02/09/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2012

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Vase-ectomies

Masturbation is seldom far from the chatter that bubbles up among devotees and scholars of Marcel Proust. It always seems to swell just beneath the finery of the master's fictionalized memories in A La Recherche du Temp Perdu (lately known in English as In Search of Lost Time, formerly Remembrance of Things Past) be they at the party of the Guermantes, the dreams of Albert(ine) or more potently in the garden of the Baron de Charlus. This week in Paris another conclave of hyper-Proustians is gathering sponsored by the very crusty INHA, or the French National Institute on the History of Art and their German analogues based in Berlin.

After the better part of a century probing, sniffing, stretching and pinging seemingly every imaginable connection or expression between the actual life of Marcel Proust the man and Marcel the narrator, one wonders what new revelations they can uncover. Their subject, this time it seems, concerns the objects that decorate the 1,588 page, six-volume narrative. Which led a perspicacious friend, who had been engaged to undertake some translation from one of the German scholars, to root around in the 21 volumes of M. Proust's collected letters. And what should he discover in an appendix to the last volume but a century-old letter from the adolescent Marcel to his grandfather Nathé Weil concerning the boy's anxiety about compulsive self-stimulation.

The letter, my translator friend opines, might well be a fitting reference for this week's heady discourses on literature, memory, art and sexual compulsion as the missive concerns how all these matters are "intertextually" linked to Marcel's development as a fiscally responsible young man. As well, we might want to remember that Marcel's father was a pathologist who like most Catholics of the era regarded masturbation as dangerous habit leading to "neurasthenia" and homosexual habits.

The letter reads as follows:

May 17, 1888

My dear little grandfather,

I approach you in your kindness for the sum of 13 Francs that I had wanted to request from Monsieur Nathan [a family friend], but mother preferred that I ask it of you. I had so needed to see a woman in order to quit my bad habits of masturbating that father gave me 10 Francs so I could go to a brothel. But, first, in my excitement I broke a chamber pot (at the brothel), which cost 3 Francs, then second, as a result of being upset over that I was unable to fuck. So, therefore, as before I wait every hour to get 10 francs to return to empty myself and pay the additional 3 Francs for the broken chamber pot. But I do not dare ask father so soon again for the money; thus I hoped that you would be able to come to my rescue in this circumstance, which you understand is not merely exceptional but unique: it will not happen twice in a lifetime to be too upset to fuck.

I kiss you a thousand times and dare to thank you in advance.

I will stop by hour home tomorrow at 11 in the morning. If my situation moves you and you answer my prayers, I hope to find you--or your agent--with this sum. In any case I think you knowing that your decision will be due to your friendship for me.


Certainly, this primal document from the life of one of the last century's primal literary artists presents exactly the sort of thick description so critical to the enterprise of analytical subjectivities. Whether, of course, the particular bits of the referenced broken chamber pot might be associated with the many fractured art objects that form the foundation of M. Proust's oeuvre, and which are indeed the focal objects of this week's Parisian discourse, we cannot be certain, but surely a proper excavation, not to say deconstruction, or perhaps even a thorough vase-ectomy of the eponymous pot and its role in the formulation of the repeated auto-stimulations re-enacted by the authorial masterbater cannot be cast aside.