- Divergent modes of being in the history of the Western world
- An absurd world
- The bourgeois masses
- The elites
- Manufacturing illusions
- Guilt-ridden shame
- Authenticity versus inauthenticity
- Proust: the anthropologist of a tribe
- The spirit of an era
- The spirit of an era, and its understanding of equality
- The spirit of an era, and the question of vices
- The bastion of the aristocracy, and its vulnerabilities
- High society, and the phenomenon of snobbery
- The bastion of the aristocracy vis-à-vis other elite groups
- High society vis-à-vis the commoners
- The fall of the aristocratic milieu
- Resurrecting the aristocratic ideal
- The Proustian versus the Sartrean worldview – some introductory remarks
- The question of time, history, and memory
- Of things in the world
- Of the arts
- Of churches and church buildings
- For a unitary Western tradition
- A case of conflicting humanisms
- Sartrean ethics
- The carriers of salvation (as opposed to an aristocratic resurrection)
- Sartrean politics: exploding the system
Divergent modes of being in the history of the Western world
The study that follows constitutes Paper 2 of a wider project attempting to define the so-called Western world (cf. Paper 1: “Defining the “West”: An orrery of cultural paradigms”, Academia.edu, October 2022; Greek Social & Literary Review, 17.10.2022).
Before we consider the manner in which the Proustian and Sartrean worldviews may help us in the general project of defining the West, it would be useful to clarify rather more precisely what we mean by the term defining and why such an endeavour is at all necessary. Our project is based on the assumption that the history of the Western world has been characterized by different – or even radically divergent – modes of being (all of which may nonetheless be said to belong, or to have belonged, to a definable historical experience constituting the collective West). Our purpose is to therefore investigate the differences and divergencies evident in such Western modes of being across time, as also to point to the possible implications of such a reality with respect to the present.
It seems absolutely incumbent on us to investigate such divergent modes of Western being across historical time (it being that “orrery of cultural paradigms” as described in Paper 1) given the very nature of Western history, and especially as that may be directly contrasted to the history of the non-Western world. When, for instance, Ernest Gombrich – in his seminal work of art criticism, The Story of Art (first published in 1950) – wishes to introduce us to the history of the visual arts in the 13th century, he needs to clarify right at the start that “there is one respect in which Western Europe always differed profoundly from the East. In the East … styles lasted for thousands of years, and there seemed no reason why they should ever change. The West never knew this immobility. It was always restless, groping for new solutions and new ideas” (cf. Chapter 10, p. 131).
Such Western restlessness – this “groping for new solutions and new ideas” – would of course not only be limited to the field of art. While art styles can certainly not be reduced to a mere reflection of particular socio-economic conjunctures, the latter would in any case be prone to continual changes or reformations and even ruptures, and these would in turn be more or less accompanied by the groping for new styles of artistic expression (though always in keeping with their own artistic terms). Thus, one essential historical characteristic of the Western world would be its self-questioning nature: it would not only be questioning a certain prevailing art style – there would also be a continual production of different or divergent cultural motifs, relatively different or divergent moral systems and thus different or divergent milieus. It would be the self-questioning nature of the Western world that would give birth to what we have termed the “orrery of cultural paradigms”, and which could often come to compose a self-contradictory “orrery”.
This historical reality of the West may in some ways be contrasted to the case of the East – one may, in other words, speak of a relatively static East, wherein it could take a protracted period of time before a cultural motif or a discrete milieu would undergo significant changes and thereby yield something altogether new, at least in the field of cultural practices or in that of moral systems. Specifically as regards the Muslim world, and rather controversially, it has been the work of the British-American historian Bernard Lewis that has so emphatically pointed to this essential difference between the West and the Muslim world pertaining to historical change and development. In his book, What Went Wrong? – The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (Harper Perennial, 2002), Lewis has argued that, in contrast to the West, the Islamic world would fail to modernize. This lack of modernization, which he deems to characterize all of recent Muslim history and especially following the failure of the second Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, would mean that the Islamic world would not experience a continuous production of radically divergent milieus and modes of being as would the West. In effect, the Islamic world – and despite important internal religious splits – would remain statically closed to itself. Its anti-modern and so-called dogmatic worldviews, therefore, may be directly contrasted to the self-questioning restlessness of the West, a restlessness that would yield a series of self-contradictory values at times amounting to a veritable self-cancellation of Western identity itself.
It is not for us to judge which of these two different historical courses – that of the West or that of the East or Middle East – would prove to be in some sense superior in the last instance in the course of global history: what matters for our purposes in this paper is that the Western historical process of modernization has given birth to a variety of worldviews that would be unthinkable (or perhaps unnecessary) for the non-West in general. Two of such type of worldviews would be that of the Proustian and that of the Sartrean varieties, at least as embedded in some of the thinking of these two intellectuals. The contrast between these two particular worldviews seems to encapsulate a central ideological contradiction within the recent history of the Western world and its process of modernization. Of course, such central contradiction remains absolutely foreign to the needs and tastes of the East.
One could roughly postulate the historical existence of a Proustian form of Western milieu and that of a Sartrean form of Western milieu, and further postulate that these two forms of milieus stand in stark contradistinction to each other – one may even go so far as to predicate that these are two irredeemably hostile historical experiences (or historical modes of being) within the course of Western civilization. On the other hand, one would have to observe that such an approach is not merely rough but in fact inexcusably careless: Sartre’s writing, for one thing, has been marked by a wide variety of theoretical convolutions the public reception of which has not always been expressive of a consistent worldview. Further, the Proustian literary enterprise has itself been such as to not always allow one to identify the often hidden intentionalities of the writer himself – Proust is often ambiguous as to what social ideology he espouses as a thinker, and especially so in his earlier writings. The point is that we do not always intend here to define the personal worldviews of these two major Western thinkers – our primary purpose, rather, is to identify the socio-cultural milieus willy-nilly embedded in their respective writings.
Before we proceed any further, therefore, we need to clarify the basic objectives of this paper slightly more explicitly. We intend to investigate certain particular scraps of thought expressed in the overall work of Proust and Sartre. Our interest in such scraps shall take two forms: a) how these two Western thinkers differed in their understanding of the Western world that circumscribed them; b) how their different understandings reflected segments of the real world that they found themselves in. It is the latter dimension of their work that shall be of primary importance for our purposes. And it is within such specific delimitations that we shall attempt to answer the key question posed in this paper – viz. how does the Proustian worldview and the Sartrean worldview (and to the extent that these two worldviews may be coherently articulated based on the scraps investigated) help us to uncover two different and contradictory Western milieus in the general history of Western civilization?
Of course, a study that is merely based on the calculated selection of a writer’s scraps of thought would render it a rather dicey project, and all too subjectively speculative. While that may be so, it needs to be emphasized that our decision to focus on specific scraps of literary thought retrieved from the Proustian and Sartrean enterprises is essentially reflective of a method of work adopted by Walter Benjamin himself in his own attempt to likewise salvage whatever relevant scraps from what he regarded as the so-called wreckage of culture (cf., further, Paper 1 of this project regarding the question of scraps of history). In our case, we intend to salvage scraps of thought excavated from the writings of both Proust and Sartre that illuminate the distinctive manner in which these two major thinkers of the West understood specific aspects of the Western world – and we aim to show how their respective understanding of such aspects of Western life reflected two different and necessarily contradictory Western milieus. As we shall see, the selected scraps shall bring to light different approaches to aspects of life such as the following: a) the question of the past and the related question of history; b) the question of evaluating things or objects in the world; c) the question of the Arts; d) the question of churches and/or cathedrals; e) the question of Western tradition, and so on. Prior to examining such Proustian and Sartrean divergent approaches to aspects of Western life, we shall attempt to show how these two intellectuals would further – and necessarily so – be at variance in their respective understanding of social groupings such as the French aristocracy or the so-called outcasts of French society.
Whether or not our method of work nonetheless amounts to mere subjective speculation remains a moot point – and it remains so to the extent that our selection of scraps of thought is based on a certain (biased) imagination. Our simple rejoinder to such a problem is that, and as Richard Feynman had himself once asserted, even a hard science such as physics requires imagination, so long as such imagination is placed in a straitjacket.
We shall end these introductory notes by simply quoting a scrap of early Proustian thought retrieved from The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust (compiled and translated by Joachim Neugroschel, First Cooper Square Press edition, 2001). Proust states the following: “A fashionable milieu is one in which each person’s opinion is made up of everyone else’s opinions. Does each opinion run counter to everyone else’s? Then it is a literary milieu” (p. 48). This quote – its former part at least, and which is of primary interest for our purposes – seems to suggest that the young Proust certainly had a sense of milieus and what these are composed of. Based on what he writes, one may assume that a milieu is a cohesive, self-reproducing and independent social entity closed in unto itself and expressive of a series of cultural practices reflective of that which is deemed by all to be “fashionable”. For Sartre, and as we shall see below, a milieu is that which is formed by social classes (more or less in the Marxian sense). The implications of such relative dissimilarity in understanding the concept of a milieu shall become evident below.
An absurd world
Sartre’s Nausea, first published in 1938, expresses a philosophical position that is well known and has of course been much discussed – the reality of the world, it is said therein, is quite absurd. In his introduction to the English version of this philosophical novel, James Wood would write as follows in 2000: “As Beckett does, Sartre uses the fictionality of his fiction to ask us to reflect on the fictionality – or at least, the arbitrariness – of reality itself. Nausea’s very subject is the randomness, the contingency, the superfluity of the world …” (pp. viii-ix).
There is, it has often been suggested, a radical fatalism in such Sartrean position, and Wood’s introduction to Nausea seems to more or less espouse such a view as well. To make his point, he argues that the absolutely fatalistic position expressed in Nausea may be contrasted to the thinking of someone such as Camus – unlike Sartre, the writer of The Myth of Sisyphus “continued to live under a religious shadow, wherein the battle was always with the terms handed to us by life – a secular version of man’s battle with the Gods” (p. xix). Elsewhere in his introduction, Wood observes that “For Camus, the realization that life is absurd is the beginning of a stoic battle against that absurdity” (p. xviii). Along a similar vein, one may further contrast the apparently absolute fatalism of the Sartrean position – and, in this case, even Camus’s own thinking – to “the theologically consistency” of someone like Simone Weil who, not only believed in God, but also in Christ’s incarnation (Wood, p. xx).
There is, however, a key question that needs to be addressed at this point and which must be resolved right at the outset – and it calls for an immediate resolution as it bears a direct relation to the Sartrean quintessential understanding of the question of Western milieus. How absolute, in fact, is Sartrean fatalism? Wood goes on to willingly admit that, for Sartre, mankind “must continue to live” – even more significantly, Sartre “had an almost religious faith in man’s ability to be free” (ibid.). But, then, the next obvious question that arises is this: free in relation to what?
Based on extremely significant scraps of Sartrean thought, we shall attempt to show that, for Sartre, it is not merely a matter of life per se being absurd – rather, absurdity is especially evident in a very particular mode of being. This is a Western mode of being, and thus a specifically Western milieu expressive of particular power relations (the latter may be imposed on others that happen to belong to the non-Western world as such). We shall attempt to show that, for Sartre, the absurdity of life is the absurdity of bourgeois life itself. This, we shall be arguing, becomes crystal clear on a closer examination of his Nausea and is as much manifested throughout most of the Sartrean project – in the last instance, and in terms of Sartre’s long-term philosophical biography, it is all too obvious that the Sartrean project was above all an essentially political project (and, as is well known, a highly radical political project at that).
Nausea itself – and on this Wood would fully agree – is politically charged philosophical literature: the book is riddled with political undertones that often mutate into bitter attacks on the milieu that circumscribes Roquentin, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. Thus, when Wood informs us that the novel is “devoted to the logical exploration of a world without meaning” (p. vii), we need to further ask ourselves which particular world Sartre has in mind – and we are justified in posing such a question because when Sartre speaks of man’s freedom, he means it in the sense of man’s choice to be free of (or in relation to) that particular world which he finds to be meaningless. When, further, Sartre’s Roquentin feels the “The Nausea isn’t inside me: I can feel it over there on the wall, on the braces, everywhere around me. It is one with the café, it is I who am inside it” (p. 35), the writer raises a question of major socio-political implications. We, who happen to experience the world of Nausea, are not merely circumscribed by it – we are in it in the sense of having been absorbed by it and therefore of it. And to the extent that we are of it, we are a part and symptom of that milieu. This perspective of Western man shall allow Sartre to adopt a very specific stance regarding all who willingly accept to view themselves as proper Western citizens. As we shall all too clearly see below, that stance shall be a radically hostile one aimed at them, and naturally so in terms of the Sartrean worldview.
Within that Western milieu, however, there are particular groups of people who do not – or cannot – view themselves as proper Western citizens. These are the types who happen to be conscious of and/or practically sensitive to the absurdity of that Western world, and are therefore deeply critical of it (in a variety of different ways depending on their circumstances) – here again, of course, the Sartrean perspective asserts a position of major socio-political implications. Who are these people? In a brilliant biographical study of Jean Genet, Saint Genet, Comédian et Martyr (first published in 1952; and cf. Saint Genet – Actor and Martyr, University of Minnesota, 2012), Sartre informs us that, “Beyond certain limits of horror, honest minds are no longer sensitive to anything but the absurdity of the world” (p. 47). For Sartre, the absurd mode of being of the Western bourgeois milieu is “the prison” that one needs to “simply explode” (as Wood puts it, p. xx) – and such exploding of the prison can only be undertaken by those whom Sartre calls “honest minds”. As we shall see below, these are the outcasts of that milieu. We shall further see that these outcasts are the veritable carriers of all salvation – and it is on them that Sartre pins his (almost religious) hopes for such salvation. A basic objective of this paper will be to compare the Sartrean view regarding such outcasts with the Proustian view regarding the Parisian aristocracy.
In a rather weak and simplistic paper on the politics of Sartrean thought, Alfred Betschart undertakes some sort of a survey of Sartre’s philosophical journey, which is said to commence with what is termed “early individualism” – emphasizing notions such as absurdity, freedom and responsibility – and which later turns to Marxism, in the form of existential Marxism (cf. “Sartre was not a Marxist”, Sartre Studies International, vol. 25, issue 2, 2019, pp. 77-91). He wishes to argue that one cannot at the same time be both an existentialist and a Marxist. Betschart, of course, simply ignores the historical fact that most of Western Marxist thinking that appeared in the 20th century would take a wide variety of forms well beyond the original thinking of Marx himself and almost all forms would even veer radically from whatever orthodoxy happened to persist at the time (as it did in the USSR). Sartrean political thinking can only but be viewed in such context. Now, while it is true that one may speak of a somewhat pure existentialism in Sartre’s early work, this would not mean that even such abstract existentialist thinking – as articulated in his Being and Nothingness published in 1943 – was devoid of political implications, albeit not of any Marxist hue as yet. These particular implications were to be clarified by Sartre himself in his 1945 public lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism. But the point we wish to emphasize here – and which will be verified in what follows – is that even supposedly pure existentialist notions such as absurdity, freedom and responsibility would, for Sartre, all be interpreted in the very special context of bourgeois society – and this is most obvious in a work such as Nausea. Thus, even Sartrean early existentialism would above all be meant as a critique of a particular Western milieu. Whether or not this would qualify him to be a bona fide Marxist is really beside the point.
To understand Sartrean politics, one may simply consider how Sartre himself viewed the Proustian literary enterprise as a whole – perhaps such a view is best summarized by Shawn Gorman, who writes as follows: “… Sartre’s musings on Proust read like nothing so much as displaced self-criticism in which the ‘bourgeois’ Marcel Proust is a stand-in for the guilty ‘bourgeois’ Jean-Paul Sartre” (cf. “Sartre on Proust: Involuntary Memoirs”, L’Esprit Créateur, John Hopkins University Press, vol. 46, no. 4, Winter 2006, pp. 56-68). The important question of guilt – and especially as that feeling should, for Sartre, apply to the bourgeois citizen given his particular mode of being – shall be further considered below, and it shall be compared and contrasted to the case of the Parisian aristocracy as described by Proust.
The bourgeois masses
The events in Nausea unfold in the port town of Bouville – Wood informs us that the name of this town may be translated as Mudtown (p. viii). The name is of course deliberately derogatory, and it must be so given the social milieu that defines it. “Here”, writes Sartre, “there is nothing but darkness” (p. 42).
The milieu is indubitably and classically bourgeois – and there is something intrinsically indecent about all things bourgeois. Sartre, for instance, writes of “the indecent look of bourgeois streets” (p. 43). As Roquentin takes his incessant walks around the streets of Mudtown, he “watches his solidly bourgeois fellow-citizens” (Wood, p. viii). He feels, as Woods notes, a “Céline-like contempt for the bourgeois masses” (p. x) that he sees around him. Who belongs to this category of people? Who is a bourgeois and who not? The masses of the town of Mudtown are its solid, proper citizens – in fact, in the eyes of Roquentin, all of his fellow-citizens are a part and symptom of the bourgeois milieu. For Sartre, and as we shall further see, being a solid and proper citizen are attributes that one ought to be ashamed of. Roquentin’s contempt for all of these citizens is persistently expressed throughout Nausea – he tells us that “I’ve seen enough of living things, of dogs, of men, of all the flabby masses which move about spontaneously” (p. 41). These bourgeois, flabby masses are all conceited and narcissistic, and quite unaware of how disgusting they are in their typical mannerisms and habits. Roquentin would himself be accused of such bourgeois behaviour by his old lover, Anny – she would pick a fight with him by saying things such as the following: “You blow your nose solemnly like a bourgeois, and you cough into your handkerchief as if you were terribly pleased with yourself” (p. 93).
For Sartre, the citizens of Mudtown are all self-satisfied bourgeois idiots – their inherent class-based idiocy defines a mode of being (and hence a total milieu) that is absolutely contemptible. Such mode of being is described by Sartre’s Roquentin in the most lucid manner possible. We read as follows: “How far away from them I feel … It seems to me that I belong to another species. They come out of their offices after the day’s work, they look at the houses and the squares with a satisfied expression, they think that it is their town. A ‘good solid town’. They aren’t afraid, they feel at home. They have never seen anything but the tamed water which runs out of the taps, the light which pours from the bulbs when they turn the switch, the half-breed, bastard trees which are held up with crutches. They are given proof, a hundred times a day, that everything is done mechanically, that the world obeys fixed, unchangeable laws. Bodies released in a vacuum all fall at the same speed, the municipal park is closed every day at four p.m. in winter, at six p.m. in summer, lead melts at 335⁰c., the last tram leaves the Town Hall at 11.05 p.m. They are peaceable, a little morose, they think about Tomorrow, in other words simply about another day; towns have only one day at their disposal which comes back exactly the same every morning. They barely tidy it up a little on Sundays. The idiots. It horrifies me to think that I am going to see their thick, self-satisfied faces again. They make laws, they write Populist novels, they get married, they commit the supreme folly of having children …” (pp. 224-225).
Sartre’s Roquentin is here describing a total milieu, and which is a mode of being all too familiar to Western man. It is a mode of being defined by the meaningless humdrum of habitual routine. And yet, those who practice such mode of being seem to be self-satisfied with it – so much so that “they feel at home” with that manner of living. And they feel that much “at home” that they consider the town as their very own – it being the typical proprietorial instinct of the bourgeois masses. For them, that which they own can only but be a “good solid town”.
It is quite obvious that, although Roquentin speaks of the town of Mudtown in particular, his observations are meant to describe – as we have suggested – the entirety of the bourgeois milieu of the 20th century (at some point in this sample quote, by the way, Sartre even refers to “towns” in general). The domestication of nature, the mechanical operation of society, as also the illusive idea that the world as a whole “obeys fixed, unchangeable laws” – these are all symptomatic of such milieu and of the “the idiots” that compose it.
There are three interrelated aspects in this Sartrean portrait of “the idiots” that are of special importance to us and which we shall have to deal with in some detail further below. The first concerns the manner in which the bourgeois citizens of a “good solid town” experience the question of time – for them, their today (or, in Proustian terms, time present) is merely reduced to yet another of their tomorrow, or they think of it as “simply … another day”. This issue is naturally of much interest as it may be directly contrasted to the manner in which Proust himself – as we shall see – understands time present and time future and how these relate to time past. The second aspect concerns the issue of law-making and law-makers (Sartre tells us that it is “the idiots” who “make laws”), and it is of interest to us as it may again be contrasted to what Proust has to say with respect to the laws that govern the behaviour of the Parisian aristocracy. The final aspect concerns the question of culture (Sartre writes of the production of “Populist novels”) – we shall have to consider how Proust himself would understand what is to him an issue of the highest importance, viz. that of culture both in its high and in its supposedly low (or popular) forms.
It may be said that Sartre’s portrait of the bourgeois “idiots” as presented in Nausea is yet again reproduced and further expanded on in his Saint Genet, and especially so in his “Self-Portrait of the Good Citizen” (cf. Appendices, p. 601-606).
With respect to Sartre’s view of the bourgeoisie, Thomas R. Flynn presents us with a typical Sartrean statement made in the 1950’s – the quote reads as follows: “there is crap in the bourgeois heart” (cf. Sartre – A Philosophical Biography, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 300-301).
One may identify in many of Sartre’s writings a certain kind of distinction between, on the one hand, the good bourgeois citizens of the Western world (the so-called “flabby masses”) and, on the other, the bourgeois elites occupying the top of the social hierarchy. On a particular Saturday afternoon, Roquentin decides to yet again visit Mudtown’s museum. Observing the portraits hanging on its walls, he describes his reaction as follows: “… I felt the gaze of a hundred and fifty pairs of eyes upon me” (p. 122). Who were these people gazing at him rather menacingly from their portraits? He explains to us that “All who belonged to the Bouville élite between 1875 and 1910 were there, men and women, meticulously depicted by Renaudas and Bordurin” (ibid.). Roquentin’s visit to the museum shall allow Sartre to present us with a certain socio-historical analysis of this category of people.
Commenting at length on the various portraits exhibited in the museum, Sartre’s Roquentin identifies a series of attributes that are meant to define all bourgeois elites. We may focus on one such portrayed personage – a certain Olivier Blévigne – and consider what is said of him. Roquentin, we are told, had already looked him up in the Petit Dictionnaire des Grands Hommes de Bouville, and had copied out the relevant article on this purportedly important member of the town’s elite. The article, as presented in Nausea, reads as follows: “Blévigne, Olivier-Martial, … born and died at Bouville (1849-1908), studied law in Paris and obtained his degree in 1872. Deeply impressed by the Commune insurrection, which had forced him, like so many other Parisians, to take refuge at Versailles under the protection of the National Assembly, he swore, at an age when young men usually think of nothing but pleasure, ‘to devote his life to the re-establishment of Order’. He kept his word: immediately after his return to our town, he founded the famous Club de l’Ordre which, every evening for many years, brought together the principal businessmen and ship-owners of Bouville. This aristocratic circle, which was jokingly described as being more exclusive than the Jockey Club, exerted until 1908 a salutary influence on the destinies of our great commercial port. In 1880 Olivier Blévigne married Marie-Louise Pacôme, the youngest daughter of the merchant Charles Pacôme … and on the latter’s death founded the company of Pacôme-Blévigne and Son. Soon afterwards he turned to political life and presented himself as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies … ‘The Country’, he said in a famous speech, ‘is suffering from the most serious of maladies: the governing class no longer wants to govern. But who is going to govern, gentlemen, if those whose heredity, education, and experience have rendered them the most fit for the exercise of power, turn from it out of resignation or weariness? As I have observed, to govern is not a right of the élite; it is the élite’s principal duty. Gentlemen, I beg you: let us restore the principle of authority!’ …” (pp. 133-134).
There are a number of important points made in this quote which may be said to describe certain attributes that define all of the bourgeois elites, and which constitute the mode of social and political power typical of a particular Western milieu – we may reiterate and briefly comment on these as follows:
- All members of the elite feel naturally threatened by insurrectionary movements – Blévigne, although supposedly “impressed” by the Communards, had to take refuge at Versailles for his own personal protection. What is of interest to us here is the manner of presentation of Versailles itself as a protective “refuge” from social disorder – in contrast, when we come to examine Proust’s own presentation of the place, we shall see that the Palace of Versailles and its gardens constitute a symbol of aristocratic culture, as also a tragic reminder of the gradual fading of such culture. The causes and implications of such cultural demise shall be considered further below.
- The bourgeois elites are above all functionaries of social order and its maintenance – but more than that, theirs is an exclusivist order. Their exclusivism, however, is such as to bring together – as did the Club de l’Ordre – different elements of the capitalist class (“the principal businessmen and ship-owners”), and which would constitute the “aristocratic circle” of society. As we shall see below in considering the writings of Proust, it would be the interpenetration between the commercial classes and the old (or authentic) aristocracy that would lead to the demise of the culture that had once been established by the latter. There is therefore a sense in which, for Proust, the bourgeoisie represented a certain type of (cultural) disorder. We shall further discover that the Sartrean worldview would in any case see an explicit continuity in all forms of oppressive power throughout the history of the Western world, starting from the Roman aristocracy through to that of the Parisian, and up to and including Sartre’s contemporary Western bourgeois milieu. It is for this reason that he may so easily speak of the Mudtown business world as an “aristocratic circle”.
- The Sartrean worldview emphasizes what is definitely the key to the understanding of the role of all elites, and especially that of the bourgeois elite as represented by Blévigne – viz. the implementation of a necessary “principle of authority”, and as such authority is based on “heredity, education, and experience”. It is a combination of these particular qualities that renders them the only category of people “fit” to exercise power over the rest. So much so, in fact, that governance on the part of the bourgeoisie is not merely a right but a “principal duty”. Again, in examining the Proustian worldview, we shall discover that what is of primary importance for Proust is not the question of political power per se, but the functioning of a rather different sphere in a milieu’s mode of being – viz. the importance of maintaining, developing and further enriching French culture itself, and which he sees as a component part of the overall Western tradition.
The Petit Dictionnaire article on Blévigne as presented in Nausea goes further, adding yet another vital dimension to the exercise of power in the Western bourgeois milieu – it tells us that such milieu maintains social order, not merely through the exercise of political power, but – and in the last instance – through the exercise of military force. The article continues as follows: “He [Blévigne] was in Paris in 1898 when the terrible strike broke out. He returned immediately to Bouville, where he became the moving spirit of the resistance. He took the initiative of negotiating with the strikers. These negotiations, inspired by a generous conciliatory spirit, were interrupted by the riot at Jouxtebouville. As is well known, calm was restored by the discreet intervention of the military” (p. 134). Of course, Sartre is therefore further suggesting that the bourgeois elites have both the right and the “principal duty” – if need be – to make use of the military so as to maintain order in society. The vital importance of the military in bourgeois society would be generally evident throughout the museum’s Bordurin-Renaudas Room as it would house portraits of important personages in military uniform – these, Roquentin informs us, “represented the French Army” (p. 137).
One could say that the bourgeois elites glory in their power – but it is not only the exercising of power as such that interests them (that is in any case a necessary duty, and which can at times even be shunned). What is of as great an interest for them is to secure what Sartre calls “pure privilege”. With reference to yet another portrayed personage in the museum – this time someone by the name of Jean Parrottin – Sartre’s Roquentin has to say the following: “This man possessed the simplicity of an idea. Nothing was left in him but bones, dead flesh, and Pure Privilege. A real case of possession, I thought. Once Privilege has taken hold of a man, there is no exorcistic spell which can drive it out; Jean Parrottin had devoted the whole of his life to thinking of his Privileges: nothing else” (p. 129-130).
It is power and privilege that above all define the bourgeois elites – and it is through such power and privilege that they have come to establish the Western bourgeois milieu. This milieu, however, enslaves whatever comes into contact with it – this includes the whole of nature itself. Roquentin presents this total bourgeois conquest over all and sundry in the West as follows: “They [the “great figures” of Mudtown] had been painted with minute care; and yet, under the brush, their features had been stripped of the mysterious weakness of men’s faces. Their faces, even the feeblest, were as clear-cut as porcelain: I looked at them in vain for some link with trees and animals, with the thoughts of earth or water. The need for this had obviously not been felt during their lifetime. But, on the point of passing on to posterity, they had entrusted themselves to a celebrated painter so that he should discreetly carry out on their faces the dredging, drilling, and irrigation by which, all around Bouville, they had transformed the sea and the fields. Thus, with the help of Renaudas and Bordurin, they had enslaved the whole of Nature: outside themselves and in themselves. What these dark canvases offered to my gaze was man re-thought by man …” (p.131).
Based on what has been presented above, it is obvious that the Sartrean existentialist project, going even as far back as the 1930’s, was an overtly political project. This openly political existentialism was intended, amongst other things, to constitute an ideological attack, not only on a particular milieu in toto, but also on whoever espoused right-wing politics and wished to conserve the traditions and values of the Western bourgeois milieu. Wood’s introduction to Nausea attempts to explain the novel’s objectives as follows: “… Sartre intends us to register that the town’s notables are not only myopics of bad faith, but representatives of France’s right wing … Blévigne’s biography fairly screams ‘conservative’; again, we may feel that Sartre’s hammer is a little heavy here. But perhaps something subtler is intended. For though his novel seems to be set in the 1920’s, Sartre may mean us to ponder the conservative ideology that had been burgeoning throughout the 1930’s, and that would bloom, in some quarters, into Nazism and collaborationism a few years after the publication of Nausea” (pp. xiv-xv).
Wood’s explanation is both accurate and quite inaccurate. He is quite right to wish to explain the anti-conservative politics of Nausea in terms of the historical context in which the novel had been written. On the other hand, we all know that Sartre’s far-left radicalism would be sustained and developed right through to the end of his life, and thus well beyond the context in which Nausea had been authored. While we intend to analyze his political positions further below, we may here simply emphasize three basic points on the Sartrean worldview pertaining to the so-called bourgeois “notables” and to the Western bourgeois milieu as a whole:
- Sartre’s utter contempt for the bourgeois elites is perhaps best encapsulated in what Roquentin has to say as he departs from the Mudtown museum – this is what he says: “I had walked the whole length of the Bordurin-Renaudas Room. I turned round. Farewell, you beautiful lilies, elegant in your little painted sanctuaries, farewell, you beautiful lilies, our pride and raison d’être, farewell, you Bastards” (p. 138).
- All things bourgeois – whatever it be that reflects that particular Western milieu – are to be absolutely rejected and systematically renounced. His 1963 Les Mots, for instance, would be a work renouncing literature itself as a bourgeois substitute for real commitment, action and far-left radical ontological choice. This autobiographical book may therefore also be seen as a direct critique of the Proustian project as a whole, it being a supposedly bourgeois-type literary enterprise that runs counter to engaged literature (littérature engagée).
- We shall attempt to show below that the Sartrean rejection of the Western bourgeois milieu would itself constitute a sub-milieu within a milieu – in fact, one may even argue that such oppositional sub-milieu would come to constitute the prevailing ideological paradigm expressing large masses of people in France (as also elsewhere in the Western world), and would be especially popular amongst those involved in the production of ideas (intellectuals, students, and a variety of other activists). Sartre would be just one amongst many others espousing such an oppositional ideology – on the other hand, his particular philosophical brand may be said to be highly reflective of the events of May 1968. Despite the apparent popularity of such an anti-capitalist ideological paradigm, however, we know that de Gaulle’s conservative party would win the greatest victory in French parliamentary history in the legislative elections held a month after those events. Indicative of a deep ideological crisis within French society, this rupture would continue to plague most of the Western world right through to the 21st century, and would do so in a variety of ways (some of which have been discussed in Paper 1 of this project).
For Sartre, the bourgeois milieu is to be rejected because it is essentially a mode of being wherein both the bourgeois masses and its bourgeois elites live their lives through what we may call manufactured illusions (this concept has also been discussed in some depth in Paper 1). Sartre argues that both masses and elites hide the reality of their existence from themselves. As we shall see, the question of living life in some set of manufactured illusions is one that is of central importance to what shall be discussed below – we shall attempt to show how the Sartrean worldview regarding illusions may be directly contrasted to that of the Proustian worldview. The latter, we shall argue, saw the manufacturing of certain types of illusions amongst the Parisian aristocracy – these being primarily related to questions of morality – as a practice altogether functional to its own cultural milieu. Before we deal with the Proustian approach – and which is not merely limited to questions of ethical behaviour and/or morality – we shall need to briefly consider what Sartre would have to say on the matter.
In Nausea, Roquentin asserts the following: “Everything is gratuitous, that park, this town, and myself. When you realize that, it turns your stomach over and everything starts floating about … that is the Nausea; that is what the Bastards – those who live on the Coteau Vert and the others – try to hide from themselves with their idea of rights. But what a poor lie: nobody has any rights; they are entirely gratuitous, like other men, they cannot succeed in not feeling superfluous. And in themselves, secretly, they are superfluous, that is to say amorphous and vague, sad” (p. 188). Both the bourgeois masses and the bourgeois elites – such as those families of businessmen and ship-owners living on the Coteau Vert – live their own lie. This shared lie is the illusion that has been manufactured around the bourgeois ideology of the Rights of Man, or the Rights of Citizenship. For Sartre, this is all “a poor lie” that cannot make up for, or successfully conceal, the superfluity of everyone living in this mode of being – he is thereby suggesting that the illusion is itself dysfunctional. As already alluded to, we shall see that in Proust the aristocrats’ practice of trying to hide a certain type of ethical behaviour from themselves – and which naturally presupposes a lie – is in any case socially functional in itself (their own illusion, of course, has little to do with the Rights of Man).
Wood explains that, for Sartre, the bourgeois “Bastards” do not merely conceal their amorphous superfluity from themselves – they are also of the illusion that they are the preservers of all the everlasting accomplishments of the past. One the one hand, Wood writes, Sartre feels revulsion for the bourgeois elites since “they have concealed from themselves the awful dilemma of their existences”. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly for our purposes, “These pompous civilians imagine that their lives have meaning, and they believe that these paintings [those in the Mudtown museum] solemnize and preserve their imperishable achievements” (p. xiii). This Sartrean understanding of the bourgeois elites and their illusory relationship with things past is of course of major interest to us – it may be argued that it clashes point-blank with the Proustian approach regarding the relationship between time present and time past. While Sartre sees the matter of preservation as a deleterious illusion, the Proustian worldview would place a special value in the preservation of at least certain things past, be it in one’s memory or, as importantly, in terms of their actual material conservation (as opposed to their wanton “assassination”, this being a term which, as we shall see, Proust himself chooses to use with respect to cathedrals). One should in any case add here that there is an element in Sartre’s position which partially dovetails with that of Proust’s: while Sartre utterly rejects whatever preservation of past achievements by the bourgeoisie (or whoever, for that matter), Proust is himself critical of the ability on the part of the commercial or financial classes to undertake such preservation. We shall have to examine the question of preservation (or conservation) in much greater detail below – and shall have to do so as it underlines the radically different types of milieus embedded in the Sartrean and Proustian worldviews.
The question of the manufacturing of illusions in the bourgeois world may be considered from a slightly different perspective. The bourgeois masses and the bourgeois elites see themselves in the various ways that they do given the manner in which they evaluate their being in the world, which is itself a mechanism of manufacturing self-illusions – what matters to them is, not what they truly are, but rather what they appear to be in the eyes of the rest of bourgeois society itself (and they thereby wish to differentiate themselves from all social outcasts). The bourgeois milieu is one in which its beings can only evaluate themselves through social mirrors (we shall see that it is only outcasts and outsiders that do not make use of mirrors in such manner, at least not in the sense of wishing to submissively equate themselves with bourgeois values). Sartre’s Roquentin muses to himself as follows: “People who live in society have learnt how to see themselves, in mirrors, as they appear to their friends” (p. 32).
