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  • The Mirror of the Cashier:Proust, Style and the Atmosphere of Authorship
  • Bo Earle (bio)


In the opening episode of À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust’s eponymous narrator recounts a devious ploy to coax a good-night kiss from his mother while she is occupied with dinner guests, tricking the servant Françoise into communicating his desire to his mother. The desperate measure Marcel employs here articulates the extravagance of his desire better than the content of his message, to which his mother responds by way of an analogously revealing formal gesture: rather than accommodating, or even acknowledging, Marcel’s appeal, his mother offers the mercilessly self-canceling reply: “pas de réponse” (1: 31) (“no answer” [1: 41]).1 Such an emphatic non-response would appear not just to reject Marcel’s appeal but to deny him any discursive means of mediating his desire whatsoever. In the terms of Freud’s fort-da scenario, the mother seems so decisively fort that any kind of compensatory play, perpetuating the possibility of her return, seems precluded. The thesis of the following, however, is that Marcel eventually achieves what he comes to call his “literary vocation” by learning to respond to such compound withdrawal of the desired object with analogously compound gestures of discursive self-negation. By way of close analysis of Proust’s style, I trace a development in the novel [End Page 920] from this impasse, characterized by Martha Nussbaum as Marcel’s tyrannically passive “catalepsy,” to what might be termed, drawing on Adorno and Beckett, as a fetishism so scrupulously exact as to become its own atonement by illuminating the context of its claims. If Marcel’s characteristic passivity conceals what Nussbaum terms a “rage for control,” he in turn achieves his aim of self-authorship by ceding this control to the very surroundings against which he initially asserted it.

In this opening episode, instead of capitulating, Marcel hatches the even more radical ploy of staying up and intercepting his mother on her way to bed. Once again Marcel seems to rely on the principle that actions speak louder than words, but what ensues gives cause to doubt whether communication still is, or ever was, Marcel’s actual aim. Strikingly, without anything having occurred to affect his prospects of fulfilling his ostensible desire, Marcel finds that he derives immense gratification from merely conceiving this plan. As he puts it, a feeling of intense happiness “m’envahit” like a “medicament puissant” (1: 32) (“coursed through me” like “a strong medicine” [1: 42]). As the subsequent sentence makes clear, the “exhilaration” “coursing through” Marcel springs less from anticipation of his mother’s kiss itself than from Marcel’s new conception of himself as subject to “dangerous” desires: “Le calme qui résultait de mes angoisses finies me mettait dans une allégresse extraordinaire, non moins que l’attente, la soif et la peur du danger” (1: 32) (“The calm which succeeded my anguish filled me with extraordinary exhilaration, no less than my sense of expectation, my thirst for and my fear of danger” [1: 42]).

At the novel’s conclusion, Marcel uses identical terms to recount how the epiphanies provoked by tripping over uneven cobblestones had “m’envahi” or “poured into” him (4: 446; 6: 257). This infiltration is the basis of his claim to “regain” the “essence” of his self and his past, and, thereby, his “literary vocation” (4: 609 [6: 304]): “Comme au moment où je goûtais la madeleine, toute inquiétude sur l’avenir, tout doute intellectuel étaient dissipés. Ceux qui m’assaillaient tout à l’heure au sujet de la réalité de mes dons littéraires et même de la réalité de la littérature se trouvaient levés comme par enchantement” (4: 445) (“Just as, at the moment when I tasted the Madeleine, all anxiety about the future, all intellectual doubts had disappeared, so now those that a few seconds ago had assailed me on the subject of the reality of my literary gifts, the reality even of literature, were removed as if by magic” [6: 255]). Marcel’s sense of rehabilitation is absolute, neutralizing not just “intellectual doubts...


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