Beckett on Proust: Memory and Style

Beckett on involuntary memory:

The most successful evocative experiment can only project the echo of a past sensation, because, being an act of intellection, it is conditioned by the prejudices of the intelligence which abstracts from any given sensation, as being illogical and insignificant, a discordant and frivolous intruder, whatever word or gesture, sound or perfume, cannot be fitted into the puzzle of a concept. But the essence of any new experience is contained precisely in this mysterious element that the vigilant will reject as an anachronism. It is the axis about which the sensation pivots, the centre of gravity of its coherence. So that no amount of voluntary manipulation can reconstitute in its integrity an impression that the will has–so to speak–buckled into incoherence. But if, by accident,  and given favourable circumstances (a relaxation of the subject’s habit of thought and a reduction of the radius of his memory, a generally diminished tension of consciousness following upon a phase of extreme discouragement), if by some miracle of analogy the central impression of a past sensation recurs as an immediate stimulus which can be instinctively identified by the subject with the model of duplication (whose integral purity has been retained because it has been forgotten), then the total past sensation, not its echo nor its copy, but the sensation itself, annihilating every spatial and temporal restriction, comes in a rush to engulf the subject in all the beauty of its infallible proportion. (53-54)

The most trivial experience–he says in effect–is encrusted with elements that logically are not related to it and have consequently been rejected by our intelligence: it is imprisoned in a vase filled with a certain perfume and a certain colour and raised to a certain temperature. These vases are suspended along the height of our years, and, not being accessible to our intelligent memory, are in a sense immune, the purity of their climatic content is guaranteed by forgetfulness, each one is kept at its distance, at it date. So that when the imprisoned microcosm is besieged in the manner described, we are flooded by a new air and a new perfume (new precisely because already experience), and we breathe the true air of Paradise, of the only Paradise that is not the dream of a madman, the Paradise that has been lost. (55)

 But if this mystical experience communicates an extratemporal essence, it follows that the communicant is for the moment an extratemporal being. Consequently the Proustian solution consists, in so far as it has been examined, in the negation of Time and Death, the negation of Death because the negation of Time. Death is dead because Time is dead. (At this point a brief impertinence, which consists in considering Le Temps Retrouvé almost as inappropriate a description of the Proustian solution as Crime and Punishment of a masterpiece that contains no allusion to either crime or punishment. Time is not recovered, it is obliterated. Time is recovered, and Death with it,  when he leaves the library and joins the guests, perched in precarious decrepitude on the aspiring stilts of the former and preserved from the latter by a miracle of terrified equilibrium. If the title is a good title the scene in the library is an anticlimax. (56-57)

Beckett on Proust’s style:

The narrator had ascribed his ‘lack of talent’ to a lack of observation, or rather to what he supposed was a non-artistic habit of observation. he was incapable of recording surface….The copiable he does not see. He searches for a relation, a common factor, substrata. Thus he is less interested in what is said than in the way in which it is said. Similarly his faculties are more violently activated by intermediate than by terminal–capital–stimuli. We find countless examples of these secondary reflexes. Withdrawn in his cool dark room at Combray he extracts the total essence of a scorching midday from the scarlet stellar blows of a hammer in the street and the chamber-music of flies in the gloom. Lying in bed at dawn, the exact quality of the weather, temperature and visibility, is transmitted to him in terms of sound, in the chimes and calls of hawkers. (63)

By his impressionism I mean his non-logical statement of phenomena in the order and exactitude of their perception, before they have been distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect….In this connection Proust can be related to Dostoievski, who states his characters without explaining them. It may be objected that Proust does little else but explain his characters. But his explanations are experimental and demonstrative. he explains them in order that they may appear as they are–inexplicable. He explains them away. (66-67)


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2 Responses to “Beckett on Proust: Memory and Style”

  1. X V Anthony (author of the novel That Certain Feeling) Says:

    Involuntary memories. All of us have experienced these – in my case predominantly in adolescence and early manhood. And while indeed they are sweet and seem to transport one to an ecstatic state of extratemporality, they are yet, in my own experience and that of others I’ve spoken to, characterised by both brevity and rarity. Their brevity: the experiences of that delicious essence of a lost part of our lives are all too fleeting. I know of no one for whom one of these episodes, lasting no more than a few seconds, has conjured up the whole past surrounding such a restored fragment – which is what happens when Proust’s narrator tastes the tea-soaked madeleine: it enables him to describe the true essence (as opposed to his previously sterile willed memories) of his life at Combray in full, exhaustive detail. Their rarity: don’t these involuntary memories occur so seldom as to be of scarcely any practical use to a writer bent on recapturing the past. So it has always seemed to me that far from being a believable account of the validity of involuntary memory being the great key that could finally unlock the true past for the narrator and enable him at last to write his great work, the episodes of the madeleine, the paving stone, etc. were actually no more than a literary device that enabled a thankful Proust at last to give shape to the otherwise shapeless narrative into which he wanted to put so many things (the book of essays as he himself called it). I put this in person to Tadie, the greatest living authority on Proust, and he said that it was true that nowhere in Proust’s working notebooks or in his voluminous correspondence or in his recorded comments on his writing did he ever mention the overriding significance to him of involuntary memory (episodes of the phenomenon in Jean Santeuil are buried in the body of the novel and more or less passed over). This lent further weight to what I had always believed: involuntary memory not the necessary key to the great truths of the novel but, as I’ve already termed it, a literary device.
    Your thoughts on this?

    • Jim Everett Says:

      I agree with your thoughts on the relative inability of the power of involuntary memories to evoke entire experiences. It is, as you say, a literary method first and foremost. My own way of thinking about involuntary memories is that Proust is fascinated with them because they are a kind of natural metaphor, a temporal metaphor. The following passage I think encapsulates his thought:

      *An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connexion between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with thema connexion that is suppressed in a simple cinematographic vision, which just because it professes to confine itself to the truth in fact departs widely from ita unique connexion which the writer has to rediscover in order to link for ever in his phrase the two sets of phenomena which reality joins together. (VI,289)*

      This “certain connection” is what makes metaphor such a powerful way to uncover essences, whether in the traditional or this natural form. Proust wants to write of the past *as if* the “scents and sounds” were freshly re-experienced as a volunary memory.Another way to say this is that he wanted to re-visit the initial impressions of experience, before the intellect categorized and analysed them. I think he held up involuntary memories as an ideal that he had to emulate in every descrptive passage.

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