Saturday, 2 June 2012

Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gomorrah) First Post

Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gomorrah)

I expected to be well finished my journey with Proust by this time but the year is proving a slow reading one. Some of this may be down to the fact that Proust demands to be read slowly, with great attention, but it is more that I am finding it difficult to find TIME to read. And then even more difficult to find time to blog.

Cities of the Plain (Moncrieff's translation assumes we recognize the biblical allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah) places homosexuality at the centre of the volume and further emphasizes its centrality to the book in its entirety. In this volume Charlus's sexuality is made far clearer and Marcel once again spends a summer in Balbec, where his relationship with Albertine is ignited and quenched and reignited at various times. The Verdurins, who last played a big role in Swann's Way are also spending the season outside Balbec and their 'evenings' become ever more central as the volume progresses. The Dreyfus case continues to hover over society and homosexuals are treated, like Jews as if they were a race of ancient lineage, with recognizable racial characteristics, the descendants of those inhabitants of the two cities of the plain.

Apart from Marcel, the Baron de Charlus and Albertine are the central characters, although Albertine seems less of a character and more a montage of her effects on our narrator Marcel, while Charlus is a very three dimensional character, at times obnoxious yet at others sympathetic. Much of this sympathy is brought about by the depiction of the social jeopardy the homosexual had to contend with at the time. The denial of a core part of their being is seen to twist many into unrecognizable shapes. Oscar Wilde's demise serves as an exemplar of this jeopardy: "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 theater in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow on which to lay his head, turning the mill like Samson and saying like him: "The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!"; excluded even, save on the days of general disaster when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews rallied around Dreyfus, from the sympathy-at times from the society- of their fellows, in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are..."

Those who don't hide their sexuality in their youth often live to regret it, "spending what remains of their lifetime in vain attempts to repair by a sternly protestant demeanor the wrong that they did to themselves when they were carried away by the same demon that urges young women of the Fauborg Saint-Germain to live in a scandalous fashion..." This is an issue that Proust has raised before, the difficulty of repairing a reputation.

A direct correlation between Charlus' behavior and his sexuality is made in the following passage where Proust seems to see his behavior as a metaphor for the sexual act, a metaphor which is enough to temporarily assuage his desire. "There were in fact certain persons whom it was sufficient for him to make come to his house, hold for an hour or two under the domination of his talk, for his desire, quickened by some earlier encounter, to be assuaged. By a simple use of words the conjunction was effected, as simply as it can be among the infusoria. Sometimes, as had doubtless been the case with me on the evening on which I had been summoned by him after the Guermantes dinner-party, the relief was effected by a violent ejaculation which the Baron made in his visitor's face, just as certain flowers, furnished with a hidden spring, sprinkle from within the unconsciously collaborating and disconcerted insect. M de Charlus, from vanquished turning victor, feeling himself purged of his uneasiness and calmed, would send away the visitor who had at once ceased to appear to him desirable." We return here to the pollination of flowers, a subject which had been much explored in the run up to Marcel finding out the Baron's sexuality through a chance encounter. There is a book or two simply on Proust's use of flowers. (That is a difficulty in writing these posts - where do you stop, how long can they be. Just to transcribe all the quotes that I have marked would start to approach novella lenght.) It of course includes Marcel's own epiphanic rapture in the face of the intense whiteness of hawthorn flowers, first met in Combray and again with the group of girls (including Albertine) he meets on his first visit to Balbec.

There is an extraordinary stream of invective against Jews issued by Charlus late in the book, but Marcel notes that the diatribes vehemence is designed simply to hide the fact that he is fishing for information about Marcel's Jewish friend Bloch, who Charlus is clearly attracted to. "This speech, anti-Jew or pro-Hebrew - according as one regards the outward meaning of its phrases or the intentions that they concealed..."

I feel more and more that this is as much a key to Proust's method as that of his puppet Charlus. He may in fact mean the opposite of what he intends. "The vice (we use the word for convenience only), the vice of each of us accompanies him through life after the manner of the familiar genius who was invisible to men as long as they were unaware of his presence." I feel that this invites us to look through and around the words we read. Proust constantly gives us the opinions which were Marcel's at the time, or those in common social use, letting us slowly discover his own perspective on them. It seems to me that Swann and Charlus are vehicles for Proust to explore aspects of his own character that are only hinted at in Marcel. All three seem to reflect each other in more and more ways. Each has been consumed by 'love' for someone who doesn't appear to love them, each has a relationship in which the salon of Mme Verdurin is a key arena, each has continued that relationship in full knowledge of the potential hurt and damage they are exposing themselves to, each of their 'beloveds' are from a lower social class. All three are also subject to rages of varying intensity. Whereas Marcel and Swann appear to love women with 'sapphic' tendencies, Charlus falls for a man who seems basically heterosexual. They also seem to be characters who the narrator appears to know from within, rather than simply observed like the fish behind glass he so often draws on when describing 'society'.

Our capability of love is one of the things that Proust teases at constantly. He talks about "the latent love which we always carry within us", suggesting that all love is more to do with the lover than the beloved. Similarly he talks about how we can become dissatisfied with love, again through what is within us rather than what actually happens: "Even supposing that she might have found some happiness in spending the afternoons with no company but my own, at Balbec, I knew that such happiness is never complete, and that Albertine, being still at the age (which some of us never outgrow) when we have not yet discovered that this imperfection resides in the person who receives the happiness and not in the person who gives it, might have been tempted to put her disappointment down to myself."

All things are complex in Proust's world, we are such tentative beings, our emotions and opinions subject to the "lunatic, immemorial agitation" Proust describes in the sea. Love can be both what lifts us up and what throws us down, almost simultaneously - "The beloved object is successively the malady and the remedy that suspends and aggravates it." The words we use may conceal more than they reveal. We may even be concealing their meaning from ourselves.

A much revisited theme in this volume is the etymology of place names, and to a lesser extent, heraldry. Both contain historical resonances, tell their own stories. Although seen by many in the Verdurin's salon as the epitome of dull, Marcel finds both subjects fascinating.  Once again Proust explores how we twist the meaning of what we see to suit our own view of the world. Where a priest who writes a book on the subject sees religion the scholarly Bergotte sees remnants of Roman and Norman and other conquests. In a similar way Charlus describes his own genealogy in such a way as to prove his assertion that the Guermantes are perhaps France's most distinguished family.  The history we see leading to the present point is simply those elements that confirm our own prejudices. And that for me is the greatest theme of all here - prejudice: whether regarding sexuality, race, social class or simply judging by groupthink or with reference to fleeting fashion. Proust seems to create a world which, even if I do not always find it true, reflects thoughts back onto the world in which I live and the way I think about it.

I hope to post again on Cities of the Plain and also to start making headway on my reading of The Captive. Long as it is taking me to finish these volumes I will be sad to leave them, and their world.


  1. Excellent view on this volume. It's hard to write about Proust in a blogpost, isn't it? There are so many thoughts to be shared and so little space or time to write them down.
    I thought that this volume was on a touchy topic for the time. I still wonder that it was published at all. After all, homosexuality was a crime in France until 1981.

    1. Agreed on all counts, Emma. Proust seems to be trying to steer clear of 'coming out' or being openly evangelical for the rights of homosexuals while at the same time doing both.

  2. Proust aimed for the implicit rather than the explicit. If he had "come out" openly he would not only have ruined the poetry of his prose, but also alienated his audience. He was no fool. He aimed for the majority, heterosexual, audience - hence the love affair with Albertine.

    1. Agreed, and yet he manages to make his opinion clear over the course of the book. And the reasons why he would choose to keep it 'implicit'.