Moncrieff: 604-615; Grieve; 442-450
by Dennis Abrams
Elstir is M. Biche. “Could it possibly be that this man of genius, this sage, this recluse, this philosopher with his marvellous flow of conversation, who towered over everyone and everything, was the ridiculous depraved painter who had at one time been adopted by the Verdurins?” Now that Marcel knows with certainty that he can meet the girls through Elstir, he is content to let that pleasure be postponed. Saint-Loup leaves Balbec for his barracks at Doncieres; Marcel’s grandmother gives him a present of a collection of autographed letters from Proudhon, much to Saint-Loup’s pleasure. Saint-Loup’s half hearted invitation to Bloch to visit him at Donceires. Saint-Loup’s letters to Marcel, expressing his strong feelings of friendship, and his desire that Marcel meet his mistress. Elstir has taught Marcel a new way of looking at the physical world. “I tried to find beauty there where I had never imagined before that it could exist, in the most ordinary things, in the profundities of ‘still life.'” Elstir agrees to give a small party where Marcel can meet Albertine.
Much to say. I’m never certain whether my posts are going too long, but I am constantly fighting the desire to add more from other sources, more of my own thoughts, more of “oh, this will be interesting.” I’m going to limit myself today to two longish things.
First and foremost: Elstir’s response to Marcel’s discovery that he was, in fact, M. Biche, the rather ridiculous painter from the early days of the Verdurins’ “little group.” His response to what is Marcel’s obvious disillusionment is, extraordinarily wise, and an illumination of one of the book’s major themes.
“There is no man,’ he began, ‘however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man — so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise — unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded. I know that there are young people, the sons and grandsons of distinguished men, whose masters have instilled into them nobility of mind and moral refinement from their schooldays. They may perhaps have nothing to retract from their past lives; they could publish a signed account of everything they have ever said of done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed about them. They represent a struggle and a victory. I can see that the picture of what we were at an earlier stage may not be recognisable and cannot, certainly, be pleasing to contemplate in later life. But we must not repudiate it, for it is a proof that we have really lived, that is in accordance with the laws of life and of the mind that we have, from the common elements of life, of the life of studios, of artistic groups — assuming one is a painter — extracted something that transcends them.”
And secondly, another section from Malcom Bowie’s book, Proust Among the Stars:
“The typical thought-shapes that Proust’s long sentences endlessly mobilise provide secure bridges between the markedly different kinds of writing tha this novel yokes together. by the time we reach the following passage, for example, the secret of Miss Sacripant’s identity and of her former relations with Elstier have been reveleaed, and reflections on the perceptual rather than the sexual dealings between artist and model are apparently in order:
‘But in any case, even if the portrait had been, not anterior, like Swann’s favourite photograph, to the systematisation of Odette’s features into a new type, majestic and charming, but subsequent to it, Elstir’s vision would have sufficed to discompose that type. Artistic genius acts in a similar way to those extremely high temperatures which have the power to split up combinations of atoms which they proceed to combine afresh in a diametrically opposite order, corresponding to another type. All that artificial harmony which a woman has succeeded in imposi9ng upon her features, the maintenance of which she oversees in her mirror every day before going out, relying on the angle of her hat, the smoothness of her hair, the vivacity of her expression, to ensure its continuity, that harmony the keen eye of the great painter instantly destroys, substituting for it a rearrangement of the woman’s features such as will satisfy a certain pictorial ideal of femininity which he carries in his head.’
Artist and model are both masters of artifice, but where the model’s first move is to quell the disorder of her past conduct and present appearance by constructing a smooth social persona, the artist’s is to introduce disorder into the unreally tranquillised scene offered by the model’s face, hair and clothes. His aggression, however, comes not from a simple preference for the wild over the tame, or for energy over repose, but from a wish to install on the canvas a smooth construction of his own. One fabrication must be dismantled and cleared away to make room for another, and the newcomer is still more obsessionally preserved from ruin than the original: where the woman simply checks herself in the mirror to make sure that each effect of art is in place, the artist, we are soon to be told, pursues his ‘pictorial ideal of femininity’ with crazed consistency from one model to the next.
On the face of it, this passage simply moves discussion of the artist’s passions from the sensuous to the conceptual plane and begins to speak of new things. We now read of systematisation, dissociation, harmony and continuity where before we were offered velvet, mother-of-pearl, bristles, and tousled heads. But the relationship between the two paragraphs is in fact much closer than their divergences of diction would suggest. The second remembers and reinflects exactly the interplay between orderliness and an exciting, irruptive disorder that had given the first its clarity and strength. There is a rhythm here, or a thought-shape, or a paradigmatic tension, that is preserved from one occasion to the next. The special virtuosity that Proust ascribes to his narrator allows him to begin his own thinking with hair and prickles, to pursue it with cognitive concepts and to give both dimensions of the same underlying structure of articulate hesitation. Inside the sentence we are currently reading earlier sentences continue to sound. Present reading time is haunted by reading times past. (My italics)
Moncrieff: Page 615 “When I arrived at Elstir’s a few minutes later…” through Page 625 “…hoping that we might all walk together.”
Grieve: Page 450 “On arriving at Elstir’s a little later…” through Page 457 “…in the hope that we might all go for a walk together.”