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in the Age of Media, Computers, and Internet




Joseph Hillis Miller




The Range of Interpretation brilliantly and daringly explores the liminal space between the interpretation and what is interpreted. That space, in Iser's view, becomes a whirling vortex with a life of its own.   For Iser, interpretation is always "translation," that is, a transposition, never wholly successful or seamless, of what is interpreted. It is translated into another register for a specific use and according to specific protocols of meaning ascription. These change through time and from one interpreting community to another. Especially valuable is what Iser has to say, apropos of Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption, about the "traveling differential" as a way of translating the "immeasurable" into knowledge and therefore into a kind of measurement. For Marcel Proust or for "Marcel," the first-person narrator/protagonist of A la recerche du temps prerdu, the other person, for example Marcel's beloved Albertine, is an embodiment of the "immeasurable." The problems of interpreting or "translating" the immeasurable other are dramatized in a brilliant episode involving Marcel's encounter with his friend Robert de Saint-Loup's mistress, Rachel. Marcel had first met Rachel as a prostitute and had called her "Rachel When From the Lord" (an allusion to Halévy's opera La Juive). The passage is also full of Biblical allusions  (to both the Old and New Testaments). These allusions are dramatic examples of the appropriation of traditional texts into a different register for a specific use. In the end Rachel herself is seen as a text or set of signs open to various interpretations, by Marcel, by Robert de Saint-Loup, by the reader. None of these is ultimately verifiable as what Rachel "really is." since that remains forever secret. The episode exemplifies in a spectacular way the perplexities of the act of reading and the difficulties of "reading reading."


The episode, moreover, shows how speech acts work in literature by way of the passions that power them. Each episode in Proust’s immense novel is a separate and to some degree detachable anecdote, event, or little narrative.It is a bead strung on the potentially endless sequence of such units, some short, some long, that make up the Recherche. It is potentially endless because the number of them is virtually limitless and will moreover be extended as long as Marcel is still alive and has new experiences, that is, as long as the gap between the Marcel writing and the Marcel written still exists. That gap is the definition of still being alive. The sequence is also potentially endless because each episode can be dilated interminbly. As Mark Calkins has shown in a brilliant dissertation on Proust, dilation and delay are the chief characteristics of Proust’s narration.[1] Both features can be defined as a putting off or holding off of death, as Scheherezade in the Arabian Nights, so frequently referred to in the Recherche, can avoid execution only so long as she goes on telling stories.


This third episode[2] can be quickly summarized. Marcel and his aristocratic friend Robert de Saint-Loup make a visit to a suburb of Paris where Robert keeps his mistress, Rachel, whom he deeply  loves and who causes him much jealous suffering. Robert wants Marcel to meet Rachel and to admire her sensitivity and beauty. It is a splendid early spring day. The shabby little village is crowded with pear and cherry trees in bloom. Marcel waits to admire these while Robert goes to fetch his mistress. When he seess her Marcel instantly recognizes her to be “Rachel when from the lord,” a prostitute he had last seen in a house of assignation he used to frequent. She was a person anyone was able to buy for twenty francs. Now Robert showers expensive presents on her in order to keep in her good favor. He is prepared to sacrifice everything to his infatuation. Marcel reflects on this discrepancy, hiding from Saint Loup the real history of the woman the latter so loves by pretending to be moved by the beauty of the pear trees in bloom.


All three then take the train back to Paris, where they dine together and where Rachel causes Robert great anguish by making eyes at a waiter. Though neither Marcel nor the reader knows it at this point, Rachel is a gifted actress. When Marcel sees her on the stage he comes to understand somewhat why Saint Loup has become infatuated with her and “the nature of the illusion of which Saint-Loup was a victim” (F, 2: 472; E, 2: 177). Seen close up she is nothing much, a thin freckled face, but seen at a distance, on the stage, as Saint Loup had first seen her, she is transformed into someone radiant and fathomlessly mysterious.  Seeing her first this way, Saint Loup “had asked himself how he might approach her, how get to know her, a whole miraculous world had opened up in his imagination (en lui s’était ouvert tout un domaine merveilleux)-the world in which she lived-from which emanated an exquisite radiance (des radiations délicieuses) but into which he could never penetrate” (F, 2: 472; E, 2: 178).


