Reading Proust: The Recherche in an Extra-Moral Sense

By Caroline Weber
May 3, 2013

Beckett is absolutely right to stress the “shamelessness” of the Recherche (1913-1927), though it was by no means the first French novel to evince this quality. Already in “Dangerous Liaisons” (1782), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos had subverted the genre’s morally edifying function by prefacing his cool-as-a-cucumber tale of unabashed libertine depravity with a mock-conciliatory note: “At very least, it seems to me a service to public morality to unmask the means by which the wicked corrupt the good.” This proviso did not deter the vice squad from forbidding Parisians to read Laclos’s novel in public places. Similarly, Gustave Flaubert stood trial for “offending public morality” with “Madame Bovary” (1857), a meticulously observed portrait of a vacuous, petite-bourgeoise adulteress.

Like these antecedents, the Recherche offers an unvarnished, markedly non-judgmental portrayal of sexual activities traditionally deplored as vices or even — in the context of French Catholicism — as sins. As the title of his novel’s fourth volume, “Sodom and Gommorah” (1921-1922), makes clear, male and female homosexuality are essential to Proust’s worldview, generally surfacing alongside other so-called perversions. While seducing her girlfriend, Mlle Vinteuil desecrates her late father’s portrait; the Prince de Guermantes and the Marquis de Saint-Loup both cheat on their wives with the gigolo-cum-violinist Morel; another Morel paramour, the Baron de Charlus, also indulges in whips-and-chains sex play at a tawdry gay brothel.

Yet no matter how shocking the content of these vignettes (André Gide, Proust’s contemporary and fellow “invert,” feared they would “set back the issue [of homosexuality] by 20 years”), their real import relates less to sex as such, as to the much farther-reaching moral subversion that Proust effects by rigorously investigating humanity’s most essential but elusive “enigmatic truths” — erotic and otherwise. (In the Proustian cosmos, these truths provide the “scattered lightning-flashes” to which Sam so eloquently alludes in his post.) As outlined in “Time Regained” (1927), the seventh and final volume of the Recherche, the novelist’s foremost task lies in “teasing out and illuminating our feelings, our passions; which is to say, the passions and feelings of humanity as a whole.” According to Proust, those passions and feelings operate according to “general laws” that remain constant even when surface particularities are different; for instance, even the seemingly unconscionable penchants of a Charlus illustrate a truth with which we all, sooner or later, are forced to reckon: that love can come to us in the most extravagantly improbable, inexplicable and inconvenient forms. (Witness the eponymous hero of “Swann’s Way,” declaring at what he mistakenly believes to be the end of his disastrous affair with the faithless Odette: “To think that I wasted years of my life,…[and] felt the greatest love I’ve ever known, for a woman whom I didn’t even find attractive, who wasn’t my type!”)

In this light, the writer’s work is important because it alone enables us to penetrate the thick fog of perceptual laziness and distraction and delusion that otherwise blinds us to the truth about ourselves and those around us. And it can only perform that function if its vision is undistorted by the author’s own moral judgments, whether favorable or condemnatory; what Beckett calls a “complete indifference to moral values and human justices” is thus a, even the, necessary precondition of the Proustian enterprise. In fact, Beckett’s observation echoes that of one of Proust’s earliest German translators, Walter Benjamin, who notes in a 1929 essay that

[t]here is no individual suffering, however revolting, and no social injustice, however glaring, against which Proust would have protested with a candid “No” or an intrepid “But wait!” Quite the opposite: we find in him a profound acceptance of the world just as it is, even in its saddest and most bestial manifestations.

More often than not, the world of the Recherche proves sad and bestial indeed. And yet the writer himself cannot be faulted if its hard-won insights make it appear — to borrow Proust’s own ironic epithet for Laclos’s “Dangerous Liaisons” — “the most frighteningly perverse of books.” That perversity is simply the chaff from which the novelist endeavors, fearlessly and tirelessly, to separate the wheat of elemental human nature. Put another way, Proust explains:

It was not the goodness of his virtuous heart, which happened to be considerable, that made Choderlos de Laclos write “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” nor his fondness for the bourgeoisie, petite or grande, that prompted Flaubert to choose Mme Bovary as his subject…

These authors selected their material not because they were immoral, but because they sought the truth; and so it is with Proust as well. For this reason, he concludes:

The vulgar reader is wrong to think the author wicked, for in any given, ridiculous aspect [of human behavior], the artist sees a beautiful generality; and he no more faults his subject for being ridiculous than a surgeon looks down on a patient for being afflicted with persistent circulation problems.

The son and the brother of noted surgeons, Marcel Proust knew whereof he spoke: in literature, as in medicine, there is no place for shame. Or as Flaubert — who was also a doctor’s son, and whose exacting prose style, likened by at least one critic to a scalpel, Proust brilliantly parodied in his 1919 volume of literary pastiches — remarked just before his obscenity trial: “Writing well is its own kind of immorality.”

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