Thursday, September 21, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 573

In the music I had heard at Mme Verdurin's, phrases I had not noticed, obscure phantoms that were then indistinct, turned into dazzling architectural structures; and some of them became friends, that I had scarcely distinguished, that at best had appeared to me to be ugly, so that I could never have supposed that they were like those people, antipathetic at first sight, whom we discover to be what they really are only after we have come to know them well. Between the two states there was a real transmutation.  At the same time, phrases which had been quite distinct the first time but which I had not then recognised, I identified now with phrases from other works, such as that phrase from the Sacred Variation for Organ which, at Mme Verdurin's, had passed unperceived by me in the septet, where nevertheless, like a saint that had stepped down from the sanctuary, it found itself consorting with the composer's familiar sprites.  Moreover, the phrase evoking the joyful clanging of the bells at noon, which had seemed to me too unmelodious, too mechanical in its rhythm, had now become my favorite, either because I had grown accustomed to its ugliness or because I had discovered its beauty.  This reaction from the disappointment which great works of art cause at first may in fact be attributed to a weakening of the initial impression or to the effort necessary to lay bare the truth - two hypotheses which recur in all important question, questions about the truth of Art, of Reality, of the Immortality of the Soul; we must choose between them; and, in the case of Vinteuil's music, this choice was constantly presenting itself under a variety of forms.  For instance, this music seemed to me something truer than all known books. At moments I thought that this was due to the fact that, what we feel about life not being felt in the form of ideas, its literary, that is to say intellectual expression describes it, explains it, analyses it, but does not recompose it as does music, in which the sounds seem to follow the very movement of our being, to reproduce the extreme inner point of our sensations which is that part that gives us that peculiar exhilaration which we experience from time to time and which, when we say "What a fine day! What glorious sunshine" we do not in the least communicate to others, in whom the same sun and the same weather evoke quite different vibrations.
Marcel Proust, The Captive, pp. 380-381

We're in the middle of one of those very Proustian paragraphs that are, beyond being four pages long (I sometimes make my first year students read passages from Proust, and I always tell them to feel like this man felt but not necessarily write like this man wrote), which has so many extraordinary points that it will almost certainly give birth to four different posts.  Marcel is reflecting, once again, on a piece of music by Verdurin and, not surprisingly, takes us to a metaphysical realm.  He starts off talking about musical works that he initially didn't like and then eventually loved, and vice-versa.  Proust tells us, "Moreover, the phrase evoking the joyful clanging of the bells at noon, which had seemed to me too unmelodious, too mechanical in its rhythm, had now become my favorite, either because I had grown accustomed to its ugliness or because I had discovered its beauty." In turn this made me think of musical works that I initially didn't like but then grew to love, although I like to think that most of the time it was because I discovered its beauty than grew accustomed to its ugliness.  While there are many examples, for some reason the one that jumped out to me first off are works my Edward Elgar.  Years ago I bought an Elgar CD mainly because I loved (and still love) Jacqueline Du Pru's performance of his Cello Concert to E Minor (which I'm pretty certain I've celebrated on our weekly Discography music discussion). Rounding out the CD was Janet Baker singing Elgar's Sea Pictures Op. 37, which initially was something I just ignored until the Cello Concerto started. However, over the years I began to pay more appreciate Sea Pictures more, mainly because I think I just studied it more, until eventually I began to the CD mainly because of Sea Pictures, especially Sabbath Morning at Sea (not that I stopped loving the Cello Concerto). Again, I would argue it was because I discovered the beauty of Sea Pictures, and not simply because I was bludgeoned into submission.

