From Swann to Marcel: Proust on the Self-Serving Aspects of Affection and Interpretation
Proust famously claimed that, because of books’ interpretive nature, readers subconsciously mold the characters in the literature they consume. In turn, one can construct a portrait of the reader’s own personality, offering insight into her needs or her experiences. This practice couldn’t be replicated in real life, Proust wrote, because people can’t shape actual humans.* In Swann’s way, however, Proust contradicts himself: people constantly shape the characters in their life story to reflect their own needs; and the artisan’s greatest motive, love, is heavily manifested in Swann’s and Marcel’s lives.
As a child, Marcel’s perception of love is shaped mainly by two things: his relationship with his parents and the expectations he’s built up with books. His parents and his family are the first connections to love he has; their behavior largely influences his desire and need for attention. He’s subjected to cold punishments, like being ignored for days. His nervous disposition is largely treated as an annoyance; his mother and grandmother tried to build up his willpower in attempts to eradicate his neediness. When treated with rare tenderness by his mother, he responds by feeling guilty. “It seemed to me that this should not have happened; her anger would have been less difficult to endure than this new kindness which my childhood had not known.” These actions had lasting effects on Marcel. As an adult he recounted the sobs he could hide from his father in childhood, and how “their echo has never ceased: it is only because life is now growing more and more quiet round about me that I hear them afresh.”
On one hand, Marcel is deprived of love from his family, and feels undeserving of kindness. But he also constructed unrealistic expectations of love in the literature he consumed, namely Oedipus Rex and Francois Le Champi, both of which follow mother-son relationships. It’s worth noting that the latter was read aloud to Marcel, with the incestuous scenes omitted, but one can assume enough was said for the imaginative boy to experience a sense of mystery. While these two experiences may seem to contradict (a sense of deprivation along with high romantic expectations), it follows Proust’s explanation. Because Marcel needed sensitivity and kindness, the characters in the books he read filled those roles in his perspective. When the rest of the world doesn’t measure up, he’s let down; or in the case of his thoughts on Gilberte and the Duchess of Guermentes’ dark eyes, he changes reality to become more interesting.
Swann’s relationship with Odette clearly demonstrates Proust’s cynical nature toward love. The duration of their relationship is marked by self-interest, vanity, nostalgia, and pain. Even at its earliest stages, the relationship is doomed. Only prompted by the assumption that she was hard to get, Swann begins to seek Odette’s affections. In a way, Vinteuil’s sonata, the composition of which was prompted by Mme. Vinteuil’s affair, seems to predict this—while Swann identifies notes of pleasure, charm, and rejuvenation, the reality is a sorrowful tune of disappointment. — Swann really begins to fall hopelessly in love with Odette after likening her face to the subject in a famous painting. By picturing her as this paragon of beauty, he starts to blur her identity. To meet his own self-interest, Odette is no longer the bourgeoisie jezebel the audience sees, but a beautiful point of obsession. He starts to reflect her mannerisms and interests, adoring the classless Verdurins and distancing himself from the aristocratic class to which he belongs. Despite Odette’s philandering, Swann defends her honor, driven by jealousy (and perhaps his own pride). In fear of losing her love, he never really confronts her, instead sending expensive gifts. In turn, Odette is motivated by her own self-interest, not love, in continuing the relationship—Swann is a fiscally strategic match for her. — Ironically, in his jealousy, Swann fails to pick up Odette’s (rare) displays of genuine care for him. Proust wrote, “When he proposed to take leave of Odette, and to 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 gave no thought to that, for, among the crowd of gestures and speeches and other little incidents which go to make up a conversation, it is inevitable that we should pass (without noticing anything that arouses our interest) by those that hide a truth for which our suspicions are blindly searching, whereas we stop to examine others beneath which nothing lies concealed.”
Eventually, Swann’s perception of time becomes clouded, dividing his life in terms of Odette’s time. Despite his obsession, he can’t end his relationship. He often recollects how things were at the start of the relationship, considerably altered with his selective memory. His love is rooted in his warped memory of her, unable to separate himself from the tangled mess he’s created—admiring not Odette, but the image he has carefully fashioned for her. He considers himself a victim, forming an identity of suffering. The song that once strongly reminded him of happy times with Odette only prompted pain. Escaping to memories from the past can’t completely soothe the pain in the present. Swann eventually comes to terms with their incompatibility. He faces humiliation from the Verdurins, namely, their mentioning of a party to which he’s obviously not invited; and from Odette, in her various affairs and in denying Swann his duel. An anonymous letter, presumably from Charlus, that outlined Odette’s affairs was delivered to Swann. Swan also began to spend more time with his aristocratic friends, too, and begins to realize the immobility of his class.
In Swann’s Way, Proust portrays love as self-serving. Memory is what is responsible for the feelings we have in relationships with others, and the fluidity of those recollections are the cause of eventual grief and self-pity. Both Marcel and Swann had misinterpretations of love that were fulfilled, in a sense, by shaping their perception of those around them. While Proust claims that readers can only shape fictional characters, humans continuously shape those around them out of need.
*“But all the feelings we are made to experience by the joy or the misfortune of a real person are produced in us only through the intermediary of an image of that joy or that misfortune; the ingeniousness of the first novelist consisted in understanding that in the apparatus of our emotions, the image being the only essential element, the simplification that would consist in purely and simply abolishing real people would be a decisive improvement. A real human being, however profoundly we sympathize with him, is in large part perceived by our senses, that is to say, remains opaque to us, presents a dead weight which our sensibility cannot lift.”
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