Friday, October 7, 2016

there have been great changes

like a kaleidoscope which is every now and then given a turn, society arranges successively in different orders elements which one would have supposed to be immovable, and composes a fresh pattern. Before I had made my first Communion, ladies on the "right side" in politics had had the stupefaction of meeting, while paying calls, a smart Jewess. These new arrangements of the kaleidoscope are produced by what a philosopher would call a "change of criterion." The Dreyfus case brought about another, at a period rather later than that in which I began to go to Mme. Swann's, and the kaleidoscope scattered once again its little scraps of color. Everything Jewish, even the smart lady herself, fell out of the pattern, and various obscure nationalities appeared in its place. The most brilliant drawing-room in Paris was that of a Prince who was an Austrian and ultra-Catholic. If instead of the Dreyfus case there had come a war with Germany, the base of the kaleidoscope would have been turned in the other direction, and its pattern reversed. The Jews having shewn, to the general astonishment, that they were patriots also, would have kept their position, and no one would have cared to go any more, or even to admit that he had ever gone to the Austrian Prince's. All this does not, however, prevent the people who move in it from imagining, whenever society is stationary for the moment, that no further change will occur, just as in spite of having witnessed the birth of the telephone they decline to believe in the aeroplane. Meanwhile the philosophers of journalism are at work, castigating the preceding epoch, and not only the kind of pleasures in which it indulged, which seem to them to be the last word in corruption, but even the work of its artists and philosophers, which have no longer the least value in their eyes, as though they were indissolubly linked to the successive moods of fashionable frivolity. The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been "great changes."
from A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs by Marcel Proust (C. K. Scott Moncrieff, trans.).


  1. I appreciate your excerpt/posting. You remind me that Jewishness matters in Proust. I'm almost tempted to attempted again the long and winding road in Proust's multivolume masterwork. Harold Bloom has said great things about Proust, and your postings have been intriguing, so I might have to take another run at the book(s) of memories. What has most surprised you so far in your odyssey through Proust?

    1. About a decade ago, I read the first volume, and I recall the first half of that book being difficult to get through. It's diffuse, a long essay about the functioning of memory, and I think that's the primary barrier most readers of the novel face and fail to get past. I would say that most people's idea of "Proust" are an impression of the first 200 pages of the work, which are not necessarily representative of the bulk of In Search of Lost Time. It's a very active, funny, perceptive and beautiful book. Though there is, of course, no loss if you don't decide to read it. There is no end to the masterpieces of literature no man has time to read.

      Anyway, most surprising? The delicate ironies, maybe. The narrator is the protagonist, and he presents himself as an earnest youth who more or less bumbles clumsily through love affairs, mirroring the attitudes and actions of an older neighbor (Charles Swann) who is also a clumsy bumbler in affairs of the heart. They are mirrors of one another, and Proust's poking of fun at their earnest but misguided pursuits of love is subtle and constant. It's really great stuff.

      There is also a lot of other stuff in the book, long digressions about the arts. There's a nice four-page aside about the reception of new musical works and the actions of posterity that's quite good. Proust keeps reminding me (not overtly, mind you) that he worked as an art critic, and that he's read Ruskin.