Why Churches? Why Motif?

In the final pages of In Search of Lost Time Marcel the narrator says of his intended book that he would “build it up like a church†(VI.507). He would also stitch it simply like a dress, regroup his forces like a general conducting an offensive, endure it like a medical regime (VI.507-9). But the book that he has written over the six volumes leading to this point features the church motif more prominently than the others mentioned in these ending pages. In fact, the connection between self reflection and churches is prefigured on page one, where Marcel begins the story by explaining his nightly shift between waking and sleep.

And half an hour later the thought that it was time to look for sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. (I.1)

The apparent blending of subject and object “did not offend [his] reason†(I.1) and became the major motivation for his search of Lost Time. One critical aspect of this passage is that it establishes the conflict between perception and imperceptible reality, of which Marcel’s other conflicts are types (i.e. questions of Albertine’s fidelity and sexual orientation, the nature of Time, the relation of self to nation). The church and quartet are significant here in that they embody and document time itself. Time and harmonics are the essential elements of the art of music, the bringing to life of a continual emotional present that can be re-performed but never duplicated. An old church brings to life the presence of the past and is a supreme exemplar of the general in the particular. It also incorporates many arts -- architecture, sculpture, stained glass, painting, tapestry, music, narrative, fashion, even food and drink -- and combines their special effects to express the whole of human experience. It is therefore not surprising that the narrator concludes that books of the magnitude he will undertake are never complete: “How many great cathedrals remain unfinished!†(VI.508).

Saint-Lô, by Corot (1850-5)There are many motifs that contribute to the rich texture of the Recherche, yet the church is probably the most frequent and consistent throughout. A motif is a recurring thematic or structural element in any art, especially music, architecture, painting, and literature. In addition to manifestation through plot and character, motifs can be embodied in place or time. The recurring elements that unify Proust’s novel -- the Madeleine, the Japanese paper game, the little phrase of Vinteuil's sonata, the parish church at Combray, to name a few -- allow for the modulation of themes and function like motifs in a piece of music but also like the pan-aesthetic motifs of a church. Churches fulfill several functions in the novel ranging from elements of setting to objects of discourse, and they embody both place and time. Just consider the import of the first time Marcel sees Mme de Guermantes in the church at Combray, his meditation on the twin steeples of Martinville, or all the love fantasies he has before the commencement of his relationship with Gilberte. For these reasons the church motif seems a sufficient subject for a large-scale study.

The current mission of this archive is to provide textual and visual material to enhance analysis of the Recherche and the study of the nature of narrative. The relation of some of the materials might not be clear, but the purpose here is not so much to track down original references (though there is a lot of that) as it is to provide thought-provoking experiences. Anyone who is seriously interested in working with Proust or the topics pertinent to this archive (see the categories list in the sidebar), or on the archive itself, is encouraged to contact me at jdrouin@gc.cuny.edu.


ecclesiastical proust archive: starting a community

(Jeff Drouin is in the English Ph.D. Program at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York) About three weeks ago I had lunch with Ben, Eddie, Dan, and Jesse to talk about starting a community with one...