Sunday, December 11, 2011

Proust vs. Plato: The Simultaneous Ascent and Descent of Saint-Loup

This is a revised draft of a undergraduate paper written in April of 2002. It was the term paper for an independent study devoted to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Jude Nixon was the supervising professor.

In Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time, Germaine Brée makes the following observation about Remembrance of Things Past and its characters:

Each individual substitutes for the reality of his experience a verbal mythology, and his understanding of life is further and further removed from what he actually feels. There is a complete separation between his life as he thinks about it and his life as he lives it. (6)

This seems particularly true of the character Robert de Saint-Loup. He is not, as Roger Shattuck writes of Proust’s characters, “[a] succession of contradictory images going under one name and ‘passing,’ by convention, as a single person […]” (127); he is a well-realized character whose depiction develops logically from Proust’s initial descriptions of him. Saint-Loup’s simultaneous rise and fall--he fulfills himself vocationally while his personal life becomes a greater and greater shambles--is not contradictory. Proust develops the character along two tracks but towards the same end: to show Saint-Loup as a man who attempts to adhere to ideals that run counter to his true nature, the different aspects of which ultimately assert control over his life. His vocational nature ultimately asserts itself in glory; the militaristic spirit he attempted to deny fully realizes itself in an extraordinary act of battlefield heroism during World War I, an act in which he sacrifices his life (III: 877). On the other hand, the homosexuality he had sought to repress led him, before the war, into a decadent, demoralizing existence: he becomes trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage to Gilberte (III: 696), caught in an exploitive affair with the opportunistic gigolo Charles Morel (III: 695), and loses his capacity for friendship (III: 704). Little wonder that, given the circumstances of his personal life, he ultimately says of himself, “Oh! My life, don’t let’s talk about it, I am a condemned man from the start” (III: 880). He ends fulfilled in one aspect of his life and miserable in another.

Saint-Loup, in his younger days, is described as an avid reader of Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Proudhon (I: 787), but the “verbal mythology” (as Brée describes it) that alienates Saint-Loup from his true nature seems more indebted to Plato, particularly the Symposium. In the Balbec episode (where Proust introduces him), Saint-Loup is shown attempting to define his life in terms that seem derived from the Plato piece. His early relationship with his mistress Rachel is a case in point.

Throughout the Symposium, the characters extol, in a discussion of Love, the virtues of a mentoring relationship between an older and a younger lover. Ideally, the older lover provides the younger lover with guidance, teaching him to take pride in proper behavior and to be ashamed when he acts poorly (178c-178d). Also, the older lover has a responsibility to teach the younger lover “the qualities a virtuous man should have and the customary activities in which he should engage […]” (209c). The narrator’s description of Saint-Loup’s and Rachel’s relationship, based on Saint-Loup’s account, almost perfectly matches the ideal put forth by Plato:

[F]or many young men of fashion who would otherwise remain uncultivated mentally, rough in their friendships, without gentleness or taste, it is very often their mistresses who are their real masters, and liaisons of this sort the only school of ethics in which they are initiated into a superior culture […]. (I: 838)

Rachel is the mentor and Saint-Loup the protégé. More specifically, Rachel is described as having “saved him from snobbishness and cured him of frivolity” (I: 839), “t[eaching] him to bring nobility and refinement into his friendships” (I: 839), and instilling within him a desire to cultivate intellectual interests (I: 840). With this last accomplishment, it would seem Rachel fulfills one of Plato’s goals for the ideal older lover: she apparently instills in Saint-Loup “an unstinting love of wisdom” (Plato 210d).

But Saint-Loup’s intellectualism is just pretense; the narrator, contemplating Rachel’s and Saint-Loup’s relationship, observes:

[B]etween Saint-Loup and herself there was an unbridgeable gulf, because they were of a different breed, because she was an intellectual and he, whatever he might claim, by birth an enemy of the intellect. (I: 840)

Earlier, shortly after meeting Saint-Loup, the narrator notes Saint-Loup’s “intellectual” socialist leanings (I: 787), but recognizes that, whatever Saint-Loup might say, he is a nobleman to the core (I: 791-792). Saint-Loup’s pretentiousness reaches its apogee in the Doncières episode, where he, a junior officer in the French Army, declares himself, much to the consternation of his fellow soldiers, a Dreyfusard (II: 107-108).

