These fifty mythological women were condemned to work forever at the river's edge, trying to fill with water and carry away leaky jars. This impossible task was their punishment for having murdered their husbands, whom they had been forced to marry against their will. Proust compares their absurd punishment to the efforts of the jealous lover:
Jealousy, which is blindfold, is not merely powerless to discover anything in the darkness that enshrouds it; it is also one of those tortures where the task must be incessantly repeated, like that of the Danaïds, or of Ixion.
The Captive 5: 195
La jalousie qui a un bandeau sur les yeux n'est pas seulement impuissante à rien découvrir dans les ténèbres qui l'enveloppent, elle est encore un de ces supplices où la tâche est à recommencer sans cesse, comme celle des Danaïdes, comme celle d'Ixion.
La Prisonnière 3: 657
In a more humorous vein, Proust uses the Danaïds as one of several analogies for the telephone operators, who seem to summon magically to our side those who are far away:
We need only, so that the miracle may be accomplished, apply our lips to the magic orifice and invoke—occasionally for rather longer than seems to us necessary, I admit—the Vigilant Virgins to whose voices we listen every day without ever coming to know their faces and who are our guardian angels in the dizzy realm of darkness whose portals they so jealously guard; the All-Powerful by whose intervention the absent rise up at our side, without our being permitted to set eyes on them; the Danaïds of the unseen who incessantly empty and fill and transmit to one another the urns of sound; the ironic Furies who, just as we were murmuring a confidence to a loved one, in the hope that no one could hear us, cry brutally: "I'm listening!"; the ever-irritable hand-maidens of the Mystery, the umbrageous priestesses of the Invisible, the Young Ladies of the Telephone.
The Guermantes Way 3: 174
Nous n'avons, pour que ce miracle s'accomplisse, qu'à approcher nos lèvres de la planchette magique et à appeler — quelquefois un peu trop longtemps, je le veux bien—les Vierges Vigilantes dont nous entendons chaque jour la voix sans jamais connaître le visage, et qui sont nos Anges gardiens dans les ténèbres vertigineuses dont elles surveillent jalousement les portes; les Toutes-Puissantes par qui les absents surgissent à notre côté, sans qu'il soit permis de les apercevoir; les Danaïdes de l'invisible qui sans cesse vident, remplissent, se transmettent les urnes des sons; les ironiques Furies qui, au moment que nous murmurions une confidence à une amie, avec l'espoir que personne ne nous entendait, nous crient cruellement: «J'écoute.»; les servantes toujours irritées du Mystère, les ombrageuses prêtresses de l'Invisible, les Demoiselles du téléphone!
Le Côté de Guermantes 2: 432
The Deligny Baths consisted of a large wooden structure anchored in the Seine near the Concorde Bridge. Proust's mother, seeking relief for health problems, regularly bathed in the cold water. The young Marcel, who often accompanied his mother, waited in a cubicle while she changed into her swimming costume. He emerged to find her already bathing. The wooden platform, on which he stood to watch her and the other swimmers, rose and fell with the current of the river. Amazed and slightly afraid, he imagined that this strange, watery cavern formed the entrance to the underworld. In Jean Santeuil, Proust depicted Jean's mother "splashing and laughing there, blowing him kisses and climbing again ashore, looking so lovely in her dripping rubber helmet, he would not have felt surprised had he been told that he was the son of a goddess." Beautiful, yes, and powerful, too, but would she emerge safely from the dark, deep water? Would she remain with him or leave through an underground passage with one of the male bathers, abandoning her child forever as she pursued unknown, forbidden pleasures?
Marcel lived in his constant fear of being left by his mother and of suffocating to death. He knew that beneath the surface of what appears to be a solid and often lovely world flow the dark, icy waters of solitude and death. By the time Proust wrote the Search, his mother's loveliness and what he imagined to be her mythological attributes at the Deligny baths have vanished. The memory darkens even more when the Narrator speaks of the thing he dreaded most: being abandoned by his mother. The scene, set in the watery city of Venice, describes his refusal to depart with his mother, who leaves for the train station without him. As he sits contemplating what to do next, the view of the dock basin of the Arsenal fills him with that ...
