Contradictions in Secular Spiritual Individualism – When Non-conformism is Based on Private World Views

Swann begins to think he loves Odette after he dissociates her from her actual body – which is desirable and thus detestable – by confounding her with Botticelli’s Zipporah from the Sistine Chapel… or with Vinteuil’s sonata. Only then can he see this ‘ruined flesh’ as a masterpiece in a gallery’, and thus makes love to her as if she were an artistic masterpiece… ‘the idea that she was nonetheless in the room with him… ready to be kissed and enjoyed, the idea of her material existence would sweep over him with so violent an intoxication that, with eyes starting from his head and jaws tensed as though to devour her , he would fling himself upon this Botticelli maiden and kiss and bite her cheeks’.
Julia Kristeva, “Time and Sense (Proust and the Experience of Literature)”, Columbia Univ. Press, 1996, p. 27

Sadism is an aestheticized erotic.
Leo Bersani, “The Freudian Body (Psychoanalysis and Art)”, Columbia Univ. Press, 1986, p. 54

When I was offered “Un Amour de Swann”, I didn’t hesitate for a second. I accepted without the reading the book again. …I saw images in my mind’s eye: a man wandering at night across the boulevards, from one bar to the next, in a feverish state of euphoria, searching for a woman who constantly eludes him. …One afternoon, he subjects her to a long session of questioning, he tortures her with his jealousy and takes enjoyment in his own suffering.
Volker Schlondorff

Volker Schlondorff (on the left) and Sven Nukvist (in the center, sitting) are preparing to shoot a crowded scene.

Schlondorff helps Jeremy Irons (Charles Swann) not to slide out of the proper mood in an emotionallydifficult scene between Swann and Odette (Ornella Muti).

Charles Swann puts on his Knight‘s Armor

Growing fixation on Odette, this “chaste beauty trapped by men’s lust in the den of money-sex cohabitation”, makes Swann lose alertness of a dandy and unintentionally expose his indifference to his mistress the Duchesse de Guermantes (Fanny Ardant) by tactlessly telling her that “if she wants” they can meet in the evening. She swallows the insult but she will be back to this in due time.

Charles Swann starts his mission of saving Odette de Crecy from being the “sexual maid-toy” of the rich.

Charles suffers because this “dirty-handed Madame Verdurin (Marie-Christine Barrault) who pretends to be helping Odette by fixing her up with that Jack in the box miserable character de Forcheville”. Infuriated Charles cannot even ride home in his coach and follows the carriage on foot striking the shrubs with his cane-stick, as if, it were a sword.

Duke and Duchess de Guermantes who heard about Swann infatuation with “that harlot”, tell Charles straightout that while they’re very fond of him they could never invite “her” …(as a warning that they will cut their ties with him should he marry her).

Charles and his magic confidant, adviser and helper – his magnificent bureau with doors of refined wood which are like archangel‘s wings which he opens when he needs to draw money for Odette. Charles is not a business person. He treats money as a magic tool to acquire beautiful things without which life is not a worthy enterprise. Charles is an idealist of money and a guard of disinterested but expensive – sublime dedications.

While evening after evening Charles tries to pull Odette away from Madame Verdurin’s company, steps deeper and deeper into their common destiny. Does he, with his Jewish origins, think at this point about his progeny with Odette – his children ennobled by the beauty of their mother?

Charles’ obsession-compulsion with investigating Odette’s sexual life

Duchesse de Guermantes is almost in love with Swann (in her own way) – as we see she has her human moments. Here, she is noticing how he, in the music hall full of guests, is looking at the quivering flames of the melting candle, as if, he in this instant (unconsciously) identified with the dying candle, feeling that his very existence is meaninglessly thawing amidst this empty life.

Baron de Charlus (Alain Delon) is trying to impress the Jewish boy whom he has chosen for homosexual conquest with all the friendliness of a libertine and the persistence of a liberator working for the Cause of equality between men.

