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CURRENT ISSUE 2007

Todd Coffin

Adrianna E. Frick

Rachel Gibson

Jenny Lee

Christy Rodgers

Erica Weitzman

 

Memory and Meaning on the Brink of Oblivion:
Proust, Sebald, and the Construction of Identity

Todd Coffin
San Francisco State University

Although one might deliberately seek out one's past, it is often an unexpected scent, vision, or glance that triggers the recall of disparate experiences in earlier life. More often, we find ourselves struggling against a tide of oblivion and forgetfulness in order to remember the distant people, events, and impressions that shaped our lives. The multi-faceted and at times uncontrollable nature of memory makes it one of the more mystifying and yet rewarding experiences in life. And it is for this reason that many a novel and untold volumes of criticism have been penned to its tune. With this in mind, I wish to offer here a unique look into the similarities and common threads that emerge in two intriguing novels from diverse time and place: Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (specifically volume seven: Le temps retrouvé) and W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. More specifically yet, I will focus on two particular episodes in each novel. Experiences as disconnected as a mere misstep on the uneven courtyard paving stones and the simple act of hearing one's mother tongue for the first time again trigger a profound flood of memories that unexpectedly transform two literary characters' lives, identities, and perceptions of their past. Both Proust's narrator and Jacques Austerlitz are concerned primarily with the way in which memory shapes their current identities. Moreover, they seek to recall not only the precise sentiments of the past experience, but also to consider the feelings memories evoke in them presently. Thus memory is not constituted in the simple recall of a past event or person: it is a complex chain of experience, emotion, and distance fused with the active impression and current meaning one draws from one's perceived past. While Proust's narrator premises his entire story on the quest for memory and how he can harness it into a creative expression of art, Jacques Austerlitz is more concerned with parting the somber veil that clouds his vision of himself and his past. He does this by journeying back to his home many years after emigrating, thereby attempting to liberate the suppressed and fleeting memories that leave him fragmented and haunted. Although the themes appear different on the surface, both characters are in fact obsessed with their past but realize that they can only do so much to uncover its meaning. They are both affected by unexpected flashes, or "involuntary" memories, that open up much more of their past to them than all of their overt attempts succeed in unveiling. Moreover, although they are both deeply absorbed in their own personal consciousness — which on the surface might seem deeply subjective — their memories and identities are in fact more profoundly rooted in collective memory, culture, and history than might seem obvious. In order to develop these ideas and to define the interlinked themes of individual and collective memory that characterize the two novels, it is necessary first to define memory and the framework I will use to apply the notion to the two works. Next, I will delve into the works themselves and the two particular episodes on which I will focus and define their narrative perspectives and vehicles and symbols of memory. I will then proceed to identify the elements of "conscious" and "spontaneous" memory (Bergson 81-82) and conclude by discussing the degree to which these deeply subjective works draw on public history and collective memory.

Memory is clearly a topic that has been much explored in literary criticism and behavioral psychology, so I wish first to define "memory" and the theoretical framework I will employ to view the two texts. Three elements of memory concern us here: First, both characters attempt desperately and obsessively to reanimate their past but are unable to actively conjure up past meaning and sensations. Only at unexpected moments do such revelatory memories seize and pervade them with a sense of connection with the past. Bergson argues that conscious, "learned" memory (79-80) originates in a finite event, can not occur again and that "All that later readings can add to it will only alter its original nature [...]" (80). The event or experience itself stands independent of any effort to recall or re-learn it: Indeed the memory representations are independent of the original experience (81). Conscious memory is only made possible by "the intelligent, or rather intellectual, recognition of perception already experienced; in it we take refuge every time that, in the search for a particular image, we remount the slope of our past" (81). So much of lived experience, however, is buried away, inaccessible to the intellect, deep inside one's subconsciousness: Bergson proceeds to assert that although it might seem to be a negligible burden "by which we prefer to imagine ourselves unencumbered" (145), memories inevitably come to life unexpectedly and produce "on us the effect of a ghost whose mysterious apparition must be explained by special causes" (145). Indeed spontaneous memory creates a profound physical and emotional impact on the body: The spontaneous often leads to exaltation, while the conscious frustrates and inhibits. We will return later to the importance of spontaneous memory and its differences from conscious memory.

