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Elstir

Posted 8/23/2015 7:22pm by Eugene Wyatt.

Two hundred pages after his visit to the Balbec church, the hero meets Elstir. Like Mâle, he is the perfect tutor because he conceives of art in both intellectual and instinctual terms. Accordingly, when the hero asks him questions about the statues of the apostles that had disappointed him on the Balbec porch, “those great statues of saints, who, perched on stilts, form a kind of avenue,” Elstir explains that this “avenue” represents history:

“It starts from the beginning of time to end with Jesus Christ,” he told me. “On one side you have his ancestors of the spirit, on the other, the Kings of Judea, his ancestors of the flesh. All of the ages are there. And if you had better examined what seemed stilts to you, you would have been able to name the figures perched up there. Under the feet of Moses you would have recognized the golden calf, under Abraham’s the ram, under Joseph’s, the demon advising Potiphar’s wife.” (ARTP II, p. 198)

In Balbec, the hero had been disappointed to find that the giant, immortal statues of the Apostles he expected to see were tarnished by the soot of the present. Elstir, however, teaches him that their procession does represent eternity; it symbolizes their continued march through time. The facade of the Balbec church, in which all of Christ’s ancestors are figured, returns, at the end of La Recherche, as an image of time. The hero sees himself staggering on his own pair of stilts, like the Apostles atop the Balbec cathedral, a figure perched precariously on the years separating him from Combray and his own ancestors: Swann, Bergotte, Elstir, and his family. (p. 148)

Romancing The Cathedral, Gothic Architecture in Fin-de-Siècle French Culture 2001, Elizabeth Emery.

And the last paragraph of La Recherche,

I understood now why it was that the Duc de Guermantes, who to my surprise, when I had seen him sitting on a chair, had seemed to me so little aged although he had so many more years beneath him than I had, had presently, when he rose to his feet and tried to stand firm upon them, swayed backwards and forwards upon legs as tottery as those of some old archbishop with nothing solid about his person but his metal crucifix, to whose support there rushes a mob of sturdy young seminarists, and had advanced with difficulty, trembling like a leaf, upon the almost unmanageable summit of his eighty-three years, as though men spend their lives perched upon living stilts which never cease to grow until sometimes they become taller than church steeples, making it in the end both difficult and perilous for them to walk and raising them to an eminence from which suddenly they fall. And I was terrified by the thought that the stilts beneath my own feet might already have reached that height; it seemed to me that quite soon now I might be too weak to maintain my hold upon a past which already went down so far. So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved for them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure, for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves—in Time. (ARTP VI, p. 532)