Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 7: An Edifice Subverted | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 7 :  An Edifice Subverted

But the other war, the battle for the soul
Of France, scars every page. The social world,
Made more hierarchical than ever
By the democratic upsurge, has the gloss
Proust loves, yet it has set its teeth against
The intellect that he admires. His task
Must be to bring two forces into balance
By how he writes, and find the power to do so
In the hissing sparks they shower when they clash.
In real life, Proust would dine with anti-Semites —
Léon Daudet, the brother of Alphonse,
Who wrote that perfect little novel Sappho,
Was only one of them — but was not shocked
To see them stand revealed when the bell rang
As anti-Dreyfusards. For after all,
They were only authors. But when, on the page,
He made Charlus say nobody could be
A Jew and French too, that was a real fear:
Fear of a stupid notion soaking upwards
Into the edifice Proust once had thought
Thought-proof, and therefore safely occupied
With niceties of pomp and precedence.
He says of the Duchesse that when she talked
To him about the Faubourg Saint-Germain
She furnished him with literature, but when
She talked of literature she sounded like
The product of her class. Looming before him
Was the prospect of his much-loved ambience
Not yet sclerotic, not yet cancer-ridden,
But faltering as it threatened its own heart
By taking its long-cherished bigotries
For principles, and playing politics.
Proust knew that you can play at anything,
But not at being serious. Hence his style,
Born out of thinking to give thought a voice,
Returns always from any rhapsody
To frame a law. Of love, he says, we can
Speak and behave in philosophical
Detachment only when we are not in it.
Alas, it’s largely true, and if we don’t
Entirely believe it, still we’d better
Accept that it might not be always false,
Or else condemn ourselves to a dream world,
When the real world is a battlefield. Proust might
Be Darwin when he writes of nature. His
Admiring critic Jean-François Revel
Called the book’s plenitude of nature scenes
A showcase for nocturnal butterflies,
But they are crucial to the mental texture —
They are the hard truth our humanity
Emerges from, and should recall, if only
To see why we must live by better rules.