Friday, July 21, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 510

   Love, I used to say to myself at Balbec, is what we feel for a person; our jealousy seems rather to be directed towards that person's actions; we feel that if she were to tell us everything, we might perhaps easily be cure of our love.  However skillfully jealousy is concealed by him who suffers from it, it is very soon detected by her who has inspired it, and who applies equal skill in her turn.  She seeks to put us off the scent of what might make us unhappy, and easily succeeds, for, to the man who is not forewarned, how should a casual remark reveal the falsehoods that lie beneath it?  We do not distinguish this remark from the rest; spoken apprehensively, it is received unheedingly. Later on, when we are alone, we shall return to this remark, which will seem to us not altogether consistent with the facts of the case.  But do we remember it correctly?  There seems to arise spontaneously in us, with regard to it and to the accuracy of our memory, a doubt of the sort which, in certain nervous conditions, prevents us from remembering whether we have bolted the door, no less after the fiftieth time than after the first; it would seem that we can repeat the action indefinitely without its every being accompanied by a precise and liberating memory.  But at least we can shut the door again for the fifty-first time.  Whereas the disturbing remark exists in the past, in an imperfect hearing of it which it is not within our power to re-enact.  Then we concentrate our attention upon other remarks which conceal nothing, and the sole remedy, which we do not want, is to be ignorant of everything in order not to have any desire for further knowledge.
Marcel Proust, The Captive, p. 55

"Love, I used to say to myself at Balbec, is what we feel for a person; our jealousy seems rather to be directed towards that person's actions . . ." Proust draws an interesting distinction between love and jealousy, associating love with the person and jealousy with the person's actions.  You could argue that this is an artificial distinction, although I suspect that, as with most things, he's on to something.  I've fallen for women before I ever knew anything about their actions, and their innate being never made me jealous, whereas it was something they did, consciously or unconsciously, that made me jealous.  The problem is that this worldview re-enforced Marcel's desire to keep Albertine as a captive; if he could control her actions he could control his jealousy, and thus stabilize their relationship.  However, while not every action is an expression of our essential nature - and I'm not simply talking about lying and cheating because lying and cheating can be part of our essential nature - I would argue that most actions are an expression of us as a person.  The actions are just the expression of who we are.  If we're not doing anything then it's easier for the person to impose their perception of us onto us, and thus it is only through our actions that we express our true selves.   And this in turn would bring us back to Marcel's desire to control Albertine because in the end his love is only about himself anyway. [This is what happens when you get involved in a summer reading group with David Kite and Chuck Bashaw to discuss Sufi mysticism]

And obviously we've made this point before, but it's rather amazing how much time and effort we spend destroying the same relationships that we pray to have.  My current SO would rather have her fingernails pulled out by pliers than talk about our relationship.  When I was dating LBG we fell into the trap of talking about our relationship so much that it was exhausting, and at a certain point I said to her, "I think we need to spend less talk talking about our relationship, and more time living it.," which she understood and we struck a more happy balance.  Oddly, for a person who dissected and analyzed everything down to the atomic level, I don't think Marcel actually spent much time talking to Albertine about their relationship.  Rather, I think he mainly lectured her, or, more accurately, hectored her, about his understanding of the nature of their relationship and her failure to follow the guidelines that he had reached in isolation.  If I were Marcel's friend, after giving him a friendly dope slap to the back of the head, I would have quoted Marcus Aurelius (because, well, it always come back to Marcus) "All men are made one for another; either then teach them better or bear with them."  Doubtless, he'd then say that he was trying to teach her, leading me to dope slap him again, and say, "OK, let's try this approach," and I'd quote the Brain from Pinky & the Brain, "Focus Pinky!  Stop thinking so much and live your damn life and be thankful she's in it, idiot."  I mean, it would be in French so it wouldn't sound so harsh. Of course, I'd have to learn French first, but you get the idea.

And, seriously, spellchecker, you don't know how to spell "unheedingly?"  What has happened to the English language?  We've become intellectually rachitic. Wait, stupid spellchecker, you don't recognize rachitic?  I fear this is going to turn into an eternally recurring loop.

