Saturday morning, coming round from the heavy wash of sleep again, rising up full fathom five, the murmur of traffic outside at once opressive and familiar; the tell-tale signs of spring in London, hollers on the street, eager car horns and desperate sirens that pierce the higher registers, sub-woofers that prowl the lower; the cracks of liquid sunlight through my curtains take on an almost religious aspect, like the light through the doorway at Saint-Sulpice.
Proust is the greatest writer we have on sleeping, waking and that delicious hinterland between them:
And often an extra hour of sleep is a paralytic stroke after which we must recover the use of our limbs, learn to speak. Our will would not be adequate for this task. We have slept too long, we no longer exist. Our waking is barely felt, mechanically and without consciousness, as a water pipe might feel the turning off of a tap. A life more inanimate than that of a jellyfish follows, in which we could all equally well believe that we had been drawn up from the depths of the sea or released from prison, were we but capable of thinking anything at all. But then from the highest heavens the goddess Mnemotechnia bends down and holds out to us in the formula “the habit of ringing for our coffee” the hope of resurrection.
‘The Captive’ recaptures the themes of earlier volumes of the novel in which the osmotic barrier that separates waking reality from the dreamworld is explored, the re-entry from other planets, other lives, into the illusion of a stable determinable universe, but here we are presented with an admixture of love and jealousy, and these seemingly disconnected themes are welded together. Albertine in sleep is a pure creature, shed of the deceptions that mark her conscious being. The narrator draws a parallel between her kisses and those of his mother all those years ago; these are the delights without which he cannot settle. In sleep, the cruelties we impose upon one another might be effaced, the storms that stir our briny hearts are calmed:
Her breathing, as it became gradually deeper, was now regularly stirring her bosom and, through it, her folded hands, her pearls, displaced in a different way by the same movement, like the boats, the anchor chains that are set swaying by the movement of the tide. Then, feeling that the tide of her sleep was full, that I should not ground upon reefs of consciousness covered now by the high water of profound slumber, deliberately, I crept without a sound upon the bed, lay down by her side, clasped her waist in one arm, placed my lips upon her cheek and heart, then upon every part of her body in turn laid my free hand, which also was raised, like the pearls, by Albertine’s breathing; I myself was gently rocked by its regular motion: I had embarked upon the tide of Albertine’s sleep.
You may think we live on dry land, but you’d be wrong. This world is water and without water we’d be nothing and our loves and desires and passions would be nothing. The tide that carries Marcel and Albertine carries us all; we are sub-mariners conceived and gestated in saline solutions and cast adrift as plankton might be, carried by currents over which we exert no control.
Albertine is first apprenheded as a silhouette against the sea at Balbec, and this image is one that reoccurs again and again, rising back up in the narrator’s mind, a perplexing vision which he cannot always resolve with the capricious Nereid he has taken ‘captive’ in his Paris flat.
I would make the journey across the River Medina almost every day between the ages of thirteen and eighteen; at night in my dreams I cannot count the times I have returned to this spot; dreams that take place in futuristic industrial wastelands, polluted waters, with vast swells that course across the Solent flooding the mouth of the river, and always here between the eastern and western headlands, I swim for my life in this place where my youth was played out and my first amourous adventures unfolded.
I’m sure the exertions of teenagers are the same the world over, and those that find themselves land-locked no doubt have other symbolic phenomena to which they can cling, but I cannot stress enough the peculiar joy of one’s first kisses when they are within earshot of the ocean. Those rhythms strike an eternal chord within us, we find ourselves enveloped in the salts released from restless waves breaking against the rocks, the salts essential for animal life, thick in the night air, on our skin, on our lips and tongues, passed between us. Without them we risk water intoxication, too much and death beckons. We must take heed of the story of Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt when she turned to look back over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, on which site we now find the Dead Sea.
Albertine’s sexual preferences stir the waters of the narrator’s jealousy. His early indifference toward her changes suddenly when he discovers her close acquaintance with the girlfriend of Mlle Vinteuil. From that point onward, like Swann before him, he is condemned to fantasise over every possible betrayal that she might commit whilst out of his company; his need to possess her is pathological and comes to define his love. As Proust points out: “…the possession of what we love is an even greater joy than love itself.”
In sleep we might revisit our ancient submarine dwellings for a time and take flight on the tide of shared atavisms; we are water and salt, our possessive natures are no more than a symptom of the desire to flow together, but the calcified form of human bodies and the strange truth of consciousness means we’ll never rest easy until that peculiar fire is doused once more.