cowardice of the great

Behind Proust’s essay on Sainte Beuve and Baudelaire, one feels the whole experience of the Dreyfus affair, which taught Proust an unforgettable lesson: how much depends upon the cowardice of the great. It is this insight that drove the alienated liberals towards socialism at the end of the nineteenth century. In Sainte Beuve’s treatment of Baudelaire, Proust saw an emblem of the system of relations that put the imagination at the service of the platitude, and the platitude at the service of maintaining, at any price, one’s place in the artificial paradise.

Of course, the essay has capacities, pockets, unexplored frontiers that can’t be reduced to the above thesis. But to understand the peculiar immersion of the artificial paradise – the swallowed commodity that swallows the user (as we restlessly toss and turn in the golden egg) – I want to use Proust’s essay as the torch that lights my way into the vault.

Proust’s problem in the essay is not just to untangle Sainte Beuve’s relationship to Baudelaire – his maddening assumption of superiority, his strategy of deferring the moment of writing about the poet until it is too late, the Cheshire cat language he uses that at one point makes Proust cry out: “quelle vieille bête ou quelle vieille canaille…” like Charlus in the final stages of exasperation – his problem, the deeper problem, is to untangle Baudelaire’s relationship to Sainte Beuve: the unfailing politeness, the sincere delight he took in any scraps thrown him by “l'oncle Beuve.”

These are tangled ties, knots within Gordian knots. The screw turns. Proust’s solution is extremely beautiful.

Comme le ciel de la théologie catholique qui se compose de plusieurs ciels superposés, notre personne, dont l'apparence que lui donne notre corps avec sa tête qui circonscrit à une petite boule notre pensée, notre personne morale se compose de plusieurs personnes superposées. Cela est peut-être plus sensible encore pour les poètes qui ont un ciel de plus, un ciel intermédiaire entre le ciel de leur génie, et celui de leur intelligence, de leur bonté, de leur finesse journalières, c'est leur prose. Quand Musset écrit ses Contes, on sent encore à ce je ne sais quoi par moments le frémissement, le soyeux, le prêt à s'envoler des ailes qui ne se soulèveront pas. C'est ce qu'on a du reste dit beaucoup mieux :

Même quand l'oiseau marche, on sent qu'il a des ailes.

(Like the heaven of Catholic theology, which is composed of many superposed heavens, our person, with the appearance given it by our body with its head, which confines our thought to a small bowl, our moral person is composed of many superposed persons. This is perhaps more felt in the case of poets, who have an extra heaven, an intermediary heaven between that of their genius and that of their intelligence, that of their generosity, of their daily canniness, which is their prose. When Musset writes his Stories, one senses again this unknown momentary quality in the quavering, the sleekness, the unfolding of wings that do not extend in flight. Which, besides, is said much better: Même quand l'oiseau marche, on sent qu'il a des ailes.) (my translation)

This is as central an idea to Proust, I think, as the idea of the eternal return was to Nietzsche – and was evoked by the same long experience of the cowardice of the great. Saint Beuve for Baudelaire, Wagner for Nietzsche, and, in Proust’s case, the collective cowardice of the establishment, including the literary establishment – the Daudets, for instance – in the Dreyfus case.