Swann in Love
Entering the Void
Perhaps an obsession is nothing more, and nothing less, than a void filled, but filled with an acknowledgement of potential absence. This is paradoxical of course, but can best be explained by the general dilution of the void in the manifold and the quotidian - of everything and of the everyday. When in Proust's Swann in Love, Swann finds in the figure of Odette 'nothing' that is close to the very point. As Swann says to himself at the end of the book: "to think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that I've experienced my greatest love for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type." He finds in her the nothing that can preoccupy him singularly, rather than the world that can preoccupy him generally. One finds in something or somebodyan intensity missing elsewhere. Yet as Cesare Pavese says in This Business of Living: "it is stupid to grieve the loss of a girl friend: you might never have met her, so you can do without her." However, Pavese also says, "all men have a cancer that gnaws them, a daily discharge, a recurring evil: their own dissatisfaction..." A woman coming into one's life isn't a source of indifference because they could as easily not have entered it; more that their entry reveals a void that has been hidden by other things, other occupations. It is not the depths of Odette Swann seeks, but the depths in himself. This is a depth matched by the music of Vinteuil: "...some few among the millions of keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by a few great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme they have discovered, of showing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that vast, unfathomed, and forbidding night of our soul which we take to be an impenetrable void."
Camus once suggested, in The Myth of Sisyphus, that suicide and art come from the same place, but we might more optimistically rephrase it and acknowledge that love and art come from the same place. Both allow for the space of projection; we can muse over the meaning of our feelings evoked by the object of our interest. But of course a love object is also a subject, someone whose thoughts and feelings impact on our own and where we often demand attention back from this figure to whom we have givenattention. This intersubjective problem is one Proust returns to again and again. "He made what apology he could and hurried home, glad that the satisfaction of his curiosity had preserved their love intact, and that, having feigned for so long a sort of indifference towards Odette, he had not now, by his jealousy, given her the proof that he loved her too much, which, between a pair of lovers, forever dispenses the recipient from the obligation to love enough." And again: "If, since he had fallen in love, things had recovered a little of the delightful interest that they had had for him long ago - though only in so far as they were illuminated by the thought or the memory of Odette - now it was another of the faculties of his studious youth that his jealousy revived, the passion for truth, but for a truth which, too, was interposed between himself and his mistress, receiving its light from her alone, a private and personal truth the sole object of which (an infinitely precious object, and one almost disinterested in its beauty) was Odette's life, her actions, her environment, her plans, her past."
To speculate over a person is both similar too and quite different from speculating over an art object. We might say of a painting by Van Gogh that it reflects not so much a vivid imagination as a fervid one; that The Olive Trees is neither faithful to nature nor a work of imaginative freedom but a painting perfectly balanced between these two places. If we find in Van Gogh's diaries comments that match our own we might be reassured in our instincts, but we can happily accept that there is little unease in failing to do so. When we wonder if a person with whom we are in love is possessed of certain motivations, it can induce in us feelings of great anxiety or great pleasure. "He was amazed to find that acts which he had always hitherto judged so lightly, had dismissed, indeed, with a laugh, should have become as serious to him as a disease which may prove fatal. He knew any number of women whom he could ask to keep an eye on Odette, but how was he to expect them to adjust themselves to his new point of view?"
This is where we can talk about the void present in its absence. When we are occupied in our lives with work, friends, children, hobbies and entertainments, we needn't concern ourselves at all with the void: it is in the absence of these things, and often it is in the presence of another force that obliterates them, that the void appears: it becomes present as preoccupation. Yet of course if and when that love object pulls away from us, we are left seeking a truth that is not always available, and this is exactly what happens to Swann as he becomes increasingly preoccupied with the anxiety that Odette was capable of producing in him. Yet is this a useful feeling or not? In most instances we would argue that it isn't, but central to the genius of Proust's book (and by extension the entire In Search of Lost Time) is the characters' capacity to turn an incident into a reflection, as if in sympathy with Pavese's remark: "what matters to an artist is not experience, but inner experience."
Gilles Deleuze in Proust and Signs goes further: what is involved is not an exposition of involuntary memory, but the narrative of an apprenticeship: more precisely, the apprenticeship of a man of letters...to learn is first of all to consider a substance, an object, a being as if they emitted signs to be deciphered, interpreted." The love object in Swann in Love is of course Odette, a woman whose fascination for Swann lies not least in that he has little in common with her; that she isn't a woman from a similar background but a different sign system altogether. There is such a long history in literature of figures falling for women below their station that it could pass for a clich, but from a Deleuzian perspective one is surely setting in motion a much more taxing apprenticeship than if we settled on a sign system based on familiarity. "When he proposed to take leave of Odette and return home, she begged him to stay a little longer and even detained him forcibly, seizing him by the arm as he was opening the door to go. But he paid no heed to this, for among the multiplicity of gestures, remarks, little incidents that go to make up a conversation, it is inevitable that we should pass (without noticing anything that attracts our attention) close by those that hide a truth for which our suspicions are blindly searching, whereas we stop to examine others beneath which nothing lies concealed."
