Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Law of the Mother: Proust and Madame De Sevigne

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Law of the Mother: Proust and Madame De Sevigne

Article excerpt

We learn through other examples which psychoanalysis has brought to light that the pressing desire in the unconscious for some irreplaceable thing often resolves itself into an endless series in actuality--endless for the very reason that the satisfaction longed for is in spite of all never found in any surrogate.

--Freud(1)

Madame de Sevigne is so centrally identified with the maternal role, in A la recherche du temps perdu as in literary mythology in general, that when the hero's grandmother has died and her daughter begins to take her place, one of the clearest signs of this transformation is the mother's assumption of the cult of Sevigne. "Enfin dans ce culte du regret pour nos morts," Proust's narrator explains in Sodome et Gomorrhe, "nous vouons une idolatrie a ce qu'ils ont aime."(2) In the case of the hero's mother, that idolatry takes the form of draping herself not only in her mother's clothing and accessories, but also in her attachment to Sevigne: Non seulement ma mere ne pouvait se separer du sac de ma grand'mere, devenu plus precieux que s'il eut ete de saphir et de diamant, de son manchon, de tous ces vetements qui accentuaient encore la ressemblance d'aspect entre elles deux, mais meme des volumes de Mme de Sevigne que ma grand'mere avait toujours avec elle, exemplaires que ma mere n'eut pas changes contre le manuscrit meme des Lettres (III.770).

As Sevigne herself was accused of idolatry of her daughter, the mother doubles and even triples the stakes of this maternal idolatry, turning her mother's cult of Sevigne's daughter-worship ("Dieu me fasse la grace de l'aimer un jour comme je vous aime," Sevigne writes to her daughter of her religious shortcomings on October 5, 1673(3)) into identificatory mother-worship, placing herself in the now-vacant role of mother.

Sevigne's letters are the grandmother's vade-mecum from the very beginning of the novel, and she, and her daughter after her, quote the correspondence incessantly, using it as a constant point of reference in interpreting the world at large. Roland Barthes remarks in Le Plaisir du texte that the Recherche is for him what Sevigne's letters are for the grandmother in the novel: "l'oeuvre de reference, la mathesis generale, le mandala de toute la cosmogonie litteraire."(4) He might have added: le texte-matrice, but if he did not it is perhaps because Sevigne's work fills a function that Proust's cannot: whatever else she may be, and however one may choose to read her, Sevigne's correspondence ineluctably retains a pervasive maternal flavor.

Sevigne is read and quoted by the grandmother and mother with every appearance of scriptural fidelity and evangelical zeal; her letters to her daughter form a peculiarly maternal Bible in the novel, maternal by virtue of both content and context. After the death of the grandmother, for instance, the mother takes offense at the mere suggestion that she should be distracted from her grief, and feels the need to cleanse herself in solitary reflection on the maternal text: Ma mere etait remontee dans sa chambre, meditant cette phrase de Mme de Sevigne: "Je ne vois aucun de ceux qui veulent me divertir; en paroles couvertes c'est qu'il veulent m'empecher de penser a vous, et cela m'offense", parce que le premier president lui avait dit qu'elle devait se distraire. (II.786)

As this passage suggests, Sevigne's correspondence functions for the grandmother, and especially for the mother after her death, as maternal Scripture. The letters recall the grandmother both by resemblance and by association, and in this scene the mother contemplates the transcendant truth of Sevigne's maternal devotion in order to comfort herself and also to ward off the call of worldly diversion, precisely in the manner of religious devotion.

Although the grandmother is frequently represented as having two favorite authors whose works she habitually carries with her, the fictional Mme de Beausergent's Memoires is not the text she is seen referring to and quoting for all occasions, nor that which the mother contemplates. …

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