Cities Of The Plain by Marcel Proust

Times change. Of that there is no doubt. Platitudes, however, remain platitudes whenever they are, like a dose of vaccine, rolled out. Their use, perhaps just once, but certainly on the second occasion, ought to inoculate and protect their user from ever again suffering their nauseating mundanity. But such immunity is rarely achieved, especially amongst those who find simple instructions, such as “stay at home” or “avoid clichés, at all costs” quite impossible to interpret or indeed remember.

I recall the time, not so long distanced, when even the mention of certain sexual habits might only be referred to in passing, accompanied by the bat of an eye, the nervous clearing of the throat or the deliberate and calculated inclusion of classical allusion, lest the speaker appear himself to be tainted by such professedly immoral practices. The inclusion of gender was important, here, for these unspoken, unnamed behaviours, alluded to habits the remained illegal and indictable amongst men, while the female equivalent bore a different name, lusciously classical, and, whilst not officially tolerated, it generally remained beyond the interest of the law.

But it was not only the classical, but also the biblical world that provided the means of referring to these despicable, but apparently common practices. The Cities of the Plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, suffered divine retribution – at least the experience is recorded as divine – because of the prevalence of these crimes against nature within their walls. In more modern times, we have passed beyond the age when the natural can be criminal, and also beyond the clichés of vilifying and ridiculing via censorious judgment or humour. For all its use of the theme, the filmed series never did include the title Carry on Sodomy, despite the near-repeated scripts’ regular use of both censure and ridicule to raise laughs from audiences who elsewhere might judge and scorn.

And so we arrive at Sodom and Gomorrah, volume four of A La Recherche De Temps Perdu, A Remembrance Of Things Past, or words to that effect. At its time of writing, an observation that significant numbers of French high society might just be able to trace their descent to these cities of the plain would have shocked. Eyebrows would have been raised, throats cleared, and private laughs would have hidden behind social condemnation, as gentlemen conversed on the way to the brothel, where the workers to be encountered did not really count, because it was clearly poverty that required them to behave thus. But times do change. Now it is not this discussion of homosexuality that might shock, but the destination of the conversants.

So now when we read of homosexual men and women, gays and lesbians, queers and dykes, we cannot suffer either the shock or the surprise of exposure to ideas we now ignore politely in public or condemn only in private. Neither can we, almost certainly, associate with the kind of society in which the revelations were being made. The lives, and more exactly the attitudes, of these people are now utterly foreign to our experience, though they may well still exist. The realization reminds us that we regularly admire images in the form of galleried art, which bear as little relation to our own lives as do the characters Marcel Proust creates, but because paintings have nothing audible to say in their own words, we fail to recognize the cultural gulf of our distance from what they depict.

Times may change, but our propensity to apply false logic persists. Marcel Proust’s observation of doctors is almost contemporary. They err habitually on the side of optimism as to treatment, of pessimism as to outcome. “Wine in moderation, it can do no harm, it is always a tonic… Sexual enjoyment? After all it is a natural function. I allow you to use, but not to abuse it, you understand. Excess in anything is wrong.” At once, what a temptation to the patient, to renounce those two life givers, water and chastity. He also recognized that by a certain age, human beings cease to be individuals and become research projects. He had arrived at that stage of exhaustion in which a sick man’s body became a retort in which we study chemical reactions. In our own time, we codify this as aging.

But then we may, like the English public schoolboy, develop personal and internal resistance to propensities that could previously prosecute via physical activity. Various English Prime Ministers have thus profited from the Eton Wall Game in public whilst in private they probably remained on the other side of the wall. “Suppose we took a turn in the garden, Sir,” I said to Swann, while Comte Arnulphe, in a lisping voice which seem to indicate that mentally at least, his development was incomplete, replied to M. de Charlus with an artlessly obliging precision: “I, oh, golf chiefly, tennis, football, running, polo I’m really keen on.” So Minerva, being subdivided, ceased in certain deities to be goddess of wisdom, and incarnated part of herself in a purely sporting, horse loving deity, Athene Hippia. Thus we may find the limitations we impose on ourselves limiting.

At least the Old Etonian Prime Ministers would have coped admirably with the classical allusion, and probably still would. Times may change, but we only understand how they have changed when we trouble ourselves to experience remembrance of times past and engage with its characters, both larger and ultimately smaller than life.

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