Later perhaps he will have reason to reassess aspects of the conversation that he missed at the time, and of course we are often able to do this with any number of incidents in our past, yet only certain situations demand from us this enquiry, and love is one of the most common. Think for example of an instance where our girlfriend tells us that it is over, and we recall a conversation a couple of weeks earlier where she mentioned a party that she very much enjoyed, and that we couldn't attend. We might recall with a great attentiveness in memory what we only half attended to at the time: did she mention any interesting conversations; who did she go with?
Feelings of love can create a perceptual focus missing from many other encounters, and yet we have to accept that in Swann in Love it is not the narrator who falls in love but another character within the novel. Yet we are introduced to Swann's story as a tale from the past, from before the narrator was born, but whose relevance to the narrator is apparent as the narrator himself will later, in the next volume, fall in love with Gilberte, the daughter that came out of the union between Swann and Odette. The narrator's capacity for searching through the signs of love don't only lead to a self-absorbed preoccupation, but the opening up of a whole society in time past and time present. Even the beginning of the book set in Combray emphasises the narrator's love for his mother in a manner consistent with the desire Proust plays up later in the entire book. "My sole consolation when I went upstairs for the night was that mamma would come in and kiss me after I was in bed. But this good night lasted for so short a time, she went down again so soon, that the moment in which I hear her climb the stairs, and then caught the sound of her garden dress of blue muslin...was for me a moment of the utmost pain; for it heralded the moment which was bound to follow it, when she would have left me and gone downstairs again."
Love is all you need might be a line from a Beatles song, but it is the epistemological thread Proust requires to set in motion a search for the problem of time. Whether it is the narrator wishing to delay the mother's visit to his bedside because once she arrives she will no longer be coming, or Swann's wish that "in the past, having often thought with terror that a day must come when he would cease to be in love with Odette, he had determined to keep a sharp look-out, and as soon as he felt that love was beginning to leave him, to cling to it and hold it back" characters in Proust play with time, consider it, try and control it, but often with love quite literally in mind.
There are three things then in Swann in Love (and by extension the entire work) that are important: love, art and the void. Love is what opens up the void and it is art that closes it, staunches it perhaps. Love and art are the two poles where the void presents itself, but where in the former it can often present itself as the void, with the person almost irrelevant next to the feeling it creates, art can assuage us in the face of the void. At one moment the narrator says: "But the beauty of that stone, and the beauty also of those pages of Bergotte which I was glad to associate with the idea of my love for Gilberte, as if in the moments when it seemed no more than a void, they gave it a kind of consistency, were, I perceived, anterior to that love and in no way resembled it; the laws of mineralogy before ever Gilberte had known me; nothing in book or stone would have been different if Gilberte had not loved me, and nothing consequently, authorised me to read in them a message of happiness." The beauty of the stone and the beauty of the writer Bergotte are seen as much less contingent and much more solid than the feelings for Gilberte, and this is why we propose that love cannot be the overcoming of the void but only capable of making manifest its appearance. The love object is always a subject, always capable of whims and caprice, of changing their mind and their feelings. Equally, the loving subject can also change their mind and their feelings, evident when Swann, in the quote above, is aware that his thoughts on Odette are capable of shifting.
We could say of course that our feelings towards art works change as well, but that is because of our response, not the work's. The problem with love is that the intersubjective relationship creates not the solidity of the stone or Bergotte's sentences, but the fragile feeling that nothing is solid, everything it capable of change and transformation. To understand this is a lesson in comprehending the void, but in Proust love cannot conquer it, cannot give it firm ground. Love is not all you need.
In Proust and Signs Deleuze notes: "The beloved woman conceals a secret, even if it is known to everyone else. The lover himself conceals the beloved: a powerful jailer. We must be harsh, cruel and deceptive with those we love. Indeed, the lover lies no less than the beloved: he sequesters her, and also is careful not to avow his love to her, in order to remain a better guardian, a better jailer." This is an ongoing game of power, evident when all of a sudden Odette is no longer readily available to Swann. While he would attend each night the Verdurins, where Odette would also go, one evening arriving very late he finds that she has already left: "Swann felt a sudden stab at the heart; he trembled at the thought of being deprived of a pleasure whose intensity he was able for the first time to gauge, having always, hitherto, had that certainty of finding it whenever he wished which (as in the case of all our pleasures) reduced if it did not altogether blind him to its dimensions." Odette is like a statue who suddenly moves, and he is preoccupied. Her motives become his concern, as he gets lost in the inter-subjective game of trying to comprehend her. This is partly why Deleuze can see the question of love in Proust as an intellectual problem: "...the signs of love, in order to be interpreted, appeal to the intelligence", as he quotes Proust's narrator: "Later, confronting the lie inso many words, or seized by anxious doubt, I would try to remember: it was no use; my memory had not been forewarned in time; it had decided there was no use in keeping a copy."
