From Symbolism to Consciousness Via Proust

Article excerpt

I. Lost Paradises and Concrete Recollections

MARCEL PROUST'S three-thousand-page novel, A la recherche du temps perdu, weaves complexes of imagery and moralistic generalization with concrete personal recollection, albeit fictionally transformed. Reading it convinces one that any discussion without the same concreteness and personal specificity has little value, even a discussion of Proust's obscure relations with conservative thought.

So I begin by recalling how, some years ago, I met the aged Leader of a Catholic rightist cult, practically a recreation of the Action Francaise which had fascinated the young T.S. Eliot. Taking his afternoon tea from a small silver tray which rested upon an ermine pillow in his lap, the Leader pontificated on Western civilization's past, present, and future. I glimpsed something of the aged dandy in him, however, when he languidly rose and leaned upon the cane with the carved ivory handle to greet his guests. His followers regarded the dysplastic posture as the physiological consequence of spiritual warfare's blows and buffets; the cane was to them an object of veneration. St. Sebastian with an ivory-headed cane, apostle of spiritual sprezzatura ... I was shown a life-sized photo-portrait of his mother in pre-Titanic days at Baden-Baden, wearing what might have been a Charles Frederick Worth gown. The Leader felt a powerful nostalgia not only for the high Middle Ages but also for the Belle Epoque of his infancy. As Proust says, all true paradises are lost paradises.

This scene deserves full treatment not in political science annals but in a novel. Yet it is the Leader's opinion of that novel beyond all other novels that I wish to mention. He was somewhat a fan of Proust. I am told that he wished there could be a suitably edited version of A la recherche for his young followers to read, so that they might imbibe the atmosphere of old-fashioned aristocratic society, to learn something of its manners. But what of its morals? Wouldn't one have to take all the adultery, homosexuality, and prostitution out, and what exactly would be left? The gowns of the Princesse de Guermantes and her cousin the Duchesse, and Marcel the narrator's fondness for his mother? Perhaps Proust's Dreyfusism would be excised, and the anti-Dreyfusism of the anti-Semitic characters retained. Proust the snob is, in the end, a severe critic of his idolized aristocrats: perhaps his social microscope would need a softer focus. And yet the tragedy of an aristocracy with nothing left to rule but "society," an aristocracy at once pathetic and grand in its decline, is a good lesson for conservatives to study--as is the phenomenon of the "family genie" which protects the Duchesse's dignity from the consequences of her liberalism and her fraternizing with bohemians.

Ghislain de Diesbach, who wrote a great book of scuttlebutt on Europe's royal families, had a fitting sense of humor about modern nostalgia for ancien regime pomps. "Royalism and snobbery have at last combined to produce a new religion," he says. "Its Bible was written by Proust. One day, after all monarchies have been forgotten, sovereigns without crowns will still reign [over high society] by virtue of this literary consecration." (1) Proust did not concern himself with pragmatic arguments for monarchy; his princes and princesses are redundant royal relatives or politically underemployed descendants of Peers of France; and he savors their disintegration too much. But their snobbish portraiture is seductive, and an enthusiasm for monarchy and aristocracy verging on superstition may be a motive for wandering into Proust's literary maze. My ideal conservative is one who seeks to cultivate and conserve not only "values" but also elites, the social cohorts who embody those "values," whether actually or presumptively; he or she is not squeamish about the hereditary principle as a means of such conservation, and is susceptible to the moral imagination's symbolic magic--susceptible to a fault. …