No Comment, Quotation — June 13, 2009, 6:49 am

Proust – Memory and the Foods of Childhood

chardin-brioche

Mais, quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir.

Et dès que j’eus reconnu le goût du morceau de madeleine trempé dans le tilleul que me donnait ma tante (quoique je ne susse pas encore et dusse remettre à bien plus tard de découvrir pourquoi ce souvenir me rendait si heureux), aussitôt la vieille maison grise sur la rue, où était sa chambre, vint comme un décor de théâtre…

When from the distant past nothing remains, after the beings have died, after the things are destroyed and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, yet more vital, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of everything else; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the immense architecture of memory.

Yet again I had recalled the taste of a bit of madeleine dunked in a linden-flower tea which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long await the discovery of why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street where her room was found, arose like a theatrical tableau…

Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann (1913) in: À la recherche du temps perdu vol. 1, p. 47 (Pléiade ed. 1954)(S.H. transl.)


When Lin Yutang (???) writes “what is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?,” it’s easy to see that as a flip comment. Actually, it’s a very serious remark about the way our memory works–just like this celebrated passage from Proust. The image of Proust’s madeleine, a spongy almond-flavored cookie baked in a press to look like a scallop shell, a delight with an afternoon cup of tea or coffee, has become an icon for this reclusive writer. But what is Proust telling us in this passage? All memories are not created equal, he suggests, some are imprinted more strongly than others. One can have a very sharp recollection of a specific experience from one’s childhood, and still have forgotten entirely what one had for breakfast in the morning. Moreover, the long-past recollection need not even be associated with some objectively significant event, something traumatic, or happy, or historical. Second, he is pointing to the role that smell and taste play in memory, which may in fact be very intense but is not generally closely associated with memory. Third, he is noting that memory and its clarity and detail depend a lot on the mood of the individual, both at the time of the initial experience and at the time of occurrence. One can struggle to recollection without success, and then the memory can come back suddenly, flooding the imagination of the rememberer, triggered by the strangest coincidence–the cup of linden-flower tea and the cookie, for instance. In our age, memory is facilitated greatly by artificial intelligence, by the Internet and computerized search programs. But the purely human memory has a very curious search program. The way we order and collect thoughts and memories is not entirely logical, and it links to all the senses–those of vision, touch, taste and sound. Our mind seems to act like a great sewing machine, stitching things together for reasons that may not immediately be present but which generally relate to the synchronization of the senses. Proust may not be a neuroscientist, as Jonah Lehrer suggests in his recent book, but he certainly appears to anticipate discoveries made long afterwards by scientists studying the functioning of the human brain.

Let’s pass from vision, smell and taste to sound. In other passages, Proust keys his recollection to sounds, like the last Beethoven string quartets and the chamber music of César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns. My friend Larry Bensky has done a terrific job combining readings from Proust with musical selections at Bard College’s Radio Proust project, which provides a wonderful introduction to Proust and the world of music. But there is one chamber piece I closely associate with Proust and the reading of his novel. I listened to it for the first time on a cold winter day when I was home sick, drinking tea and lemon in an effort to stay hydrated. Ever since that time, listening to it brings back recollections of fever and coughs, lemon and tea, and reading Proust. It’s Maurice Ravel’s piano trio in A minor, composed about the same time that the first volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu was appearing, in 1914. This is one of my favorite pieces of chamber music, unmistakably modern and still clearly an echo of earlier works, like the Saint-Saëns trio. The somber notes in a minor key, the brilliant adaptation of simple Basque tunes into beautifully elaborated movements, the wonderful notes struck by the cello at the outset of the third movement, and at last, the process of recollection as themes enter, depart and are revived, all strikes me as consummately Proustian, just as it reflects the great genius of Ravel. By the way, there is a curious thread that ties together the lives of Maurice Ravel and Marcel Proust: it’s the amazing figure of Céleste Albaret, who was housekeeper to Proust in his last years, and then moved to the little village of Montfort-l’Amaury west of Paris to keep Ravel’s home.

Listen to an inspired performance of Maurice Ravel’s piano trio in A minor by the Beaux Arts trio, recorded at Indiana University back in the late seventies:

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Amount of laundry an average American family of four washes in a year (in tons):

1

A study of female Finnish twins found that relative preference for masculine faces is largely heritable.

It was reported that visits from Buddhist priests could be purchased through Amazon in Japan, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra began streaming performances through virtual-reality headsets.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today