In supporting Dreyfus, Saint-Loup indulges in perhaps the most extreme repudiation of his caste--the traditional ruling caste of France--he could manage short of outright treason. The Dreyfus affair, on the face of it, doesn’t seem like much--a Jewish military officer unjustly court-martialed on trumped-up charges of espionage (Gamble 19)--but the controversy over it rocked the traditional French establishment to its foundations. The case undermined national morale: the French military, perhaps the foremost symbol and beneficiary of nationalist pride, was no longer sacrosanct; its leadership’s reputation for integrity had been almost completely undermined, and, since that leadership constituted the public face of the aristocracy, the moral unimpeachability of the ruling class had been completely compromised. That Saint-Loup’s fellow soldiers find his stance unsettling is not surprising: he’s all but committing insubordination towards superior officers. Saint-Loup’s commitment to intellectual idealism has crossed the line into folly. The problem is not that it’s morally or ethically wrong for him to support Dreyfus (given the facts of the case, he’s absolutely in the right), but for a man in his situation to openly express such views is to demonstrate an almost idiotic lack of judgment.

But as Saint-Loup reaches this nadir of intellectual foolishness, his innate militaristic character reasserts itself. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that a man achieves excellence when he acts in accord with his innate character (Aristotle I:7), and, at one point in the Doncières episode, Saint-Loup’s militaristic self shines. In a moment of extraordinary assurance and eloquence, he discusses the finer points of military strategy (II: 108-116). The narrator prepares the reader for the contrast between this talk and Saint-Loup’s usual conversations: “I knew that all too often Robert indulged in a rather hollow verbalism, but at other times gave assimiliation of profound ideas which he was fully capable of grasping” (II: 107). While listening to Saint-Loup talk about military tactics, the narrator delights in his eloquence:

The enunciation of these theories by Saint-Loup was cheering. […] Saint-Loup, by what he had just been saying to me about the art of war, added an intellectual foundation, of a permanent character, capable of gripping me so strongly that I could believe, without any attempt at self-deception, that after I had left Doncières I should continue to take an interest in the work of my friends there […]. (II: 112-113)

From this point on, Saint-Loup’s soft-headed intellectual idealism becomes more and more a thing of the past, while his innate militaristic self continues to come to the fore. He has a moment, both comic and flamboyant, as a man of action, running and jumping over tables and stretched wires in a restaurant in order to bring the asthmatic narrator blankets (II: 427). He renounces his support for Dreyfus, saying:

It’s a bad business, and I’m sorry I ever got involved in it. It was no affair of mine. If it were to begin over again, I should keep well clear of it. I’m a soldier, and my first loyalty is to the Army. (II: 724)

And then there’s Saint-Loup’s death. He dies heroically on the battlefield, protecting the flank of his unit during a retreat (III: 877). The narrator comes to view Saint-Loup’s death as a moment of supreme fulfillment, an apotheosis of Saint-Loup’s innate self as both warrior and aristocrat:

He must have been truly magnificent in those last hours […] Freed from the books which encumbered it, the feudal turret had become military once more. And this Guermantes had died more himself than ever before, or rather more a member of his race […]. (III: 881)

Saint-Loup, in his final moments, is one with himself, and he dies in a moment of excellence. The notion that man fully realizes himself in intellectual pursuits is wholly disputed; there are many paths to fulfillment and none can be called universal.

Proust critiques the ideals found in Plato and the Symposium more extensively in his treatment of Saint-Loup’s homosexuality. Saint-Loup’s affair with Rachel may make him, at first, seem initially heterosexual, but, as Proust ultimately makes clear, the character’s homosexual tendencies are present from the start. Aimé, the head waiter at the hotel in Balbec, tells the narrator of an incident that occurred about the time the narrator and Saint-Loup first met. Saint-Loup had accosted and attempted to seduce the hotel’s lift-boy, an action that nearly resulted in scandal (III: 698-699). The incident implies that Saint-Loup’s homosexual appetites prodded him towards reckless behavior, with the potential result of enormous public embarrassment and humiliation. This situation may have led Saint-Loup to search for a way of controlling these appetites and perhaps even muting them. In the Symposium, Plato describes a scenario between two lovers where physical desire falls away:

[I]f someone is decent in his soul, even though he is scarcely blooming in his body, our lover must be content to love and care for him and to seek to give birth to such ideas as will make young men better. The result is that our lover will be forced to gaze at the beauty of activities and laws and see that all this is akin to itself, with the result that he will think that the beauty of bodies is a thing of no importance. (210b-210c)

Enter the narrator.

