A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Proust Project, Day 47

Where this began
Day 46


In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 234-246.

The landscape as the train moves through Normandy gives the narrator opportunity to muse, and Proust an opportunity to segue from the mature narrator's voice to that of the young man he once was, who, as he once did on his walks in Combray, sinks into a sentimental fantasy about the happiness he might experience in love with a peasant girl -- an obvious antithesis to the sophisticated Gilberte. He sees a tall girl with a crock of milk, who comes from the farmland to serve coffee to the passengers on the train, and she gives him a "fresh glimpse of beauty and happiness." But not Beauty and Happiness, those abstract essences:
Forgetting that beauty and happiness are only ever incarnated in an individual person, we replace them in our minds by a conventional pattern, a sort of average of all the different faces we have ever admired, all the different pleasures we have ever enjoyed, and thus carry about with us abstract images, which are lifeless and uninspiring because they lack the very quality that something new, something different from what is familiar, always possesses, and which is the quality inseparable from real beauty and happiness.
Like all philosophers, he is adding his footnote to Plato, arguing that we can only perceive the abstract, the ideal, the Platonic form, in the particular, that "a particular form of happiness ... is the only form in which we can have the taste of happiness."

But he is also once again the sentimental naïf, the boy who imagines a life with this tall girl, as he once imagined bliss with a peasant girl he would meet along the Méséglise way: "She would have initiated me into the charms of rural life and the pleasures of early rising." As the train leaves, he fantasizes about various ways of returning to find her, which the more realistic voice of the narrator describes as "the mind's selfish, active, practical, mechanical, lazy, and centrifugal predisposition to shirk the effort required to analyze in an abstract and disinterested way any pleasant impression we have received."

There is something remarkable, perhaps unique about the way Proust blends and shifts his narrator's points of view -- young and old -- allowing the severe critical voice to intrude upon the naive younger voice without being brutally didactic.

And then reality intrudes, as it usually does when he encounters something he has experienced only in his imagination: a sighting of the Duchesse de Guermantes, a performance by La Berma, a meeting with Bergotte. The initial experience cannot possibly live up to expectations. And so it is with the church at Balbec, which is not in fact perched on a lonely cliff over the sea, "soaked by the spindrift blown from the tumultuous deep," but is miles from the sea, "in a town square at the junction of two trolley lines, opposite a café with the word Billiards aove it in gilt lettering."

He tries to pump himself up with the recognition that this is the real thing -- "And the real things are unique -- this is much more!" But he finds the church and its statue of the Virgin have fallen to "the tyranny of the Particular." The statue, "like the church itself, I now found transformed from the immortal work of art that I had longed to see into a little old woman in stone, whose height I could measure, and whose wrinkles I could count." He recalls "everything I had ever read about Balbec and the words Swann had spoken: 'It's a delight -- every bit as fine as Siena.'" And he remembers his musings on the magic of place-names. "But with Balbec it felt as though, by going there, I had broken open a name which should have been hermetically sealed."

His grandmother makes it worse by greeting him with, "'So? How was Balbec?,' with a smile of such radiant expectation, full of the great pleasure I must have had, that I could not bear to blurt out my disappointment." He decides to tell her that he feels ill "and that I thought we might find ourselves obliged to go back to Paris." He retreats again into juvenility, to the desire to be nursed, to homesickness.

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