Sunday, July 16, 2006

Voluntary and Involuntary Memory

Dorothy highlighted a passage from the madeleine scene yesterday in which memory is portrayed as something beyond the reach of the intellect and rests mainly in the realm of chance. The madeleine is an example of involuntary memory. What I find most curious about Proust's idea is that he places the key to memory in objects. The taste or smell or feel of an object can unlock a memory in such a way that one is transported back in time to relive it. But finding the key is purely chance, if we don't encounter the right object before we die, then we will never experience whatever memory that object is the key to. We don't even know what the keys look like though so we can't even search for them.

This makes me feel sad. I know our memories are not perfect, all I have to do is talk to me sister about our childhood and it is abundantly clear that I remember things she doesn't, she remembers things I don't and if we both remember the same thing we each remember it differently. What makes me sad is the idea that there are things I could remember if only the right key came along. I am tempted to dredge my mind for childhood objects--sea shells, rubber flip-flops, Hostess Cupcakes, pecans--which I might acquire to wake up a memory or two. But then I wonder, do I want to remember? Why should I care? Will reliving a summer's day at the beach or a particular day when I walked to school make much difference to me in the here and now? Proust is currently silent on why or if it matters. Perhaps this will be revealed later.

Involuntary memory is set in opposition to voluntary memory. Voluntary memory is "the memory of the intelligence." Because of the origin of a voluntary memory, Proust sees it as being dead: "the information it gives about the past preserves nothing of the past itself." Is this true? I recall moments at will and remember feelings and details, close my eyes and am there. Am I just fooling myself, allowing my imagination to fill in the details rather than actually remembering? Which leads me to another question. If I experience an involuntary memory of say, a hike in the mountains, can I then recall it at will, or does that turn it into a voluntary memory? Or would I need to use the key if I wanted to experience the memory again? And would it work?

So much to think about. Maybe someone who knows Proust better than I has a few answers, or maybe the answers will arrive as I read. If nothing else, Proust is giving me a lesson in patience.

7 Comments:

Blogger Jan said...

Proust is a prick, sorry for the language. I think that instead of the terms of voluntary and involuntary, it would be more appropriat to say intellectual and sensory memories. Intellectually we can often recall memories that are quite vallid and secure. It is the sensory memories of touch, smell, taste, sound, etc. that are brought to us in an unpredictable and uncontrollable manner.

Hearing a song that reminds you suddenly and uncontrolably of the high school dance. Smelling something burning on the stove and remembering the time someone burned dinner and then going out to eat. Plus any memory that is recalled by a sensory perception, is what I believe the prick ment by involuntary memory.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

It does seem sad that we might miss memories because we don't encounter the object associated with it. And if we go seeking the objects, is that a form of "voluntary" memory -- is it possible to force the process?

And perhaps the flip-side of this sadness is that there is always the possibility of encountering such a meaningful object: as long as we are coming into contact with things, there is hope that we can reconnect with ourselves. Chance might not work in our favor, but then again, it might.

I just read the passage about the church steeple, and I noticed the way Proust turns the steeple into something almost alive -- he personifies it. Objects, for Proust, seem to be more than mere objects -- they can not only unlock our memories, but they seem to be able to feel or border on becoming alive.

Perhaps voluntary and involuntary memory blur more than Proust is allowing for (at least so far) -- like you said an involuntary memory repeated becomes voluntary, and perhaps a voluntary memory, felt strongly enough, begins to take on the characteristics of an involuntary one.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

I like what you said Dorothy about memory as being a way to reconnect with ourselves. I had not thought of it in that way. The difference between the two kinds of memory makes much more sense from that perspective. Intellectual memory is simple recall--this happened then that and then this. But involuntary memory is re-immersion into the whole experience so we are both our current and past selves at the same time. This is why reading with other people is so great! :)

I just read the church steeple scene too, and it does seem almost alive, like a sentry over the town. I appears that Proust uses objects to describe people indirectly rather than a direct description of what a person looks like. An interesting approach

8:05 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

I've been thinking a lot lately about faulty memories, times when the mind sort of plays tricks on you and you're not sure if you're remembering something that actually happened or if your mind is cobbling together "memories" from various sources: something you've read, a movie or tv show you've seen, even from dreams we've had at night.

I wonder if Proust encountered this phenomenon or thought about it in his writing or Swann's Way.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

I think faulty memories would be put in the category of voluntary memory. The intellect is unreliable. From Proust's point of view, I don't think it would be possible to have a faulty involuntary memory since they come unbidden from an outside object which relates to a past experience. It seems that when we consciously think about things is when we are more prone to get it all confused.

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Involuntary memory for me appears like a snapshot in time, bending to tie up my shoe lace, a flash of my parents face as I twirl on the funfair a passing glance out of a bus window maybe thirty years ago there is no feelings attached and the memory has nothing to do with the now. I assumed eveyone was the same are they?

9:42 AM  
Anonymous tonycord33 @gmail.com said...

the word catexas. is what is mising it means energy invested in the object from the greek. word catexos. objects have klnd of soul. which is the true unchanging. imprint of time.
from tonycord33@gmail.com

3:40 PM  

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