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29.12.03

Proust and Homosexuality

This is one of the main themes of Marcel Proust's vast novel À la recherche du temps perdu, a book written by a homosexual, writing in the person of a heterosexual narrator, who passes judgment on homosexual behavior. In a sense, the narrator's eyes are gradually opened to an understanding of a sort of shadow world of homosexuality, and he seeks to understand more completely the motivations and lifestyle of those involved in it. Given the complicated background of the author and his book, two passages dealing with antihomosexual violence, what is called in our time "gay bashing," present difficulties in interpretation. The first occurs in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (in English, Within a Budding Grove) where the narrator's friend Saint-Loup describes the youthful sexual activities of his uncle Palamède, also known as the Baron de Charlus (see my previous post on the model for this character, Evocation of a Royalist Past, December 23):

Saint-Loup told me about his uncle's early life, now a long time ago. Every day he used to take women to a bachelor establishment which he shared with two of his friends, as good-looking as himself, on account of which they were known as 'The Three Graces'.

"One day, a man who just now is very much in the eye, as Balzac would say, of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, but who at a rather awkward period of his early life displayed odd tastes, asked my uncle to let him come to this place. But no sooner had he arrived than it was not to the ladies but to my uncle Palamède that he began to make overtures. My uncle pretended not to understand, made an excuse to send for his two friends; they appeared on the scene, seized the offender, stripped him, thrashed him till he bled, and then with twenty degrees of frost outside kicked him into the street where he was found more dead than alive; so much so that the police started an inquiry which the poor devil had the greatest difficulty in getting them to abandon. My uncle would never go in for such drastic methods now, in fact you can't conceive the number of men of humble position that he, who is so haughty with people in society, has shewn his affection, taken under his wing, even if he is paid for it with ingratitude. It may be a servant who has looked after him in a hotel, for whom he will find a place in Paris, or a farm-labourer whom he will pay to have taught a trade. That is really the rather nice side of his character, in contrast to his social side."
The second passage involves Saint-Loup himself in the third volume, The Guermantes Way (in French, Le Côté de Guermantes). After Saint-Loup has already had a fight with a journalist at the theater, he has another fight in the street while walking with Marcel, who has fallen slightly behind him:
I tried for a few seconds to recall those distant impressions, and was hurrying at a 'gymnastic' pace to overtake Saint-Loup when I saw that a gentleman, somewhat shabbily attired, appeared to be talking to him confidentially. I concluded that this was a personal friend of Robert; at the same time they seemed to be drawing even closer to one another; suddenly, as a meteor flashes through the sky, I saw a number of ovoid bodies assume with a giddy swiftness all the positions necessary for them to form, before Saint-Loup's face and body, a flickering constellation. Flung out like stones from a catapult, they seemed to me to be at the very least seven in number. They were merely, however, Saint-Loup's pair of fists, multiplied by the speed with which they were changing their places in this—to all appearance ideal and decorative—arrangement. But this elaborate display was nothing more than a pummelling which Saint-Loup was administering, the true character of which, aggressive rather than aesthetic, was first revealed to me by the aspect of the shabbily dressed gentleman who appeared to be losing at once his self-possession, his lower jaw and a quantity of blood. He gave fictitious explanations to the people who came up to question him, turned his head and, seeing that Saint-Loup had made off and was hastening to rejoin me, stood gazing after him with an offended, crushed, but by no means furious expression on his face. Saint-Loup, on the other hand, was furious, although he himself had received no blow, and his eyes were still blazing with anger when he reached me. The incident was in no way connected (as I had supposed) with the assault in the theatre. It was an impassioned loiterer who, seeing the fine-looking young soldier that Saint-Loup was, had made overtures to him. My friend could not get over the audacity of this 'clique' who no longer even waited for the shades of night to cover their operations, and spoke of the suggestion that had been made to him with the same indignation as the newspapers use in reporting an armed assault and robbery, in broad daylight, in the centre of Paris. And yet the recipient of his blow was excusable in one respect, for the trend of the downward slope brings desire so rapidly to the point of enjoyment that beauty by itself appears to imply consent. Now, that Saint-Loup was beautiful was beyond dispute. Castigation such as he had just administered has this value, for men of the type that had accosted him, that it makes them think seriously of their conduct, though never for long enough to enable them to amend their ways and thus escape correction at the hands of the law. And so, although Saint-Loup's arm had shot out instinctively, without any preliminary thought, all such punishments, even when they reinforce the law, are powerless to bring about any uniformity in morals.
The final two sentences of this passage are a clear endorsement of gay bashing as a valid way to "reinforce the law." I don't know if one is meant to interpret this as a self-deceived statement from a closeted homosexual or, if we turn that on its head, as a criticism of heterosexual morality through the person of a heterosexual narrator. What is clear is that homosexuality in Proust's novel is linked to a staggering sense of self-hatred. As Proust and his narrator peel away the onion-like layers of Charlus at the end of the third volume and especially in the fourth volume, Cities on the Plain (in French, Sodome et Gomorrhe), Marcel's scorn for Charlus becomes more and more pronounced. As I have just now begun the fourth volume, I will have to say more about that later. (The heterosexuality of Proust's narrator is questioned by Gregory Woods in his interesting article on Proust for glbtq.com, which is obviously written from a homosexual viewpoint.)

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