Just before entering the ballroom filled with the aged persons of Marcel’s past, he makes the realization that the mental has precedence over the actual. His grandmother’s death is real only some months after the event. Proust, like Whitman, is not afraid of self-contradiction. As Marcel enters the ballroom, aged flesh asserts primacy over the mental and Marcel becomes disoriented.
M. d’Argencourt, the once imperious Belgian envoy, is no longer visibly intimidating.
…one was obliged to study them at the same time with one’s eyes and with one’s memory…the new, the unrecognisable Argencourt was there before me as the revelation of Time, which by his agency was rendered partially visible, for in the new elements which went to compose his face and his personality one could decipher a number which told one the years of his age, one could recognise the hieroglyph of life–of life not as it appears to us, that is to say permanent, but as it really is: an atmosphere so swiftly changing that at the end of the day the proud nobleman is portrayed, in caricature, as a dealer in old clothes. (VI,342)
Marcel searches for what the face shows of the person’s moral qualities.
And if I no longer felt any ill will towards him, it was because in this man who had rediscovered the innocence of childhood there was no longer any recollections of the contemptuous notions which he might once have had of me…either because the sentiments had ceased to exist in him or because in order to arrive at me they were obliged to pass through physical refractors which so distorted them that in the course of their journey they completely changed their meaning, so that M. d’Argencourt appeared to be kind for want of the physical means of expressing that he was still unkind…(VI(341)
But time may have revealed more agreeable aspects in a person.
From this young girl, for instance, as from M. d’Argencourt, time had extracted possibilities that one could never have suspected, but these possibilities, though it was through her physiognomy or her body that they had expressed themselves, seemed to be of a moral order….In a woman, for instance, whom one had known as stiff and prim, an enlargement out of all recognition of the cheeks, an unpredictable arching of the nose, caused one the same surprise–and often it was an agreeable surprise—as one would have felt at some sensitive and profound remark, some noble and courageous action that one would never have expected of her. (VI,343)