The Weather in Proustby Jonathan Goldberg, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
The Weather in Proust gathers pieces written by the eminent critic and theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the last decade of her life, as she worked toward a book on Proust. This book takes its title from the first essay, a startlingly original interpretation of Proust. By way of Neoplatonism, Buddhism, and the work of Melanie Klein, Sedgwick establishes the/i>
The Weather in Proust gathers pieces written by the eminent critic and theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the last decade of her life, as she worked toward a book on Proust. This book takes its title from the first essay, a startlingly original interpretation of Proust. By way of Neoplatonism, Buddhism, and the work of Melanie Klein, Sedgwick establishes the sense of refreshment and surprise that the author of the Recherche affords his readers. Proust also figures in pieces on the poetry of C. P. Cavafy, object relations, affect theory, and Sedgwick’s textile art practices. More explicitly connected to her role as a pioneering queer theorist are an exuberant attack against reactionary refusals of the work of Guy Hocquenghem and talks in which she lays out her central ideas about sexuality and her concerns about the direction of US queer theory. Sedgwick lived for more than a dozen years with a diagnosis of terminal cancer; its implications informed her later writing and thinking, as well as her spiritual and artistic practices. In the book’s final and most personal essay, she reflects on the realization of her impending death. Featuring thirty-seven color images of her art, The Weather in Proust offers a comprehensive view of Sedgwick’s later work, underscoring its diversity and coherence.
“With breathtaking range and brilliance, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once again, and in myriad ways, reminds us of the complex relationality of affective life. These extraordinary essays give life to her claim that something about queer is inextinguishable.”—Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, University of California, Berkeley
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The Weather in Proust
By Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Duke University PressCopyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Weather in Proust
Early in the fourth volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust's narrator goes to a party at the home of the Prince de Guermantes, where he sees a fountain designed by the eighteenth-century architect Hubert Robert. His description of the fountain is one of the novel's (admittedly many) descriptive set pieces:
It could be seen from a distance, slender, motionless, rigid, set apart in a clearing surrounded by fine trees, several of which were as old as itself, only the lighter fall of its pale and quivering plume stirring in the breeze. The eighteenth century had refined the elegance of its lines, but, by fixing the style of the jet, seemed to have arrested its life; at this distance one had the impression of art rather than the sensation of water. Even the moist cloud that was perpetually gathering at its summit preserved the character of the period like those that assemble in the sky round the palaces of Versailles. But from a closer view one realised that, while it respected, like the stones of an ancient palace, the design traced for it beforehand, it was a constantly changing stream of water.... [Its] continuity, apparently complete, was assured, at every point in the ascent of the jet where it must otherwise have been broken, by the entering into line, by the lateral incorporation, of a parallel jet which mounted higher than the first and was itself, at a greater altitude which was however already a strain upon its endurance, relieved by a third. From close to, exhausted drops could be seen falling back from the column of water, passing their sisters on the way up, and at times, torn and scattered, caught in an eddy of the night air, disturbed by this unremitting surge, floating awhile before being drowned in the basin. They teased with their hesitations, with their journey in the opposite direction, and blurred with their soft vapour the vertical tension of the shaft that bore aloft an oblong cloud composed of countless tiny drops but seemingly painted in an unchanging golden brown which rose, unbreakable, fixed, slender and swift, to mingle with the clouds in the sky. (4:75–76)
This conspicuously emblematic description seems to offer a crux for articulating a number of issues—architectonically as well as thematically important ones—in A la recherche du temps perdu. Hayden White has analyzed this paragraph as a miniature demonstration of the tropes of historiographic rhetoric tout court. Again, considered generically, the description represents a brash manifesto for the roman-fleuve, the fictional form in which destinies high and low are relayed and transmuted through a series of generations and where, for example, a single character may recycle under serial names or titles, while a single name or title can be forwarded by a series of distinct characters.
From the point of view of iconography, the Robert fountain links to earlier fountains in European literature, art, and landscape to invoke a tradition that is specifically Neoplatonic. Originating with Plotinus in the third century AD, the philosophical and spiritual discourse of Neoplatonism holds that, in Proust's words, "there exists but a single intelligence of which everyone is co-tenant" (2:195), toward the plenitude of which souls ceaselessly rise and merge, and from which they just as naturally fall and individuate. To quote Plotinus: "The cosmic content is carried forward to its purpose, everything in its co-ordinate place, under only one Reason-Principle operating alike in the descent and return of souls and to every purpose of the system." The Neoplatonic fountain offers an emblem for the possibility of non-oppositional relations of many important kinds: between pattern and contingency; the eternal and the ephemeral; the universal soul and that of the individual.
That Proust tends to have reincarnation on his mind is clear from his mention of it in the opening paragraph of his novel; and among the Neoplatonic associations of this fountain perhaps the most pointed, in the career of the individual water drops anthropomorphized by Proust in terms of their exhaustion and transmutation, involves a narrative of reincarnation. As Plotinus describes the reincarnation narrative, "The sufferer, all unaware, is swept onward towards his due, hurried always by the restless driving of his errors, until at last wearied out by that against which he struggled, he falls into his fit place and, by self-chosen movement, is brought to the lot he never chose." Among the series represented by this fountain is the possibility of souls' enacting serial lives.
