Marcel Proust: How not to despair given the many rivers to cross on this ancient battlefield?

Another meditation on “In Search of Lost Time” and what it means to come to life in post-Gallia Belgica, post-Gallia Celtica and post-Germania Inferior

Il [mon père] me regarda un instant d’un air étonné et fâché puis dès que maman lui eut expliquée en quelques mots embarrassés ce qui était arrivé, il lui dit : « Mais va donc avec lui, puisque tu disais justement que tu n’as pas envie de dormir, reste un peu dans sa chambre, moi je n’ai besoin de rien. – Mais, mon ami, répondit timidement ma mère, que j’ai envie ou non de dormir, ne change rien à la chose, on ne peut pas habituer cet enfant…  – Mais il ne s’agit pas d’habituer, dit mon père en haussant les épaules, tu vois bien que ce petit a du chagrin, il a l’air désolé, cet enfant ;  (…)

Ainsi pour la première fois, ma tristesse n’était plus considérée comme une faute punissable mais comme un mal involontaire qu’on venait de reconnaître officiellement, comme un état nerveux dont je n’étais pas responsable ; …

Marcel Proust : Du côté du chez Swann, Librairie Générale Française, 1992,  p. 79 -81)


… depuis peu de temps, je recommence à très bien percevoir si je prête l’oreille, les sanglots que j’eus la force de contenir devant mon père et qui n’éclatèrent quand je me retrouvai seul avec maman. En réalité ils n’ont jamais cessé ; et c’est seulement parce que la vie se tait maintenant davantage autour de moi que je les entends de nouveau…

Marcel Proust, Du Côté de chez Swann, p. 80f


This is again your Captain speaking. We are still very much on the High Seas of Proustian Literature. We have just passed and taken in “Le Côté de Guermantes” (Éditions Gallimard, folio classique, 1988), the 3rd volume of Mr. Proust’s monumental 7-part series “Remembrance of Things Past”. “Contre Sainte-Beuve” still lies ahead of us and we are about to enter the territorial waters of “Sodome et Gomorrhe” (the 4th volume) now. We hope you have enjoyed the trip so far and we trust that you continue to confide in our ability to take you to where Mr. Proust himself ultimately wanted you to get once you embarked on this voyage through his universe.

In an earlier mapping attempt to get to the essence of “La Recherche” we had ventured to proffer the idea that his literary work is fundamentally an artistic effort to recreate, to re-articulate and to recapture the totality of the narrator’s life in more or less the same way, that he, the narrator, might have experienced subject totality on the occasion of a near-death-triggered review of it all. Noah denkt™ still stands by that interpretation although we have to admit that parts of the 3rd volume, in particular the parts pertaining to the Guermantes salon conversations and the ensuing Charlus interaction (i.e. the last quarter of the 2nd chapter of “Le Côte de Guermantes II”) appear to be a little more construed, crafted and conscientiously worked than this was the case in the earlier volumes. Perhaps this slight twist in “Le Côté “ is in part due to the critical success which the 2nd volume (“À l’ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs”) had enjoyed earlier (Prix Goncourt 1919). The author may have felt some unexpected pressure to keep the narration on the same level of poetic intensity as before.

Be that as it may, “Le Côté de Guermantes”, clearly helps us to understand that reviewing the totality of one’s life in a near-death situation not only refers to reliving the totality of events experienced during lifetime but includes also the reviewing of the interpretations and conclusions arrived at when processing subject events in a contemporary (Berger/Luckman) everyday reality. In other words, the near-death reliving of the totality of one’s life will probably unfold just as much on the immediate experience level as it does on the intellectual processing-level.

It seems, as if it is this meta-intellectual processing level which Mr. Proust is invoking ever more in this 3rd volume of his series. The narration is now turning more explicitly towards the larger historic, geopolitical and cultural context in which the narrator’s quest for uncovering his artistic calling is unfolding. And the author does this by making it even harder than before not to notice the extravagantly unusual names he tends to choose for his characters and his geographic settings. (see footnote*) Obviously, these names tell their own story of a past which is rife with memories of many, many military, ethnic, religious, political clashes that have left their marks on society to this day and which continue to affect the narrator’s coming of age just as much as his immediate personal circumstances do.

The mere symbolism of these names is hence important to understand that “le chagrin”, i.e. the anxiety which the narrator experiences very early on in his life in Combray (see quote above) isn’t a sign of an infantile, egocentric narcissism but a justified expression of the young mind’s early intuitive anticipation of the daunting task it will be to process and come to terms with the many serious traumas and wounds which future conflicts may well generate and which little resolved past conflicts still continue to germinate. Let us not forget that the narration of “La Recherche” takes place on the eve of the most devastating war known to mankind up until then which will eventually enter history under the “The Great War”- or “World War I”-label.  And let us equally not forget that the scars and wounds which past conflicts have left behind in the narrator’s home territory aren’t to be underestimated either.

