Marcel Proust’s Stimulants

Marcel Proust and Mind-Altering Substances
 (and Proust’s deathbed photographs by Man Ray)

Speculations about the role of drugs in Proust’s creative process, and observations about the last photographs of Marcel Proust.  A response to Graham Robb’s review of Richard Davenport-Hines’s book Proust at The Majestic in the New York Review of Books of October 19, 2006.

Dear New York Review:

Recently I wanted to pass on to my francophile sister the delightful Proust parody by E.M. Forster (see below), cited for us (by Graham Robb in his review in the October 19, 2006 NYRB) from Richard Davenport-Hines’s book Proust at The Majestic.  I had a little trouble finding it in the NYRB archives with “Proust+parody”, but got a hint and found it among my clippings. 

That’s when I noticed again the photo of Proust taking the air in a public garden, with the caption “The last known photograph of Marcel Proust”.   I knew this to be not strictly true, at least without the qualifier “alive”, because for years I’ve been used to seeing, at the home of a Proust admirer of my acquaintance, a photo of Proust on his deathbed, taken by Man Ray.   A little research told me that Man Ray took it two days after Proust’s death on the initiative of Jean Cocteau, who knew them both.  It’s a fairly well-known photograph, at least to Proustians and Man Ray admirers, so Robb and Davenport-Hines are surely aware of it. There is also a very similar photo, taken from a slightly different point of view, the lighting a bit different as well.  (See photos below.)  Though a very minor inaccuracy, it seemed worth a moment to set the record straight, even at this very late date.  Incidentally, the photo of Proust in the garden is not credited, at least not on the page as usually done in the Review; I for one am curious to know who was the photographer. Lartigue?

But this is more substantial:  upon rereading Robb’s article, I was struck much more than before by the part addressing Proust’s affinity for mind-altering substances.   I am no expert (on Proust), and have only read the Moncrieff Swann’s Way, but I had no idea the great man was such a stoner.  I don’t know whether Davenport-Hines makes the connection between the drugs and the madeleines, but Robb hits it square.  He doesn’t emphasize it as much as it may deserve, however, as a key to the understanding of Proust’s method (if not his work – but maybe that too).  I should read the book.

Like artists generally, who are driven by the high of creation, writers get a big kick out of their best inventions, and some of these are the devices they use to recreate their own lived experiences as literature (sometimes not changing the facts much at all).  This is largely a matter of art, but at times there is also the more banal imperative simply to avoid trouble – scandalizing the public, or embarrassing or even incriminating their acquaintances (or themselves).  It seems that Proust transformed certain real-life homosexual relationships into hetero for his novels, changing not only the names of the parties but the gender of one of them as well – though not always convincing everyone – presumably to avoid scandal or libel.

I suppose drug use in Proust’s time was of a somewhat lower order of the forbidden than homosexuality.  Still he probably did not want to make his narrator un chronique.  So, given the importance to him of memory (however nurtured and stimulated in his own life), I imagine it was a delicious moment for him when he hit upon the idea of the madeleines and the herbal tea as a genteel stand-in for self-medication.  (Perhaps he had another one, or whatever, to celebrate his invention.)

At once a private joke and a narrative device, this business of the teacakes that bring on a “rush” of memories is the definitive Proustian moment, known even to many who have never read the books.   As a vivid image of an experience of vivid images, it clearly deserves that status.  Though by now inevitably a cliché, it is not merely an oft-repeated story.  It is perhaps the biggest key on the chain of his whole roman à clé, an invention that masks a habit, in this case, instead of a real person’s identity or sexual inclinations.  Proust was right to urge us, as Robb quotes him, “not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation”, and his writing was not about drugs as such, but he would be less than candid to deny the role played by drugs in his “work flow”. 