No more than that happens in this sequence. The genius, however, is in the detail, both in the detail of Marcel’s reflections and in the detail of the language he uses to describe Rachel and the scene in which he now again meets her. The passage has to do with the passion of erotic desire, what Marcel calls “the general malady called love (l’affection générale appelée amour)” (F, 2: 454; E, 2: 138), its creative power, its ability to project behind the face of the beloved a fictitious person: “There was really nothing that interested, that could excite him except what his mistress wanted, what she was going to do, what was going on, discernible at most in fleeting changes of expression (par des expressions fugitives), in the narrow expanse of her face and behind her privileged brow” (F, 2: 545; E, 2: 158).


Marcel’s name for this power is, once more, “imagination.” His terminology throughout the passage has to do with value, the relative “worth” of the two Rachels, the cheap twenty franc prostitute, “nothing more nor less than a little whore (une simple petite grue)” (F, 459; E, 164), that Marcel knows and the glorious, radiant, unattainable woman, sensitive, intelligent, and tender, to whom Robert de Saint-Loup gives a necklace costing thirty thousand francs and who seems worth all the world to him. The two valuations follow from the way Rachel’s “little scrap of a face” has been approached initially:


I realised then how much a human imagination can put behind a little scrap of a face, such as this woman’s was, if it is the imagination that has come to know it first; and conversely into what wrteched elements, crudely material and utterly valueless, something that had been the inspiration of countless dreams (rêveries) might be decomposed if, on the contrary, it had been perceived in the opposite manner, by the most casual and trivial acquaintance. (F2, 2: 457; E, 2: 161)


This citation anticipates a great passage much later in the Recherche when Marcel, in Venice, suddenly sees that beautiful place he so loves, the Venice of Ruskin, “decomposed” into a worthless heap of stones, something crudely material and utterly valueless.[3] This present passage, like the later one, and like countless other passages in the Recherche, seems to oppose a mystified view, generated by passion and leading to a performative “reading into” of trivial signs, in this case Rachel’s face, to the demystified view that sees the signs as no more than crudely material, not valid signs for anything, that is, sees them truly as what they are. Here the two views are not the innocent Marcel as against the Marcel who has learned from experience (“Then I thought . . . ; later I came to learn.”),  but two simultaneous perspectives by different persons on the same object, or rather person. That Saint-Loup’s infatuation with Rachel is a performative “reading into,” expressed in his language about her intelligence and sensitivity, is reinforced throughout the passage.


Saint-Loup’s misreading starts when he makes the big mistake of “imagining her as a mysterious being, interesting to know (curieux à connaître), difficult to seize and to hold” (F, 2: 457; E, 2: 161). This is a surface/depth error, the assumption that there must be something hidden and secret behind a visible superficies taken as a sign. Proust has Marcel compare this more than once to the projection of a deity behind an icon, altar, or veil. Rachel’s remarks are “quite Pythian” (F, 2: 455; E, 2: 159), that is, as if said by an oracle through whom the God Apollo speaks. Her personality is enclosed in her body as if “mysteriously enshrined as in a tabernacle” (F, 2: 456; E, 2: 160). She, or rather what he can see of her, especially her face, is “the object that occupied incessantly his toiling imagination, whom he felt that he would never really know, as to whom he asked himself what could be her secret self, behind the veil of eyes and flesh (derrière le voile des regards et de la chair)” (F, 2: 456; E, 2: 160).


So far so good. The passage seems unequivocally to demystify Saint Loup’s projection, propelled by the passion of love, into an imaginary void behind Rachel’s eyes and face of inaccessible complexities like those the religious believer imagines behind the icons of his god. This mistake is set against Marcel’s disillusioned recognition of what is really there, just so much female flesh with nothing mysterious behind it, flesh that can be bought for twenty francs. Things are not quite so simple here, however, as a more complete and scupulous reading will show and as the reader will not be surprised to learn. Let me look a little more closely at the “rhetoric,” in the sense of tropological integument, in the passage.


