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  • Writer's pictureDan Thompson

Remembrances of Things Past: The Recovery of Time

Updated: May 14, 2023

On Childhood and Proust

Reflections on Time, Remembrances of Things Past and The Recovery of Time
Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Intro: Wildflower

Wildflower, on its most fundamental, intimate and personal level is what it is like to be a child. The continuity of memory and consciousness in the moment. There is only now, but since all moments are now, all nows are one moment, each accessible to any other. In this way we get the most out of our experiences and experience everything we’ve ever experienced for the first time.

Like all experiences, we don’t get to think about them consciously while they are happening (even though that is what the recovery of time is all about), it’s only afterward, when we gain perspective that we undergo the transcendental reduction to see what made that experience ‘special’ ‘one of a kind’ and possibly get a chance to experience it again.

On Childhood and Proust

In his essay on the phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard, E.M. Kushner writes, “Childhood as a basic archetypal value… is more than the sum of our private memories (Kushner 1963:46).” Kushner is telling us, by way of Bachelard that the universality of childhood elicits archetypal, universal truths, but these truths are only recognizable once one has had a chance to experience them in many different circumstances, and sometimes not until the end of one’s life. A child imagines what his life will be like, while the adult remembers what it was like to be a child; “Memories reopen the gates of our dreams. The archetype is there, immutable, unmoved beneath our memory, unmoved beneath our dreams.” And, “childhood as an archetypal value is susceptible of communication for no one is entirely insensitive to it. It brings back the sense of wonder with which a child discovers realities for the first time.

Any image, peculiar though it may be, that is marked by the sign of childhood primitivity, has pure phenomenological significance.” I would also add that the ‘discovery’ of realities is actually a rediscovery, and one that everyone is sensitive and in Kushner’s words, ‘susceptible’ to. Everyone has had these experiences, but they are sometimes lost, i.e. loss of innocence, loss of identity, loss of self-knowledge that are sought after later in life whether consciously or unconsciously. Wholesomely or unwholesomely.

The best example, and one used in Jeff Malpas’ Place and Experience (1999:158) is Marcel Proust’s, ‘Remembrances of Things Past’, where the reader, character and author’s life are the ultimate journey in the search for purpose and meaning.

The literal translation of the French À la recherche du temps perdu, is ‘In Search of Lost Time’, which comes a lot closer to what the book is about and tries to do than ‘Remembrances’. It isn’t simply about remembering certain little ‘scenes’ from the author’s past, but about memory as an expedient to the reclamation and recovery of time itself. A recapitulation that must be accomplished before one’s death, much like the life review common in near death experiences or the eagle motif in Casteneda’s ‘The Eagle’s Gift’ (Casteneda 1981).

So by the end the book becomes an exercise in remembering, for both Marcel and Proust. A recapitulation, where Proust is redeemed by writing the book and Marcel is redeemed through his experiences on behalf of the writer. This is a situation that most writers will face at some point in their lives, where they require something from the book in return for the time spent writing it.

This is what happens in the final section Time Regained, which was actually conceived during the writing of the first part, Swann’s Way, but not fully realized until the book-as-life was complete. Establishing a full recapitulation which places the author and character in the platonic All Time of memory, or in more abstract terms conscious agents; the energetic particles that animate all matter, but do not sense or experience time because they are information-based, ruled only by probability. Conscious agents therefore exist at the absolute edge of physicality, where physical objects cease to be physical and begin to be virtual, like memory itself.

In Search of…

As Vladimir Nabokov writes in his Lectures on Literature, “something other than the operation of memory must happen: there must be a combination of a present sensation (especially taste, smell, touch, sound) with a recollection, a remembrance, of the sensuous past.” Later on he writes, quoting from Derrick Leon, “if we can retain the sense of our own identity, and at the same time live fully in that moment which we had for long believed to be no more, then, and only then, we are at last in full possession of lost time.”

What Nabokov is saying by means of Proust and what Proust is saying by means of his invented characters, is that the truth is not in the objects or the events that present themselves to our intellectual scrutiny, but the way they present themselves to each other over the course of time. Not our finite time, but their much less immediate kind of time, where time does not work on them as it does on us, so they can reveal things outside of time, as much now as they were then. As Marcel says, these associations memories and events…

“came to my mind pell-mell and I felt that that must surely be the hall mark of their genuineness. I had not set out to seek the two paving stones in the court which I struck my foot against. But it was precisely the fortuitous, unavoidable way in which I had come upon the sensation that guaranteed the truth of a past which that sensation revived and of the mental images it released, since we feel its effort to come up into the light and also the thrill of recapturing reality. That sensation is the guarantee of the truth of the entire picture composed of contemporary impressions which the sensation brings in its train (italics mine), with that unerring proportion of light and shadow, emphasis and omission, remembrance and oblivion, which conscious memory and observation will never know.”

Readers are well aware of Marcel’s experience of the madeleines and the tea, it is after all, one of the most cited literary references in existence—especially by people who have never read the book—but there are several other such instances, one of which involves a doorbell, like those mounted above the door in shops;

“It must be, then, that this tinkling was still there and also, between it and the present moment, all the infinitely unrolling past which I had been unconsciously carrying within me (italics mine). When the bell tinkled, I was already in existence and, since that night, for me to have been able to hear the sound again, there must have been no break of continuity, not a moment of rest for me, no cessation of existence, of thought, of consciousness of myself, since this distant moment still clung to me and I could recapture it, go back to it, merely by descending more deeply within myself. It was this conception of time as incarnate, of past years as still close held within us, which I was now determined to bring out in such bold relief in my book.”