The overarching experience of memory that I have just discussed, however, constitutes much more than a simple connection with one's past and forms the second element of my definition: "Memory" in and of itself constitutes a veritable stepping outside of present and past into what Ricoeur calls "flow," "in the sense that the incessant transformation of 'now' into 'no longer,' and of 'not yet' into 'now,' is equivalent to the constitution of a single flow, if the word 'constitution' retains a sense when nothing is constituted beyond the flow itself" (Memory, History, Forgetting 112). By reliving a finite, past experience one creates "an experience of an entirely different order" (Bergson 81) from the original sensation. As memory materializes "it will cease to be a memory and pass into the state of a present thing, something actually lived" (139). In fact, "this consciousness of a whole past of efforts stored up in the present is indeed also a memory, but a memory profoundly different from the first, always bent upon action, seated in the present and looking only to the future" (82). The mere act of recapturing the past inherently serves some current purpose and necessarily influences one's perspective of and outlook on the future. Malcolm Bowie keenly observes with regard to À la recherche, which can equally be applied to Austerlitz, that "within the paragraphs, the propulsive energy of the writing, the living sense of futurity that drives the narration on, comes from an astonishing power of recapitulation [...] The way forward into a clear new future always involves revisiting the past" (52). Indeed both conscious and spontaneous remembrances affect Proust's narrator and Austerlitz and alter their attitudes toward the future. Memory thus constitutes a dimension of its own, beyond past and present, and often even bears upon one's future course of action.

As is also evident in the two novels, memory is inherently connected with the notion of the image, the third component of my definition. The "image" one carries of the past and "memory" both share a common trait: the presence of the "absent" (physically) and the vision of something "unreal" (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting 44). Indeed the image one constructs of the past does not represent the true objective nature of that past: The image of the past is the "image reinscribed in perception, at the stage where recognition blossoms" (54). These images, furthermore, often trigger a sort of "hallucinatory function of the imagination" (54) while one attempts to reconstruct memory and identity, which is especially evident several times in Austerlitz's quest for his past. The notion of the image, moreover, is related to that of physical sensation in general, since it is a visual impression processed by memory, intellect, and imagination, just as are other physical sensations such as scent. The visual and sensory nature of the "image" one carries of the past is thus a critical component of the overall notion of memory. With these definitions of the unique modes and facets of memory in mind — conscious and spontaneous; past, present, future, and the "flow" beyond time; image and sensation — I will now proceed to define the context of the two episodes in Proust and Sebald and continue by highlighting the common features of memory present in both.

I wish to concentrate on one important episode in Proust's Le temps retrouvé, the seventh and final volume of his monumental À la recherche du temps perdu. At the onset of this scene, the narrator — much matured since his early reminiscences on time and memory in the first volume — believes that his past is permanently out of reach and that he has lost the magical muse of memory that would propel him to become a writer. And yet as he enters the courtyard of the once fabulous Guermantes residence for a party, he is immersed in self-loathing and hopelessness when he loses his balance on an uneven paving stone and is suddenly, as if struck by a bolt of lightning, reawakened to the ecstatic joys of memory. Like the rest of the novel, the narrator recounts this scene in the first person from a later vantage point, and exalts that

tout mon découragement s'évanouit devant la même félicité qu'à diverses époques de ma vie m'avaient donnée la vue d'arbres que j'avais cru reconnaître dans une promenade en voiture autour de Balbec, la vue des clochers de Martinville, la saveur d'une madeleine trempée dans une infusion [...]. (703)

all my discouragement vanished and in its place was that same happiness which at various epochs of my life had been given to me by the sight of trees which I had thought that I recognised in the course of a drive near Balbec, by the sight of the twin steeples of Martinville, by the flavour of a madeleine dipped in tea [...]. (899)

This spontaneous flash of inspiration endures and unleashes a flood of memories and insights that constitute the culminating moment of the work. Like a raw nerve, he is suddenly aware of and hyper-sensitive to the subtle meanings of the past with which he now communes.

