Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Proust’

Roberto Calasso’s Ardor: the Vedas, the mind, and the “inescapable role of violence”

Sunday, December 21st, 2014
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Super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation…

Roberto Calasso, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and founder of Italy’s premier publishing house, Adelphi, frequently mentioned the Vedas was he was in town last month (I wrote about his visit here). No surprise, since the ancient Sanskrit texts have held a long held a fascination for him, throughout his career. Its verses and hymns are also the subject of his most recent book Ardor, which is reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in today’s New York Times Book Review and by Steven Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly. Donoghue offers a warning:

This author’s books are rhetorical equivalents of gas giants: their nominal subjects are the super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation, and the author’s enormous erudition, wide reading, and kitten-like distractibility form the layers and layers of roiling, chaotic, atmosphere extending for huge distances in all directions around the core. Outside the farthest reaches of that atmosphere, in the hard vacuum of space, wait the critics, their laser canons primed and ready – for the simple reason that Calasso’s scattershot, sometimes hysterical, and (kudos to [translator Richard] Dixon) frequently untranslatable scholarly woolgathering fails as often as it succeeds in, to further the planetary analogy, supporting life.

Calasso tosses Talleyrand and Tiepolo, Proust and Prajapati into his polymathic salad, along with many, many others (Kafka, for example). His guiding preoccupations: “the power and sovereignty of the mind and its relationship to the world, the basis of political and social order and the inescapable role of violence.”

An excerpt from Mishra’s review:

The Vedic Indians did not build great empires or monuments. Rather they sought an intense “state of awareness” that “became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts.” Calasso is aware that most of his readers would regard the ritual of sacrifice as barbarous. But he sees in this contemporary recoiling an uneasy confession: that “this world of today is detached from and, at the same time, dependent on all that has preceded it.” Sacrifice was the means to acknowledge and contain violence through religious ritual and practice. But secular society with its frenzied worship of the new gods of money and power still consumes many victims without being aware of its sacrificial nature.

Calasso’s prose … demands familiarity with a very different intellectual tradition than the one manifest today in the pieties of radical, liberal and conservative thought. It assumes that the modern world can no longer explain its extraordinary violence and disorder in its own terms, and that we ought to understand the supposedly primitive customs and institutions, such as sacrifice, that linger invisibly in even postmodern societies.

ardor-coverOne of Calasso’s many interlocutors in Ardor is the religious anthropologist René Girard, who believes that mimetic desire — the desire to own what others possess — or envy, rather than transcendental authority, now underpins social order in secularized societies. But the mutual hatred and possibility of an “all against all” war it seeds is still defused by periodic scapegoating, the identification of internal or external enemies, whose violent suppression releases the tension built up by frustrated desire and unappeasable envy.

As Calasso sees it, modern warfare cannot rid itself, even despite a sophisticated machinery of killing and high death tolls, of the “lexical legacy of sacrifice,” which now includes words like “victim, self-denial, consecration, redemption, trial by fire.” The closing pages of Ardor echo the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen’s belief that “the submission of the individual to society — to the people — to humanity — to the idea — is a continuation of human sacrifice.” This has been continuously reflected in the catastrophic programs of social re-engineering from imperialism’s civilizing missions to Stalin and Mao’s socialist utopianism, and the more recent attempt to bomb whole countries into democracy, or shock-therapy them into free-market capitalism.

Today, the nation-states of Asia and Africa re-enact, in their pursuit of Western-­style modernity, human sacrifice on a vast scale and more pathological form. Calasso anticipates his reader wondering, “What can be the relevance of all we read in the Veda?” He is right to answer that such “microphysics of the mind” can bring about an “abrupt and disorientating shift of perspective” and, perhaps, snap us out of both naïve reverence for and smug disenchantment with the modern world. It is “now high time,” Goethe wrote in the early 19th century, “to envisage a humane global philosophy with no regard for nationality and creed.” Ardor outlines, in its own quirky way, that long-overdue and genuine intellectual cosmopolitanism.

Read the whole thing here. Or check out the Open Letters Monthly piece here. Or both.

Proust and the limits of ekphrasis

Monday, December 3rd, 2012
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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.

