A couple weeks ago I started re-reading one of the chapters from Proust’s Swann’s Way called “Swann in Love.”
I read Swann’s Way when I was 16 or so and I remember it being a real trial. It was verbose and intimidating, the narrator’s memories poured out and stretched into these incredible gargantuan masses like sticky gelatin. For the first several hundred pages it felt like I was jogging an endlessly long race — most of it tiring and unpleasant but with regular moments of clarity and a few moments of ecstasy.
But then the last part — “Swann in Love” — was like entering a new book. It was fascinating, addictive and illuminating. It’s like a playbook of obsessive love. Swann becomes uncontrollably and inexplicably obsessed with Odette, despite her being a pretty ordinary young woman. And through it all, there is somehow a subtle consciousness in Swann of her inescapable ordinariness, and how out of touch his infatuation is with the reality of her person.
The most fascinating thing about the story is trying to track the course of his love’s fanatical evolution.
Phase 1: Indifference
It starts with predominant indifference, with his eyes completely open to Odette’s character, her ordinariness, her simple-mindedness, the coarseness of her beauty, and the theatrical stupidity of the small circle of her friends that originally bring her and Swann together.
Odette de Crécy went to see Swann again and was soon visiting him more and more often; for Swann, each of these visits must have renewed the disappointment he felt in finding before him this face whose particulars he had somewhat forgotten in the intervening days, that he hadn’t remembered as being so expressive, so (despite her youth) faded; as the two of them made conversation he felt sorry that the great beauty she possessed wasn’t of the kind he would have spontaneously preferred.
But despite his lukewarm interest, her childish attachment to him makes her interesting enough that he agrees to start dining with her “inner circle” — the Verdurins coterie.
Phase 2: Music feeds love
And then one evening at the Verdurins, while the pianist is playing for the group, Swann unexpectedly rediscovers this hypnotic musical phrase he had heard a year ago and never again since.
He neatly distinguished a phrase that, for a few instants, lifted above the waves of sound. And, in this moment, it suggested to him particular voluptuous pleasures he had never before imagined and which he felt could be made known to him through it alone, and his feelings for this phrase were as for an unknown love…This musical phrase even seemed, for a moment, to present the possibility of a kind of rejuvenation for Swann. He had long since given up applying himself towards any set goal and had confined his existence to the pursuit of his everyday pleasures, a habit which, without ever formally stating it to himself, he believed would persist until his death…Swann discovered in himself, in the memory of this phrase he had heard, the presence of one of these invisible realities he had ceased to believe in and he felt the returned desire, and almost the strength, to consecrate his life.
After hearing this phrase at the Verdurins, Swann, almost inadvertently, starts to feed his own poetry, his own longing for richness and passion, into his feelings for Odette. And at the same time, as though catching his drift, the silly party of buffoons that make up the Verdurins inner circle start to label the musical phrase as a symbol of Swann and Odette’s love.
Phase 3: Art feeds love
He starts seeing Odette more frequently, and during one of her visits he starts to liken her face, which had always been kind of disappointing to him, to a Botticelli fresco he loves (“Jethro’s daughter”).
“He looked at her; a fragment of the fresco appeared in her face and body, something he would always look for from then on, whether he was next to Odette or alone thinking about her; and, although without a doubt it was because he encountered it in Odette that he so prized the Florentine masterpiece, at the same time this resemblance conferred a certain beauty upon Odette and made her more precious to him. He reproached himself over having misjudged the price of this being who would have appeared adorable to the great Sandro, and he was glad that the pleasure he felt at seeing Odette had found a justification in his particular aesthetic culture. He told himself that in associating the thought of Odette with his dreams of happiness he hadn’t resigned himself to a kind of last resort, as it had seemed to him up until then, since she satisfied his most refined artistic tastes…The word “Florentine painting” did Swann a great service. It permitted him, like a title that grants its bearer special privileges, to let Odette’s image penetrate into a realm of his dreams she hadn’t had access to up until then and where she would be infused with noble traits…He placed on his desk, as though it were a photograph of Odette, a print of Jethro’s daughter.”
But for ages, after that visit and long after the evening where the musical phrase started to intoxicate Swann and intensify the illusion of his feelings, he doesn’t kiss or touch Odette and, so long as he can depend on her to always be waiting for him at the Verdurins, doesn’t feel any desperation to see her.
