Council for Secular Humanism

Get Active!

Sign up to receive CSH emails and Action Alerts

Donate online
to support CSH

Free Inquiry

Subscribe for the
Internet price of
only $19.97

Renew your

back issues

Visit our
online library

Shop Online

What's New?


Introduction to
Secular Humanism

Council for
Secular Humanism

CSH Organizations

The Center for Inquiry

Paul Kurtz

Speaker's Bureau

Humanist Hall of Fame

Web Columns
and Feedback

Find a Secular Humanist
Group Near You

Field Notes:
Council Activities
Around the Nation

Worldwide Index of
Humanist Groups

Humanism on TV

Freethought Alliance


for Humanism

International Academy
of Humanism

Secular Organizations
for Sobriety



Contact Info

Site Map





Doing Time with Marcel Proust

Jeannette Lowen

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 4.

Marcel Proust devoted his life to unravelling the mystery of time. He uncovered the secret of extracting the "permanent and the significant" from "the transitory and the trivial." He sought some "permanence" in a world where things, people, ideas, and feelings seemed ephemeral, and "importance" in all of our too often trivia-filled lives. Proust discovered a formula that could give meaning to his life and, through his "work of art," the lives of many.

Proust is considered one of the few literary geniuses of the twentieth century. And when his mammoth 3,000-page Remembrance of Things Past comes to a close, his many readers would probably say that his quest was worthwhile, his search for lost time fulfilled, and that on the way all our lives have been illuminated. The book is often referred to by enthusiasts as simply "The Novel," and countless volumes have been written about its author.

Proust's concerns about "the passage of time" speak to all of us: Where has it gone? How much is left? What shall we do with it? He focuses on how we live, and communicates a way of "living in time."

A study of French society from 1880-1919, Proust's novel bears witness to the oceanic transformations that changed the horse-and-buggy world to one of aviation, cubism, and modern hygiene. The book is the record of one man's experience, but it is not just autobiographical as the narrator, in investigating his past, looks beyond his own experience.

From Temps Perdu to The Past Recaptured

Proust's book has been renamed by some In Search of Lost Time. In the final volume, The Past Recaptured, he divulges a way "to recover the whole of our lives."

At age twenty-two, he was already tormented by the thought of temps perdu. His early writings resonate with the idea of time as a haunting nightmare. He was introduced to Henri Bergson's view that there are two different ways of considering time: there is time that vanishes into nothingness and time that endures. "Enduring-time" (temps-duree) is psychological time. It is the nonmeasurable, qualitative experience in which the present continuously augments the past without obliterating it."

Proust began to see "inner time," a reality filled with our feelings and emotions, as very different from "chronometric time." "The past," he wrote, "still lives in us . . . has made us what we are and is remaking us every moment! . . . An hour is not merely an hour!" (the Proustian image). "It is a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, places and climates! . . . So we hold within us a treasure of impressions, clustered in small knots, each with a flavor of its own, formed from our own experiences, that become certain moments of our past." 

Yet, Proust realized, we cannot reach this treasure, which is buried in our subconscious mind. "Time past" is lost to us, but the sensations experienced are not: here is an inexhaustible mine for art.

Involuntary Memory

When we give our memory an order  to bring back a fragment of our past (our "voluntary memory"), it can only suggest the factual data or the skeleton; but the original flavor of the scene will be left behind. This flavor is the "priceless everything" to an artist, making a moment in time unique.

Unusual experiences led Proust to "the truth of involuntary memory," the basis for his life's work. The famous incident of the petit madeleine revealed to him a past lying dormant within him, ready to be called back to consciousness. He was able to retrieve "a feeling of inexplicable happiness" when his mother offered him the little plump cake. He was illuminated by a childhood memory (of Combray), where his Aunt Leone on Sunday mornings used to give him a madeleine, dipping it first in her own cup of tea. It "all sprang into being, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea!"

How to explain when, from the past, "nothing seems to subsist, the smell, sound, and taste of things remained. And it is these sensory experiences that bear unfaltering the vast structure of recollection!"

Proust thus uncovered a form of memory, beyond the control of our consciousness. Recollection is suggested by some unexpected physical sensation (perhaps unimportant in itself) such as a faint scent, taste, or sound. But that sensation has in the past been associated with a number of definite impressions, and when by chance the identical sensation recurs years afterwards, all the impressions (associated with it) also rush back, en masse. "It is a complete fragment of the past, with its original 'perfume,' that is for a moment given back to us." Resurrection of the past as the aftermath of an accidental, involuntary physical sensation is the keystone of Proust's conception of life and art. It combines past and present.

