Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Little Note (Proust 29-30)

In the penultimate scene before the famous Maternal Kiss the Narrator goes to hell and back trying to hang on to an experience (his mother's bedtime kiss) which is denied him one evening when M. Swann is visiting at dinnertime.  This scene combines so many Proustian issues that you find yourself wanting to run sticky note footnotes all down the side or making a hyperlink out of every word.

One evening in Combray the routine of the Narrator's existence is disturbed by the arrival of the Swann, whose importance and simultaneous unimportance to the family the Narrator has already described.  The Narrator is focused on getting his night time kiss from his mother, in fact he  is so afraid of the real thing slipping away from him, of his apprehension (in the old fashioned sense of the term) not being enough to handle the evanescence of the experience, that he describes spending an entire family dinner, as a child, strategizing to get the most out of the one kiss he was permitted to give his mother in public. Art and the sacred, the workmanlike task of getting ready for the sitter and the determination of the artist to sacralize a single moment in time are all intermingled:

And so I promised myself that in the dining room, as they began to eat and drink and as I felt the hour approach, I would put beforehand into this kiss, which was bound to be so brief and furtive, everything that my own efforts could muster, would carefully choose in advance the exact spot on her cheek where I would imprint it, and would so prepare my thoughts as to be able, thanks to these mental preliminaries, to consecrate the whole of the minute Mamma would grant me to the sensation of her cheek against my lips, as a painter who can have his subject for short sittings only prepares his palette, and from what he remembers and from rough notes does in advance everything which he possibly can do in the sitter's absence.”

To his horror the Narrator is sent up to bed without the longed for kiss and “set [s] forth without viaticum.” (29) The entire setting of this horror—the very scent of the staircase—become intertwined with the Narrator's sense of grievance and loss. This “made it perhaps even crueller to my sensibility because, when it assumed this olfactory guise, my intellect was powerless to resist it.” (30) The intellect, the will, is over come (as usual) by the sensual triggers associated with an emotional state. The experience becomes so tangled between sight, sound, smell, physical pain (“a toothache”), drama (“ as of a little girl whom we attempt, time after time, to pull out of the water,”) or even literature (“or a line of Moliere which we repeat incessantly to ourselves”) that the Narrator doesn't know whether he would prefer to be completely unconscious or fully conscious in order to allow his “intelligence [to] disentangle the ideas” and go from the imaginary, dream state to the reality of the actual toothache pain.

The Narrator describes the entire process of going to bed as digging his “own grave” and wrapping himself “in the shroud” of his nightshirt. He then “bur[ies]” himself in the iron bed. After this description of horror who can blame him for devising a “desperate stratagem” for he is a “condemned prisoner” and isn't he entitled to beg for mercy? Now he jumps from the prison metaphor to one that straddles his reality and what he perceives to be the experience of the servant, Francoise. The Narrator “had a suspicion that, in her eyes, to carry a message to [his] mother when there was a guest would appear as flatly inconceivable as for the door-keeper of a theater to hand a letter to an actor upon the stage.” Francoise is not only a door keeper and functionary, she is also an atavistic throwback to the Old Testament, a hierophant, or a disciple of a cruel mystery:

On the subject of things which might or might not be done she possessed a code at once imperious, abundant, subtle, and uncompromising on points themselves imperceptible or irrelevant, which gave it a resemblance to those ancient laws which combine such cruel ordinances as the massacre of infants at the breast with prohibitions of exaggerated refinement against “seething the kid in his mother's milk” or “eating of the sinew which is upon the hollow of the thigh.” (30-31)

Francoise's code comes from somewhere unclear to the Narrator and his family—she's nothing but a little village peasant woman, after all, but the Narrator attributes her strict moral code, her conviction that there are things that are “done” and “not done” to something “latent” in her, something in her “past existence in the ancient history of France, noble and little understood, as in those manufacturing towns where old mansions still testify to their former courtly days, and chemical workers toil among delicately sculptured scenes from Le Miracle de Theophile or Les quatre fils Aymon.” *1

In order to bring his mother to his side, and successfully use Francoise as his messenger—a prefiguring of the many times the adult Narrator and his friends will have to resort to intermediaries to trick a love object into an assignation?--the Narrator insists to Francoise that it is not he who has requested to see his mother but the mother who has requested that the Narrator send her a little note to be delivered during dinner. Of course Francoise, who is often compared to a lower order or something primitive, “disbelieves” him for “like those primitive men whose senses were so much keener than our own, she could immediately detect, from signs imperceptible to the rest of us, the truth or falsehood of anything that we might wish to conceal from her.” But despite her animal nature and her preternatural senses when Francoise attempts to determine, just from looking at the sealed envelope, “to which article of her code she ought to refer the matter” she is stumped. In other words, when confronted with a written document whose meaning is hidden from her, she must fall back on obedience and carries the letter away. The educated child triumphs, momentarily, over the adult whose authority is merely circumstantial and dependent on her vague and atavistic code.

The Little Note

The Narrator's note goes down to his mother and now he imaginatively follows it. Although the “little note” is bound to make him a laughingstock in the eyes of Swann (who is at the dinner and already occupies an important place in the Narrator's imagination, standing in for society, for wit, for something bigger and more interesting than the rather stodgy and unpleasant father and grandfather) the Narrator's anxiety subsides. The little note “would at least admit me, invisible and enraptured, into the same room as herself, would whisper about me into her ear.” The dining room, the stage, the salon, the dance, society itself are all places where, in the future, the Narrator will find himself exiled from his love object and this is true for Swann as well, the Narrator's doppleganger. The lover can only imagine, from outside, the pleasures the lover is enjoying and in a typically Proustian clause that winds from place to place the Narrator throws in this bitter animadversion that his mother, in that “forbidden and unfriendly dining-room,” is enjoying “ pleasures that were baleful an of a mortal sadness” because “Mamma was tasting of them while I was far away.” These pleasures are described mysteriously as a dessert composed of opposites “the ice itself—with burned nuts in it” but this contradictory and rather chilly sounding dessert (ice cream?) is at once transformed, by the note being put into his mother's hand into an open door and a different experience entirely not “ice” and “burnt nuts” but “a ripe fruit which bursts through its skin,” because the knowledge that the note would be read “was going to pour out into my intoxicated heart the sweetness of Mamma's attention while she was reading what I had written.” The dining room here merely prefigures the places where a man, Swann, the Narrator, will later be denied entrance, or not invited. But the note itself bursts those boundaries, however temporarily, because while he imagines his mother is potentially about to read the note, or reading it “I was no longer separated from her; the barriers were down; an exquisite thread united us.”

We must end this section by agreeing with Francoise “Its hard lines on parents having a child like that.”

How often does Proust, in the form of the Narrator, refer to some notion of atavism, of the influence of geography, food, literature and architecture on the almost animal and unconscious mentality of people? Given his half Jewish status and the permanent “unfrenchness” of the Jewish immigrants to the French imaginary –so powerfully demonstrated in the Dreyfus affaire--you have to wonder whether Proust isn't describing a state of French Nature which he must (in his heart) believe can never be accorded to Jews, even if nominally they like others are part of the post Revolutionary French Ideal.

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