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.


Dorothy W. said...

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.

Stefanie said...

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?

LK said...

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.