Monday, February 8, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 42

   "And it is perhaps from another impression which I received at Montjouvain, some year later, an impression which at that time was without meaning, that there arose, long afterwards, my idea of what cruel side of human passion called 'sadism'.  We shall see, in the due course, that for quite another reason the memory of this impression was to play an important part in my life.  It was during a spell of very hot weather; my parents, who had been obliged to go away for the whole day, had told me that I might stay out as late as I pleased; and having gone as far as the Montjouvain pond, where I enjoyed seeing again the reflection of the tiled roof of the hut, I had lain down in the shade and gone to sleep among the bushes on the steep slope that rose up behind the house, just where I had waited for my parents, years before, one day when they had gone to call on M. Vinteuil.  It was almost dark when I awoke, and I wished to rise and go away, but I saw Mlle Vinteuil (or thought, at least, that I recognized her, for I had not seen her often at Combray, and then only when she was still a child, where she was now growing into a young woman), who probably had just come in, standing in front of me, and only a few feet away from me, in that room in which her father had entertained mine, and which she had now made into a little -sitting room for herself.  The window was partly open; the lamp was lighted; I could watch her every movement without her being able to see me; but, had I gone away, I must have made a rustling sound among the bushes, she would have heard me, and might have thought that I had been hiding there in order to spy upon her. . .
   At the far end of Mlle Vinteuil's sitting-room, on the mantelpiece, stood a small photograph of her father which she went briskly to fetch, just as the sound of carriage wheels was heard from the road outside, then flung herself down on a sofa and drew close beside her a little table on which she placed the photograph. . ."
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, pp. 168-169

This scene is as troubling as it is voyeuristic, although I suspect that it was both more troubling and more voyeuristic a century ago upon its publication than it is today.  You probably don't need any more proof of the influence of Proust than the decidedly "modern" and "intimate" feel of this scene.  I'm having flashbacks to scenes from David Lynch's brilliant Blue Velvet.  It focuses on Mlle Vinteuil, who, at least according to Proust's mother, had virtually killed her father.  "Poor M. Vinteuil, he lived for his daughter, and now he has died for her, without getting his reward.  Will he get it now, I wonder, and in what form?  It cane only come to him from her."

My Year With Proust - Day 41

"That girl whom I never saw save dappled with the shadows of their leaves, was to me herself a plant of local growth, only taller than the rest, and one whose structure would enable me to approach more closely than in them to the intimate savour of the land from which she had sprung.  I could believe this all the more readily (and also that the caresses by which she would bring that savour to my senses were themselves of a particular kind, yielding a pleasure which I could never derive from any but herself) since I was still, and must for long remain, in that period of life when one has not yet separated the fact of this sensual pleasure from the various women in whose company one has tasted it, when one has not reduced it to a general idea which makes one regard them thenceforward as the variable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same.  Indeed, that pleasure does not exist, isolated and formulated in the consciousness, as the ultimate object with which one seeks a woman's company, or as the cause of the uneasiness which, in anticipation, one then feels.  Hardly even does one think of oneself, but only how to escape from oneself.  Obscurely awaited, immanent and concealed, it rouses to such a paroxysm, at the moment when at last it make itself felt, those other pleasures which we find in the tender glance, in the kiss of her who is by our side, that it seems to us, more than anything else, a sort of transport of gratitude for the kindness of heart of our companion and for her touching predilection of ourselves, which we measure by the benefits, by the happiness that she showers upon us."
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, p. 166

Oh boy, is there potential for trouble here.

My Year With Proust - Day 40

   "Sometimes to the exhilaration which I derived from being alone would be added an alternative feeling, so that I could not be clear in my mind to which I should give the casting vote; a feeling stimulated by the desire to see rise up before my eyes a peasant-girl, whom I might clasp in my arms. . . But if this desire that a woman should appear added for me something more exalting than the charms of nature, they in their turn enlarged what I might, in the woman's charm, have found too much restricted.  it seemed to me that the beauty of the trees was hers also, and that, as for the spirit of those horizons, of the village of Rousainville, of the books which I was reading that year, it was her kiss which would make me master of them all; and, my imagination drawing strength from contact with my sensuality, my sensuality expanding through all the realms of my imagination, my desire had no longer any bounds.  Moreover - just as in moments of musing contemplation of nature, the natural actions of the mind being suspended, and our abstract ideas of things set on one side, we believe with the profoundest faith in the originality, in the individual existence of the place in which we may happen to be - the passing figure which my desire evoked seemed to be not any one example of the general type of 'woman', but a necessary and natural product of the soil.  For at that time everything which was not myself, the earth and the creatures upon it, seemed to me more precious, more important, endowed with a more real existence than they appear to full-grown men.  And between the earth and its creatures I made no distinction."
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, pp. 165-166

