Moncrieff: 24-22; 19-33
by Dennis Abrams
The lives of gay men who move to the city from the country, living in the Latin Quarter, “modelling themselves on what they observe among those who have already arrived,” in these their special predisposition, unconsciously inherited like a proclivity for drawing, for music, a tendency towards blindness,” on occasion miss an important meeting at work to spend time “with people whose ways of speaking, thinking, dressing, parting their hair, they otherwise adopt.” And while they generally mix with their fellow students and teachers, “they have speedily discovered other young men who are drawn to them by the same special inclination, as in a small town the assistant and the solicitor are brought together by a common interest in chamber music or mediaeval ivories.” The occasional slip which lets their true identity come out “a bracelet to slip down from beneath a cuff…who by their persistent stares, their cooings, their laughter, their mutual caresses, oblige a band of students to depart in hot haste,” the willingness of their waiter to pocket their tips. The solitaries who try to avoid the company of their own kind, but who eventually give in. The heavy burden of social restraint. A brief look at the gay men who consider themselves superior to women, “look down on women, regard homosexuality as the appurtenance of genius and the great periods of history, and, when they wish to share their taste with others, seek out not so much those who seem to them to be predisposed to it, like drug-addicts with their morphine, as those who seem to them to be worthy if it, from apostolic zeal, just as others preach Zionism, conscientious objection, Saint-Simonianism, vegetarianism or anarchy.” The feminine ones, including one “who was so evidently a woman that the women who looked upon him with desire were doomed (failing a special taste on their part) to the same disappointment as those who in Shakespeare’s comedies are taken in by a girl disguised as a youth.” The Narrator remarks that we need not consider here “those young fools who out of childishness, to tease their friends or to shock their families, obdurately choose clothes that resemble women’s dresses, redden their lips and blacken their eyelashes…[and] let us, finally, leave until later the men who have sealed a pact with Gomorrah.” The solitaries, “supposing their vice to be more exceptional than it is, they have retired into a solitude from the day on which they discovered it…” How does a young gay man learn that he desires Rob Roy and not Diana Vernon? The exemplary history of one such case, who occasionally fools around with a neighbor, “will go out of the way to set a drunkard on the right road or to ‘adjust the dress’ of a blind man,” or else “stands idly on the platform until his train leaves, casting over the crowd of passengers a look that will seem indifferent, disdainful or abstracted to those of another race, but, like the luminous glow with which certain insects bedeck themselves in order to attract others of their species, or like the nectar which certain flowers offer to attract the insects that will fertilise them, would not deceive the connoisseur (barely possible to find) of a pleasure too singular, too hard to place, which is offered him, the confere with whom our specialist could converse in the strange tongue…” Marcel’s initial disgust of jellyfish before being able to see them “from the standpoint of natural history and aesthetics.” M. de Charlus is an exceptional man. In many ways, the encounter between M. de Charlus and Jupien is a miracle of nature, comparable to the right insect finding and pollinating the right flower; this ‘miracle’ brings to the men a sense that “if they should happen to have an encounter which is really fortunate, or which nature makes appear so to them, their happiness is somehow far more extraordinary, selective, profoundly necessary than that of the normal lover.” Marcel considers what he has witnessed: “M. de Charlus had distracted me from looking to see whether the bumble-bee was bringing to the orchid the pollen it had so long been waiting to receive, and no chance of receiving save by an accident so unlikely that one might call it it a miracle. But it ws a miracle that I had just witnessed, almost of the same order and no less marvellous. As soon as I considered the encounter from this point of view, everything about it seemed to me instinct with beauty.” Marcel reconsiders Charlus, and see his violent diatribes as a sexual release. Charlus becomes Jupien’s protector, finally making him his secretary, much to the pleasure of Francoise, who says if she had a marriageable daughter, she’d be proud to have her marry either Charlus or Jupien, “they’re just the same sort of person.” The escape of the Sodomites from Sodom, and their numerous descendants, “Certainly they form in every land an oriental colony, cultured, musical, malicious, which has charming qualities and intolerable defects.” There is no need to create “(just as people have encouraged a Zionist movement) to create a Sodomist movement and to rebuild Sodom.” Marcel has missed the opportunity of witnessing “the fertilisation of the blossom by the bumble-bee.”
