Disparagement of the Photograph in Proust

Man Ray. Harper's Bazaar, November 1936.
Photographs are not treated kindly in Proust’s Recherche. In the “Mother’s Kiss” episode in  Combray section of Swann's Way, there is a humorous account of why photographs ought not to adorn the walls of Marcel’s room for his mother found in them “vulgarity and utility” (v.1, p. 53). The sheer fact that a photograph is reproducible, that another child could have the same photograph hanging in his or her room seems scandalous to Marcel’s mother’s aesthetic taste. A photograph is “common” since it can be reproduced mechanically. The photograph is vulgar since it “captures” objects in the world only to reproduce them as commercial banalities. The photograph does not get under the skin of everydayness. Photographs reveal nothing more than the banal surfaces of things and do not penetrate any deeper. To put it another way: the novel is concerned with animating reality, not the banal apprehension of reality.

Proust also links photography to vanity. Saint-Loup takes a photograph of Marcel’s grandmother. Noticing she puts on her best dress for the occasion, Marcel reports he feels annoyed at his grandmother’s childishness in wanting to appear her best, a fact that surprises him for he had always imagined her to be freed from vanity (v. 2, p. 500). Proust is echoing the idea that “having one’s likeness taken” is offensive to a pure concept of beauty that ought to look deeper than surface appearances. However, Proust’s aversion to photograph goes deeper than a moralistic stance against vanity. It is not an ethical deprivation which is at stake in the photograph, but rather, what Proust seems to deride is the distraction the photograph promotes and the aura of unreality it promotes. Marcel is annoyed that his grandmother will sit for Saint-Loup to have her likeness taken but she will not spend time with him, a theme that can retrace itself back to the young Marcel in Combray waiting for his mother to arrive with the long-awaited kiss. The photograph gives a false promise, one of deferral, the promise of halting time, anticipation in the guise of distraction.

Take for example the magic lantern: an analog for the disparaged photograph which is linked to the mother’s kiss episode in Combray. It is important to note the unsettling feeling aroused by the magic lantern at the start of Proust’s masterwork for it serves as a prelude to the disparagement of the plastic arts throughout the work along with a distanced awe and astonishment. Where Proust disparages he also obsesses. Where photographs are mentioned in Proust, even in passing phrases, metaphors, or allusion to photography, there is often the anticipation of themes we are more familiar with in Proust, the anticipation of a kiss, questions of real and unreal, the sensory world and the world of ideas, insight versus mere appearance.

Placed over his bedside lamp, the magic lantern entertains the boy Marcel by a show of several points of multi-colored light creating a luminous kaleidoscopic effect which evokes both the camera and the cinema, appearance and reality, dark and light, all of which make Marcel uneasy. The iridescence is too much. Like light pouring through stained glass, the child’s magic lantern creates a “supernatural phenomenon of many colours,” causing an unreal effect to superimpose itself on the familiarity of Marcel’s childhood bedroom in Combray. Marcel is both awed and discomfited by the parade of lights the magic lantern produces, as it illuminates a story outside of Marcel’s own experience, thus limiting access to an inside inner experience. The magic lantern produces an unreal effect that shakes Marcel, the budding writer, and puts into question his desire to create uniquely and inwardly. “But my sorrows were only increased thereby, because this mere change of lighting was enough to destroy the familiar impression I had of my room …” (v. 1, p. 10). Proust’s point is to show how the luminous photographic and kaleidoscopic effects of the magic lantern discomfit and unrest the artist’s -- the novelist’s -- ability to capture reality. The magic lantern, and by extension, the play of light that is the photograph, an inscription of light on paper, is set against what novels can do, viz., what Proust feels he can do as a young artist, as a novelist.
As opposed to what books can do, and by this I imagine Proust to imply novels, literature can go deeper than the superficial feint of the photograph. A book is an object like a photograph, but for Marcel, books “were a unique person, absolutely self-contained” (v.1, p. 53). Proust argues that books have the ability to go “beneath everyday incidents”; “ordinary objects” and “common words” (ibid). Books have an advantage over photographs. Books can be unique persons with unique tonalities and individual dispositions. Novels anticipate things. Novels can describe an inner life. When Marcel tells us that "For a long time I would go to bed early," he announces the theme of the novel: anticipation (v.1, p. 1). Proust photography is unable to anticipate. Photographs can present reality the way it is. The novel is to nudity what the photograph is to nakedness. In essence, photographs are a scandalous "laying bare" whereas the novel is "art." While Proust is fascinated by the photograph, I think he sees it as the mere surfacing of the real.