The history of artists who are somehow inspired by or driven along by substances would fill many shelves.  A few make the drug experience itself the subject or theme of the work, with others the drug functions more as a tool; many are just attached to the stimulation.  For Proust it seems to have been instrumental, as it has been with Burroughs and Bowles, each in his own way. With our puritanical heritage, many of us habitually (!) tend to pity and condemn those with often-harmful dependencies, but we shouldn’t deny what value they may offer.   The sensible Proust likely knew well that his work would be judged badly if his personal habits were generally known, and it may be that he was thinking also of this when he warned us against facile criticisms.  Clearly he wanted to be judged for his work alone; all the rest was segreti di bottega - workshop secrets.

Allen Schill
September 2009

© 2014 Allen Schill.  All rights reserved in all countries.  No part of this document may be reproduced or used in any form without prior written permission from the author.

“Proust: The Race Against Death”, by Graham Robb

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2006/oct/19/proust-the-race-against-death/

(a sample only of Robb’s article)

Appendix:

E.M. Forster’s parody of Marcel Proust, cited by Davenport-Hines, and too good to omit:

“Three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principle verb, making one wonder, as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs.”

… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …

Photographs: Marcel Proust on his deathbed, by Man Ray, Nov. 1922

Here are the photos mentioned above.  The first is from the Getty Collection, and is very similar in appearance and tonality to the one my acquaintance owns.  I presume, without certainty, that the next two photographs are also by Man Ray. Although I’m a photographer myself, it is not clear to me exactly why the lighting differs from the first to the second.  Still, it’s easily enough explained.  (The first seems quite flat, as if from just the ambient light in the room, possibly with some indirect window light, while the second has shadows that suggest that someone has drawn back the curtains.)  The second is also taken from a point of view a bit lower and further to the right, an almost perfect profile.  The two exposures could be separated by a matter of minutes or of hours.  The third seems exactly the same as the second, but cropped left and right, and with a drastically different tonality, which could well be in the original print, or simply the result of someone having manipulated the image.

The last of the four photos would appear to be the dead Proust, taken at an angle, from a bit further back, but this can’t be the great man.  We see a near lookalike in a nightshirt with loose sleeves and a collar, rather than covered with a bedsheet up to his neck.  The trouble is, he has a pointed beard, while in Man Ray’s two shots, the beard is trimmed close to the chin.  In the background, there is what looks like a dresser casting a shadow towards the corner of the room, while in the profile images by Man Ray there is no furniture back there.  These differences could be explained, it’s true, but in the Man Ray photographs there is a distinct striped wallpaper, with a base of wainscoting (more distinct in the Getty print), while in the oblique shot there is no sign of this - it’s an extremely poor-quality image, but if anything it’s a floral print wallpaper.  It doesn’t look like the same room.  What’s more, this man’s eyebrows seem to rise up towards the center line of the face, while in Man Ray’s pictures they stay close to the bridge of the nose.  As trivial a matter as this probably is, can anyone shed any light on this?  (Wild speculation:  did someone try to pay homage by reenacting Proust’s own death?)

Here is another photo, not of Proust, but of some contemporary whom I like to imagine as if he were Proust.  The photograph (date and photographer unknown), in a sort of carte-de-visite format, shows the subject posing amusingly backwards on a chair, legs sticking awkwardly through the chair back - some lighthearted clowning that for me was a bit unexpected from Proust, but somehow like him just the same.  His hat is on the floor, as if part of a clown routine.  (It shows a sense of humor similar to what Proust displayed in another well-known image, a photo of family and friends, in which Proust poses with a tennis racquet, holding it as if it were a ukulele.)  The photograph belonged to the aforementioned acquaintance who collected Proustiana, and I think he also associated the photo with Proust on the level of feeling.

