CARS, TRAINS, PLANES AND PROUST

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  • CARS, TRAINS, PLANES AND PROUSTAuthor(s): Clayton AlcornSource: Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1/2 (Fall-Winter 1985-86), pp. 153-161Published by: University of Nebraska PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23532256 .Accessed: 13/06/2014 06:34

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  • CARS, TRAINS, PLANES AND PROUST

    Clayton Alcorn

    In his excellent study Proust's Nocturnal Muse, William Stewart Bell points

    out that the moments conventionally referred to as expriences proustiennes,

    or moments bienheureux, are only the most dramatic, the most complete, the

    ultimate solutions to the problems posed by time.1 Analogous experiences of

    a lower order occur frequently throughout A la recherche du temps perdu,

    preparing the way for the final revelations of Le Temps retrouv. One such

    experience is travelling. Georges Poulet has outlined the similarity between

    the two, emphasizing the great importance of the voyage in the novel:

    . . . toute l'uvre proustienne est pleine de ces dplacements. Ils y tiennent une place au

    moins aussi importante que les souvenirs. Entre ceux-ci et les voyages il y a d'ailleurs une

    incontestable analogie. Les uns et les autres sont des vnements qui rompent l'inertie du

    corps et la paresse de l'esprit. Ils crent un nouveau point de dpart en transportant l'tre

    en dehors du lieu matriel ou spirituel dans lequel il semblait astreint vivre. Surtout,

    voyages et souvenirs mettent brusquement en rapport des rglons de la terre ou de l'es

    prit qui, jusqu'alors, taient sans relation aucune.2

    The analogy between travelling and l'exprience proustienne is made

    possible by the strong connection between time and space: they are intrin

    sically bound, and to conquer one is to conquer both. The temporal aspect of

    Proust's work has traditionally been given more attention than the spatial;

    again, it is Georges Poulet who has brought the two into better perspective:

    "... de mme que l'esprit localise l'image remmore dans la dure, il la loca

    lise dans l'espace. Ce n'est pas seulement certaine priode de son enfance, que

    l'tre proustien voit sortir de sa tasse de th; c'est aussi une chambre, une

    glise, une ville, un ensemble topographique solide ..." (26-7). Not just a

    point in time, but also a point is space. And Proust himself also indicates the

    inextricability of the two dimensions in discussing the ways in which the auto

    has revolutionized our concept of distance: "Les distances ne sont que le rap

    port de l'espace au temps et varient avec lui. Nous exprimons la difficult que

    nous avons nous rendre un endroit, dans un systme de lieues, de kilom

    tres, qui devient faux ds que cette difficult diminue."3

    153

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  • 154 Nineteenth-Century French Studies

    Significant elements of the analogy between Proust's moments bienheu

    reux and travelling depend to a major degree on the type of vehicle involved

    in the trip. Travelling by car offers a kind of similarity to the exprience

    proustienne which is different from the similarity found in train travel. Of

    course, neither one provides a complete Proustian experience, since travelling

    belongs in the lower order of experiences cited by Bell.

    The auto has modified our concept of distance by causing a rapprochement

    of places which the traveller had thought to be isolated or unreachable from

    each other in the course of a day or a half-day. This idea is developed most

    fully in Sodome et Gomorrhe when Marcel speaks of his afternoon rides in a

    car which he has rented to please Albertine. He refers to a spot called Beau

    mont, which, because of the time and effort which the horse-drawn carriage

    needed to attain it, seemed very high, very "curious," and essentially unsitu

    ated in terms of any known fixed points such as La Raspelire or Balbec. He

    always thought of Beaumont as unique and far-off, enjoying "un privilge

    spcial d'extraterritorialit" (II, 1005). But the auto, "qui ne respecte aucun

    mystre," amazed him one day by passing Beaumont just minutes after leav

    ing Incarville on the way to Parvilie (these two towns were familiar to him as

    stops on the train he frequently took to La Raspelire). Proust takes pains

    to emphasize his astonishment at the proximity of the special, "isolated"

    place to the othersthe discovery of which he might never have made without

    the experience of the auto ride.

