Surely the exceptional nature of consciousness has never been more effectively evoked than in Proust’s recollections of madeleines. The echo of a far-off sensation generates in Marcel a stunning sensorial kaleidoscope. Fragments of experience, relegated to the archives of his memory, are brought back to life. Mnemosyne does not merely rescue Marcel from a sense of guilt, from anxieties and the contingency of the present. The ecstatic recollection provides a release from the extreme struggle between life and death. It does away with the filter between past and present.It breaks the arrow of time. It bestows immortality on him. People die when they are no longer able to connect the beginning and the end. The banks of Acheron will have a long time to wait. Even Proust’s initial tendency to melancholy is redeemed by his remarkable trip into the mystery of memory.
Although itself a small piece of matter, that little cake in the shape of a shell, tasting of lemon, enables us to enter into the spirit of the writer.
( . . . ) No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, 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 myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself (Proust).
What is this variation in levels of reality due to? How did Marcel’s consciousness lead him into that archipelago of memories that made his inner world such an extraordinary theatre for experimentation? How can one account for that example of pure freedom when, in Time regained, the narrator comes face to face with his destiny precisely where he had sought to avoid it? When he stumbles on the uneven flagstones in the courtyard of the Guermantes residence, Marcel is overcome by an ecstatic, atemporal epiphany. Just when everything seemed to be lost, a new path suddenly opens up before him. Without even having taking a decision, he feels ready to set about the work of art for which he was convinced he lacked the talent. What is this inexplicable and surprising happiness? Where is the source of that joy and sense of strength that are so intense as to make even the idea of death indifferent to him? What subtle enigma is concealed behind all this? This happiness transforms him immediately into a being emancipated from the yoke of time. And it is of no importance that Marcel proved to be expert at building and shaping. What counts is how his memory erected subtle, inexplicable structures that gave rise to a new form of life. This recognition of memory both sought and found, this paradoxical “rendering present” of what is absent, reveals the full profundity of time, the intentional quality of memory and the way in which consciousness is affected by events. Just as the age of a tree is imprinted in the concentric circles of its trunk, so memory keeps a record of events, physical occurrences and not only.