November 13, 2006

1. Warm-Ups

A. “The various modes of worship,” wrote Gibbon in the late 1700s, “which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”1 Here we have the Enlightenment-Rationalist contempt for religion. The philosophy of today, which is non-rationalist, has more respect for religion, and would say, “The various modes of worship were all considered by the philosopher as equally true” (or perhaps I should say “partially true”). As for “the people,” they’re more apt to cling to one specific religion, and they might say that, of “the various modes of worship, my mode is the only true one, the rest are false.” As for the “magistrate,” he might say that the broad-minded approach of the philosopher is “useful” to society, whereas the narrow-minded, bigoted approach of “the people” creates conflicts and problems.

B. Jung says that, in Europe, religion and morality had a “brutal, almost malignant character.”2 This is the sort of religion and morality that aroused Nietzsche’s opposition, and aroused the opposition of Enlightenment thinkers like Gibbon and Voltaire. Western religion and morality had this brutal character because Christianity was thrust upon a barbarous people, as we argued in a recent issue. Nietzsche’s arguments don’t apply to Eastern religion and morality. (Nietzsche himself, though, may have taken some jibes at Eastern religion because he didn’t understand it.)

C. In the last issue of Phlit, I linked genocide to the collapse of religious faith. This view often sparks dissent, and I received the following dissenting e-mail:

Genocide was directed by God in the Bible (see Deuteronomy, Joshua, and 1 Samuel).... God was alive and well and genocides were not only present but directed by him (or her or it).

I responded as follows:

You must admit, though, that this early God, this Old Testament God, is quite different from the God of Jesus’ time. The conception of God evolved, as Jung and others have pointed out. By 1800, the Christian God was no longer ordering genocides, he was preaching abstention from genocide. Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche predicted genocide as a consequence of the decline of religious faith, and their predictions were borne out in the 20th century. I think the genocides of the 20th century were different — both in kind and degree — from earlier genocides. I think the genocides of the 20th century are inconceivable without the death of God. [As Orwell put it, “Old Hitler’s something different. So’s Joe Stalin. They aren’t like these chaps in the old days who crucified people and chopped their heads off and so forth, just for the fun of it ... They’re something quite new something that’s never been heard of before.”]

D. Google is offering a new service, “Docs and Spreadsheets.” It allows you to do word-processing and spreadsheets online. It may mean that you don’t need to lug your laptop with you when you travel. It will make it easier to share documents with other people, and it will make it easier to backup your work. And perhaps you won’t need to buy application software, like Word and Excel; “Docs and Spreadsheets” is a challenge to Microsoft Office. But I’m attached to Word’s AutoCorrect feature, which I use like shorthand, so I’ll continue to do word-processing the old-fashioned way until online word-processing has a shorthand system.

E. I saw a movie called “Eight Below.” It’s about sled dogs in Antarctica. It’s a good family movie, but not as authentic as “March of the Penguins.”

2. Hitler

I recently saw a documentary called Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. It’s a German-made documentary, an interview with an elderly woman, Traudl Junge, who was Hitler’s secretary from ’42 until Hitler’s death. The documentary is devoid of Hollywood glitz, it’s just an interview. The documentary was a source for the movie Der Untergang (Downfall), made in 2004.

At the beginning of the documentary, Junge says that she was troubled for many years by her role in the Nazi regime. At first, when the war ended and she became aware of Nazi atrocities, she didn’t think she had contributed to those atrocities, but later, when she saw a memorial to a young German woman who had resisted the Nazis, she decided that she could have done more. Her guilty conscience troubled her for years, but at the end of her life, she said she was beginning to forgive herself. (In an earlier issue, we discussed how people often accept themselves and their lives when they’re near death.)

When Junge first met Hitler, she was 22, and had little interest in politics. She went to Hitler’s headquarters with about 10 other secretaries, all of whom were “trying out” for the post of secretary to the Fuhrer. When Hitler entered the room, Junge was surprised to find that he was nothing like the person she’d seen making speeches. He was quiet, kindly, fatherly.3 This initial impression was never effaced; Junge liked Hitler, though in retrospect she felt somewhat uncomfortable about that. How does she reconcile Hitler’s crimes with the fact that she liked him? She says that Hitler wasn’t altogether evil; rather, he was carried away by an idea — the idea of a large, powerful German Reich — and he believed that individuals should be sacrificed in order to achieve glorious goals.

