Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Proust and the Cyclops: Monocles and Material Culture in A la Recherche Du Temps Perdu

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Proust and the Cyclops: Monocles and Material Culture in A la Recherche Du Temps Perdu

Article excerpt

In the middle of my forehead I have one eye, so what? Does not the Sun See all things here on earth from his high Heaven? And the great Sun has only one eye. (Ovid, Met. 12.850-853) (1) 

Noting the prominence of monocles in A la recherche du temps perdu, literary critic Robert Dreyfus, Proust's friend and early editor of his letters, quipped, "Peut-etre y aurait-il une assez amusante petite etude a esquisser sur les significations variees du monocle, d'apres Marcel Proust" (88) ["Perhaps there would be a rather amusing little study to sketch on the various meanings of the monocle according to Marcel Proust" (author's translation)]. Indeed, while one or two references might pass without comment, the fact that Proust mentions monocles over forty-five times during the course of the novel suggests more than just casual interest in optical ware. While many have noticed the persistent recurrence of the monocles and alluded to the obvious associations, few have thought to delve into their deeper significance. Roger Shattuck makes only brief mention of monocles in his book on Proust (7, 8), while Marius Hentea makes only passing reference to Proust in his study of the cultural history of the monocle (214). David Mendelson is the first to treat monocles seriously in his examination of glass objects in Proust's creative universe, though he does not explore the range of associations and their implications (85, 161-65). If this paper is not quite a treatise, it nevertheless takes up Robert Dreyfus's invitation to contemplate the significance of the monocle in Proust.

On the surface, the monocle is a recurrent if seemingly trivial artifact of the material culture of Proust's world, a signifier of "smart" social status or martial eclat. But a closer examination of Proust's descriptions and dispositions of monocles, both as "things" with which to see and to be seen, resonates with a number of analogous relationships: the observer and the observed, the voyeur and the erotic object, the audience and the performance, the connoisseur and the work of art, the lover and the beloved. All of these inform a series of variations on a motif that ultimately resides in the complex and problematic relationship between subject and object and a concomitant anguish of identity. In this the monocle becomes a "sign-functioning object" whose value resides in its power to point to what Thomas Baldwin more broadly terms the "illusory other" in Proust's use of objects (52; see also Watson 154). It is a part of a symbolic overdetermination, a node in a complex web of associations that constructs identity and encircles the trauma over the separation of the subject and object, an anguish that derives from the unsatisfied and unsatisfiable desire of the subject to penetrate the other, the persistence of the other in its alterity. "The mystery in Proust," writes Emmanuel Levinas, "is the mystery of the other" (163; see also Wassenaar 47 and Haustein 47-48).

MONOCULAR MEANINGS

Even the most casual survey of the history and use of the monocle or monocular vision codes a series of ambiguous binaries: Beau Brummel/Polyphemus the Cyclops, Erich von Stroheim/Una Troubridge, Lord Peter Wimsey/Charlie McCarthy; or more thematically: the useful/the superfluous, the dandy/the ramrod officer, the effeminate/the masculine, the sophisticated/the buffoonish, the aesthete/the savage, one-dimensional perception/multi-dimensional perception. In turn and more generally, the object marks a series of boundaries: the artificial/natural, seeing/being seen, observer/observed, self/other, the mask/the real, closed/open, protected/vulnerable, transgressive/normative. All of these "practical taxonomies" associated with Proust's descriptions and use of the monocle contribute to his understanding and construction of the cultural field of identity (Bourdieu, In Other Words 21; Watson 30). Pierre Bourdieu writes, "[o]ur perception and our practice, especially our perception of the social world, are guided by practical taxonomies, oppositions between up and down, masculine (or virile) and feminine [. …

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