Experience, Memory and the History

Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University

The relation of history and memory has been a favorite theme throughout the history of philosophy and it has been studied by various scholar including Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, Marcel Proust as well as Walter Benjamin. Besides, each scholar has approached the concept from different dimensions. Benjamin, for example, saw the decay of experience as one of the most important problems inherited from the Enlightenment and situated the relation of memory and history, developing a form of narrative which contains both experiences.  In his essay, therefore, my initial purpose is to provide an overview on the relation of memory and history through taking an excursion on the thought of Freud, Bergson, Proust by comparing them that of Walter Benjamin.

Starting out the essay with a short report on Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, I will attempt to give a way to understand Bergson’s analysis on memory. In his well-known work, Freud illustrates the consciousness as a protective shield which blocked out disturbing experiences and he describes the true memory as something which includes catastrophic and violent experiences that the individual has always tried to forget but which manifest themselves in neurotic fixations, compulsive physical symptoms as well as recurring nightmares (Meek, 2007).  In essence, Bergson’s theory of memory is quite similar with Freud’s analysis. Bergson describes the memory as an absolute motor of human activity and the intersection of mind and matter. Further, he argues that the memory is very much related with the conception of the duration and explained creativity of human experiences in duration. In Matter and Memory, Bergson poses a fundamental challenge to psychology in seeking to illustrate that memories are not conserved in the brain, and he claims that memory is not in the brain but rather in time, time is not a thing but it is duration because nothing can be in anything (Pearson, 2010). Thus, Bergson stands against the idea of penetration the memory into the inside of the brain and argued that the brain is not in the head but rather it is in the world and it’s only a small part of the life of the organism, which is limited to the present (Pearson, 2010). He famously puts it ‘The brain is part of the material world; the material world is not part of the brain. Eliminate the image which bears the name material world, and you destroy at the same time the brain and the cerebral disturbance which are parts of it’ (Bergson, 1896). In this context, memory is continues progress of importing to the past which constitutes a virtual dimension of present though producing and reproducing new memories at any moment and encouraging to creation of the future.

Proust had read Bergson’s Matter and Memory and heavily influenced by his readings of Bergson, especially about the conception of memory. However, he criticized Bergson’s analysis on memory and pointed out his own approach is very different from Bergson’s. In all his works, Proust had stated that there are two kinds of memory, voluntary and involuntary. While the involuntary memory is the most famous and is in the center of Proust’s interest since it causes aesthetic pleasure, voluntary memory does not have this special quality (Bartsch, 2005).

Proust, in his monumental novel À La Recherche du Temps Perdu or In Search of Lost Time, tries to produce experience, as Bergson imagines it and gives several examples how an action or a bodily event may cause a remembrance, even leading into an illusion. In the novel, Proust told a story about biting into the Madeleine cakes after dipping it of lime-flower tea when he was an old man, which makes his memory returns and brings into his mind a childhood memory about his aunt. And once he had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine which his aunt used to give him, suddenly the past in the present have coincided. This madeleine anecdote is considered one of the most important passages of the novel and explains the involuntary memory effect which triggers the past in an experience such as a taste or smell. Thus, Proust claims that the past is hidden in some material object or in a sensation that of material object give us, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment. And coming upon this memory, which is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, merely depends on chance (Proust, 1927).  In this context, involuntary memory, for Proust, is like a black hole in which we do not have very much control over it, but only by chance you may produce it. Benjamin has criticized Proust’s notion of memory which depends on a chance to catch up with the past which is left behind. And Benjamin argued that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past or something we must wait for time to come up. But rather memory is a medium. It is a medium which is experienced, lived synchronically, which is devoid completely of any temporality, though it depends on the lapse of time (Sinha, 1998).

Besides, Benjamin developed a theory of experience which is a synthesis of Bergson’s conception of memory with Freud’s theory of trauma. In Benjamin, like Bergson, while the past exists outside representation, it is actualized in images; Freud’s theory became an explanation of how cultural forms could be approached as carrying the equivalent of unconscious memory traces.  Further, Benjamin aligns Bergson and Freud through their shared understanding of consciousness as destructive of memory traces (Meek, 2007).

Additionally, taking the narrative oral tradition as his vehicle in his famous essay so-called The Storyteller, Benjamin attempted to draw attention the notion of storyteller in order to explain the decay of experience. Subsequently, the storyteller, for Benjamin, takes what he tells from his own experiences and makes it the experiences of those who are listening to him. And Benjamin argued storytelling was for a long time an artisan form of communication, which does not merely aim to transfer the pure essence of the thing, like a report or information. But today, just like memory having disappeared, the communicability of experience is decreasing and art of storytelling is reaching its end. The earliest symptom of the decline of storytelling is the rise of novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While the storyteller conveys experience, the novelist as a solitary individual has isolated himself. Therefore, the novel has appeared a new way of communication, just like newspapers which gives information. Indeed the value of information can only survive at that moment, it was new.  But a story is different. That is why we still remember the stories our grandmother told us when we were little kids while we cannot remember the headline of the newspaper that we had read yesterday.

All in all, Proust has defined two kinds of memory, the first voluntary memory and the second the involuntary memory which is the most famous one in Proust’s works, especially in In Search of Lost Time.  Involuntary memory is famously exemplified through the metaphor of the Madeleine cakes that Proust made as the trigger for nostalgia in his novel in order to define how some material object or in a sensation that of material object may cause a remembrance.  However, Benjamin rejected this approach of memory which depends on merely on chance and he defined the very notion of experience which is in a sense related with Bergson’s conception of experience in the duration. Through extending Bergson’s concept of duration, Benjamin rejected ahistorical approach of Bergson within human experience and provided understanding of consciousness as destructive of memory traces from the perspectives of Bergson as well as Freud.



Bartsch, R. (2005). Concept Formation, Remembrance and Understanding. In Memory and Understanding: Concept Formation in Proust’s A la Recherche Du Temps Perdu. John Benjamins Publishing.

Benjamin, W. (1973), “The Storyteller”, in his Illuminations, London: Fontana.

Bergson, H. (1896). Matter and Memory. London: George Allen and Unwin. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer.

Freud, S. (1899). The Interpretation of Dreams.

Meek, A. (2007). Benjamin, Trauma and the Virtual. Walter Benjamin and the Virtual: Politics, Art, and Mediation in the Age of Global Culture, (15). Retrieved from: http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_15/article_02.shtml

Proust, M. (1927). Swann’s Way. In Search of Lost Time. Retrieved from: http://genius.com/Marcel-proust-swanns-way-chapter-1-annotated

Radstone, S., & Schwarz, B. (2010). Bergson on Memory by Keith Ansell-Pearson. In Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. Fordham Univ Press.

Sinha, A. (1998). The Intertwining of Remembering and Forgetting in Walter Benjamin. Connecticut Review, 20(2), 99-110. Retrieved from: http://www.wbenjamin.org/remembering.html