The tension that Proust creates between the natural and the unnatural in the opening section of Sodom and Gomorrah perplexes me. Marcel, perched at the upper story of his parents’ apartment in the Hotel de Guermantes, is watching for the Duc and Duchesse to return home. Seeing a bee enter the courtyard, he descends the stairs to observe more closely whether “the improbable insect would come to visit the tendered and forlorn pistil” of an orchid. Hidden behind a shutter, Marcel remains unnoticed when M. de Charlus enters the courtyard on his way to lunch at the apartment of Mme. de Villeparisis. Still waiting for the Guermantes, intrigued by the bee, Marcel is at his vigil when Charlus soon reenters the courtyard.
At this point, an amazing exchange between Charlus and the tailor Jupien begins. Charlus,
his half-closed eyes all of a sudden opened wide, was gazing with an extraordinary intentness at the former waistcoat-maker on the doorstep of his shop, while the latter, standing suddenly transfixed in front of M. de Charlus, rooted like a plant, was contemplating with an air of wonderment the ageing Baron’s embonpoint.
A kind of dance begins, where Jupien, “in perfect symmetry with the Baron” had “drawn back his head, set his torso at an advantageous angle, placed his fist on his hip with a grotesque impertinence and made his behind stick out, striking poses with the coquettishness that the orchid might have had for the providential advent of the bumblebee.” The dance leads Jupien to invite Charlus into the tailor shop. Marcel makes his way through the cellar to a shop room, separated by a partition from the two men, where he hears the moans of the two. “I might have thought,” Marcel notes, “that one person was slitting another’s throat close beside me and that the murderer and his resuscitated victim were then taking a bath in order to erase the crime.”
The spying Marcel achieves in this humorous scene recalls the Montjouvain episode of Swann’s Way, when a much younger Marcel secretly looks through a window to watch Mlle. Vinteuil and her female companion making sadistic love. In his biography of Proust, William C. Carter writes that Proust’s editor had wanted him to cut that episode, but Proust “had constructed this work [Remembrance as a whole] so that this episode in the first volume explains the jealousy of my young man in the fourth and fifth volumes, so that by ripping out the column with the obscene capital, I would have brought down the arch.” At this point, the “young man’s” jealousy is yet to foment. We are similarly left wondering when Marcel tells us that while observing the flower, he “had already drawn from the conspicuous stratagem of the flowers a consequence bearing on a whole unconscious element in the work of literature.” The clear and immediate result of observing Charlus and Jupien is a dramatic change in Marcel’s view of the Baron. The Baron’s transformation “into a new person was so complete that not only the contrasts in his face and his voice, but, in retrospect, even the ups and downs of his relationship with me, all that had up until now appeared incoherent to my mind, became intelligible…”
Colleen Lamos argues in Deviant Modernism that the scene in the courtyard of the Hotel de Guermantes “endorses the belief that the male invert has, in Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s notorious phrase, "the soul of a woman in the body of a man.” This certainly is Marcel’s view of Charlus. “I understood why,” Marcel goes on to say following his earlier observation, “when I had seen him coming out of Mme. de Villeparisis’s, I had been able to think that M. de Charlus had the look of a woman: he was one!” Andre Gide admired Charlus yet complained to Proust that the character “contributed to the habitual confusion between the homosexual and the invert.” That is, the identification of the homosexual with a man who has a woman trapped within him.
The long disquisition about inverts and solitaries (gay men who remain alone all their lives rather than reveal their sexuality) feels like a curious departure from the encounter between the two men in the courtyard. For the overriding imagery that flows through the whole section is organic, botanical, and natural. The men are referred to repeatedly as flowers and plants, and when Charlus eventually leaves the hotel after making love, he crosses paths with the bee, on its way to make love with the orchid. As Marcel observes, the joining of the two men was “non-elective,” just as the bee’s union with the orchid’s pistil is hard wired. Marcel remembers seeing jellyfish on the beach when he summered at Balbec. At the time, he thought them ugly, grotesque. After seeing Charlus in a new light (literally in the new sunlight of the courtyard), he realizes that his view was limited. From the point of view of natural history, jellyfish are, “with the transparent velvet of their petals, like the mauve orchids of the sea.” In this opening section of Sodom and Gomorrah, all life seems to be organically one, regardless of the labels Marcel has adopted for men like Charlus and Jupien.