The man in the chair does resemble Proust as a type; unfortunately he’s covering his face, peeking out with one eye.  On the back of the print, on the bottom, there is written in a florid hand what appears to be “Conte Cesare Forse”.  Also, it bears the stamp of a photo studio, most of it torn away (perhaps with a label) and thus incomprehensible.  But since we can see the beginning of “FOTO…(grafo? grafia?)”, “DIONI…(sio?)” and “SAV…”, I am led to suspect the photo was made by a studio Dionisio or Dionisius in Italy, not France, possibly in Savona.  I find no references online to any Conte Cesare Forse, which is an odd name, even absurd - in Italian it means “Count Caesar Perhaps”.  Perhaps the inscription is simply a private joke.  Click on any image to see it nice and big.  The man’s cane is decorated at the top with what could be a serpent, or a human figure, maybe even a crucifixion.

I reproduce below, just because they are beautiful, the last known photograph of Proust alive (used in the New York Review article mentioned above), and Paul Nadar’s portrait of the Countess Greffulhe, who was an important model for Proust’s character the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du temps perdu.   (Does anyone know who took this photograph of Proust?)  Since originally posting this, I learned that it was taken on the occasion of Proust’s visit to the Jeu de Paume, in late May of 1921, to view the exhibition of Dutch paintings, in particular Vermeer’s “View of Delft”, which was very important to the writer from years before.  It was the last occasion on which Proust left his cocoon to appear in public - he was already quite unwell, some 18 months before his death.  Proust used this experience of dizziness and weakness to inspire the episode of the death of his character Bergotte at the Jeu de Paume.

Marcel Proust and Mind-Altering Substances
(and Proust’s deathbed photographs by Man Ray)

Speculations about the role of drugs in Proust’s creative process, and observations about the last photographs of Marcel Proust.  A response to Graham Robb’s review of Richard Davenport-Hines’s book Proust at The Majestic in the New York Review of Books of October 19, 2006.

Dear New York Review:

Recently I wanted to pass on to my francophile sister the delightful Proust parody by E.M. Forster (see below), cited for us (by Graham Robb in his review in the October 19, 2006 NYRB) from Richard Davenport-Hines’s book Proust at The Majestic.  I had a little trouble finding it in the NYRB archives with “Proust+parody”, but got a hint and found it among my clippings.

 That’s when I noticed again the photo of Proust taking the air in a public garden, with the caption “The last known photograph of Marcel Proust”.  I knew this to be not strictly true, at least without the qualifier “alive”, because for years I’ve been used to seeing, at the home of a Proust admirer of my acquaintance, a photo of Proust on his deathbed, taken by Man Ray.  A little research told me that Man Ray took it two days after Proust’s death on the initiative of Jean Cocteau, who knew them both.   It’s a fairly well-known photograph, at least to Proustians and Man Ray admirers, so Robb and Davenport-Hines are surely aware of it.  There is also a very similar photo, taken from a slightly different point of view, the lighting a bit different as well.  (See photos below.)  Though a very minor inaccuracy, it seemed worth a moment to set the record straight, even at this very late date.   Incidentally, the photo of Proust in the garden is not credited, at least not on the page as usually done in the Review; I for one am curious to know who was the photographer. Lartigue?

But this is more substantial: upon rereading Robb’s article, I was struck much more than before by the part addressing Proust’s affinity for mind-altering substances.  I am no expert (on Proust), and have only read the Moncrieff Swann’s Way, but I had no idea the great man was such a stoner.  I don’t know whether Davenport-Hines makes the connection between the drugs and the madeleines, but Robb hits it square.  He doesn’t emphasize it as much as it may deserve, however, as a key to the understanding of Proust’s method (if not his work – but maybe that too).  I should read the book.

Like artists generally, who are driven by the high of creation, writers get a big kick out of their best inventions, and some of these are the devices they use to recreate their own lived experiences as literature (sometimes not changing the facts much at all).  This is largely a matter of art, but at times there is also the more banal imperative simply to avoid trouble – scandalizing the public, or embarrassing or even incriminating their acquaintances (or themselves).  It seems that Proust transformed certain real-life homosexual relationships into hetero for his novels, changing not only the names of the parties but the gender of one of them as well – though not always convincing everyone – presumably to avoid scandal or libel.