He remains preoccupied with his weird little affair with a woman only referred to as the “seamstress” who he’s always with until the last possible moment when he needs to meet Odette at the Verdurins.
Phase 4: Fear feeds infatuation
One night he finds it so hard to relinquish his sexy seamstress that he arrives at the Vedurins so late that Odette has already gone home, assuming that he wasn’t coming out after all. And it’s this evening of panic and frantic searching for her that really starts the sickness of his infatuation.
He starts to recognize her as an entity outside of himself — while the idea of her is draped in a poetry of his own creation and fantasy, she nonetheless has an existence that, even if just in certain corners, is totally separate from him. And it’s this realization that really fixes and tortures him — this love that he’s cultivated and stamped with the artistry of Vinteuil and Botticelli has its own will and existence outside of his control. And he starts to relish the sweet chains of financial dependence and society status that bind her to him.
Phase 5: Loving his chains
If some friend had told him at the outset of the affair, ‘It’s your situation she’s attracted to,’ or, presently, ‘It’s your fortune she’s after,’ certainly he wouldn’t have believed them, but at the same time he wouldn’t have minded that others thought that Odette was tied to him, that the two of them were united, by something as strong as financial concern or an obsession over status. And even if he had believed this notion, perhaps he wouldn’t have suffered at the thought that Odette’s love for him was based on something more durable than attraction or the qualities she found in him, namely, self-interest, which could prove indispensable in delaying the moment where she might be tempted to put an end to their affair. For the moment, by showering her with gifts, by making himself useful to her, he could fall back on these advantages that were exterior to his person, in place of his constant, draining efforts towards making himself attractive to her.
Phase 6: Loosening chains feed desperation
Gradually his infatuation with Odette seeps into every corner of his consciousness and he comes to loathe the times and places that separate him from her. If she leaves Paris for a few days’ trip those days are nothing but black anguish. In his moments of greatest desperation he tries to imagine how he might arrange to see her, to find her before she returns to Paris, and put a more immediate end to his suffering.
For the train schedules, the trains themselves are not made just for show. If it’s made known to the public, by the medium of print, that at eight in the morning there is a train leaving for Pierrefonds, destined to arrive there at ten o’clock, going to Pierrefonds is therefore a lawful act, for which Odette’s permission is superfluous. Also, it’s an act that could contain any number of motives outside of a desire to meet up with Odette, since people who don’t know her in the least accomplish this trip every day, and so many as to make it worth the cost of running this particular train.
Phase 7: Indifference, on the other end
Of course the result of all this is a cooling of Odette’s affection, if she even had much real love for him to begin with. And Swann’s not oblivious to this change — on the contrary, he’s perfectly, horribly in tune to every little bend and ripple of her feelings for him, and watches in complete despair at how confident and indifferent she’s become at his side.
We tremble for no one but ourselves, for the ones we love. When our happiness is no longer in their hands, how calm, how aloof, how bold we become next to them!
The last quote is a pretty self-centered view on love. But then again there is something fundamentally self-centered about Swann’s love for Odette. Even after following each of these turning points — the Vinteuil phrase, the night of frantic searching, the carriage ride later that night where he finally touches her, the Botticelli fresco— it’s still hard to understand why he’s so in love with Odette. Why Odette of all people became the object of his love.
And somehow I think that’s the point that Proust is trying to make. It doesn’t matter these reasons for his love because love isn’t a rational trajectory. It’s a circular conveyor belt with no entry or exit points that you can only enter by falling down on it — swept up in its course before you can pull yourself upright. He trembles over her because he loves her, and he loves her because he trembles over her.
On the surface, this proustian idea of love, as an untraceable circuitous fantasy, might seem trivializing and dismissive. But that’s not at all Proust’s intention. As Proust sees it, the very unreality and unhumanness of love is what makes it precious. Like the musical phrase that Swann’s love is entwined with, its irrationality and unearthliness is was makes it beautiful.
Even when he wasn’t thinking of the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind, alongside certain other notions with no earthly equivalent, like his notion of light, of sound, of depth, of physical desire, these which are the richest possessions diversifying and adorning our inner domain. Perhaps we will lose them, perhaps they will be obliterated if we return to nothingness. But as long as we’re alive, we can’t make as if we don’t know them…We perish but we have for hostages these divine captives who follow in our fate. And death with them seems something less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps less probable.