When the narrator and Saint-Loup first meet (I: 788-790), one can see Saint-Loup treating the narrator in a way that mirrors the passage above. The narrator is a physically unprepossessing fellow, an asthmatic semi-invalid whose need to be kept warm must be constantly attended to, a need Saint-Loup obliges almost to the point of excess. Saint-Loup also treats the narrator in a more directly paternal fashion:

He was not afraid to make fun of my weaknesses […] affectionately, at the same time extolling my good qualities with a warmth, an impulsive freedom that showed no sign of the reserve […]. (I: 790)

As their friendship progresses, Saint-Loup continues to behave towards the narrator in a mentoring capacity, frequently encouraging his interest in literature and, at one point, telling him that he “had been created to enjoy pre-eminently the pleasures of the mind […]” (I: 866). And, in keeping with the ideal of celibacy found in the Symposium passage, Saint-Loup never once makes a sexual advance towards the narrator, keeping any sexual interest he may have completely hidden. So hidden, in fact, that the narrator is caught completely off-balance by Aimé’s revelations. The narrator is so convinced Saint-Loup was exclusively heterosexual that his initial reaction to Aimé’s story is disbelief (III: 699).

The narrator, however, does notice something peculiar about Saint-Loup’s interest in him, noting this about Saint-Loup’s descriptions of their friendship:

[H]e would say “our friendship” as though he were speaking of some important and delightful thing which had an existence independent of ourselves, and which he soon called […] the great joy of his life. (I: 790)

One infers that Saint-Loup’s motives in forming and pursuing the friendship are not entirely due to his enjoyment of the narrator’s company. Proust suggests that Saint-Loup sees the friendship in idealized terms, as a predetermined state or narrative in which he and the narrator have roles to play. The relationship is a paradigm to be lived up to.

And the narrator, to a certain extent, recoils. He remarks that Saint-Loup’s effusive compliments leave him feeling “melancholy” (I: 791) and, not wanting to be an ingrate, admonishes himself to “not regard as wasted hours [the time] in which I had built up a lofty idea of myself in the mind of my friend […]” (I: 791). Proust, however, implies that Saint-Loup is aware of the narrator’s reticence: his behavior towards the narrator tends increasingly towards obsequiousness. This is most apparent in Saint-Loup’s behavior regarding the narrator’s grandmother.

The narrator at one point emphasizes his grandmother’s generosity of spirit, describing her as the person “in whose heart I always placed myself in order to form an opinion of the most insignificant person” (II: 323). He makes clear it is she whom he most looks up to and, with the possible exception of his mother, he most loves. Saint-Loup seems aware of the intensity of the narrator’s affection for her; he makes winning over the grandmother and expressing his regard for her a key feature of his--for lack of a better word--“seduction” of the narrator. The narrator notes that “[f]rom the first Saint-Loup made a conquest of my grandmother” (I: 788). Saint-Loup’s tendency towards obsequiousness is indicated by his excessive gratitude when she gives him a farewell present. Saint-Loup, however, does not convey this gratitude directly; he gives it to the narrator to pass along. Such behavior suggests this gratitude is being expressed solely for the narrator’s benefit (I: 925-928). The calculating nature of Saint-Loup’s attitude towards the grandmother is most apparent when he meets the narrator at the beginning of the Doncières episode. It is only after a breathless series of effusive greetings (“I can scarcely believe my eyes; I feel I must be dreaming!” [II: 70]) that Saint-Loup remembers to ask about her (II: 70-71). Proust’s placement of the inquiry at the end of Saint-Loup’s welcoming gush characterizes it as an afterthought on Saint-Loup’s part. The narrator’s affection is always the goal; the grandmother is just a means to an end. Saint-Loup’s over-the-top response to the grandmother’s farewell present shows his desperation.

Saint-Loup doubtlessly comes to see the narrator as a poor protégé. The narrator refuses several invitations to visit Saint-Loup at Doncières (where Saint-Loup is fulfilling his military service requirement) and rejects Saint-Loup’s offer to visit him during leave. He only visits Doncières to get Saint-Loup’s help in arranging an invitation to meet Saint-Loup’s aunt, the Madame de Guermantes, an object of the narrator’s infatuations. The moment in which the narrator requests Saint-Loup’s help deteriorates into mutual animosity. The narrator notes Saint-Loup’s resentment of the request as well as his own anger:

I could see he had a reservation in his mind, that he attributed one to me as well, that he would further my love only partially, subject to certain moral principles, and for this I hated him. (II: 102)

