What is the most important motivating factor in our life? What makes us want to get an education, find a job, fall in love, have children, own a house, travel, etc.? The answer is desire. Desire is an indispensable component of our existence, continuously prompting us into action. There is never a moment in our waking life when we are without a desire, unless we are extremely depressed or utterly bored, but even in boredom or depressive moods, we still desire ridding ourselves of negative feelings. Without desire, we stall and become devoid of movement.
What ignites and magnifies our desires is our imagination. We imagine the marvels that would happen, the pleasures that we would enjoy, or the things that we would own if we were to act in a certain way. Therefore, our imagination is actively involved in guiding our desires. The problem is that once we satisfy a particular desire, the result often does not live up to the image we had in our head. We start getting bored with that object of desire and move on to another goal.
In Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, the nature of desire - specially desire for love and affection - is explored extensively. The narrator’s longing for his Mother’s kiss appears right at the beginning of the book. We see how his thoughts go on and on around this yearning and the anguish and sleepless nights that follow. Then we read about Swann’s infatuation with Odette which resembles the narrator’s love for Albertine, albeit with different outcomes. Both Swann and the narrator orchestrate their daily lives around their infatuation to the point that they sacrifice everything else - ambition, social standing, friends and much more - in seeking to satisfy that desire.
Proust in this manner tries to show that even though the feeling of love brings many positive emotions with it, nevertheless one’s judgment is constantly impaired and compromised by such desires. Proust’s characters try to use various rationales to justify their wants. In “Swann’s Way”, Charles Swann imagines Odette as an object of art which he longs to own. Swann guides his imagination to find a Botticelli-like beauty in Odette to the point where he places Botticelli’s painting of Zipporah on his desk as if it were an image of Odette. He also tries to connect a musical phrase to the person of Odette, and in this way she turns attractive and melodic like a musical piece. We can say that he transmutes his love of art into his love for Odette and pursues her as if she were a precious masterly artwork and he an avid collector.
As Swann carefully constructs his imagination towards his desire for Odette, he is often out of his depth. He has little control over his desire. He is therefore a fool in love. He craves the Verdurins’ salon, where Odette is a constant presence and where his heart is continuously stimulated by the mere sight of her. The pleasure is gratifying to the point of enslaving him to his desire, so that he ignores his intellect and his judgment. He keeps convincing himself that the salon of the Verdurins is where he finds sublime satisfaction by enjoying the companionship of the little clan, even though his reason tells him otherwise. He is completely blind to the fact that he is there only to seek her companionship.
Swann was not always so smitten with Odette. They first get introduced to each other by a mutual friend at the theatre. At the time, Swann’s feelings for her are not so strong. She takes him to the Verdurins salon and Swann visits them often foregoing his outings to the highest Parisian society. He finds comfort in always seeing Odette there and finding her available to him. She is very attentive and compliments him on his looks and his intellect. He takes her for granted and only visits her after he has fulfilled all his other social obligations. But one fateful night he arrives at the Verdurins later than usual and realizes that Odette is gone - thinking that he wouldn’t show up. Her absence stabs at his heart and makes him tremble. He loses his usual composure. What happens next is his total submission to his desire for Odette which is perfectly expressed in Mr. Verdurin’s comment to his wife, “I think we may say that he’s hooked.” This is when Odette starts playing hard to get and Swann finds the deprivation unbearable.
That evening, the fear of being refuted turns Swann into a madman. He goes in search of Odette in the streets of Paris, willing to crush any obstacle, human or otherwise, under the wheels of his carriage. He realizes that he is not the same man he was earlier. Life has suddenly become more interesting for him. He has a purpose—to possess Odette—and that purpose becomes the driving force of his life to the point where he ignores all his other ambitions. His is a definite case of desire gone wrong. In the case of Proust’s hapless Swann, love and desire become his downfall. He is the book’s example of a pitiful and unaccomplished man, a complete failure in his life and in his work. A passionate love for the wrong reasons has distracted him from pursuing his ambitions.
The narrator, whose obsession with social climbing gets in the way of fulfilling his dream, finds himself on the same path as Swann when he falls in love with Albertine, whom he meets at the seaside village of Balbec. Their love resembles a tug of war, replete with jealousy, obsession, and infatuation. Like Swann, who has artistic interests and wants to write an essay on Vermeer, the narrator has ambitions of becoming an author. Also like Swann, he squanders his days obsessing on Albertine’s whereabouts and doings, instead of following his vocation. He seeks possession of Albertine; the more she acts aloof, the more ardent he becomes. Only when she submits to him does he realize he no longer desires her. This back and forth continues until Albertine is no longer a part of his life. The narrator is then free to follow his dreams of becoming a writer.
In a way Swann and the narrator exemplify two outcomes of desire. One ends up leading a frustrated and failed life and the other finding the right path writing about those desires resulting in fulfillment and a feeling of accomplishment. What they have in common is that they love someone for all the wrong reasons. Swann allows his imagination to legitimize a desire that is not well-founded; so that once he accomplishes his goal of marrying Odette, the reality does not live up to what he imagined. The disappointment is summed up at the end of “Swann in Love” when Swann contemplates his life and wonders why he wasted his life pursuing a woman who is not even his type.