Reaching the end of The Fugitive, volume six of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche de temps perdu, I begin to realise – not quite at last – how modern an experience he relates. Couched in the language and setting of a privilege we now associate with centuries past, the author eventually creates an utterly absurd world, in which nothing, not even the wealth of these wealthy people, is real. Assumptions of rightness or permanence, qualities of which their opinions positively reek, are thus laid bare as momentary invention, ephemeral, as trustworthy as a lie and as dependable as froth.
I am also reminded of William Shakespeare’s words spoken via the mouth of a fictional King Richard the Second:
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am…
Is it possible for an individual simultaneously to feel like a king and a beggar? Can it be possible for someone to be revered, even considered a direct descendent of God one moment and then derided, drowned in wine the next, or even starved to death by those who once worshipped his very presence? Not even history can agree what constitutes the past, the only incontestable fact being death itself, the life that preceded it forever remaining negotiable. The rich and powerful, after all, have further to fall, so there can be interpretable bounces along the way.
A young man has chosen a liaison with a young woman. How original is that? One is the narrator and the other is called Albertine. This is, after all, fiction, though it claims to be a record of memory. They are not married. In the society they inhabit, this can be a problem. People, after all, may start to think… And then who is to say whether they will stay faithful to one another, true to themselves, or even agree which self, the public, the private or the invented will prevail? And what about the “preferences” of the young lady? Might they be questioned? Of course, they might.
Proust seems to have been keenly aware of this transmutability of the self. For if it was not in itself anything real, if it depended upon the successive form of the hours in which it had appeared to me, a form which remained that of my memory as the curve of the projections of my magic lantern depended upon the curve of the coloured slides, did it not represent in its own manner a truth, a thoroughly objective truth too, to wit that each one of us is not a single person, but contains many persons who have not all the same moral value and that if a vicious Albertine had existed, it did not mean that there had not been others, she who enjoyed talking to me about Saint-Simon in her room, she who on the night when I had told her that we must part had said so sadly: “That pianola, this room, to think that I shall never see any of these things again” and, when she saw the emotion which my lie had finally communicated to myself, had exclaimed with a sincere pity: “Oh, no, anything rather than make you unhappy, I promise that I will never try to see you again.” Then I was no longer alone. I felt the wall that separated us vanish. And so, by recognising that she existed as several, contrasting but simultaneous people, the narrator sets his Albertine, the object of his desires, into a form that creates displeasure. This role displeases her, because it makes him unhappy and the solution is not to see him again, the state that precisely neither of them actually wants. Or so we are told…
But were they both lying? Or just one of them? And, when we are truly honest with ourselves, how many of us can actually be sure of who we are or, indeed, what we desire? Is that which we claim to desire just a momentary association of the self we want to project, a passing whim we can adopt to convince others we do, in fact, possess character? Is the goal of public persona to create fake news, a false narrative of identity, whose only test is whether we might market it so others might buy it? Albertine might indeed exist in my memory only in the state in which she had successively appeared to me in the course of her life, that is to say subdivided according to a series of fractions of time, my mind, re-establishing unity in her, made her a single person, and it was upon this person that I sought to bring a general judgment to bear, to know whether she had lied to me, whether she loved women, whether it was in order to be free to associate with them that she had left me. What the woman in the baths would have to say might perhaps put an end for ever to my doubts as to Albertine’s morals. But was that woman in the baths telling a truth?
And then, when we have created that desired image and projected it, does it still represent the individual that created it? Time passes, and gradually everything that we have said in falsehood becomes true; I had learned this only too well with Gilberte; the indifference that I had feigned when I could never restrain my tears had ended by becoming real; gradually life, as I told Gilberte in a lying formula which retrospectively had become true, life had driven us apart. I recalled this, I said to myself: “If Albertine allows an interval to elapse, my lies will become the truth. And now that the worst moments are over, ought I not to hope that she will allow this month to pass without returning? If she returns, I shall have to renounce the true life which certainly I am not in a fit state to enjoy as yet, but which as time goes on may begin to offer me attractions while my memory of Albertine grows fainter.”
And if we create the projection of our intentions, passing though they may be, does it deliver what we conceived? Or are we perceived as the incompetently delivered amalgam of our intentions? “Oh, no. Monsieur, it doesn’t do to cry like that, it isn’t good for you.” And in her attempt to stem my tears she shewed as much uneasiness as though they had been torrents of blood. Unfortunately I adopted a chilly air that cut short the effusions in which she was hoping to indulge and which might quite well, for that matter, have been sincere. Her attitude towards Albertine had been, perhaps, akin to her attitude towards Eulalie, and, now that my mistress could no longer derive any profit from me, Francoise had ceased to hate her. She felt bound, however, to let me see that she was perfectly well aware that I was crying, and that, following the deplorable example set by my family, I did not wish to ‘let it be seen.’ “You mustn’t cry, Monsieur,” she adjured me, in a calmer tone, this time, and intending to prove her own perspicacity rather than to shew me any compassion. And she went on: “It was bound to happen; she was too happy, poor creature, she never knew how happy she was.”
And is fact not just another variety of fiction? … such is the cruelty of memory. At times the reading of a novel that was at all sad carried me sharply back, for certain novels are like great but temporary bereavements, they abolish our habits, bring us in contact once more with the reality of life, but for a few hours only, like a nightmare, since the force of habit, the oblivion that it creates, the gaiety that it restores to us because our brain is powerless to fight against it and to recreate the truth, prevails to an infinite extent over the almost hypnotic suggestion of a good book which, like all suggestions, has but a transient effect. You see, nothing, not even fiction, lasts.
And how much are we influenced by whim? Are our beliefs true merely because we want to believe them? Are we really capable ever of being objective? Moreover, with the minute observation of people whose lives have no purpose, they would discern, one after another, in the people with whom they associated, the most obvious merits, exclaiming their wonder at them with the artless astonishment of a townsman who on going into the country discovers a blade of grass, or on the contrary magnifying them as with a microscope, making endless comments, taking offence at the slightest faults, and often applying both processes alternately to the same person. In Gilberte’s case it was first of all upon these minor attractions that the idle perspicacity of M. and Mme. de Guermantes was brought to bear: “Did you notice the way in which she pronounced some of her words?” the Duchess said to her husband after the girl had left them; “it was just like Swann, I seemed to hear him speaking.” “I was just about to say the very same, Oriane.” “She is witty, she is just like her father.” “I consider that she is even far superior to him. Think how well she told that story about the sea-bathing, she has a vivacity that Swann never had.” “Oh! but he was, after all, quite witty.” “I am not saying that he was not witty, I say that he lacked vivacity,” said M. de Guermantes in a complaining tone, for his gout made him irritable, and when he had no one else upon whom to vent his irritation, it was to the Duchess that he displayed it. But being incapable of any clear understanding of its causes, he preferred to adopt an air of being misunderstood.
And in the final analysis, which, if we retain any faith in Christian salvation never happens, and, if we do not, happens all the time, we may just realise that the whole basis of what we did, the entire moral compass we imposed, the emotional standpoint we adopted, was born of misunderstanding, deception and misinterpretation. So, where are we? Certainly not in any dependable heaven, ever, but forever in life, simultaneously the ruler, the king of what we project and the beggar of how we are received.