Proust and the limits of ekphrasis

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My travels have slowed my progress into Proustitution – but I was arrested by this passage in Swann’s Way, in which Marcel Proust describes the plight of a pregnant servant girl, a verbal journey that takes him all the way to Giottos frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua.  While most who know the early 14th-century chapel, one of the masterpieces of Western art, comment on its famous Last Judgment, or the panels which narrate events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ, Proust focuses on the comparatively insignificant panels on virtues and vices, which Giotto painted as if they were stone statues, a kind of ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis has its limits, however.  The passage was more insightful when I took the trouble looked up the image to compare it to Proust’s prose.  Here Proust describes the servant girl and the image of Charity:

What was more, she herself, poor girl, fattened by her pregnancy even in her face, even in her cheeks, which descended straight and square, rather resembled, in fact, those strong, mannish virgins, matrons really, in whom the virtues are personified in the Arena.  And I realize now that those Virtues and Vices of Padua resembled her in still another way. Just as the image of this girl was increased by the added symbol she carried before her belly without appearing to understand its meaning, without expressing in her face anything of its beauty and spirit, as a mere heavy burden, in the same way the powerful housewife who is represented at the Arena below the name “Caritas,” and a reproduction of whom hung on the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, embodies this virtue without seeming to suspect it, without any thought of charity seeming ever to have been capable of being expressed by her vulgar, energetic face.  Through a lovely invention of the painter, she is trampling on the treasures of the earth, but absolutely as if she were treading grapes to extract their juice or rather as she would have climbed on some sacks to raise herself up; and she holds her flaming heart out to God, or, to put it more exactly, “hands” it to him, as a cook hands a corkscrew through the vent of her cellar to someone who is asking her for it at the ground-floor window …

There must have been a good deal of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they seemed to me as alive as the pregnant servant, and since she herself did not appear to me much less allegorical.  And perhaps this (at least apparent) nonparticipation of a personal soul in the virtue that is acting through her has also, beyond its aesthetic value, a reality that is, if not psychological, at least, as they say, physiognomical. When, later, I had occasion to meet, in the course of my life, in convents for instance, truly saintly embodiments of practical charity, they generally had the cheerful, positive, indifferent, and brusque air of a busy surgeon, the sort of face in which one can read no commiseration, no pity in the presence of human suffering, no fear of offending it, the sort which is the ungentle face, the antithetic and sublime face of true goodness.

Sounds rather like the way her friends have described Polish Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler to me.


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4 Responses to “Proust and the limits of ekphrasis”

  1. Gordie Says:

    Cynthia:

    “When, later, I had occasion to meet, in the course of my life, in convents for instance, truly saintly embodiments of practical charity, they generally had the cheerful, positive, indifferent, and brusque air of a busy surgeon, the sort of face in which one can read no commiseration, no pity in the presence of human suffering, no fear of offending it, the sort which is the ungentle face, the antithetic and sublime face of true goodness”

    Does Proust have an issue with this type of charity? What does he mean by “antithetic”?

    Thanks for any response.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    OK. I’ll take a stab at it. I think he simply means that it is the very antithesis of what we have come to expect “goodness” to be, the very opposite of a “bleeding heart” kind of person.

  3. Gordie Says:

    Thanks. I read a book about Proust but never read his novels. I’m not the most accomplished reader and so his writing style can cause me to miss his point. Is it because his liberal use of irony and sarcasm?

    Dorothy Day is another great example of Charity.

  4. Marace Dareau Says:

    Proust is saying that truly good people don’t offer a lot of commiseration and sympathy which is really a false goodness and really does the unhappy person no good at all but confirms them in their unhappiness. When I read this recently I thought at once of the nun who was my children’s primary 1 teacher (they were so lucky). Nothing bothered her she always had a big smile and dealt with all the little five year olds, even the five year old horrors, as if they were absolute angels – and with her they were. Proust isn’t really as far as I can see ironic much and certainly not sarcastic, I think it is better to try to understand what he says as absolutely straight, even if his ideas seem strange. He is a long way from us in time and in the sort of society he lived in so it is not going to be straightforward or obvious.

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