There was one moment, however, when Junge hated Hitler: after Hitler committed suicide, Junge says she felt a wave of hatred sweep over her, because Hitler had abandoned his followers, and left them to fend for themselves. Junge says that, after Hitler died, his followers were deflated, lost, like puppets without a puppeteer. When Hitler was alive, he told his followers not to worry about whether their actions were right or wrong, he would take responsibility for all of them, he would be their conscience.

Junge says that Hitler was very fond of his dog, Blondi. He taught her various tricks, imitated her, and was proud that Blondi obeyed his every word. In his final days, however, Hitler poisoned Blondi, perhaps because he didn’t want her to fall into Russian hands, perhaps in order to test the poison that Himmler had given him (Hitler wanted to make sure that he could commit suicide, make sure that he wouldn’t fall into enemy hands).

After the Stalingrad disaster, when the tide of the war began to turn against Germany, Hitler tired of dining with officers, and began dining with Junge and other secretaries. One day, when the conversation turned to children, Hitler said he didn’t want to have children, because the children of genius are often cretins. Junge said she flinched when she heard this; it made her uncomfortable to hear someone refer to himself as a genius.

Hitler’s comment shows not only that he was convinced of his own genius, but also that he was a student of genius, of the psychology of genius. In Mein Kampf, Hitler said that genius is not acquired, let alone learned, it is born. Hitler’s sense of identity, his sense of who he was, was determined in large measure by the Cult of Genius, a cult that he probably imbibed from Schopenhauer.

No philosopher was ever more interested in the psychology of genius than Schopenhauer. In Mein Kampf, Hitler refers to Schopenhauer as one of history’s greatest minds, and he quotes Schopenhauer’s remark that Jews are “masters of the lie.”4 Hitler believed that his genius made him the natural, rightful leader of Germany. One of the differences between Hitler and Napoleon is that Napoleon’s view of himself wasn’t shaped by the concept of genius — at least, not to the same extent as Hitler’s was.

While Hitler admired Schopenhauer, and doubtless read him, he makes no mention of Nietzsche (if I remember correctly). Hitler was probably troubled by Nietzsche’s opposition to anti-Semitism. He does, however, agree with certain Nietzschean ideas: the rejection of pity, the rejection of democracy, the positive attitude toward war, the aspiration to improve humanity by breeding, etc.

We can conclude that Hitler shared much with the leading German philosophers of his time, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche would have been horrified to hear that some of their ideas were shared by one who killed six million Jews, one who launched a war that nearly destroyed Europe. Nazism may have seduced Heidegger (at least partially and temporarily), but I don’t think it would have seduced Schopenhauer or Nietzsche; they would have been appalled by the Holocaust, and they would have recognized Nazism as crude, demented, desperate — the rabble running riot.

Hitler’s hubris reached a high point in the early years of the war, when the Nazis were riding high. It was then that Hitler requested that a stenographer keep a record of his dinner-table conversations. I suppose a string of victories had led to hubris. And hubris led to a string of defeats.

Junge says that “Hitler and his inner circle almost never mentioned Jews.”5 Some historians reject this statement as “self-induced amnesia.” It seems plausible to me, though — far more plausible than “self-induced amnesia.”

Junge says that Hitler was troubled by stomach and digestion problems. These problems may well have been psycho-somatic. In an earlier issue, I said that Hitler’s insomnia may have resulted from his guilty conscience. Perhaps his stomach problems also resulted from his guilty conscience; perhaps his stomach problems indicate that he was divided within himself, that he wasn’t whole.

Inner divisions may have affected Hitler’s sex life, too. Junge says that Hitler’s sex life seemed to be limited because he was unable to “let himself go.” Junge says that Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun wasn’t intensely sexual. Not for him were the countless affairs in which Goebbels engaged.

Wikipedia’s article on Hitler says

As a boy, Hitler was whipped almost daily by his father. Years later he told his secretary, “I then resolved never again to cry when my father whipped me. A few days later I had the opportunity of putting my will to the test. My mother, frightened, took refuge in the front of the door. As for me, I counted silently the blows of the stick which lashed my rear end.”

Stalin was also beaten by his father — perhaps even more savagely than Hitler was. Perhaps such cruelty makes a person cruel and sadistic in their later years.