Indeed, the sudden ecstatic rediscovery of a past that had been thought forever lost reveals the temporal architecture of the self, the invariant substratum that until then had been present but unrecognised beneath its fluid and accidental surface forms; this ontological discovery triggers an artistic one, which in turn creates an exhilarating sense of moral purpose. (Bowie 4)

The narrator indeed capitalizes on this inspiration and uses it as newfound momentum in his attempts to create art that synthesizes experience, as he admires so much in the music of Vinteuil, the writings of Bergotte, and the paintings of Elstir. It is as if the force of memory has unexpectedly reached out to him,

[...] de nouveau la vision éblouissante et indistincte me frôlait comme si elle m'avait dit: "saisis-moi au passage si tu en as la force, et tâche de résoudre l'énigme de bonheur que je te propose" (703).

[...] again the dazzling and indistinct vision fluttered near me, as if to say: "Seize me as I pass if you can, and try to solve the riddle of happiness which I set you" (899).

Memory is at once the object of the narrator's quest as well as the tool with which he will make sense of his past. Terdiman acutely observes that "Memory is the enigma this fiction sets out to unravel and the instrument it offers for doing so" (155). The object and the tool coincide and harmonize in this culminating moment of the work:

Et je ne jouissais pas que de ces couleurs, mais de tout un instant de ma vie qui les soulevait, qui avait été sans doute aspiration vers elles [...] et qui maintenant, débarrassé de ce qu'il y a d'imparfait dans la perception extérieure, pur et désincarné, me gonflait d'allégresse. (705)

And what I found myself enjoying was not merely these colours but a whole instant of my life on whose summit they rested, an instant which had been no doubt an aspiration towards them [...] but which now, freed from what is necessarily imperfect in external perception, pure and disembodied, cause me to swell with happiness. (901)

This sudden solution to the subtle yet agonizing quest for memory and meaning "confirms and blazons forth a notion that has already made many premonitory appearances. We need a guiding, stabilising notion of human individuality with which to battle our way through the intricacies of Proust's text [...]" (Bowie 5). And yet almost in spite of the earlier memory episodes (the famous madeleine incident as well as reminiscences during walks on "Swann's Way" and "Guermantes Way"), this crowning moment for spontaneous memory leaves the reader questioning "the whole range of paradoxes, dissonances and unusual consonances" (Bowie 5) that characterize the preceding 2000 pages. Indeed critics like Richard Terdiman argue that "Proust's concluding tribute to memory cannot efface the unparalleled anxiety that in the Recherche is indissolubly and unremittingly linked to the experience of recollection" (159). Although there is some truth in this view, I counter that Proust's narrator only experiences this memory euphoria during a finite span of time and that he is highlighting the revelatory nature of these fleeting moments when past and present collapse into a timeless flow of meaning. The incident in question does not propose a final solution to the challenges of memory, but instead reveals its power to transform time into a rhapsodic, almost blissful state of epiphany.

