Clément Paradis

photographic continuum

From the hotel to the brothel: Proust’s capitalist ballet


This is the text version of a conference I did for the Historical Materialism conference 2014, which took place at the SOAS in London. I didn't turn it into a proper article, hence the lack of precise references. The Proust quotes are taken from the Penguin book edition, but sometimes I touched up the translation to be, in my view, closer to the french text.

                When people ask me how I can link Proust and Marx, first I have a funny answer: Proust and Marx were related: they were cousins, third cousins twice removed to be precise. None of them was conscious of that of course, Marx died when Proust was 12 and Proust never got to read a line of Marx’s works.

But more seriously there’s another link between the two authors, and that’s what I’m going to speak about today. Because In Search of Lost Time hasn’t revealed all its secrets. In proustian studies, it is common to read that Proust wasn’t interested in the economic world and that he was a dilettante, more interested in the inner complexity of genius artists than in the organization of the social world. If we read again In Search of Lost Time, it appears clearly that things aren’t that simple. Proust certainly wasn’t a theorist of capitalism, but he was an acute observer of the economic reality.

Through three excerpts of Proust’s novel, I’ll try to show you today that Proust had a deep understanding of how capitalism functioned in his society, I’ll also try to reveal that the system Proust describes is still at the core of our modernity. To understand that, this system has to be deciphered, and that’s where the Marxist theories, and especially the work of french philosopher Michel Clouscard, who was a student of Henri Lefebvre, can help us. 

The aquarium

               The first excerpt is in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. At this point of the novel, the hero is young, and for his holidays he’s staying at the Grand Hotel in a small town called Balbec. A big part of the novel takes place in this hotel, and in hotels in general, whether they are open to the public or “hotels particuliers” as we say in French, mansion houses. Observing how the Grand Hotel in Balbec works, the narrator starts to build a metaphor, which soon becomes an aesthetic but also theoretic principle: luxury hotels are aquariums. The hotel is: 

“an immense and wonderful aquarium against whose wall of glass the working population of Balbec, the fishermen and also the tradesmen’s families, clustering invisibly in the outer darkness, pressed their faces to watch, gently floating upon the golden eddies within, the luxurious life of its occupants, a thing as extraordinary to the poor as the life of strange fishes or molluscs (an important social question, this: whether the wall of glass will always protect the wonderful creatures at their feasting, whether the obscure folk who watch them hungrily out of the night will not break in some day to gather them from their aquarium and devour them).” 

The hotel, in Proust’s novel, is, as you see, a place of social questioning and discovery of general laws about the society. 

Through his aquarium metaphor, Proust depicts a system of inequality, but also a complex scenography that holds the classes altogether. A thin wall separates those who consume from those who produce (the fishermen, the tradesmen…), and this wall has a role: it builds the set for a show, the show of conspicuous consumption. The spectators get to watch the ballet of strange fishes and their employees, and while the fishes in the aquarium don’t seem to be aware of it, a group of ordinary people is gathered to observe them with envy. So the hotel is the nodal point where classes reveal the logic of their power, or lack thereof. 

Athalie in Balbec 

               Later in the novel, in Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth part, the description of the Grand Hotel continues. The narrator is now only examining what’s going on inside the aquarium, and notices another very strange ballet: the hotel is now, he says, “a sort of Judeo-Christian tragedy given bodily form and perpetually in performance.” It reminds him of Racine’s play Athalie and its ceremonial world. But he observes, in fact, that all the employees’ moves in the hallways are completely useless: 

“[…] in the hallway, what in the seventeenth century was known as the portico, there stood ‘a flourishing race’ of young chasseurs, especially at tea-time, like the young Israelites of Racine’s choruses. But I do not believe a single one of them would have been able to supply even the vague answer that Joas finds for Athalie when the latter asks the child prince: “What then is your occupation?” for they had none. At the very most, had any one of their number been asked, like the old Queen: “But this whole people enclosed within this place, with what does it occupy itself?” he might have been able to say: ‘“I see the stately order of these ceremonies”, and have my part in them.’” “I felt inclined to ask myself whether I were entering the Grand Hotel at Balbec or the Temple of Solomon.” 

