by Dennis Abrams
Davis: 43-48, Moncrieff: 58-64
It is, in effect, the scene that announces that the overture has reached its climax, and that the curtain will be rising on the story proper. It is also, of course, one of the most famous scenes in all of world literature — with the scent and taste of a few crumbs of madeleine in a spoonful of tea, the world of Marcel’s childhood is once again open to him.
Davis: But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could it have come to me from — this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third that gives me a little less than the second. It is time for me to stop, the virtue of the drink seems to be diminishing. Clearly, the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me.
Moncrieff: No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?
I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its virtue. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but myself.
No matter how many times I read that paragraph, in no matter which translation, I am never not deeply moved. As Jonah Lehrer points out in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, “This gorgeous paragraph captures the essence of Proust’s art, the truth wafting up like steam from a limpid cup of tea. And while the madeleine was the trigger for Proust’s epiphany, this passage isn’t about the madeleine. The cookie is merely a convenient excuse for Proust to explore his favorite subject: himself.”
Lehrer goes on to discuss the fact that Proust, while no scientist, through his art intuited what we now know about the structure of the brain.
“In 1911, the year of the madeleine, physiologists had no idea how the senses connected inside the skull. One of Proust’s deep insights was that our senses of smell and taste bear a unique burden of memory.”
Davis: When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, 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, hopeing, admit the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection
Lehrer explains that, “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 the smell of the tea to channel his childhood. Just looking at the scalloped cookie brought back nothing. Proust even goes so far as to blame his sense of sight for obscuring his childhood memories in the first place. ‘Perhaps because I had so often seen such madeleines without tasting them,” Proust writes, ‘their image had disassociated itself from those Combray days.’ Luckily for literature, Proust decided to put the cookie in his mouth.
Of course, once Proust began to remember his past, he lost all interest in the taste of the madeleine. Instead, he became obsessed with how he felt about the cookie, with what the cookie meant to him. What else would these crumbs teach him? What other memories could emerge from these magic mouthfuls of flour and butter?
In this Proustian vision, the cookie is worthy of philosophy because in the mind, everything is connected. As a result, a madeleine can easily become a revelation.”
We will, obviously, have much more to discuss regarding the subject of memory in future posts. Enjoy your weekend everyone (there will be no Sunday post), and remember — the reading for Monday begins at the start of Chapter Two and ends with the line “…but….I am doing so in my heart…”