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Splitter, R. (1979). Proust's Combray: The Structure of Animistic Projection. Am. Imago, 36(2):154-177.

(1979). American Imago, 36(2):154-177

Proust's Combray: The Structure of Animistic Projection

Randolph Splitter, Ph.D.

In two early essays, “The Sorcerer and His Magic” and “The Effectiveness of Symbols,” the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss analyzes the effectiveness of magical cures. In Proust's “Combray,” Marcel, suffering from vague complaints and half-imaginary fears, a chronic state of anxiety, might seem to be a perfect candidate for such “imaginary” cures. Indeed, both his fears and his deepest wishes reflect primitive, magical, animistic ways of thinking, an uncertainty about the distinction between inner and outer worlds, between animate creatures and inanimate things. In Marcel's eyes, the cook Francoise is a primitive who, though she slaughters chickens with sadistic delight, possesses a strict code of behavior, full of irrational prohibitions and an exaggerated faith in the sacred character of dinners. But Marcel treats his mother's goodnight kiss, like Francoise her dinners, as a sacred ceremonial, a nightly ritual betraying compulsive needs over which—so that they don't get out of hand—he must exercise obsessive control. Freud shows how such private ceremonials resemble religious or superstitious practices, particularly in their original forms, and Marcel's aunt Léonie illustrates the convergence of religion and obsession. On the other hand, Marcel's “primitive” way of seeing things is simply childlike, no more primitive than the lively imagination of Lewis Carroll's Alice. But his childhood insecurities, his anxiety about inner/outer divisions, and his “magical” strategies for warding off those anxieties create a basic structure of alternatives which is later repeated, on every level of the Recherche—in love, in social relations, in art.

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