Proust in translation and limitation
Long ago, I would couch at a good hour. On many occasions, my lamp hardly out, my lids shut so fast I couldn't think "I am drifting off." And, in about a half hour, thinking I should now nod off, I got up! I would want to put my book down--I thought I was still holding it in my hands--and to blow my lamp out; although unconscious I had still thought about what was in my book, but my thoughts took an odd turn; I thought I was what my work was about! — a church, a musical composition for four to play, or Francis I’s rivalry with Joanna and Philip of Spain’s son. Surviving, for an instant or two, my own waking, this illusion did not look shockingly irrational at all but would blind my vision and stop it from taking it in that my lamp was not burning still. But shortly it would turn baffling, as baffling as thoughts of living in a past world do following a transmigration of souls; unmooring from my book’s topic, I could apply my thoughts to it or not according to my wish; I got my vision back right away, and I would gasp at finding obscurity all around, winning and mild for my vision and, for my mind to boot, to which it would look as though it had nothing causing it, a thing which my mind could not grasp, an obscurity truly dark. In my mind I sought to work out what hour of night it was. Far away, a train’s whistling would sound, just as bird song in distant woods might, thus indicating how spacious night was, how void its blank, vast plains, through which a solitary pilgrim would rush quickly towards his station, following a small road which would stay in his mind thanks to his agitation about unfamiliar districts, unusual actions, thanks to his talk with companions, and to parting salutations, still following him through night’s hush, thanks too to coming back’s sugar-silky, mild harmony.
I would push my own maxilla against my pillow’s, rosy and vital as that of our childhood. I struck a match to look at my watch. Almost midnight. That instant that a sick man who has had to go on a trip, lodging at an unfamiliar inn, waking in crisis, looks down and is joyful at a ray of light shining through from his door’s bottom. What luck — what a good hour! Morning so soon! Its staff is up now, and just ringing will summon aid, bring him comfort.That anticipation of quick support grants him a valorous capacity to absorb it all. Lo! Rapid walking coming his way; coming… and going; that ray of daylight which had lit him up now vanishing. It’s midnight: gaslight off, corridors void of any staff who could bring aid, and no possibility now but to wait all night, sick and in pain, without mitigation.
I would fall back into dormancy, and any wakings to follow might only last an instant, just sufficing for audition of that organic sound of woodwork crackling, for looking around to try to fix obscurity’s whirling dark, for tasting, thanks to a conscious flash, that torpor in which all was sunk — room and furnishings — of which I was only a small part and which I sought to join again, unconscious again. Or again, drowsing, I had found that I had slid with facility into atavistic days from my archaic infancy, still finding, or coming again upon, this or that of my childhood horrors, as that of an avuncular pulling of my curls, a horror dissipating that day — which I took as an important boundary-crossing in my growing up — on which my hair was cut short. Oblivious, in my stupor, to that important shift, I would find it again as soon as I could squirm away from that avuncular, curl-pulling pair of hands, but out of abundant caution I would pull my pillow down on my scalp prior to going back into night’s imaginary world.
It might occur that, similarly to Adam giving birth to a woman from his rib, a woman was born as I lay unconscious from a slightly off positioning of my thigh. A product of that climax I was about to savor, it was this woman who I would think was its origin. My body which would warm to a warmth I thought was not within but without, which I thought was in that woman, but which was my own, sought to join with it: and I would jolt into waking. All humans now would look distant and unimportant in comparison to this woman whom just instants ago I had had to abandon, my lips warm still from kissing, my body aching with that body’s mass. If, as would occur, I saw in that woman any traits of a woman whom I had known in truth, I would aim with all my might at this goal: finding that woman again, as a tourist might who, imagining that truth could match an illusory charm, wants to look in actuality at a city long thought about, wistfully. Bit by bit that haunting flashback would vanish, consigning that fantasy girl to oblivion.
