Sunday, December 29, 2013

Proust and the Deflationary Bada Boom

You know the joke that ends "no, I'd just forgotten to put on my trunks."  It's a classic example of what I will choose to call "the deflationary bada boom,"a joke that starts with some sort of exalted narrative and then ends with a sudden, sharp return to reality.   A sting.   Bada boom.

The deflationary bada boom is everywhere in humor. Maybe it is the only kind of joke there is.  It certainly suffuses, say, the modern practice of  publishing, where nearly every subtitle takes the form of How ABC did X, found Y and wound up Z.  How a small boy from a Pennsylvania mining town won the lottery, cured cancer and wound up serving five to life in the stony lonesome. Bada boom.

As you sink in to Proust you may be surprised to discover--I was--that he is drenched in incongruity, often comic incongruity.  Look for it and you find it on almost every page.  Here's a classic example from early in Swann's Way.   The narrator is in the kitchen and the topic is asparagus:
It seemed to me that these celestial hues revealed the delicious creatures who had merrily metamorphosed themselves into vegetables and who, through the disguise of their firm, edible flesh, disclosed in these early tints of dawn, in these beginnings of rainbows, in this extinction of blue evenings, the precious essence that I recognized again when, all night long following a dinner at which I had eaten them, they played, in farces as crude and poetic as a fairy play by Shakespeare, at changing my chamber pot into a jar of perfume.
Proust, Marcel (2004-11-30). Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (pp. 123-124). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

Bada boom.  But there is so much more.  Just a few pages later we learn how Marcel's mother, always delighted to enjoy her country walks with her family is always astonished to find herself back at her own front door.  Bada boom.  Later in the second book, Marcel takes the furniture which he has inherited from a beloved aunt and gives it to the keeper of a brothel--and not  particularly important brothel at that, bada bash bada boom boom ba.

I wouldn't be surprised if somebody has catalogued the whole lot of these things.  I have not, but I think I have read enough to note a larger point.   Try this: it seems to me that the function of all these bada booms is not mere entertainment, not mere comic relief. Rather, I'd mark them down as far more pervasive in he structure of the novel.   For what Proust is trying to explore (inter alia) is the relation between imagination and reality, between anticipation and the crude thinginess of life.

In short, irony.  Not just the irony of the comic moment, but the irony of life itself, where things are so often both less and so much more urgent than they seem.  In a splendid essay on the topic, -- writes:
Irony may be defined as the conflict of two meanings which has a dramatic structure peculiar to itself: initially, the one meaning,  the appearance, presenting itself as obvious truth, but when the context of the meaning unfolds, in depth or in time, it surprisingly discloses  conflicting meaning, the reality, measured against which the first meaning now seems false or limited and in its self-assurance, blind to its own situation.
Norman D. Knox, "Irony," Dictionary of the History of Ideas II 625-34, 626, Philip P. Weiner ed. (1973).

There is a great deal more here, from Socrates through to Northrop Frye (though unless I missed it, no mention of Proust).  And I won't try to itemize all the Proustian applications here (as if I could). As a reader, I will often enough content myself with the jokes--but with the guiding voice to remind me that things are often not as funny as they may seem.

Bada boom.

Hey, wait a minute, what did you just say?

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