The phrase “as they appear to their friends” is of vital importance to Sartre. We shall be arguing, however, that it is as vital for the Proustian worldview, though in a rather different sense. We shall see that, for Proust, the manner in which one appears to one’s aristocratic friends – and the manner in which such friends then allow (or enable) one to appear to the rest of the world – is precisely the medium whereby a certain functional ethical order and its codes of conduct are established. We shall further see that there are certain preconditions for this mechanism to operate, as there are also specific problems peculiar to the functioning of this mechanism. For Proust, in any case, this could only apply to people that belong to the circles that have come to compose the aristocratic milieu.
All this is of course an anathema to Sartre. Whoever chooses to understand his condition and evaluate his own person through social mirrors – be it the mirrors of the aristocracy or those of the bourgeoisie – simply hides from the reality of his own existence and in any case does so through “a poor lie”. But there are those others that do not belong to the “People who live in society”. Those who are outside of society cannot as easily understand their own person, given that they are lonely outcasts without access to any social mirrors. Roquentin asks himself, “Do other men [such as himself] experience as much difficulty in appraising their face?” (ibid.).
And yet, and unlike the bourgeois masses, these lonely outcasts have salvaged their own authentic nature – in fact, they are nature itself, not the enslaved type of nature as “re-thought by man”. They are, in other words, nature without the alienating transformations of bourgeois civilization. Roquentin muses as follows: “Perhaps it is impossible to understand one’s own face. Or perhaps it is because I am a solitary? … I have no friends: is that why my flesh is so naked? You might say – yes, you might say nature without mankind” (ibid.). For Sartre’s Roquentin, mankind is akin to Western bourgeois civilization, and as that civilization operates in places such as Mudtown. As a solitary, outcast intellectual, Roquentin would like to see himself as belonging to that category of outcast people who are both outside social mirrors and outside the bourgeois mode of being in its entirety.
Sartre seems to be absolutely repulsed by – and ideologically dismissive of – whatever mechanisms of illusion and whatever social lies that happen to operate through the appearances of social mirrors. All such mechanisms and all such manufactured lies yield what he sees as the inauthentic individual. The Sartrean worldview cannot tolerate whatever compromise on this matter, and would therefore not tolerate either Proust or Camus. We know that the latter has suggested (in his The Myth of Sisyphus) that people may attempt to outwit the absurd by living various roles in their life – these could include roles such as that of writer, conqueror, seducer, actor, and so on (cf. Wood, p. xix, though he uses this Camusean notion for purposes contrary to our own). The point here is that the practice of outwitting the human condition suggests that one may use various techniques of cunning or ingenuity to deceive the absurdities of such condition. Such deception, we are suggesting, is absolutely foreign to the Sartrean position – we shall see that Proust, adopting a much more realistic stance with respect to the realities of life, shall accept certain mechanisms of deception so as to salvage his experience of a particular milieu. Sartre leaves no such space for his own understanding of Western bourgeois life – all one should feel is guilt.
There is no salvation whatsoever for the Western bourgeois world and all those – its proper citizens – that subscribe to its norms. All they should feel about their mode of being and their very own selves is a guilt-ridden shame. Wood tells us that Sartre’s Roquentin promises himself to ultimately write a novel that would be “beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence …” (p. vii; and cf. Nausea, p. 252).
The stigma of a Western bourgeois guilt-ridden shame should not be seen as a motif exclusively limited to the Sartrean worldview. We have already noted that the Sartrean rejection of the Western bourgeois milieu would itself constitute a major oppositional sub-milieu within a particular Western milieu. This radical politico-cultural movement of the 1960’s – but which would be endowed with ideological roots extending to both its past and its future – would itself adopt the idea that the Western bourgeois masses should bear the stigma of a guilt-ridden shame. However, since this politico-cultural movement would emerge primarily from within these Western bourgeois masses (or otherwise sections of the educated middle classes), this guilt-ridden shame would be a self-imposed stigma. And thus, and to the extent that Sartrean thought would itself be one of the major exponents of this stance, one may conclude that Sartre would come to constitute the conscience of bourgeois France (it would be so, of course, in the eyes of that oppositional sub-milieu). The matter may be put slightly otherwise: a) Sartre despised France’s bourgeois masses (though not really only those of France); b) Sartre was the conscience of France’s bourgeois masses; c) therefore the bourgeois masses must have – or at least ought to have – despised themselves. And so it is in this very particular context that Thomas R. Flynn, in his philosophical biography of Sartre already mentioned above, writes as follows: “At his [Sartre’s] death, one Parisian publication lamented: France has lost its conscience” (p. 19).
Authenticity versus inauthenticity
For Sartre, the collective stigma of a guilt-ridden shame can only but be the inescapable outcome of a milieu peopled by inauthentic individuals. When Flynn observes that Sartre had been lamented as the conscience of a people following his death in 1980, he is really telling us that this thinker had been the conscience of an inauthentic people, at least in terms of the Sartrean worldview. In his Nausea, Flynn tells us, “[Sartre] is diagnosing a (moral) malady which he will subsequently name ‘inauthenticity’ …” (p. 145). Even Roquentin’s own character is ultimately deformed by the reality within which he finds himself – and it is this nihilistic deformation of character that embodies his relative inauthenticity as an individual.
Sartre’s notion of inauthenticity goes well beyond the Marxian concept of alienation – in contrast to the latter, which would (or in any case had to) allow for the emergence of various levels of proletarian class consciousness despite the reality of alienation, the Sartrean understanding of inauthenticity asserts that each and every individual within the bourgeois milieu constitutes a total representation of that milieu, and is therefore as inauthentic as is that milieu. It is such universal inauthenticity that allows Sartre to refer to all the citizens of Mudtown as its bourgeois masses (as already mentioned, and as shall be discussed further below in some greater detail, it is only the outcasts who may escape the total inauthenticity of the bourgeois milieu).
It would be precisely because the Sartrean understanding of inauthenticity would be so radically dismissive of all and sundry within Western capitalist society that even fervently Sartrean Marxists such as Frederic Jameson would have no choice but voice their objections with respect to this particular question. In our discussion of Jameson’s position below, we shall see that this Marxist political theorist would be critical of what he calls Sartre’s “fallacy of an ‘expressive’ totality”, whereby each particular individual is a total expression (or total representation) of the milieu to which he belongs (cf. Frederic Jameson, “Sartre’s Actuality”, New Left Review, 88, July-August 2014). The specifically political implications of such Sartrean radicalism – and which may certainly be said to be of the ultra-left variety – shall be investigated as a conclusion to this paper.
Sartre does discuss the possibility of authenticity in an inauthentic world – in terms of the Sartrean worldview, such authenticity would be evident in the criminal life of someone such as Jean Genet. And it is for this reason that this type of individual is presented as Saint Genet in Sartre’s biographical study of this French criminal-cum-social outcast turned writer. Flynn explains that, throughout this study, Genet is presented as “the model of as ‘authentic’ an individual as he [Sartre] ever depicted” (p. 275). Elsewhere in his book, Flynn reiterates: “Genet seems to be the most ‘authentic’ individual on Sartre’s biographical rooster” (p. 404). Jean Genet is the Sartrean model of authenticity because he is the type of individual that conscientiously practices the anti-social ritual of burglary within the bourgeois milieu. The act of burglary is an authentic mode of being since it is the art of stealing from the bourgeois masses. By stealing their property, Genet negates all property rights – and he thereby negates the whole of the supposedly moral system that upholds such rights. We shall have to come back to this issue and consider its profound political implications – it shall also allow us to compare this particularly anti-Western mode of being with the aristocratic ideal as embedded within the Proustian worldview.
Proust: the anthropologist of a tribe
By way of an introduction to the Proustian worldview, one may begin by noting that Proust describes and comments on the world of the Parisian upper classes – and especially that of the aristocracy – in a variety of early texts. These include The Complete Short Stories, as these have been compiled by Joachim Neugroschel. Therein, Proust’s Pleasures and Days – as also his noteworthy Dedication to his dead friend Willy Heath, written in July 1894 – is highly representative of his views regarding the aristocratic mode of being. There are other texts in Neugroschel’s compilation that are certainly as useful in understanding the different dimensions of the Proustian worldview.
As is obvious to anyone even slightly familiar with the work of Proust, this is not to suggest that the Proustian worldview on the aristocratic mode of life is limited to Proust’s early writings. Allen Thiher’s excellent research work attempting to present us with a truly holistic understanding of the Proustian literary enterprise informs us that “The world of the Parisian upper classes is the setting of his novel [In Search of Lost Time]” (cf. Understanding Marcel Proust, University of South Carolina Press, 2013, pagination unavailable for this book).
We well know of the Proustian socio-cultural environment and how deeply saturated Proust himself was in such an environment. In his Saint Genet, Sartre writes as follows: “… a rich Jewish intellectual, [Proust] was a city man … his environment was that of ‘fashionable’ society, that is, of the sophisticated upper bourgeoisie and of the declining aristocracy …” (p. 229).
The fashionable society which Proust frequented was not merely a preference based on personal whim or taste – for him, it constituted a field of research on the mores and manners of a discrete tribe, that of the Parisian aristocracy. This is how Thiher puts it: “The young Proust preferred to find the universe in those social relations he cultivated with the enthusiasm of both a socialite and, increasingly, an anthropologist studying a tribe that quickly adopted him as one of its own”.
The spirit of an era
How may we describe the historical context in which Proust wrote? Thiher informs us that this was “the social world of the triumphant nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, in which aristocratic values were making their final stand against the combined onslaught of Enlightenment values and the power of money”. We need not consider here how the Parisian aristocracy would view whatever Enlightenment values – we may, however, keep in mind how someone like Camus would himself evaluate such types of values. In his The Rebel (The Times of India Press, Bombay, 1960), he refers to these values as “the religion of virtue” and/or as “the religion of reason”. The Enlightenment, he tells us, constitutes “the Feast of Reason” whereby “Eternal principles govern our conduct: Truth, Justice, finally, Reason”. And thus, he continues, “we have the new God”. These are the principles of the Enlightenment as embodied in someone like Saint-Just. With respect to Saint-Just’s thinking and its socio-political implications, Camus writes as follows: “The religion of reason quite naturally establishes the Republic of law and order … ‘Outside the law’, says Saint-Just, ‘everything is sterile and dead’ …” The end result of such thinking is summed up as follows: “Every form of moral corruption is at the same time political corruption, and vice versa. A principle of infinite repression, derived from this doctrine, is then established” (pp. 93-95).
Now, while it is obvious that the harsh political realities of 18th century France can in no way be equated to those of the following century, the fact remains that the general ideological paradigms of the Enlightenment and its specific values would come to prevail and reinforce themselves in Proust’s own time, as would the inherent materialism of the bourgeoisie. Proust would thus be writing in the context of just such onslaught against the values of the declining Parisian aristocracy, and which would itself be engaging in its final ideological and cultural resistance to what would be so inexorably unfolding.
The Proustian project was to above all capture and salvage that (declining) spirit of the aristocratic era. He would, as Adam Gopnik explains, consciously choose to belong to the Parisian world of aristocratic high society and fashion, and he would as consciously attempt to present us with the beauty of the place and time in which such spirit would manifest itself. Gopnik writes as follows: “… Proust was part of the beau monde of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and … his enthusiasm for the high life – call it snobbery, as Gide did – was unmistakable … Proust had conventional Parisian haute-bourgeois tastes of the time … Along with everything else he did that was more academically respectable, he offered a picture of a particularly beautiful place and period in the world’s history” (cf. “What we find when we get lost in Proust”, The New Yorker, 03.05.2021).
Thiher has written that Proust was an anthropologist studying a particular social tribe – Gopnik would fully agree with such an observation. Proust, however, would be studying a tribe – and its particular social world – in a manner that revealed a personal admiration for that type of historical milieu (and despite that milieu’s paradoxes, internal contradictions, and shortcomings). Gopnik’s article clearly confirms this as follows: “Proust has been called a novelist of manners, meaning a student of mores, of social rituals, but he is also a novelist of manners in another sense, a writer to whom courtesy is of exceptionally, almost supremely, high value. He admired the French aristocrats’ gift for making awkward moments easier – he even inserts into the book [viz. in Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time] abstract details of good manners …” (ibid.).
Many texts included in The Complete Short Stories attempt to capture what Proust calls “the spirit of our time” by referring to the apparent richness and grace of the aristocratic salon. In an important piece entitled “The Fan” (pp. 51-54), Proust writes as follows: “Madame, I have painted this fan for you … May it, as you wish in your retirement, evoke the vain and enchanting figures that peopled your salon, which was so rich with graceful life, and is now closed forever” (pp. 51-52).
The richness of the aristocratic milieu lay in its ability to absorb and transfigure into its own conspicuous aesthetics the best of all past milieus as these had existed in different parts of the world. Describing what has been painted on the fan, Proust continues: “The chandeliers … illuminate objects d’art of all eras and all countries. I was thinking about the spirit of our time as my brush led the curious gazes of those chandeliers across the diversity of your knick-knacks” (p. 52.).
The fact that the aristocratic spirit of a particular historical period had been able to absorb different milieus originating from different countries suggests that such spirit was prone to a certain inclusive diversity. Of course, the term diversity would come to acquire a very specific ideological status – and as specific a political orientation – by the 21st century. And as we also know, such status and orientation would be closely entangled with the ideological concept of inclusion. But this is not to suggest that the inclusive diversity of the aristocratic spirit is in any way related to the ideological paradigms of the present century. The cultural diversity of the aristocratic milieu was of a very peculiar type, and it may be differentiated from the postmodern sense of diversity in at least three ways: a) it would be highly selective as to which non-Western objects d’art it would accept within its own Western milieu; b) it would transform whatever it selected in terms of its own aristocratic tastes; and, most importantly, c) it would not share whatever cultural artifacts stemming from its inclusive diversity with the rest of society – the aristocratic milieu was of course a world closed unto itself. Such delimiting peculiarities of the aristocratic milieu, however, would not at all hamper the degree to which it could creatively entertain – for its own special needs – diverse samples of philosophical/ideological paradigms and diverse samples of modes of being. Proust continues: “… the spirit of our time has contemplated samples of thought or life from all centuries all over the world. It has inordinately widened the circle of its excursions” (ibid.).
It was precisely that strict selectivity of the aristocratic milieu that would enable it to create “a particularly beautiful place and period” in the course of world history, as Gopnik has observed (op. cit.). And it would be within that very selective context that that milieu would be able to entertain – or contemplate – such diversity of samples pertaining to both thought and life. And yet, the practice of aristocratic selectivity is not enough to explain that ability to create whatever beautiful in time and space. What one would also require – and which the aristocracy had definitely acquired – was the luxury of free time. Free time gave its members the leisure and, above all, the pleasure to selectively create the beautiful. When Proust tells us that the aristocratic spirit had widened “the circle of our excursions”, he continues by explaining how this had happened – he writes: “Out of pleasure, out of boredom, it has varied them as we vary our strolls …” (ibid.).
The question of pleasure vis-à-vis work is addressed by Thiher’s study, and especially with reference to Proust’s Pleasures and Days – this text, he tells us, intimates the value of pleasure in aristocratic circles and the role it would play in creating a “luxurious culture”. Thiher writes as follows: “There is something Voltairean, or indeed Ovidian, in the title’s playful suggestion that pleasures have replaced the work of those earlier, unfortunate times that did not enjoy the beneficent, luxurious culture of contemporary France, a culture in which pleasure is held in the highest esteem, and the title says much about Proust’s attitude toward society at the time”. And thus, we may add, Proust’s Honoré in Pleasures and Days, the young socialite who has just had dinner in high society, takes the following decision: “… he would never again do anything but dine and drink so well in order to see … beautiful things” (p. 106).
Given the historical context within which Proust was writing, however, this “beneficent, luxurious culture” of idleness, pleasure and aesthetic beauty would find itself making its last stand against a surfacing new mode of life that was intrinsically hostile to its own aristocratic values – as it was gradually dying out, the aristocracy could only protect itself by looking askance at the emergence of cultural practices alien to its own milieu. More accurately, it would prefer not to even look at the apparent ugliness that was rearing its head around it. This is how Proust puts it in The Complete Short Stories: “… and now, deterred from finding not even the destination but just the right path, feeling its strength dwindling and its courage deserting it, the spirit of our time has lain down with its face on the earth to avoid seeing anything, like a brutish beast” (p. 52).
Proust’s presentation of the decline of the aristocratic milieu is also very much evident in the manner in which he discusses the Palace of Versailles and its gardens, and which may be taken to be a major symbol of Parisian aristocratic culture. On the one hand, Proust speaks of the old, intoxicating grandeur of the place – on the other hand, he feels that it is as symbolic of the melancholy of his own time present. He writes as follows in Pleasures and Days: “After so many others (especially Mssrs. Maurice Barrès, Henri de Régnier, and Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac), I would hesitate to utter your name, Versailles, your grand name, sweet and rusty, the royal cemetery of foliage, of vast marbles and waters, a truly aristocratic and demoralizing place, where we are not even troubled by remorse that the lives of so many workers merely served to refine and expand not so much the joys of another age as the melancholy of our own. After so many others I would hesitate to utter your name, and yet how often have I drunk from the reddened cup of your pink marble basins, drunk to the dregs, savoring the delirium, the intoxicating bittersweetness of these waning autumn days …” (p. 110).
Proust’s thoughts on Versailles are portentous as they are also crystal clear: the joys of life belong to another era; time present is oppressively melancholic as it compares itself to what has been lost. But it would perhaps be useful to reiterate Proust’s thinking with the help of Thiher, who explains that while Versailles was once a quest for lavish beauty, it now simply triggers sadness. This is Thiher’s commentary: “… the prose poem ‘Versailles’ points out that the extravagant quest for beauty undertaken in the construction of the gigantic palace ended up creating a ‘royal graveyard’. It has hence served less to create joy for an earlier historical period than to produce a sense of sadness in us now. Even the garden’s ponds are redolent of sadness, for they resemble ‘urns offered up to the trees’ melancholy’ … Versailles is an enormous stone monument to depression”.
In the eyes of Proust, the decline of the aristocratic milieu and its principled values would also be evident in a variety of other ways found in people’s mode of living. To illustrate some of these ways, he presents us with examples of the manner in which many women of his day would think or behave, and he contrasts such contemporary manners to those of the past. With specific reference to females, he makes the following observations (at least some of these points, however, could perhaps also be extended to many males):
- While in the past one could entertain any series of paradoxes, these paradoxes have now lost their enigmatic quality and are reduced to mere prejudices – and in any case what is mere prejudice now was once a symptom of freshness and experimental innovation. Proust writes as follows: “Today’s paradoxes are tomorrow’s prejudices, for today’s grossest and most disagreeable prejudices had their moment of novelty, when fashion lent them its fragile grace” (The Complete Short Stories, p. 114).
- Now that there is an absence of a fashion that could grace prejudices with a certain novelty, women have turned to the abandonment of all prejudices – but what they have really given up is, in fact, principles. That too, however, comes down to being a form of prejudice. While wishing to retain his polite affirmation of the delicacy of femininity as such, Proust sees this new type of female prejudice as “heavy” – he writes: “Many women today wish to rid themselves of all prejudices, and by prejudices they mean principles. That is their prejudice, and it is heavy even though it adorns them like a delicate and slightly exotic flower” (ibid.).
- This emergence of a new prejudice amongst many women, it being in fact an absence of principles, has led them to being indifferent towards what Proust calls “perspective depth”, and therefore, and as we shall further see, has also led them to an absence of female depth. This is of course a Proustian observation that may usefully be compared and contrasted to Nietzsche’s own (apparently ambiguous) observations regarding the depth and/or shallowness of women, as expressed in works such as his Twilight of the Idols. But for Proust in particular, such absence of depth amongst females would mean that they can no longer classify and thereby judge things around them – and thus they can no longer be selective in their tastes. The underlying implication is that many women have now come to lose that type of selectivity that had once been intrinsic to aristocratic aesthetics – that prevailing selectivity, in other words, that had once given birth to what Gopnik has described as “a particularly beautiful place and period” characteristic of the aristocratic milieu. Without here directly referring to the selective demands of the aristocratic milieu, Proust nonetheless points to the decline of such milieu by writing of his contemporary females as follows: “They believe there is no such thing as perspective depth, so they put everything in the same plane. They enjoy a book or life itself like a beautiful day or like an orange. They talk about the ‘art’ of a dressmaker and the ‘philosophy’ of ‘Parisian life’. They would blush to classify anything, to judge anything, to say: This is good, this is bad” (pp. 114-115).
- This abandonment of principles amongst many women, and which has meant an enfeeblement of their selective judgment, has given birth to a particular type of female immorality. Ultimately, this has caused them to be characterized by a certain superficiality or some degree of shallowness. Proust even goes so far as to refer to many Parisian women of his time as “belated parrots” of contemporary intellectual fashions (and which again calls for some comparison with Nietzsche’s observations regarding females). The implications here are double-edged: on the one hand, and quite ineluctably, the grace of femininity has now declined and become withered; on the other hand, one may say that feminine grace is yet still appealing, suggesting that whatever remaining grace is a remnant of the past – viz. of a past when women would use their minds to indulge in selective judgment. Most importantly, such remnants of feminine grace help to remind us of a past that has been – or is being – lost, and which was a past defined by an exceptionally “refined” mode of being.
- Of course, the assumed accuracy of such an interpretation regarding Proust’s observations on Parisian women and time past (at least as presented in The Complete Short Stories) need not be taken for granted. All we can do here is simply quote Proust’s own words – we read: “In the past, when a woman behaved properly, it was the revenge of her morals, that is, her mind, over her instinctive nature. Nowadays, when a woman behaves properly, it is the revenge of her instinctive nature over her morals – that is, her theoretical immorality … In an extreme loosening of all moral and social bonds, women drift to and fro between that theoretical immorality and their instinctive righteousness. All they seek is pleasure, and they find it only when they do not seek it, when they are in a state of voluntary inaction. In books this skepticism and dilettantism would shock us like an old-fashioned adornment. But women, far from being the oracles of intellectual fashions, are actually their belated parrots … dilettantism still pleases them and suits them. While it may cloud their judgment and hamstring their conduct, one cannot deny that it lends them an already withered but still appealing grace. They make us rapturously feel whatever ease and sweetness existence may have in highly refined civilizations” (p. 115).
It was the spirit of the Parisian aristocratic era that had once expressed that type of a “highly refined” Western mode of life. We have seen how Proust would present this milieu as an exceptionally refined civilizational state marked by a “quest for beauty” through a selectively inclusive diversity. We have also seen how such quest would yield a “luxurious culture” that had been “so rich with graceful life”, and so on. We have further discovered, finally, that that type of milieu had been founded on very particular principles – this now raises a major question: what was the moral system that defined such milieu? We shall have to begin by examining how the aristocratic mode of being viewed the question of equality.
The spirit of an era, and its understanding of equality
A 19th century novelist such as Charles Dickens – who we know would often describe the tragic consequences of social inequality in Victorian England – could nonetheless be said to have maintained a rather complex stance when it came to the moral system that defined the aristocratic milieu in general. He could, on the one hand, ridicule “the Aristocracy – and Blood” nexus, as he did in his David Copperfield (Penguin Popular Classics, 1994, pp. 310-311). On the other hand, he could also show a certain sympathy for the French aristocracy as against the animalistic, bloodthirsty mobs obsessed with mindlessly murdering aristocrats during the French Revolution (as he did in his A Tale of Two Cities – a position, by the way, that would also be upheld by someone like Camus in his The Rebel). Now, the Proustian worldview with respect to the moral principles of the Parisian aristocracy is as complex as that of Dickens, although in an altogether dissimilar sort of way, and the details of which will be explored further below. But embedded in the writing of Proust is a clear picture of what he calls the aristocratic “politesse”, it being a moral system explainable in itself and with important implications regarding the question of equality.
Few would doubt that the meaning of equality – both as a philosophical concept and as a material manifestation in the real world – has varied radically depending on the particular milieu and/or conjuncture that has prevailed in the Western world. Each Western milieu – as also each conjuncture and sub-conjuncture that would periodize internally each of those milieus – has produced definitions of equality that would only express its own particular needs and possibilities. And, to add to the elusive relativity of the concept, all ideologically dominant definitions of equality corresponding to a milieu and/or conjuncture would be almost perpetually contested by different social agents operating within a milieu and its conjunctures. It is such Western historical reality – characterized by what Gombrich has referred to as a restless, self-questioning nature “groping for new solutions and new ideas” (op. cit.) – that we have to keep in mind when we suggest that the moral system of the aristocratic milieu, and its peculiar understanding of equality, should be seen as a system both explainable and understandable in its own terms.
What Proust would see as a “highly refined” mode of being – viz. the Parisian aristocratic world – had created its own as “highly refined” understanding of equality. Being a closed system, it would also be a highly selective system – and it would therefore determine, for itself, its own criteria as to who it would include within its closed ranks as an equal. Those categories of persons that would be included would be bestowed with the system’s “equal sympathies”. One may thus generally state that the Parisian aristocratic milieu had a mechanism of selection defining equality as an expression of such “equal sympathies” – such sympathies, however, and as we shall see, were not at all arbitrary.
In Proust’s “The Fan”, one has a fairly clear picture of what categories of individuals would be included within aristocratic salons, and how such inclusion would be expressive of an understanding of equality logical unto itself. Proust writes as follows to the retired Madame of the Parisian salon mentioned above: “Despite the small format of this picture [painted on the fan], you may recognize the foreground figures, all of whom the impartial artist has highlighted identically, just like your equal sympathies: great lords, beautiful women, and talented men” (p. 52).
This aristocratic understanding of equality – the mechanism of distributing “equal sympathies” to particular categories of individuals – would mean a fusion of fairly disparate human qualities within a cohesive and discrete social circle, and it would be a fusion that could be seen by outsiders as a somewhat audacious enterprise. At least in the eyes of all outsiders, furthermore, this fusion would also be seen as unjust. And it would in fact be unjust merely in terms of what may be referred to as common reason. Proust writes that this synthesis of great lords, beautiful women and talented men would be “A bold reconciliation in the eyes of the world” – more importantly, it would also be “inadequate and unjust according to reason” (ibid.).
But, then, what was the internal logic behind such patently unjust mechanism distributing “equal sympathies” to a few select categories of individuals? Despite being unjust for “the many too many” – as Nietzsche would put it – it would nonetheless establish a type of world far superior to the world of those outside it. Addressing the Madame of the salon, Proust acknowledges – as he does – the inconveniences of the aristocratic mode of being as regards outsiders, but points to its superiority as follows: “yet it turned your [aristocratic] society into a small universe that was less divided and more harmonious than that other world, a small world that was full of life and that we will never see again” (ibid.).
The alleged superiority of this aristocratic mode of being may be explained in two interrelated ways:
- Firstly, it had been able to reconcile a particular social standing, that of the aristocratic lords (with their leisure, proneness to pleasure and the free time devoted to the quest for that “beneficent, luxurious culture”), with two basic natural traits, that of natural beauty and that of natural talent. The privileged social element would thus intermix and share its qualities with those possessive of certain superior natural qualities.
- Secondly, such intermixing could be established precisely because the aristocratic milieu was capable of recognizing (and thus appreciating) such superior natural qualities. It had a lucid understanding of these traits as objective, natural facts.
The aristocratic notion of equality thereby consolidated both social position and a natural ability that was conducive to the creation of a higher aesthetics – it could therefore only but remain unjust in the eyes of those who had neither the one (the position) nor the other (the ability), and had to remain outsiders.
It is of absolute importance to emphasize here that this aristocratic mechanism of “equal sympathies” bringing select persons together, and that would stand over and above “the many too many”, had one singular purpose in the last instance of its operation – viz. the creation of a certain aesthetic beauty, and the salvaging of the truth of that beauty. To be able to realize such a task, it was absolutely necessary for the aristocratic salon to bring social position and artistic ability together in a manner that would not compromise that very artistic ability – and hence the all-round equality of sympathies within the closed social circle. It would be this equality of agents within the social circle that would ensure the absolute autonomy of artistic talent functioning within the circle – the implication here being that the artist would not at all serve the social rank that protects it. By not serving social rank, the work of the artist would be able to serve artistic truth, and thereby create that higher aesthetics. On the other hand, and to the extent that social position was a social truth in itself – in the sense of a real material reality in the world – the artist had no choice but to portray such a reality in as precise a manner as his artistic truth obliged him to do so. This would mean that a work of art had to recognize and reflect social rank as – what Proust himself would call – “a principle of differentiation”. This “differentiation” based on social rank would be as real as any differentiation expressive of people’s nationality, race, and suchlike. But the artist would have to portray all such “differentiations” without necessarily paying whatever biased homage to any of the parties conducive to such “differentiations”.
To confirm this primacy of artistic truth within the aristocratic milieu, as also the “principle of differentiation” that the artist need take into account in his work, we may here consider what Proust himself would have to say on the matter (and as presented to us in Thiher’s study) – we read as follows: “… in a journalistic text written in 1903 for Le Figaro and republished in Chroniques, about the salon of the Princess Mathilde, he [Proust] observes: ‘An artist should only serve truth and have no respect for rank. He must simply take it into account in his portrayals, insofar as rank is a principle of differentiation, much like, for example, nationality, race, background. Every social condition presents its own interest, and it can be just as curious for an artist to show the manners of a queen as the habits of a seamstress’ …”
For the aristocratic milieu, this “principle of differentiation” was a de facto natural reality – it distributed “equal sympathies” to those who naturally belonged to its closed system, and considered all outsiders as naturally unequal with respect to such system. The implication of such “differentiation” is that social rank was as much a natural, objective truth as was belonging to a particular nation or racial category. Inequality was thus considered to be an eternal, universal truth – it was a natural symptom of the human condition. A text in The Complete Short Stories gives us some idea of how members of Parisian high society would converse around issues of social inequality. Proust informs us that inequality would be taken to be “a fateful law of nature” (p. 105). Madame Fremer, one of the participants in a dinner organized by high society, would have this to say as regards the political views of anarchists: “What good does it all do? There will always be rich and poor people” (ibid.). For very specific reasons that shall be explored below, Proust himself would not fully espouse all that was being voiced within such Parisian circles – we shall see that he would be highly critical of the manner in which the system of “equal sympathies” would be corrupted by the influx of what he sees as snobs. But he can nonetheless still appreciate the fact that, despite the dire social and/or material consequences of the “principle of differentiation”, the members of the aristocratic milieu would in any case be able to sustain their own clear conscience – Proust tells us that, while Madame Fremer and her companions are busy discussing the realities of social inequality, they could at the same time drain their flutes of champagne “with hearty cheerfulness” (ibid.). Such aristocratic clear conscience, of course, needs to be directly contrasted to the Sartrean guilt-ridden shame discussed above.
The clear conscience of the aristocratic milieu would be expressive of a moral system organized around a “politesse” that could only be explained and appreciated in itself and by itself. Proust states that the small, harmonious universe created by the aristocracy can simply not be viewed – and ought not to be viewed – by outsiders. With reference to the fan mentioned above, Proust makes the following telling confession to the retired Madame: “I therefore would not want my fan to be viewed by an indifferent person, who has never frequented salons like yours and who would be astonished to see [the workings of a very specific type of] ‘politesse’ …” (p. 52).
Proust states that all outsiders – the uninitiated – must not and ought not to behold the workings of such “politesse” because they would be shocked by what they would see. What is it particularly that would shock them? They would be baffled by that peculiar distribution of “equal sympathies” within the aristocratic world that would amount to a reconciliation consolidating an unholy unity between rank and natural ability. The uninitiated would simply be shocked by a peculiar aristocratic justice that would be clearly unjust in their own eyes. And yet, Proust claims, the superior “politesse” of the salons would be such as to “unite dukes without arrogance and novelists without pretentiousness” (ibid.). The uninitiated would not be able to digest the fact that such unholy unity would help eradicate both the inbred arrogance of social rank and the usual pretentiousness of artists and/or intellectuals.
This eradication of arrogance on the part of the aristocracy would inevitably help redefine their social relationship with the rest of society (the outsiders). At the same time, the eradication of pretentiousness on the part of artists would help secure their fidelity to artistic truth. It would be precisely these types of accomplishments that would allow Parisian high society to acquire a mode of clear conscience that would be incomprehensible to all outsiders (as also, might we add, to the Sartrean worldview).
These types of reflections, Proust writes at some point in The Complete Short Stories, can only apply to the aristocratic milieu, and that only – as he puts it, “If these reflections [as inspired by high society] … were applied to any other, they would lose their validity” (p. 58).
For Proust, such reflections can only apply to – and be comprehended by – those belonging to the inner circles of the Parisian aristocracy. The rest cannot comprehend them, and they cannot because the “politesse” of the salons accomplishes an unholy unity between rank and talent that is in any case based on certain vices – and so Proust announces that all who are outsiders, all who are “strangers” to the aristocratic spirit, are not able to “comprehend the vices of this rapprochement” (p. 52). We shall therefore now need to examine the very specific manner in which the aristocratic milieu would both harbour particular vices and at the same time creatively thrive on them.
The spirit of an era, and the question of vices
The particular rapprochement that takes place within aristocratic circles, we have noted, cannot be appreciated by strangers to those circles. If, hypothetically, strangers to this small universe would be allowed to scrutinize the terms on which such rapprochement operates, they would all too soon realize that such terms are sinful. They would realize, in other words, that the reconciliation that has accrued between rank and talent is based on some sort of verbal agreement between the parties – a type of social contract between them – to hide their own vices from the rest of society.
But it is not merely the case that outsiders are not ever given the chance to observe the inner realities of high society – much more than that, the participants of high society have established mechanisms of illusion whereby their own particular vices are cleverly hidden from all outsiders.
Now, the Proustian worldview shall certainly present us with a complete and rational explanation as to why both the existence of vices within the aristocratic milieu and their concealment from outsiders are absolutely necessary historical phenomena that could not possibly have been avoided by whichever “highly refined civilization” – we intend to deal with this Proustian problematic at a later stage in this paper, and draw the implications of this as regards the overall Proustian aesthetic project. For our purposes at this point, we may simply state that the mechanisms of illusion established by the aristocratic milieu – whereby its vices are cleverly camouflaged – must be seen as a necessary consequence of what Proust considers to be a universal law of all time present, and that, without exception. Such mechanisms, and such concealment, are an inevitable by-product of the all-too-human flaws of human nature as such, and thus of the habits that plague such nature. We shall see that Proust would even use the biblical concept of “the Fall” (from Grace) to explain both the existence of aristocratic vice and the need for its clever concealment from outsiders.
The fact that vices are so cleverly hidden is yet another basic reason why the aristocratic milieu retains its clear and tranquil conscience. We need to examine more closely how this would be effected, as also the wider social implications of this. Functioning in its own time present (and which is inevitably flawed), the aristocratic milieu can only but operate through self-created and self-vindicating mechanisms of moral illusion. This self-vindication enables the milieu to establish its own clear conscience – but in so doing, it also enables itself to be charitable towards all outsiders (and given that the members of the aristocratic milieu have in any case overcome the need to behave arrogantly toward such outsiders in the context of their rapprochement with natural talent).
