Marcel Proust – the forms of love and forgetfulness

Image: Edward Hooper


The pain of forgetting is something that constitutes our very experiences of love


The narrative to which Marcel Proust dedicated much of his mature life is a symphony, an architectural piece, a montage-painting; a writing that is difficult to name – as Jean-Yves Tadié has already argued.[I] In search of lost time It's a classic, as I've already wanted to describe this type of text, Italo Calvino[ii]: endless, always open, previously known; For this reason, a reading of yours is a deep dive into long periods, multiple subordinations, overlapping metaphors, complex synesthesias.

In the middle of the narrator's life, in his multiple process of learning and frustrations, there are a series of sentimental and loving involvements, to which he dedicates his reflections on the most diverse subjects: Gilberte, the Duchess of Guermantes, Mrs. by Stermaria, Andrée and Albertine – the latter to whom two titles of the work and a considerable number of sentimental pages are dedicated. It is true, as Giles Deleuze already argued about Marcel Proust, that the path to discovering the narrator's writing goes through this man of letters learning the signs of worldly life, art and love.[iii]

Furthermore, we would say that alongside this is a striking element of sentimental life: oblivion – death and the transformation of signs that are coming, of course, are fundamental. A true mutation of names and words, which reveal the demystified and affected reality of the Guermantes' spirit up to the lesbian affairs of Albertine and Andrée. Here are two examples of this.

In the first chapter of In the shadow of young girls in bloom We follow the separation and disenchantment of the young narrator with Gilberte, daughter of one of his great intellectual models, Charles Swann, and the beautiful girl Odette. The refusal to meet him, the letters he ignores, the impossibility of spending the afternoon with her with her mother at her home or in the Champs-Elysées pass like the deep mourning of this boy who, little by little, forgets Gilberte.

However, if forgetting is also a way of remembering, we could notice how the girl will not actually disappear from the narrator's sentimental life, but rather remains constantly mentioned in the narrative, until her actual reappearance a few hundred pages later under another name. , which, in turn, gradually forms, like a screen that cannot be discerned immediately, but which, as it approaches, becomes clear: Déporcheville — d'Éporcheville — de Forcheville.

Adopted by her mother's second husband, after abandoning ties with her former Jewish husband in order to more smoothly enter the high circles of Paris,[iv] the daughter socially disowns her father, but, in truth, appears as if reincarnating Swann's intelligence and artistic taste, which led the narrator to admire him so much.

The sequence that ends the first chapter of In the shadow of young girls in bloom makes the ex-cocote, the mother, beautiful, married to one of the most refined men in Paris, a frequenter of the Duchess of Guermantes' house, strolling through the Boulogne forest and being admired by everyone like a goddess, one of those monarchs and nobles of the Faubourg Saint-German – even if she is just a petit bourgeois married to a Jew.

Being familiar with the ups and downs of her old profession, Odette enters this collapsing society, which still tries to cling to the appearances of the name, which will be completely obliterated during the narrative with the decline of the Guermantes salon and the rise of the Verdurins, whose The demarcation is precisely the transformed reappearance of Gilberte, now married to one of the Guermantes: the Marquis de Saint-Loup. Madame de Forcheville is now also this reincarnation of her mother's social ascension, within a language that had to sentimentally transform itself to tell her her name again.

Albertine's case, of course, is different, due to social appearances, but especially due to her loving connection with the narrator: the girl goes through almost the entire work, being central in the fifth and sixth volumes – whose titles refer directly to her: the prisoner e Albertine missing. The entire process of forgetfulness and love for the girl is enhanced in the latter, the “double twilight” time,[v] as she writes to the hero in one of her letters.

As an escape, there is a musical theme that fades away in the first chapter of the sixth volume of the work: “Mrs. Albertine left”[vi]. At the same time that the theme is repeated and varies with the letter – “Mademoiselle Albertine demands ses malle"; "mademoiselle Albertine is leaving"; "Albertine is leaving"; "my decision is irrevocable"[vii] –, the narrator emphasizes in many moments that his Self fragments along with Albertine's also fragmented memories – which, in turn, also becomes multiple: “But, above all, it was this fragmentation of Albertine into numerous fragments, into numerous Albertines , which became its only mode of existence in me. (…) And wasn’t it fair, deep down, that this fractionation calmed me down? Because, if it was not in itself something real, if it depended on the successive form of the hours in which it appeared to me, a form that continued to be that of memory, like the curvature of the projections of my magic lantern depended on the curvature of the colored glasses, did not represent in its own way a truth, and this very objective one, namely, that each of us is not one, as it contains numerous people who do not all have the same moral value”.[viii]

This general reflection comes from a particular notion; something that could, finally, understand Marcel Proust’s aesthetic theory – which he develops in the same sense in Contre Sainte Beuve.

With its fragmentation, the narrator goes through the pages collecting these memories, which form the process of forgetting. As he himself will point out at the beginning of the second chapter of the volume, there is a non-linear path that he must follow, in the manner of someone who returns “by the same path from a country to which he will never return”[ix]; however, what is common between the path of outward and return is that “forgetfulness and love do not progress regularly”[X]. Forgetting constitutes a path passing through love and arriving at indifference, which, not surprisingly in this case, goes through all the narrator's illusions and disillusionments - fundamentally Albertine's affairs with Andrée and other girls while she lived with him as the “prisoner”.

