PROUST’S ‘PERFUMED’ SONATA AND THE CAFFE STRADA LATTE

Few things in life provide sufficient reason to contend with the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths than the modest pilgrim sipping a warm latte on a sunny, blue-skied morning at Caffe Strada in Berkeley, CA.  The patio view includes U.C. Berkeley campus buildings–Boalt Law School, the School of Anthropology, the School of Architecture–and hills of tall redwoods.  No other place on earth, if earth remains within the circumference of reverie, is quite like that location of superfluous beauty.  How many delightful hours had I spent there?  How many coffee breaks did I take there while manning the desk at the Bancroft Hotel next door?  How many plain bagels had I dipped into the foamy jetsam of a delicious latte while reading a book or studying philosophy?

On another occasion of enjoying the sun-lit patio, while a western zephyr gently strummed the lyre of soul’s contested harmony, I read the most lovely prose in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (it is worth quoting in full):

There are tones in a violin–if we cannot see the instrument and therefore cannot relate what we hear to our image of it, which changes the sound of it–so similar to those of certain contralto voices that we have the illusion a singer has been added to the concert.  We lift our eyes, we see only the bodies of the instruments, as precious as Chinese boxes, but at times we are still fooled by the deceptive call of the siren; at times too we think we hear a captive genie struggling deep inside the intelligent, bewitched, and tremulous box, like a devil in a holy-water basin; sometimes, again it is like a pure and supernatural being that passes through the air uncoiling its invisible message.

As if the instrumentalists were not so much playing the little phrase as performing the rituals it required in order to make its appearance, and proceeding to the incantations necessary for obtaining and prolonging a few moments the wonder of its evocation, Swann, who could no more see it than if it had belonged to an ultraviolet world, and who was experiencing something like the refreshing sense of a metamorphosis in the momentary blindness with which he was struck as he approached it, felt it to be present, like a protective goddess, a confidante of his love, who in order to be able to come to him in the midst of the crowd and take him aside to talk to him, had assumed the disguise of this body of sound.  And while it passed, light, soothing, murmured like a perfume, telling him what it had to tell him, as he scrutinized every word, sorry to see them fly off so quickly, he involuntarily made the motion with his lips of kissing the harmonious fleeting body as it passed.  He no longer felt exiled and alone since the little phrase was addressing him, was talking to him in a low voice about Odette.  For he no longer felt, as he once had, that the little phrase did not know him and Odette.  It had so often witnessed their moments of happiness!  True, it had just as often warned him how fragile they were.  And in fact, whereas in those days he read suffering in its smile, in its limpid and disenchanted intonation, he now found in it instead the grace of a resignation that was almost gay.  Of those sorrows of which it used to speak to him and which, without being affected by them, he had seen it carry along with it, smiling, in its rapid and sinuous course, of those sorrows which had now become his own, without his having any hope of ever being free of them, it seemed to say to him as it had once said of his happiness: “What does it matter? It means nothing.”  And for the first time, Swann’s thoughts turned with a stab of pity and tenderness to Vinteuil, to that unknown, sublime brother who must also have suffered so; what must his life have been like?  From the depths of what sorrows had he drawn that godlike strength, that unlimited power to create?  When it was the little phrase that spoke to him about the vanity of his sufferings, Swann found solace in that very wisdom which, just recently, had seemed to him intolerable when he thought he could read it on the faces of the indifferent people who considered his love an insignificant aberration.  For the little phrase, unlike them, whatever its opinion of the brief duration of the conditions of the soul, did not see in them, as these people did, something less serious than the events of everyday life, but on the contrary, something so superior that it alone was worth expressing.  These charms of an intimate sadness–these were what it sought to imitate, to recreate, and their very essence, even though it is to be incommunicable and to seem frivolous to everyone but the one who is experiencing them, had been captured by the little phrase and made visible.  So much so that it caused their value to be acknowledged, and their divine sweetness savored, by all those same people sitting in the audience–if they were at all musical–who would afterward fail to recognize these charms in real life, in every individual love that came into being before their eyes.  Doubtless the form in which it had codified them could not be resolved into reasoned arguments.  But ever since, more than a year ago now, the love of music had, for a time at least, been born in him, revealing to him many of the riches of his own soul, Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadows, unknown, impenetrable to the intelligence, but not for all that less perfectly distinct from one another, unequal among themselves in value and significance.  When, after the Verdurn evening, he had had the little phase played over for him, and had sought to disentangle how it was that, like a perfume, like a caress, it encircled him, enveloped him, he had realized that it was to the closeness of the intervals between the five notes that composed it, and to the constant repetition of two of them, that was due this impression of a frigid and withdrawn sweetness; but in reality he knew that he was reasoning this way not about the phrase itself but about simple values substituted, for the convenience of his intelligence, for the mysterious entity he had perceived, before knowing the Verdurins, at that party where he had first heard the sonata played.  He knew that even the memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the elements of the music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable scale of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard still almost entirely unknown on which, here and there only, separated by shadows thick and unexplored, a few of the millions of keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity which compose it, each as different from the others as one universe from another universe, have been found by a few great artists who do us the service, by awakening in us something corresponding to the theme they have discovered, of showing us what richness, what variety, is hidden unbeknownst to us within that great unpenetrated and disheartening darkness of our soul which we take for emptiness and nothingness.  (Lydia Davis’s translation, Penguin Press, 2002)

This passage is lengthy enough to mull over for awhile, and so I’ll comment on it next time.

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