The mechanisms of moral illusion, which allow a successful and functional elite society to hide all its vices both from others and especially from own itself, are based on a primary presupposition – most of those who operate within and via such mechanisms are personalities with a great natural distinction. They are the types of personalities that have been able to salvage their own private mode of being as a sphere that is wholly independent of the public sphere. They are able to live that private-public distinction in such manner that it does not disrupt either their own lives as an aristocratic elite or the lives of the lower social strata. It is of great importance to note here that the aristocratic milieu represented that “highly refined civilization” that was able to uphold this absolutely major distinction between private and public space, and uphold it for its own members. We know that such vital distinction would finally collapse by the time of Auguste Comte, whose thinking would be highly expressive of the anti-aristocracy and pro-bourgeoisie Enlightenment. As Camus points out in his The Rebel, the work of Comte would abolish the distinction between public and private life by subsuming both under the all-consuming political sphere, thereby forging a new religion amounting to “social idolatry”. The Comtean positivist milieu, as Camus notes, would be one “where private life would be absolutely identified with public life”, yielding a form of despotism based on “the enlightening powers of science” (p. 167).
In terms of the Proustian worldview, of course, such collapse of the distinction between the private and the public sphere would be an anathema. For it, individuals of certain natural distinctions possess the right to preserve the autonomy of their private vis-à-vis their public sphere in life, this autonomy constituting the ambit around which the aristocratic moral system functions. Proust writes as follows in a text included in Pleasures and Days: “Life is strangely easy and pleasant with certain people of great natural distinction, people who are witty, loving, but who are capable of all vices, although they do not indulge in any vice publicly, so no one can state that they have any vice at all” (p. 42).
The aristocratic mode of being, in other words, is a mode of living that is “strangely easy and pleasant” because it revolves around personalities with at least two natural capabilities – viz. a) the capability of indulging in all human-all-too-human vices; and b) the capability of hiding such vices by maintaining the private-public dichotomy in their human affairs. Because of the preservation of such dichotomy, “no one can state that they have any vice at all”, which sustains the vital and superior functionality of the aristocratic milieu – its superiority therefore lies in the fact that vice cannot be located in the public sphere of such aristocratic milieu (its ultimate demise would be primarily due to the impact of external, historical factors, and not necessarily due to whatever flaws internal to such moral system).
However – and as shall be further discussed below – not all of those who belonged to the circles of the Parisian aristocracy would necessarily be individuals of what Proust calls a “great natural distinction”. How would the mechanisms of moral illusion, as established by those of a certain distinction, be able to deal with those others of a lesser caliber? While it would be the selfsame mechanisms of concealment that would also apply to frequenters of salons without any clear natural distinction in their personality, the aristocratic milieu would further activate additional procedures so as to endeavour to protect its own standards from the ravages of incoming snobbery. Our investigation of Proustian texts allows us to identify at least three such additional procedures – these include: a) those of a lesser caliber would be forced to adapt to an imposed “ideal type”; and/or b) they could be forced to occupy more “juvenile” positions within the social circles; and/or c) they could even be ostracized (such ostracism, however, could be at the unfortunate expense of “original” individuals, but who could not easily be made to fit some “ideal type”).
We can here consider what Proust himself has to say with respect to the functions and procedures operating as mechanisms of illusion of the aristocratic milieu. Thiher’s select extracts retrieved from Proustian texts seem to be a good starting point regarding the manner in which at least the snobs of high society would operate – or have to operate – within such society. We read as follows: “[snobs] use their social station to practice vices mechanically … Vice is always cleverly hidden. It suffices in society to ‘reprove one person’s snobbism, another’s libertinism, or the harshness of a third’ so that, having paid tribute to benevolence, modesty, and charity, ‘one can go give oneself over without remorse, with a tranquil conscience that has just proved itself, to the elegant vices that one practices all at one time’ … For Proust …, the socialite is immoral though not unmindful of the pleasures of a good conscience”.
With respect to the imposition of a certain “ideal type” on those who have come to operate within aristocratic circles, and who require such imposition given the internal contradictions of their personalities, Proust himself writes as follows: “In their true character, … [certain individuals of high society] may differ from the types that they irrevocably embody in the sagacious eyes of society; but this divergence holds no danger for them, because society refuses to see it. Still, it [viz. the divergence between “true character” and the “type”] does not last forever … The absurd, crushing, and immutable persistence of their types, from which they can endlessly depart without disrupting their serene entrenchment, eventually imposes itself, with an increasing gravitational pull, on these unoriginal people with their incoherent conduct; and ultimately they are fascinated by this sole identity, which remains inflexible amid all their universal variations” (The Complete Short Stories, p. 56).
The aristocratic milieu, therefore, may be said to function on at least two levels. On the one hand, we have seen that there are those individuals of high society who possess a “great natural distinction”, and are thus fully capable of behaving in such manner that there is no evidence of vice detectable in the public sphere (these are capable of protecting themselves). On the other hand, there are also those individuals characterized by an “incoherent conduct” and who are ultimately forced to adapt to an imposed “sole identity” and/or “ideal type”, and thereby also unwittingly secure the sustenance of the aristocratic milieu (these are protected by high society).
Whether or not Proust himself scoffs at such latter procedures – or bewails a declining aristocratic milieu that is now in need of such procedures – is of little concern to us in this paper (and which is a matter better left to the connoisseurs of Proust’s literary enterprise). Whatever his personal stance, Proust nonetheless allows us to eavesdrop on the participants of Parisian salons and observe how they would have to deal with individuals of an originally “incoherent” or internally contradictory nature. He writes, for instance, as follows: “During conversations at soirées, each person, untroubled by the contradictory behavior of these figures and heedless of their gradual adaptation to the imposed types, neatly files every figure away with his actions in the quite suitable and carefully defined pigeonhole of his ideal character …” (p. 57). And so each one of “these figures” is thereafter free to indulge in whatever personal vices within his own private sphere.
The adaption to an imposed “ideal type” is just one procedure whereby those without a “great natural distinction” are dealt with by the rest of high society. We have noted that there are at least two other procedures used to protect the (gradually falling) standards of aristocratic circles. Proust writes: “We must also add that at times a man may appear for whom [high] society has no ready-made character, or at least no available character, because it is being used by someone else. At first society gives him characters that do not suit him. If … no character is the right size, then society, unable to try to understand him and lacking a character with a proper fit, will simply ostracize him; unless he can gracefully play juvenile leads, who are always in short supply” (p. 58).
The operation of mechanisms and procedures of moral illusion as organized around the aristocratic “politesse” now raises a pertinent issue, and which concerns the question of personal freedom and originality within a “politesse” that would so peculiarly deal with questions of human vice via a rather complex imposition of “ideal types”. The issue is also pertinent as it would allow us to contrast the workings of this “politesse” to Sartre’s own understanding of society as a whole vis-à-vis personal freedom and originality, or with respect to the role of collective groupings vis-à-vis freedom and personal authenticity. While we intend to deal with the Sartrean perspective at a later stage, we may here briefly outline how the Proustian worldview would deal with the question of personal freedom and originality within the aristocratic milieu – the basic points to emphasize would be the following:
- Personal freedom and especially personal creativity within the aristocratic milieu are to be located either in the terrain of aesthetic creativity (for those possessive of a natural talent) or in the terrain of one’s private world (including the indulgence in one’s “elegant vices”).
- In both cases – and which would here imply both the public and the private sphere – one would enjoy the aristocratic freedom expressive of a clear conscience (the latter would simply provide the mental space for the activation and living of one’s personal freedom).
- The aristocratic milieu, in any case, would above all be meant as a terrain of personal freedom and personal creativity for those whom Proust would describe as “superior creatures”. Such personalities would enjoy the “equal sympathies” of high society, and therefore the opportunities offered by such society for personal, aesthetic creativity, bar whatever servile dependencies (as already discussed above).
The question of vice (or whatever form of weakness) within the aristocratic milieu cannot possibly be disentangled from the mode of existence of individuals who may be said to belong to the category of a “superior creature” – the vices and weaknesses of such types of individuals are not to be judged in terms of the moral systems of the inferior rest. Even the virtuous deeds of the latter cannot hold a candle to the noble weaknesses of “superior creatures”. In a Proustian short story entitled “Before the Night”, we read as follows: “You are a creature so superior to anyone else that any weakness of yours would have a nobility and beauty that are not to be found in other people’s good deeds” (The Complete Short Stories, “Early Stories”, p. 182). The implication is that a superior man – he who belongs to those of a “great natural distinction” – does have weaknesses, but these are expressive of a noble beauty and an aesthetic creativity that are well beyond the good and evil of the many-too-many. The moral values of the “superior creatures” are simply not the same as those of an inferior caliber.
As to the question of superior vices, we may further consider how Proust presents the social ambitions of two types of personalities that wish to join the circles of Parisian high society – using the Flaubertian characters Bouvard and Pécuchet for his own purposes, Proust introduces them with the following dialogue: “… ‘Now that we have positions’, said Bouvard, ‘why shouldn’t we live a life of high society?’ … Pécuchet could not have agreed with him more; but they would have to shine, and to do so they would have to study the subjects dealt with in society … Contemporary literature is of prime importance” (The Complete Short Stories, p. 59). Studying things such as literature, however, would not be enough so that they “shine” within the circles of high society – to be able to truly join the ranks of other “superior creatures”, they would have to reevaluate their own moral values regarding vice and virtue. This reevaluation would have to be such as to stand over and above the restraints of the many-too-many – they would therefore necessarily have to be immoderate in their conduct. And so it is for this reason that Pécuchet makes the following announcement: “But immoderateness per se is proof of a rich nature” (ibid., p. 60).
Aristocratic immoderateness would be vindicated by an inherent grace and nobility coupled with a vivacious strength of character. It would also be vindicated by a type of logic that would be informed by an irony that would look down on conventional thinking. Proust continues the dialogue as follows: “… ‘Yet it can’t be very difficult,’ Bouvard thought, ‘to express one’s ideas clearly. Clarity is not enough, though; you need grace (allied with strength), vivacity, nobility, and logic.’ Bouvard then added irony …” (ibid., p. 61).
We have stated that the vices and weaknesses of the aristocratic personality would have to be cleverly hidden from outsiders, and have further argued that such mechanisms of moral illusion were absolutely necessary for the sustenance of the aristocratic milieu. To the extent that such mechanisms would have to be gradually stretched and expanded to the point of covering up for the conduct of incoming snobbery, one would also observe the decline of that milieu (this being a mere symptom of such decline, and not at all its primary cause). In his Saint Genet, Sartre would himself point to the fact that the “fashionable society” of the aristocracy would ignore the moral vices of its members so long as such vices were properly hidden from the rest of society – this is how he puts it: “[the declining aristocracy] readily closed its eyes to vices, provided they were not flaunted. The enemy did not dwell in its consciousness” (p. 229).
For Sartre, of course, the aristocracy would not wish to display its vices in public for the sole purpose of guarding its own class interests – such practice would constitute the typical secretiveness of the oppressor attempting to protect its “pure privilege”. And the aristocracy would be doing exactly what all ruling classes had done in the past and would continue to do so in the future, as in the case of the bourgeoisie itself. In fact, Sartre would see a continuity in the oppressive – and secretive – practices of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy with respect to all the outcasts of society. For Sartre, further, the fact that “the enemy” did not dwell in the consciousness of the aristocracy would merely be a case of self-deception, and would therefore embody its own bad faith (and which would be comparable to what we have referred to as the bourgeois manufacturing of illusions).
There is no doubt that all of human history thus far has been characterized by the existence of elites. And there is also no doubt that all elites – whichever be the milieu in which they had operated – had attempted to hide their own vices from outsiders. The practices of a Diocletian, Edward Gibbon tells us in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, were marked by a “profound dissimulation”. The English historian writes, for instance, that the abilities of such a great Roman emperor may be summed up as “above all, the great art of submitting his own passions, as well as those of others, to the interest of his ambition, and of coloring his ambition with the most specious pretences of justice and public utility” (p. 375). Dissimulation on the part of elites seems to have been – and surely still is – a historical necessity. The Freudian worldview would of course go even further – it would argue that the practice of secretiveness (the mechanisms of moral illusion effected through censorship and self-censorship) would be an absolutely necessary evil for all types of civilized societies, for all the social strata within these societies, as also for each and every individual existing therein. And one may further argue that, to the extent that censorship and self-censorship are necessary mechanisms of survival within civilizations, they cannot be reduced – as the Sartrean worldview would reduce them – to symptoms of bad faith and/or of inauthenticity.
From the particular perspective of the Parisian aristocratic elite, however, the question of secretiveness regarding its vices would be pivoted around two issues:
- The extent to which they would be successful in operating their mechanisms of moral illusion.
- The extent to which they would be able to utilize such success in salvaging their own interpretation of aesthetic beauty.
There are a variety of ways in which many Proustian texts attempt to deal with these two major issues – we shall attempt to analyze these below.
The bastion of the aristocracy, and its vulnerabilities
What one may refer to as the hard core of the Parisian aristocracy would once be located in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, a historic district of Paris. Since the 18th century and right up to Proust’s time, this would be the home of the oldest and most prestigious aristocratic circles. It remains to this day one of the most exclusive districts of Paris (it being currently part of the 7th arrondissement of Paris).
On the one hand, this cultural (and, once, also political) stronghold of the aristocracy was apparently impermeable and inaccessible to the rest of French society – and it would typically maintain its “brilliant social life” (as Wikipedia puts it) even well after the aristocracy as a social class would be marginalized politically. In The Complete Short Stories, Proust writes of “the Faubourg Saint-Germain, that bastion of aristocracy” constituting “a compact and isolated whole” (p. 62). On the other hand, however, Proust adds that “the Faubourg seeps in everywhere and looks like a compact and isolated whole purely from a distance!” (ibid.). From a historical perspective, nonetheless, such compactness and willful social segregation would at least initially be a defining characteristic of the aristocratic milieu – it would thereby guard both its privileged position and its own cultural aesthetics (both of which would be manifested in its “brilliant social life”).
The definitive autonomy of the aristocratic milieu – including its as definitive inclusion of “superior creatures” with their “great natural distinction” – would be recorded by Proust in The Complete Short Stories. He would write of such milieu as including “the most gifted people, in the most exclusive salons, in the most self-contained sceneries” (p. 79).
This self-containment of the Faubourg Saint-Germain aristocratic bastion would be part of the mechanism whereby the moral conduct of its members would be concealed from outsiders – it would be precisely such self-containment that would maintain the dichotomy between the private and public spheres of its aristocratic members. “The Faubourg Saint-Germain”, Proust’s Pécuchet opines, “concealed the libertinage of the Old Regime under the guise of rigidity” (p. 63).
How did the aristocratic elite of the Faubourg Saint-Germain exercise its power – for the period of time that it did – over the rest of society? And how is one to explain its demise? Exclusively from the elite’s own highly subjective perspective, one may note the following points:
- The manner of the elite’s exercise of power would be of a dual nature: a) externally, it would assert its ideological hegemony by virtue of its sheer elegance, combined with a certain code of honour as demonstrated by its chivalrous conduct; b) internally, it would indulge in its own sins – these would, however, sustain it (and do so with an absolutely clear conscience).
- The aristocratic elite would demonstrate their graciousness towards commoners – it simply had no need to be arrogant towards them, given its position of an incomparably superior cultural ethos (we have spoken above of its charitable attitude towards outsiders in general).
- But the aristocratic elite would at the same time express a hatred or acerbity with respect to all those particular outsiders who had acquired the economic power to penetrate their once exclusive, highly selective salons (a selectivity, we have suggested, that had been based on natural beauty and/or natural talent).
- It would be the seeping in of external, alien forces into the cultural bastion of the aristocratic elite that would spell the demise of their milieu – it would, in other words, destroy their original self-containment.
All of the points presented above are more or less – directly or indirectly – made by Proust’s Pécuchet. This is what he says: “Every nobleman had mistresses, plus a sister who was a nun, and he conspired with the clergy. They were brave, debt-ridden, they ruined and scourged usurers and they were inevitably the champions of honor. They reigned by dint of elegance, invented preposterous fashions, were exemplary sons, gracious to commoners and harsh toward bankers. Always clutching a sword or with a woman in pillion, they dreamed of restoring the monarchy, were terribly idle, but not haughty with decent people, sent traitors packing, insulted cowards, and with a certain air of chivalry they merited our unshakable affection” (ibid.).
The demise of the aristocratic elite and its milieu, we are suggesting, would not only be due to the particular historical conjuncture at the time – viz. the rise of the bourgeoisie and the concomitant penetration of non-aristocratic elements within the self-contained cultural bastion of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. As we shall further argue, it would also be the intrinsic flaws of life itself – the constraints of all time present – that would compromise the hegemonic self-containment of that bastion of cultural and political authority. One major manifestation of such compromise would be the influx of a particular mode of conduct within the aristocratic salons which Proust identifies as pseudo-aristocratic snobbery.
High society, and the phenomenon of snobbery
There is that type of female person that wishes to deny high society, while at the same time utterly devoting her life to that which she allegedly denies. She is a case of the typical pseudo-aristocratic snob (one may safely assume that this type of person may also be found amongst males). Why would such type of person deny high society? Proust explains that that type of person is well aware that there are other personalities in high society that are superior to him/her – and it is such awareness that triggers the denial. Snobbery, therefore, is an expression of one’s inferiority complex. The implication is that high society is not meant for the conceited, the arrogant and the naturally inferior. For these types of persons, Proust seems to be insinuating, high society is a weakness. Focusing on the case of females, Proust writes as follows: “A woman does not mask her love of balls, horse races, even gambling … But never try to make her say that she loves high society: she would vehemently deny it … It is the only weakness that she carefully conceals, no doubt because it is the only weakness that humbles her vanity. She does not feel inferior to anyone simply because she commits a folly; her snobbery, quite the opposite, implies that there are people to whom she is inferior or could become inferior by letting herself relax. Thus we can find a woman who proclaims the utter foolishness of high society yet devotes her mind to it, her finesse, her intelligence …” (The Complete Short Stories, p. 44).
The now-modern phenomenon of snobbery, however, would come to gradually permeate the whole of the aristocratic milieu (definitely not all of its representatives, but it would become a rampant symptom). One would thus also have the corruption of the aristocracy itself through its ruinous interaction with what Proust shall call the “trivial contemporaries”.
What specific form does such snobbery – born of that ruinous interaction – take within certain Parisian salons? Individuals trapped within such circumstances make particular sacrifices so as to achieve new ambitions in the social circles of high society. What is it that they choose to sacrifice? Proust tells that they sacrifice their own freedom and, as importantly, their hours of personal pleasure. The implication here is that they actually sacrifice that mode of life that was originally characteristic of the aristocratic milieu per se – viz., and as discussed above, a) the aristocratic freedom for the “elegant vices” of one’s private world, and the concurrent aristocratic freedom of one’s conscience; and b) that highly esteemed aristocratic value of pleasure, or that “beneficent, luxurious culture” of idleness that had once mothered aesthetic creativity.
The new, ruinous interaction that begets this form of snobbery means that the once self-contained circles of high society are now gradually being impregnated with new faces of the rising modern world – precisely those “trivial contemporaries” of modernity – and who are by and by imagined by certain members of high society to be the supposed links to some ancient and splendid French past. The implication is that the “trivial contemporaries” of Proust’s time could not possibly constitute such link.
When newly-formed dreams and ambitions interlock past and present via such new and “trivial contemporaries”, one inevitably slips into vain chimeras. Dreams and ambitions based on such vain chimeras of the past are the sine qua non of a vain snobbery – and it is this that leads to the corruption and final demise of the aristocratic milieu.
Our presentation of Proust’s critique of his “trivial contemporaries” – and the effect these have on the aristocratic milieu – is based on the following extract which is addressed to a particular “female snob”, as it appears in The Complete Short Stories: “Your soul is certainly, as Tolstoy says, a dark forest. But its trees are of a particular species; they are family trees. People call you vain? But the universe is not empty for you; it is filled with coats of arms. It is quite a dazzling and symbolic conception of the world. Yet do you not also have your chimeras in the shape and color of the ones we see painted on blazons? … In reading the chronicles of the battles won by ancestors, you have found the names of the descendants whom you invite to dinner, and this mnemonic technique has taught you the entire history of France. This lends a certain grandeur to your ambitious dream, to which you have sacrificed your freedom, your hours of pleasure … For the faces of your new friends are linked in your imagination to a long series of ancestral portraits. The family trees that you cultivate so meticulously, whose fruit you pick so joyously every year, are deeply rooted in the most ancient French soil. Your dream interlocks the present and the past. The soul of the crusades enlivens some trivial contemporary figures for you, and if you read your guest book so fervently, does not each name allow you to feel an ancient and splendid France awakening, quavering, and almost singing, like a corpse arisen from a slab decorated with armorial bearings?” (p. 46).
The pseudo-aristocratic snobs would have their own, illusory perception of the gradual demise of the aristocratic milieu. They would of course see it already happening in their own time, though they could only but misunderstand the nature of its occurrence, as also their role in it. In their own eyes, the originally self-contained and compact autonomy of the aristocratic salons would seem to continue to exist – and they would see themselves as its upholders and perpetuators. As its upholders, however, they would also see themselves as people besieged by the new and up-and-coming conjuncture of modernity – ironically, they would therefore prefer to see themselves as exiles within Parisian society.
What the snobs would not wish to understand was that the boundaries of aristocratic self-containment had in fact now become so porous – and the “trivial contemporary figures” (of which the snobs themselves were a part) so prevalent – that their self-proclaimed status as exiles was simply an expression of their ostentatious imagination. And although the Proustian worldview would certainly place a high esteem on imagination per se, Proust would feel that this particular imagination of the pseudo-aristocratic snobs would be of an absolutely dull and poor brand. Writing of Madame Lenoir, a typical participant in the dinners of high society, Proust notes: “She felt truly exiled in modern society and she always spoke tearfully about the ‘elderly noblemen of the old days’. Her snobbery was all imagination and, moreover, was all the imagination she had” (The Complete Short Stories, p. 102).
We have thus far identified three basic dimensions of snobbery that could be said to have been evident amongst aristocratic circles in Proust’s time. By way of reiteration, we have noted the following interrelated dimensions: a) snobbery as an inferiority complex within aristocratic social circles; b) snobbery as an outcome of the ruinous interaction with “trivial contemporaries”; and c) snobbery as an expression of imagined exile. We may here add yet another interrelated manifestation of snobbery, and which was clearly a sign of the changing socio-economic milieu – an array of individuals who in some way remained attached to the Parisian aristocratic circles would choose snobbery as a self-defensive mechanism against the rising bourgeoisie. Such individuals, in other words, assumed the conduct of a snob so as not to sink within the rude ranks of the rising bourgeoisie. Proust writes of Madame Fremer (mentioned above as one of those regular participants in dinners held by high society circles) as follows: “Madame Fremer’s snobbery was, for her female friends, and that of her female friends was, for her, like mutual insurance against sinking into the bourgeoisie” (p. 101).
Now, in the course of the decline and fall of the aristocratic milieu, two things would occur: on the one hand, the essential distinction within the aristocratic circles between those who had belonged to the category of the “superior creatures” and those who, for instance, had been beset by an inferiority complex, could only but have survived (this being a distinction ordained by nature) – Proust himself writes of “profound differences” amongst the members of the aristocratic circles at the time. On the other hand, however, such essential distinction would in any case be somewhat swept aside by the prevalence of what Proust shall call a “collective madness” within a generally declining aristocratic milieu, and which had taken the form of snobbery (as explained above). This “collective madness”, to put it otherwise, would be literally superimposed on the naturally surviving “profound differences” amongst those still attached to the aristocratic circles. This is how Proust describes the situation: “… despite their profound differences, they all seemed alike … their sole common trait, or rather the same collective madness, the same prevalent epidemic with which all of them were stricken: snobbery” (p. 104).
It is of absolute importance to emphasize here that the phenomenon of snobbery (or vanity) within the aristocratic circles is not at all to be explained in terms of the particular nature of the aristocracy itself – we have already seen how the aristocratic milieu did not mean to be (and did not need to be) haughty towards commoners. Further, and as importantly, aristocratic snobbery cannot even be explained merely in terms of the tragic circumstances of its historic demise. Snobbery, as is often naively assumed, is not a feature specific to the aristocracy – in the last instance, it is a manifestation of the human condition, and especially so amongst those who exercise power in society. But it can also corrupt whoever and at any time of human history. Thiher makes this important point as follows in his review of texts in The Complete Short Stories: “[Proust’s] indictment of society continues in ‘Un Dîner en ville’ (‘A Dinner in High Society’) … his satire aims at late nineteenth century decadence as well as the eternal, all-embracing vanity found everywhere at any time”. This point is of importance because, as we shall see below, it would have a decisive influence on the general Proustian worldview regarding the role of the aristocratic milieu in Western civilization.
The bastion of the aristocracy vis-à-vis other elite groups
So as to map the existence of various elite groups within the French capital – and so as to explain their particular position vis-à-vis the aristocracy itself – Proust presents us with what he calls “an exact plan of Parisian society” as a whole. This plan was meant to be a description of the different social categories and/or strata that would either forge an unholy collaboration with the aristocratic circles (that unholy unity with people of natural talent, as discussed above), or would attempt to penetrate the ranks of the aristocracy as external and alien forces, and which would do so for reasons that were exclusively self-interested (such as those “trivial contemporaries” that would fear the possibility of sinking into the ranks of the bourgeoisie). While Proust was not a sociologist, there is much of sociology in the Proustian literary enterprise. His subtle social analyses, however, would not dwell on abstract social categories (as would the Marxists) – for Proust, social groupings were manned by real individuals with often paradoxical intentions. One such individual was Proust’s Flaubertian character, Bouvard (cf. the dialogue between him and Pécuchet above). With respect to Bouvard, Proust writes as follows: “[He] declared that in order to know where they would socialize, toward which suburbs they would venture once a year, where their habits and their vices could be found, they would first have to draw up an exact plan of Parisian society. The plan, said Bouvard, would include Faubourg Saint-Germain, financiers, foreign adventurers, Protestant society, the world of art and theatre, the official world, and the learned world” (The Complete Short Stories, p. 63).
What were the attributes of those that manned the various social groupings of Parisian society? We may begin by considering what Proust has to write of that particular social stratum referred to as the financiers – his observations, of course, are meant to express the reactions of those members of the old aristocratic circles that would feel besieged by whichever financiers had already begun penetrating their own once compact world. Proust writes as follows: “On the other hand, the eminent and sullen world of finance inspires respect but also aversion. The financier remains care-worn even at the wildest ball. One of his numberless clerks keeps coming to report the latest news from the stock exchange even at four in the morning … You never know whether he is a mogul or a swindler: he switches to and fro without warning; and despite his immense fortune, he ruthlessly evicts a poor tenant for being in arrears with his rent … Moreover, the financier … dresses without taste …” (ibid.).
This highly informative extract speaks for itself as regards the various issues we have already raised above – we may nonetheless highlight the following:
- The old Parisian aristocratic circles feel the threat of alien forces penetrating their ranks – note, for instance, the use of the term “aversion”.
- One need contrast the “sullen” and “care-worn” materialistic world of the financiers to that of the aristocratic milieu’s pleasure-loving and creative idleness – viz. its “brilliant social life” and its capacity to attract the best of natural talents.
- While the old, compact circles of the aristocracy had acquired a steadfast self-knowledge of their vices and virtues, the financiers represented a mutable and volatile social element – they could easily switch from being “moguls” today to being “swindlers” the next, and do so “without warning”.
- While the aristocratic milieu would be charitable towards commoners, financiers could be “ruthless” with poor tenants.
- Perhaps above all, the aesthetic tastes of the aristocratic milieu could not digest the bad tastes of financiers (as in the case of attire).
Generally speaking, one may say that many financiers and bankers in Proust’s time would naturally remain devoted to the pursuance of their materialistic/economic interests while at the same time pretending to belong to those “superior creatures” that had once dominated the culture of Parisian society. In some paradoxical manner, they could be described as fence-sitters in terms of moral and aesthetic values – and they could be fence-sitters in much the same way as they could switch to acting as swindlers “without warning”. It would be such mutability and volatility that would characterize many such characters, and which would unsettle the social life and established norms of the old aristocratic circles.
We have referred above to a certain Madame Fremer, who had loathed the possibility of sinking into the ranks of the bourgeoisie – she wished to be seen as an aristocrat. But this lady was in fact a banker’s wife. Proust describes what this would mean for the life of the banker himself – he writes: “As for Monsieur Fremer: working at his bank all day, dragged into society by his wife every evening or kept at home when they entertained …” (ibid., p. 103). Unwittingly, the hard-working Monsieur Fremer could only but have been a fence-sitter within the Parisian aristocratic circles.
The fence-sitting banker would be dragged into what remained of the Parisian aristocratic circles by a wife who had once herself belonged to the financial world but who would now wish to conquer the world of the aristocracy (and thereby avoid sinking into the bourgeoisie) – and, in some way, she would actually achieve such conquest, but to the ultimate detriment of the original norms and values of the aristocratic milieu. Proust writes of the lady as follows: “… Madame Fremer mirrored her blond beauty in the charmed eyes of the guests. The twofold reputation surrounding her was a deceptive prism through which everyone tried to fathom her real traits. Ambitious, conniving, almost an adventuress, according to the financial world, which she had abandoned for a more brilliant destiny, she was nevertheless regarded as a superior being, an angel of sweetness and virtue, by the aristocracy and the royal family, both of whom she had conquered” (ibid.).
This extract does provide us with an excellent example of the penetration of the aristocratic milieu by an outsider originating from the world of finance – but we also clearly see here that someone like Madame Fremer would bring to the circles of the aristocracy a variety of personality traits that were typical of the financial world and which would have been foreign to an originally compact aristocratic world more concerned with aesthetic taste. And thus participants of the aristocratic social circles frequented by Madame Fremer would be perplexed by the “deceptive prism” of her reputation, and would have much difficulty in fathoming the lady’s “real traits”.
Apart from the financiers and bankers that would besiege the old world of the aristocracy, there would also be a variety of other fence-sitters, in-betweens and hybrids that would add to the confusion and ultimate corruption of the aristocratic milieu. Madame Lenoir mentioned above – the lady who had felt truly exiled in the modern Parisian world – was no aristocrat at all in terms of social origins. Madame Lenoir was one amongst many at the time who were what Proust calls “self-made” aristocrats (ibid., p. 101). These outsider types would pursue a deliberate strategy aimed at entering the world of aristocratic circles at any cost – they would sacrifice whatever so as to achieve a personal goal which they would come to see as what Proust calls a “social career” (with respect to the question of sacrifice, we need call to mind how snobs would even go so far as to relinquish their personal freedom and pleasure so as to fulfill their social ambitions – cf. above). This is what Proust has to say with respect to a certain Spanish lady who would participate in dinners held by Parisian high society: “… a superb Spanish woman was eating ravenously. That evening, serious person that she was, she had unhesitatingly sacrificed a rendezvous to the probability of advancing her social career by dining in a fashionable home” (ibid.).
The ultimately irremediable intermingling of different types of personalities within the aristocratic circles – both outsiders and insiders and a motley of in-betweens – would wreak havoc on the traditional values and titles of peerage that had once secured the hierarchical compactness of the aristocratic order. This would be evident in even the most sought-after Parisian salons of Proust’s time. In a text of The Complete Short Stories entitled “The End of Jealousy”, Proust gives us an idea of just such a situation as follows: “The salon of Madame Seaune, née Princess de Galaise-Orlandes … remains one of the most sought-after salons in Paris. In a society in which the title of duchess would make her interchangeable with so many others, her nonaristocratic family name stands out like a beauty mark on a face; and in exchange for the title she lost when marrying Monsieur Seaune, she acquired the prestige of having voluntarily renounced the kind of glory that, for a noble imagination, exalts white peacocks, black swans, white violets, and captive queens” (p. 160). It is all too obvious that, with the intrusion of outsiders into aristocratic circles, the very nature of such circles would undergo a radical alteration, and which would denote a debasement of all original values and titular orders that had once defined such circles.
Now, that “exact plan of Parisian society” would further include a variety of other social, cultural or religious groupings that would in some way or other (directly or from a distance) relate to the circles of the Parisian aristocracy. One such category of individuals would be what is referred to as the “society” of Protestants. Proust informs us of the attitudes and feelings of people like Bouvard and Pécuchet with respect to Parisian Protestants as follows: “Nor did Bouvard and Pécuchet feel any keener love for Protestant society: it is cold, starchy, gives solely to its own poor, and is made up exclusively of pastors … Protestants fear merriment too deeply not to have something to hide …” (The Complete Short Stories, pp. 63-64).
It would probably be fairly accurate to assume that such reservations on the part of the Parisian aristocratic circles towards French Protestants had little to do with whatever prejudicial predisposition in the 1890’s, when Proust had been penning his short stories. We say this because, despite the essential catholicity of the French monarchical tradition and its age-old religious-cum-ideological discourse, a largish number of aristocrats had in fact converted to Protestantism following the Reformation in Europe. It has in any case been argued that the idea of a Protestant conspiracy against the throne of France is a mere historical myth – French Protestants were to be found in every political camp throughout French history (consider here the work of Burdette Crawford Poland, French Protestantism and the French Revolution, Princeton Legacy Library, 1957). But then, how is one to explain the absence of any affection on the part of aristocratic circles for Protestant society? Proust informs us that Bouvard and Pécuchet would not feel “any keener love” for Protestants – he is of course comparing this absence of love with what would also apply to financiers and bankers, and herein, perhaps, lies the clue that may allow us to understand the relationship between the aristocratic circles and Protestant society in Proust’s time. The aristocratic aversion for the world of finance could be said to have been akin to its aversion for Protestant society, and would have been so to the extent that at least the pastors of such society would more or less reflect the tastes and lifestyle of a social grouping that itself belonged to the typical French urban bourgeoisie. Like the “sullen” financers and bankers, the Protestant pastors – and to a large extent their urban bourgeois mentors – would be “cold” and “starchy” in their conduct (and while the members of the Protestant urban bourgeoisie in France would not necessarily be overly devout personalities, they would nonetheless uphold the traditions and conventions of their Protestant origins). Above all, it should be emphasized, the aversion on the part of aristocratic circles may be put down to a central dissonance between those circles and Protestant society as to their respective mode of living: while, as we have seen, the aristocrats would focus their lives around idleness and pleasure, Protestant society – and especially the pastors as its representatives – would “fear merriment” (and would do so in a manner reminiscent of financiers and bankers). Fearful of any merriment, Protestant pastors would hide impulses and emotions that they could not indulge in – and this would stand in stark contrast to the way of life of the aristocrats, who would simply hide what they actually indulged in (their carnal vices).
Yet another grouping included in the “plan” of Parisian society would be the Parisian art world. Bouvard and Pécuchet inform us as follows about this particular sub-world which, as we have seen above, had established an unholy unity with aristocratic circles: “The art world, equally homogeneous, is quite different; every artist is a humbug, estranged from his family, never wears a top hat, and speaks a special language. He spends his life outsmarting bailiffs who try to dispossess him and finding grotesque disguises for masked balls. Nevertheless artists constantly produce masterpieces, and for most of them their overindulgence in wine and women is the sine qua non of their inspiration if not their genius; they sleep all day, go out all night, work God knows when, and, with their heads flung back, their limp scarves fluttering in the wind, they perpetually roll cigarettes” (ibid., p. 64).