De Charlus is Charles’ dedicated friend, challenging interlocutor and spiritual twin. Like Charles, de Charlus is a “fighter for equality of humankind”, but, like in Swann’s case also, this equality is a call of the soul, a matter of sensitivity, of existential taste – not a conscious credo formulated ideologically or politically. For him it could be an unforgivable vulgarity to reduce the flowering of his personality into dead – political determinants. Our knights – Charles and de Charlus are spontaneous worshippers of human wholeness, of the human personality in its holistic aspect, of the human as a drop of godly. For Swann this yearning for equality inside equal belonging to humanity was a question of saving the feminine beauty from world’s corruption, but for de Charlus it was a matter of a homosexual togetherness celebrating equality of men of different nations and social classes. For both it was a matter of their spiritual incompatibility with the social reality. But for both this ideal of equality included the necessity of converting the very objects they wanted to rescue – the prostitute into a lady for Swann, for example, or heterosexual young males into homosexuals, for de Charlus. It is the religious element (within their secularly spiritual aspirations) rooted in their organic megalomania.

A particular area of Odette’s life which inspires the dark curiosity of Charles Swann is her alleged lesbian prostitution. This point is especially difficult for him to bear. Here, we can start to suspect that Charles, indeed, considers Odette as future mother of his children and is very vulnerable to the suspicion that she can be genetically not suitable for motherhood. He dreams to be completely confident that the nasty rumors about Odette don’t correspond to reality, and she feels this ongoing duel between his belief and his disbelief in her lesbianism, and masterfully uses it to dissolve the “dirty rumors” without trying to disprove them – without stimulating his irrational fears.

Chloe (Anne Bonnent) is a very young prostitute whom Swann visits in the brothel for one purpose only: to get from her information about Odette that he was told she has.

To make Chloe talk Charles pretends that he wants her sexually, and he performs quite well to obtain the information he is after. But extortion of information via sexual means works problematically, like extortion of information through torture. So, Charles is not sure at all did Chloe tell the truth or not and what exactly she said. It is, probably, good to mention, that he substantially overpaid Chloe (for what? – Sex or information, everything is mixed here – his desire to disprove the evil rumors, his morally good nature, his desire to confirm Odette’s sins to get rid of his obsession with her, ambiguous intensity of his suspicions, and his hope that Chloe will say the truth if she will feel that she is appreciated sexually). While having intercourse with Chloe Charles was smoking a cigarette and formulated his questions to her with legalistic precision. Here he wasn’t a Knight of psychological wholeness anymore – his phallus was moving to culmination while his mind was playing detective and the objective scientist. His conscience was wisely silent according to its circumstantial nature. Visiting the brothel didn’t alleviate Charles’ agony of suspicion, but, may be, it put him on the road to ignore it – to stay with his desire in spite of everything.

Charles and de Charlus reflect on and share their amorous burdens they lived through over the years with one another.

It is impossible to understand Swann without taking him as an introspection artist. His noble goals, his ethical agonies, his mistakes, his dignity and his vulgarities become a matter of his analytical contemplation, his taste and creativity. His writings complete his impressions and his generalizations liberate him from his disquieting uncertainties and fear of death.

Charles Swann’s life battle for liberation of feminine beauty from existential serfdom nurtured by society

Odette instinctively understood that Charles is really, heavily in love with her, but her difficult life always dependening on sellers and buyers, and on the necessity to pay for her life style and everything else with her body without losing her independent smile, makes her vis-à-vis Swann to permanently appear, as if, on the stage trying to impress him and manipulate his reactions.

Odette thinks about one thing – to marry a man as rich and as gentle as Swann, and how not to let him slide away from the hook of her femininity. We cannot reproach her – in a world that exists not for living but for surviving, she at least not cruel, she just calculates her future – she just wants it to happen.

When Charles is with her Odette becomes melancholic, almost depressed, inert and passive as a thing for sale. The closer to marriage the more silent she becomes.

For Swann love and sexuality are overburdened by metaphysical connotations complicating the game of mutuality and making it less natural. Charles needs rituals to feel intimate. He invents them with poetic intensity, like we see here, the symbolism of arranging orchid on Odette’s corsage as a touching the heart of beauty itself, and later…

… touching it with his blasphemous lips. As an object of Charles’ aesthetic-metaphysical rituals of approaching beauty as a goddess, Odette becomes not already just passive but solemnly so. It is, as if, the web of Charles’ grace in treating her creates a repercussion in her soul. She starts sincerely play role of what he wants her to be.

Odette learns from Charles that her beauty is not just for exchange for currency, but that she, indeed, has something of the sacred, some spiritual value. She learns that she is noble, maybe, not as a human being, a woman but as a metaphysical being.

