For all the fame of Proust’s idea of unforced memories, they occur precious few times in the novel. Aside from the opening madeleine scene, the others happen within a few pages in Time Regained. Yet Marcel feels they give him the key to writing. Given their rare appearance and the fact that they are “unforced” (how can you rely on a tool that is not voluntary?), I have found the idea problematic. So I’ll dig a little deeper into the passages involved to see what my problem is.
The first question the narrator asks is how come unforced memories seem to have more power when recalled than when they were imprinted on our memory? When these perceptions are experienced, they often are not the focus of our attention. The feel of a napkin at the Guermantes party, brings back the seaside colors of Balbec.
And what I found myself enjoying was not merely these colours but a whole instant of my life on whose summit they rested, an instant which had been no doubt an aspiration towards them and which some feeling of fatigue or sadness had perhaps prevented me from enjoying at Balbec but which, freed from what is necessarily imperfect in external perception, pure and disembodied, caused me to swell with happiness. (VI,259)
In addition, the intellect wants connections between perceptions and, finding none, “forgets” them.
…the slightest word that we have said, the most insignificant action that we have performed at any one epoch of our life was surrounded by, and coloured by the reflexion of, things which logically had no connexion with it and which later have been separated from it by our intellect which could make nothing of them for its own rational purposes, things, however, in the midst of which–here the pink reflexion of the evening upon the flower-covered wall of a country restaurant, a feeling of hunger, the desire for women, the pleasure of luxury; there the blue volutes of the morning sea and, enveloped in, phrases of music half emerging like the shoulders of water-nymphs–the simplest act or gesture remains immured as within a thousand sealed vessels, each one of them filled with things of a colour, a scent, a temperature that are absolutely different one from another…(VI,260)
But why should the abrupt return to consciousness of these old memories cause a joyful sensation?
The truth surely was that the being within me which had enjoyed these impressions had enjoyed them because they had in them something that was common to a day long past and to the present, because in some way they were extra-temporal, and this being made its appearance only when, through one of these identifications of the present with the past, it was likely to find itself in the one and only medium in which it could exist and enjoy the essence of things, that is to say: outside time. This explained why it was that my anxiety on the subject of my death had ceased at the moment when I had unconsciously recognised the taste of the little madeleine… (VI,262)
The other source of pleasure in an unforced memory is that it allows the imagination to savour the perception, something not permitted otherwise. Marcel has many times been disappointed in the reality of a town or church that had previously existed only in his imagination.
…my imagination, which was the only organ that I possessed for the enjoyment of beauty, could not apply itself to it, in virtue of that ineluctable law which ordains that we can only imagine what is absent. And now, suddenly, the effect of this harsh law had been neutralized, temporarily annulled, by a marvellous expedient of nature which had caused a sensation–the noise made both by the spoon and by the hammer, for instance–to be mirrored at one and the same time in the past, so that my imagination was permitted to savour it …(VI,263)
Aside from the pleasure aroused, what meaning for the artist can be attached to these experiences?
For the truths which the intellect apprehends directly in the world of full and unimpeded light have something less profound, less necessary than those which life communicates to us against our will in an impression which is material because it enters us through the senses but yet has a spiritual meaning which it is possible for us to extract….the task was to interpret the given sensations as signs of so many laws and ideas, by trying to think–that is to say, to draw forth from the shadow–what I had merely felt, by trying to convert it into its spiritual equivalent. And this method, which seemed to me the sole method, what was it but the creation of a work of art? (VI,273)
Marcel now has a tentative answer to his lifelong question, what to write about. He had allowed his intellect to thrash about, unconnected to the truths nature had imprinted deep within himself.
When an idea–an idea of any kind–is left in us by life, its material pattern, the outline of the impression that is made upon us, remains behind as the token of its necessary truth. The ideas formed by the pure intelligence have no more that a logical, a possible truth, they are arbitrarily chosen….What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown. (VI,275)
This is the elegant Proustan version of the old advice to writers, write what you know about.