Life or My Little Corner of It

In our Concepts of the Self class here at Champlain every first year student is required to create a self-portrait, along with, naturally enough, a final paper that explores the themes raised in the art.  As I've discussed here, and elsewhere, I'm a big believer in the project, and I always tell the students that they should create a new self-portrait every five years, even if they don't show it to anybody and just hide it away in the back of their closet.  I'm a big believer in modeling assignments, especially for first and second year students, so I create a new self-portrait every fall so that I can share the experience with them.  It's never too early or too late for self-reflection.  Self-portraits can be systematically planned, but sometimes they can be fairly organic.  This picture might make a good self-portrait, or at least the beginning of a discussion of a self-portrait, and it definitely represents the latter approach. I'm sitting at my desk writing this morning and turned to my left, and realized that this one little corner of my desk at home represented so much of what dominates my life at the moment, and, what is more key, what is important to me at this moment: one of my favorite pictures of my son (he's 3 or 4 and we'd just climbed to the top of Stone Mountain); a little globe turned appropriately towards Zanzibar; three of the seven volumes that comprise the Ramayana; and my open copy of one of my Proust volumes, captured mid-blog post, before I turned back to writing on the Ramayana.  That's not a bad little snapshot, literally and figuratively, on where I am right now, July 2017.  Now, I could have fudged it by sticking in a copy of the Quran, since I tend to devote a lot of time to Islam or issues related to Islam and the broader Islamic world, but I like the organic nature of this picture - and, well, I'm a historian and there's an integrity to artifacts that would have been contaminated by posing the picture.

Now, the one problem with this as a self-portrait is that it is pretty reactive and surface level in that it shows what is influencing me, and what I love or find interesting, which is not completely the same as saying who I am.  As I always point out to my students, we are much more than simply of our likes/dislikes and experiences.  Now, I would tie this all together in my supporting paper, naturally, but I should also find a way to express it visually.  However, that also moves us away from the notion of an organic piece of art.  Consequently, maybe this works better as the equivalent of one of those pictures that someone took of you unawares which really expresses your air than as a self-portrait.  This is clearly fodder for a class discussion in the fall.

Mamboz's Again

I've spoken about the excellence of Mamboz's Corner BBQ before on this blog, so it's not particularly surprising that Steve and I visited it again on our trip in May.  In fact, most of the planning for the early stage of the trip centered around making sure that we made it to Mamboz's.  It's located in downtown Dar Es Salaam, about ten minutes from our traditional landing spot of the Heritage Motel, which leaves it pretty close to the port.  We landed in Dar around 9:00 at night, and our hope was to bust through customs, grab a taxi, drop off our suitcases at the Heritage (essentially, "For the love of God, man, here's my passport, we've got to get to get to Mamboz's!"), and then run to the restaurant.  Happily, we made it in time and were rewarded with their amazing food, all while sitting out on the sidewalk soaking up the environment.  We were going to bracket the trip by stopping at Mamboz's on the way out of town, but it was Ramadan and consequently the restaurant opened later and we couldn't make the logistics work.  Still, we'll be back there again in January, nineteen students in tow.

Seriously, how can you not be happy, it's Mamboz's BBQ.  It's definitely spicy, especially for those living in the spice-averse yankee hellhole that is Vermont, but if you've lived in the South, like I have, or grew up in Buffalo, like Steve did, spice is not a problem.

This is the general consensus.  You can just see the iconic Mamboz's Corner BBQ sign in the background. The food is cooked on big grills right out on the sidewalk next to where you're eating, so you're salivating before your plate arrives.

This is the combo platter.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 509

   Our engagement was assuming the aspect of a criminal trial, and gave her the timorousness of a guilty party.  Now she changed the conversation whenever it turned on people, men or women, who were not of mature years.  It was when she had not yet suspected that I was jealous of her that I should have asked her to tell me what I wanted to know.  One ought always to take advantage of that period.  It is then that one's mistress tells one about her pleasures and even the means by which she conceals them from other people.  She would no longer have admitted to me now as she had admitted at Balbec, partly because it was true, partly by way of apology for not making her affection for me more evident, for I had already begun to weary her even then, and she had gathered from my kindness to her that she need not show as much affection to me as to others in order to obtain more from me than from them - she would no longer have admitted to me now as she had admitted then: "I think it stupid to let people see who one loves.  I'm just the opposite: as soon as a person attracts me, I pretend not to take to take any notice.  In that way, nobody knows anything about it."
Marcel Proust, The Captive, pp. 51-52

