Beckett on Proust: Memory


Beckett says that “Memory and Habit are attributes of the Time cancer.”

The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his  existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. (8)

The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations (because by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave-sheets serve as swaddling-clothes) represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being. (8)

The narrator cannot sleep in a strange room, is tortured by a high ceiling, being used to a low ceiling. What is taking place? The old pact is out of date. It contained no clause treating of high ceilings. The habit of friendship for the low ceiling is ineffectual, must die in order that a habit of friendship for the high ceiling may be born. Between this death and that birth, reality, intolerable, absorbed feverishly by his consciousness at the extreme limit of its intensity, by his total consciousness organised to avert the disaster, to create the new habit that will empty the mystery of its threat–and also of its beauty. (10-11)

‘Enchantment of reality’ has the air of a paradox. But when the object is perceived as particular and unique and not merely the member of a family, when it appears independent of any general notion and detached from the sanity of a cause, isolated and inexplicable in the light of ignorance, then and then only may it be a source of enchantment. Unfortunately Habit has laid its veto on this form of perception, its action being precisely to hide the essence–the Idea–of the object in the haze of conception–preconception. (11)

…the reader is cordially invited to omit this summary analysis of what is perhaps the greatest passage that Proust ever wrote–Les Intermittances du Coeur.  This incident takes place on the first evening of the narrator’s second visit to Balbec.On this occasion he is with his mother, his grandmother having died a year before. But the dead annex the quick as surely as the Kingdom of France annexes the Duchy of Orléans….He arrives tired and ill, as on the former occasion that has been analysed as an example of the death of habit. Now, however, the dragon has been reduced to docility, and the cavern is a room….He stoops down–cautiously, in the interests of his heart–to unbutton his boots. Suddenly he is filled with a divine familiar presence. Once more he is restored to himself by that being whose tenderness, several years earlier, in a similar moment of distress and fatigue, had brought him a moment’s calm, by his grandmother as she had then, as she had continued to be until that fatal day of her stroke in the Champs Elysées, after which nothing remained of her but a name, so that her death was of as little consequence to the narrator as the death of a stranger. Now, a year after her burial, thanks to the mysterious action of involuntary memory, he learns that she is dead….But he has not merely extracted from this gesture the lost reality of his grandmother: he has recovered the lost reality of himself, the reality of his lost self….But this resumption of a past life is poisoned by a cruel anachronism: his grandmother is dead. For the first time since her death, since the Champs Elysées, he has recovered her living and complete, as she was so many times, at Combray and Paris and Balbec. For the first time since her death he knows that she is dead, he knows who is dead. He had to recover her alive and tender before he could admit her dead and for ever incapable of any tenderness. This contradiction between presence and irremediable obliteration is intolerable. (25-28)

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