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What's a Negative?

Cellulose nitrate negativeIn the subject line is one of those questions I will probably have to answer toward the end of my career, posed by some future student puzzled by a passage in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (translated into English by Moncrieff as Within a Budding Grove), the second book of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust uses an image from the process of photographic development, whose obsolescence is imminent due to the advent of digital photography, in one of his many attempts to pick apart the human act of remembering. The narrator, Marcel, is about to be introduced to Albertine, the love interest who appears in the story after the first obsession with Swann's daughter Gilberte (I have modified Moncrieff's translation somewhat to be closer to the original).

These images of the "negative" and the "inner darkroom" are so vivid to a reader at least somewhat familiar with the analog photographic process: the idea that your experience is the simple exposed film but your memory is the result of a much more complicated chemical process of development that must take place in a separate, lonely room. As we continue to think about the impact of digital photography supplanting film photography (see post on November 25, Nicéphore Niépce), these are images that we have to realize will become as foreign to future readers as references to falconry in medieval literature are to us.

At the moment when Elstir asked me to come with him so that he might introduce me to Albertine, who was sitting a little further away, I first of all finished eating a coffee éclair and, with keen interest, asked an old gentleman, whose acquaintance I had just made and to whom I thought I might offer the rose he was admiring in my buttonhole, to give me some details about certain Norman fairs. This is not to say that the introduction that followed did not give me any pleasure or did not assume a definite importance in my eyes. As for the pleasure, I was naturally not aware of it until some time later when, having returned to the hotel and been alone, I became myself again. There are some pleasures that are like photographs. What we take in the presence of the loved one is only a negative image; we develop it later, as soon as we are home, when we have once again found at our disposal that inner darkroom, the entrance to which is "blocked off" as long as we see other people.Au moment où Elstir me demanda de venir pour qu'il me présentât à Albertine, assise un peu plus loin, je finis d'abord de manger un éclair au café et demandai avec intérêt à un vieux monsieur dont je venais de faire connaissance et auquel je crus pouvoir offrir la rose qu'il admirait à ma boutonnière, de me donner des détails sur certaines foires normandes. Ce n'est pas à dire que la présentation qui suivit ne me causa aucun plaisir et n'offrit pas à mes yeux, une certaine gravité. Pour le plaisir, je ne le connus naturellement qu'un peu plus tard, quand, rentré à l'hôtel, resté seul, je fus redevenu moi-même. Il en est des plaisirs comme des photographies. Ce qu'on prend en présence de l'être aimé, n'est qu'un cliché négatif, on le développe plus tard, une fois chez soi, quand on a retrouvé à sa disposition cette chambre noire intérieure dont l'entrée est <<condamnée>> tant qu'on voit du monde.

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