The Concept of the Soul in Marcel Proust

Homophilia, Misogyny, and the Time-Memory Correlative

by Bette H. Lustig (Author)
©2016 Monographs V, 180 Pages


The concept of the soul in Platonic, Ciceronian, and Talmudic thought segues into the Celtic tradition, Thomas Aquinas, and Maeterlinck and threads its way through the tapestry of Proust’s narrative and his principal characters. Bette H. Lustig uses a hermeneutic approach to the Proust texts, which are cited in French, and provides the analyses of the texts in English. Themes treating the soul include metempsychosis (transmigration), imprisonment and deliverance, eroticism and sadism, homophilia and misogyny, and time and memory. Moreover, the Celtic tradition is evident in the metempsychosis of souls to plants, animals, and inanimate objects, and their yearning to be delivered through a random encounter.
Homophilia and misogyny are pendant themes. The strong preference for male company is articulated through gestures and choices by both author and characters. In Proust, homophilia leads to misogyny: disparaging, controlling, even abusive attitudes toward the souls of women, which are demonized and imprisoned. Their souls, provisionally free in sleep, do not reach total deliverance until death. The ecstasy of Platonic mystical union is shown only between two males.
The soul of time travels at its own pace: by urgency, by seemingly slow passage, in narrative interruption or digression, chronological inversion, and in privileged moments. The soul of memory is present in odors or fragrances. Like Aquinas’s substratum soul, it connects past and present. Its enemy is forgetfulness. Time and memory are also correlated in collective memory. Presented in a clear, lively style, this book would be excellent in courses on Proust, French literature, religion, philosophy, psychology, and sociology.

Table Of Contents

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Many people have been instrumental in helping me bring the idea of this book to a reality. Foremost in this process are certain members of the staff at Peter Lang Publishing who guided my path and assisted me in my progress. I would particularly like to single out both Dr. Michael Paulson, Co-Editor of the Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures Series, and Ms. Michelle Salyga, the Acquiring Editor, for their very helpful suggestions and encouragement. Mr. Stephen Mazur, the Editorial Assistant, was also quite helpful. I am also grateful for all the cooperation which Ms. Jackie Pavlovic, the Production Supervisor, provided me in the realization of the publication of my book.

I would, indeed, be remiss, if I did not mention how deeply gratefuI I am to the Research and Reference Librarians, who with their resourcefulness and imagination opened up worlds of knowledge to me. At Widener Library, at Harvard University, I am firstly indebted to Mr. Fred Burchsted, a Research Librarian, who guided my research with great skill. Most impressive technically and knowledgeably also was Ms. Emily Bell, Virtual Reference, Research, and Instructional Librarian and Copyright First Responder. Moreover, at the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, Massachusetts, I mention with deep appreciation ← ix | x → Ms. Jean Williams, Interlibrary Loan Librarian; Ms. Linda Carroll, Local History Librarian; Ms. Jennifer Webb, Bibliographical Services Librarian; and Ms. Cynthia Johnson, Former Head of Reference.

Others who have provided support with their special knowledge of spiritual matters are Howard Jaffe, Senior Rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Rabbi Joseph Meszler, of Temple Sinai, Sharon, Massachusetts.

At a personal level, I am always very grateful to my dear friend, Professor James E. Flagg, for his support and encouragement, who over the years has offered his warm friendship and impeccable judgment. I also mention with deep appreciation the support and encouragement that I have received from my son and daughter, Dr. Stuart Lorin Lustig, and Ms. Ariel Gayle Lustig. And last, but assuredly not least, I mention my husband, Dr. Claude David Lustig, with love and deep gratitude, for all the time, technical assistance, patience, and understanding that he gave me, throughout the whole process and progress of my book.

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In the first chapter, “The Soul in Marcel Proust”, using representative texts from such ancient sources as Plato, Cicero, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Celtic tradition, and later, Maeterlinck, the presence of the soul is threaded through the texture of the entire chapter. The hermeneutic approach is used here, as throughout the book, with extensive textual analyses and interpretations. The themes of the soul and of metempsychosis in characters such as Albertine, the grandmother, Bergotte, and Saint Loup, as well as, of course, the Narrator, and evidenced in all of Proust’s work, Jean Santeuil, A la Recherche du temps perdu, and Contre Sainte-Beuve, are treated in depth in this chapter. Also treated here is the erotic metaphor of the orchid and the bumble bee, referencing Maeterlinck’s L’Intelligence des fleurs, as it is applied to the stunning homophilial attraction of Charlus and Jupien. Through the exegeses of specific texts the environment of the soul is manifested in references to joy, sometimes referred to as “le trop-plein spirituel” (“a spiritual overflowing”), grief, sleep, death, music and other spiritual contexts. Another important dual theme discussed in Chapter I is the captivity and deliverance of the soul. ← 1 | 2 →

After a brief introduction with exegeses of a few short texts revealing a decided preference by both Proust and certain of his characters for male company, Chapter II, “Proustian Perceptions of the Soul of Women”, segues into the broader subject of misogyny as manifested in texts containing hostile references to women, especially to women’s minds: the thematization of the metaphor of the aquarium which portrays men amusingly and by name, versus women who are depicted as anonymous, masked, i.e. invisible, and as lowly forms of life.

