I have started reading Proust's Swann's way. On page 66 the narrator, after providing a very vivid description of aunt Leonie's house and its atmosphere, describes her state. She has gradually left the outside world for her own house. Then he writes about her attitude towards her sensations:

in the life of complete inertia which she led, she attached to the least of her sensations an extraordinary importance, endowed them with a Protean ubiquity which made it difficult for her to keep them to herself,...

As I understand, 'Protean' refers to something that changes very much and 'ubiquitous' refers to ever-presentness. These two words seem to have meaning which feel opposite to each other. I cannot make sense of "Protean ubiquity", and what meaning is there in this sentence. I wonder, if somebody can help me in this.

Thank you.

  • 1
    To me it strikes me as "in the life where nothing really changes, she still attaches to each thing a sort of ever-present change" - it shows a contrast of ideas. When Peter Shor mentions the original French being motility, that makes a lot of sense to me - her life moves by itself; it needs no 'action' to be full of it.
    – auden
    Nov 24, 2018 at 3:10
  • @heather I understand what you mean by that she attaches a sort of ever-present change, perhaps as in the flowing river where river stays the same but still moves, still changes. But, I don’t see how this sort of ever-present change makes it difficult for her to keep what she feels to herself. Could you explain a bit more about what you understand by ever-present change?
    – jaspreet
    Nov 24, 2018 at 4:41
  • 2
    Simply put, if you find something new and exciting, you tend to share it - I'll tell my friend about that great new book I just read, or about the restaurant we went to last night, or if I've decided to go to a different place for college. Change is something we share; on the other hand we tend not to tell our friends something that has always been - very rarely do I tell my friend "I had cereal for breakfast" or "I like the Lord of the Rings" - they know that I do that regularly, so why share it? If on the other hand even normal experiences to me are new and different, I share them.
    – auden
    Nov 24, 2018 at 21:27
  • @heather I think my answer explains why the translation "motility" would fit the context better than "Protean ubiquity". I consider C. K. Scott Moncrieff's choice of words a departure from the images and phrases that Proust used in the same paragraph.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 26, 2018 at 15:24

2 Answers 2


The French is:

puis, dans l'inertie absolu où elle vivait, elle prêtait à ses moindres sensations une importance extraordinaire; elle les douait d'une motilité qui lui rendait difficile de les garder pour elle, [italics added]

and I see nothing corresponding to "Protean ubiquity" in it.

My poor translation, which I have tried to keep fairly literal (suggestions for improvement welcomed):

then, in the absolute inertia in which she lived, she lent to her least sensations an extraordinary importance; she endowed them with a motility which made it difficult for her to keep them to herself, [italics added]

The word used in French is motilité, which dictionaries say means essentially the same thing as motility in English—the capability of moving by itself (and is a word usually used to describe living things or parts of living things).

So why does Protean ubiquity mean motility? Or at least, what the translator thought Proust intended motility to mean? I don't know. They don't seem very similar to me.

  • 1
    FWIW, French Wikipedia for motilité. Might have more info than the dictionaries.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 23, 2018 at 18:19
  • @Peter Certainly enough, ‘motility’ appears to be the right word, for it explains how her motile feelings make ’transform’ into muttering that the narrator overhears.
    – jaspreet
    Nov 24, 2018 at 5:29

The quote comes from C. K. Scott Moncrieff's translation of Swann's Way. Below is a longer quote from the paragraph in the original French (as available on Wikisource), in which I have highlighted a few phrases:

Elle ne parlait jamais qu’assez bas parce qu’elle croyait avoir dans la tête quelque chose de cassé et de flottant qu’elle eût déplacé en parlant trop fort, mais elle ne restait jamais longtemps, même seule, sans dire quelque chose, parce qu’elle croyait que c’était salutaire pour sa gorge et qu’en empêchant le sang de s’y arrêter, cela rendrait moins fréquents les étouffements et les angoisses dont elle souffrait ; puis, dans l’inertie absolue où elle vivait, elle prêtait à ses moindres sensations une importance extraordinaire ; elle les douait d’une motilité qui lui rendait difficile de les garder pour elle, et à défaut de confident à qui les communiquer, elle se les annonçait à elle-même, en un perpétuel monologue qui était sa seule forme d’activité.

Below is C. K. Scott Moncrieff's translation of the same excerpt, with the corresponding phrases highlighted:

She never spoke save in low tones, because she believed that there was something broken in her head and floating loose there, which she might displace by talking too loud; but she never remained for long, even when alone, without saying something, because she believed that it was good for her throat, and that by keeping the blood there in circulation it would make less frequent the chokings and other pains to which she was liable; besides, in the life of complete inertia which she led she attached to the least of her sensations an extraordinary importance, endowed them with a Protean ubiquity which made it difficult for her to keep them secret, and, failing a confidant to whom she might communicate them, she used to promulgate them to herself in an unceasing monologue which was her sole form of activity.

In this excerpt, Proust uses several phrases and images that refer to either movement and activity and their opposites, inertia and passivity. Where C. K. Scott Moncrieff wrote "Protean ubiquity", Proust had written "motilité", which, as the French Wikipedia explains, is

un terme de la biologie qui réfère à la capacité de se déplacer spontanément ou par réaction à des stimuli et activement, en consommant de l'énergie lors du processus.

In other words: a term from biology that refers to the ability to move around spontaneously or as a reaction to stimuli and actively, while consuming energy during that process.

The adjective "Protean" derives from the name of the Greek god Proteus, who was capable of changing shape. Something endowed with "Protean ubiquity" would presumably be able to be "everywhere" as easily as Proteus changes shape. However, "motilité" implies neither shapeshifting, nor omnipresence, so by translating "motilité" as "Protean ubiquity", C. K. Scott Moncrieff breaks the chain of phrases and images that refer to movement or inertia.

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