W.G. Sebald, like Proust, magically conjures up another complex life world from an individual's fragmentary impressions and memories and poetically forges them into a unique and singular voice of lived history and experience. In Austerlitz, Sebald achieves such a feat by examining the gradual re-emergence of a man's past from the brink of total oblivion: Indeed the fragmentary images of a traumatic dislocation from his childhood home in Prague on the eve of the Second World War finally force Austerlitz to journey back home in order to reconstruct the original roots and identity that he has buried under years of denial. In this fascinating personal account, Sebald's narrator spins the tale of Jacques Austerlitz in a novel manner, employing personal impressions, photography, architecture, and images to highlight the power of individual voice and memory in constructing history. The story, moreover, is characterized by one more narrative layer than Proust's, because the unknown narrator (perhaps a Sebald-like character) recounts the stories that Austerlitz tells to him (and Austerlitz often quotes other characters, as well, thus adding another narrative layer). While the overarching notion of memory in Austerlitz superficially differs from that of À la recherche in the sense that the hero realizes he must peel back the layers of meaning and identity he has constructed in England over the years in order to reclaim his Jewish and Czech past, it relates directly to Proust's work in the sense that both characters deliberately seek to resurrect the past but in doing so learn that the past often chooses when and how to reveal itself. More importantly, examining the two works side-by-side highlights unique yet similar elements of each: Indeed when studied in relation to Austerlitz, certain elements of collective culture and history become more evident in the seemingly subjective memories of À la recherche. At the same time, additionally, similar types (voluntary, involuntary, timeless) and vehicles (sensation, vision) of memory become obvious in Austerlitz in light of Proust's novel. One episode in particular in Austerlitz is the focus of this study: After years of attempting to emerge from a sort of hazy oblivion in which he has suppressed and ignored his true but unknown past, Austerlitz finally decides to leave his adopted home of England — after learning that his parents sent him on a Kindertransport from Prague to London in 1939 and after passing his entire life thus far with only a dim, repressed awareness of his past — and return to his origins in Prague to discover his lineage and identity. Upon his arrival in Prague and his discovery of his former residence, he returns to eerily familiar ground, and in spite of overt attempts to reconstruct his past, it is only through involuntary associations, sensations, and images that memory returns to him. As he enters his former neighborhood, he remarks, "when I felt the uneven paving of the Sporkova underfoot as step by step I climbed uphill, it was as if I had already been this way before and memories were revealing themselves to me not by means of any mental effort but through my senses, so long numbed and now coming back to life" (150). He experiences a similar flood of spontaneous memories that Proust's narrator does: While entering the foyer of his former apartment building he observes "an octofoil mosaic flower" in the stone floor — of which there is also a photo on this page (151) — and other familiar discreet objects such as the "hazelnut-shaped iron knobs" on the stair banister and the "smell of damp limewash," his emotions are overwhelmed by long-buried memories. So much so that he is "overcome by such a state of blissful yet anxious confusion that more than once I had to sit down on the steps in the quiet stairwell and lean my head against the wall" (151). Having memorized a few basic phrases in Czech, he meets his former neighbor and nurserymaid, Vera, who now lives in his family's apartment and has left "everything just as it was almost sixty years ago" (153). Austerlitz comments that his entire life is "unraveling headlong before me" (153) and that he is not only emotionally reconnecting with his past but physically as well, as if he has crossed a gulf of time and erased the gap between past and present. At one point Vera reverts from habitual French to native Czech, and while Austerlitz had earlier understood only smatterings of his native language, suddenly in this familiar setting he spontaneously "understood almost everything Vera said, like a deaf man whose hearing has been miraculously restored" (155). As Austerlitz continues to discuss his past with Vera over a period of a few days, successive layers of memory reveal themselves and peel away in a tumultuous flood of images, and emotions. Observing the now familiar surroundings out the back window and recalling memories of doing the same as a child, Austerlitz remarks that "these and other images [...] ranged themselves side by side, so that deeply buried and locked away within me as they had been, they now came luminously back to my mind [...]" (156). In these and other episodes, Sebald imbues seemingly fractured impressions and disparate objects with profound personal meaning. Moreover, he weaves these fragments into a decisively non-chronological temporality to construct a vivid historical discourse of exile, oblivion, and memory. With these sketches of the two episodes on which I am focusing my analysis, I will now proceed to delve into the concepts of "voluntary" and "involuntary" memory and the transformation of the dialectic of past and present into a state of bliss and angst beyond time that is evident in both authors' treatment of the power of memory.

