Déjà lu all over again, or Remembrance of Things Post
I dont' read my books over and over.
I read Proust; that was enough.
For me, our discussion of Proust last Friday turned on efforts to unpack a number of defining tensions within A la recherche du temps perdu's mingled project of self-loss and self-recovery: habit/authenticity, voluntary/involuntary memory, sociality/introspection, self-exculpation/self-excoriation, mystification/exposure, photography/writing, nostalgia/anticipation ... these, among other formulations, seemingly organize the narrative's thematic or conceptual structure yet often blur, blend, or collapse when observed working in the temporal unfolding of the narration itself (whether at the level of the sentence, paragraph, episode, or otherwise construed 'event'). I would be grateful if part of our discussion tomorrow further illuminates how, why, and with what effects Proust's narrative provokes attention to juxtapositions that, seen one way, suggest that memory (in all its contrasting manifestations) serves as a defensive bulwark against time's degradations, even against 'experience' per se (perhaps the 'modernist' Proust), while seen other ways--deconstructively OR recuperatively--hint at a refusal to imprison consciousness in a linear temporality that makes memory the belated foster child of realist perception and a sloven essentialism (perhaps the 'postmodern' Proust).
Rereading Benjamin's "Berlin Chronicle" (as well as the "Theses on the Philosophy of History") alongside Proust, while reconsidering A la recherche du temps perdu in view of some of our preceding work, has crystallized this broad question in terms of the following two issues, one having to do with the question of Proust and historicity (the relation of his project to the schema of past-present-future, and the problem of whether or not Proust possessed what Nietzsche called "a true historical sense"), one having to do with the meaning of the "two moment" structure by which the Proustian schema expresses itself:
• Perhaps influenced by the later, war-shadowed "Theses," I read Benjamin's reverie on his childhood in Berlin as an effort to relocate an overlooked future left dormant in the past. That is, memory for Benjamin seems to arise in a dialectic of ruin (hence, perhaps, his obsession with miniaturization characteristic of the picturesque) and revolution (hence, perhaps, his alertness to moments of sublime shock that can "blast" from the past shards of potentiality lost to 'history'--the history of normal consciousness as well as 'official' chronicle). Does Proust's vision of paradise as that which is always already "lost," captured in those moments when the present is suddenly invaded by a past long since "dead," bespeak a Benjaminian urge to locate the lost future in the supposedly lost past? Or is his, rather, a nostalgic quest, fundamentally inimical to Benjamin's fusion of remembrance and messianic expectation?
•Benjamin wrote of his quest for "origins" in Origins of German Tragic Drama: "That which is original ... can be perceived only by a double insight. It wishes to be known, on the one hand, as restoration and rehabilitation, and, on the other hand, in this very rehabilitation, as uncompleted and unsettled." Does the "double insight" of Proustian experience--the coordination of "two moments" by the "binocular" vision of "understanding" and "involuntary" memory--involve just such an ambivalence about restoration (cf. Freud and the 'cure' of [re]constructed past?) and deferral (cf. Freud and 'analysis interminable'?)? Some other models, against which we might set Proust, come to mind of this double movement by which present and past are put into a conversation that may privilege one side or the other, may seek precisely to dissolve that urge to distinction, or may seek to move beyond the antinomy altogether (cf. Benjamin again: "Even the dead will not be safe if [the historian of the future] wins"), e.g.:
-As Tina remarked, Proust's double scene of experiences/memories reminds us of our discussion of trauma, which can be understood as the crossing of two scenes or reading moments. Caruth discusses trauma as possession by the image or event missed as experience: thus trauma paradoxically endangers the subject while seeming to keep history safe from the erasures of
quotidian, 'mere' memory (cf. Kierkegaard). In this way, Caruth argues that "history" is a pre-text or force that is not yet meaningful. Thus, does it help to view Proust through the lens of trauma, seeing him as establishing, not evading, 'history' as a possibility unrealized but latent in the past? And, if so, does its narrativization threaten and/or enable such recuperation?
-In Moses and Monotheism, Freud deploys the 'two moment' structure in various formations, both as an contrast within Judaism (2 Ms) and between it and its rival successor (Moses/Paul). Paul becomes, as it were, the culture's involuntary memory of Moses, one that allows a revision of conscience that displaces renunciation as the mark or wound of the law (cf. circumcision, etc.). Does that model of uncanny repetition/revision--wherein we face the question of what might be beyond the pleasure principle as a problem of ethics, ambivalent mourning, sacrifice, and love--help us understand Proust's endeavor, which likewise involves an economy of renunciation and restitution?
-Proust's tastiest morsel of involuntary memory, the madeleine/tea episode, cannot but evoke the sacramental texture of the Eucharist, and behind that, the convenantal dynamic of Exodus and the Pesach. If Exodus and the institution of the passover suggest a way of integrating narrative and anamnesis such that remembering becomes, precisely, a warning against nostalgia (against going back), while the communion tropes passover as a mode of what Kierkegaard called "remembering forward" (enclosing communal and personal history in the eschatological present/promise of redemption), can Proust's experience of recalling the past in the present be helpfully read as a recollection of anamnesis within a distinctively 'modern' condition?
-Without fanfare or follow-up, Beckett sneaks in a definition of Proustian 'communion' as a form of "fetish" (p.23). Thus one wonders whether we ought to be more vigorously situating Proust within the images of modernity that emerged in our final unit last term: e.g., could we look at Proust as an antiquarian of the self, seeking to mitigate an irremediable distance from the past by reawakening objects (here past events) as 'traces' of 'authentic' experience? The material of involuntary memory thus becomes, indeed, a "souvenir," i.e., an allusive/illusive evocation of an irretrievable origin(al) whose value is the very impossibility of its complete recovery. Or, as with the evolving image of Masada as characterized by Paine, catastrophe and jouissance become one and the same in an endless process of (dis)possession and narrative substitution. Only the distant can be authentic--in terms of the ethnological project outlined by Bennett and Canclini, the self becomes its own museum, redeeming and 'exoticizing' its experiences by removing them from the realm of historical struggle to the domestic, interior, individualized space of a self-affirming gaze, safely remote from the abstractions, reifications, and dessications of modern consumerism and dandyism (where the self is not a precious thing but a commodity). [Here the 'cure to modernism,' its protest against what passes as 'the real,' would not be Benjamin's 'blast' into 'futurity' but an anti-utopian 'reaction formation.']
In some sense, I suspect that Proust helps turn us to the question, What is gained by thinking of memory as "work" vs. as "trace"? But my time in what Monty Python called the ALL ENGLAND SUMMARIZING PROUST COMPETITION is now officially up. See you tomorrow.--Kim