Thursday, December 14, 2006

Photography and Death in À la recherche du temps perdu: A Reading in Inversion

Throughout his novel, Proust develops the unlikely resemblance between the narrator’s time-bending vocation as a writer and the instantaneous work of the photographer. Challenging the notion of any fixed reality, the narrator travels in time and space, expanding important moments into eternities and compressing forgotten years into a passing phrase. Unlike the subjective memory, the objective camera captures time and space with mechanical precision and disregard. The two perceptions are at odds: while the photographer concerns himself with only one subject for a fraction of a second within a narrow field of vision, the narrator concerns himself with a multiplicity of sensations traveled over an expanse of time within a vast and shifting space.

This apparent difference in process of the writer and the photographer is another example of the perfect inversion, propagated throughout Proust’s narrative. The photographer himself (Saint-Loup) is an invert, who makes inversions of his subject on film, which he then inverts again onto paper, bringing the subject through inversion back to her proper representation. The narrator alerts the reader to the necessity of reading inversion through inversion, like the photographer printing his positive from the negative: “particularités (comme l’inversion) peuvent faire que le lecteur a besoin de lire d’une certaine façon pour bien lire” (218, Le Temps retrouvé). Thus, the metaphor of the camera, full of mirrors and backwards images, reveals itself as the perfect framework for understanding the narrator’s and Proust’s literary work. The camera performs the double-function the narrator wishes to achieve in his work: simultaneous presence and absence, objective distance and subjective sensitivity, and a representation of reality as both material and a sign for the immaterial.
Moreover, his vocation, like the photographer’s, deals explicitly with death and remembrance. The narrator’s feeling that his work exists only at the price of the suffering (“au prix des souffrances”) and eventual death of others, mirrors the conception of photography as “an inventory of mortality” and “a catastrophe which has already occurred” according to Sontag and Barthes (213, Le Temps retrouvé,; 24, Sontag; 96, Barthes). In early twentieth-century Proust and late twentieth-century theory, both the photographer and the writer condemn loved ones to death in their desire to make impressions of the world and understand signs developed over time.

From the format of the camera to the development of the film and viewing of the image, photography mirrors the movement of text from the impressions taken by a detached artist, to their later recovery and postponed understanding. Through photography the narrator comes to understand the death of his grand’mère, and through the metaphor of photography he comes to understand the deadly goals of his work.

1. L’objectif
L’ouvrage de l’écrivain n’est qu’une espèce d’instrument optique qu’il offre au lecteur afin de lui permettre de discerner ce que sans ce livre il n’eût peut-être pas vu en soi-même. (218, Le Temps Retrouvé)

The narrator envisions his book as a sort of optical instrument that allows one to see one’s surroundings (and eventually oneself) in an unfamiliar way. The ideal perspective of the novel is quite different than that of the fragmentary perceptions committed to paper (like the steeples of Martinville section). Unlike the highly sensory, subjective fragments, the work as a whole should exhibit a more detached and objective viewpoint, as if transmitted through an optical instrument rather than human eyes. The narrator thus distances himself and readers by presenting his perceptions through the objective objectif of the metaphorical camera. This critical distance enables the artist not just to see, but to discern, as Proust writes. Unlike the paintings of Elstir, in which the boundaries between objects are barely discernable, through the lens of a camera, things are clearer; one does not just perceive—one discerns. Discernement gives a relative and quantifiable perception: one discerns the subject from its surroundings, contemplates its value, and sees it in its place in comparison to other objects. In this way the narrator’s goal for his writing corresponds less with the confused sensuality present involuntary memories, and more with the attempt to bring a subject into objective optical focus.

