Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Strange Gourmet: Taste, Waste, Proust

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Strange Gourmet: Taste, Waste, Proust

Article excerpt

I. Dining with Proust

Sa haine des snobs decoulait de son snobisme, mais faisait croire aux

naifs, c'est-a-dire a tout le monde, qu'il en etait exempt.

Proust, Le Cote'de Guermantes

Of all the gay male writers in the Western literary canon, perhaps the smartest, the one whose primary canonical function may even be to epitomize gayness as intelligence, is Marcel Proust. Other names (Wilde, James) may come to mind, but one could argue that they signify specialized variants of intelligence (wit in the case of Wilde, subtlety in the case of James), rather than intelligence in the more general, more powerful, more basic form of what Theodor Adorno calls an "organ for untruth and thus for truth."(1) And if the almost perfect fit in Proust between smartness-as-intelligence and smartness-as-stylishness provides a happy instance of what Lee Edelman has taught us to think of as homographesis, we feel all the more entitled to read "Proust," both the name and the work, as the definitive gay inscription of sophistication in the sense that our culture accords to it.(2)

Yet, for all that Proust represents "sophistication," the closest thing to an equivalent term in his text, la mondanite, or worldliness--in French, unlike English, sophistication retains the negative meaning of "adulteration"--acquires an almost equally negative charge. And for all that he represents "intelligence," he spends as much time criticizing it as celebrating it. But it would be a mistake to infer that even Proust succumbs to the self-hatred whereby "cultural elites" drearily confirm the verdict pronounced upon them by the public at large. Instead of repudiating sophistication, Proust, I want to argue, practices a sophistication that entails a "naivete" of its own. (Why is it, by the way, that, if you can't really say "sophistication" in French, you can't really say "naivete" in English?) Again, Adorno proves helpful:

The compulsion to adapt prohibits one from listening to reality with

[Proust's] precision from taking its soundings. One need only make the

effort to refrain from dealing directly with subject matter or pursuing

one's aims in a conversation and instead follow the overtones, the

falseness, the artificiality, the urge to dominate, the flattery, or whatever

it may be that accompanies one's own or one's partner's voice. If one

were aware of their implications at every moment one would fall into

such fundamental despair about the world and what has become of

oneself in it that one would lose the desire, and probably the strength as

well, to continue to play along.

Proust, however, did not go along with the renunciation of

responsiveness, nor with the false maturity of resignation. He kept faith

with the childhood potential for unimpaired experience and, with all the

reflectiveness and awareness of an adult, perceived the world in as

undeformed a manner as the day it was created, in fact developed a

technique to resist the automatization and mechanization of his own

thought. He strives indefatigably for immediacy, for a second naivete,

and the position of the pampered amateur from which he approached his

literary task works to the advantage of these efforts.(3)

Idealizations of "the childhood potential for unimpaired experience" may not be to everyone's liking, but what Adorno--to be sure, not exactly one of the guiding lights of gay studies--calls Proust's "second naivete" bears significantly on the distinctive gayness of Proustian sophistication.(4) To the extent, for example, that this naivete resists "the compulsion to adapt," or to the extent that it offers an alternative to "the false maturity of resignation," it becomes readable as a gay strategy for surviving--or (since it is itself a recovered naivete) of recovering from--the ruthless cultural project of universal heterosexualization, whereby "growing up" in fact means shutting down, tuning out, closing off various receptivities that make it possible to find the world interesting. …

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