When Robert who has never met Albertine sees a photograph of her after hearing Marcel speak of his love for her, he is surprised that Marcel could have “worked himself into such a state”(v. 5, p.590). We are led to the belief that the surface appearance of what Albertine looks like can never reveal the stirring of Marcel's heart. Robert sees nothing remarkable in her appearance because it is not through appearances that love stirs. Upon watching Berma perform in a theater production of Phédre, Marcel goes back and forth viewing her through a viewfinder and then back to viewing her with his own eyes. And in bed at night he studies the photograph of Berma, rhapsodized at first by her image, and then, gradually disappointed (v.2, p. 81). In another example, the memories of his dead grandmother, Marcel feels, can only be conjured through pain, and he remarks rather proudly that he did not succumb to a photograph to assuage his pain, to erroneously address to a photograph someone who is absent and separated, "but retaining his personality, knows us and remains bound to us by an indissoluble harmony” (v. 4, p. 214). The photograph provides no such access.

Proust disparages photography for it captures objects mechanically and presents reality as if the past can be recaptured as it once was. Proust wants to evoke in the novel a sense of the past that cannot be entirely recaptured but rather anticipated. Photographs make objects present to the viewer in a way a painting or a novel cannot. Novels do evoke the past. Photographs act like memory, bringing the past into the present, but the photograph does not restore the past to the viewer. The photograph acts as a memento mori, a mark of mortality, what once was at a certain point of time. As a pathetic reminder of the futility of photography to recapture the past, Proust describes Swann studying a photograph of Odette. Having lost interest in the present Odette: put-upon, heavier, a more sorrowful Odette, Swann attempts to locate in her the "chrysalis" of who she once was, the younger, more beautiful Odette, what “he had once seen in her” but cannot find. So he turns to study photographs of a younger Odette to remind him of what she once was, “how exquisite she had been. And that would console him a little ...” (v.1, p. 414).

The audacity of the photograph is it purports to present the present in the photographic image itself, which leads Sontag to remark that the photograph goes against Proust’s claim that only the past can be evoked in art (p. 143). Sontag writes that Proust misconstrues photography. She says that photographs make images accessible, not reality (p. 143). Swann’s photograph of a younger Odette merely presents an image of Odette, not access to the Odette Swann once loved. For Proust, it seems, photography is linked to disappointment. And by extension, art too is linked to disappointment.

Where Proust is interested in non-iterable events, the longed-for mother's kiss episode, or the Madeleine cake dipped in tea, he evokes photography in tension with the novel. To take a photograph of a mother kissing her child before he goes to bed would not satisfy Proust. Why? Because the event as presented in the photograph supposes the moment is repeatable. When Marcel writes, "I knew that such a night could not be repeated" (v.1, p.57) he is referring to an event in the past, in this case, a gentle kiss from his mother when he was a boy, as a non-repeatable event, an event of non-iterability. Marcel brings a photograph of Gilberte to his lips in the hopes of recapturing something of the sensory aspect of love. Or, when Marcel in Within a Budding Grove returns to see Berma perform in Phédre to recapture the pleasure of the first event recorded in Swann’s Way. Even if the moment were captured by a photograph, Proust is saying, the photograph cheats and shortcuts to a false past -- or the novel’s claim to the past would be repudiated. Proust sees photography as undermining what novels can do rather than seeing photography as commensurable and coextensive with the novel’s expression of reality.

