September 29, 2007

Is anyone interested in starting a humanities discussion forum (bulletin board)? Some forums degenerate into mud-slinging and name-calling, but perhaps we can avoid this by having each message approved before it’s posted. The approval process would require 4-6 moderators to do the approving.

1. Hotchkiss

Around 1890, when Oscar Wilde was at the height of his fame, he went to a dinner party, expecting to shine. But his witticisms fell flat; the other guests found him affected rather than interesting. After repeated failures, Wilde fell silent. The party wore on, night fell, and the conversation turned to occult matters. Wilde began speaking again, in a quieter voice, telling stories about occult matters. Now he established a rapport with his listeners, now they found him interesting. And so the party ended.

I thought of this incident when I spoke at The Hotchkiss School recently. I gave two talks about Shakespeare and The Oxford Theory — the first to students, the second to English teachers. Before the first, I had high hopes and a big head, like Wilde at the start of the party. The talk was a failure. Before the second, I had no desire to talk, I was defeated and deflated. The talk was a success, like Wilde’s “second round” of conversation.

At the start of my first talk, I sensed trouble immediately: I was very nervous, my mouth was parched — it felt like I had sand in my mouth. My first joke was greeted with scattered laughter, but then I made the mistake of telling a second joke — a long joke, that took several sentences to unfold — and it fell flat. Just 30 seconds into my talk, my rapport with the audience was lost. For the next one-and-a-half hours, I struggled, it felt like I was walking uphill.

Everyone was skeptical of The Oxford Theory, perhaps because they had been brain-washed by Michael Wood’s Stratfordian documentary. At the end of my talk, they were still skeptical, I converted no one. I don’t have the gift of “soft-selling”; I hit people over the head with my theories, and they resist everything I hit them with. I had done a great deal of preparation for this talk, and put together a 50-slide PowerPoint presentation. I was like a soldier so burdened with ammunition that he couldn’t walk. The previous night, I had tested the slide projector, and it seemed to work. But I couldn’t advance the slides with the remote control, and this proved to be a bigger obstacle than I had anticipated. The slide show that I had prepared so carefully was almost entirely useless.

I had planned to begin by discussing The Tempest, the occult, and Shakespeare’s religion/philosophy. But the students were primed for a discussion of Shakespeare’s identity, and seemed puzzled when I talked about the occult. They raised their hands, and asked questions — questions that saved me in moments of confusion, but also drew me away from my argument. As I attempted to answer their questions, I went deeper and deeper into The Oxford Theory, and my discussion of Shakespeare’s religion was stillborn.

If I asked the students to make an assumption, to try a hypothesis, they thought I was cheating them, they smelled a trick. If they asked me a question that I couldn’t answer, they immediately decided that my whole argument was false, instead of giving me credit for candidly saying, “I don’t know, but here’s where you can find an answer...” The students were able to put me on the defensive with questions like, “why did some plays appear after Oxford died in 1604?” I wasn’t able to take the offensive with questions like, “why are there no letters written by the Stratford man, or written to him?” Perhaps I should have insisted that the students save their questions until I had made my case.

The hour-and-a-half flew by with lightning speed. Though I never established a rapport with the audience, neither did I turn against them, lose patience with them, or criticize them. Though I knew the talk was a failure, I also knew that I had truth on my side, so I didn’t quit, and I could have gone on for at least another hour.

The Hotchkiss campus is stunning. It resembles a college — and a nice college at that. The new headmaster was raised in South Africa, and has worked in Britain. He wants to make Hotchkiss less insular, more global. Many people at Hotchkiss have roots in the school that stretch back generations; whether this creates community, or insularity, I leave for others to judge. Admission to Hotchkiss is selective, as with a college, and the price-tag is high ($40,000/year), as with a college. Though there are some students from Asia and elsewhere, Hotchkiss doesn’t have the large numbers of Koreans that struggling private schools are known for. One might describe their foreign students as a decision, rather than a necessity.

I was invited to Hotchkiss by a family friend who is teaching English there. It’s in the northwest corner of Connecticut, far from any highway. To get there, I drove through some charming Berkshire towns (Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, etc.), then headed south into Connecticut. I attended public school myself, and scarcely ever saw a boarding school, so this was a new world for me. Here, if anywhere, the American aristocracy can be found.