Both authors describe two primary modes of memory: conscious and spontaneous, or as Proust writes, voluntary and involuntary. Both characters actively seek out their past but only succeed in capturing it in fleeting, unexpected flashes. It is only during these spontaneous revelations that "the distance between the present impression and the past impression is magically transformed into a miraculous contemporaneousness" (Ricoeur, Time and Narrative 140-41), and aside from these moments of grace and despite repeated efforts on the part of both characters to recapture the essence of their past, memories are "swallowed up in the same devastating oblivion" (141). Austerlitz lives most of his life in a hazy ignorance of his roots and past, and only when repressed and vague impressions of earlier horrific experiences begin to possess him and make him ill does he actively push the limits of his memory in order merely to survive (Bere 2). Likewise, leading up to the episode of the uneven paving stones in Le temps retrouvé, Proust's narrator admits that he is frustrated with the lack of connection with his past and that he can no longer actively conjure up the muse of his past. He complains,

[...] je ne me sentais pas plus de goût, plus de talent, pour décrire maintenant ce que j'avais vu autrefois ce que j'observais d'un oeil minutieux et morne, au moment même. (702)

[...] I felt that I had no more taste, no more talent for describing now what I had seen in the past, than I had had yesterday for describing what at that very moment I was, with a meticulous and melancholy eye, actually observing. (898)

Although he disputes the validity of such feelings, Terdiman concurs that in Proust "privilege is granted to the involuntary: to what we never chose, to what we could not have manipulated to fit our conscious need, to what was not determined by any subjective instrumentality" (201-02), and argues that this subordination of the active will is part of the crisis of memory and history in society. Indeed in both novels real communion with memory happens only involuntarily. Austerlitz, too, after learning about his mother Agáta from Vera, can not willfully recreate her in his memory:

Sometimes it seemed as if the veil would part; I thought, for one fleeting instant, that I could feel the touch of Agáta's shoulder or see the picture on the front of the Charlie Chaplin comic which Vera had bought me for the journey, but as soon as I tried to hold one of these fragments fast, or get it into better focus, as it were, it disappeared into the emptiness revolving over my head. (218-19)

Both characters, however, succeed in connecting with present with past and in fusing them into a timeless flow.

I will return to this "flow" beyond time in the next segment, but let me first touch briefly upon the facets of voluntary and involuntary memory common to the two novels. Like Austerlitz, Proust's narrator actively "struggles to combat the ever-increasing gap that generates forgetfulness" (Ricoeur, Time and Narrative 140), but the rare moments of grace from the "devastating oblivion" (141) of the past are few and far between. Moreover, the overt act of attempting to remember one's past fails essentially every time in both works. Proust's narrator comments at the beginning of the episode,

Mais c'est quelquefois au moment où tout nous semble perdu que l'avertissement arrive qui peut nous sauver; on a frappé à toutes les portes qui ne donnent sur rien, et la seule par où on peut entrer et qu'on aurait cherchée en vain pendant cent ans, on y heurte sans le savoir, et elle s'ouvre. (702)

But it is sometimes just at the moment when we think that everything is lost that the intimation arrives which may save us; one has knocked at all the doors which lead nowhere, and then one stumbles without knowing it on the only door through which one can enter — which one might have sought in vain for a hundred years — and it opens of its own accord. (898)

Indeed it is almost as if a "savior" enters and points the character to a magical "door" way out of the confines of active memory. This savior in both novels is spontaneous memory, and yet one might argue that this saving grace is purposefully lacking in voluntary will. Although each character is buried in his own subjective world, neither can muster the will to reshape his identity and can only penetrate the oblivion that enshrouds his past with the aid of a sort of intervening hand. When Vera speaks Czech to Austerlitz for the first time, he comments on his initial inability to comprehend his own native tongue,