The reader may begin by relecting that Marcel is not exactly a disinterested spectator of Rachel. He is hardly able to see her dispassionately as just what she is. He has displayed much homosocial affection for Saint-Loup, for example when he visits him at his army barracks at Doncières. Saint-Loup turns out ultimately, toward the end of this immense novel, to be homosexual or bisexual. He betrays his wife, Gilberte, Marcel’s first great love, in homosexual liaisons. Marcel’s affection for Saint-Loup is the chief place in the novel where Marcel Proust’s presumed homosexuality surfaces most overtly, as opposed to its covert exposure in the way, for example, all Marcel’s beloveds have transposed male names: Gilberte, Albertine, Andrée, not to speak of the overt and obsessive treatment of the theme of homosexuality in “Sodom and Gomorrah” and elsewhere as something the supposedly straight Marcel witnesses as a recorder of the mores of his Third French Republic society.  À la recherche du temps perdu is one of the first great novels about the role of homosexuality in modern bourgeois European society.  A curious scene adjacent to the one I am reading shows the amazed (and still innocent)[4] Marcel witnessing Saint-Loup’s beating of a man who accosts him on the street with an invitation to a homosexual tryst (F, 2: 480-1;  E, 2: 186-7). Marcel has every reason to be jealous of his friend Saint Loup’s extravagant love for Rachel.


The sequence I am reading begins with Marcel’s ecstatic admiration of the fruit trees in bloom in the shabby suburb, cherry and pear trees, especially pear. The latter were a symbol in the middle ages, as Proust may conceivably have known, of lust, as in Chaucer’s tale of January and May, The Franklin’s Tale. These trees are personified in Marcel’s descriptions, first as women, then, rather unexpctedly, as men, and finally as angels, whereas the “clusters of young lilacs,” “light and pliant in their fresh mauve frocks (souples et légères, dans leurs fraîche toilette mauve)” (F, 2: 455; E, 2: 159) are straightfowardly maidens. The pear and cherry trees in the little gardens are first personified as “newcomers, arrived overnight (nouvelles venues arrivées de la veille), whose beautiful white garments (les belles robes blanches) could be seen through the railings along the garden paths” (F, 2: 455; E, 2: 159). By the next page, however, one particularly beautiful pear tree alone in a meadow is personified as possibly male. At least that is the choice made by the translators: “there had nevertheless arisen, punctual at the tysting place like all its band of brothers (comme toute la bande de ses compagnons), a great white pear-tree which waved smilingly in the sun’s face” (F, 2: 455; E, 2: 160). Finally, as they leave the little suburb Marcel sees yet another pear-tree, this time personifying it as an angel. All angels, the reader will remember, are masculine, messengers of the Lord: “We cut across the village. Its houses were sordid. But by each of the most wretched, of those that looked as though they had been scorched and branded by a rain of brimstone, a mysterious traveller (un mysterieux voyageur) halting for a day in the accursed city, a replendent angel stood erect, stretching over it the dazzling protection of his widespread wings of innocence (ses ailes d’innocence en fleurs): it was a pear tree in blossom” (F, 2: 459; E, 2: 163).


Why all this attention on my part to Marcel’s prosopopoeias? Are they anything more than examples of Marcel’s “poetic” way of seeing things and embellishing them with extravagant language? This language, it might seem, need not be taken all that seriously nor interrogated all that deeply. The passage just quoted gives the clue that something more is at stake in its transformation of the little suburb into Sodom and Gomorrah. The latter cities are destroyed by God in Genesis 19 by a rain of fire and brimstone. Lot is saved because he has welcomed two mysterious strangers, actually angels, into his house, offering them hospitality. The reader will remember that Lot’s wife is turned to a pillar of salt when she, Orpheus-like, disobeys the angelic prohibition and turns to look back at the home city she is fleeing with Lot in obedience to the angels’ warning. Jacques Derrida, in an admirable recent seminar on hospitality, has “read” in detail the marvellous story of Lot’s hopitality to the disguised angels.


