Marcel Proust and “a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice”


Vermeer’s “View of Delft”: “He took a turbulent reality, and made it look like Heaven on earth,” according to one art critic.

Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele offers a few words on one of the preeminent writers of France, ever:


Tim Steele

One of the literary greats of Paris and of the world, Marcel Proust died ninety-three years ago today. The many subjects he treats in In Search of Lost Time include mortality and the work of Johannes Vermeer, and the two come together in the scene of the novelist Bergotte’s death. Readers will remember that Bergotte, though gravely ill, goes to an art exhibition to see Vermeer’s “View of Delft,” which is on loan in Paris from the Maruitshuis museum in The Hague. Bergotte finds his way to the gallery in which the masterpiece hangs and focuses his admiration on “a little patch of yellow wall” in the painting. (Proust is perhaps referring to the wall on the far right side, or to the roof and wall just to the left of the double-turreted Rotterdam gate.) After reflecting that he should have written as Vermeer painted, layering his stories with color to give them greater warmth and depth, Bergotte sinks to a circular settee and suffers his fatal heart attack. Proust writes:


Au revoir, Marcel.

“He was dead. Dead forever? Who can say? . . . All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there.”

– In Search of Lost Time, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, vol. 5 (New York: Random House, 1993): 245-46.

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