"...blend of distaste and alarm which I had felt as a child when I first accompanied my mother to the Deligny baths, where, in that weird setting of a pool of water reflecting neither sky nor sun...I had asked myself whether those depths...were not the entry to Arctic seas...." In the distance a gondolier begins singing and "in this lonely, unreal, icy, unfriendly setting in which I was going to be left alone, the strains of O sole mio, rising like a dirge...seemed to bear witness to my misery."
The Fugitive 5: 885
...ce mélange de dégoût et d'effroi que j'avais éprouvé tout enfant la première fois que j'accompagnai ma mère aux bains Deligny; en effet dans le site fantastique composé par une eau sombre que ne couvraient pas le ciel ni le soleil...je m'étais demandé si ces profondeurs...n'étaient pas précisément l'entrée des mers glaciales...cette Venise sans sympathie pour moi où j'allais rester seul, ne me semblait pas moins isolée, moins irréelle et c'était ma détresse que le chant de Sole mio s'élevant comme une déploration...semblait prendre à témoin.
Albertine disparue 4: 232
This toy, popular at the beginning of the twentieth century, consisted of a cone-shaped bobbin that the player maneuvered by tensing and releasing a string. This "weird object" is a primary attribute of the young Albertine when the Narrator first meets her at the beach in Balbec:
One morning...I was taking a short stroll with Albertine, whom I had found on the beach tossing up and catching again at the end of a string a weird object which gave her a look of Giotto's "Idolatry"; it was called, as it happened, a "diabolo," and has so fallen into disuse now that, when they come upon the picture of a girl playing with one, the commentators of future generations will solemnly discuss, as it might be in front of the allegorical figures in the Arena Chapel, what she is holding.
Within a Budding Grove 2: 637
Un des matins...je faisais quelques pas avec Albertine que j'avais aperçue, élevant au bout d'un cordonnet un attribut bizarre qui la faisait ressembler à l'«Idolâtrie» de Giotto; il s'appelle d'ailleurs un «diabolo» et est tellement tombé en désuétude que devant le portrait d'une jeune fille en tenant un, les commentateurs de l'avenir pourront disserter comme devant telle figure allégorique de l'Arena, sur ce qu'elle a dans la main.
À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs 2: 241
And some time later:
We were joined by Octave who had no hesitation in telling Andrée the number of strokes he had gone round in, the day before, at golf, then by Albertine, who came along swinging her diabolo like a nun her rosary. Thanks to this pastime she could remain alone for hours on end without getting bored. As soon as she joined us I became conscious of the impish tip of her nose, which I had omitted from my mental picture of her during the last few days; beneath her dark hair the vertical line of her forehead controverted—and not for the first time—the blurred image that I had preserved of her, while its whiteness made a vivid splash in my field of vision, emerging from the dust of memory, Albertine was built up afresh before my eyes.
Golf gives one a taste for solitary pleasures. The pleasure to be derived from diabolo is undoubtedly one of these. And yet, after she had joined us, Albertine continued to play with it, just as a lady on whom friends have come to call does not on their account stop working at her crochet. "I gather that Mme de Villeparisis," Albertine remarked to Octave, "has been complaining to your father.... She hasn't written only to your father, either, she wrote to the Mayor of Balbec at the same time, to say that we must stop playing diabolo on the front as somebody hit her in the face with a ball."