A drowsing, unconscious man holds around him a chain of hours, a disposition of annual circuits, of worlds. Looking to that chain by instinct, on waking, such a man can fix in an instant what spatial point is his, how long his dormition was; but a muddling, a rupturing of that ranking of hours can occur. If towards morning, following a bout of insomnia, lost in his book, a nap waylays him in a bodily position too dissimilar from that which is habitually his if dozing, all that has to occur is for his arm to lift so as to shadow him from sunlight and at that first instant of awaking, not knowing what hour it is, it might look to him as though it was only just now that his couch had drawn him into its warmth. If that man conks out in a highly unusual position, as in a post-prandial nap in an armchair, a total shuffling and undoing of orbit upon orbit, world upon world will occur, his magic armchair will carry him at full tilt into long-ago days and lands, his sight coming back, such a man will think what surrounds him is what did surround him months ago, in a distant country. But all it took was that in my own cot, my own dormition’s profundity should allow my mind to go slack, and so waking at midnight, not knowing what location I was at, I only had, in its primordial simplicity, a kind of participation in primary actuality as it was as it might churn far within an animal’s soul; and I was as starkly solitary, as lacking in situational surrounding, as a lithic, grotto-inhabitant, living prior to all human history. But a flashback—not of any location I was, but of a handful of locations I had, and might still, inhabit, coming in aid from on high, dragging my mind away from that void out of which, as a solitary soul, I could find no way out, I would jump past civilization upon civilization, and looking, at first with confusion, on oil lamps, on my shirts with collars, I would fit back, into a normal congruity, bit by bit, my own original traits.
Possibly that immobility of things around us is a function of our faith and conviction that any such thing is what it is, a function of our thought’s immobility confronting it. Anyhow it was always so, that waking my mind, anxious to find, in vain, just what location it was in, all would turn around and around in obscurity, things, lands, spans and durations from my past. My body, too stiff to shift, sought, following what form its languor took, to align its limbs’ position, so as by induction to find my rooms’ walls, its furnishings, thus building again and naming again this location in which it found that it was lying. Thinking back on what was past, thinking in and through its flanks, its joints, its scapulas, my body had room upon room brought back to it, any and all rooms in which it had, far back, found that it was dropping off, and walls with invisibly changing locations, changing according to how my body was imagining its room’s contours, would swirl around it in shadowy commotion. And prior to my thought’s twigging again to what lodging this was, by bringing back to mind parts of what it saw circumstantially -- prior to that, waiting in confusion on this brink of forms, this brink of archaic days, it — my body — could summon up for all, individually, by what kind of couch it was, or at what location you could find doors, by what light you saw from windows, or if you could pass through a corridor, what I had thought about as I would start drowsing, which I would find still in my thoughts on waking. My stiff flank sought to work out its position in its narrow room’s compass, imagining (this can stand for many such imaginings) that it was lying along a wall, a grand baldaquin high aloft, and right away I would say, “Ah, I did drop off, without Mama’s coming to say goodnight”, I was at my grandpa’s country lodging, my grandpa, long now in his tomb, and my body, its flank on which I lay, faithful guardians of a past that ought not to part from my mind, but which my mind did in fact turn away from, brought back to it light from an oil-lamp in Moravian glass, its form that of an urn, hanging down into my room by chains, its duct of stony Italian crystal, in my dormitory in Combray, at my grand-folks, in faraway days that right now I thought actual, without having to stir up again any particulars of such days, as my vision would soon grasp all of it again, upon my fully waking.
At that point, I would find, born again, and brought back to mind, a contrasting position of my body: my wall would point towards an opposing compass point: I was in my room at Madam of Saint-Loup’s country manor. My God — it’s past 10:00 p.m. — no supping now! That’s what my prolonging too long my daily twilight nap did, a nap which I always had on coming back from my walk with Madam of Saint Loup, prior to putting on formal duds. For Combray was far, far away from that, far, far past, Combray at which our walks back would occur by an hour that would always still allow for my catching sight of a rosy mirroring of sundown in my window glass. It’s a dissimilar way of living that occurs at Tansonton, at Madam of Saint-Loup’s, a dissimilar joy that I find, going out only at night, following in moonlight paths that I would play on long ago in sunlight: this room in which it must turn out I was dozing and not gussying up for supping, from afar I saw it, on coming back, lit up by lamp light, a solitary signal glowing through that night air.
