May 08, 2005

Perception, memory and Proust

Proust shows perception to consist of a multiplicity of layers, some of which only become salient retrospectively. The importance of the past as an unseen dimension of perception, separated from the present by a gulf of time and forgetfulness, is illustrated by his depiction of the Combray church and the young Marcel's sensitivity to its history. He appears able to apprehend the unseen fourth dimension, celle du Temps, suggesting that time and memory serve as a filter to colour perception. Voluntary perception results in only partial representations of memory, recalling the essential features of a situation for dramatic or practical purposes. Thus the narrator's initial perception of Combray is that of deux étages reliés par un mince escalier gives way to involuntary memory as illustrated by the Madeleine episode. Yet this involuntary memory is dependent on a sensory evocation or stimulus (e.g. the limestalks, the madeleine cake dipped in the tea), and its release is an arbitrary, fleeting sensation, both ephemeral and immortal, difficult to capture and futile to seek deliberately.

Our perception of time throughout Combray is a fluid, flexible one, rather than a fixed state where past and present remain firmly divided and one event clearly succeeds another. The fragmented narrative itself reflects this disjointed nature of experience and subverts the linear temporality of the traditional narrative discourse. This is symbolised by the jerky projection of the magic lantern in the child narrator's bedroom, depicting legends comme un vitrail vacillant et momentané. This image forms a key illustration of the complex and disconnected nature of perception, suggesting a Cubist combining of several perspectives, angles and times within the same work of art and implying a multilayering of perception, a fluidity often transferred to Proust's imagery. One of my favourite images from Combray is that of the old church steps, as that which is initially perceived as solid is worn away in an impressionistic dissolution of lines, from the cloaks of the generations of peasants sweeping in and out the doors:

comme si le doux effleurement des mantes des paysannes entrant à l'église (...) pouvait, répété pendant des siècles, acquérir une force destructrive, infléchir la pierre et l'entailler de sillons comme en trace la roue des carrioles dans la borne contre laquelle elle bute tous les jours.'

Proust questions our means of expressing experience and perception. While the child narrator's instinctive response to the reflection of light on the rooftops is a cry of 'Zut zut zut zut' the adult narrator is able to push the experience further and acknowledge the discrepancy between the initial feeling experienced and a more sophisticated mode of expression. Cultural background is shown to be an inhibiting factor in terms of achieving accurate perception, but it is also an enriching one. The world of the mind is depicted as being like un corps incandescent, which sheds its own heat and light as a means of judging reality (c.f. Abrams - the Mirror and the Lamp). The difficult of perceiving the material world 'accurately' is stressed, since narrative techniques (e.g. use of simile or metaphor) actually colour and distort reality. Poetic transformation of the narrator's initial perception occurs through simile and personification, such as the Martinville steeples that are alternatively depicted comme trois oiseaux posés sur la plaine, comme trois fleurs peintes sur le ciel and comme trois jeunes filles d'une légende. This determination to seek equivalents for the pleasure derived from the fluctuating reality of the steeples could be seen as superior to the actual perception because it is art. In this way Proust introduces us to a viable and colourful alternative to the problem of accurate representation, perception and memory – mere sensory perception is not enough, but rather extra effort is required to extract the hidden secret of memory and represent it using stylistic features, artificial in their very nature.

Writing this has been like my very own madeleine moment – Oxford in the summer term, mmm… I've only just come to the realisation that I actually quite enjoyed my BA. Writing this was also a good way to avoid doing the work that I should be doing for my MA :(

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  1. Stoats seek solace

    I like this piece. I especially like the “corps incandescent” conceptualisation.

    I read something once (which concorded with my own thoughts) about the grammar of the Proustian sentence – serpentine, expansive, precatory – as bearing an immanent pushing towards a rolling back of the algorithmic tyrannies of quotidian memory to produce a sort of free fall, a de-mooring, in which the “corps incandescent” may flare.

    13 Aug 2006, 22:58

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