Rachel when from the Lord
I realised then how much a human imagination can put behind a little scrap of a face, such as this woman's was, if it is the imagination that has come to know it first; and conversely into what wretched elements, crudely material and utterly valueless, something that had been the inspiration of countless dreams might be decomposed if, on the contrary, it had been perceived in the opposite manner, by the most casual and trivial acquaintance. I saw that what had appeared to me to be not worth twenty francs when it had been offered to me for twenty francs in the brothel, where it was then for me simply a woman desirous of earning twenty francs, might be worth more than a million, more than family affection, more than all the most coveted positions in life, if one had begun by imagining her as a mysterious being, interesting to know, difficult to seize and to hold. No doubt it was the same thin and narrow face that we saw, Robert and I. But we had arrived at it by two opposite ways which would never converge, and we would never both see it from the same side. That face, with its looks, its smiles, the movements of its mouth, I had known from the outside as being that of a woman of the sort who for twenty francs would do anything that I asked. And so her looks, her smiles, the movements of her mouth had seemed to me expressive merely of generalised actions with no individual quality, and beneath them I should not have had the curiosity to look for a person. But what to me had in a sense been offered at the start, that consenting face, had been for Robert an ultimate goal towards which he had made his way through endless hopes and doubts, suspicions and dreams. Yes, he had given more than a million francs in order to have, in order that others should not have, what had been offered to me, as to all and sundry, for twenty. That he too should not have had her at that price may have been due to the chance of a moment, the instant in which she who seemed ready to give herself suddenly jibs, having perhaps an assignation elsewhere, some reason which makes her more difficult to access that day. If the man in question is a sentimentalist, then, even if she has not notices it, but infinitely more if she has, the direst game begins. Unable to swallow his disappointment, to make himself forget about the woman, he pursues her afresh, she rebuffs him, until a mere smile for which he no longer dared to hope is bought at a thousand times what should have been the price of the last favours. It sometimes even happens in such a case, when a man has been led by a mixture of naivety of judgment and cowardice in the face of suffering to commit the crowning folly of making an inaccessible idol of a whore, that he never obtains these ultimate favours, or even the first kiss, and no longer even ventures to ask for them in order not to belie his assurances of Platonic love. And it is then a bitter anguish to leave the world without ever having experienced the embraces of the woman one has passionately loved. As for Rachel's favours, however, Saint-Loup had fortunately succeeded in winning them all. True, if he had now learned that they had been offered to all the world for a louis, he would have suffered terribly, but would still have given a million francs to keep them, for nothing that he might have learned could have diverted him (what is beyond man's power can only happen in spite of him, through the action of some great natural law) from the path he had taken and from which that face could appear to him only through the web of the dreams that he had already spun. The immobility of that thin face, like that of a sheet of paper subjected to the colossal pressure of two atmospheres, seemed to me to be held in equilibrium by two infinites which converged on her without meeting, for she held them apart. Indeed, looking at her, Robert and I, the two of us did not see her from the same side of the mystery.
It was not "Rachel when from the Lord," who seemed to me of little significance, it was the power of the human imagination, the illusion on which were based the pains of love, that I found so striking.
Robert was ignorant of almost all the infidelities of his mistress, and tormented himself over what were mere nothings compared with the real life of Rachel, a life which began every day only after he had left her. He was ignorant of almost all these infidelities. One could have told him of them without shaking his confidence in Rachel. For it is a charming law of nature, which manifests itself in the heart of the most complex social organisms, that we live in perfect ignorance of those we love. On the one hand the lover says to himself: "She is an angel, she will never give herself to me; she loves me so much that perhaps ... but no, it can never possibly happen." And in the exaltation of his desire, in the anguish of his expectation, what jewels he flings at the feet of this woman, how he runs to borrow money to save her from financial worries! Meanwhile, on the other side of the glass screen, through which these conversations will no more carry than those which visitors exchange in front of an aquarium in a zoo, the public are saying: "You don't know her? You can count yourself lucky -- she has robbed, in fact ruined, I don't know how many men, as girls go there's nothing worse. She's a swindler pure and simple. And crafty!" And perhaps this last epithet is not absolutely wrong, for even the sceptical man who is not really in love with the woman, who merely gets pleasure from her, says to his friends: "No, no, my dear fellow, she's not at all a whore. I don't say she hasn't had an adventure or two in her time, but she's not a woman one pays, she'd he a damned sight too expensive if she was. With her it's fifty thousand francs or nothing." The fact of the matter is that he himself has spent fifty thousand francs for the privilege of having her once, but she (finding a willing accomplice in the man himself, in the person of his self-esteem) has managed to persuade him that he is one of those who have had her for nothing. Such is society, where every being is double, and where the most thoroughly exposed, the most notorious, will be known to a certain other only as protected by a shell, by a sweet cocoon, as a charming natural curiosity.
(Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, 1998 Modern Library Edition, Vol. III, pp 209-11, 382-3)