Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Proust: "This is the operator speaking"

The telephone was not so commonly used then as it is today. And yet habit is so quick to demystify the sacred forces with which we are in contact, that, because I was not connected immediately, my only reaction was to see it as all very time-consuming and inconvenient, and to be on the point of lodging a complaint: like everybody nowadays, I found it too slow for my liking, with its abrupt transformations, this admirable magic that needs only a few seconds to bring before us, unseen but present, the person to whom we wish to speak, and who, seated at his table, in the town he inhabits (in my grandmother's case, Paris), under another sky than our own, in weather that is not necessarily the same, amid circumstances and preoccupations that are unknown to us and which he is about to reveal, finds himself suddenly transported hundreds of miles (he and all the surroundings in which he remains immersed) to within reach of our hearing, at a particular moment dictated by our whim. And we are like the character in the fairy tale at whose wish an enchantress conjures up, in a supernatural light, his grandmother or his betrothed as they turn the pages of a book, shed tears, gather flowers, very close to the spectator and yet very far away, in the place where they really are. For this miracle to happen, all we need to do is approach our lips to the magic panel and address our call — often with too much delay, I agree — to the Vigilant Virgins whose voices we hear every day but whose faces we never get to know, and who are the guardian angels of the dizzy darkness whose portals they jealously guard; the All-Powerful Ones who conjure absent beings to our presence without our being permitted to see them; the Danaids of the unseen, who constantly empty and refill and transmit to one another the urns of sound; the ironic Furies, who, just as we are murmuring private words to a loved one in the hope we are not overheard, call out with brutal invasiveness, "This is the operator speaking"; the forever fractious servants of the Mysteries, the shadowy priestesses of the Invisible, so quick to take offense, the Young Ladies of the Telephone!
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, translated by Mark Treharne (New York: Penguin, 2002), 127

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