This ‘infinitely unrolling past’ and ‘no break in continuity’ and ‘no cessation of existence, of thought…’ is Marcel’s way of talking about the parallel ‘lives’ of memories which make themselves available to us only under certain circumstances. As if they were waiting for us to catch up with them, years and miles hence, through a sound (a bell), a taste (a cookie dipped in tea) or even a loose stone (Time Regained 1927:100) where we remember again, as if for the first time.

They are memory plus meaning which is comprehended through the emotional center as well as the intellectual. The kind of experience that the Neoplatonists would call soul knowledge, set between the objective event and the subjective experience, or even deeper, the objective experience; the thing itself, and the subjective intuition or apperception of that thing; the thing-in-itself—unintelligible to anything or anyone outside of it—converting it, as he says, into a spiritual equivalent, “endeavouring to penetrate with my mind beyond the thing seen or heard or smelt… I would concentrate upon recalling exactly the line of the roof, the colour of the stone, which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me to be teeming, ready to open, to yield up to me the secret treasure of which they were themselves no more than the outer covering.” (Swann’s Way 195)

Later in Time Regained, the final section, Marcel contemplates memory as art, what he calls ‘musical airs’, the memories he says,

“did not contain an earlier experience but a new truth, a precious image which I was trying to discover by efforts of the kind one makes to remember something as though our loveliest ideas were like musical airs which might come to us without our having ever heard them and which we force ourselves to listen to and write down… that, as far back as at Combray, I was attempting to concentrate my mind on a compelling image, a cloud, a triangle, a belfry, a flower, a pebble, believing that there was perhaps something else under those symbols I ought to try to discover, a thought which these objects were expressing in the manner of hieroglyphic characters which one might imagine only represented material objects… For the truths which the intelligence apprehends through direct and clear vision in the daylight world are less profound and less necessary than those which life has communicated to us.”

What Marcel senses beneath these objects is a noumenal essence. His memories—or all memories for that matter—being the signifiers (the how) of a more meaningful signified (the why) that both the writer Proust and the character Marcel would later understand as a continuity between space and time—a signification. A basis in that which doesn’t change where the memories and their contents exist as much now as they did then so all of life is one unbroken ‘moment’.

Not the memory of the thing, but the apperception of it in a certain context; the cup that reminds us of a place, a car that reminds us of a song. A universal language of sensations and memories that rely on each other for their meaning. That if given enough time, or enough opportunities to experience them over again, one could develop a menu of such combinations to recreate any experience at will, or generate new ones with predicable outcomes. The objective that gives us the subjective and the subjective that gives us the objective.

One method that has been in use for millennia is that of sympathetic magic, which is like the ritualization of events, or the little games we play with ourselves to try to bring about a certain outcome through our intent. In our modern world these usually take the form of time-saving rituals, to get something done before another thing, or the completion of one task enables, brings about the completion of another in a certain amount of time; if that, then this, only we are the ones doing it.

Compare this with the late renaissance/ early enlightenment figures such as Goethe and Leibniz who believed that they could apperceive or intuit the essences of things in their material forms using a combination of empirical and rationalist methods. Deducing from personal experience universal if not absolute truths. However, deductive and inductive methods often fail to integrate experiences to their supposed ‘causes’ especially if these experiences are subjective and cannot be quantified, or even qualified to a third party. Therefore the correlations between disparate events and places are best described through metaphor, since it is through metaphor that we make connections between otherwise unconnected things and it is through the making of these connections that we construct our own reality, since reality itself is only a consensus between memory and sensation, between the intersubjective experiences of the individual agents with their various degrees of consciousness. Even time and space are no impediment to this continuity of consciousness, since nature is limited neither by time or space and art is the completion of nature, therefore art (metaphor) captures what neither deductive nor inductive methods can on their own.

Remembrances of Things Past: Time Regained

By the end of the book, which also happens to correspond with the end of his life, Proust tells us through the character Marcel that he no longer has the strength to carry the past. He needs somewhere to set it down, to store it outside of himself. His book became this release; a theory of Time that gave its characters the ability “to touch simultaneously epochs of their lives—with countless intervening days between—so widely separated from one another in Time.”

His life was his book and his book was his life, but he was unaware of the significance that his observations would have until he had a chance to look back upon them during the process of writing. When his present sensations were co-mingled with the memories of such sensations in the past, producing descriptive and evocative passages.

As any writer knows, there is an ironic trade-off in writing where the writing provides a means of storing experience, but also robs one of experience, so that one’s experience becomes that of writing. Of setting down and interpreting phenomena at the expense of having new experiences, so the writer’s existing experiences are all that he/ she has to draw upon. Continually examined and re-examined for universal truths that apply to all experience.

In other words, there is only so many times that someone can experience a thing, before that thing loses its potency, but rather, if one re-enacts the memory of the experience it remains pristine as the day it was formed and one can spend their life mastering the technique of summoning this impression at will in the recovery of time, since science has shown—and the mystic himself knows—that the brain cannot tell the difference between thought and experience, or memory and experience, so nothing is really lost at all.

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