2. L’appareil
“…bien que la chose représentée eût une valeur esthétique, elle trouvait que la vulgarité, l’utilité prenaient trop vite leur place dans le mode mécanique de représentation, la photographie.” (53, Du côté de chez Swann)

Ever since his childhood in Combray, the narrator has been warned of the vulgar dangers of photography. The dehumanizing nature of photography convinces the narrator’s mother and grand’mère to remove all the photographs they can from his bedroom to be replaced with either photographs of paintings of the same monument or landscape, or, better yet, engravings of the subject. While the two matrons do their best to protect the young narrator from the mechanical aesthetic of representation, he is not at all bothered by the process and interests himself at this age much more in the subject than the process. “[C’]était certainement beaucoup moins exacte que celle que m’eussent donnée de simples photographies,” he complains (Du côté de chez Swann, 54). The young narrator’s preference for exact and simple photographs over artists’ interpretations foresees his interest as a writer both to portray the subject itself in its entirely and to discover the origin of certain feelings (the memory of Venice, for instance). The narrator’s interest in the outside world, a world beyond the purely aesthetic world of Swann’s collections, and not a penchant for the realist methods his mother scorns, drives his early preference for photographs.

Though perhaps mother and grand’mère shelter the narrator at his early age from a much more grave aspect of the camera: its connection with the reality of death. Sontag points out the correlation between mechanical nature of photography and mortal violence as displayed in the very terms used by photographers: one loads, aims, and shoots (this linguistic analogy works just as well in French: on charge, on vise, et on tire). Thus, the mechanics of the camera verbally link it to those of the firearm. “All photographs are memento mori,” she writes. “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (Sontag, 15). One would hardly want to confront a boy with time’s relentless melt at such an age. Not only is the narrator young enough to be negatively impacted by thoughts of melting time and impending mortality, also the grand’mère is old enough to not want to confront it herself. Ironically, for the narrator, his grand’mère dies in a photograph, and this photograph finalizes the tie in the narrator’s mind between death and photography. But for now, she contents herself with replacing time’s relentless melt with a suspension of time—in place of photographs of monuments in their present condition, she attempts to find antique prints of them in a former state (“…ayant encore un intérêt au delà d’elles-mêmes, par exemple celles qui représentent un chef-d’oeuvre dans un état où nous ne pouvons plus le voir aujourd’hui” 54, Du côté de chez Swann). She thus attempts to stop time for her young grandson and herself, so as not to be assaulted with the finality of the future and the hostility of the camera.

3. Le plan de film
“Je venais d’apercevoir, dans ma mémoire, penché sur ma fatigue, le visage tendre, préoccupé et déçu de ma grand-mère…je retrouvais dans un souvenir involontaire et complet la réalité vivante.” (153, Sodome et Gomorrhe)

One speaks in photography of the latent image. The image registered on the film at the time the photograph is taken remains latent, hidden, until the time of chemical development. In perfect correspondence, a memory can lie latent for many years after its initial impression, before it is finally brought to light. The narrator’s involuntary, previously latent, memory of his grandmère comforting him reveals itself as he bends over to take off his shoes. At this point the development of the latent memory begins—more potent in the French is the introduction of the révélateur to the film, making it reveal. This memory begins to reveal itself and the narrator sees his grandmère’s face, “tendre, préoccupé et déçu.” Though the narrator has now determined what memory addresses him, it is still only a screen memory. The révélation must continue in order to fix and recontextualize this image. Finally, the narrator sees his grandmère’s preoccupation and disappointment as a screen memory, covering the a feeling of absence that reminds him of her photograph session with Saint-Loup—another more literal screen memory as the flat photograph itself shows only the surface of things which one must further read. Barthes reinforces the idea of photograph as screen memory when he remarks that the photograph “actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (91, Barthes). This counter-memory of the narrator’s grandmère as alive and coquettishly posing for a picture finally gives way to the sudden realization of her death. The latent impression then, once revealed, must be transformed into meaning and understanding.

4. Le tirage
“Seule l’impression, si chétive qu’en semble la matière, si insaisissable la trace, est un critérium de vérité, et a cause de cela mérite seule d’être appréhendée par l’esprit, car elle est seule capable, s’il sait en dégager cette vérité, de l’amener à une plus grande perfection et de lui donner une pure joie…Ne vient de nous-même que ce que nous tirons de l’obscurité qui est en nous et que ne connaissent pas les autres.” (186-7, Le Temps retrouvé)

