Monday, July 15, 2013

Proust, women, power, privilege

(No sf here, move along...)

This passage from Proust's Within a Budding Grove (in the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation) comes from one of the many episodes in which Marcel sees a "simple country girl," invests her with all the unspoilt charm and beauty of nature, and is frustrated that, surrounded as he is by family keeping an eye on him because of his ill-health, he won't get to sleep with her. In this case it's a "milk-girl" who comes frequently delivering cream to the hotel at Balbec at which Marcel and his family are staying. He thinks he has caught her eye, that a letter he receives is from her; instead, it is from a friend who has stopped by but been unable to see him. Marcel is crushed:

As for the girl, I never came across her again, any more than I came across those whom I had seen from Mme de Villeparisis's carriage. Seeing and then losing them all thus increased the state of agitation in which I was living, and I found a certain wisdom in the philosophers who recommend us to set a limit to our desires (if, that is, they refer to our desire for people, for that is the only kind that leads to anxiety, having for its object something unknown but conscious. To suppose that philosophy could be referring to the desire for wealth would be too absurd). At the same time I was inclined to regard this wisdom as incomplete, for I told myself that these encounters made me find even more beautiful a world which thus caused to grow along all the country roads flowers at once rare and common, fleeting treasures of the day, windfalls of the drive, of which the contingent circumstances that might not, perhaps, recur had alone prevented me from taking advantage, and which gave a new zest to life.

But perhaps in hoping that, one day, with greater freedom, I should be able to find similar girls on other roads, I was already beginning to falsify what is exclusively individual in the desire to live in the company of a woman whom one has found attractive, and by the mere fact that I admitted the possibility of bringing it about artificially, I had implicitly acknowledged its illusoriness.

Many, possibly most, people whose politics are similar to mine--particularly those whose bodies and minds are more marginalized and oppressed than my own--are inclined to dismiss writers like Proust, and the whole literary tradition he's a part of, as a bunch of elitist, racist, misogynist, well-off white men. And I certainly can't blame them! But as a white man who wants nothing more than to demolish patriarchy and whiteness and capitalism (and...), I struggle with this perspective. Though I respect and admire it I can't share it--because beyond (or better, wrapped up in) the considerable literary value I find in Proust is a just as considerable political value...for me, at least.

(Though similar things could be written about race and class with respect to Proust, and a more intersectional analysis would of course be ideal, this is going to, like Proust himself, focus on gender.)

Obviously Marcel's attitude towards women is problematic and disturbing (and I haven't even gotten to The Captive yet...). As so often in men's literature, they are simultaneously demeaned and idealized, which is to say objectified in the fullest meaning of the word. Beyond the sense in which we all, as products of patriarchy, are misogynists (most dangerously but not only the men among us), Marcel is a misogynist. Proust too is a misogynist, though I would argue in a different way. But whether In Search of Lost Time is "a misogynist work" is for me a much more complicated question; and at least as I read it and construct it in my mind, I lean towards thinking it is anything but.

What I find in passages like this one is an astonishingly powerful encapsulation of the unlivable contradictions instilled in us by patriarchy. As a man (or at this point maybe still a boy: what we now call a teenager), Marcel has been socialized to think of women in ways that make it natural for him to speak of them as objects for his "collection" (as he says a little earlier than what I have quoted), as "treasures" and "windfalls," as symbols of the splendor of the world rather than people. But it is clear that, just as with so much that he has been taught, he is coming up against the limitations of these notions, and is deeply puzzled, frustrated, and saddened by them. He knows that there is something wrong in the way he has been trained to think of and relate to women, but he can't figure out what it is. We can see the contradiction in his parenthetical about about how when desire is for a woman, it is for an "object" that is conscious; in his equivocation about "what is exclusively individual"; in his distinguishing the desire for a person from the desire for wealth,which the philosophy he references, "absurd" as this is, for the most part really does not; in his recognition of the "incompleteness" of that philosophy's wisdom, teaching him to limit his desire when what really seems needed is a transformation of it. In all of these he recognizes--but can't quite grasp--the human uniqueness of each individual woman, just as human and just as unique as that of each individual man.

Though he only has extremely problematic tools with which to conceptualize it, Marcel's sense that the women he sees are an integral part of the beauty he finds in the world is very valid.* For one thing, while patriarchy offers only extremely debased versions of them (such as the kind we see in this passage), love and sexual desire are marvelous things for those who want them; as a queer man living in patriarchy I very strongly recognize the agonized, confused sense that there is something beautiful and true in the feelings inspired by the presence of someone beautiful or desirable (in any sense, physical and/or otherwise), but that this beauty and truth is wholly inaccessible and possibly illusory. Obviously this easily shades over into attitudes of the "eternal mystery" and "coquettishness" and "intrinsic eroticism" of women, but after all there has to be a reason--beyond massive funding--why such patently false (but useful to power) notions are able to exert such a powerful hold on the messed-up minds of men, and I suspect that this mystified and painful failure to grasp a sensed truth is a big part of it.

*And though I don't want to make a big point of it and am not sure quite where to put it, we should remember in the back of our minds that Proust was--uncomfortably--queer, and the women objects of Marcel's desire can at least on some levels be read as displacements of the men his author desired, which doesn't excuse the misogyny but does complicate it, especially when thinking of Marcel's frustration at the unattainability of what he desires.

