How can memories overcome death and return to share our life? Marcel Proust on remembrance of the past

“Each time the natural laziness which deters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, has urged me to leave the things alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and of my hopes for to-morrow, which let themselves be pondered over without effort or distress of mind.”


“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,” Henri Bergson famously wrote in Matter and Memory (1896). He remarked that memories are not conserved in the brain, but rather in time. “Memory, inseparable in practice from perception, imports the past into the present, contracts into a single intuition many moments of duration, and thus by a twofold operation compels us, de facto, to perceive matter in ourselves, whereas we, de jure, perceive matter within matter.” For Bergson, memory – as an absolute motor of human activity and the intersection of mind and matter – constitutes a virtual dimension of present though producing and reproducing new memories at any moment.

Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871 – November 18, 1922) also tried to recapture and understand the past and memory in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s legendary magnum opus In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu, 1913-1927) where he observed:

“The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.”

In Swann’s Way, the details of French bourgeois and aristocratic life are interwoven with narrator’s explorations of the feelings and thoughts underlying even the smallest actions. The novel begins with the unnamed first-person narrator’s efforts to recapture and understand his old memories of Combray, where he spent much of his childhood. His remembrance of the past is simply triggered by the taste of plump little cakes called “petites madeleines” soaked in tea. One day in winter, as the narrator comes home, his mother offers him some tea and madeleines. As soon as the narrator recognizes the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which his aunt used to give him, the image of those memories dissociates itself from those of the Combray days to take its place among the more recent ones, viz.:

“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”

The visual memory, the old and dead moment which is linked to the taste of the cake soaked in tea, travels and tries to reach the narrator’s conscious mind. Accordingly, Proust claims that the past is hidden in some material object or in a sensation that of material object gives us. He writes:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

The madeleine anecdote is considered one of the most important passages of the novel and explains the involuntary memory effect which triggers the past through an experience such as a taste or a smell. Proust believes that involuntary memory is held captive in a material object, and it is lost to us until the day when we happen to obtain possession of the object which forms its prison.

Proust’s theory of involuntary memory is accordingly related to the Celtic belief that the souls of the things we have lost are held captive in an object until the day we obtain the possession of the object. Then merely by chance they can overcome death and return to share our life.

But cultural theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin took a different approach to the notion of remembrance – he criticized Proust’s notion of memory which merely depends on a chance to catch up with the past which is left behind. Benjamin argued that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past or something we must wait for a time to come up, but rather it is the medium. In Excavation and Memory (1932), he writes:

“Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.”

In fact, the relation of history and memory has been a favorite theme throughout the history of philosophy; it has been studied by various scholars and each scholar has approached the concept from a different perspective. And yet Proust’s notion of involuntary memory is unique for its description of the past. Proust intricately and beautifully relates the childhood memories of the narrator with the life of bourgeois and aristocratic classes. The memories from the child’s viewpoint give an emotional dimension to the novel and make it a splendid read.