‘Proust, Class, and Nation’ reviewed by Hans G Despain

Proust, Class, and Nation

Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2012. 320pp., £55 / $89 hb
ISBN 9780199609864

Reviewed by Hans G Despain

About the reviewer

Hans G Despain is Professor of Economics and Department Chair at Nichols College, Massachusetts. He …


Marcel Proust’s, seven volume, 3500 page, literary masterpiece In Search of Lost Time is typically interpreted as not having strong working-class sympathies. Instead the Narrator and main character of the novel is usually understood as an uncritical privileged member of the haute bourgeoisie with aristocratic aspirations. The politics of the Narrator and main character are thus usually understood to be conservative and hostile towards radical politics. In his new book, Proust, Class, and Nation, Edward J. Hughes scrutinizes this conservative interpretation of Proust.

As the title suggests, Hughes’s primary focus is the “centrality” and role of class and nationalism in Proust’s novel (17). An often-heard criticism of Proust is that the “intensely contested political and cultural site[s]” of early twentieth century France are “mutated into a would-be apolitical celebration of the charms of small-town French life refracted through a [haute bourgeois] narrator’s memory” (34). Hughes argues Proust is far from, indeed opposite of, apolitical. To interpret Proust as simply conservative or even bourgeois is to misconstrue the novel’s political structure.

Hughes maintains the novel’s political intent is to allow “for the political legacy of both conservatives and radicals to be contested” (268). Proust’s novel articulates deep antagonistic class relations with the social emergence of bourgeoisie hegemony during the Third Republic of France (16). “Proust’s Narrator goes on to show the class limits to be paradoxically fragile and prone to mutation” (45). A parodic logic of commodity exchange essentially guides much interaction of Proust’s characters as an embedded social institutional motive (94-5). Proust’s novel has a latent omnipresent class struggle just below the surface; a class struggle that is in continual social negotiation in the interactions between each and every individual.

The Narrator’s privileged bourgeois social positioning should not necessarily be understood as an endorsement of bourgeois values and ethics. Indeed Hughes demonstrates that the Narrator asserts a rather historical materialist dictum: consciousness and belief “‘all (depends) on one’s [existence in history, or] period, one’s social class’” (85). A crucial point of the text is to demonstrate, through the hundreds of characters developed and cameos of various personalities, that historical-social-class is the basis of belief, motivation and action. However, this does not mean social class is deterministic. Rather, individuals have a degree of autonomy.

The echo here of Marx’s “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” is strong. Individual autonomy allows Proustian agents to make their own history, but not under the historical circumstances they themselves chose. Historical circumstances and politics, along with social relations pre-exist individuals. Proustian characters illustrate these structural constraints and a persistent possibility of personal autonomy. They demonstrate that very few individuals are reflective of historical circumstances and its degree of determination of beliefs, motivations, and actions.

For example, the Narrator’s family servant Francoise “thinks it would be madness to want to abandon her class” and simultaneously is “provocatively described as having the look of a bright, ‘loyal dog’” (115). Her “loyal dog” servile caretaking of the haute bourgeoisie, first the Narrator’s great aunt Leonie and then of the Narrator and his family, is well demonstrated throughout the novel. However, Francoise’s role as the dutiful and docile servant is often mutated into a parody of “the sentimentalized version of the servant/master relationship” (160). She often purposefully ignores and treats with disdain those of the wealthy and privileged classes, while being gracious and kind toward those “lower-class persons” (120). Thus, her loyalty as a servant is far from merely docile and passive (115). At the same time her often expressed “disdain for the nobility masks a deep respect” (121).

This class-conscious ambiguity is typical of Proust’s characters. Virtually every one of the dozens of major characters can be shown to exude social class-consciousness. Some make an attempt to transcend their particular social class-consciousness and the historical national prejudices. Most, however, uncritically embrace and unknowingly and unintentionally reproduce the status quo. The uncritical passive acceptance of culture generally, and fashion (117) and taste (85) in particularly, function within Proust’s novel as an Althusserian ideological state apparatus in the reproduction of the status quo (117). Proust’s implicit support of working-class characters is illustrated in his employment of their Gramsciesque capacity as organic intellectuals (224 and 81-2).

