Saturday, 30 June 2012

Cities of the Plain (Second Post)

Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gomorrah) Second Post 

I am building up a backlog of 'draft posts' at the moment and need to clear them away. They sort of nag at me and interfere with my concentration. Do other bloggers have the same issue?

As I mentioned in my first post on Cities of the Plain, I marked enough quotes to produce a novella length post. I'll try to be judicious and excavate a couple of themes that struck me while reading and have stayed with me for the month since.

Firstly, I would like to illustrate further with a quote a point I made in that previous post. I was saying that Marcel seemed to see Charlus and Swann from within rather than outside. This is clearly illustrated in this version of the ongoing figurative use of fish in tanks. "And so M. de Charlus lived in a state of deception like the fish which thinks that the water in which it is swimming extends beyond the glass wall of its aquarium which mirrors it, while it does not see close beside it in the shadow the human visitor who is amusing himself by watching its movements, or the all-powerful keeper who, at the unforeseen and fatal moment, postponed for the present in the case of the Baron (for whom the keeper, in Paris, will be Mme. Verdurin), will extract it without compunction from the place in which it was happily living to cast it in another.)" Also here, in the shadows, we get Proust's beloved foreshadowing, which I can feel pulling me back to the next volume which has lain largely unread this month as I tried to match other reading commitments. What will happen to the Baron?

At times Proust's preoccupations can seem to be with the past, whether his own or that of others. Subjects like the origin of place names and the lineage of the aristocracy take up large chunks of the book. But the future as it is constantly reborn is also present.

 Technology, in the shape of the 'motor car' plays a large role in this volume. It enables Marcel to take Albertine to the site where she is painting and then travel far and wide before returning to collect her. He shows clearly the revolution wrought by science and technology. This leads Proust to ponder a favorite theme, the relativity of meaning. Technology can alter our perspectives which in turn alters the world we experience. "On this first occasion it was not I alone that was able to go to la Raspelière as I did on other days, while Albertine painted; she decided to go there with me. She did indeed think that we might stop here and there on our way, but supposed it to be impossible to start by going to Saint-Jean de la Haise. That is to say in another direction, and to make an excursion which seemed to be reserved for a different day. She learned on the contrary from the driver that nothing could be easier than to go to Saint-Jean, which he could do in twenty minutes, and that we might stay there if we chose for hours, or go on much further, for from Quetteholme to la Raspelière would not take more than thirty-five minutes. We realized this as soon as the vehicle, starting off, covered in one bound twenty paces of an excellent horse. Distances are only the relation of space to time and vary with that relation. We express the difficulty that we have in getting to a place in a system of miles or kilometers which becomes false as soon as that difficulty decreases.  Art is modified by it also, when a village which seemed to be in a different world from some other village becomes its neighbor in a landscape whose dimensions are altered." The spirit of Einstein inhabits these words. Relativity -  the perspective into our memory through time, the way we see landscapes, how our prejudices influence our apprehension of the real...

And the shrinking of the world towards what it is now is foreshadowed by the appearance of an airplane, which Marcel sees from horseback "Suddenly, my horse gave a start; he had heard a strange sound; it was all I could do to hold him and remain in the saddle, then I raised in the direction from which the sound seemed to come my eyes filled with tears and saw, not two hundred feet above my head, against the sun, between two great wings of flashing metal which were carrying him on, a creature whose barely visible face appeared to me to resemble that of a man. I was as deeply moved as a Greek upon seeing for the first time a demigod."

He notes concerns with diminishing concentration spans because of the 'speed' of his modern world: "People said that an age of speed required rapidity in art, precisely as they might have said that the next war could not last longer than a fortnight, or that the coming of railways would kill the little places beloved of the coaches, which the motor car, for all that, was to restore to favor. Composers were warned not to strain the attention of their audience, as though we had not at our disposal different degrees of attention, among which it rests precisely with the artist himself to arouse the highest. For the people who yawn with boredom after ten lines of a mediocre article have journeyed year after year to Beyreuth to listen to The Ring." This is not just a concern born with the MTV generation and Proust insists that it a problem for the artist to solve and not a reason to hanker after some idyllic past, which is idyllic only as it disappears down the space-time parabola.

Proust also proves himself capable of making jokes at his own expense. In the middle of a book of  over a million and a half words whose central theme is memory he plants this sentence:  "We possess all our memories but not the faculty of remembering them, said, echoing M. Bergson, the eminent Norwegian philosopher whose language I have made no attempt to imitate in order not to prolong my story unduly. But not the faculty of recalling them. But what, then, is a memory which we do not recall?"-  I laughed. Proust does, naturally, answer this question on many occasions. The unrecalled memory is latent within us, waiting for that madeleine. 

One of the more intriguing characters is the son of  Marcel's uncles valet, Charles Morel. Now in the army and invited to the Verdurins as he is an excellent violinist. He is taken under his wing by Charlus but this is but one of the many intrigues his ambitions involve him in.  He is a man of many parts, clearly tasty to some but also, like the mushroom for whom he is named, containing poison. "He resembled an old book of the middle ages, full of mistakes, of absurd traditions, of obscenities; he was extraordinarily composite."

As always, there are parties, but if you grow tired of them you are not alone. However there may be unwelcome news if there is an afterlife. It may come with canapés. "Good-bye, I've barely said a word to you, it is always like that at parties, we never see the people, we never say the things we should like to say, but it is the same everywhere in this life. Let us hope that when we are dead things will be better arranged. At any rate we shall not always be having to put on low dresses. And yet, one never knows. We may perhaps have to display our bones and worms on great occasions."

The afterlife is not something we have to wait for, though. We are, it seems, already there. "We passionately long that there may be another life in which we shall be similar to what we are here below. But we do not pause to reflect that, even without waiting for that other life, in this life, after a few years we are unfaithful to what we have been, to what we wished to remain immortally."

The dying Swann haunts this volume. Approaching death seems to have made him take his Jewishness more seriously and he campaigns for the Dreyfusards. This is an even greater faux pas in some eyes than his marriage. But  "Swann had arrived at the age of the prophet" and no longer cares as much for the niceties of society, many of which he already renounced through his marriage.

There is much else in this volume and in some ways I feel I haven't even started to assimilate the overall import of the book. But undoubtedly the core is an exploration of homosexuality and how it is seen by society and the homosexual himself/herself. The list of characters who are revealed to be homosexual or bisexual continues to grow. "The invert believes himself to be the only one of his kind in the universe; it is only in later years that he imagines - another exaggeration - that the unique exception is the normal man." This book, however, continues to teach us that much can lie behind the most normal facade, and that we can never be sure of anything that we 'know'. 

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