For the first time Proust begins to talk, at least directly, about desire, but even here it is viewed through a philosophical and even spiritual lens. In Heroines & Heroes we've already spent time talking about Narratology and are moving into Psychoanalytical literary criticism, so Proust's use of words such as "enlarged", "expanding," "contact with my sensuality", "my desire had no longer any bounds" and "endowed" jump out at me - although my reading from H&H may be inspiring me to notice them more clearly.  That said, Proust is such a precise writer that me may just be having a little fun with the reader.  But I digress . . .

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Goon with a Top Hat

And the last of the oddities that my son and I tracked tracked down during our trip south.  This is the famous/infamous Goon with a Top Hat, which can be found in Kenly, North Carolina at a Corvette repair shop along Route 301. I originally figured that he was a re-purposed Piggly Wiggly statue, but I guess the story is that he escaped from a Tastee Freez.  When we pulled up on a Sunday a guy came out, potentially expecting either business or family or friends, but instead was greeted by two goons making a pilgrimage to the Goon.  He just smiled and waved, and retreated inside.

He clearly needs a coat of paint, and you can barely see the barbwire fence that protects the brim of the oil drum top hat.

The goon visiting the Goon.  The Goon is sadly, although also safely, spending his retirement years inside the fenced in portion of the auto repair yard, protected by a small canine army.  Truthfully, I doubt if my end will be that dignified.

My Year With Proust - Day 39

"But the moment that Francoise herself approached, some evil spirit would urge me to attempt to make her angry, and I would avail myself of the slightest pretext to say to her that I regretted my aunt's death because she had been a good woman in spite of her absurdities, but not in the least because she was my aunt; that she might easily been my aunt and yet have been so odious that her death would not have caused me a moment's sorrow; statements which, in a book, would have struck me as merely fatuous.
   And if Francoise then, inspired like a poet with a flood of confused reflections upon bereavements, grief, and family memories, were to plead her inability to rebut my theories, saying: 'I don't know how to espress myself' - I would triumph over her with an ironical and brutal common sense worthy of Dr Percepied; and if she went on: 'All the same she was a geological relation; there is always the respect due to your geology,' I would shrug my shoulders and say: 'It is really very good of me to discuss the matter with an illiterate old woman who cannot speak her own language,' adopting, to deliver judgment on Francoise, the mean and narrow outlook of a pedant, whom those who are most contemptuous of him in the impartiality of their own minds are only too prone to copy when they are obliged to play a part upon the vulgar stage of life."
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, pp. 162-163

