Moncrieff: 11-24; Sturrock: 10-19
by Dennis Abrams
Marcel considers climbing up on a ladder to listen in on Charlus and Jupien through the shops fanlight, but thinks better of it. “I heard at first in Jupien’s quarters…a series of inarticulate sounds. I imagine that few words had been exchanged. It is true that these sounds were so violent that, if they had not always been taken up an octave higher by a parallel plaint, I might have thought that one person was slitting another’s throat within a few feet of me, and that subsequently the murderer and his resuscitated victim were taking a bath to wash away the traces of the crime. I concluded from this later on that there is another thing as noisy as pain, namely pleasure…” After 30 minutes, Charlus and Jupien step out into the courtyard. Charlus asks Jupien about other men in the neighborhood he could introduce him to, angering him “I can see you’re a regular flirt.” Charlus tries to assuage Jupien’s feelings, speaking to him in a low voice, obviously offering to go another round. Charlus tells Jupien about the pleasures of the chase, “like the Caliph who use to roam the streets of Baghdad in the guise of a common merchant, to condescend to follow some curious little person whose profile may have taken my fancy,” and following a tram conductor to the end of the line, changing trams several times even if it means risking the germs of the plague by taking a transfer, only to find that the conductor’s family was waiting for him (or her in Charlus’ language) on the platform at Les Aubrais! But, Charlus admits, “at the present moment my head has been turned by a strange little fellow, an intelligent little cit who shows with regard to myself a prodigious lack of civility. He has absolutely no idea of the prodigious personage that I am, and of the microscopic animalcule that he is in comparison.” (Marcel?) The jealousy of the room waiter for the “interesting little page,” and of the night porter “who was in love with the little page, and used to couch with hm at the hour when Dian rose.” Marcel understands who Charlus is. “Until then, because I had not understood, I had not seen. Each man’s vice…accompanies him after the manner of the tutelary spirit who was invisible to men so long as they were unaware of his presence. Kindness, treachery, name, social relations, they do not let themselves be laid bare, we carry them hidden.” The life of homosexuals: “He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly precisely because their temperament is feminine, and who in ordinary life resemble other men in appearance only…a race upon which a curse is laid and which must live in falsehood and perjury because it knows that its desire, that which constitutes life’s dearest pleasure, is held to be punishable, shameful, an inadmissible thing…” Gays and their secret lives. The self-loathing of gays, their wanting of the unattainable “the type of man who has nothing feminine about him, who is not an invert and consequently cannot love them in return,” and their “shunning one another, seeking out those who are most directly their opposite, who do not want their company…but are also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism to which they are subjected.” Gays are everywhere.
An amazing section. What strikes me as essential to not only this section, but our understanding of Proust is the linking of Jews and gays.
“…having finally been invested, by a persecution similar to that of Israel, with the moral characteristics of a race, sometimes beautiful, often hideous…”
and, a key passage,
“taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves, as the Jews claim that Jesus was one of them without reflecting that there were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ…” (italics mine)
In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom points out that
“There is no subtler ironist than Proust in our century, and his novel’s mythological likening of Jews to homosexuals does not exactly dispraise either group. Proust was neither an anti-Semite or homophobe. His love for his Gentile father was real, but his passion for his Jewish mother was overwhelming, and his love affairs with the composer Reynaldo Hahn and with Alfred Agostinelli, the prototype of Albertine, were very authentic relationships. The refugees from Sodom and Gomorrah are compared by Proust to the Jews of the Disapora, and more explicitly to Adam and Eve exiled from Eden. j.E. Rivers emphasizes that this parallel of Sodom, Jerusalem, and Eden is at the heart of Proust’s novel and fuses the Jewish power of survival with homosexual endurance throughout the ages, so that both Jews and homosexuals achieve representative status as instances of the human condition since, as Proust says, ‘the true paradises are the paradises we have lost.’ Proust’ humor can seem harsh in regard to the masochistic homosexuality of Charlus or the Jewish insecurities of the unpleasant Bloch, but we do Proust violence if we judge him to be chagrined by either his Jewish ancestry or his homosexual orientation.”
I’d also like to share with you, for a very different perspective, part of Edmund White’s essay on this section from Andre Aciman’s collection The Proust Project:
“In these pages, Proust alludes to so many conflicting theories of homosexuality that they end up by casting doubt on one another — and on all such theories. In fact they suggest, finally, that only the conventions of a few cultures (but not all or even most cultures) determine the definition of normality; mere convention and nothing more absolute defines the status of homosexuality.