After lunching in the cafeteria, I went to an English-Department meeting. I knew I’d be introduced to the members of the department, but I didn’t know that I’d be asked to give a talk about The Oxford Theory. Now I was like a soldier who was lightly-armed and mobile. I had no slide show, no burdens to carry, no machinery to manipulate. I could talk freely, I could stop anytime, I could digress if the spirit moved me. Defeated by my first talk, I had no desire to talk, let alone to make converts, I was like a basketball player who is “letting the game come to him” instead of “forcing the action.” I knew immediately that I was in control of the situation, I felt like I was riding a bike downhill, I wasn’t nervous at all. One member of the department was receptive to The Oxford Theory, and often showed his students the Frontline documentary — the documentary that converted me and many others to The Oxford Theory. So I didn’t feel that everyone was against me.

In addition to The Oxford Theory, I mentioned The Prince Tudor Theory and The Monument Theory, and these theories seemed to arouse more interest than The Oxford Theory, perhaps because people hadn’t heard of them. I said how controversial these theories are — even among Oxfordians. This whetted the appetite of the audience to hear about them. A week after my visit to Hotchkiss, Mark Anderson is discussing The Oxford Theory at Hotchkiss; Hotchkiss is getting a double dose of Oxford. I’m curious to know if Mark can make any converts.

2. Tucker

Years ago, when my daughter threw a penny into a wishing-well, or pulled a wishbone with my mother, her wish was always the same: a dog. But I had reservations about granting this wish. I wanted to travel lightly through life; I didn’t want to be tied down by too many things. For this reason, I delayed buying a house, though my wife was eager, and I still have mixed feelings about home-ownership. For many years, when my daughter begged for a dog, I said “not now.” But I wasn’t satisfied with this answer; I knew how badly she wanted a dog, and I hated to keep denying her. So for many years, we wrestled with The Canine Question; it was the toughest question I wrestled with as a parent.

Time didn’t diminish my daughter’s longing. She wanted a dog more than anything; she was crazy about dogs. If we went to New York City, she visited dog daycare centers and dog parks. Whenever we encountered a dog on the street, she wanted to pet it. If I didn’t get her a dog, it seemed there would be a permanent hole in her childhood. Finally I decided to take the plunge.

We first thought of a beagle when we saw one at a dog park in Florida. We had considered various breeds, but they seemed too this or too that; a beagle seemed just right. When I started talking to my daughter about buying one, her question was, “When will we have him at our house?” She didn’t want to discuss details/options, she wanted a quadruped.

When she caught sight of the beagle puppies, she was ravished; she didn’t have much experience with puppies, so they made a powerful impression. When she finally had her puppy in the car, she was in ecstasy: “finally I have a dog, finally Daddy said yes... after 200 years.” When she carried him over the threshold of our house, she was beaming from ear to ear. When my mother asked her to pull a wishbone, she declined, she said she had nothing more to wish for.

We named him Tucker. It seemed to fit him, it seemed that he was Tucker; we didn’t name him, we just discovered his name.

He has a lot of Zen. He stays in the present moment, he stays close to his body, he stays close to the earth. What more does Zen ask of us?

His favorite activity is running on the road. He runs at full speed, he holds nothing back. Ears streaming back, mouth open, legs churning, he races uphill and downhill, no part of him more than six inches off the ground.

3. Nantucket

When we took Tucker to Nantucket, he stole hearts wherever he went; people would stop on the sidewalk, ravished. Instead of asking to pet other people’s dogs, my daughter was being asked for permission-to-pet. But Tucker presented me with so many little challenges, I sometimes wished I didn’t have a quadruped. I had to feed him, then feed my daughter, then feed my father, who has declined into “the vale of years.” And for the rest of the day, job followed job in quick succession. There was no time for literature. Was I really a writer? Or was I a servant?

One evening, just as night was falling, I walked Tucker on the beach — or rather, ran him on the beach. The ocean was calm — a sheet of blue-gray. In the sky were various shades of blue. Above everything, a huge, white, full moon. As we made our way along the beach, the blues darkened, and the moon became brighter and brighter. Will I ever forget that moon?

