Monuments or Madeleines: Remembering a Life.
Kneeling against the sun-warmed marble of Marcel Proust's tombstone at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, a quote that had buried itself in the tomb of my college memory, asked to be resurrected. That night on the red rug of my hotel room, I tracked down a Word document titled “Passages from Time Regained. Like breathe leaving a body on the operating table to examine the utilitarian worth of its own survival, Proust contemplates in this passage the social value of his life’s writing). The reason for a writer to write, or for a book to be, he suspects, hinges on its relationship to the reader: “Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth.” - Time Regained (Vol 7 of In Search of Lost Time)
In this quote, Proust illuminates the practical guiding force of prose, the interdependence between a writer and their reader, which often passes us by, silently, in the lonely hours of the evening, a wordless hunch. He emboldens me to help myself, and others, read texts like maps to our own terrain, or mirrors that, even if they don’t project the exact “I” that reads, hold us accountable to the art of self-reflection. When we welcome resonance between our own subjectivity and the internal dialogue of a character, we open ourselves to a self-aware participation in our own story. When we are identifying patterns in a text, we become more equipped to navigate the contexts we impact, the protagonists of our own historical moment.
While the iconic significance of my encounter at Pere Lachaise may be framed perfectly in a social media post, the literary and spiritual magnificence I searched for in that moment escaped. While I pressed my mind to mark the moment in space & time as "meaningful," I couldn’t make contact with what was buried there. This man, what his words meant to me, were displaced in a complex, personalized web of moments and memories from my young adult years. The precious exchange that had occurred between Proust and myself in a formative chapter of my life, was caught (or freed?) in a web of half-remembered “aha” moments and revelations. His significance lay recumbent not in his final resting place, but was sprawled, almost disobediently and luminously, on the long limbs of stretched sentences, embracing my life from then to now like a halo.
Later that day we enjoyed lunch at "La Rotonde." The meal was befittingly concluded by a plate of fresh Madeleine cookies-- the pastry that, early in his writing life, arguably inspired Proust’s epic voyage into the past, and sparked his case study into the psychology of memory at large. Biting into that sweet, espresso-soaked yellow shell of a cake, my own sepia-tinted memories of plastic-wrapped Madeleines at the Nordstrom Cafe with my twin sister, age 3-5, suddenly overcame me. Now, I’m not here to claim that I share the same edible vehicle into my past as Proust. That would be a pathetic disintegration of my message into cliche sludge. The meaningfulness of this coincidence, is that, as my past dipped into my present with that bite of Madeleine, I felt connected. It was this marginal moment of my day, and not the peak of our hike at Pere Lachaise, when the meaning of my journey, and of Proust’s legacy as an “optical instrument” for my life’s discernment, paid a visit.
Life cares little for plaques and titles. It strays and settles unexpectedly in the margins. There is no monument too small under which life might hide; no fragment of a memory too fragile where an entire love, person, or time, might wholly reside, crystallized in, beyond time. If I learned anything from my search for Proust atop that cemetery hill, it's this. The symbols that connect us with our own life are more powerful points of entry into the world than those published for the masses. Sometimes this personal and collective text overlap in a satisfying intertextuality; sometimes they don't. No matter, it is our job --and our joy --to decipher the symbols that connect us with our soul, our story. We are the only ones who know the key to our map, who can use the world and words around us as an "optical instrument" to see the masterpiece of our own meandering.