[...] I, who had not for a moment thought that Czech could mean anything to me, not at the airport or in the state archives, or even while learning by heart the question which would have been of scant use to me addressed to the wrong quarters, now understood almost everything Vera said, like a deaf man whose hearing has been miraculously restored. (155)

Thus despite overt attempts to recognize his ability for Czech, he only learns spontaneously of his innate skill. Moreover, he tellingly and crudely prepares the wrong question for the wrong people before meeting Vera, which might symbolize the utter failure of voluntary memory to grasp the past even though he is surrounded by it. In both novels, one might contest this supremacy granted to the involuntary and this suppression of the will. Terdiman goes so far as to argue that this shows "an extraordinary distrust attaching to the will, to intentionality, to consciousness" (202). He continues to argue that this element in Proust exposes a critical paradox, in that "Proust had sought to centralize everything in a sovereign subject, but involuntary memory fundamentally undercuts such a projection" (202). The thrust of his argument is that this inherent contradiction and self-alienation reflects the lack of faith in the twentieth century subject and the crisis of memory that results from such a lack of subjective responsibility. Although I agree with his criticism of the exaltation of the subjective world and the simultaneous undermining of the voluntary will, I would argue that he is misinterpreting the provenance of so-called involuntary memory: Instead of originating outside of the subject, as one might deduce based on the language above (especially in Proust), I assert that spontaneous memory actually resides within the subject, only deeper in the subconsciousness than voluntary memory. The unexpected moments of grace, of confluence of past and present, originate deep within the subject and bubble up when prompted by certain (even seemingly unassociated) triggers. In this view, involuntary memory confers even more power upon the subject, and this is a central tenet in Proust's and Sebald's view of the individual. In fact, Austerlitz realizes that he must actively embark in search of his past precisely because of the haunting, repressed memories that bubble up sporadically and leave him ill attempting to uncover their mysteries (Bere 2). And in fact it is only because Austerlitz voluntarily embarks on a search for his past that any involuntary memories at all are triggered and return to his consciousness.

And when these memories return fully to consciousness they often transport the subject into a realm that is neither pure past nor pure present. Neither character conjures up the precise emotions experienced at the time of the incident recalled: Instead they create a new feeling that merges the present state, the image of the past, and future expectations into a sort of timeless flow. Indeed these rare moments do not illustrate "[...] time regained, in the sense of time lost that is found again, but the very suspension of time, eternity [...]" (Ricoeur, Time and Narrative 144). While Proust's narrator comments blissfully on this juxtaposition of past and present that projects him and the objects of his memory outside of the flow of time, Austerlitz is overwhelmed by the revelations and is as if set adrift in an ocean without bearings. The impact of the revelation is equal on both, but while Proust's narrator is in essence revitalizing his current life with the creative muse of his idealized past, Austerlitz unearths the horrific truth of his parents' annihilation during the war that followed his hasty flight from his homeland. In the first instance, Proust's narrator comments,

[...] au vrai, l'être qui alors goûtait en moi cette impression la goûtait en ce qu'elle avait de commun dans un jour ancien et maintenant, dans ce qu'elle avait d'extra-temporel, un être qui n'apparaissait que quand, par une de ces identités entre le présent et le passé, il pouvait se trouver dans le seul milieu où il pût vivre, jouir de l'essence des choses, c'est-à-dire en dehors du temps. (706)

The truth surely was that the being within me which had enjoyed these impressions had enjoyed them because they had in them something that was common to a day long past and to the present, because in some way they were extra-temporal, and this being made its appearance only when, through one of these identifications of the present with the past, it was likely to find itself in the one and only medium in which it could exist and enjoy the essence of things, that is to say: outside time. (904)