Within a Budding Grove 2: 695-96
Nous fûmes rejoints par Octave qui ne fit pas de difficulté pour dire à Andrée le nombre de points qu'il avait faits la veille au golf, puis par Albertine qui se promenait en manœuvrant son diabolo comme une religieuse son chapelet. Grâce à ce jeu elle pouvait rester des heures seule sans s'ennuyer. Aussitôt qu'elle nous eut rejoints m'apparut la pointe mutine de son nez, que j'avais omise en pensant à elle ces derniers jours; sous ses cheveux noirs, la verticalité de son front s'opposa, et ce n'était pas la première fois, à l'image indécise que j'en avais gardée, tandis que par sa blancheur il mordait fortement dans mes regards; sortant de la poussière du souvenir, Albertine se reconstruisait devant moi. Le golf donne l'habitude des plaisirs solitaires. Celui que procure le diabolo l'est assurément. Pourtant après nous avoir rejoints Albertine continua à y jouer, tout en causant avec nous, comme une dame à qui des amies sont venues faire une visite ne s'arrête pas pour cela de travailler à son crochet. «Il paraît que Mme de Villeparisis, dit-elle à Octave, a fait une réclamation auprès de votre père.... Elle n'a du reste pas écrit seulement à votre père, mais en même temps au maire de Balbec pour qu'on ne joue plus au diabolo sur la digue, on lui a envoyé une balle dans la figure.»
À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs 2: 282-83
In 1889, France celebrated the centennial of the French Revolution by hosting a world's fair in Paris and inaugurating, as the fair's centerpiece, Gustave Eiffel's controversial tower. One of the fair's visitors was Madeleine Lemaire, the society hostess and artist who illustrated Proust's first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours (Pleasures and Days). She had gone to see the tower primarily for the benefit of her beloved dog Loute, to whom she talked constantly and who had, she was convinced, acquired from her an appreciation of art and architecture. Proust, who witnessed many of the conversations between Madeleine and her dog, was impressed by Loute's "extreme importance and high station." Alas, Mme Lemaire failed to record Loute's comments about the Eiffel Tower.
It was in Madeleine Lemaire's salon that Proust met the young composer Reynaldo Hahn, who became his lover for a short period and then his lifelong friend. In 1911, Proust wrote to Hahn and urged him to go ahead and choose a dog as a gift. Hahn encountered a gypsy at Versailles from whom he purchased a black, long-haired basset hound. The witty composer named the dog Zadig, after Voltaire's character, who remains puzzled by the radical rises and falls that providence has in store for him. Reynaldo and Zadig bonded quickly, as we see from a letter that he sent to Marcel: Zadig "surpasses all that human imagination could have ever conceived in love, kindness, and Bunchtism. But he loves me too much and is wounded by anything he takes as a sign of indifference. As for me, I have metamorphosed into a nanny, a nurse, a papa, a mama, and my life is nothing but an endless procession of humble and precise tasks such as cleaning Zadig's ears, examining Zadig's stool, washing Zadig, feeding Zadig."
Perhaps inspired by Madeleine Lemaire's conversations with Loute, Proust wrote to Hahn's canine companion: "My dear Zadig, I am very fond of you because you have a great deal of chasgrin and love through the same person as I have, and you could not find anyone better in the whole world." Proust then expressed his disdain for human intelligence and his wish to become a dog. Once when the distinguished writer Anatole France remarked how fond young Marcel was of "intellectual life," he replied, "I am not at all fond of things of the intelligence, but only of life and of movement." He could explain this perhaps surprising attitude to Zadig since "I have been a man and you haven't. Human intelligence only serves to replace those impressions that make you (Zadig) love and suffer by faint facsimiles that cause less grief and yield less tenderness. In the rare moments when I recapture all my affections, all my suffering, it's because my feelings are no longer based on these false ideas but on something that is the same in you and in me. And that seems to me so superior to everything else that it's only when I've become a dog again, a poor little Zadig like you, that I begin to write and books that are written like that are the only books I like."
Proust died in November 1922. Among those attending the funeral was Fernand Gregh, a close friend and fellow writer since high school days. He had brought along his little dog Flipot. As the funeral procession set out on its journey across Paris to the Proust family plot in Père-Lachaise, Flipot, who had been hiding under the hearse, ran out and disappeared into the crowd, never to be seen again by his master.
See Quotable Proust: D.
See Quotable Proust: D.