Posts Tagged ‘natural metaphor’

Getting Down

January 1, 2014

Unable to sleep in an unfamiliar guest room, I pulled a book down from the library shelf, Why New Orleans Matters by Tom PiazzaI opened it and serendipitously read the following passage where the author cites the noted musicologist Dr. John to restate Proust’s central aesthetic concern. Metaphor is not limited to a rhetorical device; it can be a very physical, time erasing bridge from the present moment to our most intensively lived past, to essence. 

Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience–dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing–is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music–she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone–the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dancers, and getting ideas from the dancers’ gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name; one is literally getting down, as in particle physics, to some root stratum where one is freed from the lockstep of time itself, where one might even run backward, or sideways, and something eternal and transcendent is accessed. (Why New Orleans Matters, page 25).

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Memory as a Human Form of Time

January 24, 2011

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)

Natural Metaphor III

January 20, 2011

Moss finds metaphor to be the natural way to make wholes of Proust’s characters.

…Realism in fiction never corresponds to reality in life, because it presupposes an impossible point of view–that one which lacks a viewer. A reality is always real to somebody. As soon as it is, the viewer must be included with the view. Proust argues against realism effectively and provides the ultimate demonstration. Proust is the most honest of novelists because he shows us not only how little we know about other people but how impossible it is to know them. It is a suspicion we have always had but hate to see confirmed. The confirmation does not warm us; nevertheless, we cannot deny it. Proust, like the genius psychologist he is, makes the inconsistencies take on a consistency of their own, just as Chekhov, in the theatre, shows us how the seemingly irrelevant lies at the heart of relevance. The patching together of what appear to be opposing traits performs a function similar to that of a metaphor, for only those actions that are dissimilar but capable of connection can create a whole character out of superficially irreconcilable kinds of behavior. The power of metaphor is not merely descriptive but psychological; the link between two things we were not aware of is revealed to us. Far-fetched it may be, even bizarre; we know instantly, though, whether it rings true. When it is successful, it has two virtues: it increases our sense of credibility by refusing to win us over easily, and it sharpens our sense of revelation. Mme. Verdurin’s anti-Semitism and her Dreyfusism would seem incompatible. Once we understand that she is a professional cause-monger who needs only a cause célèbre and can switch from Dreyfus to Debussy without a qualm, the inconsistency vanishes. It has helped, nevertheless, to make Mme. Verdurin real. (38-39)

Natural Metaphor II

January 12, 2011

This is Fowlie writing on metaphor and symbol in Proust:

When Marcel eats the madeleine cake in Du Côté de chez Swann, when he wipes his mouth with the napkin in the library of the prince de Guermantes in Le Temps retrouvé, time is abolished, because two widely separated moments of his life are juxtaposed. This operation of a sensory experience is comparable to the function of a metaphor which brings together two objects that have no relationship in ordinary life; the waiters, for example, in the restaurant of Rivebelle, compared, in their agility and flight, to angels. Much of the aesthetics of Proust is founded on these two laws: the power of a sensory experience to bring back the past, and the function of a metaphor to explain the unknown by the known. Art is not, therefore, a distraction or a diversion. It is for Proust, as for Baudelaire, responsible for the clarification and application of the theory, an instrument of research, a way by which discoveries are made concerning the meaning of the world, of life, of the exterior life of man, and the inner reality of his subconscious. (272)

Metaphor, expanded, becomes symbolism.

The use of metaphor is prevalent throughout the novel, but Proust is seldom satisfied with the creation of a mere metaphor, a familiar image juxtaposed with an unfamiliar in order to explain it. In this use of images, he tries to move beyond the first immediate and simple explanation (the comparison of Charlus to a bee, for example, in the prelude scene of Sodome et Gomorrhe), to a far-reaching philosophical or anthropological explanation (Charlus’ inversion, explained by inherited ancestral traits). This is the practice of symbolism when metaphor is used to designate a significant experience. According to a major tenet of symbolism, not only nineteenth-century French symbolisme, but symbolism of all cultures and epochs, art is able to suggest the essence behind the object.

Proust uses literary symbolism to capture in words the purity of a soul which has become clouded and darkened by the daily contacts with matter and deceit and passion. When Marcel, in the Guermantes library, at the end of the novel, wipes his mouth with a napkin, the vision he has of Balbec is so sumptuous and magical that he thinks of the Arabian Nights. That moment of vision is Marcel’s escape from the mundanity of the present, and the force behind the power of art, based on metaphor and symbolism, by which the present is transformed and explained. (273-274)