This exquisite extract allows us to make a number of important observations, all of which would clearly confirm what we have already noted above regarding the relationship between the aristocratic milieu and those special personalities endowed with a superior natural talent (and which would therefore be a thoroughly positive relationship altogether dissimilar to the case of financiers, bankers and other fence-sitting adventurists and/or snobs). The points to emphasize here – presented in accordance with the order in which they appear in the extract – are the following:
- Those individuals belonging to what Proust calls the world of art would maintain their own homogeneity – and they would do so as did various other groupings interacting with the aristocratic circles. Their own homogeneity, however, would be of a “quite different” type: its purpose was meant to preserve and protect the group’s artistic vocation. As already noted, they would reject whatever dependence on the aristocratic circles so that they could serve, not any such circles, but artistic truth itself. Their independence would be propped by such homogeneity.
- Very much like the aristocracy, those belonging to the world of art would be deliberately deceptive in their conduct (“every artist is a humbug”) – their own deceptive behaviour would again have its own distinct purpose, it being the protection of their artistic creativity. But such creativity was one absolutely important dimension of the pursuance of aesthetic beauty expressive of the aristocratic milieu in general.
- To further preserve and protect their style of life as artistic creators, artists would even choose to remain independent of familial ties. Such a mentality would be tolerated or even quite appreciated by an aristocratic milieu that had already placed much emphasis on (or experimented with) the significance of selfhood and individuality, albeit in the terrain of one’s strictly private life (on the issue of the aristocratic sense of selfhood, cf., for instance, Jonathan Dewald, Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture, University of California Press, 1993).
- The artistic world’s internal homogeneity and autonomy within the aristocratic circles would also be sustained by the fact that its exceptionally endowed personalities would speak their own “special language” amongst themselves. They thereby created barriers of communication between their own kind and others that were difficult to cross, and which would thus discourage whatever external intervention regarding their work.
- The aristocratic milieu would tolerate the fact that artists would “outsmart bailiffs” – suggesting that the aristocratic order would willfully sanction the relatively unlawful behaviour on the part of artists, presumably as regards their various fiscal obligations (bailiffs would try to “dispossess” them). And they would sanction such conduct since the aristocratic milieu had placed the creation of aesthetic beauty and culture above that of economic expediency (we know how typically lazy and unproductive aristocrats would be with respect to the economic functionality of their regime – Sartre’s Saint Genet itself explores the “parasitism” of the aristocracy).
- Individuals belonging to the art world would naturally participate in the balls organized by the aristocratic salons – this being one manifestation of their unholy reconciliation with aristocratic rank. Yet again, however, the manner in which they would behave in the course of such balls would be such as to confirm their autonomy as artists – they would come up with their own most “grotesque” of disguises.
- The values and mode of life of the aristocratic milieu were such as to fully recognize and appreciate the significance of what artists were capable of producing – it would be that particular milieu that could savour and honour that which was an artistic masterpiece (and reject that which was not), and it could do so by being selective as regards natural talent. And so Bouvart and Pécuchet could confidently assert that artists associated with aristocratic circles “constantly produce masterpieces”.
- The mode of life of the artists was such as to enable them to use their talent so as to “constantly produce masterpieces”, and it was a mode of life very much similar to that of the aristocrats’ own mode of life in at least one important sense: both overindulged. Such overindulgence in the case of the aristocracy was seen as “proof of a rich nature” – above, we have already referred to this as the “immoderateness” of the aristocratic milieu. In the case of artists, such overindulgence – or immoderateness – was a definitive feature of their artistic inspiration or their artistic genius. In the case of both social groupings, need we say, this overindulgence naturally revolved around vices – and these related, inter alia, to “wine and women”. One may therefore generally conclude that artists and aristocrats had actuated a particular cultural cohabitation for themselves that would ultimately define the milieu, at least prior to its decadence.
- The pleasures of overindulgence or immoderateness went hand-in-hand with idleness. We have seen that idleness and pleasure would be a mode of being for the aristocrats – again confirming such cohabitation with the aristocrats, artists would themselves “sleep all day, go out all night”. One sees here what must have been a rather perfect marriage between these two groupings, albeit unholy in the eyes of outsiders and/or hybrid in-betweens.
The “plan” of Parisian society would also include a group of individuals that was very closely related to those belonging to the art world – what may obviously be considered a sub-group to the world of artists was the world of theater. Bouvart and Pécuchet have this to say of actors and actresses: “The theater world is barely distinct from the art world: there is no family life on every level; theater people are eccentric and inexhaustibly generous. Actors, while vain and jealous, help their fellow players endlessly, applaud their successes, adopt the children of consumptive or down-on-their-luck actresses, and are precious in society, although, being uneducated, they are often sanctimonious and always superstitious. Actors at subsidized theatres are in a class of their own; entirely worthy of our admiration, they would deserve a more honorable place at the table than a general or a prince; they nurture feelings expressed in the masterpieces they perform on our great stages. Their memory is prodigious and their bearing perfect” (ibid., p. 64).
This extract allows us to make the following rough observations as regards the relationship between the aristocratic circles and the world of the theater:
- It is here quite apparent that, exactly as in the case with artists, the aristocratic milieu would also wish to forge an unholy reconciliation or unity with the world of the theater (actors and actresses are clearly viewed as “precious in society”).
- However, given the general state of affairs prevailing in the world of actors and actresses at the time (for instance, their lack of education, which would yield a sanctimonious and superstitious disposition), such reconciliation or unity had not been fully consummated.
- Bouvart and Pécuchet have nonetheless no choice but to express their genuine admiration of the theater world – it is that world which performs the epoch’s masterpieces on “our great stages” (and which is something naturally savoured by the aristocratic circles). Bouvart and Pécuchet therefore expect of the aristocracy to fully co-opt actors and actresses while at the same time fully recognizing their autonomy as “a class of their own”.
- As in the case of artists, actors and actresses were not to serve the aristocratic milieu. In fact, Bouvart and Pécuchet are suggesting that the aristocratic milieu should justifiably look up to the world of theater – actors and actresses, we are told, “deserve a more honorable place at the table” of the Parisian salons.
In examining the so-called bastion of the aristocracy and its relations with various other elite groupings, we have made a series of observations most of which would point to what Thiher has described as “a slow process of degradation” – the aristocratic milieu would gradually be swamped by a new epoch dominated by the bourgeoisie, and which Proust would parody in much of his The Complete Short Stories from the perspective of a symbolist aesthete. We have seen how Bouvart’s “exact plan of Parisian society” – described in such texts – would reveal that the aristocratic milieu would both forge unholy collaborations with aesthetically creative groups such as artists and actors/actresses, while at the same time allowing itself to be penetrated by external, alien forces that were themselves characterized by a spurious attitude towards whatever aesthetic values. We have noted how such penetration would denote a gradual debasement of all original values and titular orders that had once defined the self-containment of the aristocratic milieu.
Now, it is of some historical importance to further note at this point that such “process of degradation” cannot at all be attributed to the role of the so-called commoners of French society. It would not be they, in other words, that would contribute to the debasement and degradation of the aristocratic milieu. On the other hand, their historical role in the events of 1789 and the long-term implications of such events are well known. What has perhaps not been much discussed is the precise – and all too contradictory – attitude of the French commoners in general towards the aristocratic milieu itself. We shall now have to very briefly focus on this particular question.
High society vis-à-vis the commoners
We need not dwell on the precise role of the commoners in the decline and fall of the aristocratic milieu – excellent sources around this issue are Jules Michelet’s populist historiographical perspective as expressed in his History of the French Revolution; or the Camusean critique of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, both of which are seen as expressive of totalitarian terror in his The Rebel; or the Sartrean perspective in Saint Genet contrasting the productive role of commoners to the “parasitism” of the aristocracy; or the more clearly sociological approach adopted by someone like Anthony Giddens, in his attempt to analyze the role of the popular masses in the establishment of post-traditional societies (such as those beyond the aristocratic milieu). Keeping such sources in mind, one need nonetheless note a social phenomenon that has been more or less quite downplayed by analysts. This social phenomenon may succinctly be put as follows: it may be said that long after the French Revolution, certain sections of the popular masses of French society – those placed well outside or in some external proximity to the social circles and institutions of the elite groupings – would, quite paradoxically, continue to look up to and admire the aristocratic milieu, and especially as regards its specific mode of life. That, at least, is the impression Proust gives us in his The Complete Short Stories.
Certain particular categories of the popular masses – but especially those whose social position was such as to ultimately deny them some form of entry into the aristocratic salons – would harbor what Proust calls “famished imaginations” concerning the life of those in high society. Unlike the pseudo-aristocratic snobs who – as discussed above – would apparently deny high society, there would be outsiders who would desire to partake in the activities of the salons as would “savage beasts”. This is how Proust describes this phenomenon in his short stories, at least as regards French females: “Only women who are not yet part of high society or have lost their social standing refer to it [viz. high society] by name with the ardor of unsatisfied or abandoned mistresses. Thus, certain young women who are just beginning to ascend and certain old women who are now sliding back enjoy talking about the social standing that others have or, even better, do not have. In fact, while those women derive more pleasure from talking about the standing that others do not have, their talking about the standing that others do have nourishes them more effectively, providing their famished imaginations with more substantial fare. I have known people to thrill, more with delight than envy, at the very thought of a duchess’s family connections. In the provinces, it seems, there are female shopkeepers whose brains, like narrow cages, confine desires for social standing that are as ferocious as savage beasts. The mailman brings them La Gaulois. The society page is devoured in the twinkling of an eye. The fidgety provincial women are sated. And for an hour their eyes glow with peace of mind, their pupils dilating with enjoyment and admiration” (p. 45).
The exact magnitude of the prevalence of such “famished imaginations” with respect to the lifestyle of the aristocratic salons and/or the apparently ferocious “desires for social standing” amongst the French popular masses at a time well after the French Revolution are issues that remain underresearched. We do not know the extent to which such possible sentiments would apply to females as opposed to males; or the extent to which such sentiments would be shared by particular age-groups; or the extent to which these types of sentiments would vary in accordance with one’s discrete socio-economic position, and so on. Although one would expect at least certain research findings on such issues in an area that is of course already heavily overresearched – viz. the history of France and the French Revolution itself – the results are all of rather negligible value. This is quite explainable, given the widespread academic hostility towards an erstwhile milieu that no longer expresses the democratic values of the modern or postmodern Western world. And yet, these are open historical questions that remain to be answered – and it may be said that the Proustian literary enterprise does provide us with some clues guiding such possible lines of research. Ironically, it should be added, it is only websites such as Nobility Titles (established in 1977) that are at all appreciative of the values of the aristocratic milieu and its noblesse oblige, wherein aristocratic privilege is said to have been counterbalanced by social responsibility – this particular international website, by the way, simply wishes to sell so-called “nobility titles” to present-day “minorities”.
The fall of the aristocratic milieu
The Proustian understanding of the fall of the aristocratic milieu may be said to be highly sophisticated – its complexity, however, is constructed in such manner that it is capable of serving a very particular intention. What is Proust’s latent intention throughout his literary enterprise? He wishes to provide us with a type of explanation that would at the same time allow him to speak of the possible (or even recurrent) resurrection of what may be called a moral aristocracy – a resurrection, that is, of a moral ideal based on aristocratic values. Proust’s explanation of the fall, therefore, is such as to explore the issue beyond whatever factors emanating from a particular socio-historical conjuncture.
We shall attempt to present this thread of Proustian thinking as succinctly as possible – rather schematically, we shall argue that the thread is spun around the following basic concepts:
- The fall of the aristocratic milieu is a symptom – even a necessary moment – within the fallen world of time present.
- The fallen world of time present carries with it the flaws of the human condition (time present can only but be a fallen world, and a fallen world can only but be a flawed world – and the flaws of the human condition themselves sustain the fallen world).
- The flaws of the human condition are manifested in an overriding human weakness, that being the force of habit. Such force is a universal law.
- Habit takes the form of vanity and/or snobbery.
- The fallen world of time present – as a universal law itself – is demonstrative of the tragic recognition of the limits of life per se.
- Within the tragic limits of life per se – its inescapable time present – Western society needs to salvage the aesthetic values of the aristocratic milieu.
- Within such tragic limits, further, a select few need to yearn for the utopian realm of aristocratic self-realization, and thereby resurrect a moral aristocracy. Alternatively, one may say that only a select few can come to attain the values of a moral aristocracy or the aristocratic ideal – in their struggle to avoid a decadent or nihilistic pessimism, they would have to operate intellectually in a utopian realm of being.
Now, to begin with, and as regards Proust’s concern with the question of flaws and their implications, Thiher informs us as follows: “Whatever be the mode of writing Proust uses in them [viz. the texts in Pleasures and Days] – narrative, poem, portrait, essay, pastiche – most of them portray the flaws of individuals and of society that destroy the possibility of an aristocratic mode of being …”
With respect to Proust’s understanding of the phenomenon of human habit and its relation to a fallen world or to the Fall (in the specifically Christian sense, but which explains as much the fall of the aristocratic milieu itself), Thiher writes: “Habit is another overriding Proustian theme: indeed it is another law. Samuel Beckett wrote … that in Proust’s work the force of habit is the ballast that chains a dog to its vomit … Habits must be extirpated if one is to find salvation, though doubts about that possibility are certainly allowed. Proust’s pessimism in “Violante or High Society” [a text in Pleasures and Days] overlaps Christian belief, not only in the portrayal of the Fall but also in the story’s view of human weakness …”
The law of habit contravenes the aristocratic ideal as a mode of being. In another Pleasures and Days text entitled “The Stranger”, Proust places the pleasures of the noble mode of being in counterposition to the vulgarities of habit. We are told that the main character in this narrative, Dominique, “sensed he had just sacrificed a noble happiness at the command of an imperious and vulgar habit …” (p. 130).
The universal law of habit manifests itself in the form of vanity (or snobbery). This is a perennial Proustian theme running across all of his writings, whether early or mature. Vanity, as a habit reflective of the human law of the Fall, limits human freedom – viz. the freedom to realize the aristocratic ideal. Thiher explains as follows: “for him [Proust], now and later, vanity is habit, and habit is a universal law limiting freedom in the fallen world of time present. Few characters in Proust have the strength of character to overcome habit, though it might be argued that this is what the narrator does at the end of In Search of Lost Time. It appears that he may free himself from the ballast”.
Human flaws, the force of habit, the phenomena of vanity or snobbery – all these are the offshoots of human nature, and of the universal laws that determine such nature. The aristocratic milieu and its mode of being are not above any of these laws (though there are those “superior creatures” with the strength of character to perhaps extirpate or somehow overcome habit). Since the milieu as a whole is not above such laws, its demise is not merely the product of a particular historical conjuncture – the ultimate decadence brought about by the vanity and snobbery within its aristocratic circles is a form of decadence symptomatic of the human condition itself. For the Proustian worldview, snobs are a timeless phenomenon, and which is a timelessness of all time present. Wishing to explain that the particular historical context (the rise of the bourgeoisie and its own values) is not enough to explain the self-destructive phenomenon of pseudo-aristocratic snobbery in the late 19th century, Thiher writes as follows: “The historical context is diffuse, however, for the narrative perspective in these texts [in The Complete Short Stories] usually suggests a kind of timeless allegory in which snobs are perpetually victims of their own delusions …”
The timelessness of snobbery, it is suggested, is rooted in all of time present – and so also are all delusions. Thiher thus notes that “the dominant theme in Pleasures and Days … is that of the ongoing delusions born of the present moment”. And it is at least in this sense, Thiher points out, that the Proustian worldview would concur with Mallarmé’s position regarding “the impossibility of the transformation of existence”.
A deluded existence, which is the ineluctable human condition in whatever historical conjuncture, is inescapable as it is rooted in the present moment (or time present) – such moment harbours what Proust sees as “an incurable imperfection”. Referring to the text entitled “Critique of Hope in the Light of Love” in Pleasures and Days, Thiher writes as follows: “… the text asserts that … we fail to suspect that the very essence of the present moment is that its harbors within it an incurable imperfection. This is why we rationalize circumstances to account for our misery and do not relinquish our never-disabused confidence in some dream … which will always eventually turn out to be a disappointed dream. Nonetheless we make constant appeal to a dreamed-of future, which also serves to condemn our present moment. The present is forever tawdry in comparison to what the future once promised, precisely for having become the present”. In confirmation of Thiher’s interpretation of the Proustian position with respect to the “incurable imperfection” of all time present, we may here also quote Proust himself in Pleasures and Days, who writes: “… we are like the alchemist who attributes each of his failures to some accidental and always different cause; far from suspecting an incurable imperfection in the very essence of the present, we blame any number of things for poisoning our happiness: the malignity of the particular circumstances, the burden of the envied situation … [etc.]” (p. 143).
Nothing at all can escape the inherent tragedy (the “incurable imperfection”) of a civilization’s time present – absolutely nothing bar one dimension of time, that being its past, and the best which such past happens to secrete within itself. And the implication is that the past can escape the “incurable imperfection” of time present by preserving the erstwhile aristocratic ideal for Western civilization. By so doing, it would also allow the future itself to escape that “incurable imperfection” of time present.
Such a perspective, we shall attempt to show in some detail below, is clearly articulated in various texts of the Proustian literary enterprise – it is this, we shall be arguing, that constitutes Proust’s most valuable realization. But there are also signs of this worldview (as a first realization) in Proust’s early writings, as is evident in Pleasures and Days. Thiher, by way of an example, writes as follows: “The prose poems usually turn on the realization that the present moment is irrevocably a moment of decline and that only the past and the future can escape deception”. Making use of the Tolstoyan worldview, the early Proust then attempts to abort such allegedly irrevocable decline by salvaging the aristocratic quality of the personalities he writes about, especially those that die. Thiher continues: “Young Proust drew upon Tolstoy’s narration [viz. his portrayals of death] as a way of preserving the aristocratic nature of his heroes even in death”. It would therefore be the preservation of an aristocratic ideal emanating from the past that would both check the “incurable imperfection” of the Proustian present moment and at the same time redeem the future.
It is the limits of the human condition that demand of modern Western civilization to salvage – in whichever time present of its history – the aesthetic values of the aristocratic milieu. This need be seen as a utopian project, for it ignores the hard material realities of socio-historical conjunctures. And yet, it may be argued that even the various schools of historical materialism – with Sartre’s own existential Marxism included – would certainly contain elements of utopian hope in their own revolutionary worldview. Fully aware of the demise of aristocratic values in his time, and of the Western world’s resolution to “assassinate” the aesthetic accomplishments of the past (as we shall see), the early Proust would slip into yet another form of utopianism – viz. the need to achieve some form of aristocratic self-realization amongst the select few, and do so despite a tragic recognition of life’s inherent limits. With respect to Proust’s own tragic experiences, Thiher writes of this form of utopianism as follows: “[I]t is certain that his friend’s death and his own illness had also brought him up against limits: these limits are strongly illuminated by the contrast between, on the one hand, a yearning for a utopian realm of aristocratic self-realization and, on the other hand, the tragic recognition that death limits every attempt at transcendence in life”.
Proust can see that delusion and fatality define all of human relations, whatever the historical era – and it is in that very particular sense that one may argue that the Proustian worldview is in fact less utopian than that of all the Marxian schools. But he nonetheless needs to salvage the aristocratic ideal because he wishes to steer clear of whatever nihilism and whatever form of decadent pessimism – in this respect, it would be the philosophical approach of someone like Nietzsche and that of the moralist classics that would safeguard him from such futile pitfalls. In his general appraisal of Pleasures and Days, Thiher makes the following observations: “In general, then, these prose poems depict the loss and deception characterizing all human desire … However, others [viz. other texts therein] are ironic and wittily flippant, which suggests that Proust, like Nietzsche confronting Schopenhauer, knew the value of ironic comedy and sardonic wit in overcoming the temptation of nihilism. Like Nietzsche, Proust was seconded in his resistance to decadent pessimism by his masters in irony, the moralist classics …”
Resurrecting the aristocratic ideal
We have attempted to show that there is a prevailing strand in the Proustian worldview that would wish to see a certain resurrection of the moral and aesthetic values of what was once the aristocratic milieu – and, further, that such resurrection would need to be instituted at the level of Western society in general, or at least at the level of certain individuals within such society. We shall need to further dwell on this notion of resurrection, and do so if only because it can take a variety of subtly different forms in the thinking of Proust.
There are texts in The Complete Short Stories that hint at the notion of resurrection at the level of society, and how such cultural resurrection may occur even within a time present for which one feels a certain antipathy. Consider a world, for instance, in which all sense of style and all sense of taste are lost. What has not been lost, however, is imagination – but this is an imagination that has the capacity to do two things at the same time: on the one hand, it can harbour contempt for the aesthetic values of the present world, albeit a secret one; on the other hand, this disparagement would only be transitory, and, being so, would be able to release a cultural rejuvenation from within the dust originating from time past. It would be precisely such dust – in the sense of the civilizational accomplishments of time past – that would deliver the dream of a new, culturally flourishing milieu. Such thinking (and especially the absolutely vital role of imagination in the notion of cultural resurrection) is evident in a text of Pleasures and Days – this is how Proust puts it: “A collection of bad love songs, tattered from overuse, has to touch us like a cemetery or a village. So what if the houses have no style, if the graves are vanishing under tasteless ornaments and inscriptions? Before an imagination sympathetic and respectful enough to conceal momentarily its aesthetic disdain, that dust may release a flock of souls, their beaks holding the still verdant dream …” (p. 127).
At the level of the individual – or, more accurately, at the level of the select few – the young Proust envisages the functioning of elite groupings whose cultural and intellectual undertakings would be far removed from the dull vulgarities of the many-too-many. In his Pleasures and Days, Proust sees himself as a member of such circles – in fact, he considers such mode of being as his personal life-plan. Thiher notes: “Proust dedicated the book [Pleasures and Days] to a deceased friend, Willie Heath … He goes on to say that he and his friend entertained ‘the dream, almost the plan of living more and more with each other, in a circle of select and magnanimous women and men, sufficiently distant from stupidity, vice and evil so as to feel that we were secure against their vulgar arrows’ …” Thiher thus concludes that “Proust’s ideal world delimits itself by excluding the vulgar and the stupid”.
To the extent that society at large would fail to resurrect the aristocratic ideal (or at least certain salient aesthetic values of such ideal), there would nonetheless still be those “select and magnanimous people” who would resurrect autonomous social circles within French society that would be superior to the cultural vulgarities of time present. This envisaged resurrection of the aristocratic ideal at the level of the individual – or individuals – is fully consistent with the Proustian distinction between the “social self” and the “deep self”. While the former is, in the last instance, a contingent category, the latter is not at all so. The “deep self” can be autonomous of and superior to the social circumstances determining one’s “social self”. On this matter, Thiher informs us as follows: “… in a review of a book … for Le Figaro in 1907, he [Proust] uses critical categories … to wit, the distinction of the social self (le moi social) and the deep self (le moi profond)”. Since le moi profond is not contingent upon the exigencies of society – or upon the particular socio-economic conjuncture characterizing such society – it possesses the superior will to resurrect for itself a mode of being based on the aristocratic ideal.
But the point that needs to be emphasized here is that, whether at the level of society or at the level of the individual, the Proustian project (or dream) is, as Thiher writes, “to found a moral aristocracy”.
The notion of a moral aristocracy in the specific sense of a social ideal is clearly evident in our discussion of “The Fan” above. There are a number of important points made in that text which at this point require some further elaboration. Firstly, we have seen that Proust presents the aristocratic milieu as an ideal mode of life given that its society is a small, harmonious universe, and is so in contradistinction to all other forms of social organization. But secondly, and which is of major significance, such ideal is no historical chimera at all – it had in fact once been realized in the history of the Western world. And thus thirdly, Proust openly expresses the urgent need for a utopian resurrection of such ideal that had once already materialized within French society (elsewhere, Proust will present the resurrection of this social ideal as a necessary precondition for the salvaging of Western civilization as a whole, at least as regards its cultural and aesthetic values). Thiher’s understanding of this Proustian wish is especially useful for our purposes – this is how he interprets Proust’s presentation of the 19th century fan: “Metaphorically, then, Proust’s prose text presents itself as a painted fan, offering through description an iconic representation while also taking the form of homage directly addressed to the deceased Madame de Saussine … Not unlike what one finds in some of Mallarme’s occasional verse, Proust first describes in glowing terms the social ideal that was once realized in this woman’s salon. In lines that echo the wish for utopia evoked in the dedication of Pleasures and Days, Proust says that on the fan she will see … a more harmonious universe than found in the world outside”.
Proust, of course – and as already argued – certainly recognizes the split between time past and time present, it being a split ensuing from the inevitable Fall of the human condition in all of time present. Thiher presents this dimension of the Proustian worldview as follows: “Proust then undermines the description of the [social] ideal by going on to describe other scenes on the fan with a more ‘realistic pessimism’ … With this portrayal Proust anticipates the salon life of the Guermantes [cf. The Guermantes Way, the third volume of In Search of Lost Time] and its radical fall from the ideal the young narrator dreams. This split between a possible ideal world once realized in the past and the real, present world sets out the configuration that leads Proust to the structure of In Search of Lost Time.” Proust, Thiher tells us, would suffer great anguish over this split.
It was Proust’s “realistic pessimism” that would torment him. But we have noted that this pessimism was not a decadent pessimism, and the personal anguish was not ever nihilistic. And thus the Proustian project would make a positive attempt to discover a bridge that would reconcile time present with time past, thereby overcoming the split. This would be seen as a necessary precondition for the survival of French and/or Western civilization – thus, one may say that were such bridge not to be discovered, it would have to be invented. What was that bridge? We shall allow Thiher’s own interpretation of Proust to answer such vital question – this is what he writes: “Proust’s forays into high society, written for Le Figaro and other journals, show that, despite his revels in pessimism, he never stopped being fascinated by the idea of a utopia, as sketched out in the dedication of some of the poems of Pleasures and Days. In his journalism … he projects at times onto his aristocrats a brilliant light to show that they represent an ongoing historical continuity of the best that society once had to offer, always something like a resurrected utopia, as if only the past harbored the conditions of possibility for the ideal”.
The central points of this quotation deserve reiteration:
- Despite the split, aristocratic values yet still constituted an “ongoing historical continuity”.
- That which continued was in fact “the best” that Western civilization could have offered thus far.
- Thus, that which was “the best” had to be continually resurrected.
- Although such resurrection was apparently a utopian project, it nonetheless rested on real “conditions of possibility” emanating from the history of Western civilization.
But the Proustian notion of resurrection requires further clarification. Resurrection is here not meant in the sense of simply repeating the practices of one’s cultural inheritance, or of mechanically reproducing – ad infinitum – an aristocratic cultural milieu in a static and/or commemorative manner. By the way, it would be of much interest to note at this point that the Proustian notion of cultural or aesthetic resurrection may be compared and contrasted to the philosophical thinking of someone like Michael Oakeshott, who would himself argue for a continuity in cultural inheritance, though in a manner that would above all allow people to fully savour their everyday life in the modern world. As in Proust, further, Oakeshott would argue that it is the cultural and aesthetic practices of the individual that should take precedence over politics per se and the workings of the State – it would not be for nothing that Oakeshott would be attacked as the “Proust of Political Science” (cf. Luke O’Sullivan, “Michael Oakeshott and the Left”, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 75, no. 3, July 2014, pp. 471-492).
What, then, did Proust mean when he yearned for a “resurrected utopia”? Thiher’s study selects an important extract of Proustian thinking (retrieved from the writer’s journalistic writings) that clarifies the manner in which a resurrection is envisaged. We shall here present Thiher’s own introduction to this extract, followed by the longish quotation itself – we read as follows: “… in depicting how grandly the present Count d’Haussonville inhabits the château of Coppet that belonged to his great grandmother, the celebrated Madame de Staël, Proust describes a scene, again reminiscent of Rabelais’s Thélème Abbey, in which the then-contemporary aristocrats indulge in idle play: ‘It is divine to arrive at Coppet … to come into this rather chilly eighteenth-century residence, both historic and lively, inhabited by descendants who possess both ‘style’ and ‘life’ … It [the château] is a church that is already an historic monument, but in which mass is still celebrated. Mme de Staël’s room is occupied by the Duchesse de Chartres, Mme Récamier’s by the Comtesse de Béarn, Mme de Luxembourg’s by Mme de Talleyrand, the Duchesse de Broglie’s by the Princess de Broglie. They chat, they sing, they laugh, they go out for motor car excursions, they have supper, they read, they do things their own way and without the affectation of imitating the behavior of those of a bygone era, they live. And in this unconscious continuation of life among the things to which they are accustomed, the perfume of the past is emitted more acutely and strongly than in those ‘reconstructions’ of ‘old Paris’ where in an archaic setting the ‘characters of the period’ have been set out and costumed. The past and the present rub shoulders. In Mme de Staël’s library we find M. d’Haussonville’s books of choice’ …”
This extract makes a number of extremely interesting points, all of which allow us to form some idea of how Proust understood the question of resurrection (or of conjoining the aristocratic ideal of the 18th century with at least that of the late-19th century and/or early-20th century):
- The aristocratic ideal (“the best that society once had to offer”) affirms its historical continuity by the sheer fact that the mode of life it expresses somehow continues to be manifested in time present – there is yet still, in other words, evidence of grandness in the present.
- Such mode of life may be defined as grand for two basic reasons: a) it is characterized by a style that emanates from a grand past; and b) it is brimming with life per se, and which may take the form of idle play.
- Since such mode of life subsumes the historic element within the life of time present, it resurrects the aristocratic ideal by adapting it to the present.
- The resurrection is therefore a continuation of the aristocratic ideal, but without any attempt at imitating the behaviour of those aristocrats that had lived in the past – and it is thus also free of whatever pretentions.
- Given that the resurrection is a continuation free of imitation and pretention, it is an unconscious continuation – and it is this unconsciousness that enables “the perfume of the past” to be transmitted into time present in a manner that is both robust and resilient.
- This type of resurrection of the aristocratic ideal is therefore completely unlike the artificial or superficial “reconstructions” of “old Paris”.
Thiher goes on to argue that “There is a ‘divine’ quality to this life [as described in the Proustian extract] deriving from the way in which the past is resurrected in the present as a utopian idyll”. And so he surmises that “Proust could not resist his urges to resurrect paradise lost”. While there is perhaps much truth in such reckoning, one should also add that Proust’s urges were not simply the pronouncements of an absurd impulse. One of his intentions was to contrast the aristocratic mode of life to the style of life expressive of the elites of his own time present – his presentation of the utopian idyll is therefore meant as a critique of such elites, at least as regards their own aesthetic values. It may therefore be argued that the utopian idyll is meant to redeem aristocracy as a mode of being in a world wherein aesthetic values were being downgraded.
It would be overly simplistic, we are suggesting, to wish to reduce the Proustian project (or aspects of it) to the wishful thinking of naïve impulses – such project, in fact, can point to certain very specific material implications for all of time present in the Western world. Proust wishes to see a resurrection of the aristocratic ideal as embodied in specific dimensions of (modern) Western life in their all too material manifestations – and he wishes to see such resurrection despite the Fall of the human condition in its perennial time present.
Which are those dimensions of Western life wherein the aristocratic ideal and its aesthetic values should be either sustained (when these still survive) or resurrected? The dimensions, all of which can sometimes be interrelated, are the following:
- A resurrection related to our appreciation of particular things in the world.
- A resurrection related to our appreciation of the arts.
- A resurrection related to our appreciation of religious buildings, especially cathedrals.
- A resurrection related to our appreciation of aspects of Western tradition.
For Proust, this would yield a unitary Western civilization, and which would itself need to be continually resurrected. We shall examine each of these dimensions in some detail in what follows – our intention, of course, is to compare the Proustian appreciation of such specific dimensions of Western civilization with that of the Sartrean worldview.
The Proustian versus the Sartrean worldview – some introductory remarks
Comparing the Proustian worldview with that of the Sartrean with respect to the world of objects, or that of the arts, or of church buildings, and so on, is not always a straightforward undertaking. We know that Sartre’s philosophical and political writings usually expressed a relatively cohesive doctrine that could be said to have ultimately culminated into what has often been termed existential Marxism. Despite the complex and even contradictory development of Sartrean thought over time, one may clearly pinpoint Sartre’s position on, say, the world of objects. And one may fairly easily trace such Sartrean position on objects to a more generalized critique of Western capitalist production and consumption of commodities – such critique would come to constitute a prevalent milieu (primarily of radical left origins) within the bourgeois milieu, and which would admittedly define the political and cultural history of the 20th century (and which would even spill over into the 21st century).
The case of Proust is not that straightforward, rendering whatever comparison with Sartre rather tricky. Proust’s journalistic and literary projects were of course not meant to propagate a cohesive political doctrine – his personal (let alone political) evaluations of, say, the world of objects, can at times remain unclear. And this is especially so given the well-known Proustian style of ironic comedy, often employed in dealing with the question of things such as objects d’art. But it is our intention here to find the distinctly aristocratic appreciation of objects, works of art and church buildings as embedded in the writings of Proust – and it would be such appreciation that would characterize an aristocratic sensibility and mode of being constituting a discrete milieu to be contrasted with the Sartrean case. In an attempt to find such data within the Proustian enterprise, one can get lost – but the scraps are there: Adam Gopnik’s brief article already cited above helps one to identify “what we find when we get lost in Proust”. What we do find are essential rudiments of the Western aristocratic milieu, a milieu by now lost to the Western world.
One may state that since both the Proustian and the Sartrean social paradigms are children of the self-questioning West (as opposed to the static East), one may find a certain room for their comparison. Alternatively, one may say that since they are the offspring of a single Western history, their different appreciations of the world of objects, arts and churches are explainable in terms of that history. It would be the West’s continual production of new cultural motifs, new milieus and new ideologies that would explain the differences between the aristocratic and the bourgeois (but also anti-bourgeois) modes of life and thinking, and their respective appreciation or non-appreciation of the things around them.
Before undertaking a fairly detailed comparison of such respective appreciation of things on the part of these two contrasting social paradigms, it would be useful to briefly recapitulate on their basic differences of perspective as embedded in the work of Proust and Sartre. This would enable us to identify the basic ideological core of these two paradigms that may help us explain their radically different appreciations.
- In terms of the Proustian worldview, the aristocratic milieu is a mode of living that recognizes the inherent flaws of the human condition and, in so doing, can accept the vices of its members so long as these are hidden from outsiders. Aristocratic morality is therefore such as to suffuse its subjects with a tranquil conscience – and it is precisely this tranquil conscience that functions as a prism through which the objects of the world, the objects of art and architecture are to be appreciated. Such appreciation is seen as part of an ongoing historical continuity of an aesthetic paradigm that constitutes the best that human society could ever have offered to Western civilization – and the resurrection of such a perspective is the resurrection of a utopian mode of being (but with real conditions of possibility) informed by a particular appreciation of objects, art, and architecture.
- In terms of the Sartrean worldview, the bourgeois milieu is a mode of living (or a mode of production) that is absurd – it is a Western world peopled by indecent and inauthentic bourgeois masses that wish to consider themselves proper citizens. Within such dystopian milieu, whatever authenticity and honesty is to be found only amongst its social outcasts who utterly reject the whole of the bourgeois milieu – and they therefore resent all of its by-products, be these the world of objects, its arts and its architecture. Such resentment, further, would also encompass all of the cultural by-products of Western civilization as a whole (it being a civilization marked by oppressive and exclusivist class hierarchies) – for the outcasts, whatever cultural and aesthetic remnants of the aristocratic milieu deserve to be destroyed as well. It is this nihilistic resentment on the part of the outcasts that constitutes the prism through which objects, art and religious buildings are viewed. They harbour a deep contempt for them as they do for all private property, it being the definition of all “pure privilege”.
