A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Proust Project, Day 46

Where this began
Day 45


In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), pp. 217- 234.

Proust begins the section called "Place-Names: The Place" with a recapitulation of what might be called the "madeleine theory" of memory, or as the narrator puts it, "the general laws of remembering," which are predicated on the fact that memories are often spontaneously generated by similar sensory events that, when we experienced them in other contexts, we thought too trivial to notice: sights, sounds, scents, tastes -- like that of the tea-soaked crumbs of a madeleine.
Habit weakens all things; but the things that are best at reminding us of a person are those which, because they were insignificant, we have forgotten, and which have therefore lost none of their power. Which is why the greater part of our memory exists outside us, in a dampish breeze, in the musty air of a bedroom or the smell of autumn's first fires, things through which we can retrieve any part of us that the reasoning mind, having no use for it, disdained, the last vestige of the past, the best of it, the part which, after all our tears seem to have dried, can make us weep again.

Having finally made the journey to Balbec, and convincing himself that he "had reached a state of almost complete indifference toward Gilberte," he still finds that life is "unchronological" and "anachronistic in its disordering of our days." He sometimes finds himself "living farther back in time than I had been on the day or two before, back in the much earlier time when I had been in love with Gilberte." Overhearing some words spoken by a passing stranger recalls a similar phrase from a conversation Gilberte had once had with her father.

The temporal disorientation lasts only briefly, however, because "his life at Balbec was free of the habits that in usual circumstances would have helped it prevail."
Habit may weaken all things, but it also stabilizes them; it brings about a dislocation, but then makes it last indefinitely. For years past, I had been roughly modeling my state of mind each day on my state of mind the day before. At Balbec, breakfast in bed -- a different breakfast -- was to be incapable of nourishing the ideas on which my love for Gilberte had fed in Paris.

Or as he puts it another way: "the best way to gain time is to change place."

On the other hand, the process of changing place seems to cast him back into a second childhood, in which all his childish attachment to his mother is restored. And his enthusiasm for seeing this place he has dreamed of is tempered by his awareness that he will probably be in some way disappointed or disillusioned: "Long before going to see La Berma, ... I had learned that whatever I longed for would be mine only at the end of a painful pursuit; and that this supreme goal could be achieved only on condition that I sacrifice to it the pleasure I had hoped to find in it."

The trip itself puts him once again in the hands of the women who have coddled him, not only his mother but also his grandmother and Françoise. And this man whom we have seen holding his own with Bergotte, listening to the grownup conversations in Mme. Swann's salon, selling his Aunt Léonie's bequest to woo Gilberte, and spending his time with prostitutes, is once again reduced to the emotional state of a little boy fearing separation from his mother.