3. Himmelfarb on Hitler

In an earlier issue, I discussed Milton Himmelfarb’s essay on Leo Strauss. Himmelfarb also wrote an essay on Hitler, an essay that his nephew, Bill Kristol, considers one of his best essays. I read this Hitler essay recently, and found it somewhat disappointing.

The title of Himmelfarb’s essay is “No Hitler, No Holocaust.”6 As the title suggests, Himmelfarb believes that the Holocaust was made by Hitler, not by impersonal forces or historical laws. Just as Strauss argued that philosophy is made by individual philosophers, and we should study their texts closely, so Himmelfarb argues that history is made by individuals, and we shouldn’t let impersonal forces blind us to the importance of individuals. Strauss and Himmelfarb are both opposed to historicism — that is, opposed to the view that individuals are made by history, that individuals are a product of their time.

Himmelfarb was born in 1918, about 20 years after Strauss, and it’s possible that Strauss influenced Himmelfarb. It’s also possible that Strauss and Himmelfarb reached the same viewpoint independently of each other; perhaps the rejection of historicism was widespread — a reaction against Hegel’s and Marx’s emphasis on the historical process.7 Bill Kristol may have acquired his Straussian perspective from his uncle, before Kristol read Strauss himself, before he went to Harvard, before he came under the influence of the Harvard Straussian, Harvey Mansfield.

I was disappointed by Himmelfarb’s Hitler essay because it teaches us nothing about Hitler the man, nor does it teach us anything about history in general — about the relative importance of fate and choice, about the relative importance of impersonal forces and individual actions. Yes, Hitler played a key role in the Holocaust, but it’s also true that the Holocaust was foreseen before Hitler was born. You can argue that Hitler made history, but you can also argue that history made Hitler. This is the chicken-and-egg puzzle: there can be no chickens without eggs, but there can be no eggs without chickens. The best solution to this puzzle is the Doctrine of Mutual Arising, which originates in India. According to this Doctrine, an event is the result of countless causes that arise together. Everything in the universe arises together, everything affects everything else, everything is causing, and caused by, everything else. The Indian philosopher doesn’t see history as a chain, as a linear process; rather, he sees it as a net, a non-linear process.

I recently saw a Nova documentary on the Tenerife airplane disaster. It discussed the “myriad causes” of the disaster, and it interviewed a crash investigator who said, ‘every crash I’ve investigated has countless causes, countless factors that came together to bring about the crash.’ As Himmelfarb points to Hitler as The Cause, so the Dutch investigators of the Tenerife disaster could point to the Americans as The Cause, and the Americans could point to the Spanish as The Cause, and the Spanish could point to the Dutch pilot as The Cause. Perhaps the best explanation of the Tenerife disaster, as of the Holocaust, is the Doctrine of Mutual Arising. Events don’t have a single cause, they have a vast network of causes, any one of which can seem to be The Cause.

If Himmelfarb’s Hitler essay doesn’t discuss Hitler the man, and doesn’t discuss the historical process in general, then what does it discuss, what does it focus on? Himmelfarb argues that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was an atheist, secular anti-Semitism, not a Christian anti-Semitism. Himmelfarb argues that Hitler wasn’t Christian; rather, he was “ex-Christian and anti-Christian.” Himmelfarb argues that Jews shouldn’t fear Christians, they should fear atheists. Himmelfarb blames Jewish liberals for demonizing the Religious Right: “For many American Jews the enemy is the Moral Majority, never mind that it is pro-Israel and that its morality is close to traditional Jewish morality.” Himmelfarb blames Jewish liberals “for continuing to locate danger in Christianity, especially the Christian Right.” Himmelfarb’s opposition to secularism, and his support for traditional monotheism, is just what we find in his nephew, Bill Kristol, and in Kristol’s magazine, The Weekly Standard. Himmelfarb concludes his essay thus: “Jews now have more to fear from anti-Christians than from Christians, and from the Christian Left than from the Christian Right.”

In short, Himmelfarb uses Hitler as a cudgel with which to attack liberals, and defend conservatives. Instead of approaching Hitler in a non-partisan way, instead of using Hitler to discover eternal truths about psychology and history, he’s using Hitler for political purposes, he’s using Hitler to advance his conservative agenda. Politics poisons culture, poisons the life of the mind, as I argued in an earlier issue.

