The Intermittences of the Heart

The Intermittences of the Heart
“The Intermittences of the Heart” is a title given to Part II of Marcel Proust’s “Sodom and Gomorrah,” Volume 4 of “In Search of Lost Time.” It’s also the title of a painting my Rene Magritte, pictured here.

I approached Stendhal’s nonfiction book “De L’Amour” through his novel “Le Rouge et Le Noir,” which impressed me for its deep psychological insights. Stendhal had an uncanny ability to balance analysis and drama, as well as satire and psychology. So, to me, “De L’Amour” is a bit like reading a great author’s diary.

As I was reading the introduction to his book by Jean Stewart and B.C.J.G. Knight, I was delighted to see comparisons to Marcel Proust. Stewart and Knight wrote that the most famous feature of Stendhal’s book is the analysis of the power of the imagination in love “it’s ability to transfigure the image of the loved one – described in terms of the natural phenomenon of crystallization:”

Surely no one before Stendhal, and since Stendhal no one until Proust, has subjected (love) to such penetrating analysis without loss of feeling, admitting the illusion what still under its spell.

And then Stewart and Knight note a way that Stendhal anticipates Proust, in Chapter 15 of his book:

when he describes the curious ’blankness’ in which the lover’s heart is sometimes becalmed (what Proust later calls les intermittences du cœur.)

It was wonderful to come across this, because I have deep affection for the “Intermittences of the Heart” sections of Proust’s masterpiece, which are beautiful and always surprising, even when re-reading. He coins this phrase early in Volume 4, “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Proust wrote:

For the disturbances of memory are linked the intermittences of the heart. It is no doubt the existence of our body, similar for us to a vase in which our spirituality is enclosed, which induces us to suppose that all our inner goods, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession. Perhaps this is as inaccurate as to believe that they escape or return. At all events, if they do remain inside us, it is for most of the time in an unknown domain where they are of no service to us, and where even the most ordinary of them are repressed by memories of a different order, which exclude all simultaneity with them in our consciousness. But if the framework of sensations in which they are preserved be recaptured, they have in their turn the same capacity to expel all that is incompatible with them, to install in us, on its own, the self that experienced them.

Proust goes on to relate this insight to a very touching remembrance of his grandmother and his deep feelings for her and how they were re-triggered in an instant. But what makes Proust a great writer is the way he introduces and teases the device and lets the idea sit for awhile, then brings it back in the end of this volume to describe events that are far less comforting to him.

A little background on the plot is in order: the book’s narrator Marcel is romantically obsessed by a woman named Albertine, an athletic, sociable young woman who completely confuses him. Sometimes she is very affectionate with Marcel, other times she’s distant. But Marcel notes that his feelings about her aren’t steady either – he sometimes questions whether he’s even attracted to her. Towards the end of this volume, Marcel has finally had enough and tells his mother that he’s fed up with Albertine and will not pursue her any more. Yet he still asks Albertine if she would alter her vacation plans and take a detour train ride with him home to Combray, which she agrees to do.

On this train ride, Albertine casually slips out information about some of the friends that she plans to see during this vacation, and all the puzzle pieces about her suddenly fall into place for Marcel ... he suddenly realizes that he’s become romantically obsessed with a lesbian.

Before moving on, I want to note that while Proust was gay, he treats gay and lesbian characters with cruelty in his book. Instead of showing empathy, the lesbian characters are almost universally presented as mysterious, cunning and manipulative. So, be advised if you’re tempted to read it.

Back to the intermittences, Proust now re-frames his device to be about something more than pure retrieval of memory. Now it becomes a way a series of memories radically reorder to reveal truth:

It is often only for want of the creative spirit that we do not go far enough in suffering. And the most terrible reality brings us, at the same time as suffering, the joy of a beautiful discovery, for all that it does is to lend a new and explicit form to what we had long been turning over in our minds without suspecting it.