Forgetting, in the end, would mean for the narrator a “change in time”, like an “optical error in time”[xi]. A feeling of youth, a displacement of senses, a distance from real things. It is true that such an experience – incurring and going through pain – comprises the fundamental transformation for the hero to begin writing the book in the last volume of the work. As Roland Barthes wants to argue, learning here goes through these frustrations;[xii] but, in the end, it grounds a truly revolutionary process in terms of the formation of this prose that absorbs the most unique experiences of modern art.

This is also why Marcel Proust continues to be a fundamental writer of the new time: while the appearances of the worldliness of the ruling class are demystified, prose brings the mystical to poetry, giving it a meaning beyond the literality of the word. The Proustian hero learns, after all, the power of the symbol and its ability to shape worlds.

The man of letters' learning must, therefore, go through the core of love – the opposite path that the narrator says he went through after Albertine's death. Interestingly, the girl never fails to appear to the hero, either in his absence – which cannot escape being felt by the spaces, the smells and the tastes that the narrator feels – or ghostly through the telegram he receives thinking it is from his former lover. ; only to discover that, in fact, it was another ghost: Gilberte de Forcheville announcing her marriage to Robert de Saint-Loup.


During the summer of 1913, Sigmund Freud was taking a walk with the poet Rainer M. Rilke, who, taciturnly, would have formulated a contradictory feeling towards the beauty of things in the landscape: he was uncomfortable with all that beauty that was doomed to extinction; like all human life and beautiful things, it would be empty of value due to its ephemerality. From this short tour, Freud will extract one of his most beautiful essays, published later, in 1916, under the title transience - the transience, translated by Paulo César de Souza.

Struggling with thoughts about war, death, mourning, Freud finds himself in a profound debate that will lead him to considerably revise his concepts, inserting new and determining elements into his theory - as will later be the hypothesis of the drive of death. Already in this essay, it is possible to see how mourning and loss would constitute a crucial – and difficult to agree – point for psychoanalysis in thinking about the modern subject.

In the face of loss, psychic energy requires a high degree of wear and tear, which produces considerable suffering. Despite this, “also what is painful can be true”,[xiii] points out Freud; This is because the ephemerality of things gives them a touch of rarity in time. Like the flowers in the garden of Adonis, they do not cease to be beautiful because they die on the same day they are born; the value of this already stated Ricardo Reis:

“The light for them is eternal, because
They are born at the sun, and end up
         Before Apollo leaves
         Its visible course”[xiv]

This is also how, through the plasticity that would be characteristic of libidinal energy, we could direct it to a new object, transformed so that what was lost becomes metamorphosed. The pain of forgetting is, then, something that constitutes our very experiences of love; and perhaps admitting a certain fragility in the way they present themselves to us, paradoxically, gives them more value. This way we would be able to rebuild everything that was lost, “perhaps on firmer ground and in a more lasting way than before”.[xv]

* Guilherme Rodrigues He holds a PhD in Literary Theory from Unicamp's IEL.


[I] Proust et le roman... Paris: Gallimard, 1986.

[ii] Why read the classics? trans. Nilson Moulin. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1993, p. 9-16.

[iii] Proust and the signs. trans. Roberto Machado. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2022.

[iv] Remember that the book devotes a good part of itself to the Dreyfus case and the elements of anti-Semitism in France at the beginning of the XNUMXth century.

[v] Proust, M. Albertine disparue. Paris: Gallimard Folio, 2014, p. 51.

[vi] id. ibid. P. 3.

[vii] id. ibid. P. 12; 14; 29.

[viii] id. ibid. P. 111 (in Drummond's translation): “Ce foraut ce fractionnement d'Albertine, en nombreuses Albertine, qui était son seul mode d'existence dela en moi. (…) Et ce fractionnement, n'était-il pas au fond juste qu'il me calmât? Car doesn't last as long as he chose de réel, he only tenait à la forme successive des heures où elle m'était apparue, forme qui restoit celle de ma mémoires, comme la courbure de projection de ma lanterne magique tenait à la courbure de verres coloré, ne représentait-il pas à manière une vérité bien objective celle-là, que chacun de nous n'est pas un, mais contient de nombreuses personnes qui n'ont pas toutes la même valeur morale (…) ”.

[ix] id. ibid. P. 139.

[X] id. ibid. P. 140.

[xi] id. ibid. P. 174.

[xii] “Proust et les noms”. in: Barthes, R. Le Degre zéro de l'écriture. Suivi de nouveaux esseais critiques. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972, pp. 118-30.

[xiii] freud, s. Complete work v. 12. trans. Paulo Cesar de Souza. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2010, p. 248.

[xiv] Pessoa, F. Odes by Ricardo Reis. Lisbon: Edições Ática, 1970, p. 34.

[xv] Freud, ibid. P. 252.

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