Confusing Beauty with Virtue: Images and Text in Proust

28Oct08

By Emily Waldorf

Detail from Botticelli's 'The Trials of Moses' (1481-82) in the Sistine Chapel. Proust's character Swann felt that Odette shared a striking resemblance to the graceful leaning figure on the left.

Have you ever confused beauty with virtue?  One of Marcel Proust’s characters, Swann, in his famous work, In Search of Lost Time, falls in love with a debaucherous courtesan, Odette, when he is overcome by her similarity to a Venus-like character in a Botticelli fresco.  Eric Eichman, in his article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Savage Lessons of Pretty Pictures,”  describes Swann’s enchantment with Odette and subsequent fall from grace:

“He has read into Odette qualities much greater than those she actually possesses – because she has reminded him of a figure from a Botticelli fresco…The similarity enhanced her beauty,” Proust tells us, and allowed Swann to “estimate at her true worth a creature whom the great Sandro [Botticelli] would have adored…” Swann confuses aesthetic pleasure with a judgment of value, and he pays for the error with a ruinous misalliance in which deceit will play a part.

In Eric Karpeles new book, 'Paintings in Proust,' paintings and text are placed side by side in order to enhance the reader's understanding of Proust's rich prose

Proust employed many other famous paintings in his work in order to drive forth the complex yet delicate psychological layers in his plots.  In addition to the great Botticelli, he references Whistler, Turner, Prud’hon, and Manet, among others.  It can be very challenging to maintain a visual image of Proust’s words and Eric Karpeles new book, Paintings in Proust, is a wonderful companion to In Search of Lost Time, placing color reproductions of the works that Proust references side by side with the text.  It is a brilliant visual aid for confirmed Proust lovers and struggling French students alike.

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8 Responses to “Confusing Beauty with Virtue: Images and Text in Proust”

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