Monday, 10 September 2012

The Sweet Cheat Gone / Albertine Disparue (1st Post)

The Sweet Cheat Gone

This is the second last volume in Proust's masterpiece and it is difficult to discuss it without there being some spoilers, although I will try to keep these to a minimum. For although plot is not pre-eminent in this book, it is full of twists and turns.

Albertine has gone and Marcel alternately misses her and explains how he is forgetting her. He is still eaten with jealousy, both of what is happening in the present and what might have happened in the past. Before she left, Marcel imagined he had fallen out of love but her leaving turns the wheel once more and fills his heart with loss: "a moment ago, before Françoise came into the room, I had supposed that I was no longer in love with Albertine, I had supposed that I was leaving nothing out of account; a careful analyst, I had supposed that I knew the state of my own heart. But our intelligence, however great it may be, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart."

Marcel once again finds that what is true can also be true when reversed. While the everyday access to someone can blind us to the appeal of being with that person, it can then give a far greater depth to the pain and loss if that access is removed. "Hitherto I had regarded it (Habit) chiefly as an annihilating force which suppresses the originality and even our consciousness of our perceptions; now I beheld it as a dread deity, so riveted to ourself, its meaningless aspect so incrusted in our heart, that if it detaches itself, if it turns away from us, this deity which we can barely distinguish inflicts upon us sufferings more terrible than any other and is then as cruel as death itself."

He projected himself into a future without Albertine and found it an easy place to be. Her memory, like that of others who had worn the path of forgetfulness through his heart, would not wound him. But he discovers that it is easy to imagine having to go through something when you don't feel it is immanent. You don't really project yourself into the future.  "I had merely the illusion of thinking of a departure, just as people imagine that they are not afraid of death when they think of it while they are in good health.." Of course the same will be true when looking back on painful episodes from the future. Time will blunt the feelings, but not the knowledge that this will happen. In fact that knowledge feels spurious when you are in a maelstrom of the heart.

As well as providing Marcel with an opportunity to dwell on the mystery of the human heart it also leads him to act in a way which shows us once again the darkness within his own heart. In a episode which could have come from a documentary on Michael Jackson he chooses to use his money to coerce a young girl back to his apartment to replace Albertine.  "Outside the door of Albertine's house I found a poor little girl who gazed at me open-eyed and looked so honest that I asked her whether she would care to come home with me, as I might have taken home a dog with faithful eyes. She seemed pleased with my suggestion. When I got home, I held her for some time on my knee, but very soon her presence, by making me feel too keenly Albertine's absence, became intolerable."

This episode leads Marcel to be taken in for questioning. "The parents of the little girl I had brought into the house for an hour had decided to lodge a complaint against me for corruption of a child under the age of consent. There are moments in life when a sort of beauty is created by the multiplicity of the troubles that assail us, intertwined like Wagnerian leitmotiv, from the idea also, which then emerges, that events are not situated in the content of the reflections portrayed in the wretched little mirror which the mind holds in front of it and is called the future, that they are somewhere outside, and spring up as suddenly as a person who comes to accuse us of a crime." The innocence which Marcel protests seems to contradict the story he has already told us, but it seems that he feels it a mere innocent whim to take young girls home, cuddle them on his knee until he tires of them and then pay them off and tell them to leave. All he gets is a violent reprimand from the police chief (in front of the girl's parents) which is then followed by advice on how to procure young girls more cheaply and safely (after the parents leave).

Is this a psychological spring for Marcel's ideas that the world and the people in it are constantly renewed and renewing, that all is but sensations and suppositions, sure to be incorrect, or at least incomplete? It is certainly a useful escape from responsibility for others. The following quote, although it refers to the experience of love, suggests a level of disconnection from the reality of other people. "The fact is that the person counts for little or nothing; what is almost everything is the series of emotions, of agonies which similar mishaps have made us feel in the past in connection to her and which habit has attached to her." Love here is like a disease, it is our own defences which cause the damage. Honesty and much of psychology suggests that he has captured much that is true in these meditations. We draw our emotions from the well of our own experience, not from something inherent in the other person. What we see in someone will not be there when others look.

In all things it is easy to follow the patterns we have already learnt, even if we know they won't lead us to where we wish to arrive. In our acts (and in writing) the first influence we need to challenge is our own. "The human plagiarism which is most difficult to avoid, for individuals (and even for nations which persevere in their faults and continue to aggravate them) is the plagiarism of oneself."

to be continued...


  1. This volume is the one I liked the less when I first read it. I'm curious to see how I'll respond to it now that I'm older.

    All in all, I don't agree with Marcel's vision of love. Some things are true of course, but seen as a whole, he thinks too much, exacerbates or creates feelings through his habit to think too much.
    He's an eternal adolescent. His love is always self-centered and never giving. When he gives (dresses, time), he expects something in return. There's no sharing in his relationship with Albertine, only taking, worrying and fantasising.

    What's well described in this volume is the difference between thinking and imagining an event (Albertine gone) and experiencing, living through it.

    You know I've read this more than 20 years ago and it's still with me. Isn't that rare for a book?

    1. Yes, the difference between thought experience and real experience is one of the stronger themes in this book. The way the desired end of a destructive relationship can cause a huge amount of pain.
      Marcel doesn't really seem to love, rather he wants to own the object of his love. To this end he squanders money etc. It is almost incidental the way he presents Albertine's intellectual qualities which are shown more in the regard in which she is held by others than through Marcel's own appreciation of her.
      I imagine that this is one of those books which has left a fairly indelible mark on me, something rarer and rarer as I grow older and less impressionable.