Marcel Proust is best known for his novel “Remembrance of Things Past,” which was an exemplary work of literature in the 20th century. At one point in this novel, the narrator reflects on his childhood memories. These memories are triggered when the narrator dips a petite Madeleine into a cup of tea; the scent and taste of the cookie awakens the memories of his childhood (Fraser 36). What makes the passage so famous is the theme employed. It brings out another perspective of existence that shows how time is infinite, while memory is limited to the events that shape our lives. Conscious and intellect could not capture the past memories, but the scent and taste of the cookie unleashed most of the memories.
In his book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” Jonah Lehrer writes, “our senses of smell and taste are in one way sentimental. This is because taste and smell are the main senses that connect to the hippocampus which is the centre of the brain’s long-term memory.” Lehrer continues to say that looking at the cookie brought back nothing; it was the smell and taste that brought back the memories of childhood. I think the narrators memories do flood back but not in a vivid way that enables him remember every detail. One can recall a lot of things in our childhood, but not every memory is detailed enough. It is those moments that touched our lives that we remember the most. This is because our memory is continuous and always in a state of change due to activities we engage in our lifetime.
Proust’s work is concerned with the contrast of limited human memory against unlimited time. The theme helps us to assess the extent of our own memories to the perpetual expanse of time and space surrounding them. Proust’s work involves deliberation over the extent to which we can comprehend the past and be able to present it via language and to the degree we can remember ourselves and others (Proust 26). According to Proust, language is something active, non static, continuous, just as the self is something constantly transforming and only resembles continuity. A person can be defined only by the extent to which he/she exists in the terrestrial world; a person is also capable of expeditions outside of time. This is made possible by the so called ‘involuntary memory’, which, as Proust notes, is ‘extra-temporal’ and can be engulfed within the work of an art.
As Proust points out, memory of humans is an isolated area in an unlimited universe, against which it cannot account itself. On the other hand, a work of art is created to show something that is outside of time. This is because all works have “an identical beauty they bring into the world”. He feels that the only way of rediscovering lost time is through the work of art. Hence for Proust, art is not only “a way of surpassing time” but also “a way of perceiving reality”.
I think the unique feature about memory is that not all memories are as vibrant as one another; some of us can clearly remember some events in the past, while others cannot recall the similar events. The clarity of remembrance also differs from one individual to the other. Some even momentarily lose memory of things that happened a while ago. So it’s usually possible to remember with superb clarity a moment that occurred to us in the past, while the whole of last month seems lost in a kind of darkness. The way our minds store information regarding the activities we engage in is somehow strange. One of the things that Proust wonderfully brings out is that we can at one point come across something that reminds us of our past. That thing can be a smell that we grew around smelling or a taste that is familiar with our childhood days.