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Marcel Proust as heterosexual Christian moralizer.

By Elliott Coleman.

Hardly a mystic…

MORALITY IS THE CONFORMING to the rules of right conduct, whatever any given society supposes them to be. Now Proust was not a systematic moral philosopher. He had contempt for the theorizing novel, going so far as to say once that a book of “theories” is like an article with the price tag on it; by “theorizing” he must have meant conscious a priori reasoning. He came to despise the idea that literature is a criticism of life in the sense that the literary faculty occupies a high place apart, from which it can sit in judgment upon the life that produced it. His distrust of the conscious intelligence as infallible guide to truth had the same base. The thing produced could not be the judge of its producer. Instead, he came to see literature and all art as the interpreter of meaning, as the translator of the truth about existence and purpose: a revelation. And he thought that this revelation came from another and deeper activity of the psyche than the rational intelligence, which continually missed the point, the reality.

It may be urged that the setting apart of this “profounder” unconscious mental activity which, in its emergence, could be guide and arbiter is subject to the same adverse criticism Proust himself made of the rational consciousness: namely, that it cannot be the judge of the life that produces it. Perhaps this objection may in a measure be answered by saying that it is one thing to call a part of oneself godlike, and another thing to call a part of oneself God. In other words, it is one thing to be illumined, but another thing to be the only light. For Marcel Proust, art was a method of being illumined. It was the expression of a capacity produced, made possible by life; not a subsumption but rather a method which led to realities which the conscious intelligence at its best might formulate but could not verify; to a reality which the conscious intelligence at its very best had to miss, again and again, because it could not stand outside itself, isolated, and then look back into itself. Proust, however, was hardly a mystic.

Despite his conviction of the inadequacy of the conscious intelligence, Proust knew that the moments of high intuition are rarely arrived at and cannot long be sustained, and he continually employed and had to employ the critical faculty of the conscious intelligence. In fact the experience called sublime invigorated that very conscious intelligence; and conditioned as the intelligence was both by its quality and by its knowledge of history, it nevertheless had a limited freedom to make choices. Now the conditioning of Proust’s moral understanding and sense was Greco-Judaeo-Christian, with the emphasis on the Judaeo-Christian, and with the final emphasis on the Christian; when it came to make choices he found for his great work no standard superior to that of the Christian morality. Though he was not one, however affectionate toward the church, who gave specific rational assent to dogmas of the Christian religion, he never succeeded in adopting an ethic other than what is rather roughly called the Christian ethic, till recently the accepted Western view of right conduct.

This need not mean that he wrote a completely Christian book. “There cannot really be a Christian literature,” said Cardinal Newman, “for all literature is literature about the natural man.” But by reference to the characters and situations he has created and made move by the power of his intelligence, I think it may be shown that Proust is more Christian than anything else. And further, it seems to me that in his unflagging and almost undeviating search for meaning, reality, and rightness of interpretation, his work becomes highly moral, judged by any system of affirmative morality: peculiarly so in the Western sense of the truth’s making us free, illumined, whole, and productive. For Proust the process was this: remembrance, contemporaneous realization, then art.

First edition, first part. (Leeds University.)

WE BEGIN WITH the objective moral acceptance by noting how it is revealed in the chief character of À la recherche du temps perdu, the Narrator, in the evaluations he makes of all the other characters. He believes in truth of being and truth of relationship. The finest person he knows is his grandmother: she is intelligent and cultured; she has compassion and good taste. But the one quality that ennobles her is integrity. She is successful as a person because she is not a liar. She is a woman who looks for truth and she speaks it through all her personality only when she has found it. Other characters approach her integrity: the narrator tries more and more to be truthful with himself, and at different moments his shadowy father and his mother, and Swann, Elstir, Vinteuil, Bergotte, Charlus, the Prince and Princess of Guermantes and others behave as it standing in the light of truth. They affirm a standard. Mostly, however, the moral standard is affirmed by default. Almost every life in the book is inadequate, marred, distorted, or vicious. We are made aware early of the evil in Françoise’s cruelty, Aunt Léonie’s egocentricity, Swann’s dilletantism, the Vendurin’s ambition and treachery, Morel’s amoral selfishness, Odette’s narcissism, Albertine’s mendacity, the Guermante’s pride and irresponsibility, de Norpois’ guile. And in his relationship with Albertine, the narrator out of pride becomes liar and consequently a force of destruction: Albertine loses her life.