What makes Proust exciting historically, is that late nineteenth-century France witnessed the declining class hegemony of the nobility and rise of class hegemony of the haute bourgeoisie. Proust captures this social institutional power shift. Nobility become a burlesque of declining significance, the socio-political walking dead. My own interpretation of Proust is that the nobility represent the future of the haute bourgeoisie themselves. This is because the haute bourgeoisie’s cultural hegemony is merely a particular, and temporary, historical power arrangement, lacking the institutionalization of the Enlightenment Universalist categories of justice, love, truth, the good, beauty, and self-determination. The haute bourgeoisie are well represented by two of the central characters of the novel, the Narrator as a son of a Republican political official and Charles Swann as a son of a financial capitalist. Their attempts to control the will of others are as burlesque and tragic as the action of the walking-dead noble-class.

The philosophical lesson that Proust exemplifies is that social class and nationality, when lacking Universalist institutionalization forms, are radically historical, and ideologically temporal. Proust’s Narrator understands his historical embeddedness and the temporality of national ideology. Nonetheless, his writhing movements of escape from being fully captured by a naïve class-consciousness and national prejudice demonstrates the difficulty to “comprehend and step outside” of national ideology and one’s own social embeddedness (244).

Class is a structural foundation of Proust’s “intuitive sociology” (15). However, class is always in constant negotiation. For Proust, class is always potentially malleable and explosive.

With potentially explosive class relations, and a legendary celebrated military presence throughout the novel, one might expect descriptions of class revolutions. After all, during the writing of the novel, World War breaks out (1914), massive Parisian workers’ strikes manifest (May-June 1917), and in Russia, the Bolsheviks take power (1917). Yet there is no worker revolt described, only rather cavalier mention of the highly contested politics (war, worker strikes, socialist revolutions) swirling around and within early twentieth-century France. Was the Narrator living in a cocoon? Was Proust that neglectful of, and disinterested in, the contemporary politics of his day?

Hughes argues that Proust’s symbolism of the Narrator’s childhood is a cocoon-like existence of parental overprotection. This is meant to suggest how easy ignorance and indifference are of the socio-politics of one’s historical circumstances. Unambiguously, in his childhood and adolescence, the Narrator is kept ignorant of the socio-political circumstances within which he is embedded.

However, Hughes offers a brilliant analysis and defense of Proust’s weaving in of contemporary politics in his character development and their social interaction. Proust seems to allow aesthetic room for readers to ignore the politics of his novel and still be able to enjoy the beauty of the language, the comedy and tragedy of the stories, and the adventures of the characters. This parallels a similar choice in real life. But just as in real life, political economy is just below the surface, etched on every social interaction, with power-relations constituting the institutional basis of society.

Hughes convincingly demonstrates that the individual characters and interactions are personifications of class conflict. This is well illustrated through Hughes’s analysis of the two most widely known love affairs in Proust’s novel: that of Charles Swann and Odette de Crecy and between the Narrator and Albertine Simonet.

Swann has inherited a fortune from his father, a former haute financier. Odette is quite literally from a “working-girl” background. Swann’s pursuit of Odette and their social interaction are conflicted by two motivations, that of love and the logic of commodity exchange (94). Odette’s tastes, education, and style are far below those of Swann’s (103). Early in the relationship Odette offers herself strictly on terms of Swann’s convenience, much like commodities in markets (95). When the contradiction between the logic of love and the logic of exchange grates on the relationship, Swann finds Odette no longer readily available at his convenience.

When she is absent from a party, Swann goes on a “panicky hunt” through the streets of Paris. Out of his class element, he meets with “shadowy outlines” of people “‘dim bodies as if, among the phantoms of the dead’” (99). Swann expresses “‘[h]ow gladly he would have given up all his [haute bourgeois] connections in exchange for any person Odette was in the habit of seeing, even a manicurist or a shop assistant!’” (100). Suspecting he is losing her favor, he abuses her working-class tastes in a letter of tirade, “‘[w]hat I must know is whether you are really one of those creatures in the lowest grade’” (103). Throughout the novel “a muted violence marks the social cleavages” (87). The story of the “unhappy” interclass relationship of Swann and Odette is “conveyed as the record of a cultural war” (103), a master/slave-like dialectic between the haute bourgeoisie and the working-class.

