Thanks for the involuntary memories

Over at Involuntary Memory, Stefanie and Dorothy have engaged in a discussion over the madeleine scene in the Combray section of the book, which Stefanie cites as an example of involuntary memory. She goes on to say:

What I find most curious about Proust’s idea is that he places the key to memory in objects. The taste or smell or feel of an object can unlock a memory in such a way that one is transported back in time to relive it.

Proust uses auditory memory in ISoLT, particularly with Swann and his musical phrase from the “Vinteuil Sonata.” I think, however, that with music Proust is not evoking a memory from the past (as he does with the madeleine); rather, he is illustrating how a sensation can link us to a feeling that we have once experienced, and possibly hope to experience again. In the case of the madeleine, the narrator is linked with a specific time and place in the past, with a sense of nostalgia at their passing. In the case of Swann’s violin notes, the music acts as a stimulant of sorts, opening an inner passage within the soul that responds to this stimulant in a specific way which is relived (versus recalled) the instant the music is played again. Proust goes into quite a lot of detail on how this sensation, linked to romantic passion, is evoked once again from the violin notes (quoted in part here):

What had happened was that the violin had risen to a series of high notes on which it lingered as though waiting for something, holding on to them in a prolonged expectancy, in the exaltation of already seeing the object of its expectation approaching and with a desperate effort to try to endure until it arrived, to welcome it before expiring, to keep the way open for it another moment with a last bit of strength so that it could come through, as one holds up a trapdoor that would otherwise fall back.

To me, this type of involuntary memory is a way of keeping the past alive, of being able to relive a joyous experience or transcendent moment. Thus, Proust offers multiple layers of memory and the sensory experience: anticipation (Swann’s music), association (Odette’s flowers and the cattleyas) and recollection (the madeleine). An interesting question to ponder is the nature of memory – is it transitory or permanent? Is it a way of fixing time, and if so, how successful is it?

Oh, I’d like to write something really profound, but we’ll have to wait on that, as I am preparing for a short trip, where I hope to generate some of my own involuntary memories.

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3 Responses to Thanks for the involuntary memories

  1. Dorothy W. says:

    Have a great trip! That’s an interesting distinction you make between the madeleine scene and music — that music can evoke a feeling that can be relived again and again.


  2. Stefanie says:

    Nice post. And your questions about the nature of memory are apt. I am hoping Proust becomes more explicit in the upcoming books. But then maybe that’s too much to hope for. Will you be beginning the next book right away?


  3. LK says:

    Yes, next week I will start the second book. I am reading rather slowly, so I expect you all will catch up and then surpass me at some point.


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