Archive for March, 2012


March 25, 2012

Proust ends the goodnight kiss scene with a surprising insight.

It struck me that my mother had just made a first concession which must have been painful to her, that it was a first abdication on her part from the ideal she had formed for me, and that for the first time she who was so brave had to confess herself beaten. It struck me that if I had just won a victory it was over her, that I had succeeded, as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded, in relaxing her will, in undermining her judgment; and that this evening opened a new era, would remain a black date in the calendar.

Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 1018-1021). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In his victory is a mortal blow to his mother, “as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded.” I am grateful to Michael Wood in his LRB article, “Proust and his Mother” ( for providing the literary antecedents of this passage.

First, Wood shows the intensity of the mother/son relationship by recalling an intense argument Proust had with his mother and father where he grabbed one of his mother’s prized vases and smashed it to pieces. The argument may have started over a pair of gloves that his mother had bought for him (grey instead of yellow, as he had requested), or perhaps over a photograph that showed Proust in the close company of male friends. Note the reference to a Jewish wedding and the passive/aggressive post script:

My dear little one

Your letter did me good – your father and I were left with a very painful sense of things [une impression fort pénible]. I must tell you that I had not thought for a moment of saying anything at all in the presence of Jean [the servant] and that if that happened it was absolutely without my knowledge [à mon insu]. Let’s think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple – the symbol of an indissoluble union.

Your father wishes you a good night and I kiss you tenderly.


I do however have to return to the subject in order to recommend that you don’t walk without shoes in the dining room because of the glass.

A year and a half after his mother’s death, Proust wrote an article in the Figaro about a murder/suicide.  A man he had a vague acquaintance with killed his mother and then shot himself.  In the article Proust tries to understand the cause of the crime.

If we knew how to see in a loved body the slow work of destruction wrought by the painful tenderness that animates it, how to see the withered eyes, the previously indomitable black hair now defeated like the rest and going white, the hardened arteries, the blocked kidneys, the strained heart, the defeated appetite for life, the slow, heavy walk, the mind whose hopes were once invincible now knowing that it has nothing left to hope for, gaiety itself dried up for ever, that innate and seemingly immortal gaiety, which kept such pleasant company with sadness – perhaps the person who could see that … like Henri van Blarenberghe when he had finished off his mother with dagger blows, would retreat from the horror of his life, and throw himself on a gun, to die straight away.

In the letters Proust wrote during his grieving period that preceded this article, he accepted responsibility for Jeanne Proust’s death. This is how Wood describes Proust’s acknowledgement of his role in her death.

He writes of ‘the feeling that through my ill-health I was the sorrow and care of her life’; ‘the feeling that in worrying her through my health I made her life very unhappy.’ ‘I always afflicted my poor mother by my ill-health’; ‘this is the concern that added to her sadness, that now gnaws at me with remorse’; ‘I caused too much sorrow to Maman by always being ill … I poisoned her life.’ This goes on and on, for most of the year following Jeanne Proust’s death. There is a bid for morbid glamour here, as well as a lot of self-pity, but there is a terrific, ongoing grief too, and what Henri van Blarenberghe offered Proust was the astonishing image of a man who had lost his mother rather than killed her – or rather lost her by killing her, since he didn’t know what he was doing…

Virtual parricides can survive, and even become novelists. They can unkill the mother, so to speak, which is not the same as resurrecting her, and find through loyalty and labour the independence they are now able to imagine the dead lady wanted for them. I don’t know whether this extravagance is truer than the other. It has a highly stylised shape to it, and in Proust’s case the phrasing is a little contorted. But it is kinder than the other tale, and it offers a peace quite different from that of those Greek altars. ‘Maman,’ Proust writes in 1908 when he is already at work on his great book, ‘gives me the strength not to see only through her’ – ‘par elle’, by her, with her help – ‘for I know that death is not an absence and that nature is not anthropomorphic.’


Proust Was a Neuroscientist

March 18, 2012

Jonah Lehrer’s thesis in Proust Was a Neuroscientist is that Proust’s intuitive understanding of the power (and fallibility) of memory is supported by modern memory research. He supports this idea with several lines of narrative.

First, involuntary memory sparked by taste and smell has a particular force that sets it apart from other forms of memory. The reason appears to be that these memories are non-verbal at their source.

When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

(Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 1173-1176). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Neuroscience now knows that Proust was right. Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown, has shown—in a science paper wittily entitled “Testing the Proustian Hypothesis”—that our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental. This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Their mark is indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch, and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past. Proust intuited this anatomy. He used the taste of the madeleine and

(Lehrer, Jonah (2008-09-01). Proust Was a Neuroscientist (p. 80). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.)

More emotional impact, yes, but not necessarily more accurate than other types of memories. Proust did not give us Marcel’s experience the next time he ate a madeleine, but it surely would have been emotionally diluted by the recall of the original epiphany.  Memories, after all, at some point have a biological basis of synapses and proteins.

How do memories last? How do they escape the withering acids of time? After all, the cells of the brain, like all cells, are in constant flux. The average half-life of a brain protein is only fourteen days. A small subset of our hippocampal neurons dies and is reborn; the mind is in a constant state of reincarnation. (p. 91).

When Proust remembers the madeleine in Swanns Way, it wasn’t because he’d eaten lots of madeleines. In fact, the opposite was true. Proust’s memory is hauntingly specific and completely unexpected. His memory of Combray, cued by some chance crumbs, interrupts his life, intruding for no logical reason, “with no suggestion of its origin.” Proust is shocked by his past. These literary memories are precisely the sort of remembrances that the old scientific models couldn’t explain. Those models don’t seem to encapsulate the randomness and weirdness of the memory we live in. They don’t describe its totality, the way memories appear and disappear, the way they change and float, sink and swell. Our memories obsess us precisely because they disobey every logic, because we never know what we will retain and what we will forget. (pp. 90-91).

Lehrer goes on to describe a promising theory of how memories are formed, preserved and altered (it involves prions).  The science, though, is the more accurate (and entertaining) part of his story. I would object, for instance, to his statement “When Proust remembers the madeleine…”. Marcel remembers, not Proust. The first time he attempted to write this scene, Proust has a piece of toast or zwieback trigger the memory. But, in sum, he makes a good case for the convergence of a novelist’s insights and science.

It’s an approach I find deeply sympathetic to my own way of reading Proust, which is no doubt so atypical that I will add a short autobiographical note.

My earliest intellectual passion, one that I pursued completely independent of any academic requirement, was astronomy. I wanted to know both how stars burned and how they looked in my telescope. This interest broadened to cosmology and the origins of things and this turned out to be my intellectual anchor. After learning what I could of the Big Bang and its physics, I turned to biology and its creation story, natural selection, as the next stage in cosmic evolution: matter becoming alive. This in turn lead to the nature of human consciousness. I read the philosophers like John Searle and Daniel Dennet. I read the behavioural side in writers like Oliver Sacks. And then the neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Christopher Koch. The final stage of cosmic evolution for me was to go beyond exterior explanations of consciousness and best representations of the interiorness of consciousness. This has been the most satisfying stage of all, leading me especially to all forms of modernism in art: Cezanne and Matisse, Mann, Joyce, Musil and best of all, Proust. So there you have my own version of how Proust was a neuroscientist.