Thursday, December 3, 2009

EVEN MORE NOTES ON PROUST -- SWANN'S WAY, "Swann in Love," "Place Names..."

The beginning of the Swann-Odette relationship (and perhaps its entirety) reveals Jacques Lacan’s enormous debt to Proust. Swann’s initial attraction to Odette, a woman famously "not his type," is rooted not in his desire for her but in her desire–for whatever reasons–for him. His desire desires her desire. Or as Proust puts it, "the feeling that he possesses a woman’s heart may be enough to make him fall in love with her." The other’s desire creates a desire for that desire.

"Swann in Love" is, among much else, a parable about how art can change our lives–for the worse. Swann is an aesthete, a member of that generation of French and English aesthetes (Walter Pater was another) who ‘rediscovered’ Vermeer and Botticelli, a generation from which Proust learned much. Whenever an art object–Vermeer’s paintings, Vinteuil’s sonata–becomes an object of Swann’s desire, he wishes to know everything about it, a characteristically scholarly desire that functions well within the confines of the archive and the art museum but that becomes disastrous when transferred to the erotic realm. Since Odette is not Swann’s type, he rationalizes his attraction to her by mentally comparing her to a Botticelli he loves, despite the fact that "his desires had always run counter to his aesthetic taste." Odette aestheticized then becomes an object of obsessive research. Swann must know everything about her, regardless of how much the knowledge will torture him. (Recall also how Vinteuil’s little phrase 'liberates' Swann’s mind so he can more readily chain himself to Odette.)

All of Proust’s gardens have serpents. Even within the Debussy-esque loveliness of Vinteuil’s sonata is hidden a snake–as the dimwitted Forcheville’s "sonata-snake" pun reveals. Swann’s way contains no unproblematic pastorals.

While Swann is a sort of Romantic rationalist, the aesthete as researcher (rechercheur), Odette’s aesthetic tastes are more fashionably decadent. Her preference for orchids and chrysanthemums, flowers that look artificial, powerfully echoes the tastes of that uber-decadent, Huysmans’s Des Esseintes.

In "Swann in Love" the desire "to possess exclusively," the desire for monogamy, is portrayed as the ultimate perversion, a form of obsessive jealousy that we have been taught to call ‘love.’ In this vast roman fleuve of lesbian, gay and sadomasochistic sexualities, the heterosexual relationship between Swann and Odette (and the relationship it prefigures, that between Marcel and Albertine) may be the most perverse of all.

When Proust writes of "the act of physical possession (in which, paradoxically, the possessor possesses nothing)"(p.281), he magisterially throws off in a dependent clause a phrase that suggests an entire erotic psychology. It would take at least an essay and probably an entire book to unpack the implications of this ‘little phrase.’

The writing motif from the Combray ‘overture’ returns in "Place Names: The Name" with a significant variation: Gilberte has replaced Maman as the addressee of Marcel’s texts. It begins with Marcel doing what millions of young lovers have done, writing the beloved’s name repeatedly in his school exercise book, an activity Proust implicitly figures as a form of masturbation. His verb "traçais" should remind the reader of the "trace naturelle" of semen on the currant branch in "Combray." Likewise Marcel’s own description of this writing as "something purely personal, unreal, tedious and ineffectual." A few pages later, satisfaction comes in the form of a letter sent by Marcel to Gilberte. When she shows it to him and he sees her name written in his hand now obscured beneath postal marks and notations, he feels a rising exaltation far beyond anything a used envelope should cause. His writing, the artificial trace of his desire, his substitute for the substitute of masturbation, has now passed into Gilberte’s hands, and even the traces of the mundane system that delivered it now shine out with an erotic glow.

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