Bergson and Proust on Time and Memory

In his 1910 doctoral thesis entitled Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Henri Bergson (1859–1941) argued against the received quantifying method of dividing time into countable units which ignored and simply disposed of its psychological dimension. Instead, he developed a new theory of time, conceived as an essentially subjective experience, introducing the concept of ‘pure duration’ made out of ‘nothing but a succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines.’ This philosophical revolution in our perception of time was to inspire twentieth-century writers like Virginia Woolf and T.S Eliot but more particularly Marcel Proust (1871–1922) whose multi-volume masterpiece In Search of Lost Time was greatly influenced by Bergson’s reinterpretation of our experience of time and memory. 

Bergson distinguished between a quasi automatic memory which, inscribed within our body, facilitates our everyday actions and, on the other hand, a ‘pure memory’ which requires an effort of our mental faculty to bring back to our consciousness specific moments in our life, in the shape of ‘image-remembrance’. Proust, for his part, was less interested in the power of our intelligence than in a kind of involuntary memory, triggered by a sensation, itself attached to a previous event, suddenly brought back from a distant, seemingly forgotten past. His most famous example is the taste of the small shell-shaped cake, eaten by the young Proust when on holiday at his grand-parents and rediscovered by the adult Proust who, thanks to this innocuous ‘madeleine’, could gain instant access to an entire world of hidden memories. 

Another involuntary recollection appears in Swann’s Way, the first volume of his fortuitous reconstruction of his past: while on a summer walk near the Normandy village of Illiers-Combray, another perception, of an olfactory nature, this time, stops the narrator in his tracks. The sweet-scented fragrance of an hawthorne hedge finds a distant echo in his body’s memory which spontaneously takes him back to his younger days. In this enriching exercise of mindful rumination, Proust and the reader both share the same ‘epiphany’ or moment of truth in their common longing for a transient communion with nature. 

So through art, memories can be resuscitated from oblivion and abolish the chronological tyranny of time by freezing and conferring to it an irrefragable dimension as the past is brought back to life and can, like the blossoming hawthorne, be experienced again and again without any fear of gradual deterioration and final extinction. 

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