Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Proust on blind spots

Édouard Manet: Nana (1877). Kunsthalle Hamburg.
1.54 m x 1.15 m. wikiart.org
Proust on our defects (défauts), our friends, ourselves
from A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur
pp. 308-311, Folio classique edition (Gallimard, 1988)
Translation mine

In humankind, the frequency of the virtues identical to all is no more wondrous than the multiplicity of the defects particular to each. Without a doubt, it isn’t good sense that is “the most widespread thing in the world”; it’s goodness. In the most distant, out-of-the-way corners, we marvel at seeing it flourish on its own—like he who has never seen a poppy in a secluded valley, just like those everywhere else, and never knew that the wind sometimes makes its lone red escort shiver. Even if that goodness, paralyzed by interest, isn’t put into practice, it nevertheless exists; and each time some fickle egotist stops it from doing so (for example, during the reading of a novel or a newspaper) it blossoms, turns aside—even in the heart of he who is an assassin in life, but remains tender as a lover of literary magazines toward the weak, toward the just and the persecuted.

But the variety of defects is no less admirable than the similarity of the virtues. The most perfect person has some defect that shocks or enrages. One has a beautiful intelligence, sees everything from an elevated point of view, never speaks ill of anyone—but forgets in her pocket the most important letters that she herself asked you to entrust to her, and then makes you miss a major meeting, without making any apologies, with a smile, because she puts a sense of pride on never knowing the time. Another has so much refinement, so much gentleness, such delicate comportment, that he never tells you on your own that the things which can make you happy, but you feel that he is silent about, that he buries in his heart, where they turn sour, are all of different kinds; and the pleasure that he has in seeing you is so dear to him that he would sooner exhaust you with fatigue than leave you. A third has more sincerity, but pushes it to the point of being keen that you know, when you have excused yourself because of your state of health from having gone to see him, that you were seen going to the theater and that people found you in good shape, or that he couldn’t entirely benefit from the step that you have taken for him, that moreover three others have already proposed to him to take, and for which he is only slightly obliged to you. 

In the previous two circumstances, the former friend would have pretended to ignore that you had gone to the theater and that other people could have done you the same service. As for the latter friend, he experiences the need to repeat or reveal to someone who can most contradict you, is delighted with his frankness and tells you with force: “I’m just like that.” While others irritate you through their exaggerated curiosity, or with such a lack of curiosity that you can speak to them of the most sensational events without them knowing what it’s about, that others still wait for months to reply to you if your letter is about some matter that concerns you and not them, or even if they tell you that they are going to come ask you something, and you didn’t dare leave for fear of missing them, and they don’t come and let you wait for weeks because, not having received from you the reply that their letter didn’t ask for in the first place, they thought you had gotten angry. And certain friends, consulting their desire and not yours, talk to you (without letting you lay a word down if they are happy and feel like seeing you) of some urgent task that you have to do; but, if they feel tired from the weather or a bad mood, you can’t pull a single word out of them—they set against your efforts an inert langor and don’t take the trouble to reply, even with monosyllables, to what you’re saying as if they hadn’t heard you.

Each of our friends has so many defects that in order to continue to like them, we are obliged to try to console ourselves with them—in thinking of her talent, of his goodness, of his tenderness—or rather of not holding them to account for it while deploying all our good will. Unfortunately, our complacent stubbornness in not seeing the defect of our friend is surpassed by what he starts to give himself to because of his blindness or what he lends to others. For he does not see, nor does he believe that they see him. As the risk of displeasing comes especially from the difficulty of appreciating, unnoticed, what happens or not, you would at least have to never speak of yourself out of prudence, because it is a subject where you can be sure that the view of others and our own view never agree. If you have as many surprises—as when visiting an apparently ordinary house whose interior is filled with treasures, crowbars, and dead bodies—when you discover the true life of others, the real universe under the apparent universe, you experience no less surprise if, instead of the image that you had made of yourself thanks to what each person said to us about ourselves, you learn through the language that they use with respect to us in our absence what an entirely different image they carried in them of us and of our life.

Moreover, each time we have spoken of ourselves, we can be sure that our inoffensive and prudent words, listened to with an apparent politeness and an hypocritical approval, have given way to the most exasperated or joyful commentaries, in every case the least favorable. The least that we risked is to irritate by the disproportion that there is between our idea of ourselves and our words, a disproportion that generally makes the remarks of people about themselves as laughable as the singing of fake music-lovers who feel the need to hum a tune they like while compensating for the insufficiency of their inarticulate warble with an energetic imitation and a mood of admiration that what they’ve made us listen to does not justify.

And to the bad habit of speaking about oneself and one’s defects must be added, as though making a set with those, that other habit of decrying in others the defects precisely corresponding to those that one’s own self has. Now it is always of those defects that we speak, as if it were a way of speaking about ourselves, diverted—and which joins to the pleasure of absolving ourselves that of confessing. Moreover, it seems that our attention, always attracted to what characterizes ourselves, remarks upon those defects more than anything else in other people. One blind man says of another: “But he can barely open his eyes”; a consumptive has his doubts about the pulmonary integrity of the stoutest man; a slob only talks about the baths that others don’t take; a smelly man pretends that you smell bad; a cheated husband sees cheated husbands everywhere—a loose woman, loose women—a snob, snobs.


And then each vice, like each profession, demands and develops a special knowledge that we are not upset to spread. The queer detects the queer; the tailor invited into society still hasn’t informed you that he has been appreciating the fabric of your garment and that his fingers burn from feeling its qualities; and if after some moments of conversation you asked a dentist for his real opinion about you, he would tell you the number of your bad teeth. Nothing seems more important to him, and to you, who have remarked upon his own, more ridiculous. And it’s not only when we speak about ourselves that we think to ourselves that others are blind; we act as if they were. For each one of us, there is a special god who hides, or promises the invisibility of, our defect, just as if he closes the eyes and the nostrils of the people who never take a bath to the streak of filth that they raise to their ears and the smell of the perspiration that they keep in their armpits, and persuades them that they can walk with impunity one after the other in a world that will notice nothing. And those who wear or give false pearls as a present imagine that you will take them for real.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely piece of writing and beautiful translation!

    ReplyDelete