Happy Thanksgiving! Celebrate with a bag of marrons glacés.

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012
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As soon as I read this passage in Marcel Proust‘s Swann’s Way, I knew I must have one:

Being the only rather vulgar person in our family, she took care to point out to strangers, when they were talking about Swann, that, had he wanted to, he could have lived on the boulevard Haussmann or the avenue de l’Opéra, that he was the son of M. Swann, who must have left four or five million, but that this was his whim.  One that she felt moreover must be so amusing to others that in Paris, when M. Swann came on New Year’s Day to bring her her bag of marrons glacés, she never failed, if there was company, to say to him: “Well, Monsieur Swann! Do you still live next door to the wine warehouse, so as to be sure of not missing the train when you go to Lyon?”  And she would look out of the corner of her eye, over her lorgnon, at the other visitors.

These candied chestnuts migrated to northern Italy and southern France after the Crusades.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about them:

“The earliest known record of a recipe for marrons glacés was written by the French at the end of 17th century in Louis XIV‘s Versailles court.  In 1667, François Pierre La Varenne, ten years’ chef de cuisine to Nicolas Chalon du Blé, Marquis of Uxelles (near Lyon and a chestnut-producing area), and foremost figure of the nouvelle cuisine movement of the time, published his best-selling book Le parfaict confiturier. In it he describes ‘la façon de faire marron pour tirer au sec’ (‘the way to make (a) chestnut (so as) to “pull it dry”‘); this may well be the first record of the recipe for marrons glacés. ‘Tirer au sec’ means, in a confectionery context, ‘to remove (what’s being candied) from the syrup’. La Varenne’s book was edited 30 times in 75 years.”

Good enough for him.

So that’s how I celebrated my Thanksgiving.  Returning home from the Sorbonne, I stopped in a boulangerie on the Rue de Richelieu for a baguette, and saw a enormous pile of marrons glacés.  I had my doubts.  The little suckers were going for 1.80 euros apiece.  I’ve never been able to quite make friends with the humble chestnut – you know, the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and so on every Christmas – and that, despite making a reasonably good chestnut soufflé in the wintertime.  But the marron glacé?  Un vrai délice!

Have a happy Thanksgiving.  And don’t pass them up, if you get the chance.

(Or try the recipe here.)

 

36 hours in France: Have I become a Proustitute?

Saturday, November 17th, 2012
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Je retourne.

My arrival in the First Arrondissement of Paris, sans luggage, has had one advantage, besides familiarizing me with the personnel at United Airlines, who, in the last 36 hours, still haven’t returned my toothbrush, my clothes, my medical prescriptions, the books for my research, or anything else I had packed. It has been a monk-like existence in the sixth-floor apartment, the sole excursion being to my beloved Galerie Mazarine at the La Bibliothèque Nationale de France again.  Amid the Parisian students, I figured one more grubby, earnest person would pass largely unnoticed and unremarked.

Here’s what else the seclusion has done:  It has brought me at last to Marcel Proust.  In all the whoop-de-do about Proust’s madeleines, passages like this one, early in Swann’s Way, tend to be overlooked.  It’s the one that sold me as I read on the train, and read in my studio overlooking the Louvre:

Proust as teenager

Proust as teenager

“But even with respect tot he most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others.  Even the very simple act that we call ‘seeing a person we know’ is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part. In the end they swell his cheeks so perfectly, follow the line of his nose in an adherence so exact, they do so well at nuancing the sonority of his voice as though the latter were only a transparent envelope that each time we see this face and hear this voice, it is these notions that we encounter again, that we hear.  No doubt, in the Swann they had formed for themselves, my family had failed out of ignorance to include a host of details from his life in the fashionable world that caused other people, when they were in his presence, to see refinements rule his face and stop at his aquiline nose as though at their natural frontier; but they had also been able to garner in this face disaffected of its prestige, vacant and spacious, in the depths of these depreciated eyes, the vague, sweet residue – half memory, half forgetfulness – of the idle hours spent together after our weekly dinners, around the card table or in the garden, during our life of good country neighborliness.

So what?