Nowadays, it’s usually the Left that injects politics into culture, but sometimes the Right does. When Ortega founded his periodical The Spectator, he said his goal was “to raise a fortress against politics for both myself and those that share my affection for pure vision and theory.” Conservative magazines like Commentary and The Weekly Standard sometimes allow politics to distort their view of culture and history. In a recent issue, I argued that The Weekly Standard presents a distorted picture of Thoreau, in order to make Thoreau agree with their own political-religious viewpoint. I admit that culture should be tied to life, and I admit that politics is part of life, but we should give politics only a small role in the life of the mind; we should try to keep the life of the mind pure, non-partisan, apolitical.

4. Gladwell on Accidents

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an essay about the explosion of the space-shuttle Challenger (“Blowup,” New Yorker, 1/22/96, p. 32). He begins by discussing the ThreeMileIsland accident: “What caused the accident was the way minor events unexpectedly interacted to create a major problem.” In complex machines like a nuclear reactor or a space shuttle, “It is almost inevitable that some combinations of minor failures will eventually amount to something catastrophic.” So Gladwell doesn’t point to One Cause, he points to several causes that arise simultaneously.

If we make one part of a machine safer, we often take greater risks elsewhere, so the net effect is the same amount of risk. Gladwell calls this “Risk homeostasis.” When Munich taxi-drivers were given better brakes, they became bolder drivers, and they had as many accidents as before.

Conversely, if we’re in a dangerous situation, we act cautiously, and the accident rate falls:

In the late nineteen-sixties, Sweden changed over from driving on the left-hand side of the road to driving on the right, a switch that one would think would create an epidemic of accidents. But, in fact, the opposite was true. People compensated for their unfamiliarity with the new traffic patterns by driving more carefully. During the next twelve months, traffic fatalities dropped seventeen per cent-before returning slowly to their previous levels.... Countries truly interested in making their streets and highways safer should think about switching over from one side of the road to the other on a regular basis.

So “risk homeostasis” works in both directions, raising risk in situations that seem safe, and lowering risk in situations that seem dangerous.

Gladwell isn’t receptive to the occult, so he doesn’t ask, “Are accidents really accidental? Or are they fated to occur, and only appear accidental? Did anyone foresee the Challenger explosion, not through rational means, but through a kind of prophetic vision?”

5. Goering

The History Channel recently broadcast a 2-hour documentary on Hermann Goering, the prominent Nazi. This documentary prompted me to read about Goering in Wikipedia. Here are some of the things I learned:

