Samuel Beckett, Part 3 from Proust

Proust had a bad memory — as he had an inefficient habit, because he had an inefficient habit. The man with a good memory does not remember anything, because he does not forget anything. His memory is uniform, a creature of routine, at once a condition and function of his impeccable habit, an instrument of reference instead of an instrument of discovery. The paean of his memory: 'I remember as well as I remember yesterday ...' is also its epitaph, and gives the precise expression of its value. He cannot remember yesterday any more than he can remember to-morrow. He can contemplate yesterday hung out to dry with the wettest August bank holiday on record a little further down the clothes-line. Because his memory is a clothesline and the images of his past dirty linen redeemed and the infallibly complacent servants of his reminiscential needs. Memory is obviously conditioned by perception. Curiosity is a non-conditioned reflex, in its most primitive manifestations a reaction before a danger-stimulus, and seldom exempt, even in its superior and apparently most disinterested form, from utilitarian considerations. Curiosity is the hair of our habit tending to stand on end. It rarely happens that our attention is not stained in greater or lesser degree by this animal element. Curiosity is the safeguard, not the death, of the cat, whether in skirts or on all fours. The more interested our interest, the more indelible must be its record of impressions. Its booty will always be available, because its aggression was a form of self-defense, i.e. the function of an invariable. In extreme cases memory is so closely related to habit that its word takes flesh, and is not merely available in cases of urgency, but habitually enforced. Thus absence of mind is fortunately compatible with the active presence of our organs of articulation. I repeat that rememoration, in its highest sense, cannot be applied to these extracts of our anxiety. Strictly speaking, we can only remember what has been registered by our extreme inattention and stored in that ultimate and inaccessible dungeon of our being to which Habit does not possess the key, and does not need to, because it contains none of the hideous and useful paraphernalia of war. But here, in that 'gouffre interdit à nos sondes,' is stored the essence of ourselves, the best of our many selves and their concretions that simplists call the world, the best because accumulated slyly and painfully and patiently under the nose of our vulgarity, the fine essence of a smothered divinity whose whispered 'disfazione' is drowned in the healthy bawling of an all-embracing appetite, the pearl that may give the lie to our carapace of paste and pewter. May – when we escape into the spacious annexe of mental alienation, in sleep or the rare dispensation of waking madness. From this  deep source Proust hoisted his world. His work is not an accident, but its salvage is an accident. The conditions of that accident will be revealed at the peak of this prevision. A second-hand climax is better than none. But no purpose can be served by withholding the name of the diver. Proust calls him 'involuntary memory.' The memory that is not memory, but the application of a concordance to the Old Testament of the individual, he calls 'voluntary memory.' 

            This is the uniform memory of intelligence; and it can be relied on to reproduce for our gratified inspection those impressions of the past  that were consciously and intelligently formed. It has no interest in the mysterious element of inattention that colors  our most commonplace experiences. It presents the past in monochrome. The images it chooses are as arbitrary as those chosen by imagination, and are equally remote from reality. Its action has been compared by Proust to that of turning the leaves of an album of photographs. The material that it furnishes contains nothing of the past, merely a blurred and uniform projection once removed of our anxiety and opportunism – that is to say, nothing. There is no great difference, says Proust, between the memory of a dream and the memory of reality. When the sleeper awakes, this emissary of his habit assures him that his 'personality' has not disappeared with his fatigue. It is possible (for those that take an interest in such speculations) to consider the resurrection of the soul as a final piece of impertinence from the same source. It insists on that most necessary, wholesome and monotonous plagiarism – the plagiarism of oneself. This thoroughgoing democrat makes no distinction between the 'Pensées' of Pascal and a soap advertisement. In fact, if Habit is the Goddess of Dullness, voluntary memory is Shadwell, and of Irish extraction. Involuntary memory is explosive, 'an immediate, total and delicious deflagrations.’ It restores, not merely the past object, but the Lazarus that it charmed or tortured, not merely Lazarus and the object, but more because less, more because it abstracts the useful, the opportune, the accidental, because in its flame it has consumed Habit and all its works, and in its brightness revealed what the mock reality of experience never can and never will reveal – the real. But involuntary memory is an unruly magician and will not be importuned. It chooses its own time and place for the performance of its miracle. I do not know how often this miracle recurs in Proust. I think twelve or thirteen times. But the first – the famous episode of the madeleine steeped in tea – would justify the assertion that his entire book is a monument to involuntary memory and the epic of its action. The whole of Proust's world comes out of a teacup, and not merely Combray and his childhood. For Combray brings us to the two 'ways' and to Swann, and to Swann may be related every element of the Proustian experience and consequently its climax in revelation. Swann is behind Balbec, and Balbec is Albertine and Saint-Loup. Directly he involves Odette and Gilberte, the Verdurins and their clan, the music of Vinteuil and the magical prose of Bergotte; indirectly (via Balbec and Saint-Loup) the Guermantes, Oriane and the Duke, the Princesse and M. de Charlus. Swann is the corner-stone of the entire structure, and the central figure of the narrator's childhood, a childhood that involuntary memory, stimulated or charmed by the long-forgotten taste of a madeleine steeped in an infusion of tea, conjures in all the relief and color of its essential significance from the shallow well of a cup's inscrutable banality.

© Anna Pickard, 2024