Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 13: You Saw Nothing in Hiroshima | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 13 :  You Saw Nothing in Hiroshima

From that viewpoint, his book has no sound-bites
To take away, or even a summation:
It merely has a tone, as when he says
It’s not because those we have known are dead
That our affection for them fades, it is
Because we, too, are dying. But he might
Be fooling us. ‘One lies all one’s life long’:
He said that, too. His book, big for a book,
Is still small for a world. Alain Resnais
Made films that echoed him but we won’t find
In Proust the harbingers of Delphine Seyrig
Draped on an enigmatic balustrade
In Marienbad while the men in black ties play
The match game, or the desolate voice-over
Of Hiroshima Mon Amour. Those things —
At least as consciously aestheticized
As almost anything dreamed up by Proust —
Were done strictly for us. If he had lived
To watch the Prussian aristocracy,
Having regained its honour in the plot
Of July 20th, 1944,
Retire from politics but lend its means
To service — had he seen the Gräfin Dönhoff,
A true-blue grande dame to the castle born,
Give all her taste and judgement and prestige
To her newspaper Die Zeit and so help guide
Her nation back to take its leading role
In a democratic Europe — Proust might well
Have noted that his picture of a class
Losing its vestiges of relevance
Was slightly overdrawn. To punish him
For incompleteness, though, is to be Xerxes
Beating the sea with rods. Not even he
Could see the times to come. Best to give thanks
For the patience Stefan Zweig ascribed to Rilke,
Which Proust shared: he could wait for the return
Of memories in his blood. No doubt we could
Leave him unread. A friend of mine who speaks
French perfectly, knows Flaubert note for note,
And goes on French TV to talk about
France vis-à-vis Great Britain and vice versa,
Still hasn’t read a word of Proust, and that,
For him, is best. My daughters both revisit
All of Jane Austen every year or two,
And neither feels the need for information
About a bunch of snobs across the Channel:
They’d rather binge-watch The West Wing again,
A perfect pleasure the whole family shares.
I see their point, but speaking for myself,
Proust’s book gave me the courage to admit —
As did the culture of Japan, as did
The architecture of the Winter Palace,
The glass and plaster of the Amalienburg
And many fine and delicate things throughout
Our heritage — think of the Graces swaying
In Botticelli’s Primavera, think
Of the bronzes that a scuba diver found
Two hundred metres down in the sand floor
Of the sea at Capo Riace in our time,
Those bronzes that had spent two thousand years
Being beautiful down there — think of all that
And too much more that I have no time now
Even to name, now that my death comes close —
To admit that almost all I’ve ever loved
Exists in contrast to my nature. I,
A clumsy man, and thoughtless, with small gifts
Of subtlety or intuition, have
No natural business fondling the fine-drawn
And exquisite. Tanagra figurines,
If given to my keeping, I’d have used
For paperweights. We’re talking a born vandal,
A Goth dyed in the wool. Yet all my life
People and things I’ve loved have always shared
Unnecessary grace. Life would have worked
As well without it, so the preference felt
Like selfishness, the ripping of fine things
From conquered walls in envious revenge,
Though really human life produced refinement
Before society was even thought of:
When people still were hunting what they ate
And eating it without a single napkin,
Some of them painted, deep inside their caves,
Pictures of animals at least as pure
And sure as any by Picasso, who
Already, in another part of Paris,
Had plundered all of history for his palette
While Proust still lived. Proust sanctions such excess
By tracing our concern with how things look
Not just back to the urge to reproduce —
How can we separate the sighing wish
To touch the owner of a pretty face
From the poised and learned way that we prefer
The light and airy Virgin of the Rocks
In the Louvre to the steely one in London? —
But further back than that, to where and when
The nautilus, adrift on the long swell,
Was intricate and lovely and no one
Was even there to see it. Art came first:
We just gave it a name. It is the task
Of Proust to fix in place the flux of things —
The stream that Heraclitus said is never
The same each time that we step into it —
For long enough to tell us why its taste
Takes so much bitterness to make it sweet.