Such rushing limbic confusions would last only an instant or two; mostly my short doubt about what locality I was now at didn’t distinguish among a host of suppositions comprising that doubt, just as, watching a galloping stallion, you can’t fix on any of its particular positions, which only chronophotography can show us. But I had got to look again on this or on that of various of my rooms, rooms from my past, and I would finish by bringing all such rooms back to mind in my long, abstract musings, on waking up: rooms bringing back frosty months during which I’d go plunging down, scalp first, into a warm burrow comprising this thing and that: a point of my pillow, my quilt’s top, a bit of a shawl, my cot’s rim, a pink copy of Disputations, which you finish by piling up into a unity, just as birds do, by continuously piling scraps up; months of frost bringing a kind of joy out of glacial cold, by making us conscious of our insulation from outdoors cold (similarly to littoral swallows, who roost in low bottoms in warmth-giving soil), months of cold in which, with combustion going on all night in your hob, you can stay dozing in a giant coat of warm and smoky air, lit up by scintillations of twigs catching, flaming again, you can stay in drowsing in a kind of phantom bay, a warm grotto, a hollow, a room within your room, a patch burning hot within it, its snug contours blown by slight motions of air which can inspirit you, coming from crooks, from junctions and window rims, or coming from afar, from hallways, cool again; or, during hot months, rooms in which you long to join with night’s moist warmth, in which moonlight shining on half-drawn curtains, throws as far as your cot’s foot its magic stairway, rooms in which your dormition is practically outdoors, similar to that of a robin bobbing against light wind on a point of light—haply that Louis XVI room, so gay that I wasn’t too unhappy in it, not on my first night nor on any night, its supports so lightly and graciously sustaining its top, so as to show and mark my cot's location; or not that room at all, but in total contrast, a small room, with so high a vault that its spacious form was similar to a pyramid, two floors high, and partially mahogany in its lining, in which from my first instant in it I thought it poisonous, morally anyhow, on account of an unknown odor, that of Chrysopogon bunchgrass, with no doubt of its crimson curtains’s hostility, as an arrogant clock, ignoring my sojourn in that room, would yack loudly away; — that locality in which without pity an odd mirror, with quadrangular supports, barring in its obliquity a junction of two walls, would sharply hollow out of my customary visual plain a patch which I was not anticipating;—a locality in which my thought trying for hours to pull and twist around, to modify its own form so as to fill its room’s gigantic tundish, had had to withstand many hard nights during which I lay along my cot, staring upwards, anxiously vigilant also for any sound at all, and my nostrils worrying too, my torso pounding with palpitations, until habit, changing my curtain’s tint, calming my clock’s ticking, instilling pity into in my nasty angling mirror, hiding, if not wholly driving out, that odor of bunchgrass, could bring my room’s dizzying roof calmingly downwards again. Habit! Skillful charwoman and maid, though slow as anything, who starts by allowing our mind to wait painfully for days or months in a provisional installation, but whom, still and all, our mind is so happy to find, for without habit and having to count only on its own capacity and capability, it could not possibly do anything to fix up a lodging in a way making it into a habitat you could inhabit. [Pun on “habit” and “inhabit” is in Proust’s original. —Tr.]
No doubt about it: I was truly up now. My body having spun about in a final twist, my guardian spirit, with an assuring warranty that all was what it was, brought my room and all that was around its inhabitant to a stop, and, tucking my bunk comfortably with quilts, put roughly into its right position my washstand, my writing rolltop, my hob, my window looking out on a familiar roadway, and my two doors. But in vain did I know that I was not in faraway parts — of which waking’s foggy oblivion would bring up for an instant, if not a distinct portrait, still a possibility of its actuality — it shook my mind into flashbacks; I wouldn’t try to drop off again right away, I would pass most of that night in calling back to mind our way of living long ago, in Combray at my grandaunt’s, in Cabourg, in Paris, in St. Cyr’s, in Astonio, and in various additional lands, bringing back many distant parts, souls I had known in this or that locality, what I actually saw of how such humans would act, or what I was told about it.
[That's it (for now anyhow). Amazing starting paragraphs (in Proust's original, obviously). As for Cabourg, St. Cyr and Astonio, all causally link up with Proust's own actual or fictional way of naming or pointing to this locality or that. Astonio with its canals? Look it up.--Tr.]