Spontaneous memory here thus serves as a conduit to the true "essence" of existence: it is in itself both an artistic expression as well as a source on which art must draw. The language of the episode, too, artfully manipulates ordinary time: "the syntax continues to interconnect past, present and future, to manipulate memory and expectation, to tease out the paradoxes of desire-time and to pursue a broken path towards propositional fullness" (Bowie 67). Thus although one of the novels in question serves as an inspiration and the other affords a glimpse into the abyss of genocide and exodus, both experiences seize the characters in the same spontaneous and unexpectedly profound manner and spin them into a state beyond past and present. Austerlitz, too, in his quest to recreate identity out of his past feels the dissolution of linear time while visiting the Estates Theater where his mother performed in the 1930s and which he and Vera discussed the previous evening. Seated in the empty Theater, he comments, "The harder I tried to conjure up at least some faint recollection of her appearance, the more the theater seemed to be shrinking, as if I myself had shrunk to the stature of a little Tom Thumb enclosed in a sort of velvet-lined casket" (161). Attempting to recall his past voluntarily, he is constrained so much that he imagines himself in a coffin, and yet when a figure walks on stage and the curtain flutters, he is plunged into a reverie that transports him to the days of his mother Agáta's performances:

I saw the conductor of the orchestra down in the pit like a beetle in his black tailcoat [...] I heard their music mingling with the voices, and all of a sudden I thought that in between one of the musicians' heads and the neck of a double bass, in the bright strip of light between the wooden floorboards and the hem of the curtain, I caught sight of a sky-blue shoe embroidered with silver sequins. (161)

He shakes himself from his trance and returns to Vera's flat, who confirms the truth of his vision. He responds immediately, "I felt as if something were shattering inside my brain" (161). Time has shattered and he realizes that the repressed memories of war, destruction, and flight that have all been welling up in him for years are indeed true. In another incident in the same episode with Vera, the two have been observing the neighborhood out the back window, and although it has changed much since his similar observations as a boy, he has "only to wait to hear Vera lift the next leaf of her book in the other room, and I can still feel, said Austerlitz, or perhaps it is only now that I feel again, the sense of my consciousness dissolving among the poppies and leafy tendrils etched into the opaque glass of the door before I caught the slight rustle of the page turning" (157). Contrary to Proust's narrator, who frolics in the timelessness of spontaneous memory, Austerlitz's mind "shatters" and "dissolves" as he recalls the devastation and loss that has afflicted his life and weighed him down for so many years in the form of shadowy, repressed memories. And yet one can argue that in both novels, during these revelatory moments of spontaneous memory, "time collapses on itself" (Terdiman 238). Moreover, these experiences serve to recalibrate the present moment: "[...] involuntary memory rather locates a fold in temporality that opens it up from within to the possibilities of an existence that could rectify the deficiencies of the present, and that hence defines that present more rigorously than any direct characterization of it could manage to do" (238). Although Terdiman is critical of Proust's conception of involuntary memory as a liberating force, for indeed it distorts the past more than voluntary memory does, it nonetheless remains that spontaneous memory in both novels is not necessarily concerned with the precise nature of past experiences, but rather with the manner in which they shape the present life.