It may be too obvious to mention that when we look at the love affairs and marriages in À la recherche du temps perdu, they are with rare exceptions a weaving, even a welter of infidelity, jealousy, hatred, and general moral blindness, many of them social and political makeshifts at best. The narrator’s disillusion with the society, especially the endowed aristocracy, of Europe, produces the judgment upon it that it has lost meaning and become a lie. Its pride is seen to be its most vicious attribute; and when that pride is unalleviated by any positive grace, truth of intercourse and society are lost. And the kind of love between men and women that Proustian characters experience, possessive love, that lives on jealousy, defines itself against polarity, and is condemned as less than tragic and finally meaningless. It is not so important that almost every heterosexual love affair or marriage ends in apathy, tragi-comedy, or disaster, as that the means to these ends have been possession and self-aggrandizement. Perhaps the list of liaisons becomes tiresome in proportion to its accuracy as a modern commentary: Swann and Odette, Saint-Loup and Rachel, Saint-Loup and Gilberte, the Verdurins, Madame de Villeparisis and de Norpois, the Duke and Duchess, the Prince and the two Princesses of Guermantes, and Marcel and Albertine. Their pleasures and their sorrows are largely forgotten in the judgment life makes upon them. They deviate and are lost. Far from decadence in terms of defining it as celebration of evil, this view of life comes closer to despair.

Nor can one find decadence in what has been called Proust’s “lack of social consciousness,” his “snobism,” when he has done as much to reveal the vice of pride as it resides in the implications of snobism as any writer one can think of; and one has only to recall the magnificence of the poilu at the front, and the scenes outside the restaurants of wartime Paris with the memories they bring the narrator of poor fisherman gazing into  the lighted glass of the great restaurant of the Grand Hotel at Balbec, as into an aquarium, to be corrected here.

WHERE ARE WE to look for the immorality in Proust? Is it to be found in that river of homosexuality, sexual degeneracy, masochism and sadism that runs through the novels? Perhaps the knowledge that Marcel Proust himself was homosexual has unduly influenced the minds of some persons, despite the fact that he has pointed out, in the instance of the novelist Bergotte and his extreme selfishness of another sort, that oftentimes a great artist, though insufficient or vicious in what is called his personal life, may nevertheless through his major revelation lay down laws of conduct that shall bind all humanity if it is to survive; that perhaps the definitive word comes with the greatest force out of just such a vicious and obsessive life. But let us look at Sodome et Gomorrhe.

Instead of using modern or clinical terms to characterize the homosexual situations upon which, in the middle of the work, the narrator openly enters, Proust employs these two terms from antiquity. Terms of grandeur and of judgment, they are powerful because of their associations for thousands of years. Of course this section of the work begins with a homosexual encounter between Charlus and Jupien, described one might say scientifically, and only half-humorously, in metaphors of the orchid and the bee, and based upon an acceptance of the teary of hereditary inversion and the concept of the existence of “men-women” not obviously hermaphroditic. Before long, however, the matter becomes very serious indeed, and the “vice” begins to lose its quotation marks; but at the very beginning the selection of the phrase Sodome et Gomorrhe as title and theme for this long section of the work raises at least two questions. First, why did not Proust use Greek terms? Second, why did he not use the terms of modern clinical psychology?

Of course Sodom and Gomorrah and the other three cities buried under the Dead Sea are important, if not irresistible, poetically. There is hardly a story in the Old Testament that so movingly confronts man’s spiritual dereliction and desolation with the grace of God; that contrasts so vividly man’s defeat of his proper function in the universe with God’s mercy—“What if there be ten found?” “I will not do it for the ten’s sake”—and yet with His destroying power over the creature in His image. The two saving and destroying angels of God, in a physical appearance, present to the homosexuals of Sodom the final temptation. Nothing can stand in the way of their desire for them, the desire for a beauty that can be consummated—irresponsible as the men of Sodom have become—only in their own complete destruction, and nothing can deter them except their own destruction. The paradox may not be tragic but it is hideous. Nothing innocent, nothing productive, no beauty in another form, not even anything expedient, can stand in the way of their love of themselves manifested in their desire for a god made completely over into their own image.

