Doing Time with Marcel Proust. (Humanism and the Arts)

By Lowen, Jeannette | Free Inquiry, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Doing Time with Marcel Proust. (Humanism and the Arts)


Lowen, Jeannette, Free Inquiry


Marcel Proust devoted his life to unravelling the mystery of time. He uncovered the secret of extracting the "permanent and the significant" from "the transitory and the trivial." He sought some "permanence" in a world where things, people, ideas, and feelings seemed ephemeral, and "importance" in all of our too often trivia-filled lives. Proust discovered a formula that could give meaning to his life and, through his "work of art," the lives of many.

Proust is considered one of the few literary geniuses of the twentieth century. And when his mammoth 3,000-page Remembrance of Things Past comes to a close, his many readers would probably say that his quest was worthwhile, his search for lost time fulfilled, and that on the way all our lives have been illuminated. The book is often referred to by enthusiasts as simply "The Novel," and countless volumes have been written about its author.

Proust's concerns about "the passage of time" speak to nil of us: Where has it gone? How much is left? What shall we do wit h it? He focuses on how we live, and communicates a way of "living in time."

A study of French society from 1880-1919, Proust's novel bears witness to the oceanic transformations that changed the horse-and-buggy world to one of aviation, cubism, and modern hygiene. The book is the record of one man's experience, but it is not just autobiographical as the narrator, in investigating his past, looks beyond his own experience.

FROM TEMPS PERDU TO THE PAST RECAPTURED

Proust's book has been renamed by some In Search of Lost Time. In the final volume, The Past Recaptured, he divulges a way "to recover the whole of our lives."

At age twenty-two, he was already tormented by the thought of temps perdu. His early writings resonate with the idea of time as a haunting nightmare. He was introduced to Henri Bergson's view that there are two different ways of considering time: there is time that vanishes into nothingness and time that endures. "Enduring-time" (temps-duree) is psychological time. It is the nomneasurable, qualitative experience in which the present continuously augments the past without obliterating it."

Proust began to see "inner time," a reality filled with our feelings and emotions, as very different from "chronometric time." "The past," he wrote, "still lives in us ... has made us what we are and is remaking us every moment! ... An hour is not merely an hour!" (the Proustian image). "It is a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, places and climates! ... So we hold within us a treasure of impressions, clustered in small knots, each with a flavor of its own, formed from our own experiences, that become certain moments of our past."

Yet, Proust realized, we cannot reach this treasure, which is buried in our subconscious mind. "Time past" is lost to us, but the sensations experienced are not: here is an inexhaustible mine for art.

INVOLUNTARY MEMORY

When we give our memory an order to bring back a fragment of our past (our "voluntary memory"), it can only suggest the factual data or the skeleton; but the original flavor of the scene will be left behind. This flavor is the "priceless everything" to an artist, making a moment in time unique.

Unusual experiences led Proust to "the truth of involuntary memory" the basis for his life's work. The famous incident of the petit madeleine revealed to him a past lying dormant within him, ready to be called back to consciousness. He was able to retrieve "a feeling of inexplicable happiness" when his mother offered him the little plump cake. He was illuminated by a childhood memory (of Combray), where his Aunt Leone on Sunday mornings used to give him a madeleine, dipping it first in her own cup of tea. It "all sprang into being, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea!"

How to explain when, from the past, "nothing seems to subsist, the smell, sound, and taste of things remained. …

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