Proust I – VII: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with a Brutal Childhood Trauma

Our last analysis of M. Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” (Vol. I to VII)

« …. elle me dit de la porte: ”Adieu petit, adieu petit.»
M. Proust: Albertine disparue, Ed. Gallimard, folio classique, 1989 page 14

After the long build-up over the Seven Volumes, we owe to you, our Esteemed Reader, to wind our long voyage through the unfathomable Seas of Proustian literature down with sending you a debriefing from the end of Le Temps retrouvé. (Ed. Gallimard, folio classique, 1989).

Before doing so, however, Noah denkt™ would like to express its gratitude to Mr. Proust for having provided us with a gripping, 1000+ page-tale which,together with Kenneth Clarke’s bittersweet election tweets, has successfully helped us to not get bogged down by the sad, self-destructive spectacle which the American Republic is currently playing out before our very eyes.  What a blessing it has been to be able to take refuge in a world of honest soul-searching, subtle observation and cultured learning when real-life politics, perhaps due its solid shield of nuclear protection, keeps bombarding us with relentless shows of mediocrity and cowardliness!!!

Nevertheless, it is all over now, ….- the Proust -voyage that is.

So, let’s figure out what this reading expedition has taught us. The most central question with respect to “La Recherche” that is probably still in contention is, whether the narrator’s protracted and existential suffering throughout these seven volumes is in essence the result of :

  1. him being born with a difficult physiological, neurological condition, i.e. “un état nerveux” that would have the likes of Françoise think:”C’est-il pas malheureux pour des parents d’avoir un enfant pareil!”   (Swann, p. 73 + 81)
  2. a Freudian-, i.e. oedipal-, type of (fulfilled or) unfulfilled incestuous desire in early childhood with respect to the person he calls his mother. (see the narrator’s  “volupté”  and « hostie » – reference in Swann, p.55 + 56)  
  3. an imminent danger of emotional abandonment by his “mother”, perhaps due to a bawdy side in her character. (“Je l’ai trouvée [Swann] bien quelconque, dit ma mère; je crois la prochaine fois il faudra essayer d’un autre parfum. » (see Swann, p. 77)
  4. an imminent threat hanging over him of being sent away by his parents  “pour des fautes” that probably aren’t all that “honteuses” like insisting on getting a good-night kiss.(see Swann‘, p. 77)
  5. a very real abandonment by his biological mother during childhood but which is not being openly addressed any more neither by him nor by the people he calls his parents for fear of antagonizing and consequently losing the benevolence of his adopted caregivers. (see: the François Le Champi  – and  madeleines – lead  +  his weird « origine »- statement in Swann, p. 77 : “…on ne prononçait pas ce mot, on ne déclarait pas cette origine qui aurait pu me faire croire que j’étais excusable…. ” )
  6. a simple lack of congenial wave-length between a brilliant poetic, i.e. highly sensitive mind and a more run-of-the-mill type of intelligence on the part of his caregivers and/or social network, – i.e. a considerable mentality bridge that is also evidenced by Bergotte’s loneliness, Swann’s high society disillusion, Charlus’ social ostracizing, while Odette’s sleaziness, the conceitedness of the Verdurin and Morel’s recklessness sort of sail through intact and with relative ease
  7. a deep-seated fear of rejection caused by the realization of the comprehensive social and cultural repression of his homosexual desires  
  8. a mysterious curse hanging over him stemming from a previous incarnation of his soul, – something that is believed to be a distinct possibility not just in Buddhist philosophy but also in ancient Celtic Beliefs? (see Swann’ p.89)
  9. Or, is it that Mr. Proust’s literary effort is principally trying to put an enigmatic human psyche under the perspective of a poet’s magnifying glass in order to expose the fundamental logical error of a positivist natural science philosophy and to defend a Dilthey- and/or Bergson-inspired metaphysical theory of human existence in Time and Eternity, instead ?

Now, it is quite obvious that the latter hypothesis (9) can be discarded right away. Of course, there is an intention palpable throughout “La Recherche” to defend a “Contre Sainte-Beuve”-, anti-positivist humanities’ approach in Art, Philosophy and Social Science. But, if this were indeed the main thrust of Mr. Proust’s intention, he could probably have achieved the same much more efficiently by opting in favor of a H.P. Lovecraft-/E.A. Poe – type of short story. The fact, however, that he subjects himself to a narration that spans several thousand pages of closely knitted prose, at a time, when contemporaneous writers of his had already concluded that modern-day readers will probably never again have the (near-death?) emotional tranquility to read long books, suggests that there is a much more powerful, personal need driving “La Recherche” than the simple ambition to underscore a metaphysical point.

