A Love Affair with Art

As Nick recently pointed out to me, I have told a fair number of white lies this week (for very minor reasons, but still a bit shameful!), and so I will give my creative license a break here and not try and pretend to you, my faithful readers, that I am up-to-date with my required Proust reading. In fact, I am no fewer than 250 pages behind my goal for Sunday, and, unless I am hit by a sudden wave of efficiency, or find myself with an entire Saturday in which I can do nothing but sit in a café with a glass of wine and read (oh how I miss Paris sometimes!), I will continue to make my way to page 567 with halting grace. I assure you, I will get there. But for now, I am, so to speak, very much in search of lost time (it’s clever—don’t wince!).

In the meantime, I am deep enough into “Swann In Love” to be able to comment on what I see as one of the main elements of the story and, I believe, of the novel as a (massive) whole. Swann finds himself desperately and shyly in love with Odette, a woman whose family he charms through a series of cocktail parties and long, drawn-out evenings, who loves afternoon tea and flouncy silk Japanese cushions and to whom, it initially appears, he is no more attracted than to his own sister. He finds her cheekbones too hallow, her skin too blotchy, and, for the first few pages of the chapter, we have absolutely no idea what it is that actually attracts Swann to this woman. And then he goes to hear Vinteuil’s Sonata (see Nora’s most recent post) at Odette’s house, and is totally and completely lost to her.

But that night, at Mme Verdurin’s, scarcely had the young pianist begun to play than suddenly, after a high note sustained through two whole bars, Swann sensed its approach, stealing forth from beneath that long-drawn sonority, stretched like a curtain of sound to veil the mystery of its incubation, and recognised, secret, murmuring, detached, the airy and perfumed phrase that he had loved. And it was so peculiarly itself, it had so individual, so irreplaceable a charm, that Swann felt as though he had met, in a friend’s drawing room, a woman whom he had seen and admired in the street and had despaired of ever seeing again (298-299).

It is this ability to recapture and distill a revelation from his past, the immortality of the piece of music, with which Swann falls in love, and so he is able to transfer this ecstasy to his feelings for Odette, who becomes newly-embodied with the lustrous and eternal. She is no longer the slightly plain daughter of his family friend. She is shrouded in music and embodied by art. And Swann, at last, is entranced.

He envisions Odette in terms of an artistic aesthetic. Her face becomes one of Botticelli’s straw-haired girls, her blotchy skin the foggy sfumato of a Renaissance tableau. He is able, through this conflation of a live woman with a static medium, to see past her face and into a type, an artistic style, a beauty he knows is beyond her.

He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent on her face and her body, and these he tried incessantly to recapture thereafter, both when he was with Odette and when he was thinking of her (316).

Culturally, we have a fixation on the depiction and embodiment of romance. True love, it seems, is the ultimate achievement, the elusive and striven-for goal that infuses the everyday with wonder.  It is overblown and under-emphasized, both the obsession of our society and something we still cannot collectively understand. It is the closest to magic we can touch, and we grasp at it with fervency.

But sometimes, I would argue, it is art and not life with which we fall in love. It is the sunset over the Adriatic, the sweet falsetto of an opera singer, the perfume of white roses on a midsummer night. Too many Disney movies and Sinatra songs have conspired to make us long for a reality that is seldom like its portrayal. Swann is able, by likening Odette to a painting and allowing himself to be swept away in her sonata, to attain this fantasy while evading its embodiment. His affair, as it were, begins with Botticelli and not Odette. Whether it evolves to encompass the reality of her imperfections has yet to be seen. But for now, as we all have done at some point in our lives, he has become enamored with a vision, with an art, and through this finds his desire.

Having seen and known love so wonderful that it is able to banish my more bitter inclinations, I can attest to the fact that there is a reason for our cultural obsession, that the real thing is ten thousand times more wonderful than its portrayal. And that, I would suppose, is how we know love is real, and lasting—when it surpasses the art that strives so desperately to imortalize it.

For in the end, art and love accomplish the same ends; both prove to us “the presence of one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe” (298).

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