I suppose drug use in Proust’s time was of a somewhat lower order of the forbidden than homosexuality.  Still he probably did not want to make his narrator un chronique.  So, given the importance to him of memory (however nurtured and stimulated in his own life), I imagine it was a delicious moment for him when he hit upon the idea of the madeleines and the herbal tea as a genteel stand-in for self-medication.  (Perhaps he had another one, or whatever, to celebrate his invention.)

At once a private joke and a narrative device, this business of the teacakes that bring on a “rush” of memories is the definitive Proustian moment, known even to many who have never read the books.  As a vivid image of an experience of vivid images, it clearly deserves that status.  Though by now inevitably a cliché, it is not merely an oft-repeated story.  It is perhaps the biggest key on the chain of his whole roman à clé, an invention that masks a habit, in this case, instead of a real person’s identity or sexual inclinations.  Proust was right to urge us, as Robb quotes him, “not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation”, and his writing was not about drugs as such, but he would be less than candid to deny the role played by drugs in his “work flow”. 

The history of artists who are somehow inspired by or driven along by substances would fill many shelves.  A few make the drug experience itself the subject or theme of the work, with others the drug functions more as a tool; many are just attached to the stimulation.  For Proust it seems to have been instrumental, as it has been with Burroughs and Bowles, each in his own way.  With our puritanical heritage, many of us habitually (!) tend to pity and condemn those with often-harmful dependencies, but we shouldn’t deny what value they may offer.  The sensible Proust likely knew well that his work would be judged badly if his personal habits were generally known, and it may be that he was thinking also of this when he warned us against facile criticisms.  Clearly he wanted to be judged for his work alone; all the rest was segreti di bottega - workshop secrets.

Allen Schill
September 2009
© 2014 Allen Schill.  All rights reserved in all countries.  No part of this document may be reproduced or used in any form without prior written permission from the author.

Proust: The Race Against Death”, by Graham Robb

Appendix:
E.M. Forster’s parody of Marcel Proust, cited by Davenport-Hines, and too good to omit:

“Three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principle verb, making one wonder, as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs.”

… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …

Photographs: Marcel Proust on his deathbed, by Man Ray, Nov. 1922

Here are the photos mentioned above. The first is from the Getty Collection, and is very similar in appearance and tonality to the one my acquaintance owns. I presume, without certainty, that the next two photographs are also by Man Ray. Although I’m a photographer myself, it is not clear to me exactly why the lighting differs from the first to the second. Still, it’s easily enough explained. (The first seems quite flat, as if from just the ambient light in the room, possibly with some indirect window light, while the second has shadows that suggest that someone has drawn back the curtains.) The second is also taken from a point of view a bit lower and further to the right, an almost perfect profile. The two exposures could be separated by a matter of minutes or of hours. The third seems exactly the same as the second, but cropped left and right, and with a drastically different tonality, which could well be in the original print, or simply the result of someone having manipulated the image.

The last of the four photos would appear to be the dead Proust, taken at an angle, from a bit further back, but I have serious doubts about who this is. We see Proust (or a near lookalike) in a nightshirt with loose sleeves and a collar, rather than covered with a bedsheet up to his neck. The trouble is, he has a pointed beard, while in Man Ray’s two shots, the beard is trimmed close to the chin. In the background, there is what looks like a dresser casting a shadow towards the corner of the room, while in the profile images by Man Ray there is no furniture back there. These differences could be explained, it’s true, but in the Man Ray photographs there is a distinct striped wallpaper, with a base of wainscoting (more distinct in the Getty print), while in the oblique shot there is no sign of this - it’s an extremely poor-quality image, but if anything it’s a floral print wallpaper. It doesn’t look like the same room. What’s more, this man’s eyebrows seem to rise up towards the center line of the face, while in Man Ray’s pictures they stay close to the bridge of the nose. Can anyone shed any light on this? (Wild speculation: did someone try to pay homage by reenacting Proust’s own death?)