The whole episode in Proust I am reading is permeated by biblical references, allusions, and echoes. Rachel, after all, is not just any name. It suggests that Rachel is Jewish. Certainly she is a Dreyfusard. She weaps to think of Dreyfus’s suffering in his prison cell on Devil’s Island (F, 2: 462; E, 2: 167). Rachel was of course the name of that one of Jacob’s wives he most loved. Jacob served Rachel’s father for seven years in order to earn the right to marry her. Jacob is at first fooled by Laban into marrying Rachel’s elder sister Leah, just as Robert de Saint-Loup is fooled into thinking his Rachel is something she is not: “And it came to pass in the morning, behold, it was Leah: and he [Jacob] said to Laban [father of Leah and Rachel], What is this thou hast done unto me? Did I not serve with thee for Rachel? Wherefore then hast thou beguiled me? “(Gen., 29: 25). Laban then gives Joseph Rachel also as wife, though he has to serve Laban yet another seven years to earn her. Those Old Testament patriarchs were unashamedly polyandrous, polygamist, and even in a certain sense incestuous, as in Jacob’s simultaneous marriage to two sisters. In early nineteenth century England, it was from 1835 to 1907 illegal to marry one’s deceased wife’s sister, much less of course legal to marry them both at once.[5] While Leah was bearing Jacob four sons, Rachel was at first barren. She finally conceived: “And God remembered Rachel, and God harkened to her, and opened her womb. And she conceived and bare a son” (Gen. 30: 22-3). Rachel is a distant type of the virgin Mary. Her womb was miraculously opened by  God, just as God impregnated the virgin Mary, or rather the Holy Ghost did in the form of a dove, accompanied by the angel Gabriel as messenger of the Annunciation. Gabriel spoke a miraculous performative utterance if there ever was one: “And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus,” to which Mary answers, in a self-fashioning speech act in response to his  speech act: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1: 30-1, 38). Rachel’s first son was Joseph. Joseph was not  Jacob’s male heir that counted most in the long genealogy that leads through the house of David down to Jesus himself. The genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew lists “Judas” as the son of Jacob who established the line. Presumably this is the fourth son of Leah, “Judah” in the Old Testament. Joseph, nevertheless, with his coat of many colors (Gen. 37), receives much attention in Genesis. Joseph is of course also the name of Mary’s husband, cuckolded before their marriage  by God or rather by the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. “C’est le pigeon, Joseph,” Joyce has Stephen Dedalus in Ullyses imagine Mary saying in explanation to her husband of her pregnancy. Joseph has asked “Que vous a mis dans cette fichue position? (Who has put you in this deuced situation?)”[6] All the names of Jacob’s sons by his various wives are “motivated.” The names’ meanings are called attention to in the text of Genesis. Rachel calls her first-born “Joseph,” meaning “Adding,” as a magic proleptic optative indicating her hope to add still more sons now that she has proved not barren: “And she called his name Joseph; and said, The Lord shall add to me another son” (Gen. 30: 24).


This whole tangled background is imported into the reader’s understanding of Saint Loup’s relations to his mistress by way of the name that Proust chose to give her, just as Jacob’s wives gave their sons symbolic names. Proust could, after all, have called Saint Loup’s mistress anything he liked, in the sovereign exercise of that godlike privilege of naming his creatures that is the writer’s perogative, one aspect of his magic performative power: “I name thee ‘Rachel.’” This power is disquietingly revealed when the reader discovers from the drafts that Robert de Saint-Loup was at first called “Montargis.” “What was his real name?” the reader  naively asks.


Why, then, is Rachel called by Marcel “Rachel when from the Lord (Rachel quand du Seigneur)”? That does not have a Biblical precedent, at least not in so many words, though the unapprised reader may think it refers to the way God finally harkened to Rachel’s prayers and opened her womb, so that she conceived and bore Joseph. The reference, however, is actually to the first words of the most famous aria in a nineteenth-century opera by Joseph (Jacques François Fromental Élie) Halévy (1799-1862), La juive  (1835), with a libretto by Eugène Scribe. This opera was still performed in Proust’s day, though it is rarely heard now. (The only recording I could find of this aria was made by Enrico Caruso in September 14, 1920, almost at  the end of his career, though I have heard on Public Radio part of a more recent recording of the whole opera.) The heroine of the opera bears the biblical name “Rachel,” with all its connotations. Joseph Halévy, member of a prominent ninteenth-century Jewish family, [7] may have been attracted to Scribe’s libretto by the fact that its heroine bore the name of the Biblical Joseph’s mother.