It’s a very poetic way of describing a form of dissociation. Proust is describing a style of thinking that is somewhere in between daydreaming and rumination. Personally, I believe that all of my work as a writer exists in this realm. When I’m writing most successfully, it feels like an out of body experience. Proust adds this very French, very Cartesian concept of thoughts floating freely in the mind, waiting for a force to magically rearrange them in a way that brings clarity to them.

Getting back to the story, Marcel now faces a crisis. And what emerges is stunning insight:

the mistresses whom I have loved the most have never coincided with my love for them. This love was true, since I subordinated everything else to seeing them, to keeping them for myself alone, since I would sob if, one evening, I had waited for them. But they had the peculiar quality of arousing that love, of carrying it to a paroxysm, rather than of being the image of it. When I saw them, when I listened to them, I found nothing in them that might resemble my love or be able to explain it.

Or to put into contemporary psychoanalytic terms, Marcel so throughly projected his own ideal amorous feelings onto these women that they scarcely existed at all. (See my companion essay on the anima and animus for similar examples.) They achieved this nothingness because Marcel was playing out this love story that existed purely in his mind. Again, this is very French and very Cartesian … but what makes it interesting for me is that it’s all set off by something embodied. Thoughts don’t order feelings in Proust’s intermittences, feelings are the great clarifier.

Marcel next notes that projections bring out this hidden love creature inside us:

What a deceitful sense sight is! A human body, even when loved, as was that of Albertine, seems, from a few meters, a few centimeters away, distance from us. And the soul that belongs to it likewise. Except that, should something come violently to alter the position of that soul in relation to us, to show us that it loves other human beings and not ourselves, then, by the beating of our dislocated hearts, we feel that the cherished creature was not a few feet away, but inside us.

I think anytime that projection is involved, the senses are basically shut off. Real attraction is not some point system or even a person-by-person comparison, it’s touched off by unconscious factors none of us really comprehend (which is a very good reason why dating apps don’t work — they make the process seem far more rational that it really is.) Some theorize that sexual attraction is our DNA’s attempt to create a more diverse gene pool — although this creates far more internal consciousness for the double helix than I’m willing to grant it.

But the essential part of Marcel’s discovery is noticing the lovely creation he has projected, and seeing it as part of him. This is the most hopeful aspect of falling in love. It may be filled with delusion and can never live up to our expectations. But it also reveals to us the type of person we wish to become as part of the romantic alchemy.

The all-too-human result of this turmoil is that Marcel sees his mother again that evening and instead of relating how he had just learned something about Albertine that validates his intuition and the thoughts he shared with his mother recently, Marcel begins to cry and expresses remorse for saying such terrible things about Albertine. His mother comforts him and says he said nothing terrible about her, he just related that she’s not the right woman for him. To which Marcel responds, closing volume 4 and setting up all kinds of misery for them both in the next two volumes “I absolutely must marry Albertine."

I‘ve never fully understood Marcel’s drives at this point. But it does say something interesting about Proust’s interior drives if his alter ego has an anima who is a lesbian. Perhaps this is the closest the author felt he could go in revealing his own sexuality.

But in addition to the gender/sexuality confusion, there’s also a matter of self destruction. Marcel cannot help himself from acting in a way that he knows isn’t in his best interest. Proust beautifully explains how this happens:

As though by an electric current that moves you, I have been shaken by my love affairs, I have lived them, I have felt them; never have I succeeded in seeing them or thinking them.

This is a struggle Stendhal felt as well. As Stewart and Knight note in their introduction:

(De l’Amour) displays the two conflicting sides of his nature – the deeply sensitive and the cooly analytical. These aspects are indeed present in everything he wrote, but in the great novels they are fused miraculously, whereas in De l’Amour they are in somewhat uneasy juxtaposition. The effort he made to control his feeling self was too great; these experiences were too close, too traumatic for lucidity to prevail. Emotion was hardly ‘recollected in tranquility’; even when he was correcting the proofs of De l’Amour he wept: ‘I nearly went crazy,’ he said in Souvenirs d’Egotisme.

These are two novelists in firm command of their craft, who were also wrestling with vulnerability: how much they could show and where they’d allow themselves to go with it.