Charles is touching the breathing metaphor of Odette’s beauty – the pilgrim meets his sacred place. The sacred object meets its worshiper. Unique happiness still exists.

Odette can’t believe that meeting between those who need one another as earth and sky, as darkness and the sun, as silence and wind, as flesh and spirit, is taking place.

Even during sexual act, even when Charles is close to culmination, Odette, although everything is already clear to her, cannot resist getting him to promise to marry her, even while earth doesn’t need to ask sun to show up. Sun will. Schlondorff makes us see Charles-Odette sexual act “without hands” not as a human intercourse but as a work of art, as a realization of metaphysical dedication, as an act of worship.

Botticelli’s Zipporah is for Charles Swann prototype of Odette de Crecy, the role model that Charles has invented for her and gave to her as a cosmic gift. Odette becomes the painting. Painting becomes life.

Life was not lived in vain

Charles’ spiritual knighthood made him healthily tired and prematurely old, but one of his mistresses of a long past Duchesse de Guermantes became, as if, a beautiful monster with super-human power. He spent his spiritual energies, but she greedily accumulated her own human dissatisfaction.

Charles Swann became more human as a result of his spiritual alchemy – worshipping metaphysical perfection in a humiliated human being Odette de Crecy. But Oriane de Guermantes became more artificial and powerful because only in power can be hidden her satisfaction.

Old and sick Charles Swann honestly contemplates his satisfying life.

This shot underlines that Charles is lost in a world that (while he was occupied with his noble and elegant pursuits) has become more mechanized, rude and noisy, more excited and profaned by survival. The natural ground beneath his feet has disappeared by the artificiality of predatory industrialization. The knight became suspended over the ground.

But Charles and his friend Charlus can still talk about their attempts to find meaning in their lives. Their swords are transformed into canes.

Charles Swann and Baron de Charlus discuss their lives and death. Charles’ worship and protection of feminine beauty and de Charlus’ cult of men’s equality and brotherhood liberated them from their psychological dependence on society and fear of death (usually cheaply “balanced” in a form of yearning for power and more wealth).

Charles and de Charlus talk a lot about love as a great ordeal and a great liberating experience and as a wonder magic of realization of freedom – love exists for partnership with it, for learning dignity. But are our aristocratic friends really free? And were they really able to reach liberation even in the most spiritual moments of their lives?


The charming Charles Swann, favorite of the high society, personification of spiritual aristocracy, man of letters, an elegant bachelor and notorious ladies’ man, a collector of cultural rarities and works of art encouraging spirit of sophistication, was a Jew from a wealthy family who was free of any tasteless dogmatic religious fixations. His cultivated, megalomaniacal but sublimated unconscious shined with his need for ethereal and unchangeable – eternal values. Swann was the carrier of, and an appendix to his unconscious like a knight’s helmet to its plumage. Why did his unconscious need a woman resembling that of Botticelli’s painting? – Could it be that he couldn’t accept the human body – this material illusion, mortal, decaying, fragile, fussy and awkward form of life, and it suggested to its shell – Charles Swann, to feel the same. For Swann to love what is hopelessly mortal would be like to love dirt, dung and puss – a necrophilic or even coprophilic perversion. Aestheticism becomes a necessity making it possible to continue to live. Swann’s shocking sexual contempt for the human flesh is underlined by Schlondorff in how he shows the brothel scene when Charles obsessed with Odette’s rumored lesbian proclivities interrogates the young prostitute recommended to him as having information on Odette during sexual act with her.

Being compared with Botticelli’s personage was for Odette an equivalent of beautification for the Catholic. Except in Odette’s case what was beautified is not her personality but only her body. Schlondorff and Ornella Muti make it for viewers painfully clear that Odette is not only emotionally flat, but innocently vulgar. Still, they make us compassionate towards her while emphasizing her helpless dependence on Charles’ wealth and status, but her emotional manipulation of him complicates our sympathy. Schlondorff doesn’t allow viewers to have an easy way out. In relation to both characters, Odette and Swann, we are stuck between compassion and disappointment, and this is probably how Schlondorff wants us to be positioned in relation to ourselves crucified between psychological survival and self-disrespect.