This excerpt may look quite innocuous; it is in fact a very clever description of the system of high society. The world described here resembles the one described by Marx when he writes about The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof – the same profane religion is observed by Proust, the same strange animation of the social world. So the hotel is now a theater playing a mute religious scene. 

As in any ceremony, a power is celebrated here but this power is unspoken; the viewer must be content with the spectacle of a silent chorus. Just like the commodity for Marx, this show holds a secret. The protagonists face symbolic attitudes that have lost their primary significance for them. 

It is a world of unsaid things that the narrator reveals here: what is celebrated? What are those employees for? 

Of course we could find a simple answer in our first quote: those employees are there for conspicuous waste purpose it seems. Paying people for nothing is a supreme luxury – but Proust’s narrator doesn’t say that no service is delivered. He doesn’t say nothing is consumed either – we are in a world of hidden truths, we need a key to understand this scenography. And this key lies in the backstage of another hotel. 

The Backstage 

               In Proust’s novel, brothels are often compared to the Paris Stock Exchange, making them incidentally meaningful and important places for the economic world. And a lot of those whorehouses are hidden in hotels – as it was the case in the 19th century in Paris.

In the last part of In Search of Lost TimeFinding Time Again, the hero finds himself in the street of Paris under the threat of German bombs. The action takes place during the war, and the hero roams in the streets to find a shelter – the only open place he finds is a small hotel. But as he visits the place, he soon discovers that this hotel in fact hides a brothel.

In the hallways of this hotel, the hero also observes the moves of young people, and he also wonders what is going on, as he did in Balbec. But this time, he obtains more than a silent and symbolic answer – the young and beautiful people there are offering their service to the clients, and those clients are the aristocrats and bourgeois he used to spend time with in Balbec. But at this point, the hero isn’t really astonished, as he had learnt before that the chasseurs, maître d’hôtel and employees of the most respected places are also working as prostitutes when clients ask for this kind of service. The obscure ballets observed before by the narrator now make perfect sense: they are a seduction for the high society, they present to this elite what the hotel can offer that they can’t have at home: the sexual company of men from the lower classes. As Lukacs explained, fetishism turns also here into reification – and the prostitute is certainly a key to understand reification, as his body itself is turned into a commodity.

The shock comes when the hero discovers that the director of the hotel is Jupien, who used to be his neighbor in Paris and that the owner of the hotel is his lover, the Baron de Charlus, a famous client of the Grand Hotel in Balbec. As Jupien is caught in the act of purveying prostitutes (male prostitutes) to his master the Baron de Charlus, he explains himself to the hero: 

“I wouldn’t like you to think ill of me, he said, this house does not bring in as much money as you might think, I have to let rooms to respectable people, though it’s true that if I had to rely on them and nothing else, I’d be throwing my money away. Here it’s the opposite of the Carmelites, it’s the vice that takes care of virtue.” 

All the things that were unspoken before are now clearly stated: Jupien makes a full confession about what’s going on in his hotel, and welcomes the hero of the novel to the backstage of the economy of the high society. He gives the code which is necessary to understand this world: here, the vice takes care of virtue. As you may have noticed, this statement can be heard as a rephrasing of Mandeville’s principle in the Fable of the Bees saying that “private vices” make the “public benefit”, which is the basis of liberalism as understood by Keynes and Hayek. Consumption must be developed without any borders or moral concerns in order to increase the wealth that will benefit the whole society. At least that’s the theory. 

So Jupien explains the logic of his hotel and of hotels in general, and it’s the whole model of high society’s economy that gets defined: This hotel reveals what wasn’t said before – high society life is based on consumption, especially libidinal and marginal consumption – in fact, high society holds a real market of desire. The staging in luxury hotels hides it while paradoxically making it possible, revealing what is to be consumed, putting employees in relation with clients. This was theorized by french Marxist philosopher Michel Clouscard. As Clouscard explains: “the market of desire is the backstage of political economy. It reveals what should be excluded to form the legal and normative economics.” In this market, prostitutes are, as Michel Clouscard calls them, the “key-commodities”. They are the origin of the reciprocal engendering of market and desire. The hero thus realizes he lives in this market of desire, this place where market economy (the satisfaction of needs) and the most intimate desires are caught in a dialectic movement. And so the prostitutes reveal the invisible order that sustains the apparent freedom.

