- Inverts and InvertebratesDarwin, Proust, And Nature’s Queer Heterosexuality
Si [cette petite personne] change de tramway, je prends, avec peut-être les microbes de la peste, la chose incroyable appelée “correspondance.”Jupien:
Je vois que vous avez un cœur d’artichaut.
At the midpoint of a journey through that life-within-a-life that is Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, within the obscure forest of symbols that is an everyday Parisian courtyard, the reader (and the narrator, Marcel) encounter three portentous, chimerical beasts: the Duchesse de Guermantes’s spectacular orchid; the vest-maker Jupien; and the Baron de Charlus, the very specimen-type of aesthetic dandyism. Proust and Marcel seize upon this encounter to introduce a new narrative code into the novel, finally allowing the reader entry into the blazing hell of same-sex desire—the titular Sodom and Gomorrah—that has until now remained an indecipherable secret. The volume’s brief introductory chapter, a whimsical biological treatise on “inversion” that will determine the definition and value of what we more generally call “homosexuality” within Proust’s world and work, climaxes on the image of a lonely invert, alone on the beach after a day of unsuccessful cruising, “like a sterile jellyfish (méduse) that will perish on the sand.”1
Marcel’s memory of a washed-up jellyfish glimpsed on a seaside holiday provides one motivation for this image. But the text, obeying the Proustian law of metonymic contagion described by Gérard Genette,2 introduces another layer of comparison by contamination and proximity, conflating orchid and invertebrate:
Jellyfish! Orchid! When I was following only my own instinct, the jellyfish repelled me at Balbec; but had I known how to look at it, like Michelet, from the point of view of natural history and of aesthetics, I would have seen a delectable girandole of azure. Are they not, with the transparent velvet of their petals, like the mauve orchids of the sea?3
Historically, most readers have aped Marcel’s earlier attitude in their reaction to the text’s linkages of homosexuals, orchids, and jellyfish, displaying a repugnance which, by the principle of metonymic contagion, expands to encompass the first part of Sodom and Gomorrah; Lawrence Schehr underlines the paradox by which “in addition to being Proust’s most famous text about homosexuality, [the chapter] is also widely disliked.”4 Such readings of Sodom and Gomorrah first posit that the text does determine the Recherche’s paradigm of homosexuality on the basis of its discussion of inversion and then judge this paradigm “repellent” on various moral grounds. The naive reader would accept the narrator-naturalist’s explicit arguments that the novel’s homosexuals, like the larger class they exemplify, are doomed to sordid lives devoid of intimacy, pleasure, and integrity. The more sophisticated reader, of whom Leo Bersani provides a helpful example, would accuse the text of failing to provide a theoretical basis for a political program of gay liberation and thus secretly hewing to a “profoundly heterosexual bias.”5 Such moral repugnance, or moral repugnance about such moral repugnance, seems justified— the book in the reader’s hands is called Sodom and Gomorrah, after all. [End Page 7]
However, this metaphor linking beached homosexuals and man-o’-wars encrypts another scene. Even if the reader does not imagine Proust himself wandering sadly along the shore and saluting a fatally waylaid cnidarian as a fellow traveler, the structure of the analogy—in which Marcel, Proust’s amanuensis, compares inverts like Proust to jellyfish—relies on a necessary moment of recognition between the invert author hiding behind or in “Marcel” and the jellyfish, a hidden homology detected despite their apparent dissimilarity, a recognition that would appear to run contrary to one’s “own” instinct. Might there be something positive and productive to see in the moment of mutual regard between jelly and nelly? And why do we find the prospect of this méduse so petrifying that we refuse to look directly at it?
This textual conjunction displaces, if only provisionally, the introduction’s inaugurating metaphor, in which the cruising of Charlus and Jupien appears to be compared to the...