The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

William Faulkner

 

Perhaps this counts as a spoiler alert, though who reads Proust for the plot?

In the last pages of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel discovers his vocation at last. This feels triumphant to him, and he describes it as the discovery that a plant has been secretly growing from an unobserved seed:

I began to perceive that I had lived for the sake of the plant without knowing it, without ever realising that my life needed to come into contact with those books which I had wanted to write and for which, when in the past I had sat down at my table to begin, I had been unable to find a subject. And thus my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation. Insofar as literature had played no part in my life the title would not have been accurate. And yet it would have been accurate because this life of mine, the memories of its sadnesses and its joys, formed a reserve which fulfilled the same function as the albumen lodged in the germ-cell of a plant, from which that cell starts to draw the nourishment which will transform it into a seed long before there is any outward sign that the embryo of a plant is developing, though already within the cell there are taking place chemical and respiratory changes, secret but extremely active.

And in a way it is triumphant, since he has floundered until late middle-age — but it comes at a very high cost. That cost is the ability to recognize persons as persons. Marcel becomes an artist by coming to see people only as images, or symbols, or mere counters in his own mental world: “I had realised before now that it is only a clumsy and erroneous form of perception which places everything in the object, when really everything is in the mind; I had lost my grandmother in reality many months after I had lost her in fact.” Fact (found in the external world) is of no value; reality (found in the mind) is infinitely valuable.

So as he thinks about his former lover Albertine, he decides that her real importance lies in her ability to inspire the book he will write:

the pages I would write were something that Albertine, particularly the Albertine of those days, would quite certainly never have understood. It was, however, for this very reason (and this shows that we ought not to live in too intellectual an atmosphere), for the reason that she was so different from me, that she had fertilised me through unhappiness and even, at the beginning, through the simple effort which I had had to make to imagine something different from myself. Had she been capable of understanding my pages, she would, for that very reason, not have inspired them.

Albertine is for Marcel mental fertilizer, nothing more. He imagines something like Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility”: “And the whole composition takes shape, thanks to the presence, evoked by jealousy, of the beauty of whom already we are no longer jealous and whom we no longer love.” This is a strange sentence, but it seems to say that jealousy (possessiveness) makes one attentive to someone’s beauty — but the beauty can only be turned into words when one is no longer jealous, no longer in love. It is good to love someone only insofar as, once that love is over, one has something to write about. Neither the beloved nor the experience of loving has intrinsic value; they are instrumental to Marcel’s Vocation.

And at this point in his life, Marcel loves no one and is loved by no one. He seems to have loved his grandmother genuinely, but she is dead; he probably never truly loved Albertine or his friend Robert St. Loup, but in any case they’re both dead also. Indeed, Marcel tells us that

“friendship … is a simulacrum, since, for whatever moral reasons he may do it, the artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist (our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive).

Friendship is not “reality,” it “does not exist” — and the same is clearly true of eros. Marcel continues to be in touch with people he once loved, or thought he loved — Gilberte, the Duchess de Guermantes — but his feelings about them long ago faded into indifference. The person he is closest to is his servant Françoise, and it would be hard to say that either of them loves the other. Their attachment is strong, but, in Proustian language, is largely the function of habit rather than affection.

Marcel exults in his newfound Vocation; but he has achieved it at the cost of every meaningful human relation. He tells himself that that is no cost at all, because human relations are not realities; he is wrong. Tragically so.