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Monday, December 02, 2013

the use of imprecision

A beautiful passage from Proust, in his preface to Paul Morand’s Tendres Stocks:
“The sole reproach that I am tempted to make to Morand is that sometimes he has images that are other than inevitable. However, all images that are approximative don’t count. Water, under normal circumstances, boils at one hundred degrees celsius. We don’t see that phenomenon produced at  98 or 99.  Thus, it is better then to have no images.”
I find this faith in precision beautiful, modernist, and at the same time classic. And that it should be so decisively illustrated (the image of boiling water is as precise as you can get) makes it sound like something pre-Socratic, something oracular.
However, I don’t believe it. I believe that images “ à peul près” are sometimes incredibly useful – like smudges in a drawing, they can help the sketcher to open up a dimension of fantasy that would otherwise be lacking, that would otherwise make the drawing merely a banal copy.

Yet I love the way Proust says this.  


Ray Davis said...

You're right, it's very Modern to insist that water's boiling point is the one & only proper temperature to produce palatable cuisine -- I can picture a pronouncement like that in the Futurist Cookbook, although they might prefer the boiling point of copper.

Roger Gathmann said...

Ray, I was thinking less of futurism, here, than - Musil. If I had encountered that quote from Proust without any attribution, and been told it was said by some modernist, I would have immediately thought: Robert Musil. Funny this intersection between two seemingly disparate novelists.

Sarah said...

Belacqua drew near to the house of his aunt. Let us call it Winter, that dusk may fall now and a moon rise. At the corner of the street a horse was down and a man sat on its head. I know, thought Belacqua, that that is considered the right thing to do. But why? A lamplighter flew by on his bike, tilting with his pole at the standards, jousting a little yellow light into the evening. A poorly dressed couple stood in the bay of a pretentious gateway, she sagging against the railings, her head lowered, he standing facing her. He stood up close to her, his hands dangled by his sides. Where we were, thought Belacqua, as we were. He walked on gripping his parcel. Why not piety and pity both, even down below? Why not mercy and Godliness together? A little mercy in the stress of sacrifice, a little mercy to rejoice against judgment. He thought of Jonah and the gourd and the pity of a jealous God on Nineveh. And poor McCabe, he would get it in the neck at dawn. What was he doing now, how was he feeling? He would relish one more meal, one more night.

His aunt was in the garden, tending whatever flowers die at that time of year. She embraced him and together they went down into the bowels of the earth, into the kitchen in the basement. She took the parcel and undid it and abruptly the lobster was on the table, on the oilcloth, discovered.

“They assured me it was fresh” said Belacqua.

Suddenly he saw the creature move, this neuter creature. Definitely it changed its position. His hand flew to his mouth.

“Christ!” he said “it's alive.”

His aunt looked at the lobster. It moved again. It made a faint nervous act of life on the oilcloth. They stood above it, looking down on it, exposed cruciform on the oilcloth. It shuddered again. Belacqua felt he would be sick.

“My God” he whined “it's alive, what'll we do?” The aunt simply had to laugh. She bustled off to the pantry to fetch her smart apron, leaving him goggling down at the lobster, and came back with it on and her sleeves rolled up, all business.

“Well” she said “it is to be hoped so, indeed.”

“All this time” muttered Belacqua. Then, suddenly aware of her hideous equipment: “What are you going to do?” he cried.

“Boil the beast” she said, “what else?”

“But it's not dead” protested Belacqua “you can't boil it like that.”

She looked at him in astonishment. Had he taken leave of his senses?

“Have sense” she said sharply, “lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be.” She caught up the lobster and laid it on its back. It trembled. “They feel nothing” she said.

In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman's cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.

Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.

“You make a fuss” she said angrily “and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner.”

She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.

Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.

It is not.

Samuel Beckett, Dante and the Lobster