Now, that was the easy part of the equation, and I'll have to hold off the more complex discussion until tomorrow because I'm presenting next week in our George "Honey Boy" Evans Symposium and somebody is going to have to finish my talk.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 572

The same bouts of gloom begin again, the same difficulty in living together makes itself felt, only a parting is no longer difficult as before; we have begun by talking about it, and have then put it into practice amicably.  But these are only premonitory symptoms which we have failed to recognise.  Presently, the temporary and benign separation will be succeeded by the terrible and final separation for which, without knowing it, we have paved the way.
   "Come to my room in five minutes and let me see something of you, my darling one.  It would [be] so nice if you would.  But afterwards I shall fall asleep at once, for I'm almost dead."
   It was indeed a dead woman that I saw when, presently, I entered her room.  She had fallen asleep as soon as she lay down; her sheets, wrapped round her body like a shroud, had assumed, with their elegant folds, the rigidity of stone.  It was as though, reminiscent of certain mediaeval Last Judgments, the head alone was emerging from the tomb, awaiting in its sleep the Archangels' trumpet.  This head had been surprised by sleep almost upside down, the hair dishevelled.  Seeing that expressionless body lying there, I asked myself what logarithmic table it constituted, that all the actions in which it might have been involved, from the nudge of an elbow to the brushing of a skirt, should be capable of causing me, stretched out to the infinity of all the points that it had occupied in space and time, and from time to time sharply reawakened in my memory, so intense an anguish, even though I knew that it was determined by impulses and desires of hers which in another person, in herself five years earlier or five years later, would have left me quite indifferent.  It was all a lie, but a lie for which I had not the courage to seek any solution other than my own death.  And so I remained, in the fur-lined coat which I had not taken off since my return from the Verdurins', beside that twisted body, that allegorical figure. Allegorising what?  My death?  My love?  Presently I began to hear her regular breathing.  I went and sat down on the edge of the bed to take that soothing cure of breath and contemplation.  Then I withdrew very quietly so as not to wake her.
Marcel Proust, The Captive, pp. 366-367

On the one hand this is simply another example of Proust foreshadowing the tragic events from The Fugitive (spoiler alert: look away).  In a rare moment when they're not bickering, Albertine says, "Come to my room in five minutes and let me see something of you, my darling one.  It would [be] so nice if you would.  But afterwards I shall fall asleep at once, for I'm almost dead."  Yes, she's almost dead.  However, on the other hand there is so much more going on in this scene, and I found it to be one of the most moving scenes in the entire novel. Proust writes: "It was indeed a dead woman that I saw when, presently, I entered her room.  She had fallen asleep as soon as she lay down; her sheets, wrapped round her body like a shroud, had assumed, with their elegant folds, the rigidity of stone."  Every one of us, when we're young and madly in love, have laid awake in bed staring at the sleeping face of our lover, seeing nothing but life and quiet vitality and the future.  But someday it will be different.  There's always that moment when we visit our parents in the hospital and this time when we wait by the side of their bed while they're asleep all we see is death on their face.  Someday we will see the same thing on the face of our lover, and unlike the logic of our parent's coming demise, we will be facing the work of an illogical and inconsiderate, and thoughtless, God.  Naturally, Proust sees beyond mortality.  He shares, "And so I remained, in the fur-lined coat which I had not taken off since my return from the Verdurins', beside that twisted body, that allegorical figure. Allegorising what?  My death?  My love?"  He could wake her, and might of at a different point in their relationship and in his own life, but he left her alone. "The I withdrew very quietly so as not to wake her."


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 571

   Besides, we feel that in these lies there is indeed a grain of truth, that, if life does not bring about any changes in our loves, it is we ourselves who will seek to bring about or to feign them, so strongly do we feel that all love, and everything else in life, evolves rapidly towards a farewell.  We want to shred the tears that it will bring long before it comes.  No doubt there was, on this occasion, a practical reason for the scene that I had enacted.  I had suddenly wanted to keep Albertine because I felt that she was scattered about among other people with whom I could not prevent her from mixing.  But even if she had renounced them all for ever for my sake, I might perhaps have been still more firmly resolved never to leave her, for separation is made painful by jealousy but impossible by gratitude.  I felt that in any case I was fighting the decisive battle in which I must conquer or fall.  I would have offered Albertine in an hour all that I possessed, because I said to myself: "Everything depends upon this battle." But such battles are less like those of old, which lasted for a few hours, than like those of today which do not end the next day, or the day after, or the following week.  We give all our strength, because we steadfastly believe that we shall never need it again.  And more than a year goes by without producing a "decision."
Marcel Proust, The Captive, p. 360