Can we insist that one of the problems with love is that it is a false preoccupation; that in the Proustian formula love is finally a will to art misapplied? It is a bit like trying to paint but with the canvas refusing to remain still; writing a book with the letters rearranging themselves on the page as one writes. The Proustian approach to love, initially through Swann's fascination with Odette, with the character of Robert de Saint-Loup's interest in his mistress, in the narrator's preoccupation first with Gilberte and later Albertine, is one of inevitable frustration; a way of opening up the void but not a way of filling it. Does art more usefully, openly and completely create the void and also find the means by which to address its closure? Is this why the narrator says: "that it was precisely and solely this kind of sensation (reminiscence) which must lead to the work of art." In love as Proust usually explores it, reminiscence as obsession is too weak, too tied to remembering the incidental, and too incapable of recalling all its needs because the object isn't fixed enough for any concrete perception.
That this need to remember despite the pain it causes and the futility that arises, isn't only a theme of In Search of Lost Time; it appears in other Proust pieces as well. In 'The End of Jealousy', for example, Honore thinks of his love affair with Francoise, and a comment someone, Buivres, makes about a previous lover she had. As Honore talks about walking, wearing himself out with long horse and cycle rides, meeting up with Francoise and holding her hand, he would still return home and struggle to get to sleep. "Inevitably would come creeping back into his thoughts Buivres's words, or any one of the innumerable images that had crowded his brain ever since, and he knew there would be no more sleep for him that night." Reminiscence here does little more than create a sleepless night. At the end of the story Honore is dying: "having neither the desire nor the force to undeceive her, he only smiled and thought that his 'country' was no longer in Francoise but in the sky and throughout the entire earth...he did not love her more than he loved the doctor, the old relatives, the servants, and not differently. And this was the end of his jealousy." He finds again the quotidian, the everyday, and Francoise is justanother person in his life at the moment of his death.
Can we now rephrase Camus' earlier statement again, and suggest that death and art come from the same place, and that if in 'The End of Jealousy' it is Honore's demise that removes the obsession, in In Search of Lost Time is it the creation of art? The final volume Time Regained concludes with the narrator saying that "if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail...to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved for them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure...they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves - in Time." This is less time conquering all, than finding the means by which to conquer time as aesthetic object. Honore conquers love by succumbing to death, but the narrator in In Search of Lost Time absorbs so many loves lost into a work that contains time as its essence, and love must be contained by it. As Julia Kristeva says in Proust and the Sense of Time, "Over and beyond the time of jealousy, the time for the construction of the work now takes over, in so far as the book is itself the direct replacement for the loved person..." It isn't that the pursuit of the love object is a waste of time; more that it is part of the process of finding time, and finding the work out of the time generated by the loved one. Odette, Gilberte, Albertine etc. can present to Swann and the narrator the void, but they cannot resolve the problem of it. The character is left either in a state of anxiety or a state of eventual indifference. This is what Swann so fears when we quoted the passage where he frets about ceasing to love Odette. In no longer feeling the disquiet one is no longer caught in the depth of unease, and so there is something prosaic about Swann eventually marrying Odette. Even if we have the irony of this union that becomes conventional creating a child, Odette, with whom the narrator can then replicate Swann's obsession with her mother, nevertheless the notion that he will get married to the woman with whom he was obsessed moves him from the preoccupied to the occupied: from someone who has faced the void, to someone who retreats from it.
But what can accept the void without leading to obsession or indifference? What must be sought is not occupation or preoccupation but vocation: the apprenticeship that will lead to the art work. "Proust's work is not oriented to the past", Deleuze says, and the discoveries of memory, but to the future and the progress of an apprenticeship." The artist, through the various signs must find not true love but true art. "The worldly signs are frivolous, the signs of love and jealousy, painful. But who would seek the truth if he had not first learned that a gesture, an intonation, a greeting must be interpreted? Who would seek the truth if he had not first suffered the agonies inflicted by the beloved's lies." Of course most people who are lovelorn do not become artists, just as most do not die from love either. They settle down into the relationship or recover from it. But Proust's artist properly regains all this lost time in time regained: in creating an aesthetic object that does not waste time but finds a way of containing it in literary form. These constant voids that open up when the love object is removed, or lies, or cheats, can be understood as no more, and no less, than an attempt to read into the signs of things, a semiotics of feeling that can become an aesthetic sign system and a move beyond the objects of beauty to an encapsulation of it. It is a variation of some remarks in Plato's Symposium, but with certain key differences, as Deleuze notes. In the Symposium Socrates talks about the observations of Diotima. "The man who has been guided thus far in the mysteries of love, and who has directed his thoughts towards examples of beauty in due and orderly succession, will suddenly have revealed to him as he approaches the end of his initiation, a beauty whose nature is marvellous indeed, the final goal, Socrates, of all his previous efforts." But a search has been made, the attempt to master the numerous signs of love give way to a notion of Beauty. But this is not especially the transcendental beauty that Plato would talk of, more the aesthetic possibility that comes out of all those difficult, taxing and hurtful signs of love along the way. "In Socrates", Deleuze says, "the intelligence still comes before the encounters; it provokes them, it institutes and organizes them." In Proust's work however "one must be endowed for the signs, ready to encounter them, one must open oneself to their violence. The intelligence always comes after, it is good when it comes after, it is good only when it comes after." To do otherwise, we would suggest, is never to let the void in.
© Tony McKibbin