The film révélé presents itself as a negative, a clear but inverse depiction of the impression of reality. Bright familiar faces appear dark and undecipherable; oftentimes the delicate face of the negative cannot be read. Only by projecting light through the surface of the negative, enlarging and inversing the image onto a piece of photographic paper, is the subject truly identifiable. This is the act of printing, agrandissement or tirage. Just as a negative brought to light brings about recognition of and identification with the subject, the writer’s impression too must be illuminated, and the memory reveals the viewer to himself. The fragile negative (l’impression chétive), which has been developed from direct contact in latent form with the light of reality, contains a truth that must be apprehended. This critérium de vérité, only a trace on the negative, is enlarged—amené à une plus grande perfection—by the photographer and by the writer into the familiar form of the subject. Not only does the artist enlarge truth, he also brings darkness to light. The phrase “tirer de l’obscurité” describes the photographic act of inverting the darkness of the negative to a lightness of paper (le tirage), as well as the writer’s act of intellectually pursuing obscure impressions in order to fully recognize them and drag them out of the dark and into the light (les tirer de l’obscurité). The tirage, a somewhat mechanical process for both photographer and writer conducted by the mind (l’esprit) must be executed with scientific exactitude. In this sense, the work of the writer, like the photographer, is the translation of dark impression into clear image (traduction: both to translate into language and to make something pass from one state to another; 197, Le Temps retrouvé). Only with active concentration can a mere impression transform into an object in itself; only with the help of the mind can feeling be put into words to form the novel. The tirage is thus equated with the writing itself, bringing the obscure to light by transmitting the darkness of ink or silver onto white paper in order to give oneself pure joy.

5. L’image
“Cette impression douloureuse et actuellement incompréhensible…ce ne pourrait être que d’elle, si particulière, si spontanée, qui n’avait été ni tracée par mon intelligence, ni infléchie ni atténuée par ma pusillanimité, mais que la mort elle-même, la brusque révélation de la mort, avait comme la foudre creusée en moi, selon un graphique surnaturel, inhumain, comme un double et mystérieux sillon.” (156, Sodome et Gomorrhe)

Due to the long process involved in the development, fixing, and drying of the photograph, one can only view the final image after the elapse of time. Coupled with memory, the photograph presents itself as an ambivalent body: while making past present, it affirms the absence of the past; it is both familiar and totally alien; and the subject is at once the mortal flesh-and-bone referent and the immortal sign. This complex relationship with the past typifies the narrator’s relationship to the death of his grandmère and the guilt associated with his own work.

The reading of the photograph is the final step to understanding the work of the writer and the photographer. The photograph, a clear but limited presentation of things past, becomes both an object to cherish as a relic of reality (the narrator has the photograph of his grandmother with him), and a mirror with which to reveal one’s own emotional relation to the subject. While one may delight in the beauty of a photograph or the style of a sentence, these formal aspects only prove to reveal the reader to himself: “En réalité, chaque lecteur est quand il lit le proper lecteur de soi-même” (217, Le temps Retrouvé). The changing of the perspective of a book from an outsider’s objective view of a (real or fictional) world to a mirror of one’s own subjective understanding, parallels the movement of the photograph from being possessed by the objective camera and the uninterested photographer to being fully owned by the viewer. In reading the photograph, the viewer enters into it, replacing the camera with his self, and the objectif with his loving subjective gaze. The narrator demonstrates the correlation between “The camera’s twin capacities” and the dual capacity of his own writing “to subjectivize reality and to objectify it” (178, Sontag). This is only one of the double and mysterious rifts presented by the photograph. While the comprehension of a photograph as objective reality lends it power, only to the extent that the viewer sees himself within the photograph can it gain true affective power.

The narrator sees himself present in the photograph of his grandmère only after fully recognizing her absence in his life. The narrator uses the photograph as an object for mourning: “je souffris toute la journée en restant devant la photographie de ma grand-mère. Elle me torturait” (174, Sodome et Gomorrhe). The narrator takes time to execute this deferred mourning, and the presence in the photograph attests to no more than an absence. The “that-has-been” of Barthes is for the narrator a key to understanding her death. The coinciding vision of her (that) coupled with the inevitable past tense of the photograph (has-been) provide the narrator with a sense of painful absence; it is the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of presence with which his grandmère’s memory tortures him. When the directeur pays the narrator a visit and reveals to him that she had been hiding her illness, the power of the photograph is reinforced. The narrator finally sees the suffering in her face as not just a result of his jeers, but as a material sickness destroying her body. The presence of this sickness is what prevents the narrator’s mother from ever looking at this photo—she sees it rather as a testament of fatal illness: “moins une photographie de sa mere que de la maladie de celle-ci” (176, Sodome et Gomorrhe). However, a few days later, the narrator’s vision shifts.

