And suddenly the memory appeared. So writes Proust in Swann’s Way. Of course, he’s referring to that famous lime-blossom tea-infused madeleine which triggered involuntary memory of the past and resulted in seven volumes of literary works.
Proust enlarges on the experience. Intelligence is useless when it comes to invoking the past; the past can only be recreated through the senses (the old creative writing course advice to summon all five and not only sight). Since our senses are connected to a material object, the past is hidden in such objects, that is, in the sensation allowed us by such material objects (i.e., the madeleine).
Proust goes on to explore how such evocation of the senses results in the creative process. “…at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory… filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal… it went infinitely far beyond (the taste of tea and cake).” Although the drink awakened the feeling, “it is up to my mind to find the truth.” But how? he asks, when “…the seeker, is also the obscure country where it must seek.” Not only seek but create. “It is face-to-face with something that does not yet exist and that only it can… bring into its light.”
Whew! No wonder writing is exhausting.
As writers, we would all like to be able to transport ourselves into this creative state upon command. Is there a method? Proust deliberately tried to repeat the procedure of madeleine and memory but with trials the experience kept diminishing. “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 counselled 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.”
He concludes that he has to rid himself of distractions, clear away obstacles inside himself and create an empty space. Only then can he bring up from his deepest part the desired result to reach “the clear surface of my consciousness.”
It seems there is an ultimate trigger object, in the case of Proust the madeleine, and it is pure chance whether or not in our lifetimes we encounter this object. All we can do is relax and see what rises to the surface. Proust had the luxury of solitude and staying in bed most of his life, but how about the rest of us? Well, we might hone our meditation techniques. And some people, lucky people, can tune out the distractions around them. D.H. Lawrence, apparently, could write anywhere – under a tree, in a crowded room. And I remember a friend who used to write against the background white noise of the food court at a shopping mall.
It seems to me that the particular sense which has the most power to invoke a past moment is an individual thing. For some, smell is most powerful. Call up the smell of lilacs (for instance). I’ll bet any one of us could write a page about that.
For me, it’s sound. I’ve been accused by critics of trying to do too much with dialogue, of sacrificing narrative for conversation. But that’s how the world comes through to me. As children, we listened. We listened because there was nothing else to do. The radio, the gramophone, the piano in the living room. We learned to make pictures in our heads connected with the listening. Voices (Foster Hewitt’s Hockey Night in Canada. He shoots! He scores! We could see the game before our eyes.) Music of course, certain songs. The sound of my uncle coming home from work after the evening shift, his wheel rim scraping the wire fence, the click of the lock, the snap of his pant clips. In bed upstairs, unable to sleep, all the sounds of a summer night blowing through the curtain at my window, I hear the streetcar on 94th, a dog’s bark, and the voices, always the voices coming up from the kitchen below.
But is Proust’s method of encountering the creative self outdated and irrelevant? The world comes to my grandchildren through electronic devices. Bedtime, the bath, they humour me by letting me read to them. I kiss them, turn out the light, tiptoe out of the room, tiptoe back an hour later to check on them. All is dark, all is quiet, then I discern a strange lump under the covers and then I detect a mysterious green light through the sheet and then, if I sharpen my ears, I hear a faint and mysterious beeping as if a message from a far-off planet.
I wonder, in the future, will their creativity be in themselves or in their devices? It won’t really matter, I suppose. The new animated features in the films are pretty impressive. It will just be different.