Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 9: The Rhythm of Inclusion | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 9 :  The Rhythm of Inclusion

For Proust, who guessed a long way in advance
That he would scarcely live at all, this view —
A view which, logically pursued, confines
All works of art to being reproductions
Of the individuals who give rise to them —
Was worse than a cliché, it was a crime.
And so he aimed a whole book at Sainte-Beuve
(As a great chef might construct a custard pie
Specifically to fit a certain face),
But, studying his subject, could not help
Catching the rhythm of his bête noire’s voice,
And thus, in all the purlieus of Proust’s book
Where you expect but do not find Balzac —
We hear his name but no hint of his keen
Interest in income and expenditure —
You find the cadence of a bourgeois critic
Who dined at Magny’s with the Goncourt brothers
In comfort, well content with his prestige.
By echoing, against his will, the prolix
Outpouring of a comprehensive view —
The Monday articles by which Sainte-Beuve
Entranced a nation — Proust entranced the world,
And still does, more than ever, now the world
Disintegrates into a trillion signs
That no machine makes sense of on its own,
Except by breaking up the paragraphs,
Making italics roman, and in general
Packaging literature to suit the Web.
Sainte-Beuve, who would have found him second-rate
Like any first-rate artist except one
(Sainte-Beuve praised Victor Hugo, though perhaps
From guilt for his affair with Hugo’s wife),
Thus helped to give us Proust, by bringing prose
To levels where it took a genius
To take it further. Not that Proust acknowledged
A debt to either of the French traditions,
Whether the quick barb or the easy sweep:
He wanted to be Ruskin, whom he read
As haltingly as most of us read French.
It doesn’t matter. Proust incorporates:
The second thing his prose does, but the first
Is having so much to include, and here
It is his range that dazzles us so much
We can hardly see for looking. Even when
Marcel’s deep love for the Duchesse has faded
Into a friendship where he is no longer
Blind to her faults — her hypocritical
Indifference to her servants is enough,
In his eyes, to demolish her position
As an angel — still her stylish qualities
Obsess him. Waiting for her carriage home
From an evening chez the Princesse de Guermantes,
She stands poised at the head of the front steps
In her cloak like something from Tiepolo,
Her rubies brilliant at her throat. But then
She skips across the steps to give her blessing
To Mme de Gallardon, whom she shut out
From her acquaintance but has now forgiven —
The grand forgive a victim for the crime
That they themselves committed — and recalls,
In how she moves, the lightness and the grace
Proust gave Saint-Loup high up on the banquette.
Proust doesn’t spell it out, but the two scenes
Mimic each other in their pace and diction,
And besides, the airy charm is in the blood:
Saint-Loup is also a Guermantes. They are
A blood-line that gives style to influence,
Though in the course of Proust’s long narrative
(For once a word is fitting that should never,
Ever be used except about the arts)
Their power shows a hint of growing weak,
As if, in France, the shock-wave of the Commune
Had shifted even the grandest families
Further towards the edge of history
Where royalty had long preceded them
To darkness from the sharp-edged precipice.
For Proust, however, nothing beats the Duchesse
As an arbiter of all that’s elegant:
Just as, in life, the woman she was based on,
Elisabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe, held sway
In the beau monde by her sure taste for beauty
As much as her position, which she risked
By leading the descent from the Faubourg
To see the Ballets Russes, almost as if
The great were in attendance on the artists,
And not the other way about. For Proust,
The fashionable world is a theatre,
And this theatre is a reef. It teems
With life, and he not only names the names
Of the grandees, but of the servants. Françoise,
A servant in his family since his birth,
Has ‘simple but unerring taste’ in clothes,
Which tells you, at a blow, that Proust thought style
A thing of talent, not just privilege.
So there was nothing that he did not see
Or hear, but was he deaf and blind to love?
Surely the biggest subject of his book
Is passion, and our biggest question for him
Is whether he was right about that too.