  • Goering’s father was a soldier and diplomat. “Much of Hermann’s early childhood, including a lengthy separation from his parents when his father took a diplomatic post in Haiti [was] spent with governesses and in residences supplied by his godfather von Eppenstein.... Von Eppenstein was a prominent physician and acted as a surrogate father to the children as [Goering’s father] was often absent from the family home.”8 The development of a boy’s conscience is influenced by his father. An absent father tends to produce a weak conscience, such as Goering had.9
  • Von Eppenstein was Jewish, or half-Jewish. When Goering was confronted with this fact at boarding school, “he remained steadfast in his devotion to his family’s friend and patron, so adamantly so that he was expelled from the school. The action seems to have tightened the already considerable bond between godfather and godson.”
  • Von Eppenstein probably had an affair with Goering’s mother, and he was probably the father of Goering’s “brother”, Albert. Albert had artistic and literary interests. Albert “despised Nazism and the brutality that it involved. On one occasion he is reported to have got down on his hands and knees and joined a group of Jews who were being forced to scrub the street. The SS officer in charge, unwilling to see Hermann Goering’s brother also publicly humiliated, ordered the street scrubbing to stop.” Albert helped many Jews and dissidents to make their way to freedom.
  • Von Eppenstein’s affection for Hermann was an enduring one, and he tried to provide in his will for Hermann to become the owner of his castles after his death (the castles in which Hermann had spent much of his youth). Eventually, though, the castles were bequeathed to Goering’s little daughter. Though Goering was said to have considerable affection for his daughter, his greed for wealth, property, and luxury drove him to undo the will, and make himself the owner of the castles. Thus, his wife and young daughter were left penniless after World War II. (His daughter, Edda Goering, never married, worked as a medical assistant, is probably still alive, and appears to have pro-Nazi feelings.)
  • Goering attended prestigious military academies, and was an honor student. As a fighter pilot in World War I, he shot down 22 enemy planes (he was a member of Baron von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus”). After shooting down an Australian pilot, Goering landed his plane, greeted his adversary, and presented him with his Iron Cross.
  • As the head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Goering was wary of a major war, and didn’t think his air force was ready to defeat Britain’s. Goering was even more skeptical about the invasion of Russia, and tried to dissuade Hitler from it.
  • As World War II drew to a close, Goering suggested that he take over as leader of Germany. Hitler viewed this as disloyalty, and ordered that Goering, his wife, and his daughter be executed. But Goering charmed those who were sent to arrest him, and all of them together (captives and captors) went over to the Allies and surrendered.
  • After the war, Goering and about 20 other leading Nazis were imprisoned at Nuremberg, and put on trial. A psychologist named Gustave Gilbert was allowed to interview Goering and the other Nazis; Gilbert later wrote Nuremberg Diary. Gilbert reported that Goering had a high IQ. He said that he gave Goering an ink-blot test; he showed Goering a paper with dark blots of ink, and one blood-red spot. Goering tried to wipe away the red spot (out, out, damned spot!). Gilbert concluded that Goering was a “moral coward” who tried to avoid the sight of evil.
  • At the start of the trial, the morale of the Nazis was fairly good. Later, a two-hour film was shown in the courtroom, a film showing concentration camps, starving prisoners, piles of corpses, etc. The morale of the prisoners sank. Goering and others covered their eyes or turned away. Later, Goering expressed not remorse but irritation (“that awful film”).
  • An American officer was in charge of the prison where the Nazis were kept. This officer was told not to let the Nazis commit suicide, but Goering managed to do so, just hours before his execution. The American officer was so upset by this that even on his deathbed, it troubled him.
  • Where did Goering get the poison that he used to commit suicide? According to the documentary, he charmed his American guard, and persuaded the guard to bring him a jar of lotion from his suitcase; in the lotion, he had concealed a capsule of poison.
  • It wasn’t a “pure documentary”, it was a blend of dramatization and document. There are competing theories about Goering’s death, but the History Channel chose to dramatize one of these theories, leaving the viewer with the impression that “this is what happened” instead of with the impression “this is the most probable explanation, but we don’t know for certain.” I suppose the best documentaries don’t include dramatizations.

6. Proust

A. Proust and Ruskin

When Ruskin died in 1900, Proust wrote an obituary, and several articles about Ruskin. Though not known for his terse style, Proust began his obituary “Ruskin est mort.” As I noted in a recent issue, Proust’s attitude toward Ruskin was reverential and filial. He translated two of Ruskin’s books (The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies), laboring over every word, embellishing his translations with footnotes that quoted relevant passages from other Ruskin books. “During the four years that I have worked on The Bible of Amiens,” Proust wrote, “I have learned it entirely by heart.”10 To a reviewer who had reviewed his translation, Proust wrote,

You know what admiration I have for Ruskin. And since I believe that each of us has charge of the souls that he particularly loves, charge of making them known and loved, of avoiding for them the slights of misunderstandings, and the night... of oblivion, you know with what hands — scrupulous — but pious also and as gently as I could — I have touched that soul.11

Did a reader ever have a more reverential attitude toward a writer than Proust had toward Ruskin? Perhaps a writer’s reverence for past writers is a good indication of his own merit as a writer, and nothing does Proust more credit than his reverence for Ruskin. Ruskin was one of the great writers of that period, and he’s still of deep interest to our time; Proust chose his master well.

What an assortment of talents Proust had! He could write about Ruskin with profound piety, he could write about philosophical ideas with seriousness and penetration, and he could write about social gatherings with wit and vivacity. Since Proust had a deep interest in Ruskin, it’s surprising that he had little interest in other great aesthetic writers, like Pater and Wilde.

