The seeds of this project (the Proust-reading, that is) start at the time I went to the French School at Middlebury College. I was an undergraduate there, and returned for a French immersion program–which I undertook as the least efficient way possible to pass the translation exam I needed in order to get my MA.
Books are often associated with specific places for me–not where I was when I was thinking about them, but where I was when I had a specific insight. The last block of Cedar Street going toward Broadway in Somerville is permanently associated with Clarissa’s “mad papers,” for instance, because I was explaining them to Ariel while walking from the 7-11 on the corner back to my house. And Powderhouse Circle has a more lowbrow association: Daenerys Targaryen breastfeeding her dragons as she walks out of the flames.
There’s something about an initial moment of insight that imprints itself on my mind–the less embodied version, I guess, of Proust’s insight that “the past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which the material object gives us) of which we have no inkling.” The moment when I learned that the title “Remembrance of Things Past” was in fact a mistranslation, I was getting a piece of cherry pie in Proctor dining hall.
The difference here is that these are associations that imprint themselves moving forward. Suddenly, I found myself unable to walk up Cedar Street without thinking of how it is the Lady who was foolish–the Bear was just acting within its nature. The kinds of recovered memory that Proust is talking about here, that come upon you in a flash, are often more visceral.
My favorite of these is also from French School. One of the hallmarks of the Middlebury program is the Language Pledge, in which you promise on the first day to refrain from speaking English for the duration of your time at the school. I only marginally followed the Pledge, leaving for meetings every day and calling my sponsor regularly. But I did my best to stick to it, and this newly alienated relationship with language must have triggered what I now recognize as my earliest memory: jealously watching my younger sister breastfeed. Stupid Kate–she gets everything.
So I’m thinking today about patterns of association, and how they’re laid down. What is it about a particular place or smell or taste that imprints itself on our memory? Put another way, why is it the madelines that bring Combray back, not something else? It has something to do with heightened emotions, I suppose, but I wonder if it isn’t also about the familiarity of a particular way of making connections? That summer I was at Middlebury was also the summer I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and when I was informed by my doctor that my insurance wouldn’t cover treatment for what I’d just discovered was a chronic, incurable condition. I responded by turning to hippie doctors, who told me to limit my diet and deal with my unresolved anger. So I wasn’t just not speaking English–I was also not eating sugar or dairy or wheat, not smoking, not drinking, not having ill-advised sex. Not not not. It’s the limit that opened up the door in my memory, I think.
I’m back around the bend to negativity, which is apparently the concept that will preoccupy me through this experience of reading Proust–what I’m thinking about here is how memory, and maybe the pattern of how we get attached to things and people writ large, happens across these negative spaces. The absence of access to the object of my desire (expression, food, my mom, alcohol–anything can fill the space) becomes a cavern I have to get across, and I fill it up with attachment. It’s not the place I was when I was reading the book that I remember–it’s the place where I created the book in its absence, the place where I filled it up with whatever parts of myself I project into fantasy when I’m reading. That’s what I remember.