Having thought for a moment, contemplating Andree, that I could actually see these pleasures of Albertine's which I had so often tried to imagine, on another occasion I received an intimation of them otherwise than through the eyes: I thought I heard them. I had had two young laundry-girls, from a district where Albertine had often gone, brought to a house of assignation. One of them, beneath the caresses of the other, suddenly began to utter sounds which at first I found difficult to identify, for one never understands precisely the meaning of an original sound expressive of a sensation which one does not experience oneself. Hearing it from a neighbouring room without being able to see, one may mistake for a chuckle the noise which is forced by pain from a patient being operated on without an anaesthetic; and as for the noise emitted by a mother who has just been told that he child has died, it can seem to us, if we are unaware of its origin, as difficult to translate into human terms as the noise emitted by an animal or by a harp. It takes us a little time to realise that those two noises express what, by analogy with the (very different) sensations we ourselves may have felt, we call pain; and it took me some time, too, to understand that this noise expressed what, by analogy with the (very different) sensations I myself had felt, I called pleasure; and the pleasure must have been very great to overwhelm to this extent the person who was expressing it and it extract her her this strange utterance which seemed to describe and comment on the exquisite drama which the young woman was living through and which was concealed from my eyes by the curtain that is forever lowered for other people over what happens in the mysterious intimacy of every human creature. In any case these two girls could tell me nothing, as they had no idea who Albertine was.
Marcel Proust, The Fugitive, pp. 560-561
This is an amazing passage, and one that speaks to how revolutionary, and to a certain mindset scandalous, Remembrance of Things Past was when it was published a century ago. As Marcel continues to reflect upon Albertine and their failed relationship and her death, he continues to be fixated on her bisexuality and her love of women. During his discussion with Andree he had made an extraordinary request of her: "I told Andree that it would be of great interest to me if she would allow me to see her (even if she simply confined herself to caresses which would not embarrass her unduly in my presence) performing such actions with those of Albertine's friends who shared her tastes, and I mentioned Rosemonde, Berthe, each of Albertine's friends, in the hope of find out something." (pp. 558-559) Essentially, he wanted to see her having sex with other other friends of Albertine. Now, the obvious issue here is whether Marcel is just being more than a tad pervy, or if he's truly trying to understand Albertine, even if that understanding is nothing more than chasing memories. As part of this exploration he paid two "laundry-girls" to have sex so that he could watch. "exquisite drama"
I find this entire passage extraordinary, and not simply because of my own Marcel-like pervy nature. Rather, his response to the female orgasm, or, as he tells us, the "exquisite drama," is amazing although I suppose not that surprising. He's not certain that he "could actually see these pleasures of Albertine's which I had so often tried to imagine," and thus even hiring the two women to have sex might not answer the question. However, he tells us, "I thought I heard them." Proust writes, "One of them, beneath the caresses of the other, suddenly began to utter sounds which at first I found difficult to identify, for one never understands precisely the meaning of an original sound expressive of a sensation which one does not experience oneself." Now, here's the thing, is Marcel suggesting that he wouldn't recognize the female orgasm because he, as a man, has never experienced a female orgasm, or is he admitting that he's never been in the same room as a female orgasm; that he's never played a role in generating a female orgasm (other than, I guess, the financial role he played in this particular one)? This, in turn, made me think about "modern" nature of the female orgasm, not, obviously, biological, but rather societal or cultural. How many thousand years of human history passed by wherein the female orgasm would have been the furthest thing from anyone's mind? Of course, the obvious response to that would be, "wait a minute, matey boy, it wasn't the furthest thing from the woman's mind." True, although is it even that simple? If your religion decried masturbation and made it clear that the whole point of sex was, not pleasure, but simply procreation, and for that you only needed, technically, the male orgasm, was the female orgasm just another aspect of the lives of women that was suppressed by the ruling patriarchy? In one of the readings in Concepts of the Self a point is made about the female orgasm being more powerful than the male orgasm, and almost every man and a surprising number of women seem puzzled by the statement, which is probably a pretty appropriate metaphor for human history.