Finding Joy (involuntary memory)


What is the source of the joy that arises from episodes of involuntary memory? While originating in the senses, the sensation itself cannot be the source, however pleasant the taste of the tea and cake. Nor is it in the evoked memory, the dull visit with your hypochondriac aunt.

Beistegui’s paradox number 1: Joy comes not from the senses but from essence.

“Where could it have come to me from–this powerful joy?” Marcel asks after dipping his piece of madeleine into his spoon of tea. The answer to his question comes, as we know, only at the end of the novel and it’s a one-word answer: time, and especially that time that, because we misconceived it, we though we’d lost forever, namely the past. (46)

A past–whatever it may be–can be the reason for our happiness, provided it returns differently. In fact, if it initially involves an intense sensation, its identical repetition will never be as intense because of its distance from the source. And if it involves sadness or some feeling of relative indifference, its identical return won’t ever be miraculously reversed into its opposite. So the nature of this unique experience won’t be uncovered through its repetition, by taking another sip of tea or by managing to trip again on the paving-stone, something the young Marcel eventually realizes as he’s smelling the hawthorns:

“I continued, even at the risk of making myself the laughing-stock of the crowd of chauffeurs, to stagger, as I had done a moment before, one foot on the raised paving-stone, the other foot on the lower one. Each time I simply repeated outward form of this movement, nothing helpful occurred…” (46-47)

“And then it seemed as though the signs which were to bring me, on this day of all days, out of my disheartened state and restore to me my faith in literature, were thronging eagerly about me, for, a butler who had long been in the service of the Prince de Guermantes having recognised me and brought to me in the library where I was waiting, so that I might not have to go to the buffet, a selection of petits fours and a glass of orangeade, I wiped my mouth with the napkin which he had given me; and instantly, as though I had been the character in the Arabian Nights who unwittingly accomplishes the very rite which can cause to appear, visible to him alone, a docile genie ready to convey him to a great distance, a new vision of azure passed before my eyes, but an azure that this time was pure and saline and swelled into blue and bosomy undulations, and so strong was this impression that the moment to which I was transported seemed to me to be the present moment: more bemused than on the day when I had wondered whether I was really going to be received by the Princesse de Guermantes’s house, unfolded for me— concealed within its smooth surfaces and its folds— the plumage of an ocean green and blue like the tail of a peacock. And what I found myself enjoying was not merely these colours but a whole instant of my life on whose summit they rested, an instant which had been no doubt an aspiration towards them and which some feeling of fatigue or sadness had perhaps prevented me from enjoying at Balbec but which now, freed from what is necessarily imperfect in external perception, pure and disembodied, caused me to swell with happiness.”

(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 (Proust Complete) (Kindle Locations 54422-54434). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

The lesson here–a lesson that the hawthorns already hinted at–is this: the experience of joy–of that highest form of joy, the kind that’s synonymous with delight, that makes us indifferent to death–doesn’t come from colours, smells and flavours as such, from objects qua material objects; rather, it comes from that part of those objects which exceeds this materiality and does so from the very heart of the material itself. And here’s where Proust’s account differs from that of the psychologists, who still think of experience as physiological data. As long as Marcel insists on seeing material joy as the means to happiness and on the present as the condition of his joy, he’s bound to be disappointed. What the experience of involuntary memory reveals is the–non-temporal or at least not present–truth that can be drawn from any perception. Perception, though, insofar as it’s immersed in the here and now, isn’t every going to be able to do this. The tendency to sees anything that’s not present is what’s essential about time; as a result, we tend to mistake the fact that a given expression might have been forgotten simply because it no longer had any role to play in the present situation with the fact that its corresponding reality has now vanished. (47-48)

Paradox number 2: Joy comes not from perception but from recollection.

