Proust, Lowell, Barthes, Musil


Price, Mary. ‘Proust, Lowell, Barthes, Musil’ The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994) 150-172


Benjamin’s touchstone is Proust, the first great imaginative writer to make extensive use of the wonder and the magic of photography.


[discussion and analysis of Proust’s grandmother’s transformation]


Proust’s metaphor suggests that the photograph is a record only of surfaces and has no power to hold memory. It subtracts the entire emotional affect of a person because it cannot help limiting itself to literal phenomena of physical surfaces.

The eye of the camera is the eye of the stranger. It subtracts emotional context, leaving in this case the withdrawn, indifferent bones of age. The photograph is not, here, a repository of memory.


Proust uses the photograph as a metaphoric instrument of vision when Marcel becomes witness and observer of his grandmother’s ordinary appearance as if seen by a stranger.


The use of the photograph as metaphor for bare fact becomes more complicated when Marcel, much later, after his grandmother’s death, is struck by the sight of the actual, not the imagined photograph of his grandmother taken by Saint-Loup.


“I kept my eyes fixed,” Marcel says, “as on a drawing which one ceases to see by dint of staring at it, upon a photograph that Saint-Loup had taken, and all of a sudden I thought once again: ‘It’s grandmother, I am her grandson,’ as a man who has lost his memory remembers his name, as a sick man changes his personality.” The click of attention, the shift of focus so that what was lost is found, or what was forgotten is remembered, is familiar.

[Proust’s] The use of photograph as metaphor is a literary device, to be sure, a means of deepening understanding of character. It also illustrates that use of the photograph which will teach us its meaning.

We can even find in Proust a prototype of Barthes’s recognition of a significant photograph and the difference between that photograph and any other that might be imagined.


Time past, the age of the woman in the photograph, its deceptive or unexpected disclosure of meaning, the contradiction between the formal photograph, in which the woman presents herself, and the informal, unprepared appearance of the, if not more real, woman, the more private, the more securely perceived and valued as the user’s own, these elements are the same in Proust’s simile and in Barthes’s discovery of his mother.


[analysis of poem by Robert Lowell]


[On Proust] The time of the photograph stretches from the moment of its taking to the moment when Marcel discovers the grandmother’s true purpose in having her picture taken and from that moment back to modify the earlier memory of its being taken.


What remains for Barthes is not in fact photograph but many because he is not writing fiction, and part of his search for any photograph which he can regard as truly depicting the mother is in discarding or discounting the myriad everyday ordinary and undescribed photographs that do not satisfy him.


The peculiar fact that Barthes recognized the aura of that love in a picture of the mother when she was five, that is, of his mother before he was born and long before she assumed the form he must first have seen, is a measure of the fictional possibilities in vision.

Photography is neither mirror with a memory nor window but a picture of that which is about to become a memory, a capturing of what, in the present which is about to become the past, is to be remembered. This is not to confuse picture with memory itself, because memory is internal, private, and kinaesthetic, like dreams.

It is all very well to say that the external world is caught, if fragmentarily, in a photograph. The question is, What does the resultant picture mean?

For Proust, it was the external world in the literal person of his grandmother stripped of the veils of illusion with which any beloved person is enveloped that he imagined as a photograph. In this view, the photograph reveals the plainest surface unaffected by feelings. Surface is foregrounded. Volume exists in space, person exists in flash, flash is transitory, and the old lady is everywoman, anywoman.


[Describes how the original frontispiece image of Camera Lucida relates to the absence/presence of the winter-garden photograph]

The concepts of absence, negative space, and the idling machine are all telling metaphors for an aspect of seeing. In the vocabulary of sight as well as in the vocabulary of literary criticism, the concept of “negative” is significant.


The phrase “negative capability” was invented by Keats to mean a state ” when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” […] Keats is saying let the uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts remain.

[Barthes’s] act of choice recalls Wittgenstein’s metaphor of a machine “idling” as a paradigm of potential movement for which the impulse or lever to start has not been activated.

Barthes’s search is an instance of the engine idling until the one picture activates the full flood of feeling and memory. Barthes recognized the shape, the negative space, of absence, and sought the image to fill the space.

It is a sign of our times that Barthes looked for a photograph.

Beyond the fact that many photographs of his mother existed, he sought the verification of her being that only a photograph could give him. He wanted something beyond “simple resemblance,” something only he could provide and the existence or effect of which he could never prove. The evidence of the authentication of her existence.

The something beyond “simple resemblance,” was the aura without its objects.


[Price discusses Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities]


It seems that if at the later time of looking at an earlier photograph one dissociates oneself deliberately, or even involuntarily, from intimate feelings about it, or if one disavows such feelings, it might be the same as looking at the picture of a stranger. After all, if one had not already had a familiarity with such a photograph and with what  the younger self had looked like, one might well not recognize it.

Three instances of writers finding meaning in a photograph of a self with a mother figure might suggest that some psychological interpretation is necessary. This is not my interest. For my purposes, the significant aspect is the choice of photograph to educe meaning.


Proust’s example of Marcel as stranger-witness to the stripping away of illusion is like a stripping away of aura, like the rending of a veil, as if the resulting exposure of photograph were the hidden reality.

Barthes’s photograph of his mother, real but unseen by his readers, fills a gap in his imagination. It is the more real to him because it is so private, so distant in time, so invested and endowed by him with significance.

Musil gives the character of Ulrich less range of interpretation. Ulrich seems closer in this respect to the ordinary viewer of photographs, that is, the response is dependent more on attitudes toward family, childhood, self, or the past than on visual acuity.

My emphasis on literary imaginations is a deliberate choice of approach. An earlier chapter mentioned that many interpretations of photographs are couched  in the vocabularies of the writers’ professions, whether art history, sociology, political history, or literary theory. The literary approach without theory allows the acknowledgement of these interpretations but avoids the special vocabularies and indeed bypasses the special expertise to confront the photograph not abstractly, as “photography,” but particularly, in its individual intimacy.

A kind of discomfort for some readers may ensure from a lack of a theoretical structure. This too is deliberate – for the sake of the freedom to see a photograph without aura. Only if inspired by the photograph itself to speculation and description does one invest that photograph with aura. What is said about a photograph depends on what is perceived by the viewer, who must, according to the use intended for the photograph, resolve, explicate, or ignore the significant tension between “heightened by life” and “paralyzed by fact.”

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