Home » Worlds We Create: Art and Memory in Proust’s Swann’s Way

Worlds We Create: Art and Memory in Proust’s Swann’s Way

By Miranda Revilla

Revilla’s essay was nominated for publication by Professor Albert Fayngold.

Proust's Swann's Way

If the past is a foreign country, how do we get there? Both conventional wisdom and Proust’s epic work point to memory as the sole vehicle for taking us to the past, but is it really enough? It would seem so, yet, for a careful reader of Proust, it becomes evident that memory alone cannot accomplish the task. Marcel, the narrator and protagonist of Swann’s Way, seeks to actualize and identify himself in the present by orienting himself in the past. But before orienting himself in the past, he must first create it. Memory plays a central role in his method as it helps to re-create images in Marcel’s mind where, by acknowledging these recollected images as of the past, he places himself in the present. Yet this interdependence of past and present establishes them both as unstable: the past can only be seen and created in the present, while the present is only actualized through the idea that other events have happened before it. Marcel seeks to stabilize the present, his identity in the present, through Art in the narrative form – that by writing down the past from the perspective of the present, he is able to grasp and own the past experience; thus, giving him a sense of, and furthermore actualizing himself, in time and space.

While memory in general is one of the main themes of Swann’s Way, Marcel takes the idea further by dissecting it into two types: voluntary and involuntary. Marcel describes voluntary memory as having the ability to provide snapshots of the past which, with effort, are accessible to conscious recall – that these snapshots “would have been supplied to me only by my voluntary memory, the memory of the intelligence” (Proust 171). Marcel is aware that, while his mind is able to recollect certain pictures of the past, they are not full – not complete – as “the information it gives about the past preserves nothing of the past itself” (Proust 171). The mind only recognizes what it actively wants to recognize, isolating what it deems “significant” from those it sees as less significant; therefore, the memory of his intelligence on its own is insufficient in recovering the fullness of a past experience.

Voluntary memory then serves as merely a supplement to involuntary memory. Henri Bergson, a French philosopher and Proust’s contemporary, describes involuntary memory as an “exaltation of spontaneous memory in most cases where the sensory-motor equilibrium of the nervous system is disturbed” (Bergson 98). Marcel would agree that involuntary memory consists of an “exaltation of spontaneous memory;” however, Bergson’s definition might be too simple for him. Bergson fails to mention an important aspect to Marcel’s concept of involuntary memory: chance. According to Marcel, “the past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence… in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us)… it depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it” (Proust 172). As Marcel describes the encounter, it is by chance that he comes across the madeleine crumbs in his tea and, after tasting it, gathers the information from both his mind and his senses. He then tries to recognize the taste and its significance:

I can just barely perceive the neutral glimmer in which the elusive eddying of stirred-up colors is blended; but I cannot distinguish the form, cannot ask it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate for me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable companion… (Proust 173)

Marcel eagerly wants this memory to surface – to shape it and create something out of it, however, try as he might, he cannot seem to recognize it. He is unable to consciously reconcile the taste with its “one possible interpreter” – the form, the image of the past that the taste holds. It is only after several attempts at recognizing the taste, after “I clear away every obstacle, every foreign idea… protect my ears and my attention from the noises in the next room,” that Marcel spontaneously has a much more rounded and vivid recollection of Combray:

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me, immediately the old gray house on the street… and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea. (Proust 171)

The limited ability of the mind in recollecting thus gives way to a flowing, unrestrained stream of images that builds upon itself and stretches across the expanse of a memory from Marcel’s childhood. Involuntary memory not only fills in the gaps but colors the images which were first supplied by Marcel’s active voluntary memory – the conjunction of the two so creating a complete picture in Marcel’s mind. However, as shall be seen, it is not memory on its own that has the power to create – it is ultimately only through Art that Marcel is truly able to make something that does not exist, suggesting that memory, for Marcel, is less a goal than a means to Art.

How exactly is this goal accomplished? To answer this question, we must first grasp the full significance of the “madeleine moment.” Proust uses language in his narrative to suggest that the power of a memory, however small and albeit intangible, exceeds the powers of time and space. Originally, Proust had given the impression that Marcel had completely forgotten the parts of Combray that he cannot consciously recall and that they are “really quite dead” for him [Marcel], but this proves to be untrue when he tastes the madeleine in the lime-blossom tea. The “life and death” language that Proust uses in this passage, as a reminder of mortality and finitude, imply the urgency – the desperation – in Marcel’s quest for actualization. He analogizes a memory to the soul – the immaterial part of the individual, separate from the body, where the body would represent a physical object that is now gone:

But when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer, but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste remain for a long time, like souls remembering, waiting, and hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory. (Proust 171)