Proust's artistic engagement with memory intersects in many ways with what science has learned about the mechanics of memory. The physiology of Proust's petit madeleine experience is well understood. The olfactory system, for instance, has a direct, evolutionarily primitive connection to the hypothalamus not shared by other sensory systems, which gives odors a special power to trigger memories in some detail. His work also anticipates modern psychological findings on the degree to which memory is reconstructive, "fleshing out" the details of a remembered scene anew each time it is recalled, the memory itself being merely an "outline."

A Social Critique

In his search for time-as a mystery, "lost," a qualitative (not merely quantitative) experience-Proust's massive undertaking is a "social critique." Idlers make Proust angry. Throughout The Novel, which is an indictment of the French society he knew (particularly the upper classes), we are struck by the relative unimportance that many of Proust's characters give to how they occupy their time. Writers, painters, composers and connoisseurs of art are portrayed as "going from activity to activity . . . minimally involved" and dissatisfied with their lives.

"The torture of boredom" is what Proust illustrates with his stories in endless variations. It becomes so terrible to many of the characters he portrays that they look for some positive pain as a relief from it. He portrays the lives of those who are rich enough financially to be idle but not rich enough spiritually to find creative occupation for themselves. 

"Lack of serious occupation" is the major source in Proust of unhappiness, unfulfillment, and brutality to others. By contrast, Francoise, the cook, responsible for culinary events, plays a pivotal role, "taking the trouble, going from place to place, herself" just as "Michelangelo, choosing the most perfect blocks of marble." Francoise is "in her own way an artist"; she is no Michelangelo but far closer to him than many others who "dabble in the arts. but are not involved."

When the narrator finds himself, he finds the clue to his own significance, which turns out to be his "artistic occupation." All the evil and suffering with which Proust's pages are filled seem to arise either from lack of occupation or false occupation. "Occupation" in Proust is not to be confused with the work one is forced to do for a living, nor with the occasional practice of an inadequately mastered art undertaken as an escape from the boredom of doing nothing at all. Occupation, for Proust, is that which lies wholly within one's power. It is the expression of oneself. The whole last volume of Proust is one long hymn to the glory of finding a true and fulfilling occupation.

Proust's Ethics

Humankind appears in Proust's work to cut a very poor figure indeed. Cruelty is widespread, and cowardice hardly less so. Even when people are not busy purposefully tormenting each other, they go their own way and do as they please, indifferent to the hurt they may incidentally be inflicting. Unawareness of the suffering we cause, said Proust, is "the most usual and lasting form of cruelty." 

Only in some few do the sorrows that they themselves suffer result in a feeling of sympathy for others. But for those few who have been touched by compassion, by a real love for the life of others, by a feeling which "might make a man greater than his own trivial life," there exists a foundation for the strongest tie that can exist between creatures in this world. 

In The Novel, before Proust traces any other outlines of a person's appearance, he draws what might be called a "moral profile." One of the first things we are informed of concerning the grandmother is "she had brought so foreign a type of mind into my father's family that everyone made a joke of it!" This foreign element, we are soon informed, is simply an extraordinary moral endowment.

Proust, like many writers, thought that art should be moral. "Kindness, scrupulosity, self-sacrifice"—these are the high points of Remembrance of Things Past. The converse qualities, of course, are cruelty, unscrupulousness, selfishness. The positive as well as the negative attributes are illustrated profusely, the lessons are drawn, hammered in with the relentlessness of a morality play. The poignant cry for understanding-the plea for tolerance, as integral to his own time and his own life, for Jews and for homosexuals-is uttered in his pages: 

How we spend our time, said Proust, is how we "create ourselves!"


1. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (New York: Random House, Inc., 1927).
2. Milton Hindus, The Proustian Vision (London and Amsterdam: Southern Illinois University Press, 1954).
3. George D. Painter, Marcel Proust (New York: Penquin Books, 1959).

Jeannette Lowen is the author of Imagine a World Without Boundaries and Anger in Twentieth Century Living.

news.gif (359 bytes) Subscribe to Free Inquiry

books.gif (406 bytes) Order Free Inquiry Back Issues

back.gif (1144 bytes) Free Inquiry Home Page

back.gif (1144 bytes) Secular Humanism Online Library

house.gif (1274 bytes) Council for Secular Humanism Web Site


This page was last updated 02/13/2004

Copyright notice:  The copyright for the contents of this web site rests with the Council for Secular Humanism.  
You may download and read the documents.  Without permission, you may not alter this information, repost it, or sell it. 
If you use a document, you are encouraged to make a donation to the Council for Secular Humanism.