Beistegui on Memory


Beistegui devotes a chapter to the psychology of memory, especially the associationist school that was prominent in the nineteenth century. Wikepedia: Associationism is the idea that mental processes operate by the association of one mental state with its successor states. Most important to Proust’s thought was Hippolyte Taine (apologies to Bergson).

In Search of Lost Time depends on a theory of memory that involves Proust in a conversation with the psychologists and philosophers of his time, Taine, Ritbot and Bergson in particular. For example, his critique of the view that it’s “intelligence” that affords us access to the truth of the world and to our experience of it, as well as the positive role that he gives memory in all this, wouldn’t have been possible without the ideas developed in On Intelligence (De l’intelligence), in which Taine defines intelligence as understanding or as intellect, i.e. as the faculty of knowing.

The associationists recognize the same three types of memory as Proust.

First there’s this form of memory based on sedimentation. It’s a bodily and completely involuntary form of memory (although it’s also completely different from what Proust calls involuntary memory). It’s a kind of memory, too, that proceeds by way of accretion and that takes place in the here and now. It’s aimed mainly at action and retains from the world only what’s useful to it. It’s selective, therefore, and its ultimate goal is survival. This form of memory is what we most normally think of in terms of that process of picking up habits by which our body can then deal with the world, those habits thanks to which the body’s worldly surroundings become familiar to it, allowing it to find its bearings, ifs points of reference, without ever even having to think about or envision their process of doing so. (28-29)

It’s the kind of memory based on adaptation and compromise that we have in common with all living organisms. Just as our muscles have their memory, therefore, so the single cell of the amoeba has its own. Life is very much a a habit. We live out of habit”Habit,” as Beckett has it in the wonderful book on Proust, “is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.” (29)

The second is voluntary memory, the one so despised by Proust.

The transition towards the second type of memory–voluntary– is easy to see. Will and intelligence are identified  and criticized from the viewpoint of their capacity to restore the true past: “for me,” Proust says, “voluntary memory, which above all a memory of the intellect and of the eyes, gives us only facets of the past that have no truth.” (34-35)

Taine writes:

I saw this yesterday; and now as I write I see it again–dimly, it is true, but still I see it. The colours, forms, sounds, which struck me yesterday, are now renewed, or nearly so. Yesterday, I experienced sensations excited by the immediate contact of thing and immediate action of the nerves. Today, impressions analogous to those sensations, thought remotely so, arise in me, notwithstanding the want of this action and contact, notwithstanding the presence of other actions and contacts. It is a semi-revival of my experience; different terms might be used to express it, we might call it an after-taste, an echo, a representation, a phantom, in image of the primitive sensation; it matters little; all those comparisons mean no more than that after a sensation excited by the outer world, which resembles the sensation, and is accompanied, though not so forcibly, with the same emotions, which is pleasurable or the reverse, but in a less degree, and is followed by some, but not all, the same mental conclusions. The sensation repeats itself, though with less distinctness or force…” (35-36)

The third and final form of memory is involuntary. Proust goes beyond associationists here, making it the foundation of his aesthetics.

Proust in fact becomes a writer precisely because he stops seeing writing as the revival of a lived experience (what in German is termed Erlebnis) and capturing what I’d call its eventuality, i.e. the aspect of its lived experience that’s still likely to surprise us. (38)

Proust writes:

[…] but should a smell or a taste, met with again in quite different circumstance, reawaken the past in us, in spite of ourselves, we sense how different that past was from what we thought we had remembered, our voluntary memory having painted it, like a bad painter, in false colours. (38)

Beistegui links involuntary memory to metaphor:

What seems to hold Proust’s attention, from a literary perspective at least, is the capacity of these kind of memories to alter the time and place of the narrative quire unexpectedly, to transpose narrator and reader alike from one space-time to another, without any transition. But isn’t this power of transposition the same as what we call metaphor in literature? Later on, I’ll need to look at whether there’s not some phenomenon, rooted in unconscious remembrance as well as in metaphor, that unites the two. I’ll need to consider the particularly deep rooted connection between memory and writing. (43)

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