Since Proust had a deep interest in philosophy, it’s surprising that he had little interest in the most famous philosopher of his day, Nietzsche. Proust doesn’t write about the questions that engaged Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky — the death of God and the death of morality. Proust matured just before Nietzsche became famous, so the teachers who influenced Proust weren’t familiar with Nietzsche, and didn’t introduce Proust to Nietzsche. Proust seems to have been interested chiefly in Kantian idealism and in Schopenhauer. Proust made the following remark on Schopenhauer:

The capacity for profitable reading [is] far greater with the thinkers than with the great imaginative writers. Schopenhauer, for instance, offers us the image of a mind whose vitality bears lightly the most enormous reading.12

Proust took several “Ruskinian pilgrimages” to places that Ruskin had written about. For example, he went to Venice, the place that meant most to Ruskin, and read Ruskin’s remarks on San Marco while sitting in San Marco. Proust also went to Rouen to find a tiny carving of which Ruskin was fond:

“‘I went to Rouen, [Proust wrote] as if obeying a dying wish, and as if Ruskin, upon dying, had in some way entrusted to his readers the poor creature to which he had given life again by speaking of it, and which, unknowingly, had just lost forever the person who had done for it as much as its first sculptor.’ [Proust] tells the story of his search for the carving, recounting his difficulty in identifying the tiny figure among the crowd of sculptures on the cathedral portal, followed by his delight as his companion recognizes it.”13

Ruskin follows his remarks on this tiny figure by saying that sculpture should be made with pleasure:

I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment — was the carver happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible... but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living.14

We can ask of a literary work, too, “Was it done with enjoyment?” And if we ask that about Proust’s work, it’s clear that the answer is yes, he wrote with great enjoyment. Hence he said it was easy to write his novel, and hence he wrote so much. Wilde said that Henry James wrote fiction as if it were a painful duty, but no one would say that about Proust. Proust wrote with a light heart, and with deep affection for his subject. Indeed, nothing was closer to Proust’s heart than the childhood memories that he drew upon in his fiction. Proust’s affection for his subject communicates itself to the reader, and helps to explain the reader’s affection for Proust’s work.

B. Proust as Impressionist

What exactly drew Proust to Ruskin? Aside from the fact that Ruskin was a great stylist, aside from the fact that Ruskin wrote about painting and architecture with great passion (as Tolstoy said, Ruskin wrote with his heart), aside from the fact that Ruskin was a great philosopher and prophet as well as a great art critic, was there any specific Ruskin teaching that attracted Proust? Perhaps what most attracted Proust was Ruskin’s emphasis on “the truth of impression.”

Proust’s work is about impressions, and we should perhaps call him an impressionist. When he was young, he despaired of becoming a writer because he lacked big ideas, philosophic themes, he had only impressions: “I would concentrate upon recalling exactly the line of the roof, the color of the stone...”15 These impressions give him an “unreasoning pleasure,” but they leave him wondering whether he has the stuff of literary greatness, because “each of them was associated with some material object devoid of any intellectual value, and suggesting no abstract truth.”16 Perhaps it was Ruskin who taught Proust to trust his impressions, and to base his work on them. When Marcel writes down his impressions of the moving steeples, he’s filled with a deep happiness; he has taken a first step on the road of becoming a writer.

Perhaps Proust’s impressionism is Zennish because it’s concerned with the “truth of impression” rather than with any abstract truth drawn from the impression. Perhaps all impressionism is Zennish because Zen is concerned with the sights and sounds and sensations in the world around us, rather than with abstract truths drawn from these sensations. Proust’s impressionism deals with the “real world” of steeples and flowers, and also with the artistic world of sonatas and paintings. Proust is akin to The Aesthetic Movement (Pater, Wilde, etc.) insofar as he raises art to the level of a religion/philosophy, and he treats the world as a work of art, as an aesthetic object. Proust’s Zen is like the Culture Zen of Pater.

Proust gives us his impressions in the form of metaphors. If impressions play a key role in Proust’s content, metaphors play a key role in his style. To convey his impression of the Martinville steeples, he uses a series of metaphors; he compares the steeples to “three birds perched upon the plain,” to “three flowers painted upon the sky,” and to “three maidens in a legend.”17 It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of metaphor in Proust’s work. Proust’s gift for metaphor forces us to call him a great stylist, though we may wish that his style was more concise and clear.

C. Homo-sadism

One of the strangest scenes in the “Combray” section of Swann’s Way is the scene between Mlle. Vinteuil and her female friend, a scene that blends the homo-erotic and the sadistic. The two women desecrate the memory of Mlle. Vinteuil’s late father, calling him an “ugly old monkey,” and spitting on a photo of him. Proust uses various arguments to justify the behavior of Mlle. Vinteuil. Does this strange scene re-enact a scene that Proust himself performed? Is this passage a confession and an apologia?

