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Marcel Proust

David Cowles

Mar 1, 2024

“Who has not dreamed of reliving a cherished moment, not through the ghostly shadows of mind but, like Job, in the flesh?”

Remembrance of Things Past (‘RTP’) is widely regarded as the most influential novel of the 20th century (lie quiet, Joyce). It is also, IMO, one of the most thoroughly misunderstood. The fault lies both in a failure of imagination…and in a failure of translation.

Proust called his seven-volume masterpiece, Recherche du Temp Perdu, better rendered as Search for Lost Time. Appropriately, Proust named the 7th volume of his tome, Time Regained. Bingo! He prayed to St. Anthony…et voilà!

French has perfectly good words for ‘memory’ (memoire) and ‘remember’ (souvenir), but Proust does not use these terms. Instead, he chooses a derivative of chercher, to search. Memories are the ‘stuff’ of RTP but ‘memory’ per se is incidental. Proust is not just remembering; he’s recovering and reliving. The goal is not to reminisce but to resurrect!

Who has not dreamed of reliving a cherished moment, not through the ghostly shadows of mind but, like Job, in the flesh? RTP is a map to such a past – not to our ‘remembrance’ of the past, but to the past itself. 

The things we do to preserve our past! We take snapshots, we make videos, we curate (and then liberally ‘edit’) memories, and we revisit scenes of past triumphs (real and imagined) – all to no avail. We are trying to get to the center of the earth by moving across its surface.

Unless we’re poets, we tend to ignore events themselves. We pay more attention to the connections between events: causality (science), synchronicity (magic), etc. We don’t ask, “What is it?” We ask instead, “Where did it come from? How did it get here? What does it do? What’s it worth? How can I make it? How can I make it better and cheaper? What can I charge for it?” 

We are punch drunk on the twin illusions of ‘causality’ and ‘agency’. It borders on megalomania: “Everything has a cause, and more often than not…c’est moi!”

We care about our cherished past, and we anxiously await the uncertain future, but we ignore, or at least marginalize, the present. Proust proposes a totally different approach. Like Rand McNally, Proust provides us with a ‘road atlas’. However, Proust’s routes are not part of the Federal Highway System…their maintenance does not require tolls, or a gas tax.

Proust suggests we surf our way through life. He’s the OB² (Original Beach Boy). But Proust did not surf waves; he surfed qualia - philosophical jargon for ‘what’ something is, its attributes, its characteristics, its Wassein (not its Dasein), its essence (not its existence).  This is round, red, and squishy (qualia). Incidentally, it happens to be a ball.

So what’s more important? The position of the ball relative to other entities in spacetime? Or the qualities manifest in this ball itself? Obviously, it depends. If the ball is hurtling toward you at 75 mph, the position of that ball in spacetime is paramount, but if you’re rolling the ball back and forth with your favorite toddler, how it looks and feels might take precedence. 

According to Proust, the sound of a spoon striking porcelain can connect you instantly to another event manifesting common qualia, no matter how separated the two events may be in time and space. The shared qualia function as a wormhole through spacetime. 

Mere memory is greatly overrated; lowly bacteria have memory. Memory is a pale substitute for ‘the real thing’ and, above all else, RTP is a ticket to what’s real. RTP is commonly understood as a novel about ‘memory’; it isn’t. It is a polemic against memory!  Proust has plenty of memories; they fill all 7 volumes of RTP. But memory is manifestly not what this book is about! 

“There is a vast difference between the real impression that we have had of a thing and the artificial impression of it that we form for ourselves when we attempt, by an act of will, to imagine it…” (i.e., to remember it).

Anyone can reminisce; not everyone can resurrect. In the early first century CE, there was no shortage of ‘Messiahs’, but not every would-be Messiah could raise the dead. Might we not say the same of 20th-century novelists? Proust, Joyce, Stein, and…

Perhaps as much as any Francophone author, Proust knew his way around words. He did not choose his titles carelessly. When he called his final volume Time Regained, it was likely because he believed he had indeed recovered ‘Lost Time’. If so, RTP presents us with brand-new cosmology! Let’s hear what Proust himself has to say on the subject:

“It was Venice…the sensation which I had once experienced as I stood upon two uneven stones in the Baptistry of St. Mark’s had, recurring a moment ago, been restored to me, complete with all the other sensations linked on that day to that particular sensation…”

Proust does not remember; he relives. And when he relives, he does not recall selected, superficial qualia associated with a prior event; he recreates the event itself, and he re-experiences all its qualia…not from outside-in as memory but from inside-out as experience. 