Is he saying it without saying it?

In the humble opinion of Noah denkt™, the strong personal drive that animates the narrator’s narration can probably best be summarized as a very personal need to work towards the bottom of a suffocating, life-threatening fear of rejection which is most likely caused by a traumatic, “François le Champi”- like abandonment experience in early childhood.

Of, course, Noah denkt™ has to admit that at no point in “La Recherche” a “smoking-gun” statement is being made that would unequivocally prove the existence of that earlier desertion of the narrator by his biological parents. In fact, the narrator, himself, keeps suggesting throughout the seven volumes that the only mother he ever had, is the one that is being presented to us as just that. So, from the narrator’s point of view the only shock desertion that could- justifiably so – be talked about in “La Recherche” would be the frustration of his “voluptuous”, oedipal desires vis-à-vis the person he calls “maman“.

Noah denkt™, however, is not convinced that the narrator’s point of view is adequate and all-encompassing here. After all, isn’t it, he, the narrator himself, who keeps inferring on and on that “names” are quite misleading? Could it, therefore not be that certain shock experiences in the narrator’s life are simply blocked out from his memory? Is it not possible that painful separation horrors, he may have experienced as a little helpless child are stacked away so deep in his psyche that his consciousness can’t even access the memory of them? And is it not just as likely that he was almost forced to pursue the Albertine hook-up to be able to activate this subconscious memory of earlier breakaway horrors? As matter of fact, the narrator, himself, is pretty much even saying it just like this. And since the people who could probably help him with this ‘origin’ question (Swann p. 77) are not willing to chip in, he clearly has to do all the uncovering work by himself.

The Clues

…. mon chéri, je vous envoie ce mot, et je vous prie, d’ête assez bon pour me pardonner si je vous fais un peu de chagrin
Albertine disparue , p. 5

Given therefore, that outside help is not to be had in the resolution of this life-threatening, suffocation riddle, the investigation needs to rely on circumstantial text evidence only. That circumstantial evidence, however, which supports the theory of a shocking early childhood walk out by his biological mother is strong if not even overwhelming in “La Recherche“. Just take the repeated François-Le-Champi-reference throughout the seven volumes. The hint to the George Sand-story shows up twice, if not three times (if you include the famous madeleines memory- trigger-episode) in the narrator’s account. And it always does so at the most crucial junctures of the narration, – i.e. in the beginning when the existence of a major chagrin in the narrator’s psyche is being confirmed and in the end when the existential need to get to the bottom of that lifelong chagrin/spell is clearly being identified and made the centerpiece of an literary meditation effort.

Here is how the narrator himself phrases subject final (post-World War I) – revelation:

… c’est qu’à ce moment même, dans l’hôtel du prince de Guermantes  ce bruit des pas de mes parents reconduisant M Swann, ce tintement rebondissant, ferrugineux, intarissable, criard et frais de la petite sonnette qui m’annonçait qu’enfin M. Swann était parti et que maman allait monter, je les entendis encore, je les entendis eux-mêmes, eux situés pourtant si loin dans le passé. (….) je fus effrayé de penser que c’était bien cette sonnette qui tintait encore en moi, sans que je pusse rien changer aux criaillements de soin grelot, ….(…) Pour tâcher de l’entendre de plus près, c’est en moi-même que j’étais obligé de redescendre. C’est donc que se tintement y était toujours, et aussi, entre lui et l’instant présent tout ce passé indéfiniment déroulé que je ne savais que je portais. Quand elle avait tinté j’existais déjà, et depuis pour que j’entendisse encore ce tintement, il fallait qu’il n’y eût pas eu discontinuité, que je n’eusse pas un instant cessé, pris le repos de ne pas exister, de ne pas penser, de ne pas avoir conscience de moi, puisque cet instant ancien tenait encore à moi, que je pouvais encore le retrouver, retourner jusqu’à lui, rien qu’en descendant plus profondément en moi.
M. Proust : Le Temps retrouvé, p. 351f

In light of these quotes, we ask in all honesty:

Can there really be a doubt that the wink to François le Champi is of utmost importance to resolving the narrator’s suffering riddle? Can there really be a sustained disagreement that the narrator’s self-proclaimed need of having to understand the strange, lifelong presence of subject “tintement” is nothing else but the echo of a powerful childhood anxiety jinx? And must we not be forgiven if we now conclude that the narrator’s lifelong struggle is not the result of a shortly delayed good-night kiss in Combray but rather the product of an awful betrayal that happened long before the actual narration even began?                     