It is easy to see why the opera is little performed these days, though it is included in Ernest Newman’s More Stories of Famous Operas of 1943.[8] La Juive treats the sensitive subject of anti-semitism and is outrageously melodramatic, to say the least. The action takes place in Constance in 1414. It dramatizes the persecution of the Jews in by a certain Cardinal de Brogni and the authorities of the Holy Roman Empire. Rachel and her father Eleazar, a rich goldsmith, are condemned to death because Rachel has become the beloved of a gentile, Leopold, Prince of the Empire. She lies to save Leopold. Rachel, however, is not really a Jewess, daughter of Eleazar. She is the lost daughter of Cardinal de Brogni. That daughter the Jews had saved years before from a fire that had burned Brogni’s palace in Rome to the ground and killed his mistress, Rachel’s mother. Eleazar and Rachel, having refused to save themselves by abjuring the Jewish faith, are led up the scaffold to be plunged in a cauldron of boiling water in the public square of Constance. (I kid you not!) As Rachel mounts the scaffold first, Eleazar whispers to the Cardinal that Rachel, at that moment being pushed into the cauldron, is really Brogni’s lost daughter. Eleazar then goes triumphantly to his own death by the same hideous means of execution. You see what I mean by melodramatic!


The most famous aria in this opera, “Rachel quand du Seigneur,” is sung at the end of the fourth act by Eleazar as he meditates on the conflict between his desire to save his beloved adopted daughter and his hatred of Christians and unwillingness to abjure his faith even to save his foster daughter. Apparently the aria is not by Scribe but by Adolphe Nourrit, the leading French tenor of the period. Nourrit persuaded Halévy that a dramatic climax was needed for the fourth act and is said to have supplied the words for the famous aria that resulted:


Rachel! quand du Seigneur la grâce tutélaire

A mes tremblantes mains confia ton berceau,

J’avais à ton bonheur voué ma vie entière.

O Rachel! . . . et c’est moi que te livre au bourreau! . . .


Rachel! Ever since the tutelary grace of the Lord confided your cradle to my trembling hands, I have devoted my entire life to your happiness. Oh Rachel! . .  . and it is I who delivers you to the executioner! . . . [9]


At first Eleazar decides to save Rachel, but when he hears the cries of hatred from the crowd outside he determines to sacrifice both her and himself to their faith. Proust’s allusion to this celebrated aria from La Juive carries of course one more reference to the theme of anti-semitism associated with the Dreyfus case, a central motif in all this part of the Recherche. It associates Rachel, the twenty franc prostitute Marcel had first encountered in a brothel, with the heroic Rachel of Halévy’s opera. Though Marcel never actually sleeps with Rachel, the madame repeatedly offers her to him and goes along with Marcel’s witty name for her, though not understanding it. To call the whore Rachel a gift from God is a savagely ironic fashion of naming the way she is offered to him and to all-comers by the procuress (for this episode see F 1: 565-8; E, 1: 619-22). Moreover, just as the Rachel of the opera is not what she seems, not the Jewish daughter of the hated Eleazar but actually the daughter of a Cardinal of the Church, so Proust’s Rachel is transformed from the lowly prostitute to the beloved mistress of the aristocrat Robert de Saint Loup: “in this woman I recognised instantaneously ‘Rachel when from the Lord,’ she who, but a few years since (women change their situation so rapidly in that world, when they do change) used to say to the procuress (la maquerelle): ‘Tomorrow evening, then, if you want me for someone, you’ll send round for me, won’t you?’” (F, 2: 456; E, 2: 160).


