The value of time and memory according to Marcel Proust

Time management is something that is often taught professionally in classes or at universities. In fact, in the era that we live in, everything is running around the fact that we have tasks that need to be accomplished on a certain date and at a certain hour.

Even though time should be equal to everyone, meaning that the clock is ticking for every person all around the world in the same way, we can still see situations in which time seems to pass faster or slower.

This is why we often say that the value of time is subjective for each and everyone and for the situations we are in. Time is that concept that makes us distinguish different phases of our life: past, present, and future.

In ancient Greece, time was divided by two different measures. Firstly, we have the quantitative aspect of time, called Chronos, that is intended as the mathematical measurement. Secondly, the qualitative aspect of time, called Kairos, is seen as the value that we give time.

According to Marcel Proust, time is related to the past. In fact, we often tend to forget the memories or feelings we had in the past and the only thing that helps us remembering them is the art of writing down these values. In his work À la recherche du temps perdu, published between 1913 and 1927 in seven volumes, Proust does a self-analysis of his life where he discovers certain particulars and details that he had forgotten, and that came up only through the process of writing.

Unlike his predecessors, such as Stendhal or Balzac, in which the representation of reality was seen as the most relevant aspect of their works, Proust decides to cut this image. He didn’t want to portray the society of his times such as the abovementioned authors did. His reality is not the time as we conceive it today by looking at a clock, but rather an interior time that is expressed by the feelings and memories that we have. Indeed, in his works, Proust tends to always project himself back in his past and revoke certain situations and feelings he had when he was younger. Therefore, his most important work is aimed at interpreting the past, but it is also a sort of biography. Proust, like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf and Italo Svevo (e.g. Zeno’s Conscience), drifts away from the classical writing style and rather experiments on a method focused on an internal and psychological analysis of the main characters of the work.

In the first volume, called Du côté de chez Swann, Proust writes about the memories of his childhood and he describes what is probably his most famous passage: the one of the madeleine immersed in the cup of tea that he used to eat when he was a child.

“She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called ”petites madeleines”, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?”

This passage illustrates what happened in Proust’s mind while eating the “petite madeleine” that he used to eat when he was little. He had just come back home and was greeted by his mother, that offered him this plum cake in order to lift up his grey and sad mood of that day.

Once eaten the first bite, Proust has an immediate and sudden feeling of joy. He is surrounded by his past that is catching up on him. Through the taste of this cake all of the memories he had as a child came up and transformed his dark and sad state of mind of that day into a sudden high of joy and pleasure.

At the end of Proust’s book, in the seventh volume called Temps retrouvé, he finally finds the real meaning of his identity and of his time. For Proust, life becomes significant at the moment in which we confront ourselves with Art and Writing. Through these two, we can easily fix our thoughts and memories so that the past can always remain with us and never be forgotten.


Click to access La_nozione_di_tempo_in_Ockham_Proust_e_Bergson_di_Gabriella_Galbiati.pdf

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