WW I in Paris: Murder in Aurora

The Past Recaptured (1932), the US title and Frederick Blossom translation of Le Temps retrouvé, is the seventh volume of Marcel Proust’s immortal  Remembrance of Things Past, [more recently In Search of Lost Time: À la recherche du temps perdu – you decide.]  In Great Britain the translator was Stephen Hudson (psuedonym for  Sydney Schiff) and the title, Time Regained (1931).  I find the Blossom translation more felicitous but that’s not my point here.

A good portion of the novel concerns the experience of WW I on his menageries of characters, mostly in Paris, but in rural Combray and Tansonville as well. Here he is talking about the literary-political salons held every evening in the circle of which he is a member.

 They certainly thought of these hecatombs of regiments annihilated and passengers swallowed by the waves; but there is a law of inverse proportion which multiplies to such an extent anything that concerns our own welfare and divides by such a formidable figure anything that does not concern it, that the death of unknown millions is felt by us as the most insignificant of sensations, hardly as disagreeable as a draft.  Mme. Verdurin, who suffered even more from her headaches now that she could no longer get croissants to dip in her breakfast coffee, had eventually obtained a prescription from Cottard permitting her to have them specially made in a certain restaurant of which we have spoken. This had been almost as difficult to wangle with the authorities as the appointment of a general. The first of these special croissants arrived on the morning on which the newspapers reported the sinking of the Lusitania.  As she dipped it in her coffee and gave a series of little flicks to her newspaper with one hand so as to make it stay open without having to remove her other hand from the cup, “How horrible!” she said.  “This is something more horrible than the most terrible stage tragedy!”  But the death of all those drowned people must have been reduced a thousand million times before it impinged upon her, for even as, with her mouth full, she made these distressful observations, the expression which spread over her face, brought there (one must suppose) by the savor of that so precious remedy against headaches, the croissant, was in fact one of satisfaction and pleasure.”

This passage came to mind as I read about the murders in Aurora, Colorado, as hundreds of thousands of others were also reading, all of us, as Proust tells us, with the enormity of it reduced by a factor of several millions, depending on our distance from any of the victims — or the centrality of a certain ideology as spokespersons, or adherents of the National Rifle Association were quick to demonstrate.

It has seemed to me for decades that one of our greatest failings as human beings is the failure of the imagination.  Most of us are unable to imagine the consequences of a shooting, or a war, and so we proceed, lathered in our own grievances, or in patriotism, to do, or approve,  the most terrible act of all — taking the lives of those we do not know and can not imagine.

In the Hudson translation it goes like this:

As a matter of fact, they thought about those hecatombs of annihilated regiments, of engulfed seafarers, but an inverse operation multiplies to such a degree what concerns our welfare and divides by such a formidable figure what does not concern it, that the death of millions of unknown people hardly affects us more unpleasantly than a draught. Mme Verdurin, who suffered from headaches on account of being unable to get croissants to dip into her coffee, had obtained an order from Cottard which enabled her to have them made in the restaurant mentioned earlier. It had been almost as difficult to procure this order from the authorities as the nomination of a general. She started her first croissant again on the morning the papers an-announced the wreck of the Lusitania . Dipping it into her coffee, she arranged her newspaper so that it would stay open without her having to deprive her other hand of its function of dipping, and exclaimed with horror, “How awful! It’s more frightful than the most terrible tragedies.” But those drowning people must have seemed to her reduced a thousand-fold, for, while she indulged in these saddening reflections, she was filling her mouth and the expression on her face, induced, one supposes, by the savour of the croissant , precious remedy for her headache, was rather that of placid satisfaction.

 Cross Posted at All In One Boat

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