Proust in Purgatory

“The marine dining-room of Balbec, with its damask linen prepared like so many altar-cloths to receive the setting sun, had sought to shatter the solidity of the Guermantes mansion, to force open its doors, and for an instant had made the sofas around me sway and tremble as on another occasion it had done to the tables of the restaurant in Paris. Always, when these resurrections took place, the distant scene engendered around the common sensation had for a moment grappled, like a wrestler, with the present scene. Always the present scene had come off victorious, and always the vanquished one had appeared to me the more beautiful of the two, so beautiful that I had remained in a state of ecstasy on the uneven paving-stones or before the cup of tea, endeavouring to prolong or to reproduce the momentary appearances of the Combray or the Balbec or the Venice which invaded only to be driven back, which rose up only at once to abandon me in the midst of the new scene which somehow, nevertheless, the past had been able to permeate.”

There is precedent in In Search of Lost Time for paralleling secular and religious experience- the famous of episode the madeleine dipped in tea occurs because the young Marcel does not go out before Mass on Sundays; he has tea with his aunt Leonie instead. In the quotation I have provided above, another example of involuntary memory is framed with recognisable props from Catholic worship, along with the word ‘resurrection’, to give the moment a religiously charged air.  An implied relationship is established between the historic ceremony, part of France’s cultural fabric, from which a transcendent experience is achieved, and the narrator’s personal revelation at the bottom of a cup of tea. In Proust’s customary sustained exposition of the scene, he links memories to the souls of the dead, lying in a dormant state before being recalled by a shock of involuntary memory. This, of course, is an allusion to the Catholic doctrine that death is not the end; prayers are necessary to establish worth for the Second Coming, and there is the particular emphasis on the living to pray for the souls of the dead in purgatory in order for them to finally achieve release into heaven. As the Council of Trent decreed – “the souls therein detained are aided by the suffrages of the faithful and principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.” There is little literature that I can find which develops upon how Proust’s vision of memory is influenced by Catholic doctrine (particularly purgatory) and the status of Catholicism in France during his formative years; this is my attempt to make a few suggestions.

But first, some context. Proust was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic mother, split between two cultures each with an enormous pressure on filial inheritance. France’s religious laws at the time meant that his mother was free to practice her religion, but her son had to be baptised in the Catholic faith. Still, Proust’s close connection to his mother ensured that he did not become detached from the religion, and Milton Hindus notes that, notoriously poor health permitting, Proust would arrange an annual pilgrimage to the Jewish cemetery in order to visit his ancestors. 1905 was arguably the formative year beyond all others for Proust, as his beloved mother died and France passed its Separation Law, which seismically ruptured Church from State. The Law was borne out of the Dreyfus Affair, an event whose divisiveness in French society is difficult to overstate. The fallout meant that France split into two political camps, with the increasingly anti-clerical Drefyusards coming into government after 1899. With the Separation Law, Napoleon’s Concordat of Church and State was broken, religious schools were secularised, and the nobis nominavit was adjusted to say that bishops were now state employees, rather than delegates of Rome. One should always be wary of second guessing an author’s feelings, but I believe that the two events coalesced to inspire the writer to form his particular renditions of memory in his novel. He loses his closest relative, friend, and love of his life at the same time as France shears religious buildings of their innate power, putting religion on the same level as any secular activity that may take place there. Exacerbated by Proust’s duality of religious inheritance (Proust’s mother was not given a Christian burial), religion no longer has sole claim to the process of commemorating the dead and, in effect, resurrecting them through ritual. The use of involuntary memory in In Search of Lost Time is an attempt to find a compromise to this, to pull up the ‘dead’ matter of someone’s life in an unexpected moment of clarity and discovery.

Proust was compelled enough by the issue of Separation to write two articles on the subject, arguing in the ‘Death of Cathedrals’ in 1904 that:

our churches may, and often will, be alienated from their true purpose; not only will no government subsidy be forthcoming for the celebration of the rites, but the very fabrics will be transformed in whatever way may seem fit for those in authority: to serve the purpose of museums, lecture halls or casinos.

Proust wants to maintain churches as an oasis of transcendent experience, not static ‘museums’, even though he was no committed Catholic himself. He also states:

no longer will you listen to the Mass that was assured to you through the most undeniable sums of your money donated to the building of the church. No longer will the dead govern the living, according to the profound saying. And the forgetful living will have ceased to carry out the wishes of the dead.

