Proust: In Search of the Present

by Daniel Hartley

I noted long ago a common misconception about Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Put simply, people seem to think that the “lost time” of the title denotes the past, but in fact it denotes the present. More specifically, it implies a present that is present to itself in all its plenitude. So why, you might ask, was there all this talk of involuntary memory? Why care so much about memory if what you really want is a full present? It is my thesis that it was not involuntary memory as such that interested Proust, but rather the problem of narrating the atemporal plenitude which that memory implied. In short, Proust raised to the level of a literary phenomenology the split between Erzählzeit (time of narrating)and erzählte Zeit (narrated time).

Let us take the example of the famous “madeleine” scene. This is the scene that everybody knows – even those who have never read the book. According to common wisdom, it is the prime example of Proust’s concern with recovering a lost past. I claim, on the contrary, that this passage is a literary exemplification of the temporal dislocation of the phenomenological “now”.

The scene begins when Marcel’s mother (i.e., the narrator’s mother, not the real Marcel Proust) sends out for the little “madeleine” cakes. He “mechanically” raises the tea-spoon to his lips on which crumbs of the madeleine are soaked in tea. The moment the concoction touches his palate, he is invaded by an “extraordinary” pleasure. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to discover the source of this pleasure. Important for our purposes are the tenses Proust uses throughout the passage. It begins in the traditional French storytelling tense, the passé simple. But as soon as the unattended pleasure sets in, the tenses alternate between passé simple and the pluperfect. The first tense implies a conventional relation between the “now” of the act of narration and the “now” of the story’s present. But the use of the pluperfect adds a temporal depth: it produces a time-lag internal to the storyworld itself between the “now” of the character’s reflection and the “now” of a previous act or experience. Thus, when we read

Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause.

we are confronted with three tenses. The passé simple (toucha, tressaillis) produces a clear relation between the time of narration (the time in which toucha is uttered) and narrated time (the actual event that happened in the past). The imperfect (se passait)  implies an ongoing state of affairs (a happening through time). The pluperfect (m’avait envahi), however, indicates the character’s reflection – within the narrated time – on what has just happened to him – also within the narrated time. So here we have a narrator telling us about his past self and what this past self was itself thinking about its own immediately past self. Throughout the rest of this paragraph, the shift is always between: a) present of narration/ present of the narrated and b) the present of the narrated/ present of a past narrated.

But the real temporal confusion (as if it wasn’t confusing enough already) arises when the tense switches to the present: Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. What is the ontological status of this present (bois, trouve)? We know from the context that this present must be the present of narrated time, but the interweaving presence of the time of narration can still be felt. The past present is haunted by the present present, such that the present seems neither truly past nor completely present. The ambiguous status of this time is only compounded when (the past) Marcel tries to force himself to “retrograde his thought” to its initial configuration prior to having eaten the madeleine.

The ambiguity comes to a head in the following sentence:

Arrivera-t-il jusqu’à la surface de ma claire conscience, ce souvenir, l’instant ancien que l’attraction d’un instant identique est venue de si loin solliciter, émouvoir, soulever tout au fond de moi ? Je ne sais. Maintenant je ne sens plus rien…

It is precisely this maintenant, this “now”, which is at the heart of Proust’s entire project. The “now” in which he does not know and no longer feels anything (Je ne sais…je ne sens plus rien) brings to consciousness for the reader, almost in spite of itself, the not-yet-forgotten “now” of the time of narration: i.e., that time in which it is quite clear that Marcel does know because he’s about to tell us! What we have here can only be described as something like the zero degree of that hairline fracture which prevents the “I” from ever coinciding with itself: the split that forever separates the I-utterer from the I-uttered. It is a split internal to the “now” as such, one which means that the present can never present itself without simultaneously absenting itself.

It should thus come as no surprise that when the Marcel of narrated time finally remembers whence he knows this taste, the narration immediately switches to the passé composé tense: Et tout d’un coup le souvenir m’est apparu. Why the past perfect and not the passé simple? Both tenses seal off the presentness of a past, but the past perfect implies more of an ongoing relation to the present than the passé simple could ever muster. In other words, the past perfect voids the presentness of apparition (an index of the impossibility of the self-present “now”) whilst trying to mask the rift between Erzählzeit and erzählte Zeit (given that it could be used in either). In short, the act of remembrance never actually presents itself.

À la Recherche is full of such failed nows; it is for this reason that the “lost time” of the title denotes the present and not the past.

(I am grateful to Andrew Kahn for pointing out two errors in a previous version of this blog post).