Finally we left the beach, and wandered in the neighborhood where I had spent summers as a kid. Then we headed home.

Never-ending toil and trouble, punctuated by magical moments. Is this what life is?

4. Mortality

A few months ago, my mother’s health took a turn for the worse. Some people said she should go to a “rehab center” to recover her strength. I visited one, to see what it was like.

A rehab center is like a nursing home, with a few pieces of equipment. Wheelchairs everywhere, people listless. Depressing. And I saw the first floor, the good part. The lower floor (the basement) is worse, it’s for people who are physically and mentally infirm. The End Stage. A living cemetery. I didn’t go there. I had seen enough.

When I tried to step outside, I discovered that the door was locked, you had to know the password to get out. So it’s like a prison, a prison for the elderly. And this is where many Americans live and die.

There are, however, some elegant retirement communities — with indoor pools, libraries, etc. To get in, you must be of sound mind and body. When my parents were healthy, they wanted to live in their own house. Now they’d like to go to a retirement community, but it may be too late. It seems that you need to plan your retirement before you need to retire. If you wait until you need it, you no longer qualify for “independent living,” and your only choice is “assisted living,” which can cost $10,000/month.

My parents’ sudden decline made me realize that I myself wouldn’t live forever. As long as they seemed to go on and on, I assumed that I, too, would go on and on. Their decline made me think that my time is limited, that the sun is setting, that darkness is coming on; it made me think of my own mortality.

5. Reading Aloud

I discovered reading aloud when I was reading to my daughter, and noticed that my parents enjoyed it at least as much as my daughter did. We started reading aloud regularly, and I now feel that it has advantages over solo reading. When my mother was laid up, one of her greatest pleasures was listening to Sherlock Holmes stories. They’re well-written, intelligent, thoughtful, though they fall short of first-rate literature.

I knew that the author (Arthur Conan Doyle) had a keen interest in the occult, so I was surprised to find that he emphasized Holmes’ reasoning powers, rather than any psychic (or occult) powers. I gradually realized, though, that Doyle emphasizes intuition as much as reasoning. He often describes his hero reclining on a couch, his head wreathed in smoke — the picture of relaxation. Holmes unravels mysteries by relaxing; relaxation allows the unconscious to speak, allows the intuition to speak. I’m reminded of Zen in the Art of Archery, in which the archer relaxes with a cup of tea before drawing his bow.

Certain passages in Doyle’s stories explicitly refer to occult matters. For example, a story called “The Man With The Twisted Lip” describes a missing husband; when Holmes tells the distraught wife that her husband may have been murdered, she replies,

I know that all is well with him. There is so keen a sympathy between us that I should know if evil came upon him. On the very day that I saw him last he cut himself in the bedroom, and yet I in the dining-room rushed upstairs instantly with the utmost certainty that something had happened. Do you think that I would respond to such a trifle, and yet be ignorant of his death?

The woman trusts her intuition, her telepathic power, and this trust proves to be well-founded — her husband is indeed alive.

In a story called “Silver Blaze,” Doyle describes a horse that has a sixth sense, a telepathic sense; the horse kills a man who intends to injure it:

He had got behind the horse and had struck a light; but the creature frightened at the sudden glare, and with the strange instinct of animals feeling that some mischief was intended, had lashed out, and the steel shoe had struck Straker full on the forehead.

In a story called “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Doyle discusses the telepathic link that often exists between twins:

I could not sleep that night. A vague feeling of impending misfortune impressed me. My sister and I, you will recollect, were twins, and you know how subtle are the links which bind two souls which are so closely allied.

Incidentally, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” was selected as the best Sherlock Holmes story by both the author and fans. Other popular Sherlock stories are “The Red Headed League,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Adventure of the Empty House,” “Silver Blaze,” and “The Dancing Men.”

Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson in 56 short stories and 4 novels (the novels are A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear). If you want to read Sherlock tales with commentary and footnotes, consider The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, by William Baring-Gould and the newer annotated edition by Leslie Klinger.

In addition to his Sherlock Holmes writings, Doyle also wrote several novels featuring a character named Professor Challenger; one of these novels, The Land of Mist, deals with the occult. Doyle also wrote historical novels, such as The White Company, which is set during the Hundred Years War. According to Wikipedia, The White Company “is relatively unknown today, though it was very popular up through the Second World War. In fact, Doyle himself regarded this and his other historical novels more highly than the Sherlock Holmes adventures for which he is mainly remembered.”

