Marcel Proust’s seven-volume, 4000+ page masterpiece is, as the title reveals, an essay on Time. The first volume and the last volume deal most directly with Time, while the middle volumes serve as the background needed to understand Marcel’s final reclaiming of Time at the end of the book. The episode of the madeleine, which occurs in the first volume, is a pivotal moment in the novel. In this episode, Marcel as an older man dips a madeleine in tea and takes a bite of it. He is instantaneously transported back to a moment from his childhood where he had a similar experience. But it is not just that the memory is called to mind. His entire awareness of the present moment is obscured by all aspects of that past moment returning to him. He is literally transported back to a moment of Time that had, until then, been Lost.
As I watch my baby girl grow and change every day, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about time; the way it crawls and races, squeezes out in small drops and rushes past in a flood, and the fact that I don’t want to miss any of this time with her. “It goes by so fast.” I swear there must be an international meeting of all parents of older children where they are instructed to give this advice to parents of young babies. How else to explain that every single parent uses this exact phrase when they see you with your little one? I know, I know. This time is precious, cherish it while it lasts, it will be over before you know it. I get it. But do I really? Can we ever really get it? Can we understand the speed with which time goes as we’re living each individual day? I always remember a conversation I had with my father as I was finishing college. “It went so fast,” I told him. “Just wait until you wake up one day and look in the mirror and you’re 50 and you still feel 20 and you don’t know how you got here.” Thanks for the pick-me-up, dad. But as Marcel discovers at the end of “In Search of Lost Time,” we may only see the truth in retrospect.
And even if we receive this advice and try to honor it, what can we do? I try to practice mindfulness and awareness of the present moment, so as not to lose time without truly living it. But how often have I come to the end of a day spent in chores, habits and routines and discovered that it has gone before I even knew it. And if time only speeds up as we age, how to stop that “Wait, I’m 50” moment from happening?
In the last volume of In Search of Lost Time Marcel attends a party in Paris after a long absence. At first, he believes it is a fancy dress party and that all of the guests have put on disguises of old age because he recognizes no one. Then he realizes that everyone he used to know is old now. And, more brutally, he realizes that he, too, is old. It is at this same party that he has finally found Lost Time. The episode of the madeleine from the first volume is revisited and he experiences other epiphanies as well. And though he had experienced such things before, it is only now, as an old man, that he finally understands. This is the only way to find Lost Time – you cannot go there of your own volition – Time must overtake you, sweep you away, and leave you, finally, with a sense of fleeting completeness.
The title of this work is sometimes translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past. That title seems wholly inadequate – things past can be remembered, but that is not what Proust describes. Remembrance is something we do – the regaining of Lost Time is something that happens to us. We may try to remember to make it happen more often, but it doesn’t work that way. We must cherish each moment of Lost Time that we regain, because it will not happen very often and it will only be when we least expect it.
Near the end of the novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the mother of the family is blind and dying. She asks her son to read aloud to her her diaries from when she was a young woman. He knows that she’s looking for something, but he doesn’t know what. Finally he reads a passage where she describes experiencing a moment of pure happiness and joy. A moment that she vows to hold on to and to keep with her always. He sees his mother calm and she tells him he can stop reading the diaries now. She has found her moment of Lost Time and she can die in peace. We should all have at least one moment of pure joy that we can hold on to – one moment of Lost Time that we can find again at the end.
(Obviously there is much, much more to say about In Search of Lost Time but this seemed like enough to be getting on with. I may reflect on other themes, such as love, art, suffering, social status, homosexuality, politics, patriotism, war, etc, in future posts.)