- Such an interpretation of the Proustian and Sartrean worldviews, as here presented, allows us to attempt a more or less direct comparison of their explicit or implicit positions on certain specific dimensions of contemporary Western life and of the Western civilization in general. We have seen that the Proustian aristocratic ideal is that of the small, harmonious universe characterized by a tranquil conscience appreciative of certain aesthetic values and cultural practices in a closed society. This would stand in stark contradistinction to the Sartrean ideal regarding all of the oppressed and exploited, and especially all of those that have come to constitute the social outcasts. As victims of bad faith, theirs is a consciousness of “ressentiment” targeting all elites and all that these have been able to establish in the Western world and beyond. The Proustian and Sartrean worldviews therefore stand in stark contradistinction as regards a string of closely interrelated issues – they espouse absolutely incompatible positions with respect to moral values, perceptions of social equality, perceptions of property, perceptions of things per se, and perceptions of aesthetic values. It is our intention to investigate the implications of such incompatibility in what follows – we shall, in fact, be describing two radically incompatible worlds within the very history of the Western world.
The question of time, history, and memory
The manner in which one appreciates particular objects, particular artistic and architectural creations, the various artifacts of tradition, and whatever else is related to all suchlike manifestations, presupposes a certain interpretation of time past, present and future. Concomitantly, it also presupposes a certain perception of history, as also a certain evaluation of the role of memory. There is definitely an unbridgeable chasm between the Sartrean and Proustian worldviews as regards the question of time, history and memory – and it is precisely this chasm that explains their radically different appreciation of objects, artistic creations and buildings. It is therefore necessary to explore this chasm prior to a presentation of their disparate appreciation of things in the Western world.
For Sartre, whatever memory of the past is useless – such a position is crystal clear in his Nausea. In his introduction to this novel, Wood counterposes the position of someone like Robert Brasillach on the question of memory to that of Sartre. Writing in 1931, Brasillach would state the following with respect to the French land and its relation to memory: “the land we are part of is above all this well-worn landscape, these well-seasoned words, the supreme ease we feel in rediscovering a street corner, the corner of a sentence, the corner of a memory” (p. xv). Wood goes on to explain that “These sentences appear in a chapter entitled ‘La Terre et les Morts’ (‘The Soil and the Dead’), taken from Maurice Barrès’s novel of that name” (ibid.). Barrès, as we know, had been president of the League of Patriots following the First World War and was a major French thinker that had articulated a political philosophy centered on a form of ethnic nationalism. Both for Brasillach and Barrès, France would be seen as a land “of ancient custom and inherited principle” (ibid.).
Now, before contrasting this type of position regarding the French past to that of the Sartrean worldview, we need to point out that concepts such as “the corner of a memory”, or even “ancient custom” and “inherited principle” may be said to be deeply embedded in certain dimensions of the Proustian aristocratic ideal as presented above. In fact, there was a certain affinity of thought between Proust and Barrès, who were contemporaries attending the same Parisian salons (although there were also important differences between them, especially regarding Barrès’s understanding of French nationalism). Roughly speaking, both revered the best of France’s time past, both articulated a worldview in remembrance of things past.
In direct contrast to both Proust and especially Barrès, Sartre does not recognize whatever value in historical memory. His Roquentin in Nausea is a historically “unanchored” personality – being so, he sees no value whatsoever in a memory of the past and therefore in all things of both time past and time present. Wood explains this as follows in comparing Roquentin’s worldview with that of the “conservatives” (such as Barrès): “For in Roquentin’s unanchored world, there can be no such thing as ‘well-seasoned words’, or the pleasure of an old street corner. In Roquentin’s world there are only Things without names, and the terrifying, endless rediscovery of the entirely arbitrary. No street corner has any justification over another one. Custom dissolves into nothingness” (ibid.).
For Sartre, the Proustian pleasures of memory – recollecting “well-seasoned” words and places and the best that the past has to offer – are nothing more than symptoms of the bad faith of the bourgeoisie. Memory and custom are utterly negated – as Wood points out, the Sartrean worldview reduces these to a useless nothingness.
This absolute denial of the value of memory in Sartre needs to be explored a bit further, allowing us to ferret out the wider implications of such a perspective. In Nausea, we are informed that “existence” – a term which, as we have already noted above, is also politically charged – “has no memory; it retains nothing of what has disappeared; not even a recollection” (p. 190). Such a radically nihilistic position may be compared to that of Camus, who believed that the present could be informed by a certain residual meaning carried over to us from all time past. Wood puts this as follows: “Life was a religious sentence for Camus; he never quite relinquished the idea that meaning has left a residue of itself in the world” (p. xix). Sartre rejects all residue, and therefore all memory, and hence all of historical memory. His perspective is also at odds with the Nietzschean understanding of the relationship between past, present and future, it being an understanding that would be more or less espoused by the Proustian worldview itself. In his Saint Genet, Sartre writes that Nietzsche views “the present as the infinitesimal instant in which the reminiscence of the past merges with the premonitory message of the future” (p. 347). Considering this to be a notion linked organically to the Nietzschean doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, Sartre is of the opinion that the implicatory concepts of such doctrine are supported by “puerile and abstract arguments” amounting to what he calls a “ballet of argumentation” bar whatever verification (p. 348). Sartre, of course, may be justified in adopting such a position as regards the idea of Eternal Recurrence as a whole – on the other hand, it is his radical nihilism that would not allow him to accept whatever definition of the present involving a “reminiscence of the past”, and which would have a bearing on the future.
Sartre’s Roquentin does not believe in his own past – and he thus also does not believe in the past of others. He therefore does not wish to salvage whatever time past. “How on earth can I”, he asks, “who haven’t had the strength to retain my own past, hope to save the past of somebody else? (p. 139).
“[M]y past”, Roquentin says elsewhere, “is nothing but a huge hole” (p. 95). And it is so huge a hole that it cannot be “filled up”. Time itself, he explains, “is too large, it refuses to let itself be filled up. Everything you plunge into it goes soft and slack” (p. 36). In direct contrast to such a Sartrean understanding of the past and time per se, the Proustian project would insist on filling up time past with a preservation and nurturing of the best that Western culture has had to offer. The best of that huge hole – the aristocratic ideal as encapsulated in its aesthetic achievements – would need to be continually resurrected. Memory and its recurrent appreciation of things past would do that filling up of time, or of time as lived in the Western world.
For the Proustian worldview, it is both personal and historical memory that can salvage the past, and do so in the interests of both the present (always in its “incurable imperfection”) and of the future – it is memory above all that guarantees the Proustian “ongoing historical continuity”. Sartre’s Roquentin, in contrast, sees history itself as pointless and therefore as absolutely unnecessary. Wood explains that Roquentin would choose not to waste his time writing whatever constitutes history per se: “Not a history book, because that is about what has existed, and existence is pointless, is not necessary” (p. xviii). Towards the end of Nausea, Roquentin considers the idea of writing a book – “But”, he thinks to himself, “not a history book: history talks about what has existed – an existent can never justify the existence of another existent” (p. 252).
“[A]ll the past history of the world”, Roquentin asserts throughout the novel, “is of no use to you” (p. 103). But it is not only that history is useless – even if it were of some use, it would still have to be avoided. Roquentin explains why this is so as follows: “Must not think too much about the value of History. You run the risk of getting disgusted with it” (pp. 104-105).
Sartre rejects the past and the memory of its history as he rejects time present. In so doing, he also rejects the future (as we shall see further below, however, the Sartrean rejection of the future is, in the last instance, a future emanating from the present bourgeois milieu). As Roquentin is disgusted by history, so also is he disgusted by the future – and he feels such disgust since both are naked in their nothingness. He muses: “This is time, naked time, it comes slowly into existence [as the future], it keeps you waiting, and when it comes you are disgusted because you realize that it’s been there already for a long time” (p. 50). Since the future has always been there, in the present, the future is the same as the present – Sartre’s Roquentin is therefore incapable of telling the difference between the two. Both present and future are ultimately pointless. This is how Roquentin expresses such thoughts: “I can see the future. It is there, stationed in the street, hardly any paler than the present. Why does it have to be fulfilled? What advantage will that give it? … I can no longer distinguish the present from the future …” (ibid.).
What is the basic ideological core underlying this Sartrean worldview? From a political perspective at least, it may be argued that that which disgusts Sartre about the future is that it has been hijacked by the past, or has been hijacked by a repetition of such past – this hijacking, of course, is precisely what the Proustian worldview identifies as the need for the recurrent resurrection of the past as expressed in the aristocratic ideal. While the Proustian project wishes to remember certain aspects of custom so as to inform both the present and the future, the Sartrean position wishes to obliterate all memory of custom so as to free the future from its erstwhile hijacker. It is in this sense that Sartre wishes to undertake a radical critique of all forms of conservatism (including that of the Proustian paradigm), and their hearkening back to whatever things past. Alfred Betschart points to this notion of the past hijacking the future in typically Sartrean jargon – he writes as follows: “Because of its inertia – the fact that the practico-inert persists for a long time even when it conflicts with the current situation – the practico-inert tends to alienate. For Sartre, practico-inert morality [viz. that which creates the prevailing norms] stands for the hijacking of the future in favor of the repetition of the past” (cf. “Sartre’s Ethics of the 1960’s”, Jean-Paul Sartre – The Website, 14.09.2022).
In what way may the past not hijack the future (or in what way may both present and future escape the past)? Sartre here posits his own Sartrean ideal – and this ideal is of course the case of Jean Genet, the authentic Saint (or the Saint of all Saints, these being the social outcasts). Genet is free of the past – and in that way is authentic as a person – because he has cancelled all of Western history and all of the history of Western values and traditions. As Sartre writes in his Saint Genet, this man “lives outside history, in parenthesis” (p. 5). While Nausea’s Roquentin pined for a life that would not be hijacked by whatever historical past, Genet had the ability to actually live his life outside all of history – he would be able to place a great parenthesis over all that Western civilization had ever achieved, and he would be able to live that parenthesis as an outsider within his own free moral zone. As the corporeal embodiment of the ahistorical parenthesis, this great outcast would deny all historical memory of the past, and thereby implicitly deny the Proustian ideal for a unified culture of the Western world pivoted on a remembrance of the best that Western civilization has had to offer, it being the aristocratic ideal.
Being an authentic person, Genet had no choice but to live on the basis of such an ahistorical parenthesis – the only possible alternative choice that remained for him would be his physical self-destruction. In a passage very much reminiscent of Nausea in its treatment of the question of time, Sartre writes as follows in Saint Genet: “Indeed, what is the point of living? Time is only a tedious illusion, everything is already there, his [Genet’s] future is only an eternal present and, since his death is at the end of it – his death, his sole release – since he is already dead, … it’s better to get it over with right away” (p. 20). It is the feeling of a crippling shame that pervades all of existence in time present – Sartre continues as follows: “To vanish, to slip between their fingers [viz. those of the adult world], to flow out of the present and down the drain, to be swallowed up by nothingness. Who of us has not, at least once in his life, been struck, seized, crippled with shame and has not wanted to die on the spot?” (ibid.). But Genet, who ultimately does choose to go “down the drain” – in the sense of denying all of the values and customs of time present and time past – survives to live the life of the outcast Saint. Sartre tells us that “Genet remains alive, solid, bulky, scandalous, before the indignant eyes of adults” (ibid.).
Genet is a child of nothingness – of the nothingness of time and history. And, rejecting both time, history and whatever civilizational fruits of such history, he chooses to reemerge as a free and authentic person out of that nothingness, and that only. It is only such nothingness that he wishes to recognize. As Sartre writes in Saint Genet, “Since he [Genet] has been cast into nothingness, it is from nothingness alone that he wishes to derive” (p. 81). By deriving from nothingness, he is willfully outside all of Western conventional history. But by being outside that history, he creates his own history – and this is the history of the outcast. Such history, however, is sacred (and it is for this reason that Genet is a Saint). Sartre tells us that “Genet has no profane history. He has only a sacred history …” (p. 5).
Now, in absolute contrast to someone like Genet – and all of the social outcasts – the proper citizens of any bourgeois town would be proud of certain things in time present precisely because such things come from the past. Speaking of the dwellers of Mudtown in Nausea, Sartre’s Roquentin can see that their feelings about their town are not at all those of his own – he observes as follows: “I have come down into the cour des Hypothèques to smoke a pipe. A square paved with pink bricks. The people of Bouville are proud of it because it dates from the eighteenth century” (p. 45). We have already discussed how Sartre would reject both the town of Bouville and all of its proper citizens as bourgeois “Bastards”. And yet, their pride, which hearkens back to the eighteenth century, suggests a radically different manner as to how they lived time past (and all of history) within their time present. Their manner would be more or less reflective of the Proustian worldview and its own espousal of a certain historicism – and which may be sharply contrasted to the ahistorical parenthesis as expressed in the person of Saint Genet and the world of social outcasts. With respect to Proust’s specific understanding of historicism, Thiher makes the following highly insightful observations: “Proust develops this historicism with his own nuances. He greatly values the fact, for example, that past works of art bring about the resurrection of the past, not only referentially through their themes and situations but also in their very material substance. Time lost is restored, for example, by the historically marked syntax and semantics of the language in a play by Racine or by the aging stones set in two medieval columns on the piazetta next to St. Mark’s Basilica … From Proust’s perspective the Venetian columns intercalate concrete moments of the twelfth century into the present; whereas Racine’s syntax restores the materials of speech existing at the time of Louis XIV”.
Thiher’s observations on what he identifies as a very specific formulation of Proustian historicism are central to our understanding of how Proust would view questions relating to time, history and memory – they also allow us to gauge the deep chasm that divides this perspective from that of the Sartrean need for an ahistorical parenthesis and the overcoming of a past that hijacks the present. We may reiterate the basic Proustian positions as follows:
- The restoration of time lost is vital to the Proustian project – it is, by the way, what we might call the central philosophical concept that permeates all of Proust’s mature work as manifested in his In Search of Lost Time (and as Thiher himself points out).
- The resurrection of things (such as works of art, architecture and suchlike) from time past within time present is not simply an activation of their function as referents – things are not to be understood as dead objects that merely point back to an as dead past.
- Rather, resurrection is said to come about when the material substance of things inserts concrete moments of the past into time present.
- Time is certainly being lost in the process of history, but – for Proust – such time may be restored (alternatively, as in the Sartrean worldview, it may simply be cancelled).
According to Thiher, the Proustian understanding of historicism was based on a deep appreciation of the work of John Ruskin, the English polymath of the Victorian era. Thiher explains this as follows: “… it is accurate to say, as does Bisson and a host of later critics, that Proust’s encounter with Ruskin was fundamental for his development of the concept of memory as embodied in material objects, especially in art and architecture. It could be argued, in fact, that Proust’s sense of history is largely derived from Ruskin’s historical work, seconded by his reading of Émile Mâle’s studies of gothic iconography”. Mâle, as we know, was a major medievalist of French Gothic art and architecture – his studies, which appeared in the late-19th/early-20th centuries, would explore “the Gothic image”, and which would also have a profound influence on Proustian historicism (to be further discussed in some detail below).
Our brief examination of the contrasting positions of the Sartrean and Proustian paradigms on the question of time, history and memory may now allow us to consider how each of these worldviews would approach the world of things, of the arts, of the architecture of churches, and of Western culture and tradition as a whole. Deeply embedded in such contrasting considerations would also be a radically different appreciation of the aristocratic milieu and its aesthetic values.
Of things in the world
In Nausea, Sartre’s Roquentin speaks of the “unsubstantiality of things” (p. 112) – nothing of all that surrounds him looks real. He feels “surrounded by cardboard scenery which could suddenly be removed” (p. 113).
For Sartre, this “unsubstantiality of things” means, inter alia, that words no longer refer to their referents (and cf. Wood’s introduction to Nausea, p. x). Sitting on a seat that is a seat in name only, Roquentin reflects as follows: “Things have broken free from their names. They are there, grotesque, stubborn, gigantic, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or say anything at all about them: I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names. Alone, wordless, defenceless, they surround me, under me, behind me, above me” (p. 180).
Such an interpretation of the world of things may here be compared with that of the Proustian worldview, and may be done so as regards the specific issues of substantiality and referential functionality. As we have seen in our presentation of the Proustian version of historicism, Proust would argue that things are not mere referents, although they are that as well. Further, and again in direct contrast to the Sartrean position, these referents carry material substances, and they cannot therefore be seen as “unsubstantial”. And it is this particular substantiality of things that allows them to insert concrete moments of the past into the present. The possibility of such insertion endows things with a major functionality in the historical process – viz. things operate as the connectors of time, or they connect time past with time present. It is things, therefore, that may resurrect elements of a past milieu within a present milieu.
The Proustian worldview is such as to allow for an affirmative continuity within Western history and civilization – and it is in this sense that it is opposed to all forms of nihilism and decadent pessimism. Within such context of affirmative continuity, the Western individual does not stand alone and defenceless in the face of things (as happens in terms of the Sartrean perspective). Much more importantly for the Proustian approach, it is this affirmative continuity that allows one to pick and choose the best that time past has to offer so as to inform and enrich the present – this means that one does not willfully dwell on the grotesqueness of all things (as does Sartre’s Roquentin), but rather on a selection of those things that are of aesthetic value. While Sartre finds it ridiculous to have to say anything at all about things, Proust wishes to recall and resurrect the cultural aroma of certain things past. And so whereas Proust wishes to salvage those things that reincarnate within their materiality the best of the concrete moments of the past, Sartre would wish to cancel all things by placing an ahistorical parenthesis on all Western milieus that have created the grotesqueness of such things.
Given their grotesque superfluity, Sartre argues, things are merely oppressive. Wood writes as follows: “Things – a pebble, a beer glass, a tree, his own hand – oppress Roquentin with their heavy contingency, and their awful superfluity” (p. x). As in the case of history, and as also in the case of the future, Sartre’s Roquentin is as much disgusted by things themselves – this is what he tells us: “There was something which I saw and which disgusted me, but I no longer know whether I was looking at the sea or at the pebble. It was a flat pebble, completely dry on one side, wet and muddy on the other. I held it by the edges, with my fingers wide apart to avoid getting them dirty” (p. 10). Being oppressive and disgusting, things are simply bad – it is such state of affairs in the world that plunge Sartre’s Roquentin into a state of nausea. “Things are bad!”, he tells us, “Things are very bad: I’ve got it, that filthy thing, the Nausea” (p. 32). It is the sheer contact with things that causes nausea – Roquentin explains: “Now I see; I remember better what I felt the other day on the sea-shore when I was holding that pebble. It was a sort of sweet disgust. How unpleasant it was! And it came from the pebble, I’m sure of that, it passed from the pebble into my hands. Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly it: a sort of nausea in the hands” (p. 22).
While the terms used in Sartre’s Nausea to describe Roquentin’s relationship with things are hardly abstract or not at all subtly complex – words such as grotesque, disgusting, filthy or nauseating are all certainly brutal in their rawness – one cannot deny that they are nonetheless expressive of an intricate philosophical worldview that would mature in his 1943 Being and Nothingness. And one may therefore suppose that the Sartrean worldview on things is meant to explain the superfluity and contingency of all of human existence as such, yielding thereby a purely existentialist project free of whatever political connotations. There is a certain truth in such a reading of the Sartrean project – that, however, is definitely not the whole of the truth. In fact, an overly neutral reading of Sartre would constitute a complete misunderstanding of his intentions, which are openly political. Things disgust Sartre’s Roquentin because they behave like the bourgeoisie. The things that oppress Roquentin are things of a milieu, that being the bourgeois milieu. And much more than that, they are things that belong to all oppressive milieus across historical time – they are, in other words, the oppressive things of Western civilization as a whole.
The fact that Sartre’s Roquentin is disgusted by things because of their bourgeois demeanour is explained by Wood as follows: “He [Roquentin] looks again at the trees, and decides that they did not want to exist but are unable to kill themselves. So they go on, like good little bourgeois, performing ‘all their little functions, quietly, unenthusiastically’ …” (p. xi). The feeling of nausea is induced by the “good little bourgeois” milieu that permeates all that surrounds someone like Roquentin.
But, we are suggesting, it is not only things of the specifically bourgeois milieu that disgust Roquentin – he is disgusted by things relating to all the oppressive milieus in Western history. And he is disgusted by Western history and the things it has produced for a very basic reason: Western civilization has reduced all things to private property. This moral indictment (and which is of course reflective of all Marxian paradigms) pervades the entire Sartrean project – in Nausea, it is expressed in passages such as the following: “A soft glow; people are in their houses, they have probably turned on their lights … They read, they look out of the window at the sky. For them [very much unlike Roquentin], … it’s different. They have grown older in another way. They live in the midst of legacies and presents, and each piece of furniture is a souvenir. Clocks, medallions, portraits, shells, paper-weights, screens, shawls. They have cupboards full of bottles, material, old clothes, newspapers; they have kept everything. The past is a property-owners luxury” (p. 97). The Western masses, in other words, live their lives surrounded by things that point back to the past – that past, however, is composed of a chain of things that are linked to each other as private property. People cling on to such private property, and by so clinging, they are alienated and unfree. With respect to his own relationship with things and the question of freedom, Roquentin muses: “Where should I keep mine? You can’t put your past in your pocket; you have to have a house in which to store it. I possess nothing but my body; a man on his own, with nothing but his body, can’t stop memories; they pass through him. I shouldn’t complain: all I have ever wanted was to be free” (ibid.). Thus, when people do harbour memories of the past, such memories are based exclusively on a private ownership of things, and it is precisely such type of ownership that has always deprived – and still deprives – the Western masses of their authenticity and freedom.
The Sartrean approach to things, and the closely related question of private property, is perhaps most eloquently handled in Saint Genet. Put in a nutshell, this is how Sartre views things vis-à-vis all the outcasts of the Western world – he writes: “Rejected by things, the outcast rejects them in turn …” (p. 258).
By rejecting things, the outcast redefines himself with respect to all other proper bourgeois citizens in the Western world – he redefines himself, in other words, with respect to “the just” of that world and, in so doing, he declares his own free zone of justice. Sartre writes: “Since the others, the just, define themselves by their operation, since they are called masons, carpenters, architects, why should he [Genet as an outcast] not be defined by his? The truth of the constructor is the constructed object: Genet aspires to find his truth in the object he destroys; he thinks he is transformed into a proprietor by the negation of all property … [But] society reorganizes itself elsewhere with its prohibitions and its utensils” (p. 262). It is again crystal clear here that the Sartrean ideal is the negation of all private property – and by negating private property, Sartre rejects the meaningfulness of all objects as these operate in the Western world both past and present.
The rejection of all things as private property yields the revelation that there is nothing behind all things – in Nausea, Roquentin observes: “Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them … there is nothing” (p. 140). There is therefore no past, no history and no memory in things – the Proustian material substantiality of things carrying moments of time past into the present is thereby entirely lost to the Western individual. All things are simply empty of the past and of their history, and thus empty of all past moral and aesthetic values. It is this revelation that allows Roquentin to free himself of a time present that has been hijacked by the past and the things of the past – the revelation entitles him to see nothing in time present but its own self. Time present and the things that exist therein, therefore, are also placed within an ahistorical parenthesis. Roquentin expresses this self-salvaging ahistorical parenthesis as follows: “I looked anxiously around me: the present, nothing but the present. Light and solid pieces of furniture, encrusted in their present, a table, a bed, a wardrobe with a mirror – and me. The true nature of the present revealed itself: it was that which exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist. Not at all. Neither in things nor even in my thoughts. True, I had realized a long time before that my past had escaped me. But until then I had believed that it had simply gone out of my range … Now I knew” (pp. 139-140).
This particular revelation of the true nature of time present and the things that exist therein is a revelation that may be said to announce a major politico-ideological paradigm – by placing the present and its things within an ahistorical parenthesis, it announces the dissolution of all Western custom and/or tradition into nothingness (and as has already been discussed above). Of course, it is only the “unanchored” outcasts – themselves living such ahistorical parenthesis – that can share in such revelation, and can thus be considered the carriers of social salvation (this being a central element of the Sartrean politico-ideological paradigm).
It is quite obvious that such a willfully ahistorical (or even anti-historical) understanding of things stands in stark contradistinction to the Proustian worldview. We may now examine the Proustian approach to the world of things in slightly greater detail. Consider the manner in which both Sartre and Proust see things as encrusted within something – while for the former things are encrusted within a frozen, ahistorical present, for the latter things are encrusted within “the spirit” of a particular historical era that is part and parcel of the history of the Western world (cf. “The Fan”, pp. 51-52). Proust sees particular museum exhibits as objects that continue to carry within their own materiality the aesthetic values of a past milieu, and do so despite the indifference of his own contemporaries. In “Lost Waxes”, a text included in Pleasures and Days, Proust addresses Cydalise – symbolic of a society woman that he admired – as follows: “I would have wanted to see you hold some goblet or rather one of those ewers …, ewers that, empty in our museums today, raise their drained cups with a useless grace” (p. 43). While now deposited in museums and no longer of any use, these objects nonetheless continue to embody the aesthetic pleasures of time past – he continues: “and yet once, like you, they constituted the fresh sensual pleasures of Venetian banquets, whose final violets and final roses seem to be still floating in the limpid current of the foamy and cloudy glass” (ibid.). We need notice that, for Proust, the “fresh sensual pleasures” of time past, as encrusted in certain objects, may be seen to be “still floating” in time present.
Proust would of course be critical of the manner in which his contemporaries would relate to the objects of the past – ewers, he tells us, are “empty in our museums today” and their inherent grace is now “useless”. But he would also be as critical of the manner in which the remnants of the Parisian aristocracy would themselves relate to the objects of the past – their view of things could only but have been expressive of the demise of their milieu. Yet still, his critical observations with respect to objects of time past (we have already noted his ironic comedy and sardonic wit in texts such as those of Pleasures and Days) nonetheless allow us to probe into his own understanding of the meaningfulness of things past. We may here consider the following quotes from a collection of texts entitled “Regrets, Reveries the Color of Time” in Pleasures and Days. Proust presents us with a dialogue between an orderly and his retiree officer – the dialogue goes as follows: “… ‘Captain’, said his orderly several days after the preparation of the cottage, where the retired officer was to live until his death (which his heart condition would not keep waiting for long). ‘Captain, now that you can no longer make love or fight, perhaps some books might distract you a little. What should I buy for you?’ …” The retiree officer responds to his orderly in a manner that is highly revealing of the Proustian understanding of things past and their relationship to the memory of time past – this is what he says: “… Buy me nothing; no books; they can’t tell me anything as interesting as the things I’ve done. And since I don’t have much time left, I don’t want anything to distract me from my memories. Hand me the key to my large chest; its contents are what I’ll be reading every day’ …” (p. 117). The meaningfulness of things past lies in the memories they embody for time present – it is these that should be read.
All of the objects (or relics) stored in the officer’s chest function as referents – they refer to the officer’s past life, and in so doing they actually depict his life as a continuum of time past and time present. These objects are certainly the luxury of a property-owner (as Sartre would point out), but they are a personal luxury in the very specific sense that their material substance salvages the concrete moments of the officer’s life as a whole – and the salvaging of the concreteness of such moments is also a salvaging of the person’s past sentiments and emotions. Proust shall tell us that the relics stored within that chest act as referents to “the least minutiae” of the officer’s life, and thereby compose an “immense fresco” of the life of that person (or that of any individual who appreciates the objects stored within his own private chest). This is how Proust puts it: “Among all those things [in the chest] there were the slight but clear-cut traces of sensuality or affection tied to the least minutiae of the circumstances of his [the officer’s] life, and it was like an immense fresco that, without narrating his life, depicted it, but only in its most passionate hues and in a very hazy and yet very particular manner, with a great and touching power” (ibid.).
The officer’s choice to read the contents of his own chest – and read nothing else but these contents – is a choice based on a will to appreciate things as referents to time past. By making such a choice, the officer places these things within a historical perspective – he is therefore in possession of that “perspective depth” that Proust would find lacking in his contemporary French females (as discussed above in examining the spirit of an era and its ultimate demise). By appreciating things within their historical perspective, the officer wishes to cure the “incurable imperfection” of his own time present (and which for him is anyway very limited in time). The cure is the regaining of past charms through memory – it is the activation of the function of an affirmative memory that is effected as things are disclosed in their deep perspective depths. Proust shall argue that things of time present can reassume their meaningfulness so long as we maintain the “deep perspectives” of our own “soul” – he expresses this in Pleasures and Days as follows: “No sooner does an approaching hour become the present for us than it sheds all its charms, only to regain them, it is true, on the roads of memory, when we have left that hour far behind us, and so long as our soul is vast enough to disclose deep perspectives” (p. 142).
The reacquisition of the meaningfulness of things by disclosing them in their historical perspective could salvage an individual who is retiring from life, as in the case of the retiree officer. Perhaps much more importantly, however, such disclosure of objects in history can salvage a whole civilization. Proust would see Western civilization as a continuum of objects created by the multifarious modes of being that have sprouted within the history of that civilization. We have already referred to Proust’s deep appreciation of the work of John Ruskin, as had been identified by literary scholars such as L.A. Bisson, and especially with respect to the concept of memory as embodied in material objects. In a 1944 essay on Proust’s intellectual development, Bisson would further emphasize both Ruskin’s influence on Proustian thinking, as also the central role of objects in the maturing Proustian worldview. “Where”, asks Bisson, “does Ruskin come into this maturing vision?” His response is as follows: “In Proust’s admiration for Ruskin in general two elements are worth isolating here. The first is the warmth of his response to Ruskin’s theme of the survival of men, unknown or long-forgotten, in the houses or churches they built, in the work of the craftsman’s hand and tools; and blended, often identified with this, in his ardent insistence that Ruskin’s truest memorial is in the objects he loved and praised” (cf. Thiher).
We may now wrap up this presentation of the Sartrean and Proustian positions on the objects of the world by roughly summarizing their respective approaches as follows: Sartre sees the meaningless contingency of things (and therefore of people themselves, bar the outcasts) in all of Western civilization; Proust sees a meaningful array of certain customs and traditions as immersed in objects (and therefore in people) of the whole of Western civilization. This radical divergence in their respective appreciation of things shall also mean as radical a divergence in their appreciation of objects d’art, and therefore in their appreciation of the arts in general. It is to this issue that we shall now turn.
Of the arts
Sartre’s Nausea has much to tell us about Mudtown’s (or Bouville’s) museum and the paintings exhibited therein. Roquentin, who as we know visits the museum, refuses to indulge in any noteworthy or impartial aesthetic appreciation of all that is exhibited – it is not the aesthetic value (or absence of such value) that interests him. What truly concerns him is the social content of the portraits hanging on the walls. As noted in discussing the bourgeois elites above, Roquentin informs us that the Mudtown museum’s portraits – meticulously painted by Renaudas and Bordurin – depicted all who had ever belonged to the Bouville elite since the late-19th century. That had been the singular intention of the two artists, and that was the very purpose of the museum itself – viz. to depict elite power, and nothing more. To the extent that Roquentin does indulge in whatever aesthetic appreciation of these portraits, this appreciation is deeply prejudiced by his sheer revulsion for all the bourgeois elites (which, as noted above, he refers to as “the Bastards”). All of the portraits exhibited are a representation of the supposedly eternal historical attainments of the town’s elite – the paintings are therefore mere carriers of a politico-ideological paradigm legitimating elite power. And all these alleged works of art are a condensation of the “mauvaise foi” or “bad faith” of the bourgeoisie (Wood, xiii).
But Sartre’s Roquentin goes even further: he not only dismisses the need, on his part, for whatever independent aesthetic appreciation of these portraits, he also rejects the ability of all museum visitors to indulge in any such appreciation. Bad faith is not only evident in the paintings themselves – it is also evident in the very eyes of the bourgeois beholder. Wood comments on Sartre’s presentation of the museum and its visitors as follows: “The scene in the gallery is perhaps the only weak one in the book. It is too long, too heavy-handed, and somewhat cruel. Roquentin looks at the portrait of Rémy Parrottin, by Renaudas. And then a bourgeois couple enters the gallery, impressed by precisely what revolts Roquentin. The man exclaims: ‘Parrottin of the Académie des Sciences … by Renaudas of the Institut. That’s History!’ We are supposed to laugh at this man’s mindless veneration, his respect for musty institutions. This man is clearly a walking dictionary of idées reçues. Yet instead, we feel the fat hand of didacticism; we feel Sartre urging us to agree with Sartre. There is something a little propagandistic about the scene (as Sartre’s later novels would become increasingly didactic)” (ibid.).
Wood’s critique of the Sartrean presentation of the museum scene certainly sounds rather harsh. But it is, we believe, quite justified. To further verify this, it would be useful to present here the relevant Nausea passage in full: the Sartrean revulsion of both the paintings and the museum visitors shall become perfectly apparent. The passage reads as follows: “A lady and gentleman had come in. They were dressed in black and were trying to make themselves inconspicuous. They stopped, dumbfounded, on the threshold, and the gentleman automatically took off his hat … ‘Ah! Well I never!’ said the lady, deeply moved … The gentleman regained his composure more quickly. He said in a respectful tone of voice [as he viewed the portraits]: … ‘It’s a whole era!’ … ‘Yes,’ said the lady, ‘it’s my grandmother’s era.’ … They took a few steps and met Jean Parrottin’s gaze. The lady stood there gaping, but the gentleman wasn’t proud: he had a humble appearance, he must have been very familiar with intimidating gazes and brief interviews. He tugged gently at his wife’s arm: … ‘Look at this one,’ he said. … Rémy Parrottin’s smile had always put humble folk at their ease. The woman went forward and painstakingly read out: … ‘Portrait of Rémy Parrottin, born at Bouville in 1849. Professor at the École de Médecine, by Renaudas.’ … ‘Parrottin of the Académie des Sciences,’ said her husband, ‘by Renaudas of the Institut. That’s History!’ … The lady nodded her head, then looked at the Master. … ‘How handsome he is,’ she said, ‘how intelligent he looks!’ … The husband made a sweeping gesture … ‘These are the people who made Bouville what it is,’ he said simply” (p. 132).
It is all too obvious here that the museum’s visitors are by definition bourgeois, and the portraits they behold are bourgeois paintings. These bourgeois visitors can see nothing in these paintings but bourgeois history. And all that they can appreciate in these works of art is their symbolic representation of outdated bourgeois institutions. In this particular case at least, Sartre’s position on Western art is lucid: such art simply reproduces the stereotypical values of the bourgeoisie. Further, Sartre sees a total absence of aesthetic sense in both the creators of such art and in the beholders of it.
Yet still, one may say that Sartre does in fact venture on a certain type of evaluation of these museum paintings. His evaluation focuses on what he calls “the power of art” – art, in other words, has the capacity to distort reality in a manner that enables it to glorify elite power. And it is precisely this that the Mudtown museum portraits attempt to do: they wish to immortalize people who were in fact mere “midgets”. Roquentin comments on the portrait of Olivier Blévigne, the now dead Bouville deputy, as follows: “The power of art is truly admirable. Of this shrill-voiced little man, nothing would go down to posterity except a threatening face, a superb gesture, and the bloodshot eyes of a bull. The student terrorized by the Commune, the bad-tempered midget of a deputy: that was what death had taken. But, thanks to Bordurin, the President of the Club de l’Ordre, the orator of Moral Forces, was immortal” (p. 136).
