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Love and Transience in Proust

  • Robbie Kubala

One strand of recent philosophical attention to Marcel Proust's novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, exemplified by Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton, claims that romantic love is depicted in the text as self-regarding and solipsistic. I aim to challenge this reading. First, I demonstrate that the text contains a different view, overlooked by these recent interpreters, according to which love is directed at the partially knowable reality of another. Second, I argue that a better explanation for Proust's narrator's ultimate renunciation of romantic love appeals not to his impossible epistemic standard for knowledge of another person, but to his demanding evaluative standard for the permanence of love. This interpretation takes into account the broader scope of the novel, connecting with its larger themes of lost time and the desire for stability, and is more charitable, connecting to familiar worries about transience and constancy in loving relationships.

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1 Lionel Hauser was Proust's financial adviser; this letter of 1918 is cited in William C. Carter, Proust in Love (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 55.

2 The first set of Roman and Arabic numerals refer to the volume and page number of the recent English translations published by Penguin Books in 2002: in order, Swann's Way, trans. Lydia Davis; In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. James Grieve; The Guermantes Way, trans. Mark Treharne; Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. John Sturrock; The Prisoner, trans. Carol Clark; The Fugitive, trans. Peter Collier, and Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson. Page numbers for the first four volumes refer to the US editions; page numbers for the last three volumes refer to the UK editions, which due to copyright restriction are currently not for sale in the US. I have occasionally modified the translations. The second set of Roman and Arabic numerals refer to the volume and page number of the French Pléaide edition, ed. Jean-Yves Tadié (Paris: Gallimard, 1987–9).

3 Nussbaum, ‘Love's Knowledge’, in Love's Knowledge (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 261–85, and Langton, ‘Love and Solipsism’, in Roger Lamb (ed.), Love Analyzed (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 123–52.

4 Op. cit. note 3, 272.

5 Op. cit. note 3, 150.

6 The idea that Proustian love is solipsistic has not been conjured from thin air by philosophers, of course, and also finds expression in literary-critical treatments. For instance, Richard Bales claims that ‘the Narrator could not provide a bleaker analysis of the nature of love: it is an illusion, created in one’s mind by dint of belief in the abstract notion of it’ (Proust: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (London: Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1995), 63).

7 One philosopher from a different tradition who has not ignored this view is Emmanuel Levinas, who in his perceptive 1947 essay ‘The Other in Proust’ points out that ‘Marcel did not love Albertine, if love is a fusion with the Other, the ecstasy of one being over the perfections of the other, or the peace of possession. … But this non-love is precisely love, the struggle with what cannot be grasped (possession, that absence of Albertine), her presence’ (trans. Seán Hand, in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader (London: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 160–5 at 164–5). The non-solipsistic view of love that I discuss might be thought of as an elaboration of Levinas' brief but suggestive remarks.

8 I should emphasize from the outset that while I grant that the Langton–Nussbaum view has some textual support, it is notably ahistorical. A fuller treatment of the solipsistic view would discuss some of its historical antecedents, which within the French tradition alone stretch from Racine’s assumption that the lover's view of the beloved is inherently unstable to Stendhal’s theory of crystallization, which claims that we love idealized fantasies rather than real people. For a brief but helpful summary, see Alison Finch, ‘Love, Sexuality, and Friendship’, in Richard Bales (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Proust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 168–82. A fuller treatment of my own transience view would similarly have to make reference to its own historical antecedents, from medieval French poetry to Flaubert.

9 Joshua Landy makes use of this fact in formulating his methodology for reconstructing the views of Proust from those of his narrator Marcel: assume, for any given maxim spoken in Marcel's voice, that Proust endorses it, unless there is a contradiction between maxims or between a maxim and the depicted events (Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 35). While I applaud Landy for attributing a greater degree of self-awareness to Proust than many critics do, I am less interested to learn exactly what Proust meant (a task better suited to a literary scholar) than to think through the consequences of a line of thought present in his text.

10 Langton, ‘Love and Solipsism’, in Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press), 357–81 at 373.

11 Marcel claims, in this context, that everyone falls in love with a certain type, ‘although the type may be loosely defined’ (VI, 468; IV, 84), but this is contradicted elsewhere. In Le Temps Retrouvé, there is a lengthy passage discussing men who love women ‘qui n’étaient pas leur genre’ (VII, 331; IV, 599), and the final sentence of ‘Un Amour de Swann’ reminds us that Odette was not a woman of Swann's type. For further discussion, see Landy, op. cit. note 9, 28–32.

12 Leo Bersani, Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and of Art (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 127–8.

