Friday, February 10, 2017

He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly simply because their temperament is feminine

I have not read much in the way of Proust studies, so I don't know if it's already been pointed out: the similarities between the Marcel character and the Charlus character in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, especially in volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah. Is the irony intentional? Was Marcel Proust aware that Marcel-the-narrator and the Baron de Charlus were versions of each other?

Points of comparison:
  • The aggressive public heterosexuality, featuring a near adoration of women and a constant leering evaluation of them as sexual objects
  • The sneering condescension based on a shallow intellectual pride
  • The overvaluation of art and the "proper" appreciation of art
  • The concern over one's wardrobe
  • The intense interest in the possible homosexual tendencies of other men
Is the joke that Marcel-the-narrator is in fact homosexual and hasn't figured it out yet? Or is the joke that Marcel Proust the author is in fact using Marcel-the-narrator as a stand in and is pointing to his own (Proust's) sexuality in an ironic fashion? Or is it that Proust the author doesn't see that he paints Marcel's portrait with the same brush strokes he uses to paint the portrait of Charlus? I'm not sure quite where the irony lies.
Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head.
I wouldn't be wondering any of this, I believe, if the theme of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn't How gay is Paris, anyway?

One thing I find very interesting is that there's the same sense of fearful anticipation in scenes where Charlus is seducing men as in scenes where Marcel is attempting to seduce women. Marcel's sympathies and fears for Charlus are the same as his sympathies and fears for himself (or Proust's sympathies and fears are equal for both men). There is something dangerous about sex all through In Search of Lost Time, alluring and full of extreme risk.

12 comments:

  1. I take the joke as the second choice. Marcel is practically the only character who isn't homosexual. This is all cleared up at the end of Time Regained.

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  2. Your Proust postings fascinate me. I admire the way you find the threads and weave together such interesting reader responses. You just might entire me to attempt (again) Proust's long, winding road. I wonder if my Swiss-cheese brain is up to the challenge. But, back to your posting, how extensively is Proust himself becoming part of the narrative? Is that a fair question?

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    1. I am so the wrong guy to ask! I know very little about Proust, and I also am wary of seeing the author in fictional characters. But Lost Time is a very intelligent, inquisitive book and I'm sure Proust was a very intelligent, inquisitive man. Also a very sad man. Lost Time is a profoundly sad book, full of loss and disillusion, cruelty and betrayal of self. I think part of the reason it's so long is that Proust feared life was essentially an empty thing at the core, so he tried to fill it up with everything, to make every impression valuable in order to combat that dreadful fear of meaninglessness, while suspecting that even his shiniest baubles and most precious jewels were worth nothing at all. Maybe. Though I'm only a couple of hundred pages past the halfway point in a 4,000+ page novel, and also suffering under the melancholia of a stubborn flu bug, so what do I know?

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  3. Maybe. Yet there is Swann, who seems to end up in bed with quite a few women; who is at least not given to intellectual self-doubt; who has strongly-held opinions on the arts; who is I think said to dress well. To be sure, Swann seems not to know or to care that anyone might have appetites not heterosexual. I should say that Swann's plausibility is comparable to Charlus's, and far ahead of Marcel's.

    Charlus does take pride in his masculinity; such pride is not by any means exclusively heterosexual. Does Charlus indulge in leering evaluation of women's attractions? I don't recall. My own observation is that male misogyny on the one hand and admiration of women on the other have little to do with sexual orientation. As for concern over one's wardrobe, it may well be a quirk of the English-speaking world to imagine this as unmanly. Ortega y Gasset wrote in the 1930s that the English were the worst-dressed men in Europe, for they had other things to think about than dressing well. Would any man in Rome, then or now, be thought worse of for a faultless suit?

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    1. I point to characteristics that Marcel-the-narrator claims for homosexuals in the novel, traits Marcel-the-narrator shares.

      Swann is, as you point out, an exception, and an interesting one at that. But I think it becomes clear during Sodom and Gomorrah that when Marcel points at Charlus and says "invert types are like Charlus" he is often (usually?) referring to traits he himself possesses. There is one passage that, if I remember this evening, I'll dig out that makes this pretty obvious, a passage that made me sit up and say, "Now, wait a minute, Marcel. Who are we talking about here?"

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    2. Swann cares so much about whether one particular character has "appetites not heterosexual" that it practically ruins his life.

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    3. He adapts. Life moves on. Things aren't as bad after that one patch. Charlus helps him out.

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  4. It could be interesting to put this impression in tandem with the usual idea that Charlus was mostly a pastiche of, and hommage to, Proust's dandy friend Robert de Montesquiou. (There's a fun description of him here at dandyism.net.)

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    1. I don't know enough about Proust to tease apart the different characters of Charlus, Marcel, and Montesquiou. Montesquiou seems like a real riot, a made-up character. I love the photos of him with his walking stick, if you've seen them. After I saw those photos I had a heck of a time imagining Charlus and old and gray and overweight.

      I should stop trying to reconstitute Proust out of Marcel and Marcel's story, though.

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