Having examined the Sartrean evaluation of paintings in Nausea, we may now present Sartre’s – as disdainful – evaluation of Mudtown’s statues. His approach is yet again focused on an ideologically-based rejection of bourgeois art. We may here consider what Roquentin has to say about a bronze statue of Gustave Impétraz, a school inspector and writer, and which is said to be positioned in a square of Mudtown. This is what he says: “I look Impétraz full in the face. He has no eyes, scarcely any nose, a beard eaten away by that strange leprosy which sometimes descends, like an epidemic, on all the statues in a particular district. He bows; his waistcoat has a big bright-green stain over his heart. He looks sickly and evil. He isn’t alive, true, but he isn’t inanimate either. A vague power emanates from him, like a wind pushing me away” (p. 47).
There are some basic points made in this passage that may help us understand the essentials of the Sartrean worldview with regard to the statutes of the Western world – these include the following:
- Here, it is not only the particular statute of Impétraz that Sartre wishes to denounce as typically bourgeois – what Roquentin has to tell us about the statue located in Mudtown can also apply to “all the statues” found in the various districts of France.
- The Mudtown statue depicts a “sickly” man – and he is so because he is an inauthentic person carrying all of the sickness of time past.
- Because he carries such sickness, and because he wishes to hijack the present with his leprosy, he is also an “evil” person.
- Emanating from such sickness and evil is above all an assertive sense of power – it is this power that insists on hijacking the present.
- The sense of power embedded in the statue is deeply alienating (“like a wind pushing me away”), at least for people like Roquentin and all the social outcasts.
These points are confirmed, further explained and expanded on when Roquentin proceeds to talk about the viewers of the Impétraz statue, and the manner in which they react to it. This is what he says: “These ladies in black, taking their dogs for a walk, glide beneath the arcade, hugging the walls. They rarely come right out into the daylight but they cast furtive, satisfied, girlish glances at the statue of Gustave Impétraz. They can’t know the name of that bronze giant, but they can see from his frock coat and top hat that he was somebody in high society. He holds his hat in his left hand and rests his right hand on a pile of folio volumes: it is rather as if their grandfather were there on that pedestal, cast in bronze. They don’t need to look at him for long to understand that he thought as they do, exactly as they do, on all subjects. At the service of their narrow, firm little ideas he has placed his authority and the immense erudition drawn from the folio volumes crushed under his heavy hand. The ladies in black feel relieved, they can attend peacefully to their household tasks, take their dogs out: they no longer have the responsibility of defending the sacred ideas, the worthy concepts which they derive from their fathers; a man of bronze has made himself their guardian” (p. 46).
For Sartre, the function of this statue is to remind the proper citizens of Mudtown of their “guardian” – this is the “guardian” of “their narrow, firm little ideas” and of “the sacred ideas” of the past. The statue represents a “guardian” of past bourgeois values that have hijacked the present, and thereby obstructs any progressive vision of the future.
What is the Sartrean position with respect to classical music? In Nausea at least, Sartre wishes to argue that the art music of the Western world is to be scoffed at – its basic function is to create illusions of self-consolation. Rejecting classical music, Sartre’s Roquentin would rather listen to a popular song sung by a Black woman in a café: it is such type of music that escapes superfluity. As we shall further see below, this is the music of the social outcasts. Wood writes as follows about Roquentin’s musical tastes: “He scoffs, in his bourgeois-bating way, at the idea that music ‘consoles’. Those idiots who go to hear Chopin or Wagner and emerge ‘refreshed’! But he begins to think about this melody sung by a Black woman … The tune is untouchable, in a sense. There is a scratch in the café’s record, but the tune plays on, unaware of the scratch. This is because the melody exists beyond its record player, beyond the instruments that play it. ‘It is beyond, it does not exist, since it has nothing superfluous: it is all the rest which is superfluous in relation to it. It is.’ The melody stays the same” (p. xvii).
Sartre’s Roquentin expresses a total and utter derision for all of the Western fine arts, and for all Western culture as practiced in concert halls. Those who participate in such cultural practices are rejected as “idiots”. Roquentin expresses such sentiments as follows: “To think that there are idiots who derive consolation from the fine arts. Like my Aunt Bigeois: ‘Chopin’s Preludes were such a help to me when your poor uncle died.’ And the concert halls are full to overflowing with humiliated, injured people who close their eyes and try to turn their pale faces into receiving aerials. They imagine that the sounds they receive flow into them, sweet and nourishing, and that their sufferings become music, like those of [Goethe’s] young Werther; they think that beauty is compassionate towards them. The mugs.” (p. 246).
The Sartrean position on the arts of the Western world comes down to a total, ideologically-based rejection of all of its high culture – it is therefore a denouncement of Western high art in its various manifestations. In its place, Sartre would opt for a certain, oppositional popular culture. Thus, as Flynn notes in his philosophical biography, “Sartre has long valued the ‘democratization’ of art” (p. 256). But Sartre’s notion of “democratization” has always had a very specific meaning: of course, it would naturally argue for an art that is anti-elite and anti-bourgeois. It goes much further than that, however: the Sartrean position would also argue for an art that is anti-bourgeois citizen or that stands in opposition to the norms and values of the normal (or proper) bourgeois masses, and it would therefore be an art that would be distinctly hostile towards all Europeans (we shall be investigating such a radical position further below). The Sartrean position would thus be deeply critical, not only of high art itself, but also as much critical of the everyday popular culture of what Marcuse would, by 1964, dub the “one-dimensional [Western] man”. To put it simply, when Sartre values the “democratization” of art, he merely expresses his exclusive support for the popular art of the social outcasts of the Western world, and none other.
The Sartrean position on art may now be juxtaposed to that of the Proustian. The latter is above all based on an exclusively aesthetic appreciation of the world of Western art. It thus expresses a celebration of all of the high art of Western civilization (though Proust does have his own particular aesthetic preferences). More than that, however, the Proustian position can also express a deep respect for Western popular culture itself – and it does so even when the artistic products of such culture are “bad”. This, as we shall see, would be expressive of the “charity of good taste” towards bad taste. The Proustian position, further, would harbour a deep respect for such popular culture given its social functionality – viz. its necessary role in effecting a certain “consolation” for the human condition.
With respect to Proust’s appreciation of Western high culture in particular, we may here simply refer to an extract in Pleasures and Days included in a section entitled “Portraits of Painters and Composers”. Proust pens a special prose poem addressed to the Flemish Baroque artist, Anthony van Dyck. Part of this prose poem reads as follows: “Anthony van Dyck/ Gentle pride of hearts, noble grace of things/ That shine in the eyes, velvets and woods,/ Lovely elevated language of bearing and poses/ (The hereditary pride of women and kings!),/ You triumph, van Dyck, you prince of calm gestures,/ In all the lovely creatures soon to die,/ In every lovely hand that still can open;/ Suspecting nothing (what does it matter?),/ That hand gives you the palm fronds!/ … Royal children, already grave and magnificent,/ Resigned in their garments, brave in their plumed hats,/ … Standing, but relaxed, in this shadowy haven,/ Duke of Richmond, oh, young sage – or charming madman? –/ I keep returning to you; a sapphire at your neck/ Has fires as sweet as your tranquil gaze” (p. 84).
Proust’s appreciation of the work of Western canonical artists such as Anthony van Dyck is based on his concomitant admiration of the values and aesthetics of all things aristocratic. Thus, the recurrent symbolic language of this prose poem includes themes such as the following (and all of which are directly related to the aristocratic worldview):
- The theme of pride (even hereditary pride) and bravery.
- The theme of the noble grace of things.
- The theme of elevated language (and thus that of high art).
- The triumph of calm gestures (and thus of high culture).
- The triumph of all such aesthetic values over both life and death – thereby suggesting that high art functions as a protective illusion in the face of the fallen human condition and the “incurable imperfection” of time present.
What of Proust’s position with respect to Western popular culture and its relatively “bad” products? One should begin by noting that – and in what seems to be highly paradoxical vis-à-vis the Sartrean position – Proust’s espousal of aristocratic aesthetics does not at all hinder him from showing a deep respect for the Western popular masses and their immersion in popular culture. We have already noted how Sartre would despise the Western bourgeois masses and their mode of life – that was the Sartrean political understanding of Marxism. In contrast, the Proustian position would be respectful of the popular masses and their cultural practices – and it would be respectful, not despite its aristocratic worldview but, rather, precisely because of such worldview. The aesthetic supremacy of the aristocratic worldview would mean that it would not feel threatened by whatever popular aesthetic values – its supremacy would give it the moral power to be both understanding of and charitable towards the values of the masses. Pleasures and Days includes a text entitled “In Praise of Bad Music” that certainly reveals a brilliant dimension of Proustian historicism – and the thrust of which may be compared to the later Marxian historicism of thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Eugene Genovese, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and others, all of whom aimed at researching the everyday cultural practices of the popular masses. While obviously from a completely different ideological standpoint, the young Proust would write as follows: “Detest bad music, but do not make light of it. Since it is played, or rather sung, far more frequently, far more passionately than good music, it has gradually and far more thoroughly absorbed human dreams and tears. That should make it venerable for you. Its place, nonexistent in the history of art, is immense in the history of the emotions of societies. Not only is the respect – I am not saying love – for bad music a form of what might be called the charity of good taste, … it is also the awareness of the important social role played by music …” (p. 126).
This truly incredible thinking on the part of Proust – coming from someone who would almost always live and thrive intellectually within the salons of Parisian high society – manages to articulate a position on the arts (but especially music) that operates on two distinct though interrelated levels:
- On the one hand, Proust presents us with a general methodological plan (as would a philosopher of history or a theoretical historiographer) aimed at dealing with the question of art and its historical development. The plan identifies two different types of history, both of which are relatively autonomous with respect to the other. There is, on the one hand, the history of art. And there is, on the other, the history of social emotions – emotions would here include popular ideology, popular taste and popular cultural practices. These two realities of history are not reducible to each other – both, however, preserve their own exclusive value in the field of historiography.
- On the other hand, Proust presents us with a general prism through which all forms of cultural practices are to be viewed, this being the prism of the aristocratic worldview. It is only this particular worldview that allows one to both value the supremacy of high art and culture for its own aesthetic taste and at the same time maintain an awareness of the reality of popular art and culture as regards their role in social history itself. Thus, the self-sufficient aesthetic supremacy of high art has the luxury to be charitable towards non-high art and culture. And it is the clear and tranquil conscience of a recurrently resurrected aristocratic morality (in the sense discussed above) that allows it to look down on popular culture with a “venerable” eye.
The “social role” of popular culture (and especially that of popular music) is, as Proust tells us, the absorption of “human dreams and tears”. It is this capacity to absorb human passions that allows popular music to fulfill its basic function – viz. that of the emotional consolation of the masses. But given the “incurable imperfection” of all time present, it is not only the masses that may be in need for such consolation – even those who refuse to listen to “bad music” can nonetheless acknowledge that its musical notes secrete the passions (miserable or joyous) of humanity. Thus, while an individual with an aristocratically “well-bred ear” may wish to refuse to listen to bad composers, the tunes of “bad music” can serve as a consolation for him as well – he too (as with the masses) may be exposed to human grief or human joy. Proust expresses this important caveat as follows: “Since the common folk, the middle class, the army, the aristocracy have the same mailmen – bearers of grief that strikes them or happiness that overwhelms – they have the same invisible messengers of love, the same beloved confessors. These are the bad composers. The same annoying jingle, to which every well-born, well-bred ear instantly refuses to listen, has received the treasure of thousands of souls and guards the secret of thousands of lives: it has been their living inspiration, their consolation …” (ibid.).
And thus, while someone with an aristocratically “well-bred ear” possesses the privilege of telling the difference between high art and popular cultural practices, he nonetheless shares the same human condition with all the rest that cannot tell any such difference, and he therefore has no choice but to respect the popular cultural practice of listening to “bad music”. He may even find himself indulging in such “bad music” – he may find himself sharing the same “confessors” with all those that never had a “well-born” ear. Proust here points to an intra-class phenomenon, and which may be contrasted to the stark dividing line drawn by Sartre between the mode of being of the so-called bourgeois masses and that of the social outcasts of bourgeois society (for Sartre, of course, it is precisely this cultural collusion between the upper and lower classes – as implied by the Proustian approach – that leads him to the need to draw his stark diving line between the outcasts and all the rest in society, all of whom happen to be compromised).
Proust’s presentation of this intra-class cultural phenomenon – while obviously maintaining a crystal clear distinction between high culture and low culture – suggests that all social strata wish to intoxicate themselves with the illusion of beauty (we have already discussed the Proustian emphasis on the various needs for mechanisms of illusion above). He tells us that songs expressive of “bad music” – or what he calls “ditties” that are “worthless in an artist’s eyes” – nonetheless do “supply the intoxicating illusion of beauty” (ibid.). And all social strata need just such intoxication because they happen to share in the incurable tragedy of simply being ephemerally alive.
For the Proustian worldview, importantly, that “intoxicating illusion of beauty” constitutes the different levels of cultural practices – from the high levels of art per se to the low levels of popular music – that have come to define the identity of Western civilization (and that, despite its internal ruptures across historical time).
Of churches and church buildings
There is yet another reality of Western civilization about which the Sartrean and Proustian worldviews may be said to hold absolutely irreconcilable positions – this concerns the cultural and aesthetic value of churches and/or cathedrals. Above, we have made mention of how the Proustian worldview would uphold the need for a resurrection of the aristocratic ideal as embodied in specific material dimensions of modern Western life – as noted, one such material dimension would be related to Western man’s aesthetic appreciation of religious buildings and especially of certain categories of cathedrals. We intend to explore this extremely important aspect of Proustian thinking in what follows. Before we do so, however, we shall need to explore Sartre’s own thinking with respect to churches in the Western world.
In his Nausea, Sartre is not much concerned with the religious or aesthetic function of churches in Western society. As would be typical of a rather vulgar Marxist approach to the question of things religious, Sartre quite surprisingly presents us with a flatly economistic understanding of a church’s raison d’être in the Western capitalist world. His Roquentin explains the establishment of a church in Mudtown in terms of just such an economistic paradigm – he tells us the following: “Bouville, thanks to the patronage of Heaven, now had a first-class economic position; wouldn’t it be fitting to build a church in which to give thanks to the Lord?” (p. 65).
This vulgar economistic interpretation as to why the Mudtown church would be built is followed by an as crude an analysis attempting to explain how the church’s particular construction site would come to be chosen. Sartre’s explanation comes down to something approximating a quasi-Marxian class analysis – Roquentin tells us that the place where the church would be constructed would express a compromise between the old and the new bourgeoisie of the town. We read as follows: “… the [Bouville] municipal council held an historic meeting and the Bishop agreed to organize a subscription [towards financing the construction]. All that remained to be done was to choose the site. The old families of business men and ship-owners were of the opinion that the building should be erected on the summit of the Coteau Vert, where they lived, ‘so that St Cécile could watch over Bouville like the Sacré-Coeur de Jésus over Paris’. The new gentlemen of the boulevard Maritime, who were few as yet but extremely rich, objected: they would give what was needed, but the church would have to be built on the place Marignan; if they were going to pay for a church, they intended to be able to use it; they were not reluctant to give a taste of their power to that haughty bourgeoisie which treated them like parvenus. The Bishop hit on a compromise: the church was built half way between the Coteau Vert and the boulevard Maritime, on the place de la Halle-aux-Morues, which was baptized place Sainte-Cécile-de-la-Mer” (pp. 65-66).
Sartre does express a certain aesthetic evaluation of the Mudtown church – the evaluation may be said to be rather curt and ungracious. This is how Roquentin puts it: “This monstrous edifice, which was completed in 1887, cost no less than fourteen million francs” (p. 66). Apart from refusing to recognize whatever aesthetic value in the Mudtown church, Sartre is here yet again primarily concerned with the economic aspect of the church’s establishment.
The Sartrean rejection of church aesthetics is of course not limited to his Nausea – and what he writes in that novel is not simply meant to be an attack on a Christian church in some obscure locality in France. His intention is to cancel the aesthetic value of all Christian churches throughout the history of Western civilization. With reference to the 4th century, Sartre would – like Georges Sorel – describe the aesthetics of Christian churches constructed at the time as mere “stupid luxury”. He quotes Sorel in his Saint Genet as follows: “Authors of works of Christian archeology inform us of the extraordinary luxury displayed in the Christian churches of the fourth century at a time when the Empire was so greatly in need of money. It was the stupid luxury of parvenus. The following are a few examples: in the baptistery of the Lateran, a porphyry piscina, the inside of which was lined with silver; a gold lamb and seven silver stagheads spurting water; two silver statues, five feet high, weighing 190 pounds” (pp. 197-198).
Sartre’s attack on the aesthetics of Christian churches as a “stupid luxury” is at the same time an attack on all the aesthetic values of the European aristocracy in general – he would always see a close historical kinship between the rise of Christian churches and the power of aristocratic establishments in the Western world (a dimension of Sartrean thinking to be further discussed below). Thus, in his Saint Genet, he writes as follows: “Aristocrats have made gold useless by applying it to the walls of churches” (p. 201). Directly relating the aristocratic order with the emergence of Christian saints, he describes their allegedly common milieu in terms of the useless religious edifices that they have created on European soil – he tells us that “the world [of aristocrats and saints], abandoned, empty, rises up like a useless cathedral”. Therein, he continues, “Man [as such] has withdrawn from it [the world] and offered it to God” (ibid.).
How is this Sartrean position on Christian churches (and their supposedly close relationship to the aristocracy in general) to be compared with the Proustian position? To begin with, we may simply note, with Thiher, that the question of religion plays a very important role in Proustian thinking. Thiher reminds us that “Religion is an important theme in Proust”.
Now, in our discussion of the Proustian appreciation of material things, we have already noted that Proust would come to see Christian churches as expressive of the survival of Western civilization – that, at least, would be his “maturing vision” as discovered in the work of Ruskin. We have also noted above that Proust’s focus on the concept of memory as embodied in material objects would yield a sense of Western history the high culture of which would revolve around “the Gothic image” (and which would include both Gothic iconography and Gothic church architecture). Specifically with respect to the significance of the Gothic cathedral in Proustian thinking, Thiher makes the following highly important observations – he writes as follows: “In Pastiches et mélanges, Proust … calls attention to the state of the Gothic cathedrals damaged or destroyed by artillery fire during the world war that has just ended. This somber title [“In Memory of the Assassinated Churches”, a section of his Pastiches et mélanges] … suggests that Proust’s belief in the lasting nature of art had been severely shaken … After the war Proust undoubtedly recognized that his prefatory texts to Ruskin’s works were rooted in a nineteenth-century worldview, by which I mean his concern with art was rooted in an era for which the destruction of cities and churches was not part of its historical experience. Before the war, Proust, with Ruskin, viewed the Gothic cathedrals, whose existence spanned centuries, as nearly everlasting monuments in which the historical past lived into the present. It was with the sense of the sublimation of history into the present that Proust had wanted the tourist to be able to use the essay “Ruskin at Notre-Dame d’Amiens” as a guide to the cathedral”.
Proust’s 1919 Pastiches et mélanges, of course, would not in any way express a diminished faith in the functionality of the Gothic cathedral in Western history – Proust would continue to appreciate “the Gothic image” as a material manifestation of the historical continuum symbolizing the best of Western civilization. It would be the Gothic cathedral, above all, that would constitute the sublimation of the past into the time present of the West. The war, however, would certainly diminish his faith in the capacity of his contemporaries to salvage the past for the present – he would voice his deep concern for a modern Western world that could so easily “assassinate” its own past cultural manifestations. To put it otherwise, post-war Proust would certainly never come to doubt the inherent value of the Gothic cathedral as a continuum of Western civilization – rather, he would see extraneous forces (such as the First World War) attempting to “assassinate” such continuum.
Proust, in fact, would insist in his struggles to protect the cathedrals of his country in the aftermath of the First World War. Thiher writes: “And later, though saying goodbye to Ruskin, he drew upon him again, as well as Mâle’s study of Gothic architecture, to make a critique of an anticlerical project to disenfranchise and nationalize the cathedrals”.
What was it in Ruskin especially that would impel Proust to keep returning to the thinking of that Victorian sage? To put it simply, Ruskin’s work would enable Proust to reconceive the relationship between the Bible, the church and church architecture in a completely different light – it would be these three interrelated phenomena that would constitute the narrative of the Judeo-Christian (and therefore Western) civilization. Thiher explains this as follows: “… the Bible is translated into the cathedral’s statues, telling the Judeo-Christian narrative. From this perspective the Bible is not an archaic text but lives in full presence in the stones and statues found in Amiens [viz. the Notre-Dame d’Amiens]. This is what Ruskin taught Proust … at a time when he did not understand that medieval sculpture contains within it the living soul of those artists who believed the Bible’s words”. And thus, through Ruskin, Proust “finds in the church a perpetually resurrected past that is not dead”.
Proust’s consistency as regards his understanding of the relationship between the Bible, the church and church architecture is clearly evident in his In Search of Lost Time. Therein, his quasi-fictional town (or, rather, village) by the name of Combray is dominated by its Gothic cathedral. Proust expresses his admiration and love for the church’s Gothic architecture, and especially so with respect to the church’s steeple, it being the most beautiful aspect of the construction. Such love and admiration shall remain ever-present in his memory – and by so remaining, the Proustian project wishes to continually resurrect the aesthetic value of “the Gothic image”. But it is not merely aesthetic admiration that motivates Proust to focus on Combray’s Gothic church: if, according to Ruskin, the Bible translates into cathedral aesthetics (thereby narrating the Judeo-Christian civilizational paradigm), Proust’s own childhood experiences in Combray are such as to effect a unity between various secular objects and religious practices, all centered around the town’s Gothic church (and it is the memory of these experiences that would constitute the manner in which Proust would live his own sojourn within the history of Western civilization). Thiher presents this unity of objects and religious practices in the Proustian memory as follows: “The description of objects in the boy’s bedroom linked with religious practices complements the image of the ever-present church at the center of the village”.
One may generally go on to draw the important conclusion that, for both Proust and Ruskin, it is the development of the Western, Christian civilization that is mirrored in the aesthetics of Gothic cathedrals in general, and especially so in the case of the cathedral of Amiens. Proust’s 1904 annotated translation of Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens had just this specific purpose in mind – viz. to bring to light the tight relationship between Western culture and the best of its church architecture. And it may therefore be said that Proust is attracted to the church for two distinct reasons: firstly, and naturally so, given the aesthetics of church buildings; but secondly, given the role of the church as a cultural institution organizing Western civilization.
Thiher makes the following extremely important observations regarding Proust and the question of the Christian church: “In these writings on Ruskin, Proust’s attitude towards Christianity is positive, however much he distrusts what he sees as Ruskin’s brand of aestheticized Protestantism … Proust was drawn to the church not only for its aesthetics but also for its role as a cultural institution. This attraction animates an early essay published under a pseudonym in Le Banquet in 1892. In it he had attacked his era’s ‘materialism’, asserting that France owed to Christianity all that it had accomplished of value, be it in the domain of action or of speculation. His examples of Christian action and speculation were, respectively, France’s exporting Christianity to its colonies and its having given birth to Descartes and Pascal”.
Proust therefore sees Christianity as the major contributor to French (and thus also to Western) civilization, and to all that such civilization had been able to achieve that has been of any truly historical value, including philosophical treasures produced by certain intellectual giants of the West. We should also notice Proust’s position as regards France’s colonies at the time – a position that would obviously be absolutely despicable to the Sartrean moral and political worldview.
The degree to which Proust appreciated the contribution of Christian aesthetics to Western culture in general becomes most apparent when he wishes to compare religious aesthetics to modern-day Western secular culture. Thiher informs us as follows: “In the essay “La mort des cathédrals” (“The Death of the Cathedrals”), he criticized the government in 1904 for failing to understand the symbolic beauty of the Catholic liturgy. Proust went so far as to say that it is a spectacle superior to Parisian theater or Wagnerian opera”. It is, surely, this acknowledgement of the superiority of certain religious cultural practices that marks the Proustian understanding of the Western mode of being, and which is a mode of being based on a continual resurrection of certain cultural values emanating from the West’s time past. The implication here would be that, were such cultural values to be cancelled (as Sartre would have them cancelled), the identity of Western civilization would itself be effaced.
And thus, in terms of the Proustian worldview, the “genius” of France – and similarly of the Western world itself – was above all secreted in the non-secular Gothic cultural paradigm. Thiher continues as follows: “He [Proust] was ironically restrained but obviously disheartened at the prospect that the Gothic cathedrals – considered by him to be the highest and most original expression of France’s genius – might be converted into casinos or lecture halls”.
In discussing the Sartrean position on Christian churches, we have noted how Sartre would combine his attack on the aesthetics of churches as a “stupid luxury” with a concomitant attack on the aesthetic values of the European aristocracy in general. In direct contrast to this Sartrean position, and based on our presentation of Proust’s appreciation of aristocratic aesthetics as discussed above (the best that human history has offered, and so on), we may now conclude that the core Proustian ideal would be consummated through the combined interaction of both aristocratic and Christian church aesthetics. It would be the combined resurrection of the aristocratic ideal together with the resurrection of “the Gothic idea” as evident in cathedrals that would yield the continual resurrection of Western civilization. In Pleasures and Days, at least, it is Proust’s Honoré who perhaps best expresses this combined interaction of the two aesthetic paradigms – Thiher informs us that Honoré is “A nominally religious aristocrat”.
Having identified the Proustian position on Christian church aesthetics and their relationship to the aristocratic ideal, we may now return to Sartre’s own politico-ideological stance with respect to all Christian churches and to all aristocratic orders as manifested in the history of the Western world. We have noted that, in terms of the Sartrean worldview, there is a very specific historical interconnection between the Christian church as a whole and the Western aristocracies in general – it would be useful for our purposes at this point to briefly investigate exactly how Sartre would understand this tight interconnection. In his Saint Genet, he writes as follows: “Christianity – which was born with the first emperors, triumphed over the Lower Empire and reigned over the feudal world – emanated from a society based on agriculture and war. The Church expressed, in its own way, the ideals of the Roman aristocracy and, later, of the feudal aristocracy. It proved its power by wasting human labour” (p. 197). Here, and which is of course typical of a Marxian philosopher (but then also as typical of any Western political economist whatever his political allegiances), it is on the wastage of labour that Sartre chooses to focus on. The question of aesthetic value is of no concern to him at all.
Sartre, further, sees a tight interconnection between the Christian church and the aristocracy in their apparent “generosity” towards the so-called lower classes of Western societies (what Proust would himself identify as the “charitable” stance of the aristocratic milieu – cf. above). This is how Sartre approaches the question of “generosity” in his Saint Genet: “The church has borrowed from the aristocracy its generosity in consumption, and part of the aristocracy starts, in turn, to imitate the Church. Paulinus, son of a former prefect of Gaul, left the world after giving his wealth to the poor; Pammachius, after the death of his second wife, gave up his fortune and became a monk, though not without first inviting all the beggars of Rome to a feast. These ostentatious acts perpetuate the secular traditions of the Roman government. For a long time, the plebs had been the passive object of the emperor’s largesse. The avowed aim of this liberality was not, as can be imagined, to lead this ‘lumpen-proletariat’ to participate in social and political life, but rather to divert it, to maintain it in its abjection. Similarly, individual acts of aristocratic generosity do not eliminate pauperism; they perpetuate it. It is the yawning chasm into which aristocrats throw their wealth, as the King of Thule threw his cup into the sea. The donor is quite aware that he will not enrich anyone; it is for that reason that he gives to beggars. He sells his land in order to ply the poor with drink, but it does not even occur to him to turn the land over to the peasants who farm it. Nor for a moment does he dream of helping small shopkeepers, of creating hospitals and free schools” (p. 198).
The apparent generosity of the aristocratic order, Sartre argues, is not only meant to maintain the ‘lumpen-proletariat’ in a state of abjection – it is thereby also meant to destroy whatever vestiges of civil society as a whole, and do so in a manner that is unproductive for all (and which relates to the wastage of labour as mentioned above). Sartre continues as follows: “The acts of prodigality [viz. the spending of large amounts of money, etc.] must not profit. One goes from the productive to the unproductive … Thus, charity is merely a pretext, and each of these acts of largesse, though it may overstimulate trade and impart to it an ephemeral appearance of health, concurs, by virtue of its consequences, … in destroying civil society” (pp. 198-199).
Summarily, in terms of the Sartrean worldview, the tight historical interconnectedness between the aristocratic order and the Christian church in the Western world would mean a wastage of labour, a wanton generosity intended to maintain domination, a destruction of civil society and of its capacity to produce wealth for itself. The combined forces of Church and aristocracy standing against the potentialities of civil society would mean that these two historical powers shared, in the last instance, a common ethic – this common ethic, Sartre tells us, was an affirmation of “the absolute right of property” (a theme which, as we have seen, is also explored in Nausea). Sartre continues as follows in his Saint Genet: “The aristocratic ethic has taken on a religious aspect; it has been covered over with Christian myths and rites, but it has not changed in substance: the consumer is God the Father; one gives, one destroys, ‘for the love of God’, not for love of the poor; the relinquishment is not to anyone’s real benefit, it is accompanied by the public destruction of abandoned possessions, and as one takes credit for getting rid of them, this merit, which is recognized by everyone, is, as a consequence, the deep and manifest affirmation of the absolute right to property. As eminent owner of the goods which he spoils, the aristocrat raises himself above them as in the past. But the fact is that, from this point of view, the elevation brings him closer to the Eternal Father: his act is confirmed by a heavenly judgment” (p. 199).
However, while this aristocratic ethic affirms the right to property – and does so through the confirmation of the Christian faith – it is nonetheless incapable of using such property in any socially productive manner. This, according to Sartre, would lead to the ultimate ruination of the aristocratic milieu in general. He writes of the ruination of both the milieu and its ethical values as follows: “At most, the merchandise becomes an idol: it is produced by workers from whom it is taken away in order to be destroyed ritually by idlers who do not enjoy it. To take an extreme situation, one can assume a secular society in its death throes: peasants working themselves to death so that aristocrats can die of hunger near burned crops. Of course, matters never reach such a point. Most of the rich will prefer to consume with enjoyment. Foreign wars will give the illusion of a constant renewal of possessions. Social movements, the infiltration of barbarians and then the appearance of a merchant class will modify the structure of the society. Finally, the aristocracy will only ruin itself; the progress of industry will transform consuming societies into producing societies” (pp. 199-200).
We may here make a number of observations with respect to this Sartrean presentation of the ruination of the aristocratic milieu and its ethical paradigm:
- The ruination of the milieu – which we have in any case discussed in some detail above – cannot only be explained in economic terms (viz. its unproductive social order). Cultural and politico-ideological factors would also play a determining role in its demise – and especially as regards the manner in which the West would come to see itself in the course of modern history. While some Western thinkers and social groupings would emphasize the unitary hypostasis of Western civilization, there would also be oppositional groupings that would wish, not only to question such hypostasis, but to actually deny the moral raison d’être of the whole of Western civilization (as would Sartre).
- Perhaps much more importantly, it may be argued that the ruination of a milieu (such as the aristocratic-cum-Christian mode of being) would not necessarily also imply the utter ruination of its aesthetic values. While a particular milieu may disappear, its aesthetic accomplishments could continue to survive within a subsequent milieu (or milieus) in some form or another.
- The aesthetic values of the aristocratic-cum-Christian paradigm would not much survive with the up-and-coming modern world and in what Sartre refers to as “producing societies” – such societies, in fact, would give birth to philosophies and social movements many of which would wish to eradicate all modes of production (and their concomitant cultural paradigms) that had come to characterize the social formations of Western civilization.
- While Proust could only but recognize the rise of the modern world (his own literary project was of course moulded in a form that heralds modernity), he would nonetheless wish to see Western tradition as a unitary continuum that would encompass the best of the aesthetic values of time past (the Church as a cultural institution and the aesthetics of the aristocratic world would be seen as part of the best elements of time past). We shall need to further dwell on this Proustian appreciation of Western cultural tradition, always keeping in mind how such an appreciation would stand in stark contradistinction to the Sartrean position.
For a unitary Western tradition
Proust, it is said, was especially concerned with the historical development of French and European culture – the Proustian worldview wishes to assert that nothing really dies in the history of such development. Thiher informs us as follows: “In the prefatory piece “John Ruskin”, Proust shows that he was drawn to Ruskin’s idea that nothing seemingly dies in history, at least in the Western tradition that concerns him”. It is the permanence of cultural accomplishments that defines a unitary Western tradition. Thiher continues that “This view significantly inflected Proust’s view of Christianity, for it meant that religion was permanently a part of the living past in French culture. He largely accepted Ruskin’s thesis that art makes the past live into the present, in this case the Christian art that encapsulates centuries of European and French cultural development”.
This unitary Western tradition would encompass, not only the aristocratic and Christian aesthetic ideal as embedded in created material objects, but would also include elements of the ancient Greek aesthetic ideal. It is such co-existence of a variety of cultural entities that would continue to define – and thereby resurrect – all of Western culture up to and including time present (or, rather, Proust’s own time present). Discussing the impact of Ruskin’s thinking on that of Proust, Thiher writes as follows: “If Proust could not accept the literal truth of resurrection – though he seems to have been tempted by it – he was apparently willing to endorse Ruskin’s neo-Christian belief that in art nothing dies. In developing these ideas, Ruskin himself sets out the thesis that two great streams of tradition, which he defined as the Greek and Gothic cultures, have constantly entertained fruitful mutual oppositions throughout European history. Ruskin finds the Greek strain running from Homer to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and then manifesting itself in Ruskin’s favorite painter, J.M.W. Turner; whereas the Gothic culture, springing from the Frankish tribes, underlies the Gothic cathedrals. Proust may have noticed that rather little in the way of the Gothic seems to be present in most modern painting. In any case he certainly noticed the role played by St. Mark’s in Ruskin’s history of Western culture. The upshot of this opposition Ruskin found perennially at work in Western culture is the affirmation that certain ‘eternal realities’ continue to exist in the present. It is the quest for these realities that Proust finds at the heart of Ruskin’s writings”.
This variety of cultural entities that have been “perennially at work” in time – or in the historical time of Europe – define Western cultural civilization. It is time that has come to forge the particular of modes of being in the West – and, of course, it is the function of time that has organized the Proustian literary quest as a whole. It is also this selfsame function that organizes Proust’s own appreciation of the unitary Western tradition. Thiher notes that “the Judeo-Christian image of the utopian garden is never far from his [Proust’s] mind when he thinks about time”.
While the cultural entities that have come to define Western civilization across time are evident in created material objects, such materiality (the material substance of, say, aging stones set in ancient or medieval columns, etc.) is not at all meant in the strict materialist sense. It goes without saying that Proust’s appreciation of Western culture is certainly not expressive of a materialist worldview. Thiher explains this by referring to the thinking of Ruskin and how that would influence Proust – he writes: “As he [Proust] sees it, Ruskin’s is a quest for a reality that is neither exclusively material nor intellectual. This is because the reality art encompasses involves both, which means that the artistic genius can perceive reality in different material forms. Hence it is a matter of indifference whether the reality is expressed in paintings, music, or poetry”.
What, generally speaking, is the Proustian “commitment” with respect to a unitary Western tradition? Thiher describes this as succinctly as possible – he tells us that Proust was committed to “maintaining a unified cultural tradition, both as a reality and an ideal. This tradition is necessary for the genesis of a living contemporary culture. The descriptive and the prescriptive overlap in his vision of what is the basis for culture: empirically he argues that the canonical tradition is in fact the basis for contemporary artistic creation; and he argues prescriptively that it is imperative that tradition be respected. In this regard he endorses Ruskin’s historicism that makes of the canonical past the source of the present”.