Saint-Loup’s relationship with the narrator is not his only effort to deny his homosexuality; obviously, there’s his relationship with Rachel. In addition to being a mentor/protégé relationship in which Saint-Loup is being mentored, the affair can be read as an effort by Saint-Loup to “prove” himself as a heterosexual; such a motive would explain Saint-Loup’s prolonged inability to end the relationship, which becomes an affectionless source of misery for him (I: 840). Proust builds the tensions in Saint-Loup’s emotional life to a climax: the character recognizes the futility of his relationship with Rachel (and with it the end of his role as a protégé as well as his “failure” as a heterosexual), he distances himself from the narrator (which ends his self-assumed role as the narrator’s mentor), and the homosexuality he’s been denying confronts him, prompting him to explode into anger. After an ugly, public, and humiliating argument with Rachel, he leaves the theater where she’s been performing, more or less ending their relationship; he tells the narrator to leave him in order for them to go to a social gathering separately (“so that he might appear to have only just arrived in Paris instead of having spent half the day already with me” [II: 187]); and, in the midst of this, he brutally beats up a man who propositions him on the street (II: 181-187). Saint-Loup’s efforts to be heterosexual have failed, but, perhaps as importantly, so have his efforts to play the roles of Plato’s ideal lovers. He’s never the same.

After this, Proust never so much as hints at Saint-Loup looking for an emotionally healthy relationship, one where love and sexuality walk hand in hand. Saint-Loup’s life becomes emotionally barren: the empty marriage, the affectless homosexual affair, the incapacity for friendship. The narrator muses on this, grieving that Saint-Loup is now entirely guided by appetite:

Personally, I found it absolutely immaterial from a moral point of view whether one took one’s pleasure with a man or with a woman, and only too natural or human that one should take it where one can find it. If, therefore, Robert had not been married, his liaison with Charlie ought not to have caused me pain. And yet I realised that the pain I would have felt would have been as acute if Robert had been a bachelor. In anyone else, his conduct would have left me indifferent. But I wept when I reflected that I had once so great an affection for a different Saint-Loup, an affection which, I sensed all too clearly from the cold and evasive manner which he now adopted, he no longer felt for me, since men, now that they were capable of arousing his desires, could no longer inspire his friendship. (III: 704)

Saint-Loup’s appetites, Proust suggests, lead him ever further into decadence. A medal of Saint-Loup’s, the croix de guerre, is lost; the narrator thinks he saw Saint-Loup leave a hotel where one was found (III: 849). The hotel happens to be a brothel that caters to homosexual men. Its most notable client is Saint-Loup’s uncle, the Baron de Charlus, who takes his pleasure by being chained to a bed where roughneck men whip and verbally abuse him (III: 843). By placing Saint-Loup at the hotel, Proust leads one to infer that Saint-Loup’s appetites, like his uncle’s, have veered into masochism. In a life without love, the only lust is for punishment. Emotionally, Saint-Loup has descended into hell, and his lament of “I am a condemned man from the start” (III: 880) rings loud, clear, and true.

It’s possible Saint-Loup’s failures and delays in finding fulfillment are the result of his being an anachronism, a man out of time. While contemplating the subject of homosexuality, the narrator notes that Plato’s ideals of love and relationships have become archaic and increasingly removed from reality; homosexuality has become “involuntary, the neurotic kind, which one conceals from other people and misrepresents to oneself” (III: 204). And, in his musings on Saint-Loup’s death, the narrator states that “the field-turret [Saint-Loup] had become military once more” (III: 881); in Saint-Loup’s moment of glory, an earlier era lives again. But whether it be the heaven of battlefield glory or the hell of a life and its desires without love, Proust shows that imposed ideals fall away and the self will out. Ideals, it seems, belong only to the past; in the present, there are none. Plato’s paradigms, Proust suggests, are no guide to life.

Works Cited

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. J. E. C. Weldon. New York: Prometheus, 1987.

Brée, Germaine. Marcel Proust and Deliverance from Time. Trans. C. J. Richards and A. D. Truitt. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1969.

Gamble, Cynthia. “From Belle Epoque to First World War: The Social Panorama.” The Cambridge Companion to Proust. Ed. Richard Bales. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 7-24.

Plato. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997. 457-505.

Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and Andreas Mayor. 3 vols. New York: Vintage, 1982.

Shattuck, Roger. Proust’s Way. New York: Norton, 2000.

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