Friday, February 17, 2017

astonishment at the tangled web of some character

If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life as elsewhere. Experience is the only guide here; but as no one man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every ease to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in the specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.

But let nature, to the perplexity of the naturalists, produce her duck-billed beavers as she may, lesser authors some may hold, have no business to be perplexing readers with duck-billed characters. Always, they should represent human nature not in obscurity, but transparency, which, indeed, is the practice with most novelists, and is, perhaps, in certain cases, someway felt to be a kind of honor rendered by them to their kind. But, whether it involve honor or otherwise might be mooted, considering that, if these waters of human nature can be so readily seen through, it may be either that they are very pure or very shallow. Upon the whole, it might rather be thought, that he, who, in view of its inconsistencies, says of human nature the same that, in view of its contrasts, is said of the divine nature, that it is past finding out, thereby evinces a better appreciation of it than he who, by always representing it in a clear light, leaves it to be inferred that he clearly knows all about it.

But though there is a prejudice against inconsistent characters in books, yet the prejudice bears the other way, when what seemed at first their inconsistency, afterwards, by the skill of the writer, turns out to be their good keeping. The great masters excel in nothing so much as in this very particular. They challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it; in this way throwing open, sometimes to the understanding even of school misses, the last complications of that spirit which is affirmed by its Creator to be fearfully and wonderfully made.

At least, something like this is claimed for certain psychological novelists; nor will the claim be here disputed. Yet, as touching this point, it may prove suggestive, that all those sallies of ingenuity, having for their end the revelation of human nature on fixed principles, have, by the best judges, been excluded with contempt from the ranks of the sciences—palmistry, physiognomy, phrenology, psychology. Likewise, the fact, that in all ages such conflicting views have, by the most eminent minds, been taken of mankind, would, as with other topics, seem some presumption of a pretty general and pretty thorough ignorance of it. Which may appear the less improbable if it be considered that, after poring over the best novels professing to portray human nature, the studious youth will still run risk of being too often at fault upon actually entering the world; whereas, had he been furnished with a true delineation, it ought to fare with him something as with a stranger entering, map in hand, Boston town; the streets may be very crooked, he may often pause; but, thanks to his true map, he does not hopelessly lose his way. Nor, to this comparison, can it be an adequate objection, that the twistings of the town are always the same, and those of human nature subject to variation. The grand points of human nature are the same to-day they were a thousand years ago. The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.

But as, in spite of seeming discouragement, some mathematicians are yet in hopes of hitting upon an exact method of determining the longitude, the more earnest psychologists may, in the face of previous failures, still cherish expectations with regard to some mode of infallibly discovering the heart of man.
From one of several essays about literature worked into Melville's The Confidence-Man. This is most of "Chapter XIV: Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom it May Prove Worth Considering." I must say that Melville hits the nail pretty squarely on the head here.

Friday, February 10, 2017

He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly simply because their temperament is feminine

I have not read much in the way of Proust studies, so I don't know if it's already been pointed out: the similarities between the Marcel character and the Charlus character in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, especially in volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah. Is the irony intentional? Was Marcel Proust aware that Marcel-the-narrator and the Baron de Charlus were versions of each other?

Points of comparison:
  • The aggressive public heterosexuality, featuring a near adoration of women and a constant leering evaluation of them as sexual objects
  • The sneering condescension based on a shallow intellectual pride
  • The overvaluation of art and the "proper" appreciation of art
  • The concern over one's wardrobe
  • The intense interest in the possible homosexual tendencies of other men
Is the joke that Marcel-the-narrator is in fact homosexual and hasn't figured it out yet? Or is the joke that Marcel Proust the author is in fact using Marcel-the-narrator as a stand in and is pointing to his own (Proust's) sexuality in an ironic fashion? Or is it that Proust the author doesn't see that he paints Marcel's portrait with the same brush strokes he uses to paint the portrait of Charlus? I'm not sure quite where the irony lies.
Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head.
I wouldn't be wondering any of this, I believe, if the theme of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn't How gay is Paris, anyway?

One thing I find very interesting is that there's the same sense of fearful anticipation in scenes where Charlus is seducing men as in scenes where Marcel is attempting to seduce women. Marcel's sympathies and fears for Charlus are the same as his sympathies and fears for himself (or Proust's sympathies and fears are equal for both men). There is something dangerous about sex all through In Search of Lost Time, alluring and full of extreme risk.