Saturday, July 04, 2015

Malcolm Bowie, in Proust Among The Stars, analyses a long Proust sentence from Sodom and Gomorrah

"But when they see another man display a particular predilection towards them, then, whether because they fail to recognise that it is the same as their own, or because it is a painful reminder that this predilection, exalted by them as long as it is they themselves who feel it, is regarded as a vice, or from a desire to rehabilitate themselves by making a scene in circumstances in which it costs them nothing, or from a fear of being unmasked which suddenly overtakes them when desire no longer leads them blindfold from one imprudence to another, or from rage at being subjected, by the equivocal attitude of another person, to the injury which by their own attitude, if that other person attracted them, they would not hesitate to inflict on him, men who do not in the lead mind following a young man for miles, never taking their eyes off him in the theater even if he is with friends, thereby threatening to compromise him with them, may be heard to say, if a man who does not attract them merely looks at them, ‘Monsieur, what do you take me for?’ (simply because he takes them for what they are) 'I don't understand you, no, don't attempt to explain, you are quite mistaken,' may proceed at a pinch from words to blows, and, to a person who knows the imprudent stranger, wax indignant: 'What, you know this loathsome creature? The way we looks at one! A fine way to behave!'"

In single sentences built on this model, the propositional structure of the main utterance is almost smothered by subordinate material rushing forward to its aid. 'But... men who do not in the least mind... may be heard to say' is the 'main' proposition, but devices of amplification are used so intensively in the build-up to this anodyne remark that much of its force has been pre-empted by the time its moment of completion arrives. The clauses beginning 'or' are brazen queue-jumpers, and their copious display of alternative sexual motives and dilemmas in a sense tells the whole story before the sentence has developed anything resembling narrative thrust. The weakened proposition is then reinforced, but also outstripped, by the fragments of direct speech on which the sentence closes. From a list of abstract moral and psychological formulae we move to a playlet illustrating certain of these. We pass from abstraction to dramatic enactment by way of an almost characterless claim whose task, syntactically speaking, is to hold the whole thing together but whose contribution at the level of sense is easily lost in a clamour of other, subtler, voices. Meaning is destabilised by the syntactic pattern. It crystallises suddenly in this corner or that of a variegated open field, and may as suddenly dissolve again as new elements in the verbal texture rise to prominence. 'This is what it feels like to be a gay man pursuing sexual pleasure in a maze of untrustworthy signs', the sentence in its feverish motion seems to say. But inside this dynamic portrait of a specifically homosexual social scene, Proust's risk-filled syntax has another drama to enact. This is everyone's desire in perpetual displacement. This is how desire is...

The loss and the precarious restoration of meaning in sentences is Eros become visible. The hide-and-seek games that Proust's sentences play not only pay their imitative tribute to the feints, detours and side-glances that mark all sexual pursuit but offer themselves as a model for speculation, all mental efforts to make headway, in a resistant medium, towards a desired goal.