IN WHAT IS CALLED Greek love, no such conflict existed. The function and pleasure of woman was preserved, but the attraction of man for man, and in the quieter tradition of woman for woman, existed as a symbol and activity of ideal love, unhampered by certain practical considerations of real existence. If the passion of the older for the young, whose minds they could instruct, led up the ladder to the life of the spirit, well and good, according to Plato; if not, it was to be classed with all degrading sensual pleasure. Something else again was found in the Hebrew tradition. And Christianity went further. Christianity said that it is that which is native to man as he is, which is to be transmuted into something entirely native to “man accomplished,” man fulfilled or atoned. With only side references to Greece, Proust, out of his Hebraic moral consciousness and his Christian and Catholic upbringing, chooses the Hebrew and Christian tradition which finally did not damn man for his aberration and sin, and forgave anything, but at the same time would not confuse evil with good, nor man’s destiny with anything short of it, or in reverse from it.

The theme of the “profanation of the mother,” stated early in the life of the narrator and mentioned again toward the close of the work as a determining agent, together with the pleasant satires on the psychosomatic “cures” of psychiatrists, shows enough of an acquaintance with contemporary clinical psychology to make us wonder at the author’s choice of title and course. The understanding of the particular “vice” of homosexuality as only a symbol of some deeper, more basic malaise developed contemporaneously with Proust, and he may have paid too little or no attention to it. But this is really beside the point. He had another interesting and sympathetic choice, the Greek way, and, in striking contrast with André Gide, he declined to take it.

By implication, and sometimes, as in the case of Saint-Loup, directly, Proust lays a burden upon his homosexual characters: the burden of renunciation, or the burden of regeneration, or the burden of expiation, depending upon the personal condition. In the case of Charlus, renunciation is made to seem the only was of salvation (a way the Baron did not follow), and the grace of God to have prevented his killing Morel. In the case of Albertine there seems to come a kind of regeneration when just before her death she expresses her love for Marcel. Mlle. Vinteuil’s friend makes a kind of expiation in preserving and transcribing the music of Vinteuil. Robert Saint-Loup is made to seem as if he expiated in a brave death on the battlefield. But almost all the major homosexual characters, and there is a wide range of them, end in a sad or revolting disintegration, to say nothing of the shallower players and voyeurs, deadened by lives of illusion, leisure, dilettantism, amorality and ennui.

Marcel’s decision to bring Albertine to live with him in Paris is taken to save her from Lesbianism. Whatever transposition there was in this case of a man to a woman matters little. This was the way things should be. Whether it was the “safer” way is of equal inconsequence; for here, with his genuine admiration and affection for women, the author became true to an imagination that was continually, in turn, true to him. I think the same may be said of other “transposed” situations, and the best discussion of the subject that I have read is contained in an excellent paper by Professor Harry Levin, published subsequent to the original draft of these remarks[1] to which I would refer anyone interested in the subject.

PERHAPS THE FINAL TEST case is that of the Marquis de Saint-Loup-en-Bray. He had been created as one of the most attractive male characters in the novels; in one of his aspects he has been known as a great “womanizer.” Of his late defection into homosexuality, the narrator has this to say:

This discovery pained me to intensely for me to be able to derive spiritual advantage from it…. To learn this of anyone else would not have affected me, of anyone in the world save Robert…. I was obliged to make an effort to restrain my tears.

—and this not only over the fact, but over the deterioration that ensued.

Here as elsewhere, not only for the “vice so called” as the narrator sometimes tempers it by calling it, but for all failures of blindness and of pride, the salvation of life is art. Music, painting, literature are more than agents of salvage; but they are agents of salvage because they are interpreters of meaning, transformers of joy as well as suffering, translators of the soul, and co-creators of the world. Meanwhile, as we look into Jupien’s brothel, during an air raid on Paris, we may be concerned enough to be alert to the suggestion the Baron Charlus once made: that all this might suddenly be consumed, as if by fire and brimstone.

In the extremity of his presentation of the worst aspects of homosexuality, such as sadism and masochism, among women and among men, it would seem that Proust has included most of the sins of the world. He has shown homosexuality as an aspect of the self seeking another in a manifestation that is sick; and at the same moment he has focused again the terrifying picture of the self seeking only itself, this time unequivocally in its own image.