As with most of the passages from Proust that I'm culling out, I have several thoughts.  As my excellent friend Cinse Bonino would recognize me saying, "OK, two things, . . ." before launching into my response.  However, I'll restrict myself to one, and that is my recognition of the fact that I can certainly be guilty of "the mean and narrow outlook of a pedant."  In my last Proust-related post I referenced my time working in the cardboard box factory, and how it made me an even more avid reader.  I remember one night I was talking to a woman who, I'm sure at the time seemed ancient, but was probably in her early 40s.  She had unpacked her lunch (for us, really, supper) and was alternating between eating spaghetti and some jello.  I proposed that it was an odd combination, and she replied that she was eating because she was happy with her weight.  She was eating spaghetti to gain weight and jello to lose weight.  Amused, I pointed out that it didn't work that way, which immediately drew three other folks in to heap foul scorn (gently) on the head of the idiot college student "who don't know nothin'".  Actually, the memory makes me smile and cringe at the same time, because, all things considered, they were very nice to me (I'm sure nicer than I deserved).  A week later I was sitting in the break room next to the same woman.  It was late July, and even at night the temperature in the factory was sweltering (it was right on the river in Aurora, Indiana; I wonder/doubt if it's still there).  It's funny the things you remember, because, as I've discussed, I don't think of myself as a person with a very good memory - but I remember this incident quite clearly.  I had been staring into space, and I broke my reflecting/pouting by saying something like, "Jesus, I've got four more weeks."  That is, I had another month of work, time in the real world, before I was able to pass back into the academic world (and societal and cultural bubble) of college.  She looked at me, harshly, at first, like I was an ignorant spoiled brat (which in some ways I clearly was/am), but then with more of an exhausted and resigned expression, and said, "I have twenty-five more years." Maybe the reason why I remember that moment so clearly is that it was a defining moment.  It revealed something profound to me about myself and how I viewed the world, and it wasn't a very pleasant realization. I should have said I'm sorry, but instead we exchanged sad, tired smiles, sealing an unspoken agreement to let it go.  I think I did become a better person after that, more understanding of how lucky I was, and with a more balanced sense of the world and the people in it.  Years later, when I had my first full-time teaching job down in Atlanta, my friend Jim Gonzalez would sometimes point out, "I don't get you.  You'll say 'yes, ma'am' and 'no, ma'am' to every waitress in every restaurant, but then you'll turn around and tell any administrator to go fuck themselves." Reflecting back on it now, I guess it all makes sense.

On a side note, in real time I finished Swann's Way last night and moved on into Within a Budding Grove. It's part of a boxed three volume Vintage collection, same translator (the classic C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, although with some adaptions and corrections by T. Kilmartin) as the Barnes & Noble version of Swann's Way that I had been reading.  The page numbers, naturally, will be a tad different.  Being a historian (and a nerd) I will doubtless come back some day and recreate my notes from the B&N version on the Vintage version of Swann's Way, and then come back and adapt the page numbers in the blog.  Why, who knows.  As the song goes, "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me." There is a gap between what I'm reading and what I'm commenting on because I can read faster than I can write, but also because I'm making notes and then leaving a little time to consider and reconsider my reactions and thoughts, which means I might be getting further and further behind. This means I need to either write faster or take a break from reading so I don't get two volumes behind.  That's a tough call.  I'm busy and don't have endless time to write on Proust if I'm ever going to get my book finished, but I'm also hooked on Proust and don't want to stop reading. Of course, I could also write less in my commentary.  In the end I'm really only writing for myself, so it's not as if the world is going to rise up in revolt and feel cheated because I'm not sharing enough of my pseudo-intellectual observations.  Hmmmm.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Pemba Maybe

We are now down to a few weeks until we head out on our student trip to Tanzania, with stops in Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar and, potentially, theoretically, hypothetically, Pemba. We've, and especially my friend and colleague Steve, been working continually to include Pemba on our itinerary for the trip.  On my visit to Zanzibar a few years ago we didn't make it to Pemba, but in this case, because this class is entitled Sacred & Secular, and because the island is the center of all east African witchcraft, it just seems like it is essential.  And we have a ton of great things lined up, including bull fights (not the same as the Spanish equivalent - these are more exhibitions), visits to local shamans, and flying foxes. I wish I could drag my friend Dave Kelley along; I'm sure nothing would make him happier than a glorified bat with a five foot wing span. Our problem is that we can't seem to figure out the ferry schedule, and every person and every website we visit gives us a different answer.  Steve's main contact, Kombo Bakar on Pemba, and mine, Kuya in Dar Es Salaam, are sort of working on the issue.  Yes, travel in Africa.  It always starts off as pure unadulterated chaos, but then ends up as amazing and life-changing.  Now, if we can only get to Pemba.  Maybe via flying fox?

It doesn't look that far . . .

Did I mention the flying foxes?

I can't decide whether the best title is "Dave, it's just a cute dog with wings" or "Surrender Dorothy".

