12.10.2009

Notes on Week 14: An Image of an Image


A question at tonight's meeting: What is a monstrance? A very beautiful one is in the photo to the left.
A monstrance is the vessel used in the Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches to display the consecrated Eucharistic Host.
Proust uses it in a lovely passage, just when M. takes shelter from the rain at the Roussainville church after comparing the country girl of his  dreams to the sculptures on the church, reflecting the physical types of the local people:
"Before our eyes, in the distance, a promised or an accursed land, Roussainville, within whose walls I had never penetrated, Roussainville was now, when the rain had ceased for us, still being chastised, like a village in the Old Testament, by all the innumerable spears and arrows of the storm, which beat down obliquely upon the dwellings of its inhabitants, or else had already received the forgiveness of the Almighty, Who had restored to it the light of His sun, which fell upon it in rays of uneven length, like the rays of a monstrance upon an altar."
We also wondered about the word sadism in referring to Mlle. Vinteuil and her friend:
It was true that in all Mlle. Vinteuil’s actions the appearance of evil was so strong and so consistent that it would have been hard to find it exhibited in such completeness save in what is nowadays called a ’sadist’; it is behind the footlights of a Paris theatre, and not under the homely lamp of an actual country house, that one expects to see a girl leading her friend on to spit upon the portrait of a father who has lived and died for nothing and no one but herself; and when we find in real life a desire for melodramatic effect, it is generally the ’sadistic’ instinct responsible for it.  
It is possible that, without being in the least inclined towards ’sadism,’ a girl might have shown the same outrageous cruelty as Mlle. Vinteuil in desecrating the memory and defying the wishes of her dead father, but she would not have given them deliberate expression in an act so crude in its symbolism, so lacking in subtlety....  
But, appearances apart, in Mlle. Vinteuil’s soul, at least in the earlier stages, the evil element was probably not unmixed. A ’sadist’ of her kind is an artist in evil, which a wholly wicked person could not be, for in that case the evil would not have been external, it would have seemed quite natural to her, and would not even have been distinguishable from herself; and as for virtue, respect for the dead, filial obedience, since she would never have practised the cult of these things, she would take no impious delight in their profanation. ’Sadists’ of Mlle. Vinteuil’s sort are creatures so purely sentimental, so virtuous by nature, that even sensual pleasure appears to them as something bad, a privilege reserved for the wicked. And when they allow themselves for a moment to enjoy it, they endeavour to impersonate, to assume all the outward appearance of wicked people, for themselves and their partners in guilt, so as to gain the momentary illusion of having escaped beyond the control of their own gentle and scrupulous natures into the inhuman world of pleasure. And I could understand how she must have longed for such an escape when I realised that it was impossible for her to effect it. At the moment when she wished to be thought the very antithesis of her father, what she at once suggested to me were the mannerisms, in thought and speech, of the poor old music-master... 
It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure, that seemed to her attractive; it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil. And as, every time that she indulged in it, pleasure came to her attended by evil thoughts such as, ordinarily, had no place in her virtuous mind, she came at length to see in pleasure itself something diabolical, to identify it with Evil...
Perhaps she would not have thought of wickedness as a state so rare, so abnormal, so exotic, one which it was so refreshing to visit, had she been able to distinguish in herself, as in all her fellow-men and women, that indifference to the sufferings which they cause which, whatever names else be given it, is the one true, terrible and lasting form of cruelty. (Emphasis added) 

So after winning us over to his argument that Mlle Vinteuil was not truly sadistic (if she were inherently evil, she would not have been able to separate her actions from her self; she was just being melodramatic), he implies that true cruel sadists are indifferent to the sufferings they cause. As always for Proust, love hurts.