Like Poe, Doyle had a keen interest in physiognomy, and seemed to believe that character is revealed in facial features. Like the occult, physiognomy is dismissed by modern rationalists as a “pseudo-science.” Here’s how Doyle describes a criminal named Baron Gruner:

His features were regular and pleasing, save only his straight, thin-lipped mouth. If ever I saw a murderer’s mouth it was there — a cruel, hard gash in the face, compressed, inexorable, and terrible. He was ill-advised to train his moustache away from it, for it was Nature’s danger-signal, set as a warning to his victims.

Another Doyle creation, the King of Bohemia, wears a mask around his eyes. “From the lower part of the face he appeared to be a man of strong character, with a thick, hanging lip, and a long, straight chin suggestive of resolution pushed to the length of obstinacy.”

In The Sign of the Four, Holmes notes that he himself is complex and contradictory, both indolent and active: “There are in me the makings of a very fine loafer, and also of a pretty spry sort of a fellow.” He recalls a quotation from Goethe about the contradictory nature of man: “Nature, alas, made only one being out of you although there was material for a good man and a rogue.” (Schade dass die Natur nur einen Mensch aus Dir schuf, / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schlemen der Stoff. --Faust, Part I)

6. John Batchelor

On Sunday nights at 8, Brian Lamb has an interview show on C-SPAN; it’s called “Q and A.” It’s a good show — almost as good as his former show, “Booknotes.” On a recent Sunday, Lamb interviewed John Batchelor, an obscure novelist who was catapulted to fame by a nightly radio show.

Batchelor’s show started on 9/11/01, when a station manager thought he was knowledgeable about terrorism; the show ran for about five years. It had many fans, including Brian Lamb, and will probably come back. Batchelor didn’t take listener phone calls, as “talk radio” often does. Instead, he spoke to experts, specialists, journalists, who could discuss the latest news with depth and insight.

Batchelor said that, when he rode in a cab in New York City, the Pakistani cab drivers would sometimes recognize his voice, and begin haranguing him about Pakistani affairs. Many New York cabbies are from Pakistan, and they enjoyed Batchelor’s show because it discussed Pakistan in greater depth than any other show.

Batchelor said he was happy, in a way, when the show was cancelled, because he got his life back, and could return to writing fiction. His novels are often historical; he’s currently writing a novel that’s set in 1916, when the U.S. is entering World War I.

I never listened to Batchelor’s show, but if it returns, I’d like to try it. My impression is that Batchelor pays too much attention to news, and doesn’t spend enough time on “the life of the mind.” My impression is that you could listen to him for a long time without hearing anything about Homer, Jung, or Tolstoy.

7. Thich Nhat Hanh

Our book group recently discussed Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. It’s a series of talks that were published as a short book. Hanh gives many talks/seminars/retreats in the U.S. and elsewhere, and he publishes many books. He’s probably the chief apostle of Eastern philosophy alive today. His writing is simple, clear, readable, with a certain child-like naivete. He has a broad knowledge of the Buddhist tradition and of modern science, but less knowledge of Western philosophy and literature.

Some people in our group were enthusiastic about Hanh’s book. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it was his best book, I didn’t think the reader could apply it in his own life, and I didn’t think the ideas were new or refreshing. Hanh argues that everything is empty of a separate self, everything is inter-connected; his favorite phrase is “inter-being”. There’s a deep wisdom in this view, and Hanh expresses it in lucid prose, but I’ve heard it before.

When we discussed Hanh’s book, I brought in Shakespeare’s worldview, Shakespeare’s mystical passages. Someone responded that Shakespeare was just writing whatever his patrons wanted him to write. I found this remark enlightening: now I know the lowest depth to which Stratfordian criticism can sink.

Next our book group is reading Huck Finn. Then, after meeting for nine years, our group will come to an end. I’ve always found it somewhat burdensome, and I look forward to being able to read what I want, when I want. The bookstore where we meet has new owners, who don’t support the group as the previous owner did.