    This discovery of the close relationship between two geographical locations

    which were heretofore isolated and unconnected in a person's consciousness

    is analogous to the unexpected linking of two events which takes place during

    the exprience proustienne. The auto has done for space what the exprience

    proustienne does for time, or rather, the auto ride produces a phenomenon

    similar to that part of the exprience proustienne which demolishes the spatial

    barriers between the two moments (workings of the mmoire involontaire

    occur only in Paris, but they link that city with Combray, Balbec, Venice, and

    so on). During the moments bienheureux, there is a sense of living absolutely

    simultaneously in two points of time and space. The present is not erased; it

    is, rather, joined to the past in a marvelous, mystical manner.4 In the auto

    ride, the union is less perfect: it still requires some time to go from Beaumont

    to Incarville, although much less time than the traveller has been accustomed

    to. The experience is of a lower order, but its similarity is incontestable.

    A second similarity between the car and the mmoire involontaire is found

    in the manner in which an arrival by auto, rather than by train, enables one

    to become intimate with one's new surroundings in a brief period of time, to

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  • Clayton A /corn 15 5

    "get the feel of the place." After telling of his surprise at discovering that

    Beaumont is adjacent to Incarville and Parville, Proust elaborates on this

    point:

    Non, l'automobile ne nous menait pas ainsi feriquement dans une ville que nous voyions

    d'abord dans l'ensemble que rsume son nom, et avec les illusions du spectateur dans la

    salle. Il nous faisait entrer dans la coulisse des rues, s'arrtait demander un renseignement

    un habitant. Mais, comme compensation d'une progression si familire, on a les tton

    nements mmes du chauffeur incertain de sa route et revenant sur ses pas, les chasss

    croiss de la perspective faisant jouer un chteau aux quatre coins avec une colline, une

    glise et la mer, pendant qu'on se rapporche de lui, bien qu'il se blotisse vainement sous

    sa feuille sculaire, ces cercles, de plus en plus rapprochs, que dcrit l'automobile

    autour d'une ville fascine qui fuyait dans tous les sens pour chapper, et sur laquelle

    finalement il fonce tout droit, pic, au fond de la valle o elle reste gisante terre; de

    sorte que cet emplacement, point unique, que l'automobile semble avoir dpouill du

    mystre des trains express, il donne par contre l'impression de le dcouvrir, de le dtermi

    ner nous-mmes comme avec un compas, de nous aider sentir d'une main plus amoureu

    sement exploratrice, avec une plus fine prcision, la vritable gomtrie, la belle "mesure

    de la terre." (Il, 1005-6)

    The greater familiarity with one's destination afforded by the auto can be lik

    ened to the completeness of the exprience proustienne, which recalls totally

    every aspect of the past moment. For example, the narrator's limited volun

    tary memory of Combray was restricted to his aunt's house and the drame

    du coucher, but the Combray provided by the madeleine in the cup of tea is

    whole, complete in every detail: "Tout Combray et les environs, tout cela qui

    prend forme et solidit, est sorti, ville et jardins, de ma tasse de th" (I, 48). The above passage about automobile arrivals contains one of several com

    parisons Proust makes between cars and trains. In this case, the result is not

    very flattering to the trains: the auto gives to the traveller more of a sense of

    personal knowledge about the place, more of a feeling of accomplishment.

    But if, in travelling by auto, one is more sensitive to the gradual change in

    topography, the charm of the train lies in its ability to bring into vivid relief

    the difference between the point of departure and the destination, resulting

    in a clearer, more satisfying feeling that one has, indeed, travelled:

    Ce voyage, on le ferait sans doute aujourd'hui en automobile, croyant le rendre ainsi

    plus agrable. On verra qu'accompli de cette faon, il serait mme, en un sens, plus vrai

    puisqu'on y suivrait de plus prs, dans une Intimit plus troite, les diverses gradations

    selon lesquelles change la face de la terre. Mais enfin le plaisir spcifique du voyage n'est

    pas de pouvoir descendre en route et s'arrter quand on est fatigu, c'est de rendre la dif

    frence entre le dpart et l'arrive non pas insensible, mais aussi profonde qu'on peut, de

    la ressentir dans sa totalit, intacte, telle qu'elle tait en nous quand notre imagination