This is largely inspired by his great influence Ruskin.  From Ruskin he develops a peculiar affectation for Gothic religion and architecture which is neither fully within the realms of religion nor fully in the world of art – an in-between space, where cathedrals provoke the rapture of art but with a sense of obsequiousness in the viewer to the enormity of the effort and belief which is memorialised by the architecture. The character of Marcel has his own special influence within the novel, the author Bergotte, and his death is described as follows:

He was buried, but all that dismal night, his books, laid out three by three in the lighted shop windows, kept vigil like angels with their wings spread, and seemed for he who was no longer, the symbol of his resurrection.

Notice that word ‘resurrection’ again, as well as a simile which establishes the indeterminacy between whether religion or art is the key to memorial. This is another side effect of the Separation Law in Proust’s work and one which is unique because it affects the reception of artists; do they occupy a domain with its own rules for remembrance, or are they part of a bigger religious collective which, in essence, means their creative works have no more need for remembrance than that of the ordinary man? It’s a difficult debate, and one that can be analysed by looking at Proust’s engagement with another of his important influences.

Another of Proust’s important influences was Francois de Chateaubriand, a useful case study to consider as Proust borrowed much from him but fell short of becoming the Christian apologist that Chateaubriand was. At one point in The Genius of Christianity Chateaubriand writes:

Finally, not satisfied with having fulfilled these duties in behalf of each individual, Religion crowns her pious work in honor of the dead by a general ceremonial, which recalls the memory of the innumerable inhabitants of the grave, that vast community of departed mortals where rich and poor lie together, that republic of perfect equality where no one can enter without first doffing his helmet or crown to pass under the low door of the tomb.

By his conception, the wonder of the Catholic rites of death is to show the real equality of the kingdom of man, as death is the inevitability that unites everyone. With regards to purgatory, Chateaubriand writes:

My virtue, insignificant being as I am, becomes the common property of Christians; and, as I participate in the guilt of Adam, so also the good that I possess passes to the account of others.

Here there is a similar emphasis on religion’s ability to reconcile rich and poor – a few lines later Chateaubriand equates prayer with ‘giving bread’, the symbol of sharing and selflessness par excellence. Coming from a chimeric religious background, Proust cannot possess the same confidence in one faith alone. The quotations taken from the novel in this essay point to wars a peripheral religion, one where the symbols are recognised and adopted in the prose to provide a confirmation of transcendent experience, but the kernel is essentially secular. The next step in democratisation of an individual’s remembrance is to promote their history and its recollection as the best way of achieving that. Maybe it is a warning of sorts against Separation (Proust’s irony is underappreciated by most readers who, like myself, fall in love with the fluidity of his prose), or maybe it is a reflective suggestion on how the past can stay with an individual without the rigorous structure of Catholic ceremony.

There is another piece of context to consider here on top of the Separation Law, one which lacks the immediate political expediency and influence of Drefyusism. In the last decades of the 19th century, European states increasingly looked at cremation as a necessarily effective method of disposing of dead bodies, because the increased population density of urban centres was promoting the spread of infectious diseases. In France a Cremation Society was formed in the 1870s to agitate for a law to permit it, which was eventually passed by 1889. Between the latter date and 1907, over 70,000 cremations took place in Paris. Apart from exceptional circumstances, Catholic rites for the dead depend on the presence of the body in the church to realise their full symbolic power. With cremation, the church was dealt another blow to coincide with the state’s claim over the buildings. The two factors combined to puncture the religious sanctity around preservation and commemoration of the dead. The specialised realisation of post-mortem remembrance could no longer be taken for granted.

Proust is magnificent in opening up the ambivalence of such a paradigm shift – at once it means that the reserve of France’s cultural power is completely drained of its heritage, but on the other hand it democratises memory to the point at which anything can be sacred, so anything can become a mnemonic towards recalling the past and propagating its importance. On the subject of deomcratisation, another development towards preserving the dead was a law of November 1881 which ended religious discrimination on burials and allowed Protestants, Jews, and Catholics to be buried side-by-side. Proust’s intense concentration on individual experience is inevitable in that case, because the vision of a community restricted by religious sect is ameliorated. The memory of the individual is more important than commemoration of an entire religious community on their behalf.

It is easy to think that with a narrator as wordy as Marcel, who appears to insert his entire manifesto into the second half of Time Regained, that all aspects of the author’s philosophy are communicated directly to the reader. And yet, it is difficult to establish whether Proust attempts to find a subtle invocation of Catholic practice in secular activities, or whether he promotes the miracles of everyday life as an alternative to Catholicism following the Separation of Church and State. His article on the ‘Death of Cathedrals’ doesn’t make matters much clearer, as it is most effective only at projecting his ambivalence between valuing Christian architecture for its cultural heritage, and the uniquely religious purpose of the ceremonies which take place within it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s