Death’s denial

May 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Our human glitch is the incapacity to be. Our human glitch is the incapacity to be, where “to be” means to come into existence & to, eventually, exit that state. In our culture of caring for the self life is all, with a humbling integrity, & we say “While there’s life there’s hope” (Guermantes’ Way 588). Marcel Proust has Mme de Guermantes play out this glitch in one of the most touching scenes from In Search of Lost Time. Time does indeed make an ekphrastic turn for Mme de Guermantes as she must choose between

getting into her carriage to go to a dinner-party & showing compassion for a man who was about to die [Charles Swann. S]he could find no appropriate precedent to follow in the code of conventions &, not knowing which duty to honour, she felt she had no choice but to pretend to believe that the second alternative did not need to be raised[…] the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that there was one. (595)

The greatest injustice of all is that this is indeed a resolution. Any trace of hesitance is usually enough to change a fact or, as here, the complexity of a moral dilemma, reduced now to something that can be shrugged away. Mme de Guermantes has health on her side which assumes, also, a future. Her will is to be respected over Swann’s, even outside the confines of social hierarchies, simply because her currency of future is greater than his. Swann himself steps aside for the Guermantes, also putting the value of life over death as they do.

As if this weren’t enough, after the glitch is resolved in this inhuman way, great trouble is taken — right before the sick Swann — to decide on the colour of the shoes the Lady ought to wear to dinner. Even after departing at last, the Guermantes are bold enough to return to change black shoes to red. This small act is included to challenge vanity definitively.

In many ways, the narrator offers the same sort of a response to Swann’s death when it is made public much later. [Romantic preoccupations can be used as a partial excuse, certainly more satisfying than deliberations over shoe colour.] & what an extravagant response it is! The narrator comes to a debate on the particularisation of each individual death, that Swann’s should have been so painful, & regrets that “the lack of a recognised title accelerates the decomposition of death” (The Prisoner & The Fugitive 181). Furthermore, he is offended that his friend should be reduced “simply [to] a set of letters printed in a newspaper” (182), but quickly generalises the death of Swann for himself to contemplate the nature of death for the living & the sublimity of eternity’s beauty & immeasurability.

As another death is being discussed, our narrator contemplates the sea, under the guise of a very different stillness to the inertia that results from facing death (to reiterate, the glitch): “The jagged swirls seemed to have become immobilised & to have traced their concentric circles once & for all; the very enamel of the sea, which changed colour imperceptibly, took on, towards the end of the bay[…] the blueish whiteness of milk in which small black ferryboats seemed trapped like flies, unable to advance” (Sodom & Gomorrah 295). He is bringing the vista a painterly eternity encouraged through the preservation of art, not just vastness-inspired infinity. The image is frozen in time, but without the usual esteem. There is a comic triteness which seems to be a response to death. It changes proportions simply by making still something that is normally dynamic, allowing for the close observation of what otherwise may fly unnoticed. This is also one way in which art is attempted definition.

The visual & word arts should be distinguished from music, dance, & certain forms of theatre. Or as Proust might put it, “Sometimes I thought that the reason was that the things we feel in life are not experienced in the form of ideas, & so their translation into literature, an intellectual process, may give an account of them, explain them, analyse them, but cannot recreate them as music does” (The Prisoner & The Fugitive 346). The process is one of intellectualising, absolutely insufficient for representing with any honest resemblance to the world; realism is only a name that can be applied to books but not something achievable.

The question begs asking: what, then, does Proust want to produce with his own extravagant novel? It isn’t a metaphor of infinity but one of resurrection that is called upon. If the obscure task of transcribing one’s minds (the multiple states at various times) is the task, this character — certain aspects of whom are only united by being bound together in the same tome — can be revived at will whenever a reader comes to the work. The theory’s end is with defining genius as a capacity to transcribe perspective/individuality from one thinker to another. A small manner of escaping death, or making it more alright at least that one day we should die.

So it is that we work on, pursuing all & any avenues, even fame (though it may horrify us), simply to have a name, something to be called on by, something to write on a tombstone. Much of the good in the world — the genius innovation, invention, & insight — has at its root the human glitch of denying death. We create objects of this fear & call them technologies or books, buildings or laws. They are effigies that serve the progress of the world.

Perhaps, just as birds who soar highest, who fly fastest, have the most powerful wings, we need those thoroughly material devices to explore the infinite, those hundred-&-twenty-horsepower Mysteries in which, it must be said, however high one soars, one’s appreciation of the silence of space is somewhat impeded by the powerful rumble of the engine! (‘The Prisoner’ & ‘The Fugitive’ 145)


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