I recently grabbed the first volume of Proust’s massive novel for just this reason. Unable to sleep, worried about things I couldn’t identify, with nervous energy somehow liberated into my veins when it was least wanted, I lumbered downstairs in the middle of the night to retrieve Swann’s Way. In the next hour, while the Spot and wife slumbered away, I flew through the first fifty pages.
It wasn’t a random choice. There are other tomes on my bookshelf that would have done equally well as a soporific. But I recalled that the initial, justly famous section of Swann’s Way was about a man who was passing back and forth between consciousness and dreaming; about a man remembering himself as a child not being able to sleep; and about a small boy not being able to sleep because his father had sent him to bed early, expressly forbidding him to receive his nightly bedtime kiss from his mother. With all sorts of connections to my immediate experience, I had to get back in touch with this book.
This mundane little story about a boy anxious over his broken routine, his coping mechanisms as he frets alone in his bedroom, his desperation and increasingly bold plans to obtain his good-night kiss against the wishes of his father, all of it not only introduces a new style of literature, a new method of weaving together a narration drawn from various states of consciousness, but raises issues about the emotional life of children and the ways adults attempt to suppress it. Specifically, how fathers police the emotional life of sons.
When I first read this episode, I was struck by how closely it resembled, in novelistic form, Freud’s model of family dynamics. The boy is attached to his mother; the father senses this competition and bans it; the boy suffers, the mother’s allegiances are torn. Ultimately, in line with all good 19th century bourgeois fathers, the father prevails, the child encounters the “reality principle,” and begins to evolve away from attachment to the mother. And, as with Freud, the echo of this trauma of separation resounds forever after in the narrator's psyche.
It is a strong parallel. But what happens in the last pages of this episode breaks down Freud's schematic. The father, an emotionally obtuse, arbitrary, but benevolent tyrant, together with his wife, finds the boy standing at the top of the stairs, positioned to intercept his mother. It is a bald act of defiance. Both mother and child expect Mosaic chastisement from the father. Instead, the father senses the boy's distress, and with the kind of generosity that only tyrants are capable of, tells the mother to go with him and comfort him, spending the night on a spare bed beside him in his room. The father was not without heart, and the mother was complicit in wanting to wean the young boy perhaps too severely.But their authorized, unexpected, and surely unrepeatable time together that night is what the little boy and the mother really had wanted all along. Their union, as he cries to sleep in her arms, is the first of many powerfully moving passages in this book. He began sobbing then, the narrator confesses, and never really stopped. There was something the boy was missing that only mother could provide.
But by then, it was too late; mother could not in that evening make up for years of emotional distancing. It was not only father's irritability with sentimental gestures like a goodnight kiss, but mother's determination to toughen her son, that had left the boy with an emotional hole that he carried with him into adulthood. "We can't habituate him to this," she tells father, after he has pardoned the boy. "We are not torturers here," father replies.
The reader is left with a literary taste of the classic patriarchal family, of the Father as Speaker of the Law, the One Who Says "No," the reality principle itself. This model was unquestioned as recently as my parent's generation. Today, according to conventional wisdom, it is overturned. But is it really? After all, at the heart of the patriarchal model of father-son relations is the principle of the father's authority to deny emotional satisfaction in family relationships, chiefly by denying communication of any kind. There is very little communication between the narrator's father and his son, only reporting.
"Boys will be boys," they say. But parents make boys boys, by talking to them less, by withdrawing affection sooner, by turning them into the creatures that their girlfriends and wives will later complain can't articulate their emotions, don't understand their impulses, get uncomfortable around babies, and feel that something is not right about a man caring for an infant. There's no way to avoid intensely physical communication when caring for a very young child, and this is difficult if you've been trained not to communicate with anyone.
Luckily Proust's semi-autobiographical little boy withstood the attempt to suppress his emotional life, in return producing one of the most extended tours of psychological interiority ever written. Is it a coincidence that the famous cup of tea, the one with the soggy cooky that triggered Proust's remembrance of things past, his connection to the world of his interiority, was handed him by his mother?