I hope to post another photo, not of Proust, but of some contemporary who I like to imagine as if he were Proust. The photograph (date and photographer unknown), in a sort of carte-de-visite format, shows the subject posing amusingly backwards on a chair - some lighthearted clowning that for me was a bit unexpected from Proust, but somehow like him just the same. The photograph belonged to the aforementioned acquaintance who collected Proustiana, and I think he also associated the photo with Proust on the level of feeling.

I reproduce below, just because they are beautiful, the last known photograph of Proust alive (used in the New York Review article mentioned above), and Paul Nadar’s portrait of the Countess Greffulhe, who was an important model for Proust’s character the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du temps perdu. (Does anyone know who took this photograph of Proust?)

Marcel Proust and Mind-Altering Substances
(and Proust’s deathbed photographs by Man Ray)

Speculations about the role of drugs in Proust’s creative process, and observations about the last photographs of Marcel Proust. A response to Graham Robb’s review of Richard Davenport-Hines’s book Proust at The Majestic in the New York Review of Books of October 19, 2006.

Dear New York Review:

Recently I wanted to pass on to my francophile sister the delightful Proust parody by E.M. Forster (see below), cited for us (by Graham Robb in his review in the October 19, 2006 NYRB) from Richard Davenport-Hines’s book Proust at The Majestic. I had a little trouble finding it in the NYRB archives with “Proust+parody”, but got a hint and found it among my clippings.

That’s when I noticed again the photo of Proust taking the air in a public garden, with the caption “The last known photograph of Marcel Proust”. I knew this to be not strictly true, at least without the qualifier “alive”, because for years I’ve been used to seeing, at the home of a Proust admirer of my acquaintance, a photo of Proust on his deathbed, taken by Man Ray. A little research told me that Man Ray took it two days after Proust’s death on the initiative of Jean Cocteau, who knew them both. It’s a fairly well-known photograph, at least to Proustians and Man Ray admirers, so Robb and Davenport-Hines are surely aware of it. There is also a very similar photo, taken from a slightly different point of view, the lighting a bit different as well. (See photos below.) Though a very minor inaccuracy, it seemed worth a moment to set the record straight, even at this very late date. Incidentally, the photo of Proust in the garden is not credited, at least not on the page as usually done in the Review; I for one am curious to know who was the photographer. Lartigue?

But this is more substantial: upon rereading Robb’s article, I was struck much more than before by the part addressing Proust’s affinity for mind-altering substances. I am no expert (on Proust), and have only read the Moncrieff Swann’s Way, but I had no idea the great man was such a stoner. I don’t know whether Davenport-Hines makes the connection between the drugs and the madeleines, but Robb hits it square. He doesn’t emphasize it as much as it may deserve, however, as a key to the understanding of Proust’s method (if not his work – but maybe that too). I should read the book.

Like artists generally, who are driven by the high of creation, writers get a big kick out of their best inventions, and some of these are the devices they use to recreate their own lived experiences as literature (sometimes not changing the facts much at all). This is largely a matter of art, but at times there is also the more banal imperative simply to avoid trouble – scandalizing the public, or embarrassing or even incriminating their acquaintances (or themselves). It seems that Proust transformed certain real-life homosexual relationships into hetero for his novels, changing not only the names of the parties but the gender of one of them as well – though not always convincing everyone – presumably to avoid scandal or libel.

I suppose drug use in Proust’s time was of a somewhat lower order of the forbidden than homosexuality. Still he probably did not want to make his narrator un chronique. So, given the importance to him of memory (however nurtured and stimulated in his own life), I imagine it was a delicious moment for him when he hit upon the idea of the madeleines and the herbal tea as a genteel stand-in for self-medication. (Perhaps he had another one, or whatever, to celebrate his invention.)