In Charles’ noble desire to save Odette (personifying for Charles’ unconscious the archetypal beauty itself) from the lust of a “fallen” society (saving Botticelli’s Zippora from pre-aesthetic and pre-philosophical lust of the gonads) was always present the denial of her humanness. Schlondorff ends the film with the image of Triumphal Arc – where new social types – petty bourgeois with small offers, money-worshippers, pop-homosexuals and gigolos, prostitutes, pick-pockets, wanderers with hope for casual opportunities, were grouping, while Madame Swann, previous Odette de Crecy, are passing forward. She conquered her way through Triumphal Arc. Swann will die soon. He innocently helped this new epoch to flower – the epoch of wars incomparable with previous ones in history, of the growing contrast between rich and poor, of commercially propagandist mass culture of pseudo-prosperity, and of bloodless destruction of high culture which was so dear to the heart of Charles Swann and his friend Charlus.

Charles, like Baron de Charlus, where both are almost never occupied with the future, but exclusively with the present – both were trying to correct the injustices and cruelties of their epoch and yet keep their superior social status intact, and, in a sophisticated way, even reinforced. Their game was, indeed, logically challenging – how to be just, progressive and decent people and in the same time not to lose their socio-economic privileges. They were able to be simultaneously good and bad (about their goodness they were perfectly conscious of, but their badness was a result of existing social tradition they were not responsible for), they assimilated their goodness into their identity while projecting their badness into the inertia of society and history. In their own self-image they were carriers of a new, more modern, more democratic worldviews. And this was partially true, and this partial truth was precious and progressive. But in the pockets/caves of their unconscious they were… monsters of self-indulgence, individuals unconsciously motivated to get more back for their generosity. They self-asserted in the very moment they gave, they made humanism a personal caprice, their very wisdom was condescending, their very democraticity was patronizing. In the moment they converted – women (Swann) and men (Charlus) into love, they felt like religious missionaries converting pagans into “real faith”.

When Oriane de Guermantes looks at Charles who through Vinteuil’s sonata was feeling his life melting like a thawing candle, we, the viewers, identify with Swann’s sensitivity towards his/our mortality and his need for meaning of life to neutralize death. But today in the West we, inhabitants of post-democracies, have lost taste for a sense of a collective future and for the necessity to rationally/reasonably control our societal destiny. Today, the very concept of a humanistic progress is disappearing from national debate. Schlondorff emphasizes how social projects of a highly intelligent and educated people like Swann and Baron de Charlus were limited by their private tastes and didn’t include any socio-political intentionality. Their noble deeds in their private relationships produced unintended socio-political consequences. What started as the noble efforts of gifted aristocrats was appropriated by the bourgeois predatoriness and by a mass culture of degraded and simplified thinking about life.

Charles and de Charlus’ ideals were that of refined and sophisticated philistines. They, indeed, were intellectual and ethical/etiquette-ical elite among the aristocrats and colorful and scientifically and philosophically inclined individuals. But their personal decency and extraordinariness of their personalities of creative eccentrics were, as if, alienated from their epoch and its future. They were like isolated spiritual monads amidst the indifference and cruelty of the surrounding life. Raoul Ruiz in his “Time Regained”, depicting de Charlus during and after the WWI, found Proustian material a little more sympathetic to the brilliant types among the French aristocracy.

“Swann in Love” provides a preciously rich symbolic visual characterizations of the characters’ psychology and relationships – “playing orchids” ludicrous euphemistic syntagma Odette and Swann created for their sexual intercourse, or the fact that conversion of the beloved is added as a necessary to the idea of “disinterested amorous togetherness”, or Madame Verdurin’s compulsive laughter demanding almost medical intervention, and Madame Cambremer’s body movements in accordance with the rhythm of the music, or when Swann, as if, identifies his life with the melting candle under the influence of Vinteuil’s music, and many more examples.

Swann and Charlus are much more refined, sensitive and humanly talented than we are today, and still they are wrong, although, may be, less so than the best of us today.

Posted on Jun, 29 21012 –   Raul Ruiz’s “Time Regained” (1999) – Five Marcel Prousts (The Psychology of Existential Understanding) by Acting-Out Politics

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Posted on Nov, 5 ’17 –   Duchesse de Guermantes And Charles Swann Feel Themselves Before Death – From Volker Schlondorff’s “Un Amour de Swann/Swann In Love” (1984) by Acting-Out Politics