I have mentioned the way the power of naming, whether by Marcel Proust himself when he named his characters or by Jacob’s wives when they named their sons, exemplifies one salient performative utterance: “I name thee . . .  so and and so.”  Marcel’s spontaneous witty allusive invention of the sobriquet “Rachel when from the Lord,” metonymy for the aria and for the whole opera, is a striking example within the novel itself of naming as a sovereign speech act making or remaking the one who is named. J. L. Austin’s uses the figure of christening to name what is happening in his invention of a new nomenclature for speech acts:  performative, constative, illocutionary, perlocutionary, behabitive, and so on.[10]


Yet one more reference functions powerfully in the complex integument of displacement woven in the episode of Marcel’s meeting Saint Loup’s mistress. This is an allusion to perhaps the most famous prostitute of all, certainly the most famous in Biblical and Christian tradition, Mary Magdalen. The invocation of Mary Magdalen is the telos toward which all the personfications of the pear trees have been tending. When Marcel recognizes that the mistress Saint Loup has invested with so much mystery and with infinite value is no more than “Rachel when from the Lord,” he is greatly moved: “It was not ‘Rachel when from the Lord,’ who seemed to me of little significance, it was the power of the human imagination, the illusion on which were based the pains of love (les douleurs de l’amour), that I found very great” (F, 2: 458; E, 2: 162-3). In order to hide the true source of his emotion from Robert, Marcel turns to the pear and cheery trees, “so that he might think it was their beauty that had touched me. And it did touch me in somewhat the same way; it also brought close to me things of the kind which we not only see with our eyes but feel also in our hearts” (F, ibid; E, 2: 163). The distinction here is between the clear and distinct, but cold, knowledge that comes from seeing and that other kind of non-knowing knowledge that is generated by passion. The latter is “knowledge” that we “feel also in our hearts (qu’on se sent dans son coeur).” The examples here are Saint Loup’s creation of a Rachel who does not exist and Marcel’s transformation, through metaphor’s performative power, of the pear trees into angels. Just as Saint-Loup had been mistaken about Rachel, so had Marcel been mistaken about the pear trees, These two similar mistakes, however, mistakes though they are, nevertheless, according to a paradigm explored elsewhere later in the Recherche apropos of Vinteuil’s septet and the creative power of Albertine’s lies,[11] give the mistaken, mystified one access to a realm of beauty that is lost in a past that never was, though it is treasured as a “memory,” a memory without memory, and hoped for in a future that always remains future, the “recompense which we strive to earn” (F, 2: 459; E, 2: 163). All works of the imagination- love, music, literature, art- however illusory in fetishizing this or that embodiment of beauty, give us a glimpse of this lost paradise, or rather these lost paradises, since they are multiple and incommensurate, each in its own separate and sequestered place in the capacious realm of the imagination. This multiple and unattainable beauty is allegorized by means of catachreses that employ the illusions of love as well as by the fictitious, factitious creations of poetry. These are used to name something unknown, unknowable,and unnamable in any literal words. The passage is of great beauty, though it describes a speech act that both is “felicitous” and is at the same time seen as a mistake:


In likening those trees that I had seen in the garden to strange deities (des dieux étrangers[12]), had I not been mistaken like Magdalen when, in another garden, on a day whose anniversary was soon to come [Easter], she saw a human form and “supposed it was the gardener.” Treasurers of our memories of the golden age, keepers of the promise that reality is not what we suppose, that the splendor of poetry, the wonderful radiance of innocence may shine in it and may be the recompense which we strive to earn (mériter), were they not, these great white creatures, miraculously bowed over that shade so propitious for rest, for angling or for reading, were they not rather angels (n’était-ce plûtot des anges)? (F, 2: 458-9; E, 2: 163).


The reference is to that moving episode in The Gospel according to St. John (20: 11-18) in which Mary Magdalen, the sinner whom Jesus cured of her devils and whom he loved, comes to the tomb of the crucified Jesus, finds the sepulchre empty and guarded by two angels in white. She then mistakes the risen Jesus standing in the garden for the gardener. When Jesus speaks to her she suddenly recognizes him and hails him as “Master”:


. . . she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus said unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni, which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciplines that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her. (John 20: 14-18)


Mary Magdalen first turns away from the empty sepulchre and then turns again when she recognizes the gardener as Jesus. These turnings mime the reversals of conversion and of spiritual insight. Each of these turnings is a trope (that is what trope means: “a turning”), a redefinition of meanings by performative language, as when Jesus salutes Mary by her name, and she names him “Master.” The turnings mime also the reversals of Marcel’s evaluation of his transformation of the pear trees into angels, Saint-Loup’s transformation of Rachel into a person of infinite worth. First he says the pear trees were just pear trees, not angels at all, just as Rachel was really “Rachel when from the Lord,” but then he says they were really angels, Rachel really Robert’s Rachel, just as the gardener turned out to be Jesus and just as Mary Magdalene, according to tradition a prostitute. becomes a saint.