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  • 156 Nineteenth-Century French Studies

    nous portait du lieu o nous vivions jusqu'au cur d'un lieu dsir, en un bond qui nous

    semblait moins miraculeux parce qu'il franchissait une distance que parce qu'il unissait

    deux individualits distinctes de la terre, qu'il nous menait d'un nom un autre nom, et

    que schmatise (mieux qu'une promenade o, comme on dbarque o l'on veut, il n'y a

    gure plus d'arrive) l'opration mystrieuse qui s'accomplissait dans ces lieux spciaux,

    les gares, lesquels ne font presque pas partie de la ville mais contiennent l'essence de sa

    personnalit de mme que sur un criteau signaltique elles portent son nom. (I, 644)

    One enters the railway coach, a rather close, albeit not terribly confining

    environment, at a particular station. Nothing essential changes during the trip,

    except the coach's location, but upon stepping outside, often through the

    very door by which one had entered, one has the clear sense that the world

    surrounding the coach is completely different. The coach is somewhat like

    the human body during the exprience proustienne: the intense feeling that

    the subject is in a new location (although retaining the sense of one's present

    location, as we have seen)that one has instantaneously been transported to a

    different worldis a central element in the operation of involuntary memory.

    So the auto trip enables one to discover surprising geographical connec

    tions between two locations thought to be far apart, and it can also give to

    the traveller a more complete knowledge of the place he is visiting than the

    train can; but the train is better able to produce a sense that one's environ

    ment has changed, that the world is different. Coexisting difference and simi

    larity, as well as a sense of sensual completeness of the experience, are all key

    elements of the exprience proustienne. Thus, in a complementary way, train

    travel and auto travel provide different analogies to the moments bienheureux.

    In Le Temps retrouv, after the narrator's three experiences of mmoire

    involontaire in rapid succession have enabled him to feel real happiness and to

    sense that the source of that happiness, the source of what he calls "non une

    sensation d'autrefois mais une vrit nouvelle" (III, 878), lies within himself, he realizes that these sensations are a kind of sign or message that needs inter

    preting. And the only complete interpretation of them is to be found by using

    them as the basis for a work of art:

    En somme, dans un cas comme dans l'autre, qu'il s'agt d'Impressions comme celle que

    m'avait donne la vue des clochers de Martinville, ou de rminiscences comme celle de

    l'ingalit des deux marches ou le got de la madeleine, il fallait tcher d'Interprter les

    sensations comme les signes d'autant de lois et d'ides, en essayant de penser, c'est--dire

    de faire sortir de la pnombre ce que j'avais senti, de le convertir en un quivalent spiri

    tuel. Or, ce moyen qui me paraissait le seul, qu'cait-ce autre chose que faire une uvre

    d'art? (Ill, 878-9)

    Now art is intimately associated with the exprience proustienne-, one is

    tempted to say that for Proust, the moments bienheureux make art necessary.

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  • Clayton AIcorn 15 7

    It is also closely connected with travelling, and with the modes of travelling

    under consideration here.

    Indeed, the subject of art, beauty and esthetics arises directly or indirectly

    in all of the passages which treat at any length the attributes of a particular

    mode of transport. But art and travelling are in no case more closely linked

    than in the three major passages in the novel in which Marcel spies airplanes

    in the skies above him. The major difference between airplanes and the other

    means of transport is that Marcel never travels in one: they remain for him

    objects of dreams, hopes, and a bit of envy (directed toward the aviator), as

    the trains to Balbec or to Venice are before he actually travels on them. It is

    perhaps because of this that the scenes involving airplanes are the most emo

    tionally charged and intense of any discussions of modes of travel. A bit para

    doxically, one of them also resembles more completely than any experiences

    with autos or trains the genuine exprience proustlenne.

    The first of these scenes occurs during a horseback ride at Balbec. Marcel

    recognizes, unexpectedly, a location used by Elstir as a background for two

    "admirable watercolors" which he,...

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