In this passage Proust is reflecting on how miserable he's making Albertine, and one can only recognize, once again, how apt it is that this volume is entitled The Captive.  What gets me is the deliberate, sustained, almost systemic jealousy-based cruelty of their relationship (if would be as if Kafka wrote Relationships for Dummies and Emotional Sadists).  To be fair, it's not as if Albertine is completely innocent in their twisted relationships, both in her actions but also, as we've discussed and will again shortly, her comments (essentially, she says things to wind Marcel up that I can't believe are merely accidental).  It's just amazing the amount of time and effort we devote to making each other miserable.  Theoretically, relationships shouldn't be that difficult: some fairly consistent affection, both physical and emotional; a modicum of attention, often always at the level of "How was your day?" or "And what are you reading?", it doesn't always have to be at the level of "No, seriously, why was she your best childhood friend?" or "Let's talk about your view of God in more depth, and could you include citations."; the occasional mind-altering orgasm, with the partner's appropriate hard work and theatrics, counter-balanced with the more routine, dependable, serviceable orgasms, etc. Instead, we treat most relationships like small boys pulling wings off flies.

But the other side of this is that Marcel does love Albertine, and he does have some sense of the life they could have if they would just get out of each other's way emotionally.  Check out this passage from two inches further down the page:

   As I listened to Albertine's footsteps with the consoling pleasure of thinking that she would not be going out again that evening, I marvelled at the thought that, for this girl whom at one time I had supposed that I could never possibly succeed in knowing, returning home every day actually meant returning to my home.  The fugitive and fragmentary pleasure compounded of mystery and sensuality, which I had felt at Balbec, on the night when she had come to sleep at the hotel had been completed and stabilised, filling my hitherto empty dwelling with a permanent store of domestic, almost conjugal bliss that radiated even into the passages and upon which all my senses, either actively or, when I was alone, in imagination as I awaited her return, peacefully fed. (52-53)

Again, it's no literary accident that this volume and the next are entitled The Captive and The Fugitive, respectively.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 508

   On the days when I did not go down to Mme de Guermantes, so that time should not hang too heavy for me during the hour that preceded Albertine's return, I would take up an album of Elstir's work, one of Bergotte's books, or Vinteuil's sonata.  Then, just as those works of art which seem to address themselves to the eye or ear alone require that, if we are to appreciate them our awakened intelligence shall collaborate closely with those organs, I would unconsciously summon up from within me the dreams that Albertine had inspired in me long ago before I knew her and that had been quenched by the routine of everyday life.  I would cast them into the composer's phrase or the painter's image as into a crucible, or them to enrich the book that I was reading.  And no doubt the latter appeared all the more vivid in consequence.  But Albertine herself gained just as much by being thus transported from one into the other of the two worlds to which we have access and in which we can place alternately the same object, by escaping thus from the crushing weight of matter to play freely in the fluid spaces of the mind.  I found myself suddenly and for an instant capable of passionate feelings for this wearisome girl.  She had at that moment the appearance of a work by Elstir or Bergotte, I felt a momentary ardour for her, seeing her in the perspective of imagination and art.
Marcel Proust, The Captive, pp. 49-50

So much of Remembrance of Things Past is taken up by the love affair between Marcel and Albertine, but in some ways I feel as perplexed by it than the first day he saw her.  It seems to be more about jealousy and/or possession and/or power and/or recapturing his mother's love and/or recapturing his grandmother's memory than about some pristine love (not that either of us would ever know).  In this passage Proust introduces another factor: the relationship between Albertine and art, or at least the relationship between Proust's perception of art and his perception of Albertine. "She had at that moment the appearance of a work by Elstir or Bergotte, I felt a momentary ardour for her, seeing her in the perspective of imagination and art."  I suppose we're all reminded of a lover by songs or paintings.  I know I've talked about songs I associate with women before: Neil Young's Winterlong and Cinnamon Girl and Cowgirl in the Sand; Kathleen Edwards's Summerlong and Empty Threat; the Cranberries' Linger; Ryan Adams's Please Do Not Let Me Go; Lucinda Williams's Minneapolis and Those Three Days and Right in Time, etc (I'll leave out the names of the women I associate with the memories to protect the innocent and the not-so-innocent; you know who you are).  It seems I associate less paintings clearly with women, but I suspect that it because music is more ethereal and thus subjective. That said, there are several, of which I'll include these two paintings from Matisse and the Sargent I love so much.