It is necessary at this point to stop and explore the origins of individual memory and ask what collective discourses can bear upon the individual's conceptualization of the past. The two episodes, especially Proust's, appear indeed to be subjective and disconnected from collective history and culture. Terdiman criticizes Proust in that his "doctrine construes as self-realization a constitutive bracketing, a forgetting of all the social experiences and ideological structures that construct the self to begin with" (177). In the same breath, however, he acknowledges that certain elements within Proust's architecture of memory inevitably draw on collective discourse, which "is not so much a 'source' as it is a condition of possibility of individual ideas and texts" (191). Yet both characters draw the power of their discourses from historical reality and from the culture of artistic expresssion, be it photographic, architectural, or literary. In fact, Proust's narrator acknowledges his admiration for the artists Vinteuil, Bergotte and Elstir and attempts to harness his memories to create art in a similar fashion, since such artists are endorsed and promoted by collective culture. This is a clear example of the hero striving to attain the status of a societal model and to fashion his art based on common precepts of creativity and genius that society imbues in him. Indeed he admits in the text that impressions are "imprints" of objective reality: "De quelque idée laissée en nous par la vie qu'il s'agisse, sa figure matérielle, trace de l'impression qu'elle nous a faite, est encore le gage de sa vérité nécessaire" (713). "When an idea — an idea of any kind — is left in us by life, its material pattern, the outline of the impression that it made upon us, remains behind as the token of its necessary truth" (914). The impression is an individual, subjective formulation of a stated reality. Drawn from deep within, it is nonetheless the product of external reality. Ricoeur echoes this sentiment in positing that we must "begin with the idea of ownness, pass through the experience of the other, and finally proceed to a third operation, said to be the communalization of subjective experience [...]" (Memory, History, Forgetting 119). Austerlitz's conception of the past is perhaps more overtly influenced by external forces: Shadowy memories of the Second World War, emigration, and the Holocaust all weigh heavily on the hero and serve as both a source of his repression and as a vehicle by which to unearth his true identity. Moreover, the very structure of the novel which is once and at times twice removed — the narrator recounts stories that Austerlitz recounts to him that Vera tells to him — involves a very public element of oral discourse. All three links in the novel share the stories told to them and each in turn spins a personal tale that is influenced by the previous link. Additionally, external images — primarily photos taken by the narrator and Austerlitz and included by the narrator in the story — reflect Austerlitz's susceptibility to the influence of art, image, and history: The "octofoil mosaic flower" and the "hazelnut-shaped iron knobs placed at intervals in the handrail of the banisters" (151) in the foyer of Vera's apartment are not only pictured in the text but also serve "signs and characters" (151) of the influence of public architecture and history upon the consciousness of Austerlitz. Moreover, as Crownshaw argues, Austerlitz has effectively inherited the traumas of his parents' demise, and only slowly through him are these experiences and memories able to come fully back to life (1). In fact it is really only through the narrator that both Austerlitz's memories — heretofore resignedly assigned to oblivion by Austerlitz — and the experiences of his parents finally come to light through a brilliant tapestry of subjective memory, collective history, and the power of image in recreating both.

In conclusion, it is clear that while both conscious and spontaneous memory play critical roles in both works, the rare and revelatory instances of involuntary memory permit both Proust's narrator and Austerlitz to gaze more penetratingly within themselves and to discern more clearly the impact of the past on their current experiences. Moreover, it enables them to step out of the concrete reality of both the past and the present to experience a sort of timeless, anxious state of pure being. It is within these moments beyond pure present and past that the characters find connection not only with what they perceive to be their true selves but also with what I claim is a more deep-seated connection with culture and history than what might appear on the surface. While both episodes employ very personal and subjective language, it is only at these points of pure connection that Proust's narrator envisions his ability to fulfill his dream of creating art comparable to that which society praises and which he has his whole life emulated; and that Austerlitz uncovers his links to the Holocaust, war, and emigration, three of the primary historical factors that shaped the twentieth century. Moreover, the mere fact that memory and experience are couched in language and that, as Eagleton argues, language precedes and enables meaning (52), neither character's experiences are wholly private or independent of society. For it is indeed language that enables one to attribute meaning to experience, and the phenomenon of memory is not exempt from this necessity of language.

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Works Cited

Bere, Carol. "The Book of Memory: W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants and Austerlitz." Literary Review 46.1 (2002): 184-92. 3 December 2005
< http://lion.chadwyck.com >

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Bowie, Malcolm. Proust Among the Stars. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Crownshaw, Richard. "Reconsidering Postmemory: Photography, the Archive, and Post-Holocaust Memory in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz." Mosaic 37.4 (2004): 215-36.
3 December 2005. < http://lion.chadwyck.com >

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Proust, Marcel. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Vol. 3. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1987.
---. Remembrance of Things Past. Vol. 3. Trans. Andreas Mayor. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.

Ricoeur, Paul. Memory, History, Forgetting. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
---. Time and Narrative. Trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2001.

Terdiman, Richard. Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.

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