One member of the group said I should make the group a democracy, in which everyone has an equal say in choosing what we read. Such a group has never appealed to me. This member is fond of science, and showed me an excerpt from Lewis Thomas. Thomas writes good, readable prose, and he’s a popular writer on scientific topics.

8. Clausewitz

The local Great Books group is reading an excerpt from On War, the famous treatise by Clausewitz. It’s only moderately interesting; it’s filled with definitions and categories, and devoid of anecdotes and personalities. Montaigne complained that Cicero’s treatises were so filled with definitions that they lacked life and experience; I had a similar reaction to On War. A product of the Napoleonic period, the treatise may not be valid in an age of nuclear weapons, and suicide bombers. A product of a rational age, the treatise uses mathematical terms like “laws of probability,” and scientific terms like “centers of attraction” and “the principle of polarity”. Flawed though it may be, it’s nonetheless a most important study of a most important subject.

At the end of the excerpt, Clausewitz summarizes his argument by calling war “a strange trinity”:

  1. War is “composed of the original violence of its essence, the hate and enmity which are to be regarded as a blind, natural impulse.” This element of hate is the domain of the people, the general public.
  2. War is also “the play of probabilities and chance, which make it a free activity of the emotions.” Among these emotions, Clausewitz stresses the importance of courage and self-confidence. This second element of the trinity is, according to Clausewitz, the domain of the commander and his army.
  3. War is a “political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.” This is the author’s most famous dictum. This third element of the trinity is the domain of the government.

I was struck by Clausewitz’s emphasis on chance. “There is no human activity,” he says, “that stands in such constant and universal contact with chance as does war.... Of all branches of human activity, [war is] the most like a game of cards.” Perhaps it is characteristic of a rational thinker to emphasize chance. A non-rational thinker doubts whether chance even exists, much less plays an important role. A non-rational thinker believes in fate and other occult factors. Fate can be known in advance by prophets, omens, etc. The outcome of a war, for example, could be predicted by a prophet like Nostradamus. Before starting a military campaign, the Greeks and Romans would consult omens such as the flight of birds.

Napoleon’s hunches and intuitions told him that he would be successful early in his career, and they told him he would be defeated at Waterloo. Napoleon said he was never surprised by the outcome, he always anticipated it in advance (“I always had an inner sense of what awaited me.... Nothing ever happened to me which I did not foresee, and I alone did not wonder at what I had accomplished.”) If chance plays a big role in war, how could Napoleon anticipate the outcome? When he was only 17, Napoleon anticipated that he would be successful for a time, but ultimately be a prisoner of the British.1 Perhaps the role of chance only appears large, perhaps a mysterious Fate shapes the outcome, and perhaps Fate can be known by intuitions, hunches, omens, prophets, etc.

Even so-called games of chance, like cards and dice, may not be governed purely by chance. Cards such as tarot cards can be used to predict the future. The Chinese I Ching uses dice and other “chance” methods to make recommendations/predictions. Is it not striking that, while stressing chance, Clausewitz never mentions fate, foreknowledge, etc.? Clausewitz is an Enlightenment Rationalist, contemptuous of mystery, fate, and the occult.

9. Miscellaneous

A. Ken Burns released a new film, “The War.” It tells the story of World War II through the eyes of certain American towns and American soldiers. When I heard about it, I was disappointed that it didn’t deal with the war itself, but rather with the American experience of the war. I now realize, however, that it’s an excellent documentary, a great blend of history and personal reminiscence; it can teach one about strategy and battles, and also about how it felt to be in the war.

B. An influential psychologist, Albert Ellis, died recently at age 93. A New York Times obituary said, “Ellis believed in short-term therapy that called on patients to focus on what was happening in their lives at the moment and to take immediate action to change their behavior.” His practical approach was in sync with the spirit of American culture. Many of his books deal with sex, and offer sexual advice.

C. Someone once said to Ibsen, “Your work is talked-about now, but I don’t think it will appeal to future generations.” Ibsen was horrified: “If you take away posterity, you take away everything.” Walter Scott also felt that posterity was everything. Scott wanted to reach distant generations. “What good is a reputation that only lasts for a couple of generations?” Scott asked.