Jesus’s “touch me not; noli me tangere,” contrasts strikingly with another episode a few verses further on, also recorded only in John, the story of “Doubting Thomas,” Thomas Didymus (meaning twin). Thomas was invited by Jesus to touch the nailholes in risen Jesus’s hands and to thrust his hand in the wound in Jesus’s side. The reader will note that Thomas apparently does not touch Jesus, but believes on the strength of Jesus’s words. The risen Christ is both tangible and intangible, embodied and disembodied, like a ghost or apparition: “But he [Thomas Didymus] said unto them. Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. . . . Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20: 25, 27-9). Seeing is believing, but the truest faith is to believe without seeing. Faith is precisely that: belief in things unseen.


The passage in Proust, when it is put back in its Biblical context, is a passionate celebration of the human imgination for its power to reach a hidden truth, accessible not to reason but to performative speech acts. This is exemplified not only in Marcel’s transformation of the pear trees into angels but even in Saint-Loup’s transformation of “Rachel when from the Lord” into his beloved mistress.


As anyone who has traced the evolution and permutations down through the centuries of the legends of Mary Magdalen knows, Mary Magdalen has been the focus of an activity of “imagination” as intense as that Saint Loup lavished on Rachel. As opposed to the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen was a sinner, a repentant prostitute, therefore someone with whom mere mortal sinners could more easily identify themselves. Moreover, without sound scriptural authority, Christians early and late have conflated the various Marys in the gospels and made them into a single Mary (though not in the Eastern Church, where each Mary has a separate saint’s day). Believers have then invented a whole circumstantial life story for Mary Magdalen, exemplified saliently and most familiarly in the version of her life in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. A “legend” means, etymologically, something to read, but also an act of reading. There are, however, many other versions besides the Legenda Aurea one, versions both literary and graphic, including even a fanciful apocryphal version that has Mary Magdalen the mother of a daughter, Sarah, fathered by Jesus, who became the original mother of the line of Merovingian kings when Mary Magdalen and Sarah fled Palestine for Marseilles.[13] The transformation of Mary Magdalen into a Christian saint parallels the transformation of Rachel into Saint-Loup’s beloved mistress and exemplifies the same power of the linguistic imagination. This transformation was inaugurated by Jesus when he forgave Mary Magdalen her sins, substituting, as Hegel has said in a powerful passage in his early theological writings, Christian love for Judaic law and thereby inaugurating the new religion as the cancelling and at the same time sublation or sublimation of the old, its Aufhebung. Mary Magdalen, for Hegel, comes just at the moment when Judaism was sublated into Christianity. She belongs simultaneously to both.[14]


The opposition in the episode of Marcel’s meeting Saint-Loup’s mistress and seeing that she is “Rachel when from the Lord” is not between Saint Loup’s “imagination” of a Rachel who is not there and Marcel’s clearseeing of what is there but between two forms of imagination that are nevertheless versions of the same power, fueled by emotion, and acting through performative positings: “The immobility of that thin face, like that of a sheet of paper subjected to the colossal pressure of two atmospheres, seemed to me to be held in equilibrium by two infinites which coverged on her without meeting, for she held them apart. Looking at her, Robert and I, we did not both see her from the same side of the mystery (nous ne la voyions pas du même côté du mystère)” (F, 2: 458; E, 2, 162). Marcel here ends by endorsing the belief that Rachel is a mystery, as thin as a sheet of paper (inscribed perhaps with words or graphic signs to be read, though Marcel does not say so), just as a face is an expressive sign, but an enigmatic one. Rachel’s face remains impenetrable, unfathomable, unknowable, whatever infinite imaginative pressure from either side is put on it. She is therefore open to the two radically different and infinitely powerful acts of imagination, one performed by Saint-Loup, one by Marcel. These end by balancing in an equilibrium that is equally ignorant on both sides of what Rachel “really is.”