Proust builds upon this notion, however, and discusses how we see our lovers in works of art, and how we bring those works of art into how we see our lovers. "I would unconsciously summon up from within me the dreams that Albertine had inspired in me long ago . . . [and I] would cast them into the composer's phrase or the painter's image as into a crucible, or them to enrich the book that I was reading.  And no doubt the latter appeared all the more vivid in consequence." What is more, "Albertine herself gained just as much by being thus transported from one into the other of the two worlds to which we have access . . ."  Either way, our relationship to art and our relationship to our lovers is based on our perception and memory of imaginary creations.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 507

   I shall set apart from the other days on which I lingered at Mme de Guermantes's one that was marked by a trivial incident the cruel significance of which entirely escaped me and was not brought home to me until long afterwards.  On this particular evening, Mme de Guermantes had givfen me, knowing that I was fond of them, some branches of syringa which had been sent to her from the South.  When I left her and went upstairs to our flat, Albertine had already returned, and on the staircase I ran into Andree, who seemed to be distressed by the powerful smell of the flowers that I was bringing home.
   "What, are you back already?" I said.
   "Only a moment ago, but Albertine had some letters to write, so she sent me away."
   "You don't think she's up to any mischief?"
   "Not at all, she's writing to her aunt, I think.  But you know how she disliked strong scents, she won't be particularly thrilled by your syringa."
   "How stupid of me! I shall tell Francoise to put them out on the service stairs."
   "Do you imagine that Albertine won't notice the scent of them on you?  Next to tuberoses they've the strongest scent of any flower, I always think.  Anyhow, I believe Francoise has gone out shopping."
   "But in that case, as I haven't got my latchkey, how am I to get in?"
   "Oh, you've only got to ring the bell.  Albertine you let you in.  Besides, Francoise may have come back by this time."
   I said good-bye to Andree.  I had no sooner pressed the bell than Albertine came to open the door, which she had some difficulty in doing since, in the absence of Francoise, she did not know where to turn on the light.  At last she managed to let me in, but the scent of the syringa put her to flight.  I took them to the kitchen, so that meanwhile my mistress, leaving her letter unfinished (I had no idea why), had time to go to my room, from which she called me, and to lie down on my bed.  Once again, at the actual moment I saw nothing in all this that was not perfectly natural, at the most a little confused, but in any case unimportant.*

   *She had nearly been caught with Andree and had snatched a brief respite for herself by turning out all the lights, going to my room so that I should not see the disordered state of her bed, and pretending to be busy writing a letter.  But we shall see all this later on, a situation the truth of which I never ascertained.
Marcel Proust, The Captive, p. 49

This is an odd little section, and not simply because for one of the few times in Remembrance of Things Past that Proust includes a footnote commenting on his own writing.  He will come back to this section in greater detail later on so I don't want to say too much about it now.  Essentially, what has happened is that Marcel is returning from a soiree and runs into Andree, who is supposed to be helping to keep tabs and keep Albertine out of "mischief," who tells him that her friend is writing a letter to her aunt.  Clearly there is a lot more to the story, which Marcel will find out in the fullness of time, but which I'm surprised he didn't sense at the time (especially considering how naturally jealous he is).  I'm really amused by the linguistic game within a game that Proust is playing in this section, while also freely admitting that I'm perpetually guilty of reading too much into literature.  That said . . .

Proust could have picked any plant to have Marcel bring home with him, but he chose a syringa, scientific name syringa vulgaris.  Here in the US we normally just refer to it as lilac.  I believe syringa is derived from the Greek and means something like tube, so syringa vulgaris could be translated as "common tube."  Consequently, I can't believe that Proust wasn't winking at his reader when he has Andree tell Marcel that Albertine "won't be particularly thrilled by your syringa" - essentially Albertine "won't be particularly thrilled by your tube" or Albertine "won't be particularly thrilled by your common tube" or, even better, Albertine "won't be particularly thrilled by your vulgar tube" -  especially after Marcel's arrival had interrupted a stolen moment between the two women. Plus, the syringa, like many plants I suppose, is bisexual.  Like I said, I'm all too often guilty of reading way too much into literary passages.

But still . . .

We'll revisit this scene later in Remembrance of Things Past and discuss it in greater detail.

