_____And so we come to the scene everyone knows (or knows about), the "Proustian moment," the epiphany in a teaspoon. I admit that from my previous forays into Proust, I had thought it came at the very beginning of the novel, not 40-some pages in. (Although in a novel the size of In Search of Lost Time, 40-some pages in does rather qualify as "the very beginning.")
The narrator's account of the scenes of his childhood rising before him, awakened by the taste of crumbs from a madeleine steeped in tea, comes after his account of the rare, privileged night his mother spent in his room, reading to him from books that were supposed to be a gift from his grandmother. It is "a sort of puberty of grief, of emancipation from tears," "the beginning of a new era" that "would remain as a sad date."
It also reinforces the grandmother's role in forming the narrator's character as an aesthete, a man of discerning tastes. She "could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive a intellectual profit." And even when forced to select a gift that was utilitarian, preferred to give antique things in which "long desuetude had effaced their character of usefulness."
We could no longer keep count, at home, when my great-aunt wnted to draw up an indictment against my grandmother, of the armchairs she had presented to young couples engaged to be married or old married couples which, at the first attempt to make use of them, had immediately collapsed under the weight of one of the recipients.Of course, the narrator comes to rebel against the imbuing of art with "that moral distinction which Mama had learned from my grandmother to consider superior to all else in life, and which I was to teach her only much later not to consider superior to all else in books."
But for years afterward, his childhood in Combray remained limited to what it has been in the first 40-some pages of the novel: "the theater and drama of my bedtime" -- "as though Combray had consisted only of two floors connected by a slender staircase and as though it had always been seven o'clock in the evening there." The rest of it comes to life when he pursues something ineffable awakened by the taste of the madeleine in tea. At first, he doesn't know what he has glimpsed: "Undoubtedly what is palpitating thus, deep inside me, must be the image, the visual memory which is attached to this taste and is trying to follow it to me." Note here that he ascribes the volition to the memory, that he must meet the memory -- "struggling too far away" -- halfway.
Ten times I must begin again, lean down toward it. And each time, the laziness that deters us from every difficult task, every work of importance, has counseled me to leave it, to drink my tea and think only about my worries of today, my desires for tomorrow, upon which I may ruminate effortlessly.For Proust this is, I think, the distinction between the artist and the layman, the willingness to struggle against the "laziness" that traps most of us in the quotidian.
And then he meets the memory, of aunt Léonie giving him a taste of madeleine soaked in lime-blossom tea. It's the fortuitous combination of tea and madeleine that does it -- the intimate power of taste that proves more effective than sight alone in raising the past. He had seen madeleines in shops without awakening any distinct sensations. He even finds a way of moralizing the image of the little shell-shaped cake, "so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating."
But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.And so rooms, roads, people and the town join themselves in his imagination. The stage is set.