When Swann receives a letter concerning Odette’s serial sexual infidelities, Swann wonders who would write him such a letter. The motives of the various people Swann suspects are all put in terms of class “socio-moral portraits” (88). For example, when considering subordinates he reasons that they would find motive in “‘living in a situation inferior to ours, adding to our wealth and our weaknesses imaginary riches and vices for which they envy and despise us, will find themselves inevitably led to act in a way different from the people of our own class’” (86-7). Class-antagonisms proliferate in Swann’s tortured and intense speculation of the letter’s author underscoring the class-conflicted social landscape within which Swann and the novel are necessarily situated (88).

The relationship between the Narrator Marcel and Albertine personifies class struggle between the haute and petit bourgeoisies (203). Marcel learns the contradictions between the lure of money and “the pleasure of reciprocal love” (222). Marcel first ‘keeps’ Albertine as a “captive” (201) and then upon her departure she becomes a “fugitive” (245). The Narrator learns “‘we can never truly control another person’s life’” (208), as he fails to control his servant Francoise, his spy-for-hire Aime, and Albertine (225). “Albertine’s independence and sexual freedom become the expression of a class and an implicit rejection of Marcel’s [haute bourgeois] social origins” (220). The personification of this relationship, between oligopolistic big business and small family business, suggest that interaction between haute and petit bourgeoisie are unhappy and perhaps unhealthy, a relationship of subservience and domination.

Symbolically in both relationships above, Proust seems to be making a quite radical political suggestion. The relationship of the haute bourgeoisie to both the working-class and petit bourgeoisie is less than voluntary, one of domination, and highly emotionally and physically explosive. Class struggle has a primary presence in Proust.

Hughes’s impressive scholarship and meticulous textual documentation illustrates Proust as a strong politically motivated artist and philosopher. He was not the explicit Ruskinian social moralizer condemning the new emerging bourgeois hegemony (75). Hughes makes clear however, Proust weaves in a deep sociological critical commentary throughout the novel. If Proust does not condemn capitalism, he is certainly not celebrating it. The staging of social class is aggressively pursued throughout all seven volumes of the novel in “quasi-carnivalesque” (and we could add tragic) “scenes” (118). Proust peppers his novel with scenes illustrating grinding poverty of early twentieth-century France (164). He seems to be underscoring the leisure and privileged conditions, along with the aesthetic endeavors of the haute bourgeois and noble classes, radically pivot upon the economic exploitation of, and socio-political indifference towards, the working-class and middling-sorts (77-8).

Proust certainly intends to demonstrate there is nothing natural about any particular social relations. The Narrator affirms “the link to a more powerful [universal] life force which permits, explains, and yet also dwarfs, the particular” (233). The Narrator declares “‘The creation of the world did not happen ‘in the beginning’, it happens from day to day’” (207). Surely this further suggests the “intuitive sociology” motivating much of Proust’s fiction (15). The Narrator has the particular characterization of being “a representative of the bourgeoisie in his daily habits and expectations” while at the same time remaining more universally “miraculously class-neutral and unaligned” (274). The Narrator pronounces: “‘every social class has its own pathology’” (199). At the same time he seems explicitly committed to egalitarianism, even declaring a political preference toward the working-class over both the nobility and bourgeoisie (193).

In the end Hughes offers thorough textual evidence that Proust may very well be rejecting his bourgeois comforts, especially when the Narrator specifically refutes “the sectarianism of anti-Semitism, militarism, sexism, war-mongering, and chauvinism” (243). Hughes makes obvious the political content of Proust’s novel and its offerings of impressively deep models of psychology, social theory, class struggle analysis, and philosophy. Thus, Proust is writing not only psychology and aesthetics, but also sociology and politics (16). Critics of Proust “too often hear ‘individual’ and ‘psychology’ when the writer is saying ‘collective’ and ‘social’” (231-2). The sociology of Proust embodies class struggle as personified in the relationships of his characters. Unambiguously, Proust “provides an engaged sketch of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century aesthetic, political, social movements and new ideological configurations” (191), along with some of the most beautiful writing and powerful metaphors every sketched by any human being.

2 August 2013

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