At once a private joke and a narrative device, this business of the teacakes that bring on a “rush” of memories is the definitive Proustian moment, known even to many who have never read the books. As a vivid image of an experience of vivid images, it clearly deserves that status. Though by now inevitably a cliché, it is not merely an oft-repeated story. It is perhaps the biggest key on the chain of his whole roman à clé, an invention that masks a habit, in this case, instead of a real person’s identity or sexual inclinations. Proust was right to urge us, as Robb quotes him, “not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation”, and his writing was not about drugs as such, but he would be less than candid to deny the role played by drugs in his “work flow”.

The history of artists who are somehow inspired by or driven along by substances would fill many shelves. A few make the drug experience itself the subject or theme of the work, with others the drug functions more as a tool; many are just attached to the stimulation. For Proust it seems to have been instrumental, as it has been with Burroughs and Bowles, each in his own way. With our puritanical heritage, many of us habitually (!) tend to pity and condemn those with often-harmful dependencies, but we shouldn’t deny what value they may offer. The sensible Proust likely knew well that his work would be judged badly if his personal habits were generally known, and it may be that he was thinking also of this when he warned us against facile criticisms. Clearly he wanted to be judged for his work alone; all the rest was segreti di bottega - workshop secrets.

Allen Schill
September 2009
© 2014 Allen Schill. All rights reserved in all countries. No part of this document may be reproduced or used in any form without prior written permission from the author.

Proust: The Race Against Death”, by Graham Robb(http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2006/oct/19/proust-the-race-against-death/)Appendix:
E.M. Forster’s parody of Marcel Proust, cited by Davenport-Hines, and too good to omit:

“Three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principle verb, making one wonder, as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs.”

… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …

Photographs: Marcel Proust on his deathbed, by Man Ray, Nov. 1922

Here are the photos mentioned above. The first is from the Getty Collection, and is very similar in appearance and tonality to the one my acquaintance owns. I presume, without certainty, that the next two photographs are also by Man Ray. Although I’m a photographer myself, it is not clear to me exactly why the lighting differs from the first to the second. Still, it’s easily enough explained. (The first seems quite flat, as if from just the ambient light in the room, possibly with some indirect window light, while the second has shadows that suggest that someone has drawn back the curtains.) The second is also taken from a point of view a bit lower and further to the right, an almost perfect profile. The two exposures could be separated by a matter of minutes or of hours. The third seems exactly the same as the second, but cropped left and right, and with a drastically different tonality, which could well be in the original print, or simply the result of someone having manipulated the image.

The last of the four photos would appear to be the dead Proust, taken at an angle, from a bit further back, but I have serious doubts about who this is. We see Proust (or a near lookalike) in a nightshirt with loose sleeves and a collar, rather than covered with a bedsheet up to his neck. The trouble is, he has a pointed beard, while in Man Ray’s two shots, the beard is trimmed close to the chin. In the background, there is what looks like a dresser casting a shadow towards the corner of the room, while in the profile images by Man Ray there is no furniture back there. These differences could be explained, it’s true, but in the Man Ray photographs there is a distinct striped wallpaper, with a base of wainscoting (more distinct in the Getty print), while in the oblique shot there is no sign of this - it’s an extremely poor-quality image, but if anything it’s a floral print wallpaper. It doesn’t look like the same room. What’s more, this man’s eyebrows seem to rise up towards the center line of the face, while in Man Ray’s pictures they stay close to the bridge of the nose. Can anyone shed any light on this? (Wild speculation: did someone try to pay homage by reenacting Proust’s own death?)

I hope to post another photo, not of Proust, but of some contemporary who I like to imagine as if he were Proust. The photograph (date and photographer unknown), in a sort of carte-de-visite format, shows the subject posing amusingly backwards on a chair - some lighthearted clowning that for me was a bit unexpected from Proust, but somehow like him just the same. The photograph belonged to the aforementioned acquaintance who collected Proustiana, and I think he also associated the photo with Proust on the level of feeling.

