Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In Praise of False Gods

Une évocation de Á la recherché du temps perdu (inspired by Marcel Proust’s Á la recherché du temps perdu novels) – Glass display dome with hand silver-leafed base; ivory finial; antique art nouveau bat cufflink; wired French ribbon; antique art nouveau bone china demitasse cup and saucer; antique sterling Egyptian Revival demitasse spoon; antique celluloid fountain pen; vintage white china vase; dried white rose and rose petals; genuine butterfly wings; antique French cigarette butt; genuine dried bit of Madeleine; burnt wooden match; antique cameo; altered art pieces—Grand-Hôtel de la Plage, Balbec restaurant menu, Baron de Charlus’ calling card, invitation to Elstir exhibition, invitation to M. et Mme Verdurin, postcard of Grand-Hôtel de la Plage, Jupien business card, Venice luggage label, scrap of writing

In the preface he wrote for his translation of John Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens published in 1903, Proust defined (and cautioned against) a tendency he had observed in the English author’s approach to works of art. He called it “idolatry,” and he denounced it, even as he recognized its siren allure.

Curiously, the examples Proust gave of this artistic sin were for the most part attributable not to Ruskin but to the comte Robert de Montesquiou. And Proust would specifically link them to Montesquiou, later the principal model for the baron de Charlus, in the essay “Un Professeur de Beauté” published in 1905. Certainly, Montesquiou, an aristocrat and esthete whom Proust both revered and ridiculed, might be accursed of idolatry in the most obvious sense of the term. For example, in a room of his house, he had created what amounted to a shrine to a notorious Second Empire beauty, the comtesse de Castiglione, with innumerable photographic portraits, as well as moulages of her hands and feet and other memorabilia.

According to Proust, Montesquiou was always enchanted to discover echoes of the works of art he cherished in the real world around him, recognizing a dress worn by Balzac’s Madame de Cadignan or a rare textile from a painting by Gustave Moreau. Furthermore, he actively sought out or commissioned works of art that represented those objects that had personal meaning for him: bats and hydrangeas, for example. A natural proclivity, perhaps, but Proust states severely that the subject of a picture bears no relation to its artistic merit. He tells us that he himself would not care more for a painting of hawthorn blossoms, his own favorite flower, than for any other. While we may concede the basic truth of this puritanical view, a part of us refuses to share it. We sense that idolatry and art are inextricably related and may even doubt Proust’s good faith in claiming to so rigidly keep them separate.

If artistic idolatry gives value to mundane objects in the real world because they have been represented in a work of art, what can we say about a work of art that purports to be the real objects that art has represented? We have passed through the mirror. The game is now twisted like a Möbius pretzel. In Scot Ryersson’s masterful Proust montage, a bell jar protects a small tablescape: a delicate, fluted teacup with, on its saucer, the last crumbs of a Madeleine; an invitation to the vernissage of an exhibition of the work of Elstir at the Galerie Durand-Ruel; a stamped and addressed picture postcard sent from the Grand Hotel at Balbec; the visiting card of the baron de Charlus… Kneeling on the floor, mesmerized in front of this glass reliquary, I discover tangible objects, here and now, in my space, that carry a charge of conviction and persuasion. They convince me that the fiction from which they have materialized was a true history, that I might accept the Verdurin’s invitation to attend their musical soirée. In fact, Scot Ryersson’s tantalizing assemblage is just that—an invitation—an invitation to dream, an invitation to pass through the barrier between this world and the one that a great work of literature has made almost more real to me. I succumb gladly to the idolatry that it implies, an idolatry now taken to a higher plane and, paradoxically, reversed into art itself. Scot Ryersson triumphantly proclaims the supremacy of the imaginary by persuading us to believe our eyes.

—Joan T. Rosasco, Proust scholar and author of Voies de l’imagination proustienne and The Septet: Proust’s Wager, New York City, New York