“…the past was made to encroach upon the present, and I was made to doubt whether I was in the one or the other… The moment to which I was transported seemed to me to be the present moment…”

Normally, we experience at Time A an event that occurs c. A. The experience leaves us with a bouquet of cherished (or despised) memories. Then, at Time B, we recall our memories of Time A: we reminisce!

This has nothing to do with Proust! Proust does not ‘remember’ A from the security of B. He is not Wordsworth, recollecting emotion in tranquility. Proust conflates A and B. There is only one experience, only one event, and that experience happens at Time A and at Time B - not once at A and again at B, but once…at Time A and Time B. Jesus was ‘sacrificed’ only once – on Calgary and daily thereafter in Eucharist. It’s a worm: “Write once, read many times!” 

Remember when you went to Venice? Afterward, you bored your friends to the brink of inebriation with your endless slide shows (yes, plural). It was not a good look. But you were one person experiencing Venice at two different times, in two different places, and in two very different ways (experiencing & remembering). One man, two events.

When Proust went to Venice, the only camera packed was his mind. Years later, when he ‘revisited Venice’ in the tranquility of his garden, he was a different man, but reliving the same event in the same way. Two men, one event. That’s the difference between Proust…and you. 

Wait a minute! Does this sound at all familiar? Isn’t this a perfect description of Quantum Entanglement (QM)? But that can’t be, can it? I mean, John Bell didn’t even discover ‘quantum entanglement’ until 1964, so…

We imagine the world as four-dimensional graph paper. In this scheme, called Spacetime, there’s a place for everything, and everything has its place. We are very familiar with experience structured according to spacetime relations. It’s been drilled into us from the moment our moms first positioned mobiles above our cribs. It’s our ‘Mercator Projection’ of real life…and it can be very useful. 

Useful, for example, if you’re trying to assess the strength of certain physical forces at certain distances…or land a probe on Titan. For other purposes, however, this Cartesian framework is less relevant. Enter Proust! He suggests the possibility that experience could be structured altogether differently, e.g., according to qualia.

What if we connected phenomena, not by time or place, but by their qualia? What if we treated a color, say Red, as a wormhole connecting all things red, while still distinguishing each unique shade of red from all other shades? What if we mapped all the phenomena of the universe, not according to time and place, but according to their relative ‘redness’? What if reality were conceived as a continuum of ‘redness’, or ‘blueness’, or qualia in general? 

“…What we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations (qualia) and the memories that envelop us simultaneously…” No mention of nasty objects! At the time RTP was being published, Bertrand Russell was exploring the possibility that only qualia are real. 

Curiosity Corner: Spacetime and Qualia are two competing logoi, each connecting all the events that make up the World but connecting them differently according to different algorithms. Are there other logoi that could perform the same function?

As noted above, Proust proposed a non-local cosmology 40+ years before John Bell applied the concept to QM. Did we have RTP in mind? Qualia are the agent and the outcome of entanglement. My red ball and your red wagon are ‘entangled’ via their ‘shared redness’. 

How are we to understand a World that is both extensive and entangled? Think of ‘reality’ as a multiplicity of inherently unrelated events. Like molecules in a gas, these events interact with one another randomly (Brownian Motion). Each event is sui generis. In its process of auto-genesis, it creates positive and negative relations along multiple parameters with every other event.  

Philosophers and physicists often treat the phase space of these events as a Block. Each parameter gives rise to a unique logos, a web linking each event to every other event in the Block. This web (logos) is an (n-1) dimensional surface of the Block. 

Nerd Nook: An n-dimensional Block houses an infinite number of  (n-1) dimensional surfaces. Spacetime is one subset of such surfaces; it’s the superposition of all surfaces that order events in a way that is consistent with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (entropy). There are innumerable surfaces that satisfy this condition. Each such surface corresponds to an alternative path that events may elect to follow. They define the range of choices available to me in life.

What are the implications? First, note that free will is scrupulously preserved, but we exercise that will by choosing among an array of potential paths. We do not create these paths, as is commonly supposed; we choose them (St. Paul - Ephesians 2:10). But not to worry – our options are innumerable, and functionally, choosing a path is no different from creating one…maybe a tad easier in fact.

Spirit Center: Our choice of path does not alter that path, or any other path, or the Block itself. On the other hand, the path we choose, once chosen, determines how we experience the Block, and how we experience the Block is how the Block experiences itself. Yes, we matter! 

So, whatever path we choose for our worldline, we have the comfort of knowing that God made the journey before us…and makes it again with us. He blazes our trails… and he is our ultimate ‘fellow traveler’: we never have to feel alone again! (Psalm 23)

Proust’s ontology resolves the dichotomy of free will and determinism. The inventory of all possible paths is determined (Schrödinger, St. Paul). Our choice among those paths is totally free and unconditioned in any way (Sartre). Note: this is neither a restriction nor a limitation. Beyond these paths…nothing is!

Proust anticipates Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Whatever can happen ‘does happen’…on some surface. He respects Richard Feynmann’s Sum over Histories. In so far as events can be regarded as ‘determined’, what is determined is the sum (overlay) of all possible paths. (Feynmann = Schrödinger?) 

C.S. Lewis wrote about this phenomenon in The Great Divorce. We are all already living in Heaven or hell. But the location of our residence is not assigned by lottery or determined by merit. We can live anywhere we choose…but we do have to choose: no vacation villas, no pieds-à-terre. According to this model, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken rises to the level of Scripture. 

The slight unevenness of the paving stones in Proust’s garden, Derrida’s différance, resonates with a similar sensation years earlier at St. Mark’s in Venice. The quantum of difference between two stones forms a portal that allows Proust literally to be in two places at once (France & Italy). 

We do not save the world; we are saved by the world. Being experienced (esse est percipi) outside of time creates perceiving subjects, also outside of time: “A minute freed from the order of time had recreated in us, to feel it, the man freed from the order of time.”

With this, Proust places himself in an august, if ‘sparsely settled’, philosophical tradition. In a word, the subject does not create the predicate – the predicate creates (or distills) the subject. Anaximander, the grandfather of Western philosophy, and his sidekick, Heidegger, believed that ‘Being happens’ (being is a verb) when two potential beings ‘self-actualize’ by giving each other ‘reck’. 

St. John wrote that beings come into being as a function of a relational grid (logos, the Christ). Martin Buber wrote that relationship is substructural. R. Buckminster Fuller said, “I seem to be a Verb,” and The Beatles sang, “All you need is love.” Who have I missed? 

Bill Gates once said that the key to a successful business is creating a product that everybody wants, and then making sure they can’t get it anywhere else. Proust takes it for granted that everyone wants eternal salvation. (He might be surprised to meet some of today’s ists: anarchists, nihilists, humanists, hedonists, existentialists, communists…I could go on!)

However, Proust does take time to assure readers that his is the one and only path to such redemption. For example, he refers to “…our inherent powerlessness to realize ourselves in material enjoyment or in effective action.” That alone takes care of more than a few of our ists. 

It’s fun to travel. I loved visiting the Colosseum, but I didn’t relive the experience of a 1st century Christian (fortunately), nor did I expect to. I enjoy occasional visits to the ‘haunts’ of my youth, scenes of my imagined past triumphs, but I do not then become a late ‘60s urban warrior.

As Proust put it, “…(What) had reawakened in me had no connection with what I frequently tried to recall to myself…with the help of an undifferentiated memory…those quite different images that preserve nothing of life… (and) I knew that Lost Time would not be found again on the Piazza of St. Marks…”

We rediscover the past, not by remembering it, and certainly not by ‘going on location’, but by experiencing the present and engaging the past through that present. Catholics experience something like this daily in the Sacrament of Eucharist. They engage substantially with the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. Spacetime is conflated.

It’s 1500 CE. The flowering of Medieval culture has been cut short by Machiavelli and his Renaissance Rats. Spiritually impoverished, the Atlantic community has slipped into a coma. Pragmatics have replaced ethics and, thanks to Columbus et al., adventure has replaced wonder.  

It took 400 years for us to begin to awaken (Max Planck, c. 1900 CE), and we’re still struggling to regain full consciousness; frankly, we have a ways to go yet. But fortunately for us, as Dante had Virgil to guide him through…and out of…the Inferno, so we have Proust to help liberate us from the persistent fog known ironically as The Enlightenment. 


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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