I reproduce below, just because they are beautiful, the last known photograph of Proust alive (used in the New York Review article mentioned above), and Paul Nadar’s portrait of the Countess Greffulhe, who was an important model for Proust’s character the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du temps perdu. (Does anyone know who took this photograph of Proust?)

Marcel Proust and Mind-Altering Substances
(and Proust’s deathbed photographs by Man Ray)

Speculations about the role of drugs in Proust’s creative process, and observations about the last photographs of Marcel Proust. A response to Graham Robb’s review of Richard Davenport-Hines’s book Proust at The Majestic in the New York Review of Books of October 19, 2006.

Dear New York Review:

Recently I wanted to pass on to my francophile sister the delightful Proust parody by E.M. Forster (see below), cited for us (by Graham Robb in his review in the October 19, 2006 NYRB) from Richard Davenport-Hines’s book Proust at The Majestic. I had a little trouble finding it in the NYRB archives with “Proust+parody”, but got a hint and found it among my clippings.

That’s when I noticed again the photo of Proust taking the air in a public garden, with the caption “The last known photograph of Marcel Proust”. I knew this to be not strictly true, at least without the qualifier “alive”, because for years I’ve been used to seeing, at the home of a Proust admirer of my acquaintance, a photo of Proust on his deathbed, taken by Man Ray. A little research told me that Man Ray took it two days after Proust’s death on the initiative of Jean Cocteau, who knew them both. It’s a fairly well-known photograph, at least to Proustians and Man Ray admirers, so Robb and Davenport-Hines are surely aware of it. There is also a very similar photo, taken from a slightly different point of view, the lighting a bit different as well. (See photos below.) Though a very minor inaccuracy, it seemed worth a moment to set the record straight, even at this very late date. Incidentally, the photo of Proust in the garden is not credited, at least not on the page as usually done in the Review; I for one am curious to know who was the photographer. Lartigue?

But this is more substantial: upon rereading Robb’s article, I was struck much more than before by the part addressing Proust’s affinity for mind-altering substances. I am no expert (on Proust), and have only read the Moncrieff Swann’s Way, but I had no idea the great man was such a stoner. I don’t know whether Davenport-Hines makes the connection between the drugs and the madeleines, but Robb hits it square. He doesn’t emphasize it as much as it may deserve, however, as a key to the understanding of Proust’s method (if not his work – but maybe that too). I should read the book.

Like artists generally, who are driven by the high of creation, writers get a big kick out of their best inventions, and some of these are the devices they use to recreate their own lived experiences as literature (sometimes not changing the facts much at all). This is largely a matter of art, but at times there is also the more banal imperative simply to avoid trouble – scandalizing the public, or embarrassing or even incriminating their acquaintances (or themselves). It seems that Proust transformed certain real-life homosexual relationships into hetero for his novels, changing not only the names of the parties but the gender of one of them as well – though not always convincing everyone – presumably to avoid scandal or libel.

I suppose drug use in Proust’s time was of a somewhat lower order of the forbidden than homosexuality. Still he probably did not want to make his narrator un chronique. So, given the importance to him of memory (however nurtured and stimulated in his own life), I imagine it was a delicious moment for him when he hit upon the idea of the madeleines and the herbal tea as a genteel stand-in for self-medication. (Perhaps he had another one, or whatever, to celebrate his invention.)

At once a private joke and a narrative device, this business of the teacakes that bring on a “rush” of memories is the definitive Proustian moment, known even to many who have never read the books. As a vivid image of an experience of vivid images, it clearly deserves that status. Though by now inevitably a cliché, it is not merely an oft-repeated story. It is perhaps the biggest key on the chain of his whole roman à clé, an invention that masks a habit, in this case, instead of a real person’s identity or sexual inclinations. Proust was right to urge us, as Robb quotes him, “not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation”, and his writing was not about drugs as such, but he would be less than candid to deny the role played by drugs in his “work flow”.

