Thursday, June 28, 2007

Proust: "the profound life of 'still life'"

The narrator has been looking at the work of the painter Elstir. If you've been reading Proust, here's something to ponder: M. Swann, we're told several times, sees reality in terms of paintings. As does, in this passage, the narrator. Exactly how does the narrator's seeing differ from Swann's? What relationship between painting and reality holds for each?

Since seeing such things in the watercolors of Elstir, I enjoyed noticing them in reality, glimpses of poetry as they seemed: knives lying askew in halted gestures; the tent of a used napkin, within which the sun has secreted its yellow velvet; the half-emptied glass showing better the noble widening of its lines, the undrunk wine darkening it, but glinting with lights, inside the translucent glaze seemingly made from condensed daylight; volumes displaced, and liquids transmuted, by angles of illumination; the deterioration of plums, green to blue, blue to gold, in the fruit dish already half plundered; the wandering of the old-fashioned chairs, which twice a day take their places again around the cloth draping the table as though it is an altar for the celebration of the sanctity of appetite, with a few drops of lustral water left in oyster shells like little stone fonts; I tried to find beauty where I had never thought it might be found, in the most ordinary things, in the profound life of "still life."

From In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve (New York: Penguin, 2002), 448-49

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comments: 2

stefan hagemann said...

One difference in the way that Swann and the narrator “use” painting has to do with opening or closing off opportunities for new discovery. In the narrator’s contemplation of Elstir’s watercolors, we see the excitement he derives in the attempt to “find beauty where [he] had never thought it might be found.” It’s akin, perhaps, to Hopkins in “Pied Beauty” or Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder,” whose speaker finds in the arrested moment “a wild civility” that he prefers to “art” that is “too precise in every part.” Elstir’s watercolors help the narrator notice the beauty that is, by teaching him to focus on that which is “askew,” “displaced,” “plundered” and deteriorating, on that which is, after all, useful and real. In contrast, Swann’s system of aesthetics, rigid as it is, clouds and obscures, and when he applies what he sees in Botticelli to Odette, the result is less illumination, not more. While Odette’s resemblance to the Zipporah allows Swann to rationalize his attraction to his future wife, he appears to reduce Odette to “type,” and this in turn suggests a kind of ownership or possession. His deep understanding of “Jethro’s Daughter,” we are told, “compensated…for that with which Odette’s physical charms had at first failed to inspire in him,” but once he can reconcile Odette’s physical features that once left him cold with the beauty of the “Florentine masterpiece” (the phrase itself appears to hold talismanic power for Swann), Swann can regard Odette as “his own living Botticelli.” Where the narrator uses Elstir to re-envision or to find new ways of seeing the natural world, Swann can’t be content with the beauty in a real person, especially the puzzling beauty of Odette, until he can place it within his system.

Michael Leddy said...

Nice contrast, Stefan, esp. as it ties in to the idea of possession. (And that begins to remind me of "My Last Duchess.")

I'd add that Swann's game seems to trivialize both art and reality: it credits reality only when it matches an already existent work of art. The narrator though is coming to see the materials of reality as already worthy subjects for art.

Do we ever get a very clear idea of what Swann might want to say in his study of Vermeer? I can't recall anything from my last reading, and I haven't seen anything yet this time through (100 pp. into The Guermantes Way).