Literature has always been a conversation between generations. Writers were inspired by authors who were dead, and tried to reach readers who were not yet born. In our time, however, writers seem to write for their contemporaries, perhaps because they don’t revere the dead, as writers once did, perhaps because they don’t care about the opinion of posterity.

10. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being

I’m planning to read a chapter or two of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, by Ted Hughes. Hughes was a prominent British poet, and Britain’s Poet Laureate until his death in 1998. He was married to the American poet Sylvia Plath, until her suicide at the age of 30. Like Plath, Hughes wrote children’s books as well as poetry. Hughes also translated classics such as Racine’s Phedre and Seneca’s Oedipus.

Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being discusses the Hermetic Shakespeare, and mentions the historian of Hermetism, Frances Yates. Its main purpose, though, is to describe a pattern that Hughes finds in Shakespeare’s works; Hughes thinks that he has discovered a pattern (or myth, or archetype) underlying many of Shakespeare’s plays. (In an earlier issue, I discussed Wilson Knight’s Shakespeare Pattern.)

More precisely, Hughes believes that two myths underlie Shakespeare’s works: The Great Goddess (sometimes called Venus), and the Goddess-destroying God. Hughes emphasizes the importance of Shakespeare’s early poem, Venus and Adonis, in which Adonis rejects the Goddess’s love, and Hughes notes that other Shakespeare men reject love in a similar fashion: Bertram (in All’s Well That Ends Well), and Angelo (in Measure for Measure).2 As for the second myth, the Goddess-destroying God, Hughes says that this theme can be traced to Shakespeare’s early poem, The Rape of Lucrece.

Hughes accepts the Stratford myth, and believes that Shakespeare utilized a pattern or formula because he was under pressure to produce riveting drama. As an Oxfordian, I don’t believe that Shakespeare was under commercial pressure, but as a student of literature, I think that most imaginative writers, like most philosophers, are preoccupied with one theme, one idea, throughout their careers. As one scholar wrote, “Proust saw in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, The Well-Beloved, and A Pair of Blue Eyes the same nucleus. He recognized the same basic content in all the work of any one artist.”3 There’s no need to bring in ‘commercial pressure’ as an explanation for a pattern in a writer’s work.

Like Wilson Knight and Frances Yates, Hughes attaches a special importance to Shakespeare’s last plays, describing them as “the redemption of tragic action.”4 In general, these last plays seem to be gaining in stature, though they were once scorned because of their magical elements.

11. Notes on Proust

In an earlier issue, I praised A Reader’s Guide to Marcel Proust, by Milton Hindus. Hindus notes several differences between the real Marcel and the fictionalized Marcel:

Marcel in the novel is not homosexual but heterosexual, and this is only one of a number of respects in which he differs from his creator. He appears to be, for instance, completely non-Jewish; the closest he comes to the Jews in the novel is that some of his friends and acquaintances are Jewish. No hint is given that the narrator’s mother is Jewish, as Proust’s was. And, as a final change, the narrator, so far as we can tell, is an only child; Proust’s younger brother Robert nowhere appears in the story of Remembrance.5

Proust speaks of modern artists “denying their lives to the world at large, clinging to the old standards of honor, to the moral landmarks of a period now dead.” Gide went public with his homosexuality, while Proust kept his a secret.

Hindus discusses Proust’s interior drama, psychological drama. While some say that Proust’s work isn’t dramatic, “It should be a truer criticism of Proust to say that his psychological drama... verges perilously upon melodrama than that he is not dramatic enough.”6 I had the same feeling as I read Swann’s Way, I felt that Proust was sometimes melodramatic when he wrote about unconscious memory, as when he says that the sight of a steeple in Paris reminded him of the Combray steeple, aroused childhood memories, and caused him to stand gazing for an hour or more.

