Walter Benjamin on Marcel Proust on the Madeleine
I remember Walter Benjamin's writings on Marcel Proust's madeleine, the moment, in Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time,
when an avatar of Proust bites into the pastry, memories of his childhood flood into his brain, what Proust calls a memoire involuntaire;
but, I never noticed before this statement Benjamin (writing about Proust) makes about the search for an object related to a lost memory:
"As for that object, it depends entirely on chance whether we come upon it before we die or whether we never encounter it" (Benjamin Illuminations 158).
Lacan's Objet Petit A
This comment reminds me of Lacan's objet petit a
It's Lacan's psychological concept for the lost object. The object of desire responsible for obsession and deranged fantasy. It is that object of desire that drives the desirer mad in search of it.
The object of desire, in the symbol of the madeleine, is a marker for that object that we may chance upon, involuntarily, or may never have at all. I think about myself, here, and my desires. If there is a "madeleine" for me, I may taste it, or I may not; the memoire involuntaire
is totally necessitated by chance; I happen upon the object, the memory comes flooding in like an impressionistic painting. But, I may never come upon this memory, locked forever in some lost object of desire.
Is the Job of the Poet to Hearken Back to Lost Memories?
If it is the poet's job to unlock these memories, then I applaud the poet. If it is a poet who can open up a madeleine of lost memories, let's laud him with a crown of laurel.
I am sure there is a poem hidden in a taste yet to be eaten.
Am I hedonistic to wish for such a bite?
Proust entrances his reader with the opportunity to invoke memories through the senses. It is the poet who puts these sense impressions into language. Cognitive science confirms Proust's intimation that the senses (e.g., smell and taste) trigger a memory. Proust is right.
Proust Via Benjamin Via Lacan Are Onto Something
The memory Proust, and I think Benjamin is onto something, is alluding to is not a factual memory stuck at a particular moment in time. The memory is much broader than a recollection. Baudelaire (via Benjamin) uses the term shock - an expression meant to suggest a memory linked to trauma. The shock is a sense impression outside of some romantic notion of memory, and instead of a memory of the crowd.
I put away silly notions of private memory. The artist does not pull from something deep inside of him to produce art. It is not a private string of emotions the artist must articulate so others can understand. The memory the artist exposes is already there, involuntary.
Benjamin, Walter. Eiland, Howard, et al. Gesammelte Schriften. United Kingdom, Belknap Press, 1996.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. United States, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.