These scars of the past which may just as well serve as an indication to the author of what is to come in the future stem from:

  1. the violent clashes between the Celtic tribes and the Romans in Gallia Celtica and Gallia Belgica (“La Recherche” conjures up the Celtic-Roman past by invoking King Arthur’s legendary Kingdom of Bertane in names like Gilberte, Robert, Albertine)
  2. the arrogant incursion of the Salian Franks into the Celtic-Roman territory (The then still non-Christian Salian Franks were at the time often labeled by the locals as “Saracens” as in the “Gormond (“Guermantes?”) et Isembart”-Saga. Charlus’ first name “Palamède” also refers to the scary Saracen-element in Salian Franks invasion)
  3. the permanent settlement of the Salian Franks in the area of Belgium’s Tournai and France’s Cambrai (“Combray”?) whose name obviously is of Celtic origin to begin with
  4. the conquests of Clovis I who is the son of Childeric I and Princess Basina of Thuringia (as in “Basin”, the first name of the Duchess of Guermantes’ husband)
  5. the eventual establishment of a united Franks-led kingdom and empire under Charlemagne (as in “Charlus” and Charles Swann)
  6. the then splitting-up of the Charlemagne empire with Cambrai (“Combray”) falling first under German rule and coming under French rule later in 1675. (In “Le Côté”, Oriane de Guermantes, wonders why they are not also carrying the title of “Duc de Brabante”). The Coat of Arms of Cambrai, by the way, is a double-headed eagle that looks toward east and west at the same time (just as the walkabouts in “Du Côté de chez Swann” force you to choose either to pass by the Swann estate (i.e. going and looking east?) or to pass by Méséglise (going and looking west?)
  7. the continued subcutaneous and sometimes open hostility between the French Kings and the Holy Roman German Emperor (echoed in “Le Côté de Guermantes” by the jokes about the Princess of Luxembourg and the presence of the Princess of Parma in the Guermantes Salon)
  8. the hyper-fast, tumultuous and menacing rise of Prussia (echoed in “La Recherche” among others by the mentioning of the Princess of Sagan)
  9. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 with among others the battle of Sedan, which is just 150 km south of Cambrai (Bismarck is repeatedly mentioned by le Marquis de Norpois and the military strategy excursion in Doncières (in the 3rd volume) speaks for itself)
  10. the hostilities related to Morocco (see Robert de Saint-Loup’s military transfer there)
  11. the later 1917 Battle of Cambrai during WWI;

The amount of residual memories and psychological side-effects which this long history of often times violent military clashes has produced and which the Combrai/Combray region stands for is clearly towering. If you add to that the 18th,19th and 20th century philosophical rift between religion and science (Mme Villeparisis’ observations on Mme. de Sévigné vs M. Stendhal), the political adversary between feudalism and capitalism (Saint-Simon (the uncle) vs. Saint-Simon (the productivity fan/nephew) or Mme. de Villeparisis’ refined benevolence  versus the hotel owner’s intimidating authoritarianism in Balbec), the snobbish patrician/aristocrat – plebeian/“vulgarité” spread, the anti-Semitic Dreyfus outrage (“Bloch, Rachel…” etc.), the pent-up homosexual-heterosexual tension (“Charlus, Julien”) and one understands why the young narrator of “La Recherche” has the hardest time to freely breath the loaded air in Combray, Combrai, Paris or Illiers, and why he cannot help but be consumed with his anxieties.

In other words, it is no wonder that an artistically talented, sensitive human being who grows up somewhere in the region between the Seine/Somme/Scheldt/Meuse and Rhine river would have a tendency to be frail and cry a lot

Inspiring gap-bridging spiritual advisers like Archbishop Fénelon of Cambrai, also known as the Swan of Cambrai (as in Charles Swann) or Saint Hilaire who won sainthood through his efforts to increase the mutual understanding between Eastern and Western Christian Theology are, therefore,  even more urgently needed in post-Gallia Belgica, post-Gallia Celtica and post-Germania Inferior than they are needed elsewhere. And we have to be grateful to Mr. Proust for pointing that out to us.


Foonote *: We have to acknowledge that Prof. Allan H. Pasco’s explanations and his idea of the “paramorphic” post-1871 French novel and storytelling have helped us a lot to decipher the supreme importance of the highly crafted and well planned names, Mr. Proust picks throughout “La Recherche”.

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