DIVISIONS OF THE SUBJECT such as I have made are perhaps too arbitrary, but having treated the morality of À la recherche du temps perdu as it seems to me revealed in its rational-conscious content, or rather the record of that experience and content, I want to attempt briefly to indicate—what again may be obvious—that the reason for the existence of the work at all is a moral reason; and that the work in its intuitive-interpretative aspect, or the record of that experience and content, is a moral and not a decadent record. I mean that Proust’s unflagging and almost undeviating search for truth—learning was part of it—and for reality, not only represents the functioning of the moral sense at its highest in him, but also that such a search signifies, universally, the presence of the highest morality.

What we call reality (says Proust) is a certain relationship between those sensations and those memories that simultaneously envelop us—a relationship abolished by a mere cinematographic vision, which thereby diverges from the truth all the more since it professes to confine itself to the truth—a unique relationship which the writer must discover so as to link together forever in his phrase its two different terms. One may, in a description, make the objects that figured in the place described succeed each other indefinitely; the truth will begin to appear only at the moment when the writer takes two different objects, fixes their relationship, the law of causality in the world of science, and encloses them in the inevitable linkage of a fine style or even, just like life, when in bringing together qualities common to two sensations, he releases their essence by uniting both, so as to abstract them from the contingencies of time, in a metaphor, and chains them together by the indefinable nexus of an alliance of words. [Le temps retrouvé].

Without stopping to consider the reflection of Bergson in this passage, I should like to give brief consideration to metaphor, or to the function of metaphor, for in respect to metaphor Proust is at his best as poet and provides as well the best illustration of his central integrity. One recalls Aristotle’s dictum that fine metaphor, and that alone, is the truest index to literary genius. For Proust, images are not ornaments. In a letter to Camille Vettard he says, “I make myself reject all that which may be called the expression of pure intelligence, all rhetoric, all involved and contrived images, in order to state clearly my most authentic impression and to respect the natural march of my thought. All must be natural, nothing raffiné…. What vanity, vanity,” Proust continues, paraphrasing Pascal on the vanity of painting, “when the metaphor attracts admiration by the resemblance to things of which one does not admire the originals. What vanity when the metaphor gives dignity to an idea of false grandeurs which have in themselves nothing of dignity…. Ruskin says,” he continues, “ ‘You spend the time gossiping with your chambermaid or your groom, when you might converse with kings and queens.’ ” Proust is here quoting from Of King’s Treasuries, an address in which Ruskin was speaking of books. “But in reality,” he adds, “if that were not a metaphor, Ruskin would not find it worth any more to talk with a king than a servant.”

THE CARE TO BE TAKEN with the metaphor was for Proust the care that must be taken for the truth. If we cannot find the bonds that unite things, he warned, we had better give up images. Writing upon this subject in Le Style de Proust, Jean Mouton reminds the reader that Stendhal said the novel is a mirror, but that Thibaudet pointed out that Stendhal was a dreamer: his own life became the life; whereas Proust would say:

If reality were that, without doubt a sort of movie film of things would suffice, and style, literature, would be an artificial hors-d’oeuvre. The true reality is obtained only by the collaboration of him who holds the mirror; one must become the mirror…. The duty and task of a writer are those of a translator.

And musing on this, M. Mouton suggests that it is necessary to go farther in contact with reality—as far as suppressing our point of contact.

A few alterations…

AMONG THE RESULTS of other pains and cares that Proust took, I shall mention only two: the great length of some of the sentences, with all their modifying phrases and clauses; and the enormous amount of material added to the galleys. Not every observer has felt the force of the moral inference: that the taking, the veering, the balancing of one factor against another, the continual modifying, modulating, associating and adding—that all this was for penetration and precision, and it often arrived at precision; that is was the sincere attempt, amid the staggering complications of life, the devoted attempt to reach the truth.