Photographs Recapture What No Longer Exists

For Proust, the photograph can only recapture dead objects. The novel, by contrast, animates life. Photographs record what once was. Photographs mummify. The photograph archives the past, or in the words of Bazin, “photographs embalm time” (p. 162). For Proust, in the words of Charlus, the dignity of the photography is when it ceases “to be a reproduction of reality and shows us things that no longer exist” (v.2, p. 470). For example, when I see a photograph of the house I was born in I am seeing the house as it once was not how it possibly could be relived through my remembering of the house. Proust tolerates the distortion of memory -- something he does not see inherent in the photograph. The photograph presents the house I grew up in as totally clear to me, whereas the house I grew up in that I can conjure up in my mind is not related to images at all but curiously more allied with reality than the image. In conjuring up memories of the house I grew up in I am able to capture associations that are not necessarily the realistic recasting of the photograph the camera mimics. Photographs are like a voluntary memory, what Proust calls intellectual memory. Photographs bring up residues of the past. The photograph is a residual of the past, so in all cases, it is dead. Proust has no interest in voluntary memory or in photography’s voluntary capture of things; he has no wish "to ponder over this residue .... To me it was in reality all dead" (v.1, p.59).

Photographs can give a false impression of a person. Where appearance and reality is concerned, Proust argues that the photograph gives us appearances, which for him are unsatisfactory and can only lead to disappointment. Reflecting on a photograph he took of Gilberte with a Kodak, Marcel says of the picture that, “For one thing, she’s not a beauty, and besides she always takes badly. They're only some snapshots that I took myself with my Kodak; they would give you a false impression of her" (v.2, p. 496). The gaze of the human eye is superior to Marcel's Kodak camera. The human gaze can penetrate appearance and reveals true beauty. There are many instances of the eye and the gaze of the eyes as befalling beauty. Proust privileges what the eyes can do: (v. 1, p.184-185). Or here: "I gazed inexhaustibly at her large face" (v.2, p. 335).

Very seldom, if at all, does Proust remark on the beauty of the photographed object as an object of beauty in of itself. Even though Marcel buys a photograph of Berma to look upon, the face of the actress does not appear intrinsically beautiful, but gives him “the idea and consequently the desire to kiss it…” (v. 2, p.80-81). The photograph evokes desire but also disappointment: “I lighted my candle again, to look at her face once more …. I felt an emotion more cruel than voluptuous …. Our desires cut across one another, and in this confused existence it is rare for happiness to coincide with the desire that clamored for it” (v.2, p. 83). Proust is not interested in appearances because he is not interested in how people appear, for no one is really worthy of interest unless he can get inside their heads. The scandal of photography is that everything would seem interesting just because one can take a snapshot. The sudden undeliberated gaze of the photographic eye for Proust erases the ineffable and makes plain what ought to be an indissoluble mystery. The photograph makes a habit out of humanity's experiences. As if remarking on the photograph, Proust writes, “No one is really worthy of interest; but some people appear interesting” (v. 2, p. 721). The novel allows us to enter into the mind of Proust’s created characters in a way that is foreclosed to us otherwise. 

The photograph is banal; it does not reveal depth. Compare the super-saturation of lipstick placed on the lips of a girl (v.2, p.3-4). “A streak too much” and it can be revealed -- “all the paint that had hitherto passed unperceived now crystallised” (v.2, p.4). Marcel’s mother does not notice the lipstick until “too much” is painted, creating an excess of paint, making it more visible, breaking through the familiar everydayness. The novel has a structure of chance and supplementarity built into it that for Proust photographs do not. A photograph cannot exude excess and supplementarity. The privilege of the novel is its ability to be excessive, to supplement, to overflow appearance. Novels crystallize human experience whereas photographs freeze moments in time. 

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