The photograph provides a framework for perspectival change: at one moment one sees the subject, sitting before one’s eyes in flesh and blood yet gone forever; the next moment, looking deeper into the photograph and even beyond it, one sees a network of meaning to which the self connects and through which suffering is dispersed. “Quelques jours plus tard la photographie qu’avait faite Saint-Loup m’était douce à regarder,” the narrator writes (176, Sodome et Gomorrhe). The change from objective to subjective, from third-person to first-person utterance, understanding is accomplished: “c’était avant tout abroger ses plus chères illusions, cesser de croire à l’objectivité de ce qu’on a élaboré soi-même, et au lieu de se bercer une centièmee fois de ces mots: “Elle était bien gentile”, lire au travers: “J’avais du plaisir à l’embrasser.” (203, Le Temps retrouvé). In ceasing to believe in the illusion of the flat objectivity of torture and of absence, one reads beyond the material to see one’s own reflection and position in the reality. By ceasing to see in terms of the referent alone (Elle était bien gentille, or Elle était malade) in which the referent is the subject and the viewer the object, one must invert the relation between the viewer and the subject, turning the viewer into the grammatical and photographic subject and the sitter into the object (J’avais du plaisir à l’embrasser). The narrator here demonstrates his understanding of grievance, as well as how the Proustian reader must perform a process of inversions in order to read well (bien lire).

Once grievance passes and perspective shifts, vast understanding becomes possible. “Les idées sont des succédanés des chagrins,” the narrator writes, “au moment où ceux-ci se changent en idées, ils perdent une partie de leur action nocive sur notre Coeur, et meme, au premier instant, la transformation elle-même degage subitement de la joie” (213, Le Temps retrouvé). Though his grandmère remains dear, the narrator now sees her as occupying a place in his life and his work, relative to others. Grandmère becomes connected with Albertine throughout Le temps retrouvé, and the two of them together become signs which the narrator can use to communicate patterns and sentiments that span across his life. Though they still exist as characters, they, the narrator’s hieroglyphics, represent more than material objects: they take their places as signs of death (185, Le Temps retrouvé).

Albertine, grandmère, and all the characters, places, and memories present throughout the Recherche in the end transform into a photographic state. At once referents and signs, present and absent, objectively and subjectively viewed, they are Proust’s photographic accomplishment of what Barthes calls “the unheard-of identification of reality (‘that-has-been’) with truth (‘there-she-is!’)” (113, Barthes). Proust’s truth is photographic, rather than painterly, as he presents to his reader the depth of signification present in reality itself.

Though pain cannot be completely dispersed, it can be transferred like a family photograph—from the dead to the living and finally into the work. The reader finds himself, like the narrator before him, confronted with a gallery of sorrow, which he, in turn, must translate into meaning and invert into joy within his own subjective mind.

The thought that photography, being a realistic medium bound in time and space, could be contrary to the project of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu suggests that one has not chosen a clear lens through which to read. But even Barthes and Sontag agree that there is “nothing Proustian in a photograph” and “nothing…more unlike the self-sacrificial travail of an artist like Proust than the effortlessness of picture-taking” (82, Barthes; 163-4, Sontag). Certainly realism does not inhibit mystery, as Sontag herself writes, “all that photography’s program of realism actually implies is the belief that reality is hidden. And, being hidden, is something to be unveiled” (120-1, Sontag). The Recherche is a project of unveiling, revealing, and inverting to be preformed by the reader as by a careful photographer. From camera to photograph, from impression and reinterpretation, and every step along the way, the reader must follow Proust’s mirrored path carefully in order to understand the key to reading à l’envers.

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