Proust & the Nature of Memory

Tony Rawson

BRLSI Member

2 November 2004

Proust recognised that memory involves several distinct processes. In Sodom and Gomorrah he distinguishes between Voluntary memory - to illustrate which he recounts an incident of trying to remember someone's name - and Involuntary memory which is illustrated by the famous incident of the Madeleine dipped in tea, when the recurrence of a rare sensual experience evokes a whole raft of memories of his early life.

According to the Canadian physician, Wilder Penfield, electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe can make subjects relive the past as if it were the present.

Towards the end of Time Regained, through his character Marcel, Proust introduces the idea that the world of the imagination is the only world in which perfection can exist. ‘And perhaps, if I had been disposed to think Bergotte wrong when he spoke of the life of the mind and its joys, it was because what I thought of at that moment as ‘the life of the mind’ was a species of logical reasoning which had no connection with it or with what existed in me at this moment.’

Sir Frank Bartlett demonstrated that explicit memories involve simplifications, additions, elaboration and rational-isations of learning experiences as well as omissions of elements of the initial learning. The memory in short, occurs in the context of what Bartlett called a cognitive schema, which includes the expectations and biases of the person concerned.

Brenda Milner also found that long term memory involves at least two stages, an initial one requiring the temporal lobe and a later stage involving some other brain region, most likely the neocortex. The temporal lobe is needed for forming long-term memories, but gradually over the years, memories become independent of this brain system and are stored in schemata

Schemata are packets that organise information and make sense of experience. These are the building blocks of cognition. Schemas embody the rules and categories that order raw experience into coherent meaning. All knowledge and experience is packaged in schemas. Schemas are the ghosts in the machine, the intelligence that guides information as it flows through the brain.

Jean Piagett, the pioneer Swiss developmental psychol-ogist, studied how schemata change as children grow. We have become who we are and learned what we know, by virtue of the schemata we have acquired along the way. Schemata accrue with time; the schemata we have at a given point are the product of our particular private history. (See Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self-Deception, and Joseph le Doux’s The Emotional Brain. The best authority on schemata is David Rummelhart's Schemata, the Building Blocks of Cognition.) Proust presents personality as intermittent, unpredictable and contradictory.

We cannot be aware of all our various selves in the same moment except in rare moments of self-recognition, as at the end of A la Recherche du temps Perdu: On ne se réalise que successivement. One finds not one self, but a succession of selves. This also coincides with research into brain function

Rousseau who had a huge influence on Proust has Julie expressing La Nouvelle Eloise. In this world, the realm of fantasy or fiction (chimeras) is the only one worth living in, and the emptiness of human beings is so great that except for being itself, nothing is beautiful but what does not exist.

The narrator’s realisation of his vocation coincides with his involuntary memory of himself standing in the baptistery of St Mark’s Cathedral. His involuntary memory comes to him as a revelation and inspiration in the spatial form of the cathedral -novel - the instantaneous view of the novel as it appears not in its temporal, linear form, but in the extra temporal, simultaneous form of a cathedral. There for the first time in his mental St Mark's, the narrator sees the structure of the church around him, i.e. the shape his novel will take.

In his work, Proust appears to follow the theory of the ‘wise master builder’ a term originating from St Paul and documented by Mary Carruthers in her work The Poet as Master Builder.

In response to those who would criticise his work on Ruskin by saying that he should be concerned with developing his own ideas and not Ruskin’s, Proust replies:

There is no better way of becoming aware of how one feels oneself, than to try to recreate in oneself the feelings of a master. In this deep effort, it is our thought that we bring into daylight along with his. It is a naïve sophistry that writers obey without knowing it, when they try to empty themselves, Believing that they have ridden themselves of all outside influences in order to be original.

Thanks to Art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see many, as many as there are creative artists. Each book contains different symbols, found within its author, which provide the key to the world as each author has known it and also the raw materials that form the reader’s own creations.

Memory retains and creates. The book of memory, as it appears in Montaigne and in Proust, is in essence imagination of which the authors are the architects and builders. As a text, a constructed artificial memory sets forth an interpretation of the world cast of the authors own life, reading and context, which in turn holds up the mirror by which readers discover, orient and interpret themselves. Literary inheritance relies on this function of all texts; history itself is a hall of such mirrors.

The world of love and society that seems meaningless will only achieve significance when it is given form in art. If one is looking for the truth about the human condition, one may find it but it will not make one happy. If one looks for the truth about human society, one may find it but it will not make one happy.

Marcel creates his own world and gives it meaning through the structure and analogies, which, he discovers within it.

By creating ones own universe through the imagination and giving it form in art, one may be following in the line of the great masters, receive inspiration and possibly achieve happiness

See: the article by Cynthia Israel, ‘Montaigne & Proust: Architects of Memory’ (Indiana University).

Tony Rawson