So now we can answer one of the questions that was asked earlier – what is celebrated in this pseudo-ceremony in Balbec? It is desire, as a market, and the power this market gives to high society. 

The high society life 

               Only when we step in the world of prostitution can we understand the world staged by the high society (without its awareness). So how does this high society life work?

As the narrator explains, the brothels he visits are owned by people from high society, who are also clients of their hotels. This is how this society builds its own market and uses it. In this market of desire, some consume and some other produce – and the roles, as you guess, never change.

The market of desire reveals the true face of the structure of high society, a society based on a market reproducing some of the privileges of the feudal world, without stating it. 

So money is not the only thing holding this world together – as Jupien said before. Money is necessary, but it doesn’t bring the soul needed to keep this system going. Thus some wealthy characters in the novel do not have access to this world, and some others, like beautiful women or beautiful boys, do not need that much money to be admitted inside the aquarium. 

The reason for that is that high society is not only a reunion of wealthy people, whether they are aristocrats or bourgeois; its first characteristic is that it is a ballet, a movement: The ballet of the employees in the hotel, the ballet of the fish-people in the “aquarium”, the ballet of the bourgeoisie going back and forth, from Paris to the coast, the ballet of the high society presenting its desires as needs. High society is, as Clouscard explains, “the linking of narcissism and the market economy”, making this ballet a movement of the money and an aesthetic justification to its overwhelming presence and power. 

We have here a system of representation as Marx studied them, a system that builds the signs high society addresses not only to itself but also to the other classes as seduction, as we’ve seen in our first example. 

Proust’s novel illustrates the concept of society life that Michel Clouscard defines as the social space where market and desire are in relation, a space where we can observe the synthesis of commodity (and products), and subjectivity. Society Life is thus an education, a training to the consumption of the market of desire – where any desire can be objectified in a commodity. 

Caught in this movement, the members of high society do not have to think, they are supported by this system that prevents them both from building their own and personal desires and from working to obtain the satisfaction of these desires. They just have to be part of the show.



               When we least expect it, we discover that Proust explains that the unconscious of high society is structured not only like a language, as Lacan would have said, but like a market, with its supply and demand. The Grand Hotel in Balbec is its conscious side and points what is not said, and Jupien’s hotel in Paris reveals what’s unconscious, what has to be forgotten to make Society Life (as defined before) possible. 

Throughout la Recherche, the hotel is thus a place of reflection about society and discovery of its laws. The prostitutes, those key-commodities, reveal the secret of this nearly religious show. And the secret is that desire is a market, and that this market serves the high society, and serves it best when it acts as a profane religion, a show, when its main characteristics remain unconscious. 

In Proust’s novel, this is how capitalism survives: through the reciprocal promotion of the power of money, sex, youth and beauty, in this market of desire. And history shows us that this dynamic tends to now reduce desire to the market. This market of desire is the perfect tool to revitalize the profit economy – desires being endless, a market of desire cannot know an overproduction crisis. It is also the moment when all desires can be objectified in a commodity, when freedom is dissolved in freedom to consume. 

               One more thing: this network of metaphor I just presented is not only to be found in Proust’s work. Jacques Attali (a french ultra-liberal economist, counselor of (too) many french presidents) spoke on French TV in the same manner a couple of years ago: 
“It is very important to understand, at least that’s what I defend, that a country is a hotel, a place that welcomes investments”.

The statement left a lot of people wondering. But the model described by Proust enlightens us a bit here. Attali knows that the subtle way luxury hotels work and are depicted in our culture is a model for liberal economy. Of course, it is our job to understand what is not said here and to discover the backstage of the metaphoric hotel, which is always the market of desire and the prostitution dynamic hidden behind it.