Sunday, May 17, 2015

Marcel Proust on Love

Sometimes, in reading Marcel Proust’s great novel, it seems as if he is clueless on the subject of love. There are passages in In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past (the title changes depending on the translation), where the narrator seems oblivious to the realities of his own heart.

Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
For instance, in the second volume of the novel, Within a Budding Grove, the narrator gets the brush-off from his big crush, Gilberte: “On several occasions I sensed that Gilberte was anxious to put off my visits.” Duh! It took him this long to get the hint?

What about the fact that the narrator’s excitement in seeing Gilberte is ten times hers whenever they meet? And what about the reality that no one could possibly feel comfortable with the narrator’s overbearing love? He wanted to “smother” Gilberte with flowers every single day, until he found out by chance she had a boyfriend, when he glimpsed them walking together on the Champs-Elysées. How could he not have guessed?

In any case, it takes the narrator another 65 pages, closely spaced, finally to conclude, “I had arrived at a state of almost complete indifference to Gilberte.” Even then, incredibly, he’s still shlepping the torch for her—he is so pained by his beloved’s rejection that he can’t bear to set eyes on her.

Here is perhaps Proust’s most famous pronouncements on love, from this same section of the novel: “No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon that we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves."

But is love purely a subjective phenomenon? Is the beloved really only a phantom third person to the lover? Maybe some of the time, but then what is all this talk about, “I just wanna get next to you,” to quote the old soul tune, so often repeated in current rap songs. Not to mention the five billion condoms sold each year worldwide. I’m not convinced that the subjective nature of love is Proust’s most “penetrating” insight.

What I do love about Proust’s understanding of love are those passages where he has X-ray vision into the truth of human emotions. In the midst of the narrator’s angst about Gilberte, for instance, there are sentences that are so honest and full of close observation of the heart and its trickery, that no one else could untangle those feelings:

“We are, when in love, in an abnormal state, capable of giving at once to the most apparently simple accident, an accident which may at any moment occur, a seriousness which in itself it would not entail. What makes us so happy is the presence in our hearts of an unstable element which we contrive perpetually to maintain and of which we cease almost to be aware so long as it is not displaced.”

What an incredible description of someone in love—that altered state, where the presence of the beloved in the lover’s mind and body electrifies even trivial moments! And isn’t it so true that the excitement of love is partly the way it kicks over our everyday experience and makes us tremble with life for that very reason? This passage is an example of where Proust’s insights into love really hit home for me. You have to dig for those nuggets in his prose, rather than taking his theory as his only dictum on the subject of love.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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