"We want to shred the tears that it will bring long before it comes."  We've been talking about Marcel's battle with Albertine, which ranges - and rages - from bitter recrimination to jealous remonstration, but somehow, and sadly, without the sweaty interval of make up sex.  Proust knows that they're fighting over nothing, but, as he tells us, "Everything depends upon this battle."  The head of my doctoral committee at the University of Cincinnati told me once that the reason why university politics were so brutal and cutthroat was because there was absolutely nothing at stake.  Maybe this is what happens with dead relationships: nothing is really at stake any more, so the battle must be fought to the death.  As he notes: "But such battles are less like those of old, which lasted for a few hours, than like those of today which do not end the next day, or the day after, or the following week.  We give all our strength, because we steadfastly believe that we shall never need it again.  And more than a year goes by without producing a 'decision.'" Earlier in Remembrance of Things Past Proust spoke eloquently about the terrible nature of habit, and it seems that his battle with Albertine has fallen into that category.

Oh, and, stupid spellchecker, how do you not know how to spell remonstration (I knew how to spell it, but the spellchecker didn't recognize it)?  Apparently I inadvertently set the spellchecker on second grade level by mistake.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Baseball in Zanzibar

Just another quick posting, this time of a picture I snapped in the downstairs common room at the Flamingo Hotel in Stone Town.  There are dozens of books lining the walls, most left, doubtless, by folks passing through (I should really try and come up with a list of the books I've left in hostels and hotels over the years - that would be an interesting assignment or novel).  There's also a TV, which is on all day long, usually with a soccer game or an Egyptian soap opera.  When Steve and I were in Zanzibar in May there was actually a baseball game.  Now, I don't watch much baseball anymore, for any number of reasons, some personal and some systemic, but I still have a childlike love of the game, and it gave me joy to sit down on the faded, dilapidated couch in Zanzibar and watch a little bit of the game.  It reminded me of the watching baseball in other foreign countries and how it made me feel connected to home.  When I taught in India I skived off half a day once so that I could get up early and watch the All-Star Game, a game I never watch at home, but it was the only game that ESPN India was showing that summer.  I remember being driven to fits of rage in Abu Dhabi because the local sports channel kept cutting off the end of games (soft of an Emirati equivalent of the infamous Heidi football game).  It was that exciting world series between Texas and St. Louis where the Rangers kept getting to within one strike of winning the championship then the Cardinals wold hit a home run.  Well, sadly, I missed most of that drama because the local channel switched over to a previously scheduled lightweight boxing match.

Recently, in response to the Jemele Hill situation, and in support of her, I tweeted: "I am a professor and a lover of baseball and jazz, and I'm also calling Trump a White Supremacist."  Beyond an age where we are forced to routinely call the President of the United States a White Supremacist, mainly because he is a White Supremacist, it's interesting that I naturally identified myself in regards to baseball.
  


My Years With Proust - Day 570

   That vague fear which I had felt at the Verdurins' that Albertine might leave me had at first subsided.  When I returned home, it had been with the feeling that I myself was a captive, not with that of finding a captive in the house.  But the fear that had subsided had gripped me even more violently when, as soon as I informed Albertine that I had been to the Verdurins', I saw her face veiled with a look of enigmatic irritation which moreover was not making itself visible for the first time.  I knew perfectly well that it was only the crystallisation in the flesh of reasoned grievances, of ideas clear to the person who forms but does not express them, a synthesis rendered visible but not therefore rational, which he who gathers its precious residue from the face of the beloved endeavours in his turn, so that he may understand what is occurring in her, to reduce by analysis to its intellectual elements. The approximate equation of that unknown quantity which Albertine's thoughts were to me had given me, more of less the following: "I knew his suspicions, I was sure that he would attempt to verify them, and so that I might not hinder him, he has worked out his little plan in secret." But if this was the state of mind (which she had never expressed to me) in which Albertine was living, must she not regard with horror, no longer have the strength to lead, might she not at any moment decide to terminate, a life in which, if she was, in desire at any rate, guilty, she must feel herself suspected, hunted, prevented from ever yielding to her desires, without thereby disarming my jealousy, and in which, if she was innocent in intention and fact, she had had every right, for some time past, to feel discouraged, seeing that, ever since Balbec, where she had shown so much perseverance in avoiding the risk of ever being alone with Andree, until this very day when she had agreed not to go to the Verdurins' and not to stay at the Trocadero, she had not succeeded in regaining my trust?
Marcel Proust, The Captive, pp. 355-356