And for another thing, while he is wrong to see these women as "symbols," particularly as symbols of some naive, unspoiled "nature," Marcel is not wrong to see in them the miracle of life-as-it-is-lived, a kind of life from which he is to a large degree cut off, both by his health and by his privilege. Again this line of reasoning easily shades over into really gross things: the idealization of the "genuine living" of the oppressed, the "it's so hard to be privileged" attitude, and more. I want to make clear once again that the biggest part of why these attitudes exert such a powerful hold on our minds and our behaviors is that they have been actively and systematically enforced by power for centuries, but I think it is obvious that if they did not play upon some real need no amount of structural violence and reinforcement could make them as intractable as they are. And I think passages like this one help us to understand why these gross things are so tenacious. Because power makes big promises to privileged white men, promises it certainly fulfills in the form of giving them immense power over those lower on the scale than they are, but promises that in other terms it does not and could never keep, because the deepest, darkest secret of power is that power sucks. The exercise of power sucks. When one is granted so much structural power, all one can do is to destroy the living of life, whether literally or figuratively; one cannot live. And when someone in this position encounters someone who they sense, no matter how accurately, to be living in some more meaningful sense, the feeling of isolation and failure can be immense.

When I read Proust, part of me winces at passages like these, and thinks, "I wish this weren't so misogynist." But I've come to think that, though it seems paradoxical, the part of me that wishes that is the part that is desperate to cling on to its privilege, while the part of me that welcomes what is problematic is the part that wants to face and question that privilege. Because while I certainly understand the perspective of, say, a woman who has no patience for yet another in-depth exploration of a man's mind, as a man who desperately wants to deconstruct and destroy my own male thinking, such explorations are essential. And though it's not the whole reason by any means (this blog post has hardly exhausted Proust!), this is a major part of why I have found it so valuable to read men like Proust alongside all of the feminists and other oppressed radicals I also read: not for any simplistic "Feminist X has taught me that what Marcel says in Scene Y is disgusting" kind of rote problem-spotting, but for the insight each gives me into the other, into myself, and into my (alas) fellow men.


Anirudh K said...

If one finds somebody physically attractive without knowing them at all, one cannot help but objectify them. I don't think it is wrong. In the media, say, it is primarily women who are objectified. But in day-to-day interactions, I've seen women objectifying men too. I see nothing wrong with this mutual objectification.

Objectification is not our *only* relation to people we desire, as is clear in ISOLT, both here and later (in the Albertine sections). And as you point out, try as we might, our objectification can only go so far, the relation we form is "illusory". (As we read here. And when Marcel masturbates. If I remember the passage aright - been long - he loses the girl even as he accesses her with the greatest ease.)

That others sometimes appear to us as "objects" is inevitable. The bombed Iraqis, for example, however much their bombing angers certain Americans, appear in their field of vision, in their life, as images on a TV, words in a newspaper. There is this distance, it cannot be bridged by making righteous noises.

There is this distance between two people too, I think, where the other appears, in part, as an object, as a function only of one's own desires. Proust is aware of this and sensitizes us to it without wanting to "demolish it". Is demolishing it possible?

I am a little suspicious of an individual's ethics substituting politics (mass politics) in one's relation to other people overmuch. Capitalism or misogyny will not be demolished by each individual stripping himself/herself of what are viewed as politically undesirable attributes.

(But as I said above, I don't think the attitudes that ISOLT enacts, read together or even individually, merit the charge of misogyny.)

[Re: ethics-politics, Roland Boer writes of Judith Butler:

" opens up to the ‘other’ (whatever that is) in vulnerability, in openness...or as she puts it at times, in permeability. Nicely liberal, really. But it is a little difficult to see how one may be vulnerable or even permeable if one doesn’t engage in the first place for fear of one’s person."

Not only if one doesn't but if one can't.]

Ethan Robinson said...

I might be being cranky, but I don't see any way to interpret my post as suggesting that I think capitalism or misogyny will "be demolished by each individual stripping himself/herself of what are viewed as politically undesirable attributes" except by a combination of reading unfairly with thinking that this 1500 word post contains the entirety of my thoughts on everything.

Also, you seem to conflate "real experience" with what goes on in literature, which is funny considering who we're talking about.

Again, I might just be cranky (I'm in a bad mood), so if I'm misinterpreting you, my apologies.

Anirudh K said...

I'm sorry about my conclusion based on what is, as you point out, a 1500 word post.

But I still don't think the attitudes that ISOLT enacts, read together or even individually, merit the charge of misogyny. And not because, it is an "in-depth exploration of a man's mind" which is useful for you, "as a man who desperately wants to deconstruct and destroy [his] own male thinking."

Would you elaborate on how I conflate "real experience" with what goes in literature? Not that I don't but once you point out how I do it, I'll see precisely what you mean and be able to reply, if necessary.

Ethan Robinson said...

Frankly I don't see much need to continue engaging with someone who twice has referred to "the charge of misogyny" (misogyny is not a charge or an accusation, it is a pervasive fact), especially in the context of a blog post in which I discuss why I think the work in question is not actively misogynist.

stalker said...

She sound hawt