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“In Search of Lost Time”

20 January 2010

In my 19th and 20th century French literature class, we had to read the first part of the first volume of a work by Marcel Proust called À la recherche du temps perdu, commonly translated in English as In Search of Lost Time. If the name Proust sound familiar, it is the specialty of Steve Carell’s character in the movie Little Miss Sunshine. Proust lived at the turn of the century and wrote in the school of Modernism. À la recherche du temps perdu totaled 3,200 pages and is a ridiculous psychological trip through Proust’s life. I didn’t even finish the 266 page part we had to read for class; some sentences lasted whole paragraphs, and some paragraphs pages, flowery language abounding.

There is one famous scene in which Proust later in his life tastes a madeleine (the small French pastry seen here) soaked in lime tea, is reminded of tasting the same thing in his aunt’s house, and is flooded with memories from his childhood. The passage below is the introduction (my translation) to this scene. Francophones can find the original French below for the full effect.

I find very reasonable the Celtic belief that the souls of those we have lost are captive in some inferior being, in an animal, a vegetable, an inanimate object, lost in effect for us up until the day, which for many never comes, when we find ourselves passing by the tree, and enter into possession of the object that is their prison. Then they quiver, call to us, and as soon as we have recognized them, the curse is broken. Delivered by us, they have conquered death and come back to live with us.

It is thus with our past. It is wasted pain for us to seek to evoke them, all the efforts of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside of the intellect’s domain and range, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us), that we don’t suspect. As for this object, it depends upon chance as to if we encounter it before dying, or if we don’t encounter it.

Original French text

Je trouve très raisonnable la croyance celtique que les âmes de ceux que nous avons perdus sont captives dans quelque être inférieur, dans une bête, un végétal, une chose inanimée, perdues en effet pour nous jusqu’au jour, qui pour beaucoup ne vient jamais, où nous nous trouvons passer près de l’arbre, entrer en en possession de l’objet qui est leur prison. Alors elles tressaillent, nous appellent, et sitôt que nous les avons reconnues, l’enchantement est brisé. Délivrées par nous, elles ont vaincu la mort et reviennent vivre avec nous.

Il en est ainsi de notre passé. C’est peine perdue que nous cherchions à l’évoquer, tous les efforts de notre intelligence sont inutiles. Il est caché hors de son domaine et de sa portée, en quelque objet matériel (en la sensation que nous donnerait cet objet matériel), que nous ne soupçonnons pas. Cet objet, il dépend du hasard que nous le rencontrions avant de mourir, ou que nous ne le recontrions pas.

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