Underneath habit, and forgotten by it since it served no purpose, impressions lie unaltered, tucked away but always ready to resurface: a rainy breeze, the smell of mould or smoke, the taste of a cake dipped in a cup of tea. Habit’s selective; it leaves all sorts of impressions, sensations and perceptions aside, on the edge of consciousness which, through its intelligence, strives to find its place within the world. So it’s selective, but it doesn’t erase such perceptions….We might have expected Proust to appeal to the other form of memory, involuntary memory, but instead he appeals to the notion of forgetting, not in negative terms, but in the terms that are usually ascribed to memory itself: forgetting isn’t just what erases and destroys, but it’s also what maintains and preserves, protects and safeguards. Images from the past don’t take refuge in memory and, even less so, in consciousness; rather they end up in the unconscious. (48-49)

Time as something fleeting and ungraspable, made up of an indefinite succession of endlessly repeated cycles, time as the time of suffering and death, is finally brought to a close by the methodical recollection of the day’s events, of an entire life, and from one life to the next. The exaltation of memory aimed at leaving the time of existence–the time of forgetting–and returning to the divine, to a time that doesn’t age, to the immortal and imperishable time celebrated in the Orphic verses under the name Chronos agèraos. (50)

Time in its pure state is time freed from the law of Kronos, time insisting beneath the time that passes (or exists). It’s the sort of time that digs tunnels in order to connect through a sort of paradoxical contiguity events that Kronos works to drive apart (and, as we’ll see later on, this is what, in the realm of art, we call metaphor). (52) [He conflates here Chronos and Kronos, as we do now with Father Time and the scythe. The Titan Kronos castrated Uranus with the scythe; Chronos is a separate deity, the incarnation of time. JE]

Paradox number 3: Joy only ever happens the second time around.

In other words,  we never know what the past will be made of or what surprises it might have in store for us. Its return is a first since what returns is the immaterial (and eternal) part of the present and what causes our joy is the experience of a reality in itself or an essence: some concentrate of Combray or Balbec, childhood or adolescence of the purest kind. Marcel’s joy consists precisely in being this pure past, this moment that doesn’t pass. (54)

Kronos procreates, yes, but he also devours his offspring. Unlike Mnemosyne, however, who rescues something from each existence and gives birth to the muses. Time’s an artist, then, even providing art with its model that effaces, destroys and kills the reality it creates–a truly monstrous form of infanticide and one that, despite the best efforts of human memory, whether natural or technical (writing, printing, photography, cinema, computer science), despite the whole culture, morality, religion and polities of memory, remains irreversible–he’s also subject to this other time that’s created somehow behind the back of the first and at the same time as it, which it doubles and carries elsewhere, traversing it, interrupting it and turning man into a god. (55)

The Titan Kronos eating his children by Goya.

The Titan Kronos eating his children by Goya.

Mnemosyne by Rossetti

Mnemosyne by Rossetti

But now a novel must be written…

Events alone, and certainly not facts, not even childhood memories, will yield (good) literature. Unlike facts, which are given and always situable in time, events need to be drawn out from the way, each time distinct, in which  they affect bodies and impress minds. An event’s not a date but a process, a becoming, through which the subject experiences his or her own transformation. There’s quite clearly a chronology at work in Proust’s novel, one that’s been reconstructed often enough and which Proust doesn’t try to hide or obliterate. This would be to give it too much importance. The time that the novel’s in search of and to whose meaning the narrator only gradually awakens is the time of events–a time of slow gestation and evolution broken up by sudden accelerations and violent turmoils…..Time’s the true developer–not chronological time, which records facts and sets up sequences, but Time the artist, which creates as it develops, that is, as it transforms: only Time the artist can turn the duc de Guermantes into a character by Moliere, the baron de Charlus into King Lear and monsieur d’Argencourt into a sublime dodderer. What Time reveals is nothing but the negative from which it started; in the end, though, it’s something else altogether. If Time’s truly artistic, then it’s in its capacity to make things recognizable, whether particular beings or the past itself, by changing them into different beings altogether. (64)

The excess of life that each one of us carries within us lies in the unlived experience that “doubles” every lived experience. And this doubling’s never  more apparent than in involuntary memories which make clear the structure of experience as irreducibly divided into the lived and the unlived present…into what’s actual and what’s virtual, into what happens for the first time and what only happens the second time around. reminiscences, as Deleuze rightly points out, are metaphors of life and metaphors are reminiscences of art. What they have in common is the fact that they determine a relation between two radically different objects, “in order to protect them from the contingencies of time.” Reminiscence and art (understood as metaphor) have the same relation to the world of essences: reminiscence is the analogue of art and involuntary memory is the analogue of metaphor. (65)

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