On the fact of it nothing could seem further from the Proustian position. He starts out with the most extreme (and the most offensive) theory; that male homosexuals are inverts, i.e., women disguised as men. this whole initial disquisition on homosexuality is triggered by Marcel’s realization that Charlus’s face in repose is that of a woman since ‘he was one.’ This is the thoery of ‘the soul of a owman enclosed in the body of a man’ first worked out by the German sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1868.
As Elisabeth Ladenson, a contemporary American Proust critic, has put it, ‘According to this paradigm, to which Proust largely adheres in his depiction of male inverts,’ a man who desires another man does so insofar as he is himself in some essential way a woman. Desire even for a member of the same biological sex is thus seen as inherently heterosexual, as it were, and it is at leas tin part for this reason that Proust eschews the term ‘homosexuality,’ preferring ‘inversion.’
But Proust, so often given to classicizing, discussed ‘inversion” not in contemporary medical terms but by citing the neo-Platonic notion that the desired form, male or female, is inscribed at birth on a facet of the pupil of the — in this case an ‘ephebe’ rather than a ‘nymph.’ Since this very duality harks back to a very long tradition of Greek and Roman boy-love, often enjoyed in alternation with the love of women, the nineteenth-century medicalization of homosexuality is already undermined by classical tolerance, juas it is in the deliberately anticlimatic series of shock words: ‘punishable, shameful, an inadmissible thing.’
Before the beginning of gay liberation in 1969, even the most staunch defenders of homosexuality (and there weren’t many) were forced to define it as a sickness or a crime or a sin (thereby introducing three other etiologies — medical, judicial, and religious). Proust in this passage has already employed the psuedomedical term ‘invert” now in elaborate and venomous and confusing sentences he invokes the judge as well as God and Christ (law and religion).
But these invocations are embedded in a comparison of inverts to Jews, disobliging to both. These pages were ones that Proust had had many years to think over. He had first written in 1909 a chapter on ‘The Accursed Race,’ which was part of what was eventually published posthumously in the 1950s as Contre Sainte-Beuve. These old pages were recycled almost intact here in Cities of the Plain (first published in 1921). Proust sets out to show the similarities between the self-hating homosexual and the anti-Semitic Jew. Just as the Jew who has converted to Christianity must deny his original faith before the bar of justice (the Inquisition), in the same way the homosexual can enjoy the love of his parents and the camaraderie of his friends only be denying his ‘very life,’ i.e., his real desires.
Although Proust takes an abstract, generic stance in this passage, it coincides with the dismissal of friendship as worthless found through the Search and a strange ambivilance towards his parents. In his vast novel, which he began only after his parent’s death, he devotes hundreds of pages to the theme of male homosexuality and even more to lesbianism. Just as Vinteiul’s daughter and her girlfriend profane her father’s photograph, in the same way Proust installed his parent’s furniture in a male brothel (and gave his father’s clothes to a servant). Was this frankness about the shocking subject of homosexuality in his novel, were these acts of profanation in real life Proust’s ways of avenging himself on parents to whom he could never reveal the truth about his sexual identity? Is he one of those ‘sons without a mother, to whom they are obliged to lie even in the hour when they close her dying eyes?’ Perhaps to divert attention from his own parti pris, Proust rendered loathsome most of the male homosexual characters in his book while carefully preserving the heterosexuality of Marcel; it was this grotesquerie that Andre Gide complained about to Proust himself.
Proust’s apparent homophobia is matched by his apparent anti-Semitism. Proust may have made fun of the Bloch family by showing how venal and vulgar its members were, but he was also the man who stood by Dreyfus and who would ask his friends to curb anti-Semetic jibes in his presence, because his mother was Jewish. Homosexuals, however, are even more self-hating in Proust’s account. He says that whereas Jews in an extreme case (the Dreyfus affair) will band together, homosexuals are so self-hating they will not close ranks around one of their pariahs (Oscar Wilde.) If these parallels and contrasts are negative, they conceal a hidden suggestion that homosexuality isnot really a sickness after all but that inverts constitute something like a minority…” (I’ll post the rest of the essay on Sunday night.)
Two very different perspectives indeed. Thoughts? Reactions?
The Weekend’s Reading
Moncrieff: Page 24 “This is noticeable in those who are poor…” through the end of Part One, Page 44 “…I had missed perhaps an opportunity of witnessing the fertilisation of the blossom by the bumble-bee.”
Sturrock: Page 19 “This is striking among those who are poor…” through the end of Part One, Page 33 “…perhaps missed the fertilization of the flower by the bumblebee.”
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.