The signals of Marcel’s performative power are all those allusions and references that make the episode a complex allegory in which nothing is just itself but is also a sign that stands for something else, evidence that “reality is not what we suppose,” as Rachel is for Marcel the biblical Rachel, but also the heroine of Halévy’s play, and also Mary Magdalene, and, also, Lot’s wife, just as the pear trees are turned into men, then angels that visited Lot, and then into the angels that guarded Christ’s tomb after the Resuurection, all by sovereign speech acts.


Behind Marcel’s performative positings, registered in the text of his narration, stands Marcel Proust, the narrator’s maker, and the ultimate source, in lordly self-effacement, of all these metaphorical or allegorical transpositions, effected by acts of language. À la recherche du temps perdu may seem to many readers to be a fictitious autobiography obeying the conventions of realism. If this is so, the figures Marcel uses would be mere embroidery, fanciful metaphors brought in to make the realist narrative more vivid and to demonstrate Marcel’s psychology, his “poetic” gifts. On the contrary, this episode, like the Recherche in general, is allegorical through and through. It names one thing by means of another, demonstrating that “reality is not what we suppose.” The meaning of the Recherche depends on the tropes or turnings that make pear trees into angels, Rachel the whore into “Rachel when from the Lord” in Halévy’s opera, and then into Robert’s mysterious, unfathomable beloved, a deep enigma. This episode in Proust’s great novel exemplifies admirably what Wolfgang Iser says about interpretation as always translation and always located in a specific situation and performed for a particular purpose. It also exemplifies the more mysterious process whereby the “immeasurable,” unnameable, or unspeakable is nevertheless translated into speech. I have translated Iser’s conceptual formulations into my own concern for the role of speech acts in interpretation-as-translation and my claim that passions provide the energy giving rise to interpretation’s transpositions.


[1] Mark Calkins, A la recherche de l’unité perdue:  Genre and Narrative in Proust (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI, 1998).


[2] Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, ed. Jean-Yves Tadié, éd. de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), 2: 453-70;  Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff (New York: Vintage, 1982), 2: 157-75. Further references will be to these texts, indicated by "F" and "E" respectively.


[3] F, 4:230-4; E, 3: 666-70. I have discussed this passage in Black Holes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 467-83, odd pages only.


[4] Somewhat later in the chapter Marcel does not, apparently, understand the advances the Baron de Charlus makes to him when they leave Mme de Villeparisis’s reception together, or rather Charlus runs to catch up with him (F, 2:  581-92; E, 2: 294-306).


[5] See Margaret Morganroth Gullette, “The Puzzling Case of the Deceased Wife’s Sister: Nineteenth-Century England Deals with a Second-Chance Plot, Representations (summer 1990), 31: 142-166.


[6] James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Modern Libray, n.d.), 42.


[7] Daniel Halévy  [1872-1962], grand nephew of Joseph Halévy, and author a book about the early years of the Third French Republic, La fin des notables (The End of the Notables), was Marcel Proust’s schoolmate and friend. Daniel Halévy also wrote a book about the Dreyfus case, Regards sur l’affaire Dreyfus.


[8] (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943), 320-40.


[9] Eugène Scribe, Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Furne; Aimé André, 1841), 2: 69, my trans.


[10] See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2nd ed., ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 16, 17.


[11] I have elsewhere discussed these passages. See Black Holes, ed.  cit., 407-39, odd pages only.


[12] Proust means the two disguised angels to whom Lot offered hospitality (Gen. 19: 1) as well as the two angels at the tomb of the risen Christ in John’s account of the Resurrection (John 20: 10).


[13] See Jacobus de Voraigne, “Saint Mary Magdalen,” The Golden Legend, 2 vols., trans William Granger Ryan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 1: 374-83; Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Vintage; Random House, 1983); Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (London: HarperCollins, 1993); Laurence Gardner, Bloodline of the Holy Grail: The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997), espec. 66-73, 100-42; Margaret Starbird, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and thje Holy Grail (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear & Company, 1993), espec. 26, 49-52, 60-2; Michael Baigent, Richard Keigh, and Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell, 1983), 330-47; Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin (London: Penguin, 1996), 93-9.  Linda Georgiana and Matthew Miller have helped me with these references, for which I thank them.


[14] G. W. F. Hegel, “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate,” Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M. Knox (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), 242-44.