Memory as a Human Form of Time

Howard Moss, longtime poetry editor of The New Yorker, knows how memory can induce ecstasy.

Of the three kinds of memory, conscious, unconscious, and involuntary, only the last is of supreme interest to Proust. In conscious memory, the mind searches for the relevant fact by an act of will. Unconscious memory is a repression of connections, usually painful, which the conscious mind cannot dredge up as relevant fact.

Involuntary memory is ike unconscious memory with two differences: 1) What stimulates it is immured in objects that decant the orignal sensation by chance, and only if, luckily, we come across those objects again in later life. 2) It is not, like unconscious memory, an unearthing of the past, but a reliving of the past as the present.

We may relive constantly and unwillingly an unconscious memory in our actions and psychological attitudes. In involuntary memory, we actually grasp the past as the present, as if time had literally stopped. No effort of will can achieve this since we have no control over the chance reappearance of things. Unconscious memory predisposes us to repeat what we have experienced. Involuntary memory induces perception and is not a repetition but a revelation.

It is difficult to separate unconscious memory from involuntary memory, but sleep, a paradox, helps to suggest the distinction: it is both the slave of habit and the liberator of memory. It leads us to time regained itself, for dreams are still under some form of conscious control–they are symbolic rather than real enactments. They allow us to remember what habit would have us forget, but we are permitted to do so only under the conditions of disguise. In involuntary memory, disguise is done away with; then becomes now in reality, not symbolically.

But when we say “reality,” we must qualify again. Though the process of involuntary memory makes time past time present, and is not disguised like a dream, reality itself is merely the outer shell of a suprareality that is hidden from us. Albertine’s body, the steeples, and the trees are apprehended by Marcel’s senses. But they are all outer envelopes enclosing vital cryptograms to which he does not have the code.

Involuntary memory, unlike unconscious memory, is miraculous. It is here that Proust parts with Freud and moves out of the world of psychology into the realm of metaphysics.

We truly remember only what we have forgotten. Memory is a human form of time. It is all we know of it, and when memory ceases, in the insane, in the dead, we may assume that time ceases for those particular organisms. Memory is, even more than habit, supremely paradoxical. Being a form of time, it, too, is about a “cause” and a “cure”; eliminating every link between the scenes it portrays to us, it spares us the nonentities of our selves by allowing us to recollect the selves we were; but since we are able only to recollect the past, it hurries us on to our dissolution.

The true power of involuntary memory lies not in what we remember but in the process of memory itself. It restores to us not only experiences of the past but the selves that experienced them.

Hearing Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” Swann rediscovers a happiness he thought lost to him forever. To Swann, the “little phrase” has emotional content. Losses are partly regained in romantic nostalgia. Marcel, describing Vinteuil’s septet, discovers something quite different. Relinquishing content, music is heard as pure form, the aesthetic equivalent of the temporal process. Eschewing every association, Vinteuil’s music becomes not an inducer of memory but memory itself. We have, in Proust, the orignal concept of memory as a metaphor of time, not content; because of this, music is memory’s most pertinent analogy. Form is apprehended as sensation; what is being formed is time. Marcel’s involuntary memories satisfy a necessary condition: the common quality of being felt simultaneously at the actual moment and at a distance in time. This quality is the exact condition music demands of the listener; time connections make sound intelligible without any reference to the objective world.

We contain within ourselves every  lost moment of our lives. It is necessary to be made aware that they are lost before we can regain them. Music informs us of this loss without specifying the nature of what we have relinquished. Like time, it tells us everything and nothing.

Involuntary memories are forms of ecstasy, “mnemonic resurrections” that do not contain earlier experiences so much as new truths. Sensations of the past are not duplications but sensation itself. Destroying the material world temporarily, they put in its place a world of revelation akin to the spiritual experiences of mystics… (94-97)



One Response to “Memory as a Human Form of Time”

  1. Proust as Philosopher: Looking for Joy | Proust Reader Says:

    […] metaphor has this power is the subject of de Beistegui’s book (and in this blog here, here, here and […]

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