Most of us may have followed the long course of the character Marcel’s experience leading up to the decision to write his own book. He meets with a series of incidents which seem to him to reveal a certain sublimity, a timeless reality: the incident of the madeleine and the cup of lime-flower tea; of the hawthorns of Combray; a view of the spires of Martinville; the sight of a group of three trees near Balbec; the treading upon certain uneven stones in a Paris courtyard. Moreover, in a mysterious connection, we are given the record of the hearing again and again some of the music of the composer Vinteuil, the seeing of the metaphorical paintings of the impressionist Elstir; the reading of the prose of the novelist Bergotte—all of which seem to confirm the validity of the narrator’s intuitions. Marcel seems to have penetrated to some reality, essence, or continuity beneath the flowing surface of things. But then, a long way through his wearisome, disillusioned, miserable existence, with nothing of his own accomplished because he has not taken the extreme pains of plumbing his own depths at the point of vision, he finds himself through suffering and the strictures of guilt to be in a state of accidy. He is fed up. There is no escape except into complete futility or death. Not even the Western comic mold of his mind can avail anything. Suddenly in the middle-age of his sickness there reoccur the manifestations: the sound of silver against a plate at the last reception of the Guermantes; the fragrant smell of a linen napkin which takes him back to Balbec. These and other fragments of delight have followed upon something more important: that unconscious joyful balancing upon the uneven stones of the French courtyard which is to restore to him the clairvoyance of Venice. And now, though he had lost belief in the validity of art, as he confronts the masks of time and Europe at the last reception, and the garden bell at Combray rings in his brain once more, he makes the last necessary connection: the vision of enduring relationships. He will dedicate what remains of his life to the exploring of reality, to the writing of his book. Whether or not the dedication is heroic, surely it is moral.

THE PERSISTENCE OF PROUST brought about the release of his potential sanity, and the dedication of his narrator provides an aesthetico-moral, a Credo which may be summarized in Marcel’s words or voice:

I understand how one can come to judge life mediocre, when at certain times it seems so beautiful, because this judgment and this disparaging conclusion are based on something entirely different from life itself, on mental images which have retained no trace of life. This means that we have exchanged the real for the artificial; our imagination has not been able to function, bound by the exigencies of space-time and chance. But as soon as past-present memory becomes actual, we can even in our future-present distinguish between the artificial and the real.

I understood that the only way to get more joy out of such visions of truth was to try to know them more completely at the spot where they were to be found, namely within myself, and to clarify them to their lowest depths.

I understood that to read the subjective book of these strange signs—my conscious going through my unconscious like a diver groping—no one could help me with any rule, for the reading of that book is a creative act, in which no one can stand in our stead or even collaborate with us.

I understood that the subjective impression is for the writer what experimentation is for the scientist, and that nothing comes from ourselves but that which we draw out of the obscurity within us and which is unknown to others.

I understood that in art excuses count for nothing; good intentions are of no avail; the artist must at every instant heed his instinct; that art is the most real of all things, the sternest school in life, and truly the Last Judgment. That this book, the most difficult for us to decipher, is also the only one dictated to us by reality, the imprinting of which on our consciousness was done by reality itself. Not that the ideas we form ourselves may not be logically correct, but we do not know whether they are true.

I understood that we are not at all free in the presence of the work of art to be created, that we do not do it as we ourselves please, but that it existed prior to us and we should seek to discover it as we would a natural law because it is both necessary and hidden.

I understood that the idea of a popular art, like that of a patriotic art, is ridiculous, even if it were not dangerous.

I understood that the disappointment in a journey and the disappointment in a love affair are not different in themselves, but merely the different aspects assumed in varying situations by our inability to find our real selves in physical enjoyment or material activity.

And then I understood the use of suffering. That it compels us toward reality, and the undertaking of our true work, our vocation, that thing to which we are called, and which we often try to evade. And that this, among other boons, is achieved precisely because suffering leads us to such depths of knowing and to such profound attention to life, that we may come from it ennobled.

I understood that the most trivial and the most degrading experiences—not to mention the visions of beatitude—combine in their translation to teach us all this.

I understood that the dreams of life, of night and of waking, combine in their translation to tell us all this.

One can only conclude that Marcel Proust seems to have become one of the least equivocal of moralists at the same time that he became one of the most dedicated and impressive men of art.


1. PMLA, June, 1950. pp. 648-652.

Poet, translator, and critic, Elliott Coleman was the founder of the Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University. This essay originally appeared under the title “Time of a Man” in Golden Angel (1954) and is included here as a part of The Fortnightly Review‘s Coleman Portfolio.

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