A case of conflicting humanisms
We have thus far attempted to explore the impassable ideological chasm that spans the Sartrean and the Proustian worldviews, and their respective understanding of the Western world. In brief, we have seen that while Proust would argue for a unitary Western culture, Sartre would argue for the negation of such alleged unity, for the negation of the Western bourgeois world, and for the total negation of its dominant culture (past and present). But what is it that underlies such radical divergence? Our purpose here is to show that that divergence is based on a radically different comprehension of the concept (and practice) of humanism – we have already argued in Paper 1 that the history of the Western world has been characterized by what we have called “an orrery of cultural paradigms”, and which has in fact been an orrery of conflictual ideologies of humanism, thereby yielding oppositional humanisms. It is within such historical context that one may interpret the radically divergent manner in which Sartre and Proust would comprehend the Western ideology of humanism. We shall be arguing below that their contrasting humanisms would revolve around different appreciations of life per se – while Proust would dwell primarily on a person’s “inner life” and his memory of time past, Sartre would emphasize a person’s being “in the world”.
Before we undertake an examination of the distinct humanisms as articulated by these two thinkers (and which would be reflective either of one’s “inner life” or of one’s being “in the world”) we shall need to make the following simple clarifications: Firstly, and as is being suggested, both Proust and Sartre would espouse a particular understanding of humanist ideology; secondly, both would be critical of certain particular understandings of humanist ideology; but thirdly, there would be no common ground between them either in their espousal or in their critique of whichever humanist worldviews.
We may commence by firstly considering Sartre’s own critique of humanism. Nausea’s Autodidact, the fictional character who lives in Mudtown and spends his time reading every book in the local library in alphabetical order, is a humanist. But his particular humanism takes the form of an intellectual pursuit. Wood’s introduction to Nausea summarizes for us how Roquentin, who interacts with the Autodidact, views both the person and his humanism – we read that “The Autodidact is ridiculous because he is a soft-hearted humanist, and because he has got all his knowledge from books” (p. ix). Speaking disparagingly of “this tender-hearted fellow”, Roquentin describes the Autodidact’s humanism as follows: “… his love of mankind is naïve and barbaric: he is very much the provincial humanist” (p. 163).
In his interaction with the Autodidact and his naïve humanism, Sartre’s Roquentin goes on to present us with a range of types of humanists that people the Western bourgeois world. This is what he has to say: “What can I do? Is it my fault if, in everything he [the Autodidact] tells me, I recognize borrowings, quotations? Is it my fault if, while he speaks, I see all the humanists I have known reappear? Alas, I’ve known so many of them! The radical humanist is a special friend of civil servants. The so-called ‘Left-wing’ humanist’s chief concern is to preserve human values; he belongs to no party because he doesn’t want to betray humanity as a whole, but his sympathies go towards the humble; it is to the humble that he devotes his fine classical culture. He is generally a widower with beautiful eyes always clouded with tears; he weeps at anniversaries. He also loves cats, dogs, all the higher animals. The Communist writer has been loving men ever since the second Five-Year-Plan; he punishes because he loves. Modest as all strong men are, he knows how to hide his feelings, but he also knows how, with a look or an inflection of his voice, to reveal, behind his stern justicial words, a glimpse of his bitter-sweet passion for his brethren. The Catholic humanist, the late-comer, the Benjamin, speaks of men with a wonder-struck air. What a beautiful fairy tale, he says, is the humblest life, that of a London docker, of a girl in a shoe factory! He has chosen the humanism of the angels; he writes, for the edification of the angels, long, sad, beautiful novels, which frequently win the Prix Femina” (p. 168).
There are two basic observations that need to be made here with respect to this important extract from Nausea:
- By pointing to different types of humanism, this brilliant extract constitutes a confirmation of the notion that the Western world has given birth to an array of different humanisms. It is suggesting that there is no such thing as Humanism per se – if the latter does exist, it is the manufactured product of a certain ideological practice, and not at all expressive of an all-inclusive natural propensity. Such a position, of course, is also a confirmation of our findings as presented in our above-mentioned Paper 1, pointing to the contradictory orrery of humanisms characteristic of the Western world. We may further note at this point that the extract’s acknowledgment of different types of humanism shall allow us to effectively compare Sartre’s own understanding of humanism with that of Proust’s.
- This Nausea extract also wishes to do something else: it is obvious that it wishes to debunk all types of Western humanism – all varieties are merely reflective of bourgeois society and its values. For Sartre, all types of humanists are in the last instance bourgeois humanists, whatever be their ideological pronouncements. Such a position, of course, shall lead Sartre to a variety of radical political positions which, albeit rather inconsistent with respect to one another in the long term, shall nonetheless come to express very specific attitudes as regards the Western world as a whole.
Sartre’s Roquentin continues by arguing that, not only are there different types of Western humanism, but that these types wish to negate one another. Again, this is an important observation with historical implications concerning the modern Western world, pointing as it does to the possible irreconcilability of different sets of humanist ideology (a state of affairs which may be said to have come to a climax in the 21st century, and which we have discussed in some detail in Paper 1). Roquentin observes as follows: “Those are the principal types [of humanism]. But there are others, a swarm of others: the humanist philosopher who bends over his brothers like an elder brother who is conscious of his responsibilities; the humanist who loves men as they are, the one who loves them as they ought to be, the one who wants to save them with their consent, and the one who will save them in spite of themselves, the one who wants to create myths, and the one who is satisfied with the old myths, the one who loves man for his death, the one who loves man for his life, the happy humanist who always knows what to say to make people laugh, the gloomy humanist whom you usually meet at wakes. They all hate one another: as individuals, of course, not as men. But the Autodidact doesn’t know it: he has locked them up inside him like cats in a leather bag and they are tearing one another to pieces without his noticing it” (p. 169).
It may be argued that the irreconcilability of these different types of humanism – their wish to annihilate one another – can only but yield an ideological system that is inherently unstable. Such instability can only be managed – or to a certain extent regulated – by manufacturing an all-encompassing hegemonic ideology of supra-Humanism, attempting to integrate all of the conflictual scraps of Western humanism. It is such integrative fusion of the different types that produces the dominant bourgeois ideology of Humanism. Since Sartre’s Roquentin rejects the bourgeois world as a whole, he also refuses to participate in this integrative fusion. This is what Roquentin has to say regarding the “digestive” capacity of Western humanist ideology: “… humanism takes all human attitudes and fuses them together … it digests all … It has digested anti-intellectualism, manicheism, mysticism, pessimism, anarchy, and egotism: they are nothing more than stages, incomplete thoughts which find their justification only in humanism. Misanthropy also has its place in this concert: it is simply a discord necessary to the harmony of the whole. The misanthrope is a man: it is therefore inevitable that the humanist should be misanthropic to a certain degree. But he is a scientific misanthrope who has succeeded in determining the extent of his hatred, who hates men at first only to love them better later … I don’t want to be integrated, I don’t want my good red blood to go and fatten that lymphatic animal: I am not going to be fool enough to say that I am an ‘anti-humanist’. I am not a humanist, that’s all” (pp. 170-171).
In Nausea, Sartre is merely preparing the theoretical ground for his own special position (or, rather, positions) with respect to humanism – as we shall see further below, he will later come to articulate a more complex appreciation of the humanist ideology, and which will have very specific political implications. We shall see that Sartre’s Saint Genet, for instance, will be espousing a particular form of humanism that would certainly not address itself to all of Western humanity, and it would not wish to support a Catholic-inspired “humanism of the angels” (or in any case a humanism embracing the traditional working class) – rather, the Sartrean political worldview shall opt to articulate a morality of the outcast (and which would therefore be an exclusivist morality and an exclusivist humanism).
We may now turn to Proust’s own critique of humanism. In his presentation of “A Dinner in High Society” (cf. above), Proust tells us that one of the invitees to that dinner is a “humanist”. What is it that Proust has to say about that type of person? We are told that “The humanist … read too much, ate too much. He quoted and burped …” (p. 101). And further: “… the humanist … kept quoting Homer in order to excuse his own bouts of gluttony and drunkenness in other people’s eyes …” (p. 102).
One may make a number of observations based on these brief descriptions of a socialite humanist:
- Proust informs us that the humanist “read too much” – as regards this observation, it may be said that we here have a critique of humanism as an intellectual pursuit, and which is obviously quite reminiscent of Sartre’s Autodidact, who “has got all his knowledge from books”. It seems that this could point to a certain commonality in the reasoning of Sartre and Proust regarding a particular type of humanist – it remains to be seen whether such apparent commonality holds any water.
- Proust tells us that the humanist kept on quoting poets such as Homer. It is again of interest to note that Roquentin is himself irritated by the fact that “in everything he [the Autodidact] tells me, I recognize borrowings, quotations”. But while Sartre intends to lambast the soft-hearted academic type of humanism, Proust’s intention is completely different: he is telling us that the socialite humanist is simply flaunting his supposed erudition so as to make up for his own vices. Proust’s humanist is therefore that type of socialite that represents the decadence of the aristocratic milieu – he belongs, firstly, to those latter-day socialite members that have infiltrated the circles of high society and whose basic characteristic is that of either vanity or snobbery (cf. above, regarding the decline and fall of the aristocratic milieu); and secondly, he belongs to that category of high society circles that is incapable of hiding its vices from the rest of society, very much unlike those who happen to be “superior creatures” possessive of a “great natural distinction”.
- Proust’s critique of the humanist, therefore, is not that he is erudite – or that he reads too much – but rather that such behaviour is used as an inadequate mechanism to hide his vices. What are such vices? Despite his supposed intellectuality, his manners lack cultivation, he is gluttonous and an intemperate drinker. Above all, however, he wishes to excuse himself in the eyes of others – he is therefore a guilt-ridden individual beset with a bad conscience. The implication is that he lacks what we have referred to above as a tranquil conscience, it being the definitive trait of the aristocratic milieu. Herein lies the essential difference between the Sartrean and the Proustian critique of the humanist individual.
- Proust’s humanist is the repulsive type of individual who enters the circles of high society so as to fulfill his personal – and as repulsive – vain desires. On the other hand, and as Thiher informs us, Proust’s satire of the humanist “also has an ironic, self-reflective dimension”. He continues that “In this way Proust satirizes his own socialite desires …” One may therefore conclude that there must have been an internal tension within the Proustian mind that had wished to overcome the decadent trends of the time (as also typified by the socialite humanist, who is satirized) and rather opt for the utopian realm of aristocratic self-realization and its aristocratic ideal. That, however, would yield a radically different understanding of humanism – different with respect to both the socialite humanist of Proust’s time and to the positions of the Sartrean worldview on humanism.
What, then, was Proust’s own understanding of humanism? In “What we find when we get lost in Proust” (op. cit.), Gopnik makes the following observation: “Part of Proust’s humanism lies in his ability to locate the world exclusively between our ears, without supposing that its residence there is necessarily to be regretted”. Proust’s humanism is therefore not a denial of the world – it is its relocation. This relocation constitutes a very particular mode of living. Such mode of living is touched upon in Proust’s “Regrets, Reveries the Color of Time” – we read as follows: “Ambition is more intoxicating than fame; desire makes all things blossom, possession wilts them; it is better to dream your life than to live it, even if living it means dreaming it, though both less mysteriously and less vividly, in a murky and sluggish dream, like the straggling dream in the feeble awareness of ruminant creatures” (pp. 115-116).
Proustian humanism, therefore, is a relocation of the world within one’s inner self – this is the world of one’s “inner life” which endows the individual with the capacity to dream his life and thereby live it through a particular mode of being. This mode of being may be described as the function of the imagination – but it is an imagination with a double function: it is both self-censorial as regards the things of the world that are devoid of aesthetic taste and, at the same time, it is a force that can recreate and resurrect the things of the world that are abundant in aesthetic taste. In discussing the resurrection of the aristocratic ideal, we have already seen how Proust would be arguing for a particular type of imagination that would be “sympathetic and respectful enough to conceal momentarily its aesthetic disdain” for certain things of one’s time present, but which can at the same time resurrect the dream for a cultural rejuvenation.
One may now go on to observe that the Proustian understanding of humanism is based on a willful acknowledgement – but bar whatever regrets – that our relationship to the world is subjective; that the world itself is therefore a subjective phenomenon; and that, further, that subjective phenomenon is subject to delusion. Again, however, this delusion is not something to be at all regretted. And it is not to be regretted because our relationship to the world is not to be primarily determined by intellect (which would be impaired by delusion), but through emotion. Thiher explains this Proustian position as follows – he tells us that, for Proust, “the subjective world is subject to delusion. Subjectivity lends itself all too easily to manipulation by treacherous external circumstances”. And yet, “the intellectual recognition that one is victim of a delusion does little to modify one’s emotional response, for, as Proust often asserts, intellect and emotion operate in different spheres”.
The core idea that is implied here may be explained as follows: emotion is related to desire, and it is through desire that one discovers aesthetic beauty. Identifying this as “a Proustian law of the mind”, Thiher notes: “the subjective world constantly works to change the objective world by reconfiguring it to make it conform to the delusions that the mind entertains, sometimes even when the mind knows it is delusional. Desire wants to construe reality”. And so we see how, in a Pleasures and Days text entitled “Relics”, “delusion is fostered by relics, the holy presences left from time past”. Proust’s conclusion here, as put by Thiher, is that “the beloved’s real beauty is still to be found in his desire”.
We see here that this Proustian “law of the mind” involves four basic conceptual moves: first, the emotions can give birth to a desire; second, that desire can recreate reality; third, it can recreate reality by rediscovering real aesthetic beauty; fourth, such real aesthetic beauty may be found in “the holy presences” of time past. But we need notice here how the initial move from the sphere of subjectivity can ultimately come to yield a rediscovery and resurrection of an aesthetic beauty embedded in the materiality of certain objects d’art, cathedrals and other relics of past time. The Proustian understanding of humanism, therefore, constitutes a subtle movement from the subjective (the “inner life” of emotion and desire) to the reconstruction of an aesthetically endowed objective world with its own “outer life”.
This, however, is not the only dimension of humanism in the overall Proustian worldview. Gopnik, we should remember, has told us that the Proustian relocation of the world between our ears – or within our imagination and the desired memories of such imagination – is only a part of Proust’s humanism. In his “What we find when we get lost in Proust”, he also points to yet another aspect of the Proustian understanding of humanism, and which relates to Proust’s deep interest in religion per se (as has been noted above). Gopnik informs us that this religious dimension of Proustian thinking would have an important influence on writers such as John Updike (whose Due Considerations has been discussed in Paper 1). This is what Gopnik writes: “John Updike, … coming to Proust at a time of his own Christian doubts, found in him the necessary remedy, the only credible modern religious novelist. There is happiness to be found in his fatalism”. How such “happiness” is discovered in Proustian religious fatalism (and which is in any case a fatalism that is not ever nihilistic), and how all this composes yet another dimension of Proust’s understanding of humanism, is an area that remains to be investigated. All one need say here is that while Proust would fully accept the quasi-religious concept of the Fall with respect to the human condition (cf. above), he would at least yearn for the utopian realm of aristocratic self-realization – there seems to be little room for the miserable passions of the tragic life in Proust’s “realistic pessimism”.
We may now consider the manner in which Sartre would respond to what we have presented here as Proust’s humanism, and especially his response to the issue of one’s so-called “inner life”. Based on what we have already said about Sartre’s own position on Western humanism, one may more or less guess such Sartrean critique. Generally speaking, it seems quite obvious that Sartre would utterly reject whatever elements of humanism in the Proustian worldview as just another form of bourgeois humanism. Let us see how that is in fact the case.
Perhaps it is Shawn Gorman, in his 2006 study entitled “Sartre on Proust: Involuntary Memoirs” (op. cit.), that most clearly presents us with how Sartre would view the Proustian emphasis on an individual’s “inner life”, and all that that would imply for the rest of society. He tells us that, for Sartre, “Proust is the representative of self-indulgent bourgeois retreat into the self, while Sartre is the champion of a steely-eyed and self-effacing engagement with the real world …” We may simply note here that, for Sartre, Proust happens to be the representative of such a bourgeois position.
Sartre does not merely intend to articulate an academic critique of the Proustian “inner self” – what the far-left radical Sartrean project ultimately wishes to do is to literally save us from Proust. Flynn writes as follows in discussing Nausea and how this novel deals with the issue of “inner life”: “Because consciousness is entirely ‘in the world’, it has no ‘inner life’. Sartre assures us, we are ‘saved from Proust’. So Roquentin is not in search of ‘lost time’, despite his alleged pursuit of a biography of a prominent figure. Indeed his time is focused decidedly on the present” (p. 146).
Both Gorman and Flynn are crystal clear in their presentation of Sartre’s philosophical and political intentions with respect to the Proustian paradigm as a whole – we here see a direct clash of worldviews, and which would be a conflictual relationship that would mark the whole of modern Western history right through to the 21st century, both at the level of ideas and at the level of politics.
Flynn goes on to explore this direct clash of worldviews – and its political implications – by telling us that, for Sartre, the whole of the Proustian project is symptomatic of an “atomistic” or an “egological” materialism. The “atomistic” or “egological” symptom in Proust means that his thinking is centered around a respect for the individual (and his “inner life”), something which is above all reflective of the bourgeois mind. For Sartre, this inevitably implies a blindness to class identity (p. 233). Especially since 1945 and onwards, Flynn tells us, “Sartre finds these bourgeois qualities incarnate in the work of Flaubert and especially Proust” (ibid.). And it is especially in the case of Proust that the whole of his literary enterprise is guilty of a bourgeois “psychological atomism” (ibid.).
It is therefore self-evident that Sartre not only despised “bourgeois humanism” in toto (as Flynn clearly points out, p. 152), but that he saw the work of Proust as a mode of thinking that was thoroughly representative of such type of Western humanism. But then, is there really any element of humanist thinking in the Sartrean worldview? Perhaps paradoxically after all that has been noted thus far, one should say that there is such element in that far-left worldview – and it is this question that we shall need to explore.
We may begin such an exploration of Sartrean thinking – the development of which was never linear and often apparently contradictory – by noting what Flynn has to say as regards Sartre’s appreciation of the work of someone like William Faulkner. Flynn writes as follows: “In his essay on Faulkner’s Sartoris published … in February of 1938, Sartre had appraised the author’s humanism as ‘doubtless the only acceptable [form of humanism]. It hates our well adjusted consciousness, our engineers’ consciousness’ … it is what Sartre will later denote in Being and Nothingness as ‘the spirit of seriousness’ that repels him with its smug self-satisfaction” (p. 152). We do not intend to investigate Sartre’s appreciation of the type of humanism evident in Sartoris any further – we may merely make two brief observations: firstly, it goes without saying that Sartre’s antipathy towards “the spirit of seriousness” goes hand in hand with his hatred of all things bourgeois; secondly, and by the way, it is of interest to note that Faulkner’s Sartoris would focus on the decay the Mississippi aristocracy – a theme obviously of major interest to Sartrean politics.
Contrary to the “smug self-satisfaction” of bourgeois humanism, Sartre shall ultimately come to articulate a Marxian or quasi-Marxian humanism that would address itself to the outcasts of the Western world and especially to those of its colonial outposts. Although Sartre’s existentialist philosophy has at times been presented as a variation of “radical nihilism” (cf., for instance, the work of Alfred Betschart, op. cit., p. 78), such so-called “radical nihilism” would in any case be solidly informed by a very particular type of humanism – we have already made mention above of Sartre’s 1945 public lecture where he wished to explain the sense in which “Existentialism is a Humanism”. And it is well-known that both his 1957 essay entitled Search for a Method, as also his 1960 Critique of Dialectical Reason, constituted serious attempts at forging a theoretical marriage between existentialism and Marxism. It is also as well known that the type of Marxist Humanism that Sartre was gradually developing would come under attack by an Althusserian theoretical anti-humanism that would emerge in the course of the 1960’s. Generally speaking, then, one may agree with Flynn’s observation that, in subsequent writings – and especially at the midpoint of his career – Sartre will embrace a kind of “socialist humanism” or even a kind of “Maoist humanism” (p. 151).
Now, keeping in mind the manner in which Proust would understand humanism vis-à-vis that of the Sartrean position, one may easily point to a conflict of humanisms that would beset Western culture – such conflict would inevitably translate into a conflict between different ethical systems. The Proustian “egological” ethical system could not possibly co-exist with the Sartrean “non-egological” (or rather “anti-egological”) ethical system. Their respective intentions seem to be absolutely divergent: while Proust wishes to salvage the ego, and especially the aristocratic ego which has a past, Sartre wishes to dissolve the ego in the world, it being a bourgeois-aristocratic world which has a meaningless past at best.
The irreconcilability of these two ethical worldviews is most evident when one comes to realize that one of Sartre’s central ideological intentions had been, as mentioned, to save us from the Proustian understanding of ethicality. This realization is further confirmed when one discovers that Nausea had been written in more or less direct response to the Proustian oeuvre – Flynn makes the following telling observation: “And despite Sartre’s hyperbolic claim that Husserlian intentionality has saved us from Proust, Contat and Rybalka point out that ‘the Proustian oeuvre is probably the most profound influence that one can discern in Nausea’ …” One may draw the conclusion that the Proustian oeuvre constituted the most profound influence in this Sartrean novel precisely because it posed the greatest threat to the Sartrean ethical paradigm.
It would be this real conflict of humanisms and ethical paradigms in the Western world that would be one of the central concerns – if not the sole concern – characterizing the mature Sartrean political project. Having identified the history and nature of such conflict, Sartre would come to devote himself to the enunciation of a new, revolutionary humanism – new, in that it lay absolutely outside the thus far well-defined walls protective of all notions of Western humanism and their concomitant ethical imperatives. Even the whole philosophical system once expressive of Sartrean ontology – as above all articulated in the abstract thinking of Being and Nothingness – would now come to be harnessed to the urgent needs of that new insurrectionary ethics. The suggestion that the abstract ontology of Being and Nothingness would itself come to be applied to the practical needs of an insurrectionary movement against an exploitative and repressive Western society is clearly confirmed by Flynn – he writes as follows: “Bringing the ontology of Being and Nothingness to bear on the demands of an exploitative society, Sartre lays out the plan for his future social theory: ‘It is the elucidation of the new ideas of ‘situation’ and of ‘being-in-the-world’ that revolutionary behaviour specifically calls for’ …” (p. 252). This redirection of Being and Nothingness towards openly political intentions would be announced – in the 1946 seminal essay, “Materialism and Revolution” – only three years after Sartre’s philosophical magnum opus had been published.
We know that largish or even large chunks of the history of the Western world have been dominated by a variety of aristocracies and their ideological and/or moral paradigms. It may now be argued that the Sartrean type of new insurrectionary ethics – a generic type in itself – has come to more or less prevail ideologically in the modern and post-modern Western world. We need to examine in some greater detail the content of such Sartrean ethics vis-à-vis that of aristocratic moral systems.
To understand the content of Sartrean ethics, one needs to isolate the essential existential differences between that mode of thinking and that of the Proustian position. Based on what has been argued above, Proust would pivot his thinking around the supreme right of the individual to indulge in a utopian selectivity of the inner world that he chooses to imagine for himself – and which he thereby creates and recreates in accordance with his personal aesthetic and moral needs. Sartrean ethics leaves no room for such utopian, individualistic whims – it recognizes the historical need for a radical reevaluation of all bourgeois values, of which individualism (an “atomistic” or “egological” materialism) is an expression.
The Proustian process of creation and recreation – that utopian selectivity of the individual bent on an aristocratic mode of being – has no choice but to acknowledge the reality of self-deception: it views it as a necessary law of all time present. The young Proust can often be critical of various forms of self-deception – but he needs to necessarily resort to these if he is to salvage that utopian realm of aristocratic self-realization. In contrast, Sartre rejects all forms of self-deception as part of bourgeois inauthentic behaviour – and thus he calls for a radical reevaluation of all thus far existing values. It should be noted, however, that the Sartrean position is itself utopian – Sartre’s Marxian existentialism seems to bypass what may be seen as a universal law of humanity, it being the all too human “flaws” besetting all of human history.
The acceptance or rejection of the reality of self-deception is a deeply ethical question, and it is an ethical question since it determines the content of conscience that accrues – or should accrue – from one’s stance towards such deception. We have seen how, for the aristocratic milieu, the functionality and necessity of a cleverly hidden vice – which constitutes a basic form of self-deception – would in fact merely yield the establishment of a tranquil conscience on the surface of human relations within aristocratic circles. For Sartre, such types of human relations are defined by “bad faith” (or “mauvaise foi”). We know that in terms of the Sartrean worldview, “bad faith” is precisely the psychological phenomenon whereby individuals act and interact inauthentically, and which they do by yielding to the external pressures of Western society in the adoption of false values – thereby living a life of self-deception. “To the right-thinking man [or proper citizen]”, writes Sartre in Saint Genet, “it [the mirror] reveals only the appearance he offers to others. Sure of possessing the truth, concerned only with being reflected in his undertaking, he gives the mirror only this carcass to gnaw at” (p. 73). It is the deception of “appearances” that rules within proper society – and there is thus no way out for the Western world but to utterly destroy what is a bourgeois inauthentic morality of “appearances”. Sartre shall henceforth seek to identify the new subjects of such a destructively revolutionary process, and which would also be the carriers of a new emancipatory ethics.
Sartrean ethics is not of course limited to the question of authenticity and inauthenticity – what is as much of central concern to Sartre is the question of social justice. Flynn’s philosophical biography informs us that Sartre’s work had always been “guided by a sense of justice that defines itself against the values and habits of his own bourgeois class” (p. 19). And it would be this sense of justice that would entitle many Frenchmen of the left to declare that, following Sartre’s death, France had lost its conscience.
This conscientious sense of social justice pitted against an exploitative and repressive bourgeois milieu would mean that Sartre would be against whatever forms of conservative morality, and wherever such type of morality was to be found in French society. Sartre would identify elements of this morality even within the mores and practices of the French communists of his time. In his “Sartre was not a Marxist” text, Alfred Betschart informs us that Sartre had “accused the Communists of following the conservative morality of Vichy France as defined by the anti-republican travail-famille-patrie (labor-family-fatherland)” (p. 83). It would of course be precisely this triplet of values (with religion somewhere included therein) that would continue to constitute the basic critique of the left or liberal-left against conservatism and its norms throughout the 20th century and right up to the 21st century.
For Sartre, all norms of Western bourgeois society express particular social interests – and these are not merely the interests of the bourgeois elites. Western social norms express the interests of white, heterosexual men in general. The Sartrean ethical system is thus pitted against norms expressive of a particular race, a particular sex and a particular sexual preference within Western society. In his discussion of Sartrean ethics as articulated in the period of the 1960’s, Betschart notes that, for Sartre, “Norms are not given, they are created. Since praxis is always social action – and usually by acting in groups – norms always express the interests of the groups that set the norms. In a patriarchal, white heteronormative society, the prevailing norms express primarily the interests of white, heterosexual men” (cf. “Sartre’s Ethics of the 1960’s”, Jean-Paul Sartre – The Website, op. cit).
And, for Sartre, it is precisely these prevailing norms protective of a particular race, sex and sexual preference – and the bourgeois morality that these express – which hijack the future in favour of the repetition of an inauthentic and unjust past. They can hijack the future as conservative forces because they are all-powerful. Even human speech within the bourgeois milieu is expressive of such prevailing norms. In his Saint Genet, Sartre tells us that words and utterances between people – even their exchanges “in broken sentences” – activate a predetermined behaviour “in accordance with the social norms of your age and milieu” (p. 43). There is thus a deep understanding between those who are in communication, and that understanding presupposes the operation of the all-powerful norms of their milieu in which they are all plunged. But the point here is that Sartre’s outcasts do not partake of this communication – they stand outside of it since they have no milieu. With respect to his great outcast – Jean Genet – Sartre observes as follows: “Now, the fact is that Genet has no milieu; he is alone. The norms set by society do not concern him. No more is needed for him to be astounded by the strangeness of human speech” (ibid.).
Standing well outside the bourgeois milieu and well outside its norms, Genet – as an outcast type – expresses the Sartrean new ethics. Being outside the norms of the bourgeois milieu, Genet is outside all of bourgeois ethics (or of what Sartre has also called “deontological ethics”). As such, he stands for a value-free moral behaviour within the context of the milieu that tries to besiege him. The new ethics can thus espouse deviancy as such – and it is a deviancy that can assume a wide variety of forms. With respect to the ethicality of deviancy in Sartrean thinking, Betschart writes as follows: “Much of Sartre’s literary work, from La nausea (1938) to various short stories … bears witness to the pluralistic understanding of morality associated with it, in which Sartre repeatedly describes moral behavior in a value-free manner – particularly sexual behavior – that was considered deviant in his time” (op. cit.). And so, while the Proustian worldview and the aristocratic milieu would wish to hide various forms of deviancy from the eyes of outsiders, Sartrean ethics would argue that deviancy may be flaunted before bourgeois society as a form of rebellion. With respect to the question of homosexuality in particular, Proust would view it as a private inclination within the private mores of the aristocracy – it would be the personal privacy of the matter that would affirm the moral system of the aristocratic milieu. For Sartre, in contrast, Genet’s rampant homosexuality – philosophically analyzed in the greatest of detail in Saint Genet – would be an act of rebellion negating the moral trivialities of a bourgeois trivial moral system.
Sartre describes Genet’s life as follows: “He is a man of repetition: the drab, slack time of his daily life – a profane life in which everything is permissible – is shot through with blazing hierophanies which restore to him his original passion, as Holy Week restores to us that of Christ. Just as Jesus does not cease to die, so Genet does not cease to be metamorphosed into a foul insect …” (Saint Genet, p. 5). And it is in that sense, and as has already been noted above, that “Genet has no profane history. He has only a sacred history” (ibid.).
The profane life of an outcast without a profane history that sanctifies all that he does – and where all is thereby permissible – allows Genet to escape the trivial world of morality. Genet, writes Sartre, “plunges with all his weight and force into the evil of which the others accuse him” (p. 60). Escaping the trivialities of morality, plunging into what others deem to be evil, Genet shall experience both a certain religiosity and the utter contempt of the proper, bourgeois citizens. Sartre’s Saint Genet puts this as follows: “Genet will escape from the trivial world of morality and reach the world of religion … he does not wish to discover himself as a simple thinking substance but as a sacred, demonical reality … It will be his being by virtue of a mystic marriage. The contempt and hatred of the Just [the proper bourgeois citizens] will serve to cement the union” (p. 63).
And it is thus that outside the trivial world of bourgeois morality, and within that “mystic marriage”, Genet will come to express an altogether new morality and new emancipatory values. It seems that the mode of being that Genet has come to adopt – or that particular circumstances have forced him to adopt – is such as to leave him without any choice as regards the question of morality. Being an authentic character, he realizes the impossibility of being a proper moral person in an inauthentic, immoral and unjust world. Flynn notes as follows: “What Saint Genet taught us was a lesson at least as old as Aristotle: the difficulty (if not impossibility) of being a moral person in an immoral society” (p. 402). It is this difficulty – or even impossibility – of being moral that allows someone like Genet to turn into a particular type of secular saint expressing his own anti-social or anti-bourgeois morality. Thereby, however, he announces a table of new ethics for a coming, altogether new society. At least in his Saint Genet, Sartre describes the need for such a socio-revolutionary change as clearly as possible – sociologizing rather coarsely albeit significantly, he writes the following: “Our society is ambiguous. Industrial development and the demands of an organized proletariat are transforming it, with horrible shocks, into a producing society. But the metamorphosis is far from complete. An oppressive class that is on the way out is mingling the old myths with the new. At times, it justifies its privileges by the excellence of its culture and taste, that is, by its aptitude for conserving. It claims to be the guardian of western values … Meanwhile, the [Christian] religion subsists, with its aging rites that it adapts to the new state of things as best it can. Everything is confused; the Church still canonizes, but listlessly; the faithful themselves have the vague feeling that the Saints belong to the past … I think, along with many others, that it is necessary to shorten the convulsions of a dying world, to help in the birth of a producing community and try to draw up, with the workers and militants, the table of new values. That is why [Christian] Saintliness, with its sophisms, rhetoric, and morose delectation repels me. It has only one use at the present time: to enable dishonest men to reason unsoundly” (pp. 202-203).
Strictly speaking, the above quote may at times not be fully consistent with the overall or ultimate Sartrean political philosophy – Sartrean thinking is in any case notorious for its self-contradictory positions across time – for instance, and as we have seen above, his reference to “the excellence” of the oppressive class’s culture and taste does not at all match with his position regarding the bourgeois arts or the architecture of Christian churches; and he shall soon lose much faith in the proper working people and their espousal of the values of travail-famille-patrie. But the quote nonetheless clearly expresses a revolutionary anti-bourgeois ethics. Flynn explains that even Being and Nothingness was all about “an ethics of deliverance and salvation” from alienation (p. 214). Such deliverance and salvation, however, “can be achieved only after a radical conversion” (ibid.). In the final instance, it would not be the proper proletariat that could undergo whatever “radical conversion” – Sartre would come to see the outcasts of society (the likes of Genet) as the historical carriers of salvation. We shall now need to examine in some greater detail what Sartre has to say with respect to these carriers.
The carriers of salvation (as opposed to an aristocratic resurrection)
The Sartrean ethical system and the need for a “radical conversion” of society shall be accompanied by an attempt to identify the key historical subject that can act as the carrier of salvation. This veritable theory of revolution shall come to focus on the emancipatory rights of groups, and thus also on the historical role of such groups to effect a deliverance from bourgeois alienation. Of course, the emphasis on particular social groupings as social agents shall constitute a theoretical move away from classical Marxism with its emphasis on the role of the proletariat in history. It is of absolute importance to note here that this Sartrean emphasis on groups as opposed to classes would be the forerunner to 21st century left politics, with its own emphasis on particular social groupings as the agents of social change. As we shall see, Sartre’s choice of particular social groups as historical agents shall be the exact same as those selected by the 21st century left (and even the liberal-left). The Sartrean heritage therefore remains alive and well and ought not to be either forgotten or underestimated by present-day analysts, and which should be directly counterposed to the Proustian quasi-conservative or aristocratic heritage as presented above.
The Sartrean emphasis on groups as opposed to classes needs to be briefly explained if we are to fully grasp the general notion of outcasts in the Sartrean political paradigm – Betschart’s “Sartre was not a Marxist”, despite its various weaknesses, does a fairly good job at summarizing Sartre’s theory. We may consider a sample of Betschart’s exposition of the Sartrean position – he writes: “Whereas in Marxist theory, classes are the prime agents of history, they are reduced to what Sartre calls ‘series’ in the  Critique [of Dialectical Reason]. Classes do not act in Sartre’s eyes; at best they form milieus. In this way, Sartre implicitly contests the Marxist idea of a revolution by the proletariat. It is Sartre’s term of the ‘group-in-fusion’ that comes closest to the Marxist understanding of a class-driven revolution … [Groups] are the real actors in history. Groups first start with voluntary congregations of people, like those playing soccer in a park on a Sunday afternoon. At the next stage of its evolution, the pledged group appears. This group is not yet well organized, but power and authority are already discernable attributes in the pledged group … For Sartre, the prerequisite of a successful revolution is the existence of a pledged or organized group … it is never the proletariat class that creates a revolution, but always a group” (p. 79).
