Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Food And Its Mysteries (Swann's Way p 130ff)

I've been bouncing around in different directions for a few months so I'm not quite sure where I am in Proust and I just decided to dive back in wherever and whenever and discovered one of my favorite passages: the part of Swann's Way where the Narrator describes the scent of Asparagus in his pee.

The Narrator really puts himself back in the position of the child for whom the most important part of the day is dinner, and the most mysterious and proximate part of the household is the kitchen.  As is typical for Proust, he goes back and forth between the literature of the narrator's age group, politics and the military,  and the reality of the sensual world so each can inform the other.

"At the hour when I usually went downstairs to find out what there was for dinner, its preparation would already have begun, and Francoise, a colonel with all the forces of nature for her subalterns, as in the fairy-tales where giants hire themselves out as scullions, would be stirring the coals..."  

The narrator describes the scene as though it were the tally of ships from Homer and remembers the "great array of vessels" each a "triumph" of "the potters craft" and he "inspects" the "platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered."  He slips between the language of war and that of childhood competitions because the peas start out a platoons and end up as marbles "ready for a game."  And then we get to the asparagus which are exalted thus:

"...what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet--still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed--with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume."

Nothing could be more lusciously real, you can see the "mauve and azure" and the little "white feet" and its all the more real because they are "still stained a little by the soil of their garden bed" and touched with an "iridescence" but, at the same time, these asparagus inhabit the realm of the fairies and sprites which peopled the world of Francoise and the child narrator.  These asparagus spears were really something else, something "disguised" which had "assume (d) vegetable form" but which were really numinous and both earthy and spirit formed.  When their "firm, comestible flesh" had been consumed, when the narrator has "partaken" of them (as of a sacrament) they return and "transform" the lowly chamber pot "into a vase of aromatic perfume."


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