Proust and the Visual

Proust and the Visual

by Natalie Aubert

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Proust and the Visual is an edited volume of essays written by Proustian specialists, concerned with a rich phenomenological category, the “visual” whose prominent role in the novel is at the heart of its modernity. The “visual” is defined as manifesting in the image not only space, but also time. The “visual” is considered as a…  See more details below


Proust and the Visual is an edited volume of essays written by Proustian specialists, concerned with a rich phenomenological category, the “visual” whose prominent role in the novel is at the heart of its modernity. The “visual” is defined as manifesting in the image not only space, but also time. The “visual” is considered as a category that delineates the conditions of possibility of all visibility and constitutes an integral part of both the progression of the narrator’s journey towards becoming a writer and of the unfolding of the novel itself.

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University of Wales Press
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Studies in Visual Culture
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Proust and the Visual

By Nathalie Aubert

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2012 The Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-314-4


'The secret blackness of milk': Proust, Merleau-Ponty, Literature

Nathalie Aubert

'For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: "I'm falling asleep"'(I, 243).These famous lines, and the long passage that ensues, are a clear indication that at the heart of À la recherche is a discussion about the consciousness of being in the world, and perhaps, more precisely, of being in this world. The kind of unravelling of conventions of narratorial mastery that the opening of the novel gives us explicitly aims at establishing the experience of perception prior to the construction of the body as object and the cogito as a rational subject. The world is seen from a central organizing sensibility and, in the excerpt, the accumulation of terms expressing the inability of reason to enlighten the puzzled Narrator conveys the incarnated protagonist's sense of disorientation when trying to rely on his body to communicate to him 'in an instant reads off his own position on the earth's surface' ('en une seconde le point de la terre qu'il occupe').

For Proust, the perceived world is the presupposed foundation of all rationality. In the following lines, the term 'instinct' expresses the primacy of perception over what can only constitute, Proust is suggesting, a second level of perceptual experience:

When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly bodies. Instinctively he consults them when he awakes, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth's surface and the time that has elapsed during his slumbers. (I 5)

More importantly for what concerns us in this book, from the outset, 'vision' is not reduced to a mere sensation, but is a specific way to perceive space, forming the unstable boundaries of reality for the Narrator. Therefore, this opening is aptly named an 'overture' since in these first few pages Proust grounds the novel in a locus where reflection and intuition have not yet been distinguished, in experiences that have not yet been 'worked over', offering us all at once, pellmell, both 'subject' and 'object', both existence and essence:

And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book [...] This impression would persist for some moments after I awoke; it did not offend my reason, but lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible [,,,] I would ask myself what time it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller is hurrying towards the nearby station [...] I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and fresh as the cheeks of childhood. (I 3)

As with the 'madeleine' episode, the Narrator's senses, omnipresent in his apprehension of the world surrounding him, are interwoven in the fabric of the text: sight, sound and touch describe the back and forth movement between belief ('croyance') and the workings of the mind ('esprit'). All the while, Proust is making the reader aware that perception, with its errors and adjustments, is essentially anchored in time and, most importantly, in the body.

In the author's systematic endeavour to bring incarnate subjectivity to the fore, consequently making the world not a mere objective world, but one in which a man lives as an incarnate subject, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty saw a confirmation that it was possible to establish a phenomenology in which not only subjectivity, but also the world itself were, in a sense, incarnated. Using Proust's 'attempt at an integral expression of the perceived or lived world', Merleau-Ponty realized that literary speech could serve as a model as he wanted to embark on an 'ontological rehabilitation of the sensible', much in the same way as Proust himself tried to (or Proust as he saw him). In his enquiries into the incarnation of consciousness, Merleau-Ponty looked at the role played by language, and in particular, the 'indirect language' of either literature and/or painting. In Proust in particular, he identified a writer whose conception of style was intent on producing a system of signs which would expressed the landscape of an experience. Therefore, in the novel, Merleau-Ponty especially focuses on the importance of the relationship between art and experience since the experience of art (as part of experience in general) is both a permanent, multiple feature of the writer's novel and a distinctive part of each character's day-to-day existence and activity. This relationship is both problematic and complex, thus firmly anchoring Proust in the tenets of all modernist works. At the same time, a purely aesthetic bridge with reality is not enough: an erudite approach such as Swann's is wrong because it places the emphasis on art as scholarship, never as something experienced. In this respect, the Narrator's grandmother's approach is also erroneous; the idea of beauty for beauty's sake is rejected by Proust as a mere formal game. He aims at a new way of communicating experience: before the Narrator's undivided existence the world is true; it exists and the unity, the articulations of both are intermingled. The way the main protagonist experiences truth in the world is as a truth which shows through and envelops him rather than being held and circumscribed by his mind:

Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for my eyes, but even more, perhaps for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed. (I 3)

As the overture of À la recherche demonstrates, the realm of the perceived world could easily appear to take on the form of a simple appearance, full of misleading 'beliefs'. Proust seems to suggest that our perceptual familiarity with the world is only a rough, unformed sketch which explains the importance of the category of 'depth' ('profondeur') in his text: 'For the quality of depth is not inherent to certain subjects, as those novelists believe who are spiritually minded only in materialistic way: they cannot penetrate beneath the world of appearances' (III 934). He founds his theory of the novel upon the discovery of the body as active body or symbolic power: it is a concrete theory of the mind which shows the mind in a relationship of reciprocal exchange with the instruments which it uses, and it is precisely because it is a concrete theory of the mind that it is constructed around a new idea of expression:

As for the truths which the intellectual faculty – even that the greatest minds - gathers in the open, the truths that lie in its path in full daylight, their value may be great, but they are like drawings with a hard outline and no perspective; they have no depth because no depths have had to be traversed in order to reach them, because they have not been re-created. (III 934–5)

Among the statements that the Narrator pronounces for or against a certain type of literature (via the pronouncements of various characters such as the grandmother, Norpois, Bloch etc.), is always expressed the idea that literature/literary language is never the mere clothing of a thought which otherwise possesses itself in full clarity:

But when all is said and done it is only the inexpressible, only what one thought one would not succeed in putting into a book, which survives. It is something vague and obsessive like the memory. It is an atmosphere [...] Only it is not in the words, it is not expressed, it is mixed in between the words, like the mist on a morning in Chantilly.

The meaning of a book is given, in the first instance, not so much by its ideas as by a systematic and unexpected variation of the modes of language, of narrative, or of existing literary forms. Proust was particularly sensitive to this accent, this particular modulation of speech (the 'melody' of a writer) that he was able to explore in his pastiches:

As soon as I was reading an author, I could very soon make out the melody of the song underneath the words, different in one author from what it is in every other, and as I read, without realizing it, I would be humming it, hurrying the words, slowing them down or breaking off altogether, as one does when singing, when, depending on the tempo of the melody, one often waits a long time before saying the end of a word. I knew very well that if I did not know how to write, never having been able to work, my ear at least was nicer and truer than many other people's.

The whole thrust of À la recherche as the story of a vocation is the idea according to which the writer's thought does not control his language from without; he is himself a kind of new idiom, constructing itself, inventing ways of expression, and diversifying itself according to its own meaning.

This work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourself, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life. (III 932)

The 'literature of description' (III 931) ('littérature de notations' (TR IV 473) limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture. The kind of literature envisaged by Proust, however, is one that is a re-creation of the signifying instrument, inventing a new syntax. Early on in the novel, the young Narrator has a deep seated sense that true literature should be the art of capturing a meaning which until then had never been objectified and of rendering it in a style which retains (and this explains why, at the end of the novel, Proust speaks of 'the necessary links of a well-wrought style' (III 925) ('les anneaux nécessaires d'un beau style' (TR IV 468)) something of the original impression.

