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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

The Gay Way: Inversion and Religion in Proust

A friend gave me, as a graduation present, the box set of A la recherche du temps perdu.  I began the first volume on the long drive from Texas to California, but was distracted by other books for a while and only over the past month dove fully into and finished Swann’s Way.  The word I find I want to use, and I’m sure has been used before, is virtuosic.  There is such a fine balance of construction within each section, and within the sections as they compound into the whole work, with which I am enamored; an underlying structure of thematics which, just as Swann & Odette’s love-theme appears throughout their relationship, seems to play out at various magnifications and degrees of unity across the whole work.  I am anxious to see how the themes are parlayed into the other books.

For now, though, having finished the first volume, I am particularly interested in the way Proust treats homosexuality, as I was a bit surprised to find lesbianism portrayed so blatantly in the first volume.  I was under the impression that Proust waited until the fourth volume to depict the lascivious underworld of homosexuality, having read some while ago a review that decried so few people reading past the pleasantries of Swann’s Way and never getting to the grittier reality of the later volumes, including the scenes of gay cruising in Sodom and Gomorroh.  What is interesting about these early depictions of homosexuality is their carefully layered inversions, which confuse the possibility of making the “correct” moral judgements, and indeed make “correct” a rather ambiguous term whose initial social grounding gives way to a paradoxical construction.

In the concluding section of Swann’s way, there is this passage that I find telling of what has happened during the first volume:  “But when a belief vanishes, there survives it— more and more vigorously so as to cloak the absence of the power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new things— a fetishistic attachment to the old things which it did once animate, as if it was in them and not in ourselves that the divine spark resided, and as if our present incredulity had a contingent cause— the death of the gods.”

Proust, here, after recounting and embellishing for six-hundred pages, confronts in the present some of the characters and settings he has labored to revivify, and finds them “deconsecrated” and “inhumanly empty.”  There is something that is lacking in them; they are devoid of something, no longer worthy of being set apart as sacred.  What is missing, though, is engendered by us (and I say engendered with a heavy strum on the sense of creation reliant on gender roles, as so many of the characters’ moments of revelation manifest in relation to a destabilized gender definition) and has never been inherent in the object.  Notice the careful avoidance of affirming the incredulous conclusion; yes, the belief has vanished as if the gods have died… but he carefully avoids saying whether the gods have or have not died.  In his treatment of the two lesbian affairs in volume one, Proust seems to bring this careful avoidance to the fore with an inversion that at once presents the affair as morally reprehensible, though for his own reasons, entirely different from the assumed social unacceptability.

The first affair, between Mlle Vinteuil and her lover, is painted so that its effacement of the past, almost literally of the portrait of her father, is linked with their illicit love.  Though, socially, it is the affair witnessed by a young Marcel that is wrong, for Marcel the narrator, it is the mistreatment of the past.  “It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure… it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil.”  The inciting desire of homosexual love is not evil; rather, what is evil is the prerequisite rejection of her father in which she must partake in order to even have the affair.

In describing the lovers’ interaction, Marcel invokes a religious service, albeit a perverted one: “This photograph was evidently in regular use for ritual profanations, for the friend replied in words which were clearly a liturgical response: “Let him stay there.  He can’t bother us any longer.”  And Mlle Vinteuil in turn has “trained herself, by a long course of sophistries, to keep in close subjection” her resentment for such denigrating speech.  The actions taken are the inverse of sacred, involve restriction of an inverse kind that limit the appropriate response of defending her father.  Marcel seems undisturbed by the lovers’ playfulness, the kiss on the breastbone, their physical intimacy, and instead apprises the event primarily in relation to Mlle Vinteuil’s treatment of the memory of her father.

The second affair, between Odette and the unnamed woman on the island in the Bois du Boulogne, is depicted even more resolutely as wrong not because of the action in itself, but because of Odette’s malfeasant memory.  As Swann says, “My anger with you has nothing to do with your actions… but with your untruthfulness, the ridiculous untruthfulness which makes you persist in denying things which I know to be true.”  Her confession as well is bookended by religious imagery.  With Odette’s admission of the possibility, “Perhaps I have, ever so long ago,” those words “carved as it were a cross upon the living tissue of [Swann’s] heart.”  Preceding this passage, the liturgical response of Mlle Vinteuil’s lover is echoed in Odette repeating “his words [denying any lesbian affairs] like a lesson learned by rote.”  Odette’s actions are not wrong in themselves, but because of their perfidious results, both of Odette lying about the past and of the “suddenly… gaping chasm [that] had opened” in Swann’s remembrance of their relationship.

Homosexuality is thus treated as not wrong in and of itself, not an evil that gives the idea of pleasure; it becomes wrong because the importunate demands of society require the past to be effaced in order to cover it up.  The first affair must efface the past in order to continue itself; the second affair must be effaced to continue Swann and Odette’s present arrangement.  Both involve sacrificing the past to maintain the present.  The inverted religious images are a mirroring of Marcel’s own inverted reasoning of the affairs’ immorality, which relies not on their supposed intrinsic immorality, but their effective immorality.

This type of inversion works in much the same way as the passage on the death of belief, where such a death causes a fetishistic attachment to the old things which it did once animate.  It is not the “as if” death of the gods that causes a belief to vanish, but the improper assignation of “the divine spark” to the objects which now so obviously lack them.  As the present’s inadequacy provokes a vanishment of a belief, which causes a fetishistic attachment to the husks it filled, which in turn prompts the detection of a seemingly contingent cause not necessarily present in the first loss, so the two homosexual affairs provoke a necessary reaction, the effacement of the past, that in turn demands a reevaluation of the original act which seems to coincide with acceptable social mores.

The “inhuman emptiness” and “deconsecration” perpetrated by Odette and Mlle Vinteuil evokes an inversion of the sacred, a profanation of religious practices; this inversion, though, is not the fault of the original actions or those who performed them, but society’s inverse demand that the actions be revoked.  It is the religious inversion society retroactively forces homosexuality to make that gives it such an appearance of evil, much as the deconsecrated object bears the weight of the false assumption and consequent disappointment that what we have witnessed and cherished is not contained within it, and which we now disdain for being found in a state of lack.  With such careful inversion, Proust is capable of surreptitiously presenting such socially unacceptable ideas as the death of the gods or the acceptability of homosexuality, because he does not present them as such, but merely (and paradoxically) as the consequential and hidden source of  his acceptable presentation.

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Filed under: Analysis, Books, Proust, Sexuality, , , , ,

One Response

  1. Tom says:

    hee…hee…Just started Sodom yesterday. great blog.

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