In other words, do we not have a license now to presume now that Albertine’s farewell letter to him (with its verbatim of “Mon cher grand”, its begging for forgiveness for her unexplained departure and its lamenting of the fact that he will  eventually forget about her), could just as well be the good-bye letter of his (perhaps equally lesbian) biological mother? (Albertine p. 5) And do we consequently not also have to assume that the narrator’s many “sanglots qui (…) n’ont jamais cessé” (Swann p.81) are less the result of the frustration of incestuous desires but rather an adequate “conclusion pessimiste librement tirée d’un ensemble de circonstances funestes, mais la reviviscence intermittente et involontaire d’une impression spécifique, venue du dehors, et que nous n’avons pas choisie” [Albertine p. 14]?

Noah denkt™, hence, remains convinced that its earlier theory of an awful prior desertion experience that has marred the narrator’s soul well before the longevity and trustworthiness of his adopted mother’s affection to him even became an issue, imposes itself here. And it does so despite the narrator’s occasional attempts of having us believe otherwise (-  for instance by suggesting similar patterns of emotional abuse and dependency in the Swann/Odette-, Saint-Loup/Rachel-,Charlus/Morel-relationships). After all, what other reasonable explanation than a soul-crushing mother-child-disconnect could there possibly be that would later push a highly sensitive and conscientious mind into losing all his moral restraint and holding a future love interest captive, despite the adamant advice of all his friends and caregivers?

The Answer, the Acceptance and the Comprehension

No, if the narrator never comes fully around to realize the existence of a prior betrayal in his life, it is likely because Mr. Proust prefers his readers, to help him with that.  After all, it is only by uncovering other people’s psychological secrets that one will eventually also be able to detect one’s own. If, however, all issues are conclusively settled for us, there is little incentive for any us to go the extra mile and leave our own penchant for self-evident, non-speculative answers aside. Such need for positivist reassurance, nevertheless, will ultimately only curry favor to our opportunistic, market-driven cowardliness, so that we will likely end up impeding ourselves in much the same way as the GOP is doing it right now.

We should, therefore,take comfort in the fact that the narrator explicitly accepts the incompleteness of his literary cathedral. (Le Temps Retrouvé, p.338)  At least, this gives us a pass to fill in the remaining blanks as we see fit.

And as far as Noah denkt™ is concerned, filling in these existential blanks also means stressing again the devastating consequences it has on any child to grow up with a feeling of not being genuinely welcomed in this world. After all, it could well be that it is this very childhood perception of parental rejection which explains many an irrational and (self-) destructive behavior to this day. And perhaps, it is even such an emotional desertion which is at the heart of the Charlemagne-Empire-break-up and the ensuing Franco-German-animosity-jinx? Mr. Proust, for one, does not shy away from putting his narrator’s spell into a far-reaching Louis XIV-/Louis-Philippe perspective. So why then should we not feel equally emboldened to put the EURO-/EU- and Brexit-Malaise into the parental rejection-context of Co-Emperor Lothair fateful 9th-century breakaway from his father´s, Louis the Pious, imperial reign?

After all, it is even the Gallimard (folio classique) 1990 edition of Proust’s “Le Temps Retrouvé” (1988) (see: footnote 3 +4 to page 103 on p. 399) which educates us on the fact that the borders of the Verdun and Prüm Treaties of 843 and 855 AD were very much alive in national aspirations and memories even as late as World War I. Apparently the German Kaiser Reich’s initial territorial war objectives were strikingly aligned with the erstwhile Western borders of Lothair’s long since imploded Middle Francia Kingdom. And while France’s immediate post-war goals at the Versailles conference were aiming at a break-up of previously unified Germany, its ideas for an independent West-German state in the – (“Verdurin”?)- Rhineland region pursued, strangely enough, much the same eastern borders for that independent Rhineland state which the 9th-century Verdun and Prüm Treaty had already established for Lothair’s Bowling Alley-Francia.

It is, therefore, not entirely far-fetched to believe that the old father-son-désentente from back then is still casting its spell onto today. Of course, Noah denkt™ would never say so out loud! Naturally, we are just as impaired by the continuous rejection menace that is hanging over us, as Mr. Proust’s narrator was in his case.  And just as much as it isn’t the remote possibility of being rebuffed by God that is creating the unease in the Proust case, it is also not a metaphysical scare that is forcing us to shiver. Instead it is the realization that nowadays’ dismissal daggers are being operated by short-fused Verdurin-types that is fueling our own distress.

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