" . . . must she not regard with horror, no longer have the strength to lead, might she not at any moment decide to terminate, a life in which, if she was, in desire at any rate, guilty, she must feel herself suspected, hunted, prevented from ever yielding to her desires, without thereby disarming my jealousy, and in which, if she was innocent in intention and fact, she had had every right, for some time past, to feel discouraged, seeing that, ever since Balbec, where she had shown so much perseverance in avoiding the risk of ever being alone with Andree, until this very day when she had agreed not to go to the Verdurins' and not to stay at the Trocadero, she had not succeeded in regaining my trust?" At the absolute least it's very easy to grow frustrated with Marcel for his mad jealousy of Albertine.  My supposition is that most people, especially women, would feel far more than simple frustration. Still, for all of his myriad flaws, Marcel is starting to understand.  Yes, he's still maddening, such as his observation that, "When I returned hom, it had been with the feeling that I myself was a captive . . ."  Now, to be fair, we've all been there.  As I've often opined, when you're in a happy relationship the happiest time of the week is Friday afternoon because you're facing an entire weekend with the woman you love, but if you're in a terrible relationship Friday afternoons are horrible because you're getting ready to spend days sitting shiva over a corpse.  You go from being so insanely excited the be with the other person that you don't actually get out of the entry way of the apartment before you're having sex (afterwards the question you ask each other is not whether you locked the door, but did you pull the door closed) to feigning sleep to limit your time together. But see, even here Marcel is conflicted, as those in love always are.  On returning from the Verdurins' party they, mainly he, had decided to break up, but at the party itself Marcel had felt the vague fear that "Albertine might leave me." Is he breaking up with her simply because he's terrified that she might break up with him?  Is it that simple?  It seems idiotic, but raise your hand if you haven't done the same thing (or at least considered it).  We've talked about his intimately detailed memory of lying in his bed hoping against hope that his mother would leave her social responsibilities at the soiree behind long enough to come upstairs and kiss him good night, and whether or not this sense of abandonment and loss and helplessness explains so many of his actions.  Is Albertine his captive because he can control her, can possess something, even as he knows that this experience is destructive for both of them?  Proust tells us that Albertine "must feel herself suspected, hunted, prevented from ever yielding to her desires" and avoided the "risk of ever being alone with Andree" all to "please" him.  Yes, part of this relates to a desire on her part to not get caught (if she's guilty of something - more on this later) or to inspire his jealousy (at least when she's not trying intentionally to tweak him), but it's also related to her love for him (even if she loves others it doesn't mean that she doesn't love him).  And no doubt he loves her.  Love, no one gets out alive.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pennywise's Bucket

A very quick post as I take a break from grading a virtual pile of Othello papers.  Here's a fairly nondescript picture that I snapped on our return trip to Zanzibar in May.  It's a typical view from the rooftop of the Flamingo Hotel in Stone Town.  We'd have breakfast there every morning - it was always a couple eggs, some bread, and some fresh fruit - but it was a popular place to sneak away at various times during the day to read or talk or try and catch a breeze (which was much more necessary in March, and will be in January, than it was in May at the end of the monsoon season).  If you look in the background you can see a red bucket, which was the same bucket that Steve bought for the students two years ago so that they (and we, for that matter) could wash our clothes.  It's funny, if their parents had asked them to wash their clothes in a bucket there would have been much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but because it was in Africa the students considered it quite the adventure.  You could then hang the clothes up on the roof, and, not surprisingly, they didn't take long to dry in the 100 degree heat and blistering equatorial sun.  Sadly, on our next trip in January the Flamingo is going to be closed for renovation (or maybe not, it's east Africa after all), which means we'll probably have to buy another bucket which we'll leave as a gift for the Karibu Inn.

