The Education of the Senses
Remembrance of Things Past and the
Modernist Rhetoric of Motion
Cinema is the materialization of the worst of popular ideals … At
stake is not the end of the world, but the end of a civilization.
A train whistle cuts through the opening pages of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27), translated as Remembrance of Things Past.1 Rushing through the night, the train rouses Proust's narrator from that nocturnal space-time he usually inhabits upon falling asleep. The train, however, triggers new fantasies. Recalling a distant world far beyond the narrator's bedroom, the whistle evokes parallel lives and alternate spaces as intriguing as those he entered upon dozing off. The very first sense impression recorded in Proust's novel is thus auditory and issues from the iron horse, that great mid-nineteenth-century novelty.
The train not only helped change habitual notions of time and space; it was also believed to produce previously unknown ailments, such as “railway spine.”2 Medical experts similarly worried about the passenger's perceptual organs; they cautioned that the intermittent views through the windows fatigued the passenger's eyeballs, just as the squealing brakes were believed to strain the ears. In Proust's novel, however, the train is a natural part of the landscape. Nothing could be farther from, say, John Ruskin's train, that industrial conveyor of human bodies whose velocity destroyed preindustrial modes of perceiving landscape; or Emile Zola's monstrous vehicle of violence and death in La bête humaine (1890); or, for