The Writings of the Young Marcel Proust (1885-1900): An Ideological Critique

Frank Rosengarten, The Writings of the Young Marcel Proust (1885-1900): An Ideological Critique (New York: Peter Lang, 2001).

When approaching the early works of Marcel Proust, students of À la recherche du temps perdu hope to find the matrix-historical, literary, philosophical, and other-within which he initially conceived and developed his magnum opus. Frank Rosengarten’s study provides an analysis of Proust’s pre-Recherche work that illuminates both the literary inventions that would find their way into Recherche and the laboratory-the socioliterary context in which these came to fruition. At the same time, even more importantly, through thoughtful consideration of Proust’s early writings especially his reflections on John Ruskin, the collection of stories entitled Les plaisirs et les jours, and the unfinished Jean Santeuil Rosengarten presents a book that takes these works seriously in their own right.

This dual concern permeates Rosengarten’s discussion. The entire trajectory of the book as an ideological critique follows a similarly dialectical framework: while never doubting or decrying the importance of “poetic” readings of Proust based on the idealist and spiritualist topoi so prevalent in his writings, Rosengarten argues that such readings are “not wrong but simply one-sided and incomplete” (1). Rosengarten seeks to establish the ideological currents in Proust’s pre-Recherche writing, as well as to map the socio-historical landscape that informed it, in a manner not counter to, but very much consonant with critical writings outside the historical-materialist tradition. In so doing, Rosengarten depicts a young Proust who, while original and innovative, remains tethered to the social and literary conventions of his milieu.

Given Rosengarten’s skillful dialectical thought and rhetoric, it is no surprise that he locates his study in the lineage of Marxist theory. In clarifying the grounds for his use of the term “ideology,” as well as in spelling out his understanding of ideological criticism, Rosengarten draws on Raymond Williams’ seminal book Marxism and Literature (ideology as “the material social process of signification itself”) and also on the work of Gramsci, Bakhtin, Bourdieu, Eagleton, Althusser, Lukács, Benjamin, and Marx. Adorno’s engagements with Proust are notably absent, though they might shed light on Proust as an idealist and Platonist (see Adorno’s “Short Commentaries on Proust,” in Notes to Literature, Vol. 1). More to the matter of methodology, Rosengarten very explicitly gleans his use of the term “subject” from Althusser. The subject is one who individually elaborates his or her own ideology, but does so only within the context of having submitted to some form of higher authority. Such a conception of the “subject” aids in understanding Proust as belonging to a particular historical moment, milieu, and tradition.

Along with tracing this methodological Marxist tradition, Rosengarten also acknowledges other secondary accounts of Proust’s work, in particular those studies which bear most immediately on ideology, e.g., Michael Sprinker’s History and Ideology in Proust. While giving a lucid summary of Sprinker’s analysis, Rosengarten notes that it tends toward the historical more than the literary, and in so doing risks clouding some of Proust’s finer textual and poetic qualities. However, in a telling remark that no doubt reflects his own hopes and intentions, Rosengarten argues that this pitfall of ideological critique is at once the risk that must be run and what must be avoided, in order to preserve dialectical integrity. On this point of balancing historical research and literary (that is, textual) analysis, The Writings of the Young Marcel Proust proves eminently successful.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, “The Socioliterary World of the Young Proust,” demonstrates through stories of Proust’s school days, his early relationships with friends and lovers, and particular letters and lesser known publications, how the young Proust’s worldview was formed through family, school, literary reviews, and social life (salons and school friends). Part II, “Literary and Ideological Crosscurrents in Pleasures and Days,” continues the joint project of literary and historical analyses, taking as its primary object Proust’s Les plaisirs et les jours (which contains nearly sixty individual stories/poems/fragments). This section flows with particular elegance. It moves from an initial focus on the various incarnations of the book to a formal study of its structure and aesthetics. Rosengarten then shifts to a well-crafted interrogation of politically charged themes of spiritualism and elitism, culminating with an examination of intertextuality. Thus, Part II slides from an intense focus on Les Plaisirs to theoretical and poetic resonances and relationships to other texts. In Part III, Rosengarten yet again balances historical and literary analysis, chronicling through a study of the Ruskin pieces and of Jean Santeuil, how Proust’s aesthetic theory matured. Jean Santeuil, a 150-page text, was not published during Proust’s lifetime, in fact was never finished, and is posited as a sort of “workshop” that eventually found its better and polished form in À la recherche du temps perdu. The chapter on Jean Santeuil provides the most direct engagement with political themes, where Rosengarten finds the opportunity to seek out Proust’s ideological undercurrents of community¾so rarely available due to Proust’s seemingly constant tropes of individualism and interiority.