And at the most literal level, the Guermantes' fountain, like any fountain, is a machine for animating and recirculating water. Simultaneously a spring and a fall, and with the narrator's repeated emphasis on the state-changes of condensation and cloud formation, it offers a stylized, artificial epitome of the unending processes by which water is propelled through its life-giving round of physical metamorphoses.
Both as a representation of the rebirth cycle and of the water cycle, then, the Guermantes' fountain, with all its eighteenth-century elegance, might be taken as representing a novelistic vision that combines flexibility with an extraordinary economy, in an endlessly mutable but ultimately closed system where what goes around comes around, where linear narrative is propelled through a perpetual recycling of elements, lives, positions, structures, and desires that honors the conservation of matter and energy, that operates according to law. In the framework of reincarnation, such a system might be called strictly karmic; in a more familiar Western mythology, Oedipal. But compelling as this vision may be, it is no sooner finely articulated than it goes wastefully, farcically off course. The full-scale weather system comes athwart the fountain's condensed and elegant version: as Mme d'Arpajon crosses the garden in search of her errant lover, suddenly "a strong gust of warm air deflected the jet of water and inundated the fair lady so completely that, the water streaming down from her low neckline inside her dress, she was as thoroughly soaked as if she had been plunged into a bath" (4:77). Sometimes things that come around don't go around, and vice versa.
The important question in Proust of how open systems relate to closed ones, or perhaps better put, of how systems themselves move between functioning as open and closed, seems like an invitation to explore some literary and psychological connections to the scientific insights that are nowadays popularly grouped under the rubrics of chaos and complexity. The weather has a privileged place in discussions of complexity. By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a full array of accurate mechanistic laws and measurements for understanding what one critic refers to as "the heat/water/steam machine we call weather." Not until the late twentieth-century study of chaos and complexity, however, following the increasingly sophisticated understanding of feedback processes that developed leapfrog-fashion with the computer's vast increase of human computational powers, has it been possible for science to conceptualize together the absolutely rule-bound cyclical economy of these processes, on the one hand, and on the other hand the irreducibly unpredictable contingency of the actual weather. Yet this kind of juncture is the matrix, the growing point, of narrative and reflection in Proust.
Rather than trying to bring Proust into explicit relation with the science of chaos and complexity, however, or with the science of his own day, I'm trying in the present project to use these topics in contemplating some characteristically Proustian modes of being, of relation to self and the world. Like, I think, many readers of Proust, I especially want to understand his continuing access to a psychology of surprise and refreshment, as well as his nourishing relation to work.
Despite the Plotinian emphasis of passages like the one I began by quoting, it may seem like an unearned provocation to refer to these subjects together as his mysticism. But it is just the quotidian, unspecial, reality-grounded structure and feel of Proust's mysticism that draw my attention. It becomes visible less through set pieces of "mystical experience"—though of course these occur—than through a habitual relationality in the novel as a whole. And while the surprise and refreshment in Proust may respond to this logic of mysticism, so too do the deeply motivating experiences of desolation and of dread. Certainly we can say, to begin with, that Proust's mysticism—if that's the right term—owes nothing at all to the occult or esoteric. There is a whole history of esoteric offshoots of Neoplatonic thought, but in these—and unlike, for example, Yeats—Proust displays no interest. And rather than calling on belief of any kind, his mysticism emphasizes, instead, the transformative potential of the faculties of attention and perception.
At the same time one would need to ask about the relation of such a mysticism to Proust's unresting practice of demystification. Proust is famous for his scouring determination to unearth what he calls "laws" or "truths" of human desire, self-deception, and limitation. But the order of these distinct, propositional laws and truths, delineating at most a grid on which to map the ground of reality, seems distinct from the non-propositional, environmental order of Proust's reality orientation, which coincides with his mysticism. I note the radical narrowing of focus, the stereotypy of terms that characterize Proustian demystification— most tellingly, as when any character's search for "the truth" about a lover always and only means demanding to know one single thing: whether or not that person is unfaithful. No one is better than Proust at giving the sense that the true interest of a psyche, a landscape, or indeed a sentence may be actually inexhaustible. Yet that grounded reality-level of surprise and plenitude, like the fullness of his sense of place, is radically different from the demystifying, propositional level of knowingness and lack.