Though the madeleine-dipped-in-tea scene is the most famous example of unconscious memory in Proust’s work, there are several other such examples in the “Combray” chapter. Hindus points out that Proust didn’t discover unconscious memory; Hindus mentions other writers who explored that subject — Ruskin, Chateaubriand, Wilkie Collins, etc., etc.7

As we discussed in an earlier issue, Proust studied philosophical idealism — that is, the doctrine that the world is our idea of the world, we can’t know the real world, we can’t know the “thing-in-itself.” Proust’s idealism leads him to describe the world that his characters perceive, not the “real world.” This leads Proust to criticize the school of literature known as realistic (or naturalistic or social). Proust prefers the symbolists to the realists.8

Proust is less concerned with the real Venice than with the Venice of the narrator’s imagination. Hindus speaks of

Marcel’s recollection of the fascination which railway timetables had for him as a boy when he dreamed of seeing for the first time Balbec, Venice, Florence.... What magic resided in “mere” names for the young Marcel, names that became so much more gorgeous than reality to him that they “aggravated the disenchantment that was in store for me when I set out upon my travels.” ....Reality, in fact, is a drab thing to Marcel without the embellishment of the imagination.9

Marcel’s imagination is fired by books, so one might say that books are to blame for cutting him off from reality, and for making reality seem drab. Marcel enjoys literature, but suffers from reality. Perhaps Marcel’s imagination is fired by youth, as well as by books, perhaps youth always romanticizes reality.

Proust describes the phases of Swann’s love for Odette. Swann’s love becomes an obsession, a sickness. How did Swann get into this morass, this emotional slavery? He was idle, he wanted to fill up his life, he wanted to try something new:

Swann is certainly responsible at the beginning for what happens to him. He has reached a “dangerous age” and wonders what it is like to “live solely for love” (as had happened to characters in the books he read).... He is compelled by a necessity which operates in himself.10

Perhaps we can describe Swann as a freveler — that is, one who is playing with fate, playing with life, playing with trouble, inviting trouble. Von Franz says that frevel often leads us into evil. Should we view Swann’s emotional entanglement as a kind of evil? Proust views it as an addiction: “Marcel compares the lover to a morphinomaniac or a consumptive and indicates that Swann’s malady has entered the incurable stage.”11

Swann is so addicted that he wishes for his own death, or Odette’s death:

We see a Swann reduced to complete hysteria, if not something worse. He cries inexplicably, feels cold for no ostensible reason, and wishes he were dead! If he wishes to live it is only in the hope of surviving to a time when he will no longer be in love with Odette.... Swann has been brought from a state of complete indifference to the nadir of despair where his mental anguish is so unbearable that he looks hopefully for signs on his body of some fatal physical disease which will remove him from a world that has become sheer torture to him!.... He goes on to wish Odette dead, too. He thinks it remarkable that in her peregrinations about the city of Paris, she does not meet with some accident.12

Hindus calls jealousy “the great theme of Proust’s entire work.... Jealousy is, to Proust, ‘the shadow of love’.... There is no love, in his pages, which does not have its counterpart in jealousy.”13 This applies not only to Swann’s love for Odette, and the narrator’s love for Albertine, but also to the narrator’s love for his mother.

Hindus compares Proust with Wagner. Just as Wagner has a certain melody for each character, so Proust has certain phrases for each character; these phrases are a leitmotif, and recur again and again.

Wagner was much on Proust’s mind while he was writing Remembrance and he spoke of his own composition’s leitmotifs.... Remembrance is a behemoth of a composition, which is the literary counterpart of Wagner’s Ring — that is to say, an artistic undertaking the vast extent of which in itself is enough to constitute it one of the wonders of the world.14

© L. James Hammond 2007
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1. When he was seventeen, Napoleon wrote a story about a Corsican king, Theodor, who was imprisoned by the British. While in prison, Theodor wrote to the British prime minister, Walpole, as follows: “‘I wanted to make my people happy, and for one brief moment I succeeded; but fate was fickle to me, I am a prisoner...’ writes Theodor to Walpole, who replies: ‘You suffer, you are unfortunate: this is sufficient to give you a right to the compassion of the British people.’” (Napoleon the Man, by Dmitri Merezhkovsky, ch. 9) back
2. In an earlier issue, I discussed Hughes’ view of Venus and Adonis. back
3. Nostalgia: A Psychoanalytic Study of Marcel Proust, by Milton L. Miller, ch. 10 back
4. Introduction, p. 1 back
5. Ch. 1, p. 6 back
6. Ch. 2, p. 23 back
7. Ch. 2, p. 21 back
8. See p. 36 back
9. p. 56 back
10. p. 39 back
11. p. 51 back
12. p. 51 back
13. p. 48 back
14. p. 38 back