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  • Stories to RememberNarrative and the Time of Memory
  • Jens Brockmeier (bio)

It has often been noted that the vividness and immediacy with which we remember certain events is independent of their remoteness in time. Days or years are no valid currency in the realm of remembrance. Our psychological life, as Freud stated, is timeless. Why does the unremarkable furniture of the kitchen in which my family ate dinner when I was a child still stay with me? What’s so special about my old child’s chair, which became increasingly rickety over the years due to my constant teetering? We all live in the midst of memories of rickety chairs, first kisses, and painful separations, irrespective of their age and ours and of whether we want to or not. For some, involuntary memories are a precious gift, as we know perhaps most famously from Marcel Proust, who seemed to have dedicated most of his life to the psychological and narrative experience of such mémoirs involontaire. [End Page 115] Proust was well aware that our mnemonic life ignores the rules of common time and that memory has its own time. For a human being, he wrote, “is that ageless creature who has the faculty of becoming many years younger in a few seconds, and who, surrounded by the walls of the time through which he has lived, floats within them as in a pool the surface-level of which is constantly changing so as to bring him within range now of one epoch, now of another” (1983: 3:627).

Understandably, faced with this Proustian scenario of simultaneity, experimental psychologists have sensed fundamental problems with the traditional notion of memory. And they are not alone. Landy (2004) wonders whether Proust’s involuntary memories are proper memories at all; for “when—according to Proust—an odor, texture or sound returns us to a former state, we are not dragging into the light a set of impressions that have long since departed but, instead, summoning up a part of us that is still very much present within our mind” (110). Proust’s pool of time as an allegory of our simultaneous existence in different temporalities, with remembering as the central mode of creating and mediating this simultaneity, may have been an original trope—as certainly was much of the narrative repertoire he employed to articulate the sudden time shifts between different pasts and presents. But the phenomenon he aimed to capture was anything but new, as was the awareness of it. Other writers, philosophers, and scientists had already described the simultaneity of multiple temporalities in which human beings live, and probably everyone had (and has) experienced it in one way or another, even if this experience was not necessarily consciously searched for and reflected upon. Here, however, we find one of the reasons why Proust’s meandering explorations of the weave of memory and time in his Recherche were so spectacular—namely, that its narrator intentionally seeks the experience of involuntary remembering, an experience that allows him to float in the pool of time by being simultaneously in touch with different epochs of his life, epochs that by common standards may be separated from each other by years and decades. For the French writer the multiple temporality of memories, in all their nonlinear and achronological randomness, represents most authentically the time of human memory, in fact, of our life. As a consequence, both the narrator and the author of the Recherche have come to live [End Page 116] their lives with almost complete disregard for what they perceive as the external, mechanical and mindless, time of clocks and calendars.

There is a second aspect of Proust’s investigation of memory and time that is, I think, similarly important if one wants to examine their interwovenness: both appear as narrative phenomena. And they are not just narrative in the sense one would expect in the work of a narrative artist, but in a strong philosophical and psychological sense, because they only take on a gestalt in narrative form. Differently put, both memory and time, as well as their fusion, only become intelligible in as far as they exist in linguistic form; they are...


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pp. 115-132
Launched on MUSE
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