At a methodological level, at least in a certain ongoing critical allegory of psychoanalytic theory, it seems to make some kind of sense to understand Proust's demystifying "laws" and "truths" through a version, however queer, of an Oedipal narrative. I am using "Oedipal" as shorthand here for a cluster of closely linked assumptions, by now the commonsense of Freudian and Lacanian approaches to psychic life and textuality, for which the Proustian "laws" and "truths" have offered such an irresistibly good fit. Oedipality in this sense is a closed system, like the Robert fountain, whose function or destiny is to reproduce itself. Its primary motives are sexual rivalry, sexual desire, and the near-impossibility of their direct satisfaction; its most visible assumptions include the centrality of dualistic gender difference and the primacy of genital morphology and desire. Underpinning these are less explicit but even more important structural and logical assumptions. Freud's insistence on understanding psychic life through what he called the "economic point of view," involving the systemic transformation and circulation of defined amounts of drive energy, underlines what a later vocabulary would call the zero-sum nature of this game, where, for example, one person's getting more love means a priori that another is getting less. Oedipality also necessarily invokes the either/or logical laws of noncontradiction and the excluded middle term, where inside is the opposite of outside, passive is the opposite of active, and, for another example, desire is the opposite of identification.
Yet the psychology of surprise and refreshment, desolation and dread, to which I've alluded, so compelling to many Proust readers, falls outside such an Oedipal logic. Not only the mysticism of Plotinus, but mysticism as a phenomenon is all but defined by its defiance of the closed system of either/or and the zero sum. In these pages I am going to be using a different strand of psychoanalytic thought, organized around object relations and most closely identified with Melanie Klein, to explore the meaning and structure of these more complex energies in Proust. It is striking also that the issues of mysticism and of object-relations psychology seem to be closely intertwined. In the comments that follow, discussing a conjunction of rebirth and of the meteorological cycle, I am not aiming to arrive at a synthesis of Proust's or his novel's propositional laws or truths. Instead I'm hoping to pursue a meditation on Proustian reality, through the changeable medium of his novel's cosmologies and weathers.
Rebirth, transmigration, metempsychosis, metamorphosis, reincarnation, and one might add, as Proust certainly would, resurrection: these terms form a Venn diagram of concepts whose overlaps cluster around two sometimes-conjoined notions: the soul's survival after death, on the one hand, and on the other hand its occupation of differing bodies at different times. As surely as this space of insistent reference in Proust exceeds Christianity, it also exceeds a conventional French classicism and his own less conventional Ovidian preoccupation. And, as we'll see later, it fits in with a Proustian atmosphere in which every act and landscape brims with a proliferation of genii, demigods, Norns, and other such ontologically exceptional beings: no shadow or spring without its nymph, no phone exchange without its goddesses. Proust is unusual among French modernists, not in the frequency or suavity with which he invokes Christian and classical ontologies of death and the soul's survival and transfer, but in also explicitly bringing in dozens of Celtic, Persian, Egyptian, northern European, and Asian citations among others on the same subjects.
Reading Proust over the last few years with something of a Buddhist eye, I've continually been surprised by what seemed like invocations of and meditations on Hindu or Buddhist notions of reincarnation, karma, samsara, Buddha nature, and enlightenment. Actually it would be no more surprising to find them in Proust's very Orientalizing cultural context than in our own. What seems truer, though, as in the example of the Hubert Robert fountain, is that the Neoplatonic tradition remained for Proust the profoundest reservoir of such ideas and images, as it also was for such of his favored authors as Emerson, Bergson, and the Hardy of The Well-Beloved.
It's been hard for twentieth-century and later readers to know how to take Proust's irrepressible interest in rebirth. The scientistic certainties of modernity have undermined any space in which a notion of literally successive lives could be reflectively received. Christian humanism, the principal form in which Neoplatonic philosophy survives in mainstream modern thought, jettisoned the belief in reincarnation many centuries ago. And in many ways Proust reflects a modern refusal to take reincarnation "seriously." One kind of acid test: although there are scores of invocations of metempsychosis throughout the Recherche, the narrator never responds to the two deaths most closely affecting him— his grandmother's and Albertine's—with so much as a speculation that the souls of those whom he has lost might reincarnate in new bodies.
The main reason it is easy to de-supernaturalize Proust's interest in reincarnation, though, is that he finds such a wealth of uses for it in describing the psychology of one lifetime. As Hardy does in The Well-Beloved, Proust's narrator describes the different people with whom he falls in love as successive embodiments of the same spirit, "the apparition which ..., each time, leaves ... [our heart] overwhelmed by fresh incarnations" (5:79). Family resemblance—any resemblance, in fact, including those between people and animals or objects—is a ground for invoking some version of transmigration. And while Proust describes different beings as incarnations of the same soul, he also envisions an individual's lifetime as a narrative encompassing many deaths and many unrecognizable rebirths. Not only the end of a love but every self-alienating aspect of the passage of time, through processes both acute and chronic, points to "the death of the self, a death followed, it is true, by resurrection, but in a different self, to the love of which the elements of the old self that are condemned to die cannot bring themselves to aspire" (2:340).
Excerpted from The Weather in Proust by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950–2009) was Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Epistemology of the Closet, Between Men, and A Dialogue on Love. Her books Touching Feeling; Tendencies; Fat Art, Thin Art; Novel Gazing; Gary in Your Pocket; and Shame and Its Sisters (co-edited with Adam Frank), are all also published by Duke University Press.
Jonathan Goldberg is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the Studies in Sexualities Program at Emory University. He is the author, most recently, of The Seeds of Things.
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