Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Proust’s Wrinkle in Time

I promise this will be my last Proust post, but I can’t resist. Just look at this one sentence. Yes, it starts as an embarrassingly corny metaphor. What do you expect from a book called In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower? The adolescent narrator is infatuated with a “gang of girls” he meets at the seaside. But if you can get past the girls-as-flowers, past the ludicrous “having botanized among such young blossoms,” and keep going, it’s worth it. He’s watching the girls walk along the seashore with the ocean in the background:

For this present object [the girls] was the one I would have preferred above all, as I knew perfectly well, having botanized so much among such young blossoms, that it would be impossible to come upon a bouquet of rarer varieties than these buds, which, as I looked at them now, decorated the line of the water with their gentle stems, like a gardenful of Carolina roses edging a cliff top, where a whole stretch of ocean can fit between adjacent flowers, and a steamer is so slow to cover the flat blue line separating two stalks that an idling butterfly can loiter on a bloom that the ship’s hull has long since passed, and is so sure of being first to reach the next flower that it can delay its departure until the moment when, between the vessel’s bow and the nearest petal of the one toward which it is sailing, nothing remains but a tiny glowing gap of blue.

Love it or hate it, you’ve got to wonder: What is going on here? What begins as a dated (to put it kindly) image of girls as gentle rose stems suddenly, uh, blossoms into a convoluted image of an ocean liner and a butterfly. This is metaphor deliberately out of control: girls equal flowers, ship’s hull equals . . . what (aside from some phallic overtones)? And what does that “gap of blue” equal?

An image of girls on the beach turns into a meditation on the relativity of time and space and perspective and . . . what? One thing it suggests is that from a certain perspective an ocean liner and its world of power and commerce are nothing compared to a flower petal. Another is that someone who loiters moves faster than someone who steams full-speed ahead, and that a “tiny glowing gap of blue” is (from, let’s say, an artist’s perspective) all that separates two worlds that are light-years apart.

Doesn’t this remind you of A Wrinkle in Time? It’s as if Proust is learning to time-travel by crossing those wrinkles, going from a madeleine to his long-dead aunt, from an ocean liner to a rose, ultimately from the living to the dead and back, because something may survive death only if a cookie is as strong as the ocean. Somehow from the girls on the beach Proust moves to an almost abstract manifesto: “Nothing remains but a tiny glowing gap of blue.”


Beverly said...

Interesting--I have to use that word cautiously after our discussion about interesting poems. (I got a rejection yesterday from Beloit Poetry Journal that had "all interesting poems" scribbled on it and I thought, Hmmm.) To me the "gap of blue" is the convergence of time and space in one moment. Of course what I like about the passage is its channel into "point of view" and how that alters everything, which I guess is my "thing" these days.

Robert said...

I like the idea that it's the convergence of time and space. I just love metaphors that travel a long distance. Instead of "My father was a bear because bears are fierce and warm and so was my father," something like "My father was a bear because when he died he was white as a polar bear in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where Dick Cheney wants to drill for oil my father loved his gas-guzzling Pontiac have you ever been to Detroit have you ever seen the Red Dwarf that haunts Detroit ever since Chief Pontiac lead a group of Indians in the Battle of Bloody Run?" I love that stuff.

Matt said...