Proust’s biographer, George Painter, says that Proust’s father knew a man who consorted with prostitutes, and ridiculed his wife to the prostitutes. Painter says that this man may have been jesting, but Proust took the story seriously, perhaps because he did such things himself, or at least had a proclivity to do such things. “The same form of cerebral sadism,” Painter writes, “was a constant element in Proust’s own ambivalent love-hatred for his mother, both in her lifetime and long after her death, and in the homosexual relationships with social inferiors with which... he sought to profane her memory.”18 Proust’s love-hatred for his mother resembles that of Mlle. Vinteuil for her father.

Proust excuses Mlle. Vinteuil’s behavior on various grounds. He speaks of “the instinctive generosity of her nature,”19 and its “genuine goodness.”20

If M. Vinteuil had been able to be present at this scene [Proust writes], he might still, and in spite of everything, have continued to believe in his daughter’s soundness of heart, [and] he might even, in so doing, have been not altogether wrong.... 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.... ‘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 endeavor to impersonate, to assume all the outward appearance of wicked people.... It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure, that seemed to her attractive; it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil.21

This is doubtless true, not only of Mlle. Vinteuil, but of Proust himself. This explains why Proust portrayed homosexuality in a negative light, though he was homosexual himself. For Proust, pleasure=evil, and pleasure=homosexuality, ergo homosexuality=evil. Gide, who was also homosexual, portrayed homosexuality in a more positive way, and was troubled that Proust “stigmatized” homosexuality. Proust’s insight into Mlle. Vinteuil’s motives would be difficult to account for if these motives weren’t his own. His desire to justify her conduct would be difficult to account for if his own conduct didn’t resemble hers. And his choice of subject matter would be difficult to account for if he weren’t driven to confess and explain his own conduct.

Proust concludes this scene by suggesting that Mlle. Vinteuil not only wasn’t evil, not only was good, she was exceptionally, uniquely good:

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... is the one true, terrible and lasting form of cruelty.22

Thus, Proust suggests that Mlle. Vinteuil (i.e., Proust himself) didn’t possess, or at least didn’t discern in herself, real cruelty, but does find real cruelty in “her fellow-men and women.”

Because Proust’s work is connected so closely to his life, Proust is a challenge to those who maintain that literature is objective, that literature isn’t connected to the author’s own life. We said above that Proust’s work is based on his fondest childhood memories. It’s also based on his strangest impulses, and on his most painful experiences (such as his mother’s death). Writing about his perversities and sufferings met a psychological need, helped Proust to overcome these experiences, served a cathartic function. Proust enjoyed writing about the experiences that meant the most to him — his fondest memories, and also his most perverse actions and his most agonizing sufferings.

© L. James Hammond 2006
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, ch. 2, part 1 back
2. Psychology and the East, “Commentary on the Secret of the Golden Flower,” ch. 5, par. 70 back
3. As Hitler’s nurse put it, “He was so informal. He would talk to you quite normally.”(Interview with The Guardian, May 2, 2005) back
4. Perhaps Schopenhauer failed to reflect that a persecuted people must adopt defensive measures in order to survive, as we discussed in an earlier issue. back
5. See the Wikipedia article on Junge. back
6. Commentary, March, 1984 back
7. If Hegel was the first historicist, who was the first opponent of historicism? Kierkegaard, who spent his life opposing Hegel, may be the first opponent of historicism. back
8. See the Wikipedia article on Goering. back
9. I discussed this in my essay on Oswald and Kennedy. An amiable father tends to produce a strict conscience, while a despotic father tends to produce a weaker conscience. See my comments on Dostoyevsky and Boswell. back
10. The Cambridge Companion to Proust, “Ruskin and the cathedral of lost souls”, by Diane R. Leonard, p. 49 back
11. ibid back
12. “On Reading” back
13. ibid, p. 47 back
14. The Seven Lamps of Architecture, ch. 5, sec. XXIV, p. 177 back
15. Swann’s Way, “Combray”, p. 230 back
16. ibid back
17. ibid, p. 233 back
18. vol. II, ch. 3 back
19. p. 207 back
20. p. 209 back
21. p. 210 back
22. p. 212 back