Several themes of the book illustrate the originality and profundity of Rosengarten’s treatment. In Part I, Rosengarten follows the young Proust’s homosexual impulses, both biographically and as they emerge in his writing. The short story “Avant la nuit” deals explicitly with homosexuality and helps, along with a couple of letters to school friends, to foreground the idea that Proust, even at an early age, possessed a self-confidence about the sexual realm. The importance here is that Proust “discovered his literary vocation at the same time that he fully acknowledged his sexual sensibilities and identity” (38). The result, Rosengarten states,

from a broadly ideological point of view is that Proust’s early response to the privileged social and intellectual milieu he frequented was marked, on the one hand by acceptance of established models, and on the other hand by a defiance of boundaries and by the courage to be different. (39)

In his typically rigorous dialectical manner, Rosengarten thus gives voice to both sides of what is always an important sticking point in Proust scholarship, the figure of homosexuality. In doing so, he balances literary and historical-materialist concerns while maintaining a generous and thoughtful ideological critique.

Rosengarten’s treatment of class issues in Proust is also noteworthy. In a chapter entitled “Elitism and the Primacy of the Spiritual,” Rosengarten confronts head-on the implications of Proust’s elitism. He does this by examining the themes of individuality and spirituality (a form of idealism) in Proust, arriving at the following summation:

After all, Proust himself, the scion of a wealthy and privileged family, was not ready in the mid-1890’s to challenge the social order that had spawned him and given him the means with which to assert himself as a writer and moralist. He was inclined toward nuances, not to stark confrontations. For this reason, even while noting his dislike of discriminatory social practices and attitudes, we have to grant the possibility that in this as in most other aspects of his life, Proust was ambivalent and thought that certain types of snobbery were compatible with spiritual and intellectual distinction.

Perhaps the best example of reading generously while maintaining the integrity of a careful materialist critique comes in the concluding chapter, “Literary Text and Ideology in Jean Santeuil.” Drawing on Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, Rosengarten points to Jean Santeuil as a work in which the otherwise pervasive textual Stimmung of pessimism is lifted and a hopeful and optimistic poetic vision of the natural world is rendered. This meditation on the possibility of spiritual communion and universal harmony, Rosengarten suggests, expresses a symbolic understanding of what Jameson calls the destiny of community. Characteristically, Rosengarten does not let such a claim go unproblematized, stating quite frankly that “Proust’s characters do not participate in any kind of collective struggle” (202). However, insofar as they seem deeply despaired of finding any spiritual communion or universal harmony in human society, the exuberant and spiritualized discourse of nature in Jean Santeuil may indeed be the symbolic unconscious in Proust-it may derive from what Rosengarten quotes Bakhtin as calling “historical poetics.”

Overall, Rosengarten’s analysis is at once incisive, original, generous, recuperative, and critical. For scholars and admirers of Proust, this book fills a gap by offering an ideological critique and socioliterary portrait of the young Proust and his writings. And, for those studying in the wide wake of Marxism, the book is an excellent example of the potential for materialism and literature as a project.

Reviewed by J.D. Mininger
Ph.D. student, Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

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