Women are depicted as stupid, indeed as imbeciles, and as unfeeling, insensitive to normal emotional reactions (e.g. Gilberte, Odette, and especially la fille de Vinteuil, Vinteuil’s daughter). Female confessions, elicited, because of jealousy, by investigative, suspicious males, head the list of ways in which male characters abuse the souls of female characters in order to control their behavior. Albertine lies or is silent in order to protect her privacy, her soul, which is only provisionally, i.e. partially, free when she sleeps and will not be permanently, i.e. completely free, until she dies (cf. Cicero) tragically in a horse-riding accident. Mme Lepic, a talented, happy, enthusiastic woman before her marriage, brought down by a whole system of her husband’s cruel controls and abusive treatment, which she is too frightened to protest, is exhausted and also dies eventually. Women are appreciated only physically. Thus aging, weight gain (e.g. Odette), and other natural physical changes convert women for men into uninteresting human beings. Women are also depicted as sexually cruel: e.g. Valentine, like Albertine, eludes a potential lover after misleading him that she is interested in sexual activity, and then reneging. After showing with examples drawn from specific Proust texts the unsatisfying results of the union between male and female souls, the exegesis of the final text demonstrates that the only, or certainly the highest form of union, is the mystical union between the souls of two men (cf. Plato).

Chapter III, “Time, Memory, and the Presence of the Soul”, is divided into two parts: first, the soul, sometimes called l’essence, of time in the prism of all its diverse sides is discussed; second, follows the treatment of the soul in memory, as reflected in particular associations, such as fragrances, and their contexts. ← 2 | 3 →

The soul of time travels at its own pace, takes on a life of its own: it may appear to move maddeningly slowly, when the Narrator is in a hurry. Or the soul of time may impart a sense of urgency as a force under the pressures of creativity. Moreover, the passage of time itself is a recurrent theme in Proust. It may interrupt the diegesis, as at the dinner party at the home of the duc and the duchesse de Guermantes, where fifty pages interrupt the principal diegesis, and time literally stops, before the diegesis resumes with a short dialogue re-opening the scene of the dinner party. The passage of time is irrevocable and irretrievable.

The soul of the past is evoked in old-fashioned words, no longer in use, in the novels of George Sand that the grandmother enjoys reading, or it is evoked in dresses that Odette wears that intentionally imitate an earlier period. Through metempsychosis the soul of Mme de Staël is transmitted to her descendants, as seen in their tastes and activities. The soul of time may be all that remains intact of churches, where over the centuries the fingers and the shawls of the faithful respectfully touched the sculpture and the stoup which have all been rounded over and smoothed and clearly illustrate the Proustian dimension of the passage of Time. The souls of the faithful also hover near. Moreover, the soul of time sometimes inverts the chronology of events, as in the reference to the marriage of the Narrator’s parents and that of Swann and Odette, placing Combray first, i.e. before, rather than after, Un Amour de Swann in Du Côté de chez Swann, as it would be chronologically.

Memory also has a soul which is manifested in Proust through particular odors, fragrances, and objects, which precipitate remembering, and associativity is a bridge between the detail and the whole, the past with the present, as in the Proustian interpretation of (Saint) Thomas Aquinas’s concept of the “substratum soul”, i.e. the eternal, the non-corporeal, which with Proust one carries through memory with one throughout one’s whole life and connects past and present. Moreover, the soul, freed from the shackles of time, is able, with imagination, to create, to touch on the eternal. Conversely, memory may be unreliable: different souls remember events ← 3 | 4 → or people differently, or memory may be confirmed only by a painting, which does not forget.

Lastly, the collective soul of a family is treated: births, engagements, marriages, deaths, changes of property ownership, and other forms of collective memory are stored in the reminiscences, the soul of a family.

← 4 | 5 →

Chapter One

The Soul in Marcel Proust


V, 180
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (January)
Proust Soul Women homophilia misogyny Religious philosophy French literature
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. V, 180 pp.

Biographical notes

Bette H. Lustig (Author)

Bette H. Lustig was awarded a PhD in Romance languages and literatures from Harvard University, and, while on a Fulbright Study Grant to Paris, an M.A. in French from the Middlebury College Graduate School of French in France. Dr. Lustig has published several articles on such authors as Ludovic Janvier, François Mauriac, and Romain Gary. She has also published a textbook, Textes et pastiches: une initiation à la littérature (1999), and, most recently, Judaism in Marcel Proust: Anti-Semitism, Philo-Semitism, and Judaic Perspectives in Art (Lang, 2012). Dr. Lustig has taught extensively in several colleges in the Boston area, including Harvard University, Tufts University, Boston University, and Boston College. Recently, she was also invited three times to lecture on Proust at Harvard University.


Title: The Concept of the Soul in Marcel Proust
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182 pages