This is a beautiful passage--a swirling mass of metaphor leading to a revelation that is not a revelation but a tacit question revealed: what is the meaning of the substance of the space and time that separates Proust from the girl, and by extension, all individuals from one another? I am not sure what to make of the last line. Is he saying that the tiny gap can never be closed? What is the tiny gap: the ego, the soul, the individual? Is the "butterfly" and "steamer" dialectic a comment upon the dialectic between thought and action? If so, how does that tie in with your idea of perspective, because I feel that this is absolutely about perspective. From close up, the butterfly's movements are faster than the steamer's. I also think it is significant that the butterfly (the natural world) is contrasted with the steamer (the human-made world). Question: does the narrator ever speak with the girl in the passage? What is the purpose of the girl? He seems to lust for her and yet his lust leads to as you put it an "abstract manifesto." Returning to my original point about humans and the inability to fully connect with one another, how could we reconcile the potential for love (supposedly something that elevates the human soul) between the narrator and the girl with the fact that it is only in infatuation, a sort of inactive lust, that the narrator is able to come to some grand conclusion about the nature of things. Yet, what is so interesting about this passage is that Proust moves from the visible, the "object," to the metaphysical, while always staying in the world of the physical. In many ways this is like what I think the French Symbolists did, although this is a little different because I don't think he is trying to, as Rimbaud did, distort reality to come to some higher reality, but rather is using reality to move from it to something that taps into the "true" reality of the world. Speaking of this, I also thought of Robinson Jeffers, the great poet of California, who is very much interested in the ocean. Well, that opens up a whole other can of worms, and a lot more writing on my part, so I won't go down that path now. Last thought: by using the natural world to explore, as you believe, the relativity of time and space, both human concepts, he is moving away from Romantic transcendentalism through Nature (think Wordsworth) and yet still attempting to transcend the world via a recognition, as you suggest, of the relativity of time and space. It is interesting how the Modernist writers (I think Jeffers does this too) used Nature to essentially transcend Nature to better understand the natural, human-constructued world. This is a great passage.

Robert said...

Hi, Matt, thanks for such a thoughtful response! I like your idea about moving toward the metaphysical while staying in the physical, which feels right to me. For quite a while the narrator can't decide which of the girls he's most infatuated with but, yes, he does get to know them and ultimately falls in love with Albertine, although, as is rather typical for Proust, nothing much comes of their relationship at this point in the novel. Albertine disappears for, oh, 500 or 1,000 pages or so, and then she comes back in full force, years later, and becomes the great love of his life.

Matt said...

Robert, now knowing that it is only hundreds of pages later that his relationship with Albertine comes into bloom (ha ha),I think I might have discovered another meaning behind both the form of this extended, stream-of-conscious, like metaphor, and its content. If I remember correctly, Proust's great novel is essentially a stream-of-conscious narrative. Though I have not read the entire book, I believe that the beginning of the first book begins with a young Proust in bed as a boy and his description of how he would often fall asleep without even knowing it and then would awake later in the middle of the night to find that the candle was still lit or something like that. Also, I think there is a tension in that beginning passage in the first book between the dreaming and awake state. I think this early passage might give us some insight into what is going on in the passage you have included here. That is, the butterfly and steamship dialectic that I pointed out in my earlier posting, might actually be a dialectic between his new narrative technique (I will call it memory-consciousness, as opposed to stream-of-consciousness, which is more a thought-consciousness, though that doesn't preclude a thought that thinks of memory) and traditional, out-dated, forms of narratives (the steamships of the world), maybe along the lines of, in Proust's mind Flaubert's Madame Bovary, that like a steamship travel in a straight line and seemingly faster than a butterfly, but, actually, according to Proust do not move faster, and from a certain perspective are not more efficient in moving through time. The temporality of the book itself, with hundreds of passages separating this passage on the beach with the actual blooming of the relationship between Proust and the woman of his choice, is also interesting. Finally, I think it also interesting that if the book is centered around his memories (as I think it is), he can make huge jumps between time (because memories are not necessarily grounded in time, but can also be grouped thematically or otherwise), just like the butterfly can seeming out distance the steamship. This ties in with your mention about time-travel because if memory is all we truly know of the world, we can go back and forth between the future and past in our mind. The question is though: can we ever time travel into the present? This now considered, could the steamship be consciousness? Wow, that was a lot. Let me know what you think. I really need to read the entirety of The Remembrance of Things Past.

Matt said...

One last thing. I say we can move between the future and past in our mind. For example, suppose we project something into the future, like: I am going to eat a pizza! Now, suppose we never eat the pizza but only remember thinking about it. We can have a memory of thinking about eating a pizza (a future action), and so in some small sense can go into the future, if memory is all we have. I'm not sure if that just made things more complicated. Ok, I'm done now.