Portrait of Prince Léon Radziwill1

   I. In physique. Léon Radziwill is not one of those beings who - like those "spiritual" and boring salon busts at the bottom of which is conspicuously displayed the rosette of The Légion d'honneur in marble - at first passing glance presents a foolishly fixed appearance and an expression that is easily understood from the start. Like all fine and beautiful things - like a gothic sculpture, like a Rodin, - he is, as well as being infinitely delicate, so coarse that he has the appearance of a block of stone2 rather than a statue, and it is up to the delicacy, the comprehension of the observer, up to the sculptor, to recognize his true form, and to determine his beauty. "What is your name?" said a poet to a goddess that he could hardly make out in the shadows. - "Tell me yours," said she. "To stupid people I am stupidity, to intelligent people, intelligence." A stupid view taking in the face of Loche3 point by point will easily see stupidity in it. The "noble modesty" that colours the face of this emancipated Hippolytus4 will appear to him as the vulgar ruddiness of the man who abandons himself exclusively to the sensual life. His eyes, so expressively unexpressive, like those of Greek statues, small hollows in which the sea, as it recedes, has left two small pools the colour of precious stones, emeralds or sapphires according to the time of day, take on the dull idiocy of obdurate cretinism. His very diction, of an amusing sluggishness and of a false good-nature seems to be coarsened by foolishness and naïvety. But for those who know how to put themselves at a distance from things in a more constructive light out of which proceed lines in all their graphic significance and their spiritual capacity, everything in that face speaks of both power and delicacy, calmness of nature and sensitivity of feelings, natural charm and depth of thought. And this very body of a giant will reveal extreme delicacy of attitude and rank that make of a greeting, of a gesture of deference or earnestness something full of grace and moral meaning. Such, according to how he appears to an imbecile or an artist, is the twofold figure of Léon Radziwill. Women, by a bias that seems to have anticipated Plato in his Banquet, align themselves, even though they mostly have the mentality of imbeciles, with the opinion of artists. Because desire is a kind of sightless comprehension.
   II. Intellectually. We are dying of a malady that Renan has classified as morbus litterarius. Although fatal to all our vital breath, it is accommodating to all, in that it allows the most foolish to distinguish from afar, in the flag of culture that to a greater or lesser extent they proudly fly from their mast, the most intelligent people, the most mediocre people, the imbeciles. No doubt Balzac, Stendhal, and plenty of others, would not have been ranked in the last category. Sometimes we pay the same honour to Loche, probably undeserved, because he never wrote Le Curé de Tours or La Chartreuse de Parme. We will explain why - Besides even those who are most gifted are very far from beginning with naïve observation of nature. It is after long voluntary exile in idle fancy that they prove - in nostalgia - their love of the real. Loche, exquisite observer of mediocre reality at twenty five years old, observer of everyday life, of small characters and small minds, observer of the reality that Chardin depicted before Balzac, is from the very first a marvellous case. To orchids that bring nothing to our minds, he prefers the "really French" cheerfulness of the flowers in a parish priest's garden, the waggish dandelion, the cowslip that knows what it wants, the snapdragon, which we cannot endure. If it wasn't so late, if I wasn't so cold in this dining-room, if I wasn't so exhausted, I would say why I fear that these delightful qualities are not realized. It seems to me that Loche is wanting in culture to a degree that suggests indifference to literature and indifferent to beauty. While so many others have the material, the substance from which to incarnate a piece of work, but none of the Spirit for it to live, I see him rich with a soul that is eternally seeking a body in which to be incarnated. I'm freezing. To be developed another time.
   III. Morally. He shares the banality of the shortcomings of his times, from which he differs intellectually by such an interesting and robust originality, the promise of a piquant talent. Heart of a whore, attaching himself to the first person to come along, or, rather, incapable of giving himself, full of noble things, generous, sensitive, pursuing nothing vulgar, neither money nor celebrity, nor society (with that reserve with which he detests and scorns people of the fashionable world, but fears them, those that deprive him of his sovereign ease of demeanour, that even people in society possess - I'm too cold to elaborate, I hardly know what I'm writing any more), capable of doing a thousand things for a friend, except being his friend, if that word implies preference, faithfulness, confidence, perseverance, etc. On the other hand certain bad habits of language lead him to use the classic words of the envious and the cheat. "For myself with my great friendship for Y..., and my extreme affection for him, may I say, because it gives me enormous pains to do so, that he is incapable of, etc..." But above all lacking in phraseology. - Yet lacking in watchfulness. Readiness to absent-mindedly thread together like pearls phrases whose exact meaning his mind has no control over and that now lend him the appearance of a cheat, now the appearance of a fool. Once in this way he told me that Ruskin's great merit was in making the loftiest ideas accessible and agreeable to everyone. Is it literary inferiority, too great an insufficiency of culture other than human and psychological on the living that makes him say such a thing, or rather "speaking to say nothing"? If lack of will-power, even the view of reality that nevertheless does not engage with action to him is almost as unbearable as the glare from the sun. You send him into a stupor very quickly if you speak to him about reality. In an instant the blue eyes glaze over, the anaesthetic begins to take hold. At that moment you can say something utterly shocking, he no longer notices anything, you can't draw attention from an unseeing eye. If you persist too much, in a supreme convulsion he turns to one side. At that particular moment you could cut off his leg and he wouldn't feel it. As for myself I have infinite admiration for him, through a very painful nervous phenomenon, as soon as he is there, my mind wanders, I can't say anything, I become stupid. I have wanted to overcome this enchantment, it redoubles its force, like the effort you make not to fail with a woman makes you more impotent, or trying to fall asleep increases insomnia. After three or four times, when somebody was ringing and somebody said: "Prince Léon Radziwill", I was irked to think of the painful state I was going to be in, and irked too in my self-respect, thinking that he would find me so stupid, that one of the people I loved more than can be imagined would not have the faintest idea of what I am. This began to kill any pleasure in seeing him. But on his arrival it was thus combined with a painful feeling, friendship was wounded by imminent death. Affection is contrary to the association of a name to a pleasure. Then by dint of repetition this state becomes chronic, like a cardiac illness endured too often ends up by becoming a cardiopathy. First cause of the destruction of friendship. There were others, such as the feeling, which was very painful to me in the beginning, of the impossibility of having his. To love someone, it is not enough for them to be intelligent. Not for utility's sake, but out of inconsolable moral loneliness and sadness, I need people of a stable nature with whom one is able to maintain a solid pact and to have a lasting relationship. The ephemeral and contradictory rules that follow on from each other in the name of Loche are ones we cannot ally ourselves to, because at every moment you are speaking to a new person, to be freely excused for not keeping appointments that his predecessor, and not he, has made. There are other excuses that I could supply here as well for his natural inconstancy, but I can do no more...

Marcel.

1. Prince Léon Radziwill was part of a small group of young people of noble families into which Proust was introduced at the beginning of the century. One winter's evening in 1903 or 1904, at the château that prince Constantin, Léon's father, owned at Ermenonville, Proust stayed up alone in the unheated dining-room and sketched this unfinished portrait.

2. Prince Léon was enormous, as tall as he was large.

3. Prince Léon Radziwill's nickname.

4. Hippolytus in Phèdre.

 


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