my proust reading is slow, stolen reading. it seems fitting that the longest date marcel and i have had was last week when my 18 month old was on his second day of a 102 fever. it was a saturday and we had out of town guests, so the big boys took them exploring in the city. while they ate moon pies in china town and hung off a cable car on powell street, i nursed a feverish baby in our dimmed bedroom. we (the baby, proust and i) moved back and forth between the rocking chair and the unmade bed in tempo with the languid sentences of combray.
i first read proust when i was pregnant and my then-five year old was transitioning into a new room, a new bed by himself. i remember my son creeping down the hall to climb into our bed just as i had turned the page on marcel’s disappointment that at last, mother has come to stay with him. he yearns for it; his very existence depends on it; and yet her coming is a kind of betrayal, a disappointment.
both of these overlaps reminded me of neruda’s love sonnet xvii.
I don’t love you as if you were the salt-rose, topaz
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as certain dark things are loved,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom and carries
hidden within itself the light of those flowers,
and thanks to your love, darkly in my body
lives the dense fragrance that rises from the earth.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don’t know any other way of loving
but this, in which there is no I or you,
so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,
so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.
when writing my wedding vows over a decade ago i returned to this poem. and i married because of this, because i found a partner who understood the difference between alone and lonely. because i knew i could always sleep beside him and breathe his breath as my own. and that was love. it still is love.
but when i re-read it as a mother it no longer seemed to me the confession of the lover. this is womb love. die a thousand deaths love. hold you to my breast until i bleed love. think your poop is perfect love. count your eyelashes love. exponential love.
and that kind of love knocks you off your feet. leaves you prostrate, disoriented. that kind of love is the obsession of our narrator who knows not yet i or you. this mother and son love is suffocating, annihilating, terrifying. it’s being attached, so tightly bound, so full of love you can’t breathe. and yet it’s liberating, exhilarating, and just beautiful.
i’ve returned to this poem often. i return to it now because i think neruda gives voice, as proust does, in a way that honors the poetry and intensity of the underside of the salt rose. it indulges in the dark intimacy between mother and child. and it warns us that this love is no bouquet of common carnations.
freud and lacan tell us plenty about the role of the mother in a child’s psychosexual development. and i find it difficult to make these connections between my own mothering and proust without lacan whispering in my ear… but i find it equally difficult to (literally as well as metaphorically) turn the pages without my sons’ breath over the page.
but for now, in the novel, in the sonnet, in my darkened room i’ll embrace the “dense fragrance” that rises between the space of the mother and child. and then i’ll turn the page.