If you look at the picture long enough eventually a red balloon will rise above the wall.


My Years With Proust - Day 569

   The fear that Albertine was perhaps going to say to me: "I want to be allowed to go out by myself at certain hours, I want to be able to stay away for twenty-four hours," or some such request for freedom which I did not attempt to define, but which alarmed me, this fear had crossed my mind for a moment during the Verdurin reception.  But it had been dispelled, contradicted moreover by the memory of Albertine's constant assurances of how happy she was with me.  The intention to leave me, if it existed in Albertine, manifested itself only in an obscure fashion, in certain mournful glances, certain gestures of impatience, remarks which meant nothing of the sort but which, if one analyzed them (and there was not even any need for analysis, for one understands at once this language of passion, even the most uneducated understand these remarks which can be explained only by vanity, rancour, jealousy, unexpressed as it happens, but detectable at once by the interlocutor through an intuitive faculty which, like the "good sense" of which Descartes speaks, is "the most evenly distributed thing in the world"), could only be explained by the presence in her of a sentiment which she concealed and which might lead her to form plans for another life without me.  Just as this intention did not express itself in her speech in a logical fashion, so the presentiment of this intention, which I had felt to-night, remained just as vague in me.  I continued to live by the hypothesis which accepted as true everything that Albertine told me.  But it may be that during this time a wholly contrary hypothesis, of which I refused to think, never left me; this is all the more probably since otherwise I should not have felt uncomfortable about telling Albertine that I had been to the Verdurins', and my lack of astonishment at her anger would not have been comprehensible.  So that what probably existed in me was an idea of Albertine entirely contrary to that which my reason formed of her, and also to that which her own words suggested, an Albertine who was none the less not wholly invented, since she was like a prophetic mirror of certain impulses that occurred in her, such as her ill-humour at my having gone to the Verdurins'. Besides, for a  long time past, my constant anxieties, my fear of telling Albertine that I loved her, all this corresponded to another hypothesis which explained far more things and has also this to be said for it, that if one adopted the first hypothesis the first second became more probable, for by allow myself to give way to effusions of tenderness for Albertine, I obtained from her nothing but irritation (to which moreover she assigned a different cause).
Marcel Proust, The Captive, pp. 352-353

As we discussed yesterday Marcel and Albertine, although mainly Marcel, had decided to break off their relationship, but you know that it was not going to be that easy (despite one famous example from Seinfeld, they never are).  They are still stumbling along, but actually things are even worse because Marcel has grown more possessive: "The fear that Albertine was perhaps going to say to me: 'I want to be allowed to go out by myself at certain hours, I want to be able to stay away for twenty-four hours,' or some such request for freedom which I did not attempt to define . ." The Captive is truly earning its title.  As I look back at my notes in the margin from my initial reading it's clear, not surprisingly, that I found Marcel less and less likable, and wondered if he would find a way to redeem himself.  However, to be fair, love and jealousy seldom makes us lovable.  Still, Marcel, while causing Albertine a lot of unhappiness (not that she doesn't return the favor), does seem to be learning some things about himself, although what he's learning seems awfully elemental (although maybe not by the standards of a century ago, sadly).  Proust notes: "So that what probably existed in me was an idea of Albertine entirely contrary to that which my reason formed of her, and also to that which her own words suggested, an Albertine who was none the less not wholly invented, since she was like a prophetic mirror of certain impulses that occurred in her, such as her ill-humour at my having gone to the Verdurins'"  In some ways what I think Marcel has noticed is that Albertine is actually a person in and of herself, and "not wholly invented."  In a more patriarchal age that may be less of a "duh" moment as it seems, although, sadly, it's something that many people don't actually even realize today.