Staging the progressive discovery of the Narrator's style throughout the novel, one of the most significant moments in his development is when he acknowledges that in most aspects there is no difference between language and painting. Talking about Elstir's 'Marines' he identifies that: 'I was able to discern from these that the charm of each of them lay in a sort of metamorphosis of the objects represented, analogous to what in poetry we call metaphor' (I 893). The full extent of this 'analogy' will only unravel in Le Temps retrouvé, when he eventually realizes that a novel achieves expression in the same way as a painting: 'Style for the writer, no less than colour for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision' (III 931). One of the reasons why it takes him so much time is that he assumes he needs a 'theme' if he wants to write a novel:

And these dreams reminded me that, since I wished some day to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, and tried to discover some subject to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, my consciousness would be faced with a blank, I would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent or that perhaps some malady of the brain was hindering its development. (I 188–9)

But the virtue of a novel, like that of a painting, is not in the theme. This is something that Proust himself had discovered earlier, when he dedicated six years of his life to reading and translating the English art critic John Ruskin whose anecdote about Turner he quotes in the article he dedicated to him at the time of his death, in 1900:

Turner, in his early life, was sometimes good-natured, and would show people what he was about. He was one day making a drawing of Plymouth harbour, with some ships at the distance of a mile or two, seen against the light. Having shown his drawing to a naval officer, the naval officer observed with surprise, and objected with justifiable indignation, that the ships of the line had no port-holes. 'No,' said Turner, 'certainly not. If you will walk up Mount Edgecumb, and look at the ships against the sunset, you will find you can't see the port-holes.' 'Well, but,' said the naval officer still indignant, 'you know the port-holes are there.' 'Yes,' said Turner, 'I know that well enough, but my business is to draw what I see, and not what I know is there.'

There is no need for the 'port-holes' to be meticulously reproduced. There is no need for them in the painting; they are there, in the hollows of space and the signification they delimit. The painter only gives a glimpse of the world into which he is initiating the spectator; his brush leaves dreamlike traces which are those of the artist's mark on his surroundings. Like Elstir in the novel, Turner knows how to find the ellipses the spectator will respond to, placing the narrator in the book at the heart of an imaginary world he brings to life and rules:

If God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their names or giving them other names that Elstir created them anew. The names which designate things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion, alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with that notion.

As Merleau-Ponty points out,

Language which aimed only at expressing things themselves would lose its power to instruct in factual statements. A language which, on the contrary, gives our perspective on things, thus putting things into relief, opens up a discussion over things which does not end with it, but itself invites research and makes communication possible.

He concludes that this 'living use of language' is to be found in the work of art because 'it contains, better than ideas, matrices of ideas'.

One of the main difficulties expressed by the Narrator in the novel, is that it takes him time to understand that a 'conquering language' introduces us to new experiences and new perspectives (just as Elstir does). As Merleau-Ponty states 'we would never see any landscape if our eyes did not give us the means of catching, questioning, and shaping patterns of space and colour hitherto unseen':

Now the effort made by Elstir to reproduce things not as he knew them to be but according to the optical illusions of which our first sight of the mis composed, had led him precisely to bring out certain of these laws of perspective, which were thus all the more striking, since art had been the first to disclose them. (I 897)

Elstir's 'lesson' in À la recherche expresses the necessity for any creative language (pictorial or literary) to allow the means of expression to be enveloped in a haze of signification that it derives from its particular arrangement, since 'no less than with painting, the essential meaning of the work of art is perceptible at first only as a coherent deformation imposed on the visible'. Proust's description of the Port de Carquethuit enacts this process in the text whereby the image of the world is thrown out of focus, distending the dimensions of our experience and pulling them towards a new meaning:

Whether because its houses concealed a part of the harbour [...] or perhaps the sea itself [...] [they appeared] town-bred, built on land, an impression reinforced by other boats moored along the jetty but in such serried ranks that you could see men talking across from one deck to another without being able to distinguish the dividing line [...] so that this fishing fleet seemed less to belong to the water than, for instance, the churches of Criquebec [...] The men who were pushing down their boats into the sea were running as much through the waves as along the sand [...] so that a ship actually at sea, half-hidden by the projecting works of the arsenal, seemed to be sailing through the middle of the town. (I 895)

Elstir's painting inaugurates a new world, but the problem the Narrator faces is that 'the writer can conceive of himself only in an established language, whereas every painter refashions his language'. At first, it is inhibiting and it takes a while for him fully to grasp that it is also an advantage, as painting pays for its immediate access to permanence: 'The first painting opens up a world, but the first word opens up a universe. In short, language speaks, and the voices of painting are the "voices of silence".'


Excerpted from Proust and the Visual by Nathalie Aubert. Copyright © 2012 The Contributors. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Meet the Author

Nathalie Aubert is Professor of French Literature at Oxford Brookes University.

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