Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Proust: involuntary memory, foolish things

Here's a key passage for thinking about Proust's understanding of involuntary memory. Involuntary memory is of course the phenomenon underlying the famous moment of the madeleine -- the unbidden return of the past, triggered by a sensory detail.

On vacation in Balbec, the narrator has just heard a stranger mention "The family of the chief undersecretary at the Postmaster General's." The words overheard remind him of a conversation that Gilberte and M. Swann once had about this family. Habit, the subject with which the narrator begins, fascinates him: it robs what is wondrous (the telephone, for instance) of its wonder; it blinds us to our circumstances; it makes the unendurable endurable. In this passage, the power of forgotten particulars overcomes habit, overcomes time:

Habit weakens all things; but the things that are best at reminding us of a person are those which, because they were insignificant, we have forgotten, and which have therefore lost none of their power. Which is why the greater part of our memory exists outside us, in a dampish breeze, in the musty air of a bedroom or the smell of autumn's first fires, things through which we can retrieve any part of us that the reasoning mind, having no use for it, disdained, the last vestige of the past, the best of it, the part which, after all our tears seem to have dried, can make us weep again. Outside us? Inside us, more like, but stored away from our mind's eye, in that abeyance of memory which may last forever. It is only because we have forgotten that we can now and then return to the person we once were, envisage things as that person did, be hurt again, because we are not ourselves anymore, but someone else, who once loved something that we no longer care about. The broad daylight of habitual memory gradually fades our images of the past, wears them away until nothing is left of them and the past becomes irrecoverable. Or, rather, it would be irrecoverable, were it not that a few words (such as "chief undersecretary at the Postmaster General's") had been carefully put away and forgotten much as a copy of a book is deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale against the day when it may become unobtainable.

From In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve (New York: Penguin, 2002), 222
Last year while reading Proust I had a vivid moment of involuntary memory when a glass of water put me in my maternal grandparents' kitchen. When I came home last night after a post-dinner shopping expedition, the still-present smell of our chipotle, corn, and black bean stew put me in the hallway of my paternal grandparents' apartment building in Union City, New Jersey. The apartment was five flights up, with the aromas of Cuban cooking all the way.

Having found a common element in the works of Proust and Cole Porter, I'm prompted by the above passage to make another link between Proust and popular song. Proust would certainly understand the power of these insignificant, foolish things:
A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places,
And still my heart has wings:
These foolish things remind me of you.

"These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)"
(Music by Jack Strachey and Harry Link, words by Holt Marvell)

All Proust posts (via del.icio.us)
The stew recipe, incidentally, is from Vegan with a Vengeance.

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