My books are talking

This is getting quite strange. I was reading Elaine Scarry’s book recently where she talks about the gaze: whether gazing at a beautiful person or object can harm she/he/it, and then I turned to Proust for a while, and he was talking about the same thing! Not whether the gaze causes harm or not, but how gazing works for both the gazer and the gazed upon. I’m reading these two books at the same time purely by accident; I had no idea they spoke to each other so well.

Scarry takes up the argument against beauty that “when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.” She quickly dispenses with the idea that gazing at beautiful objects might cause them harm, and takes up the issue of gazing at beautiful people, which is more complicated. She doesn’t dwell on the exact nature of the problem, but the idea is that by gazing at a beautiful person, the gazer turns that person into an object existing for the enjoyment of the gazer and denies the subjecthood of the person gazed upon. All the power, in this view, is with the one gazing, and none with the gazed upon. She counters this view by reminding us that:

It is odd that contemporary accounts of “staring” or “gazing” place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at, for the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived. In accounts of beauty from earlier centuries, it is precisely the perceiver who is imperiled, overpowered, by crossing paths with someone beautiful.

And then Scarry gives a wonderful example:

Plato gives the most detailed account of this destabilization in The Phaedrus. A man beholds a beautiful boy: suddenly he is spinning around in all directions. Publicly unacceptable things happen to his body. First he shudders and shivers. Then sweat pours from him. He is up, down, up, down, adopting postures of worship, even beginning to make sacrifices to the boy, restrained only by his embarrassment to be carrying out so foolish an activity in front of us. Now he feels an unaccountable pain. Feathers are beginning to emerge out of his back, appearing all along the edges of his shoulder blades. Because this plumage begins to lift him off the ground a few inches, he catches glimpses of the immortal realm. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the discomfort he feels on the inside is matched by how ridiculous he looks on the outside.

So the gaze, in this account, is not a form of control over the object gazed upon; instead, it is a way to access beauty which can leave the gazer vulnerable and foolish, which can wrest self-control from the gazer, which can transform the gazer into something new.

Scarry says that the encounter with a beautiful person or object can affirm the aliveness of both — the one encountering beauty feels more alive himself or herself and the beautiful person or object “has conferred on it by the beholder a surfeit of aliveness: even if it is inanimate, it comes to be afforded a fragility and consequent level of protection normally reserved for the animate.” She says:

Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection.

Beauty is, then, a compact, or contract between the beautiful being (a person or thing) and the perceiver. As the beautiful being confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life.

And then I come to Proust. When he writes, “And — oh, the marvelous independence of the human gaze,” you can imagine how I perked up. In the passage where he first sees Mme. de Guermantes, he writes about the gaze as that which transforms the gazer. First, he praises the gaze itself:

And — oh, the marvelous independence of the human gaze, tied to the face by a cord so lax, so long, so extensible that it can travel out alone far away from it — while Mme. de Guermantes sat in the chapel above the tombs of her dead, her gaze strolled here and there, climbed up the pillars, paused even on me like a ray of sunlight wandering through the nave, but a ray of sunlight which, at the moment I received its caress, seemed to me conscious.

Mme. de Guermantes’s gaze, here, does not claim control or power over the narrator; rather, it feels like a conscious ray of light — it is life-giving, instead of life-taking. It is a caress, a recognition and celebration of the narrator’s existence. And then the narrator gazes at her:

I felt it was important that she not leave before I had looked at her enough, because I remembered that for years now I had considered the sight of her eminently desirable, and I did not detach my eyes from her, as if each gaze could physically carry away, and put in reserve inside me, the memory of that prominent nose, those red cheeks, all the particular details that seemed to me so many precious, authentic, and singular pieces of information about her face … I was impelled to consider it beautiful by all the thoughts I had brought to bear on it …

The narrator’s gaze upon Mme. de Guermantes does two things: it bestows on her qualities of beauty and authenticity — it affirms her value and aliveness — and it changes the narrator. It creates in him memories he will carry with him forever. When he sees her, he is moved to say (and beauty does move us to action, in this case, to speaking out loud):

“How beautiful she is! How noble! What I see before me is indeed a proud Guermantes and a descendant of Genevieve de Brabant!” And the attention with which I illuminated her face isolated her to such an extent that today, if I think back to that ceremony, it is impossible for me to see a single one of the people who were present except for her and the verger who responded affirmatively when I asked him if that lady was really Mme. de Guermantes.

The memory of Mme. de Guermantes he now carries with him will affect his perceptions of the world. He will remember, also, Mme. de Guermantes’s gaze upon him, a memory that becomes a part of his being:

Recalling, then, the gaze she had rested on me during Mass, as blue as a ray of sunlight passing through Gilbert the Bad’s window, I said to myself: “Why she’s actually paying attention to me.” I believed that she liked me, that she would still be thinking of me after she had left the church, that because of me perhaps she would be sad that evening at Guermantes. And immediately I loved her …

This is a scene (p. 180-1 in the Davis translation) of the gaze as an action that transforms the gazer and the one gazed upon — it transforms them, as Scarry says, by affirming their value and aliveness. It is a reciprocal event, a compact, bringing benefits to both.

I couldn’t believe my luck in coming across Scarry’s philosophical proposition and then Proust’s embodiment of that proposition in the same day. And I’ll add that as I write about what I read in this blog, I feel that I’m living out Scarry’s idea that beauty provokes people to action, specifically to reproduce or to imitate the beauty they encounter: when I encounter something beautiful in my reading, I can reproduce it here and then reflect on it — it’s a way of being an active rather than passive reader and it’s a way of perpetuating the beautiful books and passages I come across.

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Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

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