He was dead. Dead forever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracts in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there - those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only - if then! - to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not permanently dead is by no means improbable.
They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.
Marcel Proust, The Captive, p. 186
Proust's friend Bergotte had died, and this provided the author with the opportunity to ruminate, sadly very briefly, on the nature of the next world. In a novel that devotes so much time to trying to make sense of the world Proust doesn't spend much time discussing religion or existential questions about what happens when we die. I guess it's not that surprising since it was an age when faith was on the retreat and thinkers like Freud, Marx and Darwin were constructing new theories of reality, each of which became religions in their own way. "Who can say?" is all Proust can come up with when asking himself whether Bergotte was dead forever. Proust discusses obligations, ranging from the desire "to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite," to the pursuit of excellence and beauty, "like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist . ." But why do we do these things? Proust proposes, "All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there . . " He is hinting at a more beautiful world, a more ethereal world, a world that shapes and guides our own world, but he just can't seem to go any further, and laments that even this vision falls into the hands of fools. And in the end he can only accept that, "So that the idea that Bergotte was not permanently dead was by no means improbable." The other day I was meeting with some friends discussing Sufi mysticism, which is the odd thing that professors do in their spare time. At one point I asked one of them, a long-time friend and almost certainly the smartest person I've ever known, whether he considered mysticism to be a "threat," and I was only partially trying to wind him up. Mainly, I was asking whether he, a philosopher who strives for intellectual precision, was both fascinated by and troubled by mysticism because it existed, by definition, outside of the rational, and thus maybe controllable, universe. I kept coming back to that exchange as I reread this passage from Proust. Maybe Proust devoted so little time to issues of faith because he was such an extraordinarily precise thinker and religion never provided him with the definable and provable answers he sought.
Having said all of that, I think I'm more interested in his response, and Bergotte's response, to Vermeer's painting View of Delft, which played a role in the latter's death.
Bergotte's death came to him the day after he had thus entrusted himself to one of these friends (a friend? or an enemy, rather?) who proved too strong for him. The circumstances of his death were as follows. A fairly mile attack of uraemia had led to his being ordered to rest. But an art critic having written somewhere that in Vermeer's View of Delft (lent by the Gallery at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself, Bergotte ate a few potatoes, left the house, and went to the exhibition. At the first few steps he had to climb, he was overcome by an attack of dizziness. He walked past several pictures and was struck by the aridity and pointlessness of such an artificial kind of art, which was greatly inferior to the sunshine of a windswept Venetian palazzo, or an ordinary house by the sea. At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic's article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand as pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. "That's how I ought to have written," he said. "My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter. (pp. 184-185)
Bergotte slumped back against the circular settee and died.
It's difficult to not read the description of Bergotte's death and not think that it is one of the most autobiographical moments in an intensely autobiographical novel. First off, View of Delft was one of Proust's favorite paintings, if not his own personal favorite. Vermeer's view across the the water seems a perfect visual rendering of Proust's own preoccupation with looking back over the years to focus in on the truth. The desire to keep looking, intensely and more deeply, until you found that little stretch of yellow wall, seems very Proustian to me. And finally, Bergotte's willingness to sacrifice his health to the pursuit of knowledge and beauty just reads like Proust's own final years. In the end, if you create something that lives on does it matter if you do? In that light, Proust's final words on Bergotte are prophetic of his own end: "They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection."