.4. Shattuck, Roger. Marcel Proust. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,1974.5. Appleman, Phillip, ed. Darwin: Texts, Commentary. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2001. 6. Brill, Dr. A.A., ed. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. New York: The Modern Library, 1995.
From Swann to Marcel: Proust on the Self-Serving Aspects of Affection and Interpretation
Proust famously claimed that, because of books’ interpretive nature, readers subconsciously mold the characters in the literature they consume. In turn, one can construct a portrait of the reader’s own personality, offering insight into her needs or her experiences. This practice couldn’t be replicated in real life, Proust wrote, because people can’t shape actual humans.* In Swann’s way, however, Proust contradicts himself: people constantly shape the characters in their life story to reflect their own needs; and the artisan’s greatest motive, love, is heavily manifested in Swann’s and Marcel’s lives.
As a child, Marcel’s perception of love is shaped mainly by two things: his relationship with his parents and the expectations he’s built up with books. His parents and his family are the first connections to love he has; their behavior largely influences his desire and need for attention. He’s subjected to cold punishments, like being ignored for days. His nervous disposition is largely treated as an annoyance; his mother and grandmother tried to build up his willpower in attempts to eradicate his neediness. When treated with rare tenderness by his mother, he responds by feeling guilty. “It seemed to me that this should not have happened; her anger would have been less difficult to endure than this new kindness which my childhood had not known.” These actions had lasting effects on Marcel. As an adult he recounted the sobs he could hide from his father in childhood, and how “their echo has never ceased: it is only because life is now growing more and more quiet round about me that I hear them afresh.”
On one hand, Marcel is deprived of love from his family, and feels undeserving of kindness. But he also constructed unrealistic expectations of love in the literature he consumed, namely Oedipus Rex and Francois Le Champi, both of which follow mother-son relationships. It’s worth noting that the latter was read aloud to Marcel, with the incestuous scenes omitted, but one can assume enough was said for the imaginative boy to experience a sense of mystery. While these two experiences may seem to contradict (a sense of deprivation along with high romantic expectations), it follows Proust’s explanation. Because Marcel needed sensitivity and kindness, the characters in the books he read filled those roles in his perspective. When the rest of the world doesn’t measure up, he’s let down; or in the case of his thoughts on Gilberte and the Duchess of Guermentes’ dark eyes, he changes reality to become more interesting.
Swann’s relationship with Odette clearly demonstrates Proust’s cynical nature toward love. The duration of their relationship is marked by self-interest, vanity, nostalgia, and pain. Even at its earliest stages, the relationship is doomed. Only prompted by the assumption that she was hard to get, Swann begins to seek Odette’s affections. In a way, Vinteuil’s sonata, the composition of which was prompted by Mme. Vinteuil’s affair, seems to predict this—while Swann identifies notes of pleasure, charm, and rejuvenation, the reality is a sorrowful tune of disappointment. — Swann really begins to fall hopelessly in love with Odette after likening her face to the subject in a famous painting. By picturing her as this paragon of beauty, he starts to blur her identity. To meet his own self-interest, Odette is no longer the bourgeoisie jezebel the audience sees, but a beautiful point of obsession. He starts to reflect her mannerisms and interests, adoring the classless Verdurins and distancing himself from the aristocratic class to which he belongs. Despite Odette’s philandering, Swann defends her honor, driven by jealousy (and perhaps his own pride). In fear of losing her love, he never really confronts her, instead sending expensive gifts. In turn, Odette is motivated by her own self-interest, not love, in continuing the relationship—Swann is a fiscally strategic match for her. — Ironically, in his jealousy, Swann fails to pick up Odette’s (rare) displays of genuine care for him. Proust wrote, “When he proposed to take leave of Odette, and to return home, she begged him to stay a little longer, and even detained him forcibly, seizing him by the arm as he was opening the door to go. But he gave no thought to that, for, among the crowd of gestures and speeches and other little incidents which go to make up a conversation, it is inevitable that we should pass (without noticing anything that arouses our interest) by those that hide a truth for which our suspicions are blindly searching, whereas we stop to examine others beneath which nothing lies concealed.”
Eventually, Swann’s perception of time becomes clouded, dividing his life in terms of Odette’s time. Despite his obsession, he can’t end his relationship. He often recollects how things were at the start of the relationship, considerably altered with his selective memory. His love is rooted in his warped memory of her, unable to separate himself from the tangled mess he’s created—admiring not Odette, but the image he has carefully fashioned for her. He considers himself a victim, forming an identity of suffering. The song that once strongly reminded him of happy times with Odette only prompted pain. Escaping to memories from the past can’t completely soothe the pain in the present. Swann eventually comes to terms with their incompatibility. He faces humiliation from the Verdurins, namely, their mentioning of a party to which he’s obviously not invited; and from Odette, in her various affairs and in denying Swann his duel. An anonymous letter, presumably from Charlus, that outlined Odette’s affairs was delivered to Swann. Swan also began to spend more time with his aristocratic friends, too, and begins to realize the immobility of his class.
In Swann’s Way, Proust portrays love as self-serving. Memory is what is responsible for the feelings we have in relationships with others, and the fluidity of those recollections are the cause of eventual grief and self-pity. Both Marcel and Swann had misinterpretations of love that were fulfilled, in a sense, by shaping their perception of those around them. While Proust claims that readers can only shape fictional characters, humans continuously shape those around them out of need.
*“But all the feelings we are made to experience by the joy or the misfortune of a real person are produced in us only through the intermediary of an image of that joy or that misfortune; the ingeniousness of the first novelist consisted in understanding that in the apparatus of our emotions, the image being the only essential element, the simplification that would consist in purely and simply abolishing real people would be a decisive improvement. A real human being, however profoundly we sympathize with him, is in large part perceived by our senses, that is to say, remains opaque to us, presents a dead weight which our sensibility cannot lift.”