Proust uses the words “death” and “destruction” to show that something has been lost – as something must be lost in order to be remembered, however, something endures yet: “more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful,” which is a physical sensation (his preferred sensations being taste and smell). Despite the fact that a memory is what is left in the wake of what is now gone, it is still a means of vaguely re-experiencing. The “almost impalpable droplet” is the taste of the madeleine crumbs in the lime-blossom tea—the impalpability stemming from the fact that he has not yet recognized the significance of the taste and is trying to get it to surface and touch it—grasp it and give it form in his mind. As Paul Ricœur suggests in his Memory, History, Forgetting, “Recognizing appears at first an important complement to recollection… The small miracle of recognition, however, is to coat with presence the otherness of that which is over and gone” (Ricœur 39). Memory is, if nothing else, a reminder that what once was present is now gone – a place destroyed, a person dead, a moment past – itself still intangible and its real existence obscure. The image of an “almost impalpable droplet” bearing, without giving way to, the “immense edifice of memory” shows the significance that Proust gives to memory, particularly the ability of the senses of taste and smell in generating images of the past. While his mind is successful in recollecting a vivid image of the past, it [the past] still has no real existence except in his memory of it. In fact, the “vividness” of this rediscovered past is no more satisfactory than the blur of its unrecognized significance: in making the past present, it loses sight of the very experience of loss and longing that he values no less than the past itself. It becomes obvious then that something else is essential to Marcel’s quest for actualization. Just as voluntary memory needs involuntary memory to paint a full picture of the past in Marcel’s mind, so memory in total – the sum of recollected images – itself needs something more to physically and truly create the world of the past. But this something else could only be words. Memory imbues and saturates Marcel’s mind and he seeks to experience it; accordingly, memory itself is now coupled with longing, and this longing to own and fulfill the experience, to remember is what gives him the power to write. Therefore, it is only through Art – his narrative – that he is able to create from the recollected images of the past as he so desires to possess it.

What gives a sense of the relationship between Art and memory is the stream of consciousness style in which Proust describes the memory of Combray blossoming from his cup of tea. In the final passage of the Overture, Marcel goes into finally describing Combray extensively and fluidly as if, from that sip of tea, he has the ability to create a world out of the past—a memory that had previously been beyond conscious recall, starting from the madeleine his aunt gave him and culminating in the entire town of Combray. Marcel’s winding and flowing description of his childhood town make up a large portion of the passage; however, its source – at the very end of the passage – is merely a “cup of tea.” The flow of description in the passage reflects the liquid state of the source of the memory – the cup of tea. This fluidity is seen through Proust’s unwavering flow of words, which builds upon the image of Combray without any break in his stream by a period mark to end his thought. His description flows with commas from the moment he recognizes the taste until he describes the entire town of Combray “from morning to night and in all weathers.” From those three small words – “cup of tea” – comes a complete and specific description of a town and a memory he could not previously recall:

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me, immediately the old gray house on the street, where her bedroom was, came like a stage set to attach itself to the little wing opening onto the garden that had been built for my parents behind it; and with the house, the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square, where they sent me before lunch, the streets where I went on errands, the paths we took if the weather was fine… so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, acquiring form and solidity, emerged town and garden alike, from my cup of tea. (Proust 171)

This epic list of description is the high point of the entire Overture – everything from the first paragraphs of his troubled sleep to his recounting of his mother’s kiss arrive at this very moment. Marcel uses contrasting imagery – the picture of a village sprung from a mere cup of tea yet magnified to a near-urban scale – to suggest that remembrance and narrative are intertwined; when a memory is written, a world is created. Just as Proust describes memory as “immaterial,” such that it is the “soul” that remains in the wake of the physical thing that is now lost, so now the memory becomes flesh when it finds its narrative. Thus, Marcel takes the past beyond its existence in his own mind and finally incarnates it in the world of words. And yet the actualization of the present is still in doubt because, although Art and memory are able to establish the past experience of the “madeleine moment” as the closest moment we get to the present, they are still unable to provide us with a precise placement of the present.

Marcel first introduces the madeleine crumbs in the lime-blossom tea (the source of the memory) as part of the plot: “But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me” (Proust 172). After this introduction of the tea within the plot, he goes on to explain what the tea has presented to him with regard to memory – the description and picture of Combray – and he only mentions the cup of tea again after this long and winding description. The circular movement of the cup of tea in the narrative – from plot to description, then back to plot – suggests that Art, like a circle, has no beginning and no end. Thus, because he is unable to define a point as the present, he fails in creating the present. Marcel’s project for actualization and identity is, in final analysis, unsuccessful as he fails to reconcile the present with either Art or memory. As such, the instability of Art and memory in Swann’s Way negate themselves as instruments in creating a stable present for Marcel, and instead only create the past.


Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and William Scott Palmer. London: G. Allen, 1912. Print.

Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Martin Puchner. Third ed. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 143-174. Print.

Ricœur, Paul. Memory, History, Forgetting. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004. Print.

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