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Searching for Lost Time with Marcel Proust: An exploration of memory, sensation, and self

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Adam Snider, therapist at Hope Integrative Psychiatry, La Maida Institute

Has the whiff of a familiar scent ever brought you back to another time? Has the taste of holiday food or a hot beverage ever brought up the sense of being somewhere else, or with someone who is no longer here? There’s a powerful effect that sensations can elicit, having to do with the way memories can be stored and triggered. Although these processes have been studied scientifically by cognitive psychologists, they have also been studied in literature, such as the influential French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Proust explored these themes in a series of novels, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (“Remembrance of things Past” or “In Search of Lost Time”).

A pivotal scene occurs in first novel, Swann’s Way, when the self-titled character Marcel dips a madeleine cookie in a cup of tea, and is overtaken by memories so intense, he has what might be described as a dissociative episode. The madeleine is a recognizable vanilla cookie shaped like a clam shell, widely available at many coffee shops today. For Marcel, the aroma and taste of the cookie unlocks a floodgate to other times of his life, which he experiences intensely and all at once, as if in an altered state of consciousness. Experiences of his hometown, Combray, appear before him, a span of time in a single image. Included are intense feelings toward place, setting, and other people. He remembers an early life experience associated with the madeleine dipped in tea.

It was sensations, rather than thoughts, that triggered Marcel’s intense involuntary memories. Condensations of biographical experience that normally unfold through time were experienced all at once, as a dynamic image. This article examines this process more closely. Quotes are from the Moncrieff and Kilmartin 1982 translation of Swann’s Way, the first novel in the series. Page numbers of quotes are in parentheses.

Cognitive psychology and broader cognitive science has defined and studied different forms of memory. However, novelists and literary critics have also explored this topic, and provide a richer perspective to add to scientific knowledge. Walter Benjamin described different forms of memory in his essay on French poet Baudelaire (See references). Gedächtnis is comprised of “accumulated and often unconscious data that flow together.” This is opposed to Erinnerung, which is the conscious isolating of discrete memories, or “facts anchored in memory.” These memory processes are visible in the madeleine scene and explain why the narrator struggles in vain to hold on to the evocative involuntary memories. After the peak occurs, he naively attempts to re-access the peak experience (a normally unconscious data flow) through conscious effort, which does not work. The character cannot consciously re-trigger the involuntary memories, which only emerge in the chance encounter with evocative sensation, in this case, the madeleine.

Marcel laments, “What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking…” (Moncrieff and Kilmartin, 50).  Seeking, in this sense, is a conscious act of Erinnerung, so it relies on the representations of language. This thinking/seeking is opposed to sensing/eating. If one seeks for the past in words, it might be found in words. Eating the madeleine, the narrator encounters sense perceptions tied to an analogous or homologous time associated with the cookie. Involuntary memory discovers correspondences and presents them to consciousness. The process involves an element of chance, because it relies on a subject having formed an image of itself through sensory experiences, presumably at key developmental periods. Describing limits of voluntary memory, Proust’s narrator states, “it is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture [our own past]. All the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die” (47).

In this passage, the narrator is involved with something more original, more primordial, than “knowing.” It is impossible to consciously “know it” and “call it forth… intact,” because the “it” refers not only to “facts anchored in memory.” It also refers to a being who can never return intact (but only as a timeless image) Elements of experience will be hidden every time others are revealed. Therefore, the jubilant experience of being intact occurred phantasmatically when “…the whole of Combray …sprang into being…” (51). And yet, there is value in such a useful illusion, to borrow Nietzsche’s phrase. This is because it helps the subject orient itself in historical time, perhaps through an experience of another kind of time, existential time, which is always present, past, and future all at once. The Heideggarian concept of existential time (the time that stretches between birth and death) is opposed to historical time (i.e. clock time, calendar time, the linear unidirectional concept of time assumed by classical physics). Through the phantasmatic encounter with the wholeness of Combray, Marcel seizes himself out of historical time, becoming more authentically aligned with existential time, and can presumably live according to this awareness after the peak experience fades.

Some literary critics have attributed the scent of the madeleine dipped in tea to its famous effect, but Proust clearly described it as an oral phenomenon: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped…” (48). In vain, the narrator tries to control the experience that follows: “I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second… It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup, but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment”.

In the madeleine scene, the involuntary memory process unfolds according to certain rules, such as the observed progressive diminution of strength of the madeleine-effect with repeat dosing of the time cookie. However, there is also an element of chance to how the powerful involuntary memories are formed, and how they get triggered through encounters with sensation.

Proust’s madeleine scene is a classic example of how “being present” does not have to mean escaping the past, but rather including all time into the dynamic here-and-now. Mindful perception is associated with this all-at-onceness (i.e. this gestault) It has both temporal and relational aspects. This type of perception can be seen in the famous raisin-eating exercise popularized by mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Kinn. This mindfulness exercise contains a moment of reflection on the time and human labor inherent in the raisin one holds in one’s hand presently, from seed to fruit. There is an invitation in this to listen more closely to the subtle notes in all experience, which Proust explored through the way time is stored and released in the body through sensation. These considerations have implications for a variety of fields, including psychotherapy and somatic-oriented clinical modalities, cognitive psychology, as well as literature, philosophy, and other approaches to exploring human experience.

[1] Marcel Proust, Trans. Moncrieff and Kilmartin. Swann’s Way, from A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Vintage International, (1913/1982).

[2] Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings Vol. 4. Pg.313. Trans. Jephcott. Belknap/Harvard. 2003.

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