A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Proust Project, Day 48

Where this began
Day 47


In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 246-259.

If the infantilizing of the narrator wasn't already clear enough, his account of his attachment to his grandmother raises some curious psychosexual questions:
Whenever my mouth was on her cheeks or her forehead, I drew from them something so nourishing, so beneficent, that I had all the immobility, gravity, and placid gluttony of an infant on the breast.

Of course, not all the questions raised are about the narrator. The grandmother comes in for her share of them, too:
She took such pleasure in any trouble that spared me trouble, such delight in a moment of rest and peace for my weary limbs, that when I tried to prevent her helping me untie my laces and get ready for bed, making as though to undress myself, her pleading glance halted my hands, which were already on my boots and the first buttons of my jacket.

We realize here that we're dealing with a late 19th-century, pre-Freudian attitude toward sexuality -- one that Proust's novel would do much to demolish. The narrator reveals here the extent to which he -- an only child, a gifted and sickly one -- has been spoiled. The question is how much of his sickliness (and perhaps his giftedness) arose from this upbringing.

His word for being spoiled, for his fear of being torn from all that makes him feel secure, is "habit." But he also projects his fear on external objects, on "the loweliest, most obscure, organic, and all-but-unconscious refusal, by the things that make up the best of our present life, to countenance even our theoretical acceptance of a possible future without them: a refusal which was the core of the horror I had so often felt at the thought that my parents would one day be dead, that the requirements of life might force me to live apart from Gilberte or just make me settle for good in a country where I would never see my friends again."

Habit resists change, but paradoxically can also promote change: It can "endear to us people whom we disliked." It "alters the shape of their faces, improves their tone of voice, makes hearts grow fonder." This is "the analgesia of habit." But until it sets in, we fear change -- the loss of family, friends, places we are used to -- because if we accept it, "that would mean our actual self had changed, ... it would amount to a death of our self, albeit followed by a resurrection, but a resurrection in the form of a different self." So that even becoming used to sleeping in a different bedroom becomes a kind of death of the self: "the anguish and alarm I felt when lying beneath a ceiling that was unknown and too high was nothing but the protest of my surviving attachment to a ceiling that was known and lower. No doubt that attachment would end and be replaced by another: first death, then a new life would have done their dual work at the behest of Habit."

But these are night thoughts. When the morning comes, and the effect of the sea and the sun upon it takes hold, his curiosity about the place revives. And we have some wonderful portraits of the types of people who visit this Grand-Hôtel of Balbec, snobs of various orders, including the woman who arrives with her staff and even her own draperies and furnishings, so that "instead of adapting to the outside world, she could erect between it and herself a bulkhead of habit so deftly constructed that it was her own home, with her inside it, that had done the traveling, and not her."