Monday, July 17, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 506

There was, moreover, a brief period during which, without his admitting it to himself precisely, this marriage appeared to him to be necessary.  Morel was suffering at the time from violent cramp in the hand, and found himself obliged to contemplate the possibility of having to give up the violin.  Since, in everything but his art, he was astonishingly lazy, he was faced with the necessity of finding someone to keep him; and he preferred that it should be Jupien's niece rather than M. de Charlus, this arrangement offering him greater freedom and also a wide choice of different kinds of women, ranging from the apprentices, perpetually changing, whom he would persuade Jupien's niece to procure for him, to the rich and beautiful ladies to whom he would prostitute her.  That his future wife might refuse to lend herself to these ploys, that she could be to such a degree, perverse, never entered Morel's calculations for a moment.  However, his cramp having ceased, they receded into the background and were replaced by pure love.  His violin would suffice, together with his allowance from M. de Charlus, whose demands upon him would certainly be reduced once he, Morel, was married to the girl.  This marriage was the urgent thing, because of his love, and in the interest of his freedom.  He asked Jupien for his niece's hand, and Jupien consulted her.  This was wholly unnecessary.  The girl's passion for the violinist streamed around her, like her hair when she let it down, as did the joy in her beaming eyes.  In Morel, almost everything that was agreeable or advantageous to him awakened moral emotions and words to correspond, sometimes even melting him  to tears.  It was therefore sincerely - if such a word can be applied to him - that he addressed to Jupien's niece speeches so steeped in sentimentality (sentimental too are the speeches of so many young noblemen who look forward to a life of idleness address to some charming daughter of a bourgeois plutocrat) as the theories he had expounded to M. de Charlus about the seduction and deflowering of virgins had been steeped in unmitigated vileness. However, there was another side to this virtuous enthusiasm for a person who afforded him pleasure and to the solemn promises that he made to her.  As soon as the person ceased to cause him pleasure, or indeed, for example, the obligation to fulfill the promises that he had mad caused him displeasure, she at once became the object of antipathy which he sought to justify in his own eyes and which, after some neurasthenic disturbance, enabled him to prove to himself, as soon as the balance of his nervous system was restored, that, even looking at the matter from a purely virtuous point of view, he was released from any obligation.
Marcel Proust, The Captive, pp. 45-46

Morel is one of those actors who has been actively performing in the background throughout so much of Remembrance of Things Past, but he's only now taking on a more prominent role - and thus coming into clearer focus.  Mainly up to this point he's been an object of desire for M. de Charlus, and the engine for some tragicomic scenes.  Apparently, as we've seen, as we see, and as we'll see, everyone wants to sleep with him, and he seems pretty democratic in his willingness to assist their desires.  At first blush, and I think at every preceding blush, Morel seems to be a fairly reprehensible character, although an oddly sentimental one.  Proust notes, "In Morel, almost everything that was agreeable or advantageous to him awakened moral emotions and words to correspond, sometimes even melting him  to tears."  He wants to marry Jupien's niece because marriage meant freedom, although, at least allegedly, later his more mercenary goals were "replaced by pure love."  To be fair, I suppose his worldview is really not that different from the female characters in the novel who are positioning themselves for an advantageous marriage, so maybe by heaping more scorn on him we're revealing our own sexism; although I wouldn't go too far down that road because I still think he's a morally bankrupt (at least morally ambiguous) character.  However, as I've noted, he's hardly the only character like this in the novel.  There are normally one or two characters, although less sexually adventurous, in every Dickens novel, but they are outnumbered by the more morally upright characters, usually, appropriately, from a lower social class.  So why are there so many rapacious characters in Remembrance of Things Past?  Well, following the Dickens example I just gave, the focus here in much more on the upper classes, and even Proust, a few posts ago, apologized for making it seem that everyone from the upper classes was depraved. [Trigger Warning: rant from unrepentant socialist coming] My theory is that it's more than possessing piles of money.  Rather, I think it relates to general usefulness to society.  None of these characters appear to have done anything other than leech off of society.  They're all whores, with the only distinction  being subtle differences in their clientele.  If you do nothing but sponge off others then it would seem to me that your main concern would be about survival, and finding the next appropriate host.  But enough about the Trump junta . . .

Oh, and just for future reference, this morning, in real time, I finished reading The Fugitive and started on Time Regained.  I'm having mixed emotions about starting the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past.