The corporeal envelope of our friend had been so well stuffed with this, as well as with a few memories relating to his parents, that this particular Swann had become a complete and living being, and I have the impression of leaving one person to go to another distinct from him, when, in my memory, I pass from the Swann I knew later with accuracy to that first Swann – to that first Swann in whom I rediscover the charming mistakes of my youth and who in fact resembles less the other Swann than he resembles other people I knew at that time, as though one’s life were like a museum in which all the portraits from one period have a family look about them, a single tonality – to that first Swann abounding in leisure, fragrant with the smell of the old chestnut tree, the baskets of raspberries, and a sprig of tarragon.

For a different take on Proust, the famous madeleines, and “odor memory,” try here.

Postscript: My thanks to Twitter’s Proustitute, the founder of Sharing Poetry, who may have coined the term “Proustitute.”

“Distance is the soul of beauty.” Finally. He explains.

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
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His thought…

Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz‘s personal secretary Agnieszka Kosińska wrote the concluding essay, “Last Poems and Ars Moriendi,”  for my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

Here’s the final paragraph, translated by Artur Rosman: “For me, working with Milosz, being with him all day long, was like being locked in a submarine: it was a total submersion in Milosz’s world, coupled with incredible pressure from within and without. Now, six years after his death, I continually test myself against the saying of Simone Weil that Miłosz liked to cite, ‘Distance is the soul of beauty,’ and I try to understand what I saw and heard while working with him.”

I’ve puzzled over Weil’s thought for some time. Then, a few days ago, I found Jonas Mekas‘s There Is No Ithaka: Idylls of Semeniskiai and Reminiscences.  The Lithuanian poet’s collection has a foreword by the Lithuanian-born Miłosz – I don’t think it’s been collected in any of his volumes of essays.  So years after Agnieszka’s comment, the maestro finally offers this elucidation:

…building on hers.

“‘Distance is the soul of beauty.’ This sentence of Simone Weil expresses an old truth: only through a distance, in space or in time, does reality undergo purification. Our immediate concerns which were blinding us to the grace of ordinary things disappear and a look backward reveals them in their every minutest detail. Distance engendered by the passing of time is at the core of the oeuvre of Marcel Proust. Distance in space and awareness that borders with their barbed wire separated him from his country allowed a young Lithuanian to write his Idylls.”

Mekas turns 90 in December, and is better known as an avant-garde filmmaker than as a poet.  “You have the possibility to give light a dimension in time,” he said. Poetry does the same, of course.

Marcel Proust playing air guitar

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012
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OK, you’ve got to see thisSusan Sontag in a bear suit.  Flavorwire has Annie Leibovitz‘s photo of her partner thus outfitted – but go to the source, which is here, for a gallery of Leibovitz’s portraits, including some magnificent ones of Sontag.

Flavorwire’s “Extremely Silly Photos of Extremely Serious Writers” features Sontag as Exhibit #1, but some of them are more or less unsurprising. Mark Twain playing billiards, Ernest Hemingway kick a can, Hunter Thompson with an inflatable woman, Colette dressed as a cat – but this one takes the cake: Marcel Proust playing air guitar on Boulevard Bineau with his friends in 1892 (his mimetic beloved Jeanne Pouquet in center).  At this time of the photo, he was known as a snob, a dilettante, and a social climber.

But the somehow sad image brought back the words of René Girard (recently the subject of a post here) from his landmark Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which celebrated its 50th anniversary since publication a few months ago. His words:

“The sterile oscillation between pride and shame is also found in Proustian snobbism. We shall never despise the snob as much as he despises himself. The snob is not essentially despicable; he tries to escape his own subjective feeling of contemptibility by assuming the new being which he supposedly procures through snobbism. The snob thinks he is always on the point of securing this being and behaves as if he has already done so. Thus he acts with intolerable arrogance. Snobbism is an inextricable mixture of pride and meanness, and it is this very mixture which defines metaphysical desire. …

“The snob bows before a noble title which has lost all real value, before a social prestige so esoteric that it is really appreciated by only a few elderly ladies. … The snob seeks no concrete advantage; his pleasures and sufferings are purely metaphysical.”

The anonymous photo is from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which, incidentally, also has the René Girard archive.