Flaubert’s Trois contes (1877) is a medieval stained-glass window in a cathedral depicting the legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller flanked by a modern saint whose virtue exemplifies that of Julian, and by John the Baptist, whose martyrdom is the archaic fact generating Julian and Félicité. The design of this work allows for resonances among the three stories of such a symbolic and aesthetic richness that the reading of them helplessly becomes a meditation. We see that the three stories are somehow one story. The whole art of narrative is before us, inviting but not demanding attention. The perspective leads us to the cathedral window: it is a text for the illiterate, to be interpreted in sermons and religious instruction, as Flaubert shows us in the scene of Virginia's first communion in the first story, Un cocur simple, and as he himself translates one window into narrative in St.-Julien. Another window supplies the matter of the third story, Hérodias.
The triumph of these three stories is in each of them being shaped by a different power of the imagination, requiring a different style and tone. Flaubert was preparing the ground for Joyce’s polyphony as well as for Proust's harmonizing of diverse narrative tactics into one magnificent maneuver.
Flaubert’s three styles are: a painterly realism, for which we can find an analogue in Pissarro or Courbet (sharing their preoccupation with roads, villages, and farms); the style used for saints’ lives in the Legenda Aurea (from which the modern short story develops, as we can sec happening in Boccaccio), supplemented by color and drawing derived from medieval illuminated books such as Les très riches heures; and the archeological style for bringing the deep past into immediate and tactile reality which Flaubert invented for Salammbô.
We cannot trace Proust to these Flaubertian instigations without an intervening stage.
We cannot trace Proust to these Flaubertian instigations without an intervening stage. Proust took nothing raw from any source. His syntheses are complex and with an interacting geometry. Flaubert’s three transparences depend for their success on the central stained-glass window. The implications of that window for an artist were, as Flaubert demonstrated, immense and exciting. It was the rendering of a Biblical text into another medium, and at a particular time, so that we have to look at it understanding two forces at once, one from the first century, another from the twelfth, both present in the nineteenth, and both acting simultaneously in the onwardness and the stillness of time.
The writer who had studied the Gothic painted window most imaginatively was John Ruskin. In 1900 the twenty-nine -year-old Proust published his translation of Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens, a genre-defying, Shandying work, typically late Ruskin. Its mercurial center, now here, now there, is its exposition of the Gothic cathedral of Amiens as a Bible in stone, its elaborate sculptures and windows being an equivalent of a text. Ruskin assumed, as Proust would assume in A la recherche du temps perdu, an audience that was sometimes a congregation hearing moral instruction (allowing him to refer to a work of art, much as a priest might keep pointing to a particular window in his church), sometimes a group of travellers in need of a guide, sometimes simply fellow human beings who enjoy gossip and confidences. Ruskin quite early began to use the digression as a major device of style, and later saw in his infinitely branching digressions (Fors Clavigera is a long work of nothing but) “Gothic generosity”—the polar opposite of Classical restraint.
Ruskin the Fundamentalist Christian obviously saw Gothic generosity as a quality kin to Hebraic narrative art. The Bible has as firm and geometric a structure as Chartrcs, but it is a structure of cross-references and epic repetitions, of many genres—psalm, national history, philosophy, drama, letters, exhortations—serving a common purpose. Proust would meditate on the polar opposition of Jerusalem and Athens, a tension in which he would suspend many of his themes, but would elect Ruskin's mode of Gothic generosity. He frequently called A la recherche “his cathedral.”
The young Proust, dandy and snob (best translated as “connoisseur”), fell under the spell of Ruskin. His English was shaky (he worked from trots made by his mother, and consulted a veritable committee of friends to keep his text accurate), but his fervor got him through all of Ruskin. The notes he provides are amplifications of The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies, connecting these books to relevant passages in Ruskin's larger works.
Richard Macksey, professor of comparative literature at Johns Hopkins, has written a scholarly and sensitive introduction to this translation of Proust's two prefaces to Ruskin (together with a selection of Proust’s notes). Professor Macksey accounts for how Proust came to do the translations, how he did them, and of what significance they are to our understanding and appreciation of Proust.
The two prefaces are quite different. The one to The Bible of Amiens is a declaration of love for Ruskin as well as a critical and cautious assessment in which Proust shows that he does not subscribe wholly to all of Ruskin’s ideas, and does not consider Ruskin a high priest of a religion of Beauty. The second preface, to Sesame and Lilies, is the more engaging, the more “Proustian,” as we can now say. In it he becomes the author of A la recherche. Taking Ruskin's method of meditating on anything and everything, he describes his room in Illiers (Combray), muses on reading, on the spirituality of things. Ruskin is the philosopher of clutter (in his house at Brantwood, in the foreground of Turner's landscapes, in Gothic detail); Proust becomes one, too. With Ruskinian squirrelity he traces a lithograph of a general from its appearance in the house, brought by his grandfather, to its exile in his room, where all clutter was welcome, to its reincarnation as an image on a commercial poster in the dining room of the station hotel (only recognition is true knowledge). Proust, the poet of the gratuitously tangential and of essences as spiritual signs, would not want me to omit here that when I had lunch in this same station hotel a few years ago, which, like the large part of Illiers-Combray (it wears its fictional name hyphenated with its real one), is little changed, the dining room was still decorated with posters, one of which was of Proust, replacing, I would like to think, the military personage of his youth. Except that part of this preface is lifted from the abandoned Jean Santeuil, we could say we are witnessing the birth of Proust from a rich and well laid Ruskinian mulch.