Sartre would naturally feel disenchanted by the idea that a “pledged group” could morph into an institutionalized structure, as had occurred with the Soviet Communist Party. He would nonetheless insist on placing his hopes on autonomous and authentic social actors opposed to bourgeois oppression – these would be France’s various minority groups that necessarily carried the new ethics for a “radical conversion”. It would be these – in their capacity as groups – that would assert their Absolute No to a generalized bourgeois oppression (as opposed to economic exploitation, which concerned the narrow interests of the class of the proletariat). And thus, the Sartrean political project would fully anticipate the political struggles of the left or liberal-left in the 21st century – in his “Sartre’s Ethics of the 1960’s”, Betschart makes the following important observation: “Sartre is interested not only in ideal ethics and real ethics in the form of ethos, but generally in the role of ethics in society. Unlike the Marxists, positivists, and structuralists, Sartre asserts the independent importance of ethics in political discussion … With this view of the importance of ethics, Sartre thus anticipated an important element of progressive politics in the 21st century, as he did with his advocacy of the rights of Jews, people of color, women, and queer people”.
This is the theoretical context, a context so absolutely foreign to all variations of aristocratic morality, that shall allow Sartre to articulate the historical status of the Stateless outcasts, castoffs or untouchables – viz. his Genet-like saints of an anti-bourgeois and anti-Western oppositional denial.
Since Genet is Sartre’s primordial or generic “castoff” of Western society, we need to further dwell on the manner in which Sartre analyzes his case. In Saint Genet, Sartre writes: “A lady once said to him, ‘My maid must be pleased. I give her my dresses’. ‘That’s nice,’ he replied, ‘does she give you hers?’ … Castoff of a society that defines being by having, the child Genet wants to have in order to be. However, the normal modes of appropriation are denied to him. He will obtain nothing by purchase, nothing by heritage” (p. 10). Genet is thereby forced to deny both the idea of private property and the property relations (as also the concomitant mores) of all time past, and which would include those of the aristocratic milieu and its hereditary principles.
Genet is thus pitted against all of the proper citizens of Western society – Sartre contrasts the Genet type “To those who have a sense of belonging, to the just, to the honourable” (p. 83).
Very much like an ancient Egyptian, Sartre tells us, Genet would not at all care about his national identity. Like all untouchables, outlaws, homosexuals and the like, Genet is Stateless. Sartre observes that “The names that apply to the State, to national sovereignty, to the rights and duties of the citizens, concern realities that are thoroughly foreign to him”. They are foreign to him and, Sartre adds, to “his kind” (p. 278; and cf. p. 5).
Being outside both national identity and the State, Genet and his kind shall belong to a community – or social group – that shall establish a language all of its own and which will be a language against the bourgeois mode of communication (cf. our discussion of language norms above). “It may … be pointed out”, Sartre notes, “that there exists a community which has forged a language of its own against the bourgeois tongue, to wit, the community of tramps and gangsters to which Genet belongs. With them, … communication is possible” (p. 285).
Stateless and without any national identity, standing in opposition to the honourable and just, and speaking a language alien to all of them, Genet shall come to see society as a “legitimate hell” – he himself is consciously illegitimate. Fully identifying with Genet and his type, Sartre reflects on those other proper citizens of this “legitimate hell” as follows: “But I would like to ask them whether they are quite sure of being themselves. How do I know that they have not obtained that inner peace of theirs by surrendering to a foreign protector who reigns in their stead? I know that the man whom I hear utter the words ‘We doctors …’ is in bondage. This we doctors is his ego, a parasitical creature that sucks his blood … If they do not aim at changing their skin, it is because the force that governs them does not allow them the leisure to do so; above all, it is because society has long since recognized and consecrated this symbiosis by according glory or simply honorability to the couple formed by the sick man and his parasite: it is a legitimate hell. As for me, I keep away from them if I can: I don’t like inhabited souls” (p. 83). For Sartre, it is only “the children of Cain” that are not and simply cannot be such “inhabited souls” (ibid.).
It is the citizens of this “legitimate hell”, those that are in bondage, that are the real manufacturers of all evil – and they manufacture that evil so as to be able to throw it onto the children of Cain themselves. Sartre writes: “We have, in fact, seen that the society of decent folk has manufactured this shaky concept [of Evil] for the express purpose of projecting it on others. Evil is what my enemy does; it is never what I do myself. We have recognized in it the negative part of our freedom which we pluck from ourselves in order to throw it … on an ethnic or religious minority” (p. 151).
With respect to all “decent folk” and their relationship to evil, Sartre confirms and expands on his position by writing elsewhere in Saint Genet as follows: “… Genet addresses not the criminologist or sociologist but the ‘average Frenchman’ who adorns himself with the name of good citizen; for it is he who preserves the idea of Evil, while science and law are tending to break from it; it is he who, burning with desires that his morality condemns, has delivered himself from his negative freedom by throwing it like a flaming cloak on the members of a minority group whose acts he interprets on the basis of his own temptations. What a prey! The Just man is so good at playing innocent that he gets caught up in his own game: evil thoughts remain foreign to him since, by definition, they are the other’s thoughts; he encounters them with sad astonishment in the course of his experience and recognizes them precisely by the fact that they are Other; by the fact that he would not have had the indecency to conceive them” (pp. 494-495).
Generally speaking, one may summarize the Sartrean position by asserting, as does Sartre himself, that “All societies castrate the maladjusted” (p. 82). Of course, one could respond here by pointing out that the Sartrean project is itself aimed at castrating, not only the aristocratic or bourgeois elites, but all of “decent folk” as such. For Sartre, nonetheless, such castration is both inevitable and necessary – “decent folk” need to be castrated so as to prepare the ground for the “maladjusted”, for these are the natural carriers of a new ethics. That ground cannot be prepared unless the castrated castrate those that have wished to castrate them.
The castration or attempted castration of the “maladjusted” leads them to a variety of forms of resistance – Sartre points to some of those social groups that may be included within the ambit of the “maladjusted” and describes how they express such resistance. Interestingly, the resistance can range from a “subtle” denial of society to (even) a wish for its total and utter annihilation. He writes: “Those whom Society has placed in the background, the adolescent, the woman, the homosexual, subtly attempt to reject a world which rejects them and to perpetrate symbolically the murder of mankind” (p. 372).
The term “mankind” here points to all that Western civilization has thus far given birth to – it points both to time past (the aristocratic milieu) and to time present (the bourgeois milieu). And the rejection of and resistance to such “mankind” comes from an anti-aristocracy and an anti-bourgeoisie – it comes from Genet the homosexual thief, it comes from a motley of untouchables, and it comes from a racial group such as the blacks (which Sartre, writing in the 1930’s and through to the 1950’s, also refers to as the “Negro”). There is an important sense in which, for Sartre at least, all these types of outcasts constitute an aristocracy in their own right – it is they who are called upon to create that “table of new ethics”.
We may at this point examine what Sartre has to say specifically as regards blacks and/or racial minorities and their role as outcasts in the Western world. Before we focus on what he writes on this matter in his Saint Genet, we need to say a few words about the manner in which he presents his “Negress” in Nausea. Therein, it is certainly no mere accident that it is specifically a “Negress” singer and her song that enable Sartre’s Roquentin to almost fully (or, momentarily, even fully) overcome his feeling of existential nausea. Colin Wilson writes as follows: “Is there, then, nothing positive about human existence? Is it all conflict and frustration and self-deception? … [O]ddly enough, not according to La Nausée. Roquentin’s experiences of ‘nausea’ are counter-balanced with something altogether different … Roquentin asks the waitress to put on one of his favourite records, a negress singing ‘Some of These Days’ … : ‘I grow warm [Roquentin tells us], I begin to feel happy … the Nausea has disappeared. When the voice was heard in silence, I felt my body harden and the Nausea vanish. Suddenly: it was almost unbearable to become so hard, so brilliant …’ And as he reaches out for his beer: ‘this movement of my arm has developed like a majestic theme, it has glided along the song of the Negress; I seemed to be dancing’ …” (Colin Wilson: Collected Essays on Philosophers, edited by Colin Stanley, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, p. 157).
Roquentin’s feeling of nausea is overcome by music – that in itself is of significance. But we need notice that this is a particular type of music – it is a song emanating from the voice of a woman that belongs to a particular racial minority, and which is a social group that has traditionally been oppressed in and by the Western world. It is above all this type of person – who happens to be a woman and who is also a “Negress”, and which “Society has placed in the background” – that can create such melodious beauty. In direct contrast to the aristocratic milieu and its own aesthetic values, it is now this type of outcast that is the supreme creator of aesthetic beauty, and which is a beauty that can overcome nausea itself.
Our interpretation of the manner in which Sartre treats the “Negress” in Nausea is no exaggeration. Sartre’s relationship to the “negritude movement” in Paris between the 1940’s and the 1960’s is well known and much discussed, as is his 1948 Black Orpheus. For Sartre, “negritude” was primarily a source of artistic creation, including poetry and music (especially jazz). It may be argued that he projects the cultural and political values of “negritude” onto his “Negress” in Nausea – he writes therein as follows: “She sings. That makes two people who are saved: the Jew and the Negress. Saved. Perhaps they thought they were lost right until the very end, drowned in existence. Yet nobody could think about me as I think about them, with this gentle feeling … they have cleansed themselves of the sin of existing. Not completely, of course – but as much as any man can” (p. 251). And so, in accordance with the Sartrean worldview and its position regarding outcasts such as racial minorities, his “Negress” and her life is “something precious and almost legendary” (p. 252).
Such a position may now be compared to what Sartre has to say about the status of black people in his Saint Genet. In fact, he chooses to identify the plight of Genet with that of blacks. He writes: “In the case of Genet as in that of untouchables, for example the Negroes of Virginia, we find the same injustice (the latter are grandsons of slaves, the former is an abandoned child), reinforced by the same magical concepts (the ‘inferior race’, the ‘evil nature’ of the Negro, of the thief), and the same angry powerlessness that obliges them to adopt these concepts and turn them against their oppressors, in short the same passive revolt, the same realism masking the same idealism. Genet’s dignity is the demand for evil” (p. 55).
Both Genet and the Negroes living in the Western world (and its colonies) share a common hatred for that world. This hatred, however, heralds new values (as also, inevitably, new cultural practices) – these new values are described by Sartre as a will to evil (this will, by the way, is not as yet a will to power as such, since the latter presupposes a move from the “voluntary congregations” of outcasts to the formation of “pledged groups” – cf. above). With reference to both American Negroes and especially Genet himself, Sartre describes the psychological complexity of such hatred and its will to evil as follows: “As a realist, he [Genet] wants to win or lose in this world. Rimbaud wanted to change life, and Marx to change society. Genet does not want to change anything at all. Do not count on him to criticize institutions. He needs them, as Prometheus needs his vulture. At most, he regrets that there is no longer an aristocracy in France and that class justice is not more ruthless. If, thinking to please him, one transported him into some future society that gave him a place of honor, he would feel frustrated. His business is here; it is here that he is despised and vilified; it is here that he must carry out his undertaking. He loves French society as the Negroes love America, with a love that is full of hatred and, at the same time, desperate. As for the social order which excludes him, he will do everything to perpetuate it. Its rigor must be perfect so that Genet can attain perfection in Evil … Duality is the permanent structure of his consciousness. He seeks himself and wills himself. His spontaneity dwindles. To feel and to watch himself feel are to him one and the same. He inspects his feelings and his behavior in order to discover in them that dark vein, the will to evil” (pp. 55-56).
The proud and dignified “idealism” of both the “Negroes” and Genet can backfire, as it does. In the case of the “Negro”, one sees that he adopts the “magical concepts” of his oppressor (his racial “inferiority” and “evil” nature) against his oppressor. This gives birth to a new set of values and a new ideology, that of “negritude”. Such affirmation of “negritude”, however, merely establishes further racial segregation within Western society. Similarly, one sees that Genet wishes to perpetuate the social order, thereby himself adopting it against its proper citizens. This gives birth to a new set of values and a new ideology, that of the will to evil. Such affirmation of evil, however, merely confirms the views of the proper citizens as regards Genet, and so they will vilify him even further. And yet, Sartre shall argue, both the segregation of the “Negroes” and the vilification of Genet come to empower their respective self-sufficiency, it being a self-sufficiency against Western society. Very succinctly, Sartre puts this as follows: “Idealism: all this leads only to verifying the grownups’ judgment [of the young Genet], just as the proud demand for ‘negritude’ merely confirms segregation” (p. 57). And yet, Sartre continues, “Pride is the reaction of a mind which has been beleaguered by others and which transforms its absolute dependency into absolute self-sufficiency” (ibid.).
It is this angry and oppositional self-sufficiency wedged within the Western world that points to a conflict between different understandings of the ideology of humanism – there can be no compromise whatsoever across this rupture of values. Both the “Negro” and Genet will proudly reject whatever compromises with the world they hate – be it the liberalism of whites (with respect to the plight of “Negroes”) or bourgeois liberals in general (with respect to the case of Genet). Sartre writes: “We know that it is dignity. To the ‘generous’ whites who do not draw the color line the Negro says: ‘Come, come, you see very well that I’m a Negro. Remain in your place as I remain in mine.’ And Genet, in like manner, says to the bourgeois liberal who wants to help him, perhaps to ‘re-educate’ him: ‘You see for yourself that I’m bad. The proof is that I’ve taken your watch’ …” (p. 58).
Blacks constitute one of the most important components of the Sartrean array of outcasts in the Western world – but there are other as important groups belonging to the oppressed social strata: as alluded to, these include women, gays, and other criminal groupings. In his “Sartre was not a Marxist”, Betschart wishes to inform us that, for Sartre, “the question of women and gays could not be subsumed under the question of proletariat vs. capitalists as postulated by Marxist theory” (p. 82). There is both a truth and an inaccuracy in such an observation – while, as we have seen, Sartre had at some stage lost much hope in the capacity of the proper working citizens of France to effect an anti-bourgeois revolution, he could nonetheless see the objective interests of at least certain exploited working people intersecting with those of oppressed blacks, oppressed women and repressed gays (of course, such overlapping of exploitation, oppression, and so forth, would historically go on to yield the post-modern ideology of quasi-Marxian “intersectionality”).
That Sartre would espouse a certain “intersectionality” in his political thinking is fairly obvious in the manner in which he presents Genet’s attitudes towards maids (these, presumably, being proper working people). We have already quoted Genet’s reaction to a lady that gives her dresses to her maid (cf. above). And we may further consider what he has to say about maids vis-à-vis the rich – Sartre quotes Genet as saying the following: “It’s easy to be kind, and smiling, and sweet … when you’re beautiful and rich … But what if you’re only a maid?” (p. 9). A maid, by the way, would belong to both an oppressed group (as a woman) and to an exploited group (as a worker).
But it is beyond doubt – as his Saint Genet testifies – that the Sartrean political position would underline the authentically subversive role of the outcast (reminiscent of Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”) in a modern Western world wherein the industrial proletariat had been either politically compromised, co-opted as a class, or simply marginalized in terms of strategic position. And thus Sartre would focus on the plight of women as much as he would on racial minorities. Somewhat dimly reminiscent of – or, more accurately, foreshadowing – the post-modern ideological paradigm of “femicide”, Sartre describes the man versus woman interface as follows in his Saint Genet: “… the male swoops down on the female, carries her off, subjects her and feeds her. The very way in which he makes love reflects his economic situation and his pride in earning his living”. Unlike Genet the outcast, who does not work, the typical male exercises his toxic male sexuality on women as an oppressive imperialist – Sartre continues: “Where do you expect Genet to get his pride? He does not earn his living, he loses it. Parasite of a society that denies him salvation through action, excluded from all undertakings, where would he find that mixture of oppressive imperialism and generosity which at present characterizes manly sexuality?” (p. 80).
It is as a generous imperialist that man subjugates woman (imperialism in general secures its power through the distribution of a certain “generosity” towards its subjects) – being at the same time an oppressive subjugator, man turns woman into a victim of the male-female interface. He affirms his freedom as a male through the submission of woman – Sartre continues as follows: “The male rarely wishes to seduce by his physical qualities. He has received them, not made them. He makes his woman love him for his power, his courage, his pride, his aggressiveness, in short he makes her desire him as a faceless force, a pure power to do and take, not as an object agreeable to touch. He seeks in submissive eyes the reflection of his infinite freedom” (pp. 80-81).
The women of the Western world are victims of social circumstances – and they share this victimhood with a gay like Genet. But the latter’s victimhood takes on a very particular form and has its own special consequences. Since, as Sartre writes, “Women … do not have enough prestige to symbolize for him [viz. for Genet; or for a drag queen by the name of Divine, a Genet literary character] the society that has excluded him”, and “Since it is men who make the law and who arrogate to themselves the right to judge him, only the submission of a male can redeem him, by humiliating in his presence his entire sex” (p. 75). Sartre is telling us that Genet cannot look to women for his salvation, for they too are victims (and in any case he happens to be a homosexual). So it must be to men – those lawmakers and judges – that he need turn, but shall turn to them so that he subvert them, and in that way transcend the situation of his victimized being.
Genet’s homosexuality – and especially the particular manner in which he chooses to express his sexual desires – is hence an act of social defiance. Sartre writes: “Desire of nothingness, nothingness of desire, … rootless and aimless, Genet’s sexual desire contains within itself a fierce demand for its autonomy and singularity, in defiance of the rules … in defiance of the species and in defiance of society” (p. 82).
But it was not merely Genet’s defiant homosexuality that made of him a carrier of salvation. We know that he was a thief as well, and which added to his value as an outcast (by the way, it should be mentioned here that Sartre has not been the only left-wing writer to have presented criminality in a positive light – consider, for instance, Eric Hobsbawm’s brilliant 1969 study entitled Bandits).
In his Saint Genet, Sartre informs us about Genet’s criminality as follows: “Around 1936, when he was twenty-six years old, Genet returned to France after a long period of wandering, met a professional burglar and accompanied him on his expeditions. ‘I had the revelation of theft’. According to him, this revelation was decisive: ‘I went to theft as to a liberation’ …” (p. 402).
Sartre’s description of Genet as a burglar confirms our general assertion that, in terms of the Sartrean political worldview, outcasts constitute an aristocracy in their own right – burglars, we are told, constitute a “scornful aristocracy”. Unlike the unskilled workers, furthermore, they are a “technical elite”. This is how Sartre presents burglary and the case of Genet as a burglar: “… burglary is an outlaw profession, but it is a profession. Genet’s social status changes: he was a faggot, a fake sharp, a beggar, a slave; in the underworld he belonged to the ‘unskilled’ proletariat; as a housebreaker, he becomes a specialist, he enters a corporation which has its rules and its professional honor; for the first time, he is entitled to say we. Actually, he does not have the experience of professional solidarity: burglars are solitaries. But they are united by the same pride and the same privileges. ‘A burglar,’ he says proudly, ‘cannot have base sentiments, for he lives a physically dangerous life … Burglars are a scornful aristocracy.’ This aristocracy has nothing in common with the romantic chivalry of the great criminals and the glamorous Pimps: it is rather a technical elite; one is not a member of it by birth. For that very reason, Genet who is a commoner of Evil, feels at ease in it. He does not have birth, but he will be able to shine by his talent” (p. 403).
In what precise sense does Genet go to theft “as to a liberation” (or, as is also asserted, “as to the light”)? Sartre wishes to compare Genet’s achievements as a burglar to those of the revolution of 1789 – he explains as follows: “Thanks to burglary, Genet’s passive obedience is replaced by the spirit of initiative, mystical thinking by rationalism, the romantic and anachronistic taste for feudal relationships and military hierarchies by the more modern consciousness of professional worth: he carries out by and for himself the Revolution of 1789” (pp. 403-404).
And thus a new secular sanctity – and a new political sensibility – is born. The Genet-type sanctity is summarized by Sartre as follows: “But the striking thing is that the erotic humiliations of a homosexual and the occupational risks of a thief are tinged with an aura of the sacred … He abandons himself to the instant, to the cathartic crises that reproduce the first enchantment [of his childhood] and carry it to the sublime: crime, capital punishment, poetry, orgasm, homosexuality” (p. 4). We have noted above, and based on Flynn, that the Genet-type outcast constituted as authentic a model of a person as Sartre ever depicted in his writings – and which should be directly contrasted to the Proustian type of personality endowed with a “great natural distinction” (cf. above).
Sartre remains indifferent or even hostile towards Proust’s emphasis on a person’s superior natural qualities and/or his natural abilities in the field of aesthetics (and Sartre would naturally resent those of superior qualities/abilities belonging to the salons of whichever high society). Individuals who find themselves thrown within the Western bourgeois world cannot in whatever sense be considered “superior”, unless they are of the Genet-type. Generally speaking, but also with reference to the likes of the Genet-type outcast, Flynn summarizes Sartre’s position as follows: “It comes down to the claim that a fully human ‘man’ is impossible in our present socioeconomic condition. The best the ‘system’ can produce is a class of ‘submen’ who are structurally exploited and personally oppressed” (p. 392). And it is this class of “submen” who are the carriers of a new ethics and a new political sensibility, it being an anti-Western sensibility.
Flynn presents us with the core of Sartrean politics as follows (and which brings us back to the important political question of conflicting humanisms): “Revolutionary thinking expresses a new humanism. The shout that ‘we too are men’, which echoes among the revolutionaries, Sartre will hear voiced on several occasions, not only by the economically exploited but by the colonized and the racially oppressed. What is now at issue [for Sartre] and will continue to be is a conflict of ‘humanisms’. All these forms of injustice exhibit a kind of racist bias, as that plaintive cry attests” (p. 252). What, then, is to be done? We shall end this paper by examining the political implications of the Sartrean worldview – his wish is to explode the prison, not resurrect whatever element of aristocratic aesthetics.
Sartrean politics: exploding the system
Sartrean politics had always been at war with the Western world, in both its aristocratic and its bourgeois manifestations. The Sartrean political worldview – much of which is still ideologically present in the 21st century in a variety of forms – is at war with the whole of Western civilization, and the values that that civilization has come to embody (from slavery to serfdom and so-called wage slavery, and the wars and colonial conquests that would come to define that civilization).
In discussing Nausea, we had noted that the apparent “randomness” of life was a reality that was in fact politically loaded – Wood tells us that “Roquentin’s apprehension of life’s randomness has a specific political charge” (p. xv). And Roquentin “sees the terrible unfreedom of most people’s lives” (p. xvi). Throughout the novel, Sartre’s Roquentin is at war with everything and everyone that surrounds him – Wood writes: “He is at war with the town in which he lives, at war with the regulars at his café, at war with Anny and the Autodidact, and at war with himself, or with pieces of himself” (p. ix).
In terms of the Sartrean political worldview, everything in life is political (a slogan that would resound in May 1968). The Sartrean position that everything is political would subsume within its discourse very specific political values. In his “Sartre was not a Marxist”, Betschart notes: “Sartre’s political core values can be defined by four primary refusals: no to militarism, no to colonialism, no to discrimination (against women, Jews, blacks, gays), and no to bourgeois morality with its values regarding authority and honor, family and money” (p. 82). “Most of these values”, Betschart continues, “date back to his time at the ENS [the École Normale Supérieure, where Sartre studied between 1924 and 1929] … His anti-colonialism dates even further back to 1924 when the Rif war in Northern Morocco politicized the young Sartre. At the ENS, Sartre opposed bourgeois decency whenever he could. Only his opposition to discrimination cannot be clearly located on the timeline. His relationship with Beauvoir indicates that he already regarded women as equal when he studied at the ENS. At this time, he also had a gay friend, Marc Zuorro. On the other hand, his stance against racism may date only from the thirties …” (ibid.).
Flynn also informs us about Sartre’s espousal of a certain understanding of the socialist ideal – he writes that Sartre “from now on  … will champion a ‘concrete’ or what is more commonly called ‘positive’ freedom that, he argues, demands a kind of socialism” (p. 233). In fact, and according to Flynn’s philosophical biography, Sartre’s overall theoretical project may be seen as work “in the service of an egalitarian ideal”, or what Sartre himself called “socialism and freedom” or the “city of ends” (p. x), where the freedoms of individuals are respected as ends in themselves (cf. also Thomas C. Anderson, Sartre’s Two Ethics – From Authenticity to Integral Humanity, Open Court, 1993, p. 77).
That which is to be done cannot be based on the assumptions of whatever type of deterministic theory, as in the case of much of orthodox Marxist – and especially vulgar Marxist – thinking. Flynn explains Sartre’s position as follows: “And because this new humanism is grounded on freedom and not the recognition of historical necessity … its future is possible but not guaranteed. ‘Precisely because man is free [to act or not to do so], the triumph of socialism is not at all certain’ …” (p. 252).
While not deterministic, but given that everything is political, it is the responsibility of the individual to question the whole of Western society – and to do so as an expression of deep moral indignation. With reference to May 1968 and its political implications, Flynn observes the following: “The ‘events of May 1968’ marked a turning point in French politics and culture, the effects of which continue to this day. If it would be excessive to label it the ‘Sartrean’ revolution, as some have done, there is little doubt that these events resonated with Sartre’s model of ‘political existentialism’ … [and] its moral indignation … But as he insisted to his Maoist friends, in words worthy of Michel Foucault: ‘Everything is political; that is, everything questions society as a whole and ends up disputing it’ …” (p. 307).
Of course, one may critically observe here that the Sartrean reduction of everything to politics suggests that the possible autonomy of a field such as aesthetics – or of the Proustian understanding of aesthetics (as exhibited, for instance, in church architecture) – would be utterly annihilated. One may also further note that this Sartrean reductionism constitutes an absolute concept – or even potentially absolute practice – that could have totalitarian-type consequences in the real world (and as that did happen with the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s). One could further respond to the Sartrean idea that everything is political by merely citing Camus – who writes as follows: “There does exist … a way of acting and of thinking, for man, which are possible on the level of moderation to which he belongs. Every undertaking which is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained, nor above all, created, through history. Politics is not religion, or, if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition. How would society define an absolute? Perhaps everyone is looking for this absolute on behalf of all. But society and politics only have the responsibility of arranging everyone’s affairs so that each will have the leisure and freedom to pursue this common search. History [and thus also politics] can then no longer be presented as an object of worship” (The Rebel, p. 269).
It is well-known that Sartre – but then also elements of the radical left of the 21st century – would think otherwise. In his “Sartre was not a Marxist”, Betschart gives us some idea of Sartre’s various ideological alliances from the 1940’s through to the 1970’s, all of which confirm both his consistently radical political commitment as also his wish to maintain a certain political independence as an intellectual – we read as follows: “Politically, Sartre frequently entered into short-term alliances with Communists and other left-wing movements: the French Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (RDR) (1948-1949), the French Communists (1952-1956), the Soviet Communists (1954-1956, 1962-1968), the Algerian Liberation Front (1955-1962), Castro’s Cuba (1960-1971), and the ‘Maoist’ movements in France such as the Gauche Prolétarienne (1970-1973) and Vive la Révolution (1970-1971)” (p. 80). With respect to Sartre’s pro-Castro and pro-Maoist sympathies, as also his all too naïve belief in “direct democracy” and workers’ councils, Flynn notes the following: “Sartre and Beauvoir accepted the invitation of the Cuban journal, Revolución, to visit the island from February 22 to March 21, 1960, a year after Castro had become premier. They were effusive in their praise of the Cuban revolution and its charismatic leader. What seemed to impress Sartre particularly was the evidence for ‘direct democracy’ that he thought he observed during the visit. We shall see that preference for workers’ councils resonates with Sartre’s congenitally anarchistic leanings when his sympathies turn towards the ‘Maoists’ later in the decade” (p. 305).
The Sartrean political project would be, literally speaking, to help explode the prison – the prison of course being the Western bourgeois world. In his Saint Genet, Sartre expresses his intentions as bluntly as possible – he writes as follows: “Since it [action] cannot be carried out without breaking up the old order, it is a permanent revolution. It demolishes in order to build and disassembles in order to reassemble” (p. 24). And Sartre proceeds to argue in a manner which may be directly contrasted to the Proustian project of cultural resurrection as presented above – he continues: “We reduce the new to the old. Upkeep, maintenance, preservation, restoration, renewal – these are the actions that are permitted. They fall under the heading of repetition. Everything is full, everything hangs together, everything is in order, everything has always existed, the world is a museum of which we are the curators … As Being is the measure of perfection, an existing regime is always more perfect than one which does not exist. It is said to have demonstrated its worth. Anyone wishing to introduce the slightest improvement (and it is quite assumed that improvement is a pious notion which implies no destruction; it is a transition to a higher perfection which envelops and includes the prior perfection) is likewise required to demonstrate its worth and to give evidence, in all other respects, of an all the more profound attachment to Being, that is, to customs and traditions” (ibid.).
Sartre asserts the need for a permanent revolution which disassembles the social order because that social order permits only the maintenance and the preservation of the past (or its past) – it only permits, in other words, its own repetition, something which in itself could be taken (or mistaken) to be more or less reminiscent of the Proustian call for a certain resurrection of time past (albeit only the best of such time past). While the social order can allow for a certain improvement of itself, this improvement ought to necessarily adhere to that order’s customs and traditions. This, Sartre is arguing, reduces the world to a museum, it being a museum that hijacks the future – and thus the new and the future can only be salvaged via a ruptural revolution (the revolution could be violent, and it could take a variety of forms, both political and criminal).
The apparent “generosity” of the elites, as also the slavish “gratitude” of the masses in response to such “generosity”, leaves no room for whatever compromises with the social order. With respect to the aristocracy and its own “generosity” towards the masses (a theme also dealt with by Proust in his own way – cf. above), Sartre writes as follows in his Saint Genet: “The aristocrat consumes for the entire society. The mob is allowed to watch the king eat; the king eats with tireless generosity; the common people proclaim their gratitude through the gates, a Mass is being performed” (p. 196). The function of this “generosity” – which is also evident within the bourgeois social order, and which goes hand in hand with “conspicuous consumption” (ibid.) in the Western world – is to preserve the order. Sartre wishes to break such functionality, and do so bar whatever compromises.
Sartre’s violent anti-Western position is most lucidly presented by Wood in his introduction to Nausea. He writes as follows: “… his own brand of Marxist existentialism had oddly uncomplicated relations with Western capitalism: he simply believed that violent revolution should sweep capitalism away. He denounced the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, but argued that only socialism, not the bourgeois notions of justice and human rights, could condemn it. In 1961, in his introduction to Franz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre, he wrote: ‘… It is necessary to kill. To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to eliminate at the same time an oppressor and an oppressed.’ One cannot help reflecting on the irony that the celebrated philosopher of freedom, the great atheist, maintained an almost religious faith in an ideology that vandalized the very face of freedom” (p. xiv). We should of course note here that there is in fact little irony in the Sartrean position: Marxist ideology – whatever its variations and orthodoxies – had always been “an object of worship” (as Camus would put it) in the 20th century, and at least thus far continues to be so in the 21st century. And Camus knew exactly what he was saying when he would warn the world that as soon as any politics mutates into a religion, it becomes an Inquisition (cf. above). It may be argued that the Sartrean worldview would be such as to establish an Inquisition for the whole of the Western world. Of course, it may be counter argued that Sartre was morally justified in doing so – that, however, is well beyond our means to pass whatever judgment (it being usually history, and the manner of its writing, that passes such judgments).
Yet still, this brings us back to the critique of the Sartrean worldview as articulated by Frederic Jameson, who would point to Sartre’s “fallacy of an ‘expressive’ totality”, or his “monadic tendency” (cf. above). This fallacious tendency, we have briefly noted, is to think of each particular individual as a total reflection of the milieu to which he belongs, and who is therefore as guilty as is his milieu. It may be argued that the practical implications of such thinking could be horrendous (as Wood himself feels, describing Sartrean politics as something akin to a “religious faith” and which can result in an “unworldly monstrousness” – p. xx). Based on the assumption that each and every European is a reflection of his own milieu (and which is said to be an oppressive milieu), Sartre’s suggestion that any European ought to be killed is logically accurate. As a reflection of his own social order, in other words, each and every European is both oppressor and oppressed (and he even accepts the latter role with “gratitude”) – he therefore should be eliminated, and it should be done so on both rational and moral grounds. In his capacity as a rather more orthodox Marxist, Jameson has no choice but to object to the thinking of such a methodology – for him it is social classes that reflect a milieu, and can even reflect it as conscious oppositional forces (the milieu itself being riddled with self-contradictions). We do not intend to delve into the Jameson critique in any detail – we shall merely present a sample of his 2014 New Left Review text referred to above. Consider the following: “… the fundamental weakness of this moment of Sartre’s thought … [is] what I venture to call its ‘monadic’ tendency … as the fallacy of an ‘expressive’ totality, the notion that within a given particular the whole of a social or historical moment is somehow included, and might be available to hermeneutic exploration and display, as Sartre tried to do in his biographical works, or ‘existential psychoanalyses’. This view presupposes what he calls incarnation: ‘which means that each individual is, in a certain fashion, the total representation of his/her epoch’ … it is true that he adds the words ‘an individual, whoever it is, or a group, or some sort of assembly, is an incarnation of the total society’, which might lead us on to those discussions of class and class consciousness …”
Sartre’s persistent “monadic tendency” would mean that each and every Western individual is responsible for being just that – a Westerner. And thus, Western intellectuals who shirk the implications of such a responsibility are mere “collaborators”. Flynn notes as follows: “The situated writer who does not speak up for the economically exploited and the socially oppressed of ‘our time’, Sartre warns, is a collaborator in such oppression and exploitation” (p. 296). As regards Western colonialism and the concomitant Western racist attitudes, Sartre asserts that “We are all guilty” (Flynn, p. 304). And with respect to the Algerian question, Sartre would publish an essay in a 1958 issue of Les Temps Modernes entitled “We are all Assassins” (Flynn, p. 305). Since the whole of Western society was guilty, Sartre’s hope for a more authentic world would be based on the Genet-type outcasts, and on those select few that had come to espouse the new revolutionary ethics. Flynn writes that, for Sartre, “the entire society was bankrupt. As we see from … his ‘Maoist’ discussions, it is with those presumably few individuals who retained an ethical core that hope lies – on the condition that they commit themselves to effecting fundamental socioeconomic change” (p. 407). In his Saint Genet, Sartre declares that “The bourgeoisie … is only one drawing room. Genet will be the gravedigger of the European bourgeoisie” (p. 262).
Wood concludes his introduction to Nausea by summarizing the essence of Sartrean politics as follows: “Sartre hoped that we could simply explode the prison” (p. xx). The left-wing political discourse of the 21st century would of course speak of the need for a “cancellation” of that prison. In direct contrast, the Proustian worldview would wish us to celebrate the best that Western civilization once had to offer – we may reiterate here that Proust would see Christianity (as also elements of the aristocratic milieu) as a major aesthetic force enabling a nation such as France to accomplish whatever was of any lasting value. And it would be Christianity that would give birth to minds such as Descartes and Pascal. We have seen that Proust would even go so far as to suggest that it would be precisely that type of Christianity – with its aesthetically civilizational values – that France would export to its colonies.
The chasm between the Proustian and Sartrean worldviews remains, it seems, unbridgeable – and that, despite whatever overlaps may be identified in the life and work of these two great thinkers (we know that Sartre would be a defender of Jews; we know that Proust had endeavoured to secure the support of Anatole France for the Dreyfus case).
Nikos Vlachos (né Paul N. Tourikis)