13 Deleuze, Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard (London: Continuum, 2008), 5.

14 Velleman, , ‘Love as a Moral Emotion’, Ethics 109 (1999), 338–74 at 371.

15 Ibid., 344.

16 This is not the only similarity between Kant and Proust. In a recent paper, Richard Moran argues that Proust shares the Kantian idea that beautiful objects make normative demands on their beholders, albeit without Kant's insistence on universal agreement as criterial of the judgment of beauty (Kant, Proust, and the Appeal of Beauty’, Critical Inquiry 38 (2012): 298329 ).

17 Op. cit. note 10, 376.

18 Op. cit. note 3, 274 n. 18.

19 One charming instance of this is Marcel's early inability to remember where Albertine's beauty mark is: ‘Just as a phrase of Vinteuil that had delighted me in the sonata, and which my memory kept moving from the andante to the finale, until the day when, with the score in hand, I was able to find it and localize it where it belonged, in the scherzo, so the beauty mark, which I had remembered on her cheek, then on her chin, came to rest forever on her upper lip, just under her nose’ (II, 456–7; II, 232).

20 See, for two otherwise quite opposed perspectives, Kolodny, Niko, ‘Love as Valuing a Relationship’, Philosophical Review 112 (2003), 135–89, and Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).

21 Langton, ‘Projected Love’, in Susan Wolf and Christopher Grau (eds.), Understanding Love: Philosophy, Film, and Fiction (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 141–62 at 148.

22 Op. cit. note 12, 122.

23 Nussbaum, ‘Fictions of the Soul’, in Love's Knowledge (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 245–60 at 257.

24 Op. cit. note 3, 274 n. 18.

25 Moller, , ‘Love and Death’, Journal of Philosophy 104 (2007): 301–16.

26 See Bonnano, George A., Moskowitz, Judith Tedlie, Papa, Anthony, and Folkman, Susan, ‘Resilience to Loss in Bereaved Spouses, Bereaved Parents, and Bereaved Gay Men’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88 (2005): 827–43 and Zisook, Sidney, Paulus, Martin, Schuchter, Stephen R., and Judd, Lewis L., ‘The Many Faces of Depression Following Spousal Bereavement’, Journal of Affective Disorders 45 (1997): 8595 , both cited in Moller op. cit. note 25, 302.

27 Op. cit. note 25, 305.

28 Ibid., 308.

29 Ibid., 313.

30 Again, Bersani is perceptive about this: ‘The only way we can miss the point about Albertine is to read the novel as if there were any one, exclusive point to be made about her’ (Op. cit. note 12, 137).

31 Any interpretation of Proust is bound to run up against passages that are simply mystifying, however, and so there are limits to how charitable a reading can be. One such passage comes from the final paragraph of the opening chapter of Albertine Disparue: ‘When I had understood the difference that there was between the importance of her person and her actions for me as opposed to for others, implying that my love was less a love for her than a love within me, I could have drawn diverse conclusions from this subjective character of my love’ (VI, 522; IV, 137). As I see it, the implication just doesn't follow. Unless Marcel is imagining that loving someone entails a Kantian demand for universal agreement as to her lovability, I can see no reason why he should not positively celebrate a state of affairs in which the beloved seems more important to him than she does to others; such a state of affairs is, I take it, partially constitutive of love. And even if he took the Kantian line, there is no reason for him to think that this difference of importance in any way implies that he does not love Albertine. Such reasoning would seem, even more than any kind of solipsism, to be a reductio of the whole notion of love.

32 Alexander Nehamas makes much of this phrase in Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007). He also draws attention to the view of love as vulnerability in Proust, focusing on the relationship between Swann and Odette, though he does not develop the point further with respect to Proust: ‘I willingly give you power over myself emotionally, ethically, and intellectually, trusting you not to exploit it. By becoming vulnerable in that way, I put my identity at serious risk because I have no way of telling how our relationship will ultimately affect me and whether it will be for good or bad – and neither do you’ (57).

33 My greatest debt in writing this paper is to Philip Kitcher, for his thoughtful comments and generous encouragement. I am also grateful to Lydia Goehr and Elisabeth Ladenson for helpful discussion. Earlier versions of this paper were delivered at the Love’s Passion Workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (September 2014), the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism Seminar Series (March 2015), the Felician Ethics Conference (April 2015), and the British Society for Aesthetics Conference (September 2015). I am particularly indebted to Gregory Currie, Catherine Elgin, and Jonathan Gilmore for their perceptive and probing questions on that last occasion.

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