In this book Proust returns again and again to the idea of a sort of RAPTURE engendered in the mind. Even if only for a moment we can have experiences which are so rich that they seem of a different magnitude of experience to everyday life. And yet they can be inspired by the most commonplace objects and attached to the most quotidian experiences. This is because the real epiphanies happen inside our head and are the result of intellect, emotion and memory acting upon experience.
I was reminded at times of passages in Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. Pessoa's narrator feels that the real journeys are internal - "Only extreme feebleness of imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel." Proust's Marcel says something similar - "Let us leave pretty women to men devoid of imagination." Whatever we see is not transferred COMPLETE to our consciousness, it is interpreted and shaped by our consciousness.
This interpretation is shaped by our frame of mind and our ability to comprehend, things which are constantly in flux. We are presented with the idea that "grief is as potent in altering reality as is drunkenness." The shape of Marcel's grief when he realises that Albertine has left him changes with the time of day, the weather, his location; for these are charged by his memories of time spent with Albertine. A day when it rained, a journey, their night-time routine: it can seem that everything pulls a train of associations behind it. But this grief is a necessary step and must be fully experienced - "We are healed of suffering only by experiencing it to the full."
Jealousy, Marcel's bête noir, also acts upon our perception like an hallucinogen : "as soon as we feel the desire to know, which the jealous man feels, then it becomes a dizzy kaleidoscope in which we can no longer make out anything." Every time he finds out more about Albertine's past, Marcel jumps to a conclusion which he then questions. Was Albertine lying or is the person giving him this new information lying?
Desire can change everything. "Desire is very powerful, it engenders belief." It is often said that we see what we want to see. Proust excavates this as Marcel's mind twists all into the shape he wants it to take up. The past changes, the future too. Desire even pushes at the final boundary, refusing to acknowledge the final end.
The object of our desire, the beloved, is as much imaginary as real. It is only fragments that we see and we join them together in the manner of a dot to dot picture. "We fall in love for a smile, a glance, a bare shoulder. That is enough; then in the long hours of hope or sorrow, we fabricate a person, we compose a character." This initial leap of the imagination is then strengthened by a form of internal graffiti as we cover the surface of our brains with the name of our beloved: "We say the name to ourselves, and as we remain silent it seems as though we inscribed it on ourself, as though it left its trace on our brain which must end by being, like a wall upon which someone who has amused himself by scribbling, entirely covered with the name, written a thousand times over, of her whom we love."
This repetition and habit he sees as the backbone of love. The individual it adheres to is just an accident of geography and time. When he has finally recovered from his grief at Albertine's parting he can say that"my love of Albertine had been but a transitory form of my devotion to girlhood."
It is not just romantic love that is an illusion created by a nexus of perceptions, experience and habit but our love of ourself, of life itself is also such an illusion. "Our love of life is only an old connection of which we do not know how to rid ourself . Its strenght lies in its permanence. But death which severs it will cure us of the desire for immortality."
And death is very present in this book, with the death of characters and the ageing of others. This leads to many thoughts on the effects of age including what sounds like the lead in to a Viagra ad: "old age makes us incapable of performing our duties but not, at first, of desiring them." This phrase is used however, in regard to political rather than sexual ambitions.
Marcel is turning his own ambitions away from society and his "devotion to girlhood" (but not totally) and toward literature. He notes ironically that literature may copper-fasten him a high place in society while reducing his desire to be a part of 'society': "the position which literature would perhaps give me in society I should no longer feel any wish to enjoy, for my pleasure would be no longer in society, but in literature."
The depth of our memories increases as we age and this depth can make up for the loss of the powers of youth. It gives us ever more opportunities to be swept off our metaphorical feet by waves of emotion or by the connections we can make between our memories and the world. "After a certain age our memories are so intertwined with one another that the thing of which we are thinking, the book that we are reading are of scarcely any importance. We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal's Pensées in an advertisement for soap."
All things, it seems can have their consolations as well as their price. Even suffering can be a force which expands our range of experiences. "The vanishing of my suffering and of all that it carried away with it, left me diminished as does often the healing of a malady which occupies a large place in our life."
And the search is still for those moments that seem to escape time. These are moments of "a lucid exaltation which makes that intense minute worth more than the preceding days." Experienced in our memories these moments, recaptured, can allow us to recapture youth briefly. "For man is that creature without fixed age, who has the faculty of becoming, in a few seconds, many years younger, and who, surrounded by the walls of the time through which he has lived, floats within them but as though in a basin the surface level of which is constantly changing, so as to bring him into the range of now one epoch, now of another."
The fulfilment of one of Marcel's long held wishes occurs when he visits Venice, a place where his enjoyment of 'society' is somewhat enhanced by the surroundings. "Venice where the simplest social coming and going assumed at the same time the form and the charm of a visit to a museum and a trip on the sea." While there he makes a trip to see the originals of the Giotto mural's which were mentioned in an earlier post. I think it an excellent passage upon which to end my engagement with The Sweet Cheat. So, "on the day of our departure, we decided to go so far as Padua where were to be found those vices and virtues of which Swann had given me reproductions; after walking in the glare of the sun across the garden of the Arena, I entered the Giotto chapel the entire ceiling of which and the background of the frescoes are so blue that it seems as though the radiant day has crossed the threshold with the human visitor, and has come in for a moment to stow away in the shade and coolness its pure sky, of a slightly deeper blue now that it is rid of the sun's gilding, as in those brief spells of respite that interrupt the finest days, when, without our having noticed any cloud, the sun having turned his gaze elsewhere for a moment, the azure, more exquisite still, grows deeper."