My Year With Proust - Day 38

   "Sometimes, when the weather had completely broken, we were obliged to go home and to remain shut up indoors.  Here and there, in the distance, in a landscape which, what with the failing light and saturated atmosphere, resembled a seascape rather, a few solitary houses clinging to the lower slopes of a hill whose heights were buried in a cloudy darkness shone out like little boats which had folded their sails and would ride at anchor, all night, upon the sea.  But what mattered rain or storm?  In summer, bad weather is no more than a passing fit of superficial ill-temper expressed by the permanent, underlying fine weather; a very different thing from the fluid and unstable 'fine weather' of winter, its very opposite, in fact; for has it not (firmly established in the soil, on which it has taken solid form in dense masses of foliage over which the rain may pour in torrents without weakening the resistance offered by their real and lasting happiness) hoisted, to keep them flying throughout the season, in the village streets, on the walls of the houses and in their gardens, its silken banners, violet and white?  Sitting in the little parlour, where I would pass the time until dinner with a book, I might hear the water dripping from our chestnut-trees, but I would know that the shower would only glaze and brighten the greenness of their thick, crumpled leaves, and that they themselves had undertaken to remain there, like pledges of summer, all through the rainy night, to assure me of the fine weather's continuing; it might rain as it pleased, but to-morrow, over the white fence of Tansonville, there would surge and flow, numerous as ever, a sea of little heart-shaped leaves; and without the least anxiety I could watch the poplar in the Rue des Perchamps praying for mercy, bowing in desperation before the storm; without the least anxiety I could hear, at the far end of the garden, the last peals of thunder growling among our lilac-trees."
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, pp. 160-161

I chose this passage for a couple reasons, one of them being the norm with Proust - it is just beautifully constructed, and displays his astonishing powers of observation and description.  I was also thinking of Proust reading in that parlor, waiting for dinner, and occasionally sneaking a peak out the window.  People who love to read - and I'll also include people who love film - will steal locations and make them part of our personal imaginary landscape.  Who hasn't read Tolkien and constructed their own little hobbit hole in Hobbiton where they will spend their days reading, drinking tea and patiently (or impatiently) waiting for second breakfast?  During my days that are increasingly filled up with administrative nonsense and incompetence, I increasingly drift off and consider how much happier I'd be tramping around the Antipodes with Dr. Uyterhoeven (I'm sure Sarah Cohen would have to come as well).  And I could happily live in that mythical Scottish village from Local Hero, potentially taking on Gordon Urquhart's job or maybe just painting the name on the boat or retouching the call box.

This all came to mind because Proust has just described my favorite place to sit and read in my imagined landscape.  Which also got me thinking about my favorite places to read in the real world, or at least in my remember real world (which, as we're learning, may have nothing to do with the real world).  I've always been a pretty voracious reader, but I think the place where I read most hungrily and for the greatest number of hours was my father's den in the big house (as we still call it - I guess none of us had ever heard of the stony lonesome then) back in Lawrenceburg when I was growing up. It was a small little room that was equidistant from the family room downstairs where people would gather to watch TV and the bedrooms in the back part of the house.  It also had, at least for a while, a small fish tank, which provided a lovely vanilla background bubbling sound for reading (or napping). Two summers I worked the night shift at the local cardboard box factory, which meant that I almost never saw my friend Jack, who was working the day shift, because I would get home around 1:00 a.m. and then not climb out of bed until around noon to get ready to head in around 3:00 in the afternoon.  As soon as I returned home I would retreat to my father's den and lay on the couch reading until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.  It was the perfect setup, even if it felt more than slightly imposed at the time, for reading, and I plowed through some many books both summers.  For example, it was the second time I read Winesburg, Ohio, and as much as I liked it when I was fourteen, I realized that there were worlds within worlds when I reread it during college.  I think the other reason why I read so hungrily those summers was that I felt that I was intellectually dying in  the summer (if you've ever been to Indiana you know what I'm talking about).  My father was, and is, quite brilliant, but my schedule didn't leave much time for us to get together.  After spending the school year discussing great books and deep ideas at a pretty solid liberal arts college, it was really hard to spend every day with the folks at the cardboard box factory who were equally certain that I was an idiot because of my complete lack of common sense or useful skills (I suspect my grandfather thought the same thing, but more gently and with much more forgiveness in his great heart).  However, I'll have more to say about my perception of those folks in my next visit to Proust, and I probably won't be too easy on myself).