Amid the Ruins

It is a basic tenet of this blog that one of the reasons we listen to old songs is that they remind us of where we were, and who we were, when those songs first came into our lives, and they can make those times live again in the present. A while back, I tried to make a grand connection between that tenet and a more famous literary explication of a similar idea. But by the time I hammered together the first bit, I’d lost track of where I intended to go from there, so the beginning is as far as I got.

Even people who have never read a word by Marcel Proust know about the madeleine. In Swann’s Way, the first part of The Remembrance of Things Past (which is celebrating its centennial of publication this year), the author takes a bite of a little cookie, and something strange happens:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. . . . something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.

It was an involuntary sensation, seeming to come from nowhere, leaving the author baffled at what it was, and what it meant. He finally determined that tasting the madeleine unlocked a moment from childhood, and a whole series of memories flowed from it:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

“[T]aste and smell alone . . . remain poised a long time.” Writing 100 years ago, Proust had no experience with how recorded music functions in this same way. But when you live every day with a radio in your ear, the songs that play every few hours inscribe themselves in your brain and on your heart. When the structure of time that accompanied those songs is broken and scattered and we have moved on to a new time, the songs remain, enduring, persistent, faithful, bearing in their essence a similarly vast structure of recollection.

For a low-rent blog like this one, that’s a vast structure of horseshit right there.

It remains remarkable to me, however, just how powerful a song can be. As unlikely as it seems right now, 20, 30, 50 years hence, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (for example) is going to bring back the summer of 2013 in vivid detail to a young person who will be old then, and who will remember having lived every day of that dear and bygone year with music on, hearing the echo of a great space traversed.

Because if it doesn’t, what’s the point of loving it?

3 responses

  1. Jim – I’m working on a similarly inclined post right now, and will be linking back to your most excellent piece. – Larry

  2. Larry’s piece is here: http://fb.me/2HVm9fo0L, and it’s a must read. What’s that thing about great minds thinking alike?

  3. […] to read out of the 1,600-and-some that have appeared in nine years is this one. Or maybe it’s the one I put up just this past Tuesday. (Reading them both and nothing else would certainly save time. […]

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