The history of artists who are somehow inspired by or driven along by substances would fill many shelves. A few make the drug experience itself the subject or theme of the work, with others the drug functions more as a tool; many are just attached to the stimulation. For Proust it seems to have been instrumental, as it has been with Burroughs and Bowles, each in his own way. With our puritanical heritage, many of us habitually (!) tend to pity and condemn those with often-harmful dependencies, but we shouldn’t deny what value they may offer. The sensible Proust likely knew well that his work would be judged badly if his personal habits were generally known, and it may be that he was thinking also of this when he warned us against facile criticisms. Clearly he wanted to be judged for his work alone; all the rest was segreti di bottega - workshop secrets.

Allen Schill
September 2009
© 2014 Allen Schill. All rights reserved in all countries. No part of this document may be reproduced or used in any form without prior written permission from the author.

Proust: The Race Against Death”, by Graham Robb(http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2006/oct/19/proust-the-race-against-death/)Appendix:
E.M. Forster’s parody of Marcel Proust, cited by Davenport-Hines, and too good to omit:

“Three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principle verb, making one wonder, as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs.”

… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …

Photographs: Marcel Proust on his deathbed, by Man Ray, Nov. 1922

Here are the photos mentioned above. The first is from the Getty Collection, and is very similar in appearance and tonality to the one my acquaintance owns. I presume, without certainty, that the next two photographs are also by Man Ray. Although I’m a photographer myself, it is not clear to me exactly why the lighting differs from the first to the second. Still, it’s easily enough explained. (The first seems quite flat, as if from just the ambient light in the room, possibly with some indirect window light, while the second has shadows that suggest that someone has drawn back the curtains.) The second is also taken from a point of view a bit lower and further to the right, an almost perfect profile. The two exposures could be separated by a matter of minutes or of hours. The third seems exactly the same as the second, but cropped left and right, and with a drastically different tonality, which could well be in the original print, or simply the result of someone having manipulated the image.

The last of the four photos would appear to be the dead Proust, taken at an angle, from a bit further back, but I have serious doubts about who this is. We see Proust (or a near lookalike) in a nightshirt with loose sleeves and a collar, rather than covered with a bedsheet up to his neck. The trouble is, he has a pointed beard, while in Man Ray’s two shots, the beard is trimmed close to the chin. In the background, there is what looks like a dresser casting a shadow towards the corner of the room, while in the profile images by Man Ray there is no furniture back there. These differences could be explained, it’s true, but in the Man Ray photographs there is a distinct striped wallpaper, with a base of wainscoting (more distinct in the Getty print), while in the oblique shot there is no sign of this - it’s an extremely poor-quality image, but if anything it’s a floral print wallpaper. It doesn’t look like the same room. What’s more, this man’s eyebrows seem to rise up towards the center line of the face, while in Man Ray’s pictures they stay close to the bridge of the nose. Can anyone shed any light on this? (Wild speculation: did someone try to pay homage by reenacting Proust’s own death?)

I hope to post another photo, not of Proust, but of some contemporary who I like to imagine as if he were Proust. The photograph (date and photographer unknown), in a sort of carte-de-visite format, shows the subject posing amusingly backwards on a chair - some lighthearted clowning that for me was a bit unexpected from Proust, but somehow like him just the same. The photograph belonged to the aforementioned acquaintance who collected Proustiana, and I think he also associated the photo with Proust on the level of feeling.

I reproduce below, just because they are beautiful, the last known photograph of Proust alive (used in the New York Review article mentioned above), and Paul Nadar’s portrait of the Countess Greffulhe, who was an important model for Proust’s character the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du temps perdu. (Does anyone know who took this photograph of Proust?)

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