“The thing that I want to insist upon is that Picasso’s gift is completely the gift of a painter and a draughtsman, he is a man who always has the need of emptying himself, of completely emptying himself, it is necessary that he should be greatly stimulated so that he could be active enough to empty himself completely.”
So says Gertrude Stein in her intimate, lyrical biography of Picasso, which is not so much a chronology of his life as it is a love letter to his artistry. Among many other things, she submits that Picasso’s creative impetus derived from a need to empty himself of certain reverberating impressions; he would become captivated, even tormented by an idea or image, and by painting, he would purge that image from his mind and be done with it.
Picasso curiously associated much more with writers than artists, because, according to Stein, he “already knew how to paint.” He sought after creatives who were possessed by a complementary compulsion; rather than consummate the desire to empty themselves of intractable impressions, they held their most cathectic ideas inside and let them fester, returning to them over and over again, determined to “get it right” this time. But they never succeed in externalizing these ideas, because where visual artists express their selves in the tangible external world, writers exist exclusively inside themselves.
“The egotism of a painter is entirely a different egotism from the egotism of a writer. The painter does not conceive himself as existing in himself, he conceives himself as a reflection of the objects he has put into his pictures and he lives in the reflections of his pictures, a writer, a serious writer, conceives himself as existing by and in himself, he does not at all live in the reflection of his books…”
Reading Swann’s Way, the implied Proust appears to be the epitome of Stein’s neurotic, navel-gazing writer; he relentlessly returns to specific impressions from his childhoodーthe madeleine, his mother’s kissーstriving to integrate them into a well-adjusted adulthood, to no avail. The involuntary memory of his mother’s kiss, or more precisely, of the interminable wait for his mother’s kiss, is “revealed” in every insecurity felt by both Marcel and Swann. This revelation doesn’t serve as a catharsis, but is more akin to an intrusive PTSD flashback.
But one passage, in which Marcel reflects on a short fragment he felt compelled to compose after a brief glimpse of particularly picturesque church steeples, paints a different picture. He recalls his ambition to craft an intellectually significant work of literature, one filled with sage wisdom and unprecedented profundities—the daunting prospect of which caused him to despair of becoming a writer at all. He is only able to shock his system out of this metaphysical paralysis by way of fleeting sensory impressions, even as he denounces them as trivialities:
“Then, quite apart from all those literary preoccupations, and without definite attachment to anything, suddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight reflected from a stone, the smell of a road would make me stop still, to enjoy the special pleasure that each of them gave me… It was certainly not any impression of this kind that could or would restore the hope I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming an author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of any intellectual value, and suggesting no abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity of mind; and in that way distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt whenever I had sought a philosophic theme for some great literary work.”
In true writer/philosopher fashion, he hesitates to admit that an “unreasoning pleasure” could be an avenue towards meaningful intellectual experience. But even as he contends that his senses only afford him illusory, hollow gratification, it is the simple image of church steeples in Martinville, which he classifies as another “special pleasure,” that punctures his neurosis and allows honest-to-goodness inspiration to seep through.
“At a bend in the road I experienced, suddenly, that special pleasure, which bore no resemblance to any other, when I caught sight of the twin steeples of Martinville… In ascertaining and noting the shape of their spires, the changes of aspect, the sunny warmth of their surfaces, I felt that I was not penetrating to the full depth of my impression, that something more lay behind that mobility, that luminosity, something which they seemed at once to contain and to conceal.”
But unlike his mother’s kiss, or Vinteuil’s sonata, the church steeples do not possess Marcel and torment him in perpetuity. Instead, they embolden him to write a short fiction then and there, in order “to appease [his] conscience and to satisfy [his] enthusiasm.” He reproduces the story in full, “with only a slight revision here and there,” which, given his obsessive personality, in itself signals that he was in a state of exalted creativity when he wrote it.
The story itself is brief and primarily descriptive, a flash fiction that is often more reminiscent of a poem. It serves as an elegant ode to the church steeples, “three flowers painted upon the sky” that were “gilded by the light of the setting sun.” At his most abstract, he compares the steeples to “three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place over which night had begun to fall.” He makes no explicit attempt to connect the beauty of the steeples to any transcendent theme, but rather allows the richly descriptive language to reproduce his own transcendent experience in the reader.
In writing this story, Marcel has emptied himself of the impression the steeples left on his consciousness, much like Picasso emptied himself of France, the blue period, and the Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers.
“I never thought again of this page, but at the moment when… I had finished writing it, I found such a sense of happiness, felt that it had so entirely relieved my mind of the obsession of the steeples, and of the mystery which they concealed, that, as though I myself were a hen and had just laid an egg, I began to sing at the top of my voice.”
True to his word, he never mentions those steeples again. For a man who opens his opus with over thirty pages detailing a turning round in his bed before he goes to sleep, who spends over four thousand pages (including all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time) dissecting, analyzing, and atomizing all of his personal myths and psychic injuries, this is an aberration, to say the least. This passage is one of the only instances in the entire novel in which Marcel finds any kind of solace, as he intuitively knows the steeples won’t continue to haunt him. Instead, they take a natural course in his consciousness, transitioning smoothly from a spark to a flame to an ember, ultimately formative but squarely in the past.
Although this vignette is distinct from Proust’s treatment of his other impressions, the episode still provides a lens through which to view the entire novel; because it’s not a novel, in the traditional sense, but rather a series of flash fictions, of prose poems, of impressions. It is the novelistic equivalent of an Impressionist painting, hinting at a vast landscape by meticulously celebrating a negligible and supremely ordinary snapshot. Where Proust feels pressure to “exist by and in himself,” and expound on the meaning of life in a more explicit fashion, his simple (if painstaking) studies of madeleines, kisses, and church steeples demonstrate his ability to allow his notion of the meaning of life—a part of himself—to be enveloped by the tangible world.
All quotations from Swann’s Way translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff.