Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Early Pavlov

"My sole consolation when I went upstairs for the night was that Mamma would come in and kiss me after I was in bed.  But this good night lasted for so short a time, she went down again so soon, that the moment in which I heard her climb the stairs, and then caught the sound of her garden dress of blue muslin, from which hung little tassels of plaited straw, rustling along the double-doored corridor, was for me a moment of the utmost pain; for it heralded the moment which was bound to follow it, when she would have left me and gone downstairs again.  So much so that I reached the point of hoping that this goodnight which I loved so much would come as late as possible, so as to prolong the time of respite during which Mamma would not yet have appeared."

This is an invocation of a state of longing and suspense, a description of a form of conditioning--"the sound of her garden dress...heralded the moment that was bound to follow"-- and a very Proustian layering of color, sound, memory and feeling in which one leads inextricably to the next. The Narrator holds each of these memories in tension--the sound is the color of the dress, the rustle is the size and style of the corridor itself.  And he remembers himself as almost preferring the tension of the moments before she appears, before the kiss because the joy of anticipation is preferable to the sense of loss he feels at the end of the moment when she goes away.

In this little vignette we see one of the oddities of the Narrator--I won't say of Proust because I try to keep the two distinct even though one can't help but want to read from one to the other (1)--which is that the Narrator's desire to hang on to things (people, experiences, names, images, feelings, memories) seems to predispose him to put off actually encountering the real thing about which he daydreams, or the thing he remembers because of the likelihood that it will disappoint him or that it will end too swiftly.  Here is a person who feels things so deeply that his feelings extend to the moments after and the moments before the impression, before and after the event. No wonder the Narrator's favorite person in his childhood is his Grandmother, for only the Grandmother recognizes that feelings and experiences extend out from the moment (or the object) and infuse the object or event with meaning:

"The truth was that she could never permit herself to buy anything from which no intellectual profit was to be derived, above all the profit which fine things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasures elsewhere than in the barren satisfaction of worldly wealth. Even when she had to make someone a present of the kind called "useful," when she had to give an armchair or some table-silver or a walking-stick, she would choose "antiques," as though their long desuetude had effaced from them any semblance of utility and fitted them rather to instruct us in the lives of the men of other days than to serve the common requirements of our own.  She would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or beautiful places, But at the moment of buying them, and for all that the subjects of the picture had an aesthetic value, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography.  She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether this commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to supplant it to a certain extent with what was art still, to introduce, as it were, several "thicknesses" of art: instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius, she would inquire of Swann whether some great painter had not depicted them, and preferred to give me photographs of "Chartres Cathedral" after Corot, of the "Fountains of Saint-Cloud" after Hubert Robert, and of "Vesuvius" after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art.  But although the photographer had been prevented from reproducing directly these masterpieces or beauties of nature, and had there been replaced by a great artist, he resumed his odious position when it came to reproducing the artist's interpretation.  Accordingly, having to reckon again with vulgarity, my grandmother would endeavour to postpone the moment of contact still further.  She would ask Swann if the picture had not been engraved, preferring, when possible, old engravings with some interest of association apart from themselves, such, for example, as show us a masterpiece in a state in which we can no longer see it to-day (like Morghen's print of Leonardo's "Last Supper" before its defacement)."(42-43)
But where the Narrator tries to push off the moment of consummation, for fear of the moment of loss, the grandmother accepts that the pleasure of "seeking"is not diminished by the moment of finding in some specific thing the "instruction" she finds profitable. On the contrary, although she seems to need to tunnel down below the everyday, behind the ordinary and the utilitarian she is satisfied--even when "the armchairs she had presented to married couples, young and old...on a first attempt to sit down upon them had at once collapsed beneath the weight of their recipients." (44)

 The rest of the family is rather unimaginative and emotionally flat footed.  In fact "my father had almost called her an imbecile on learning the names of the books she proposed to give me."(42) They see her romanticism, and that of the Narrator, as childish, absurd, and highly socially problematic. But this is perhaps only because they don't know about themselves what the Narrator and his Grandmother know: which is that every person has some such things that matter to them. Even "practicality" and "utility" and the idea of the "matter of fact"--of the "manly" and the "adult" need to be put in quotes and kept at a distance from the person. They are all things that we enact because we enjoy them, on some level, not because they are natural to us or a natural aspect of the thing itself.

(1)  I want to remind myself to write something about the idea of tension and longing for the Narrator and Proust becoming (perhaps) a natural part of human sexuality.  I think it will come, as it were, under the heading of spying, voyeurism, secrecy and society. There is a long and rather odd passage in the book, which has been traced by Painter to a real incident, in which two women enact a fetishized scene of literal iconoclasm, figurative parricide.  Proust refers to it as "sadism"and its clear that the scene is represented as making no sense to the Narrator (who is too young to apprehend it fully) while the writer himself is concealing under wraps the real history of the scene which is peculiar to his own relationship with his mother.

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