Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 158-169.
This section sent me back to Wordsworth, to "The Prelude" and the "Intimations of Immortality" ode, those poems that trace the process from boyish exhilaration to the disillusionment of maturity in which
nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.
On his solitary walks in the autumn of his aunt's death the narrator begins to discover the disjunction between himself and the world, to be "struck for the first time by this discord between our impressions and their habitual expression."
And seeing on the water and on the face of the wall a pale smile answering the smile of the sky, I cried out to myself in my enthusiasm, brandishing my furled umbrella: "Damn, damn, damn, damn." But at the same time I felt I was in duty bound not to stop at those opaque words, but to try to see more clearly into my rapture.
But from the grumpy way with which his enthusiasm is received by a passerby, he "learned that the same emotions do not arise simultaneously, in a preestablished order, in all men."
And mostly what he discovers in himself is the limits of his adolescent erotic longings, which merge with the landscape.
For at that time everything which was not I, the earth and other people, seemed to me more precious, more important, endowed with a more real existence than they would have appeared to a grown man. And I made no distinction between earth and people. I desired a peasant girl from Méségliese or Rossainville, a fisherwoman from Balbec, just as I desired Méségliese and Balbec.
The narrator assumes an availability of women from the "lower" classes, keeping his imagination distant from women of his own class. And he "has not yet abstracted [sexual] pleasure from the possession of the different women with whom one has tasted it, [or] reduced it to a general notion that makes one regard them from then on as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same." Even in the sly passage in which he masturbates "at the top of our house in Combray in the little room smelling of orris root," he's at one with nature "until the moment when a natural trail like that left by a snail added itself to the leaves of the wild black currant that leaned in toward me."
And then adolescent eroticism gives way to detachment, disillusionment, depression:
I no longer believed that the desires which I formed during my walks, and which were not fulfilled, were shared by other people, that they had any reality outside of me. They now seemed to me no more than the purely subjective, impotent, illusory creations of my temperament. They no longer had any attachment to nature, to reality, which from then on lost all its charm and significance and was no more than a conventional framework for my life, as is, for the fiction of a novel, the railway carriage on the seat of which a traveler reads it in order to kill time.
This is followed by the scene, which takes place a few years later, in which the narrator spies on Mlle. Vinteuil and her lover as they mock the portrait of the late M. Vinteuil. It is a moment "that remained obscure to me at the time" but will eventually form in him the idea of sadism. Throughout the scene, the narrator's sympathetic understanding remains with Mlle. Vinteuil, in whom he "recognized her father's obsequious and reticent gestures, his sudden qualms.... And time and again, deep inside her, a timid and supplicant virgin entreated and forced back a touch and swaggering brawler."
Proust is, I think, rather self-conscious in his somewhat overheated treatment of this incident: He tries to downplay its melodramatic theatricality by drawing attention to it.
It was true that in Mlle. Vinteuil's habits, the appearance of evil was so complete that it would have been hard to find it so perfectly represented in anyone other than a sadist; it is behind the footlights of a popular theater rather than in the lamplight of an actual country house that one expects to see a girl encouraging her friend to spit on the portrait of a father who lived only for her; and almost nothing else but sadism provides a basis in real life for the aesthetics of melodrama.
But the narrator discerns in Mlle. Vinteuil something of the prudishness of her father. "It was not evil which gave her the idea of pleasure, which seemed agreeable to her; it was pleasure that seemed to her malign." And he ends by (somewhat heavy-handedly, I think, drawing a moral from the incident:
Perhaps she would not have thought that evil was a state so rare, so extraordinary, so disorienting, and to which it was so restful to emigrate, if she had been able to discern in herself, as in everyone else, that indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the terrible and lasting form assumed by cruelty.