Fascinating, distressing, and a glimpse at a world that has largely disappeared — this section struck me as a kind of Petersen’s Guide to gay men in turn of the century France. Much of it foreign to me, much of it (the idea of the sexual encounter as a kind of miracle of nature and recognition) all to familiar. It will be interesting to see how future generations, as life in the closet inevitably becomes just a historic memory, reads this section. For me, who grew up as the closet doors began to open, it’s all too recognizable, and the “types” that Proust describes, are, of course, still with us in one form or another. A fascinating section. (And of course, at the end, there’s the continued linkage of Jews and gays as exiles from Zion and Sodom.)
The conclusion of Edmund White’s essay on this section from The Proust Project:
“The nastiness and despair inherent in these paragraphs camouflage the radical notion that homosexuals constitute a ‘race’; only a step away is the idea that to reject homosexuals is to be guilty of ‘racism.’ While Proust overtly subscribes to the prejudices of his day, he covertly undermines them. In an early short story a Proustian character argues that homosexuality might be due to an artistic hypersensitivity to beauty. Now in this passage he drops that defense in favor of a more potent one: ‘There were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ,’ since ‘the opprobrium alone makes the crime.’ This is Proust’s most extreme idea, that the triumph of Christianity has engendered two accursed races, Jews and homosexuals.
As if dismayed by his own words, Proust immediately goes on to argue, and rather unconvincingly, that if homosexuals were beyond reproach in pagan times, they are reprehensible now since only the most hardened cases persist in practicing their vice in such unfriendly Christian times.
Even this thought, however, is instantly softened by the next reflection: those who persist in homosexuality do so because of their ‘innate disposition.’ They have no choice — and Proust has come full circle to a theory of biological determinism that only the most irrational bigot could possibly stigmatize. This stigma exists, however, and, as in old-fashioned “anachronistic’ adventure stories, in Proust’ novel nobles fraternize across class lines with felons, made complicit by their sexual tastes. The notion of such a queer freemasonry had been popularized during the various trials of Philipp von Eulenberg, a German diplomat and friend to the kaiser. This trial — which suggested that the kaiser was surrounded by homosexuals in high places — occured shortly before Proust wrote the original 1909 version of these pages.
Proust’s ambivalence about homosexuality and its causes is very rich and productive. As Luc Fraisse writes in Sodome et Gomorrhe de Marcel Proust, ‘To dissect a vice and to reveal a sickness remain linked in his attitude: inversion is a sickness, he asserts in a sketch, a nervous taint, says the final text, an innate vice, since the last paragraph of the novel observes in Albertine ‘the predisposition of vice,’ the first term cancelling out the second. Although normal in antiquity, inversion would lead to a reproach which is a cultural invention; a cause for guilt in human beings, it exists in a state of innocence in plants: such is the role of the vegetable metaphor in the first part of Cities of the Plain, as Giles Deleuze has underlines. In another passage inversion is reduced to a subcategory in the most general laws of desire; or, on the contrary, it allows the study of passion to be pushed to an extreme and accentuates the alienation of the beloved and proves that love is an illness.” In other words, it’s not just homosexuality that is an illness in Proust but love itself in all its forms. Homosexuality is a rich, ambiguous subject for Proust to investigate precisely because it is as open to interpretation as love (or live) itself.”
What are your thoughts/reactions to all this? Reading Part One of Sodom and Gomorrah, where to you feel Proust’s feelings lie?
Moncrieff: Page 45 “As I was in no hurry to arrive at the Guermantes reception…” through Page 57 “Medicine is not an exact science.”
Sturrock: Page 37 “As I was not in any hurry to arrive at the Guermantes soiree,” through Page 46 “Medicine is not an exact science.”