Noxious Memory


Proust associates unforced memory with a visceral feeling of joy or enchantment, which may precede the conscious awareness of the actual memory. But the association is not always so pleasant. In two passages unforced memories evoke the deepest, sharpest feelings of pain found anywhere in the novel. As is often the case, the first such event is a rehearsal by Swann for that of Marcel: the discovery that their lovers are (horror alert!) female homosexuals. In Swann’s case, he suddenly realizes what he had unconsciously known all along, that Odette had been (another horror alert) Mme Verdurin’s lover.

One day, during the longest period of calm through which he had yet been able to exist without being overtaken by an access of jealousy, he had accepted an invitation to spend the evening at the theatre with the Princesse des Laumes. Having opened his newspaper to find out what was being played, the sight of the title–Les Filles de Marbre, by Théodore Barrière–struck him so cruel a blow that he recoiled instinctively and turned his head away. Lit up as though by a row of footlights, in the new surroundings in which it now appeared, the  word “marble,” which he had lost the power to  distinguish, so accustomed was he to see it passing in print beneath his eyes, had suddenly become visible again, and had at once brought back to his mind the story which Odette had told him long ago of a visit which she had paid to the Salon at the Palais de l’Industrie with Mme Verdurin, who had said to her, “Take care, now! I know how to melt you, all right. You’re not made of marble.”  Odette had assured him that it was only a joke, and he had attached no importance to it at the time. But he had had more confidence in her then than he had now. And the anonymous letter referred explicitly to relations of that sort.

…But now, by one of those inspirations of jealousy analogous to the inspiration  which reveals to a poet or a philosopher, who has nothing, so far, to go on but an odd pair of rhymes or a detached observation, the idea or the natural law which will give him the power he needs, Swann recalled for the first time an observation which Odette had made to him at least two years before: “Oh, Mme Verdurin, she won’t hear of anyone just now but me. I’m a ‘love,’ if you please, and she kisses me, and wants me to go with her everywhere, and call her tu.” So far from seeing at the time in this observation any connexion with the absurd remarks intended to simulate vice which Odette had reported to him, he had welcomed them as a proof of Mme Verdurin’s warm-hearted and generous friendship. But now this memory of her affection for Odette had coalesced suddenly with the memory of her unseemly conversation. He could no longer separate them in his mind, and he saw them assimilated in reality, the  affection imparting a certain seriousness and importance to the pleasantries which, in return robbed the affection of its innocence. He went to see Odette. He sat down at a distance from her. He did not dare to embrace her, not knowing whether it would be affection or anger that a kiss would provoke, either in her or in himself. He sat there silent, watching their love expire. (I,512-514)

As with Swann, a seemingly innocent remark sets off a nearly identical reaction in Marcel.

“…Well, this friend (oh! not at all the type of woman you might suppose!), isn’t this extraordinary, is the best friend of your Vinteuil’s daughter, and I know Vinteuil’s daughter almost as well as I know her. I always call them my two big sisters. I’m not sorry to show you that your little Albertine, can be of use to you in this question of music, about which you say, and quite rightly, that I know nothing at all.”

At the sound of these words, uttered as we were entering the station of Parville, so far from Combray and Montjouvain, so long after the death of Vinteuil, an image stirred in my heart, an image which I had kept in reserve for so many years that even if I had been able to guess, when I stored it up long ago, that it had a noxious power, I should have supposed that in the course of time it had entirely lost it; preserved alive in the depths of my being–like Orestes whose death the gods had prevented in order that, on the appointed day, he might return to his native land to avenge the murder of Agamemnon–as a punishment, as a retribution (who knows?) for my having allowed my grandmother to die; perhaps rising up suddenly from the dark depths in which it seemed for ever buried, and striking like an Avenger, in order to inaugurate for me a new and terrible and only too well-merited existence, perhaps also to make dazzlingly clear to my eyes the fatal consequences which evil actions eternally engender, not only for those who have committed them but for those who have done no more, or thought that they were doing no more, than look on at a curious and entertaining spectacle, as I, alas, had done on that afternoon long ago at Monjouvain, concealed behind a bush where (as I had complacently listened to the account of Swann’s love affairs) I had perilously allowed to open up within me the fatal and inevitably painful road of Knowledge. And at the same time, from my bitterest grief I derived a feeling almost of pride, almost of joy, that of a man whom the shock he has just received has carried at a bound to a point to which no voluntary effort could have brought him….It was a terrible terra incognita on which I had just landed, a new phase of undreamed of sufferings that was opening before me. (IV,702-703)

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