Professor Macksey gives an eloquent account of how Proust absorbed and digested Ruskin, how Ruskin forms a donation into Proust's genius. It is a large donation indeed. Ruskin’s interpretation of Giotto's frescoes bleeds through Proust, a detectable under-drawing (once we know about it) in which Giotto's allegorical Vices and Virtues become characters; a working title for a section of Le temps retrouvé was Les vices et les vertus de Padoue et de Combray.
When he had read Proust, Santayana wrote several friends to admit, with some astonishment, that his whole doctrine of essences, evolved in Skepticism and Animal Faith and in The Realms of Being, had been anticipated and worked out by Proust, according him the status of a philosopher and involving him in a simultaneous discovery. Bergson was in a position to do the same, though the parallelism of their treatment of time is a commonplace observation.
Proust’s synthesis of his age transcended Ruskin’s, and continues to synthesize as his work takes its place at the center of his epoch. Roger Shattuck has written cunningly about Proust and optics. Proust is greatly involved in the recovery of Vermeer. The worlds of Monet and Proust have merged. César Franck and Fantin-Latour, Haussmann's boulevards and Art Nouveau fall within Proust’s aesthetic territory. We must revise Gothic Generosity to mean Gothic Acquisitiveness.
To Professor Macksey’s extensive analysis of Proust’s schooling at Ruskin’s knees we ought to add the culte des jeunes filles which Ruskin (in one of those feints which Proust detected in him as intellectual dishonesty) elaborated as a sustained sublimation of his arrested sexuality. The culte is extensive, and has its origins in Rousselian romanticism, in Wordsworth, in Blake, in Philipp Otto Runge, in Francis Jammes, in Whistler, in Henry James, to name but a few adepts. But even here Proust will use nothing he has not processed in the labyrinthine system of correspondences of his alchemy. Proust's frieze (his word) of girls in white dresses (Joycean transmutation of the flowering hawthorne, which Proust takes from The Bible of Amiens, Ruskin's raptures and all) with Albertine as their leader is introduced as so many Artemids, vessels of virginity and innocence. This is the way Ruskin wanted us to think of the children he adored. But Proust takes them over in a doubled acquisition, along with the Little Bands of girls and sissies from Fourier's Utopian Harmony (Petite Bande is Fourier's phrase). To them Proust can then add their corresponding Fourierist Little Hordes, which was of hoys and tomboys, and place them on Boudin’s Normandy sands. Over the years they will grow old and vicious, and Proust's slow and unforgiving revelations will open before us in a moral vision of which Ruskin had no notion.
Proust and Ruskin are an example of pupil and teacher.
Proust and Ruskin are an example of pupil and teacher wherein the pupil took, with splendid comprehension, everything the teacher knew, paid the teacher the highest gratitude, and then remade all that he had learned into a matter wholly his own. One good of this edition (the first in English) of Proust's writings about Ruskin is to remind ourselves of Proust's scholarly talents: a scholar of many talents, we should say. He is a rival of Montaigne as a humanist scholar; he is a great critic of literature and art; a psychologist; a geographer; an historian. (He liked to arrange his household staff around his bed and give them lectures on French history.) And Ruskin may have also shown Proust, by bad example, how to write an enormous book into which everything he knew could be put. Ruskin’s hooks are all like provincial museums with a long-winded guide. No matter how carefully he worked them out, as with The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters, they tended toward the-grand and wonderful clutter of The Bible of Amiens and Fors Clavigera. (Ruskin once began an Oxford lecture on Michelangelo, slid into a digression on shoes, then into one on the feet of little girls, and then into little girls altogether. In Fors he was capable of moving from the Elgin marbles to plum pudding.) It was this exhaustible fund of essences and events that became Proust's inspiration: his liberation. He had at first considered translating Emerson (who turns up in A la recherche as the favorite author of one of St.-Loup’s stage-door girlfriends) and Proust's spiritual tutor would have been even more unlikely than the one we have to contemplate. Professor Macksey shows us that we can discern Ruskin in Elstir, Vinteuil, Bergotte, and the narrator himself. Especially himself.
Both Ruskin and Proust chose to place their erotic experience in impossibilities involving permanently deferred consummation; both declined, after awhile, to inhabit the societies to which they belonged, and became hermits in surroundings totally under their own control. Neither was completely aware that he was the chronicler of the death of the western city as our only unit of civilization, though both were aware that they were chronicling the death of a culture into which they had been born. If Ruskin could have had Proust’s sense of humor, the world could not have driven him mad from time to time; if Proust had had Ruskin’s stamina and restless mobility, he could have lived to finish A la recherche with the degree of polish and completeness he longed for.
This small book is not a little one. It is, in Ruskin’s phrase, a king's treasure; it contains a world. Neither Ruskin nor Proust can be read up; they are best when read a second or third time, when the resonances become richer and richer. And for those who have not had Amiens explained to them by Ruskin, or Ruskin by Proust, it is a book promising great adventures of the imagination.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 3, on page 64
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