Memory Disruptions

Memory Disruptions


The Body, the Senses, and the Self in Proust and Eliot

Our sense of self is bounded by a feeling of continuity and unity. We feel to be the same person from moment to moment, and one explanation of this feeling is consistency in our environment. When we are in the same or similar places, having over and over the same or similar experiences, we become convinced of the continuity of our personhood. We attribute stability to our existence through the continuity of our sensory experiences. The contrapositive of this relationship then also follows: A disruption in our environment, a disruption in the normal experience of our senses, must also disrupt our sense of self. One of the ways that our senses can be disrupted is through involuntary memory, the sudden return of a lost memory through a sensory encounter with something closely associated with that memory. In this essay, I explore this disruption to sense of self, focusing on a comparison between two models of involuntary memory. The first is Marcel Proust’s famous “petite madeleine” scene in Swann’s Way, and the second is T.S. Eliot’s  poem “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” These works present two radically different versions of what is roughly the same core model of the power of memory to disrupt one’s sense of self. 

The contrast I wish to draw out between Proust’s scene and Eliot’s poem is based on the different ways that both writers depict the phenomenology of the return of an involuntary memory. For Proust, the process is a happy one, which reconnects the narrator with a lost part of himself. For Eliot, the process is a traumatic one, leaving the speaker of the poem feeling disillusioned about the authenticity of his identity. In contrast with the optimistic vision of the recovery of a lost self in Swann’s Way, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” represents the gradual unraveling of a once-stable sense of self into one haunted by nightmarish visions of its own contingency and mortality. As a framing device, I find a pun, which is sadly not an etymological relation, between the words “remember” and “dismember” to be helpful. In the way that to dismember refers to the destruction of the body, it is helpful to also think of remembering in relation to involuntary memory as a process which involves the reconstruction of the body and of the senses. This contrast foregrounds the role of the body and the senses in memory, a theme deeply important to both texts. These words also help to represent the radically different approaches Proust and Eliot take to representing fundamentally that same relationship between the body, involuntary memory, and our sense of self. Where Proust’s scene presents a model of involuntary memory based on the recovery and reconstruction of the body, which picks up the generative meaning of remember, Eliot’s poem presents a grotesque vision of the disruption of the self, a kind of dismembering, where the speakers feels feels his sense of self lost and destroyed. 

The madeleine scene in Swann’s Way, which begins with the narrator eating a cookie dunked in tea that causes him to recall a number of memories about his childhood, is perhaps the quintessential example of involuntary memory, and it shows the power of involuntary memory to disrupt one’s sense of self. Previously lost memories all disrupt the speaker’s sense of self by returning him to a previously lost time and reacquainting him with lost memories. These memories are able to return because the taste of the cookie and tea is so closely linked with certain of the narrator’s memories of Combray that the return of one brings the return of the other. This is involuntary memory, and the scene is a perfect model of how a disruption in our sensory environment, a departure from our usual life leads to a departure from our sense of self. Upon tasting the tea, the narrator regards the sensations and budding memories as alien: “What did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?”1 He says of the memories as he tries to recapture them that he is tempted to stop their recollection “and to think merely of the worries of today and my hopes for tomorrow.”2 Not only are the memories initially foreign, they are also not a part of the narrator’s contemporary world; they are forgotten and have no bearing on his current self. They are not part of the reality and environment which make up his everyday life, and as such they are excluded from his sense of self. 

Important as a point of contrast to Eliot’s version of this encounter, is the response that Proust’s narrator has to the recovery of these lost memories. He meets them with a sense of happiness, which inspires in him further reflection about his time at Combray. The memories provoke in him a feeling of “all powerful joy.”3 Part of this joy comes from the sense that the narrator has reconnected with some lost part of himself. The moment with tea comes immediately after the narrator’s recounting of his time waiting for his mother to kiss him goodnight and Combray, and he says of those memories that through them, he “saw no more of [Combray] than this sort of luminous panel, shapely defined against a vague and shadowy background.”4 He says of his childhood beyond his memories of the goodnight kiss that “it was in reality all dead” (59). But through his senses, he is able to reconnect with those lost and dead memories, to reassemble and reintegrate them into his current self, and to recover something of his past through the body. Indeed, he goes as far as to say that he feels in their return that he is recreating them completely: “Seek? more than that: create.”5 In addition to reconstructing the memories themselves, we might also read this creation in the sense of creating a new self, one which incorporates the new memories that have been dredged up by the senses. It is for this reason, the narrator’s ability to recreate lost time, to reconnect with his past self, that this scene might be plausibly termed an act of remembering, in contrast with dismembering, in the sense of reassembling the body. He is reassembling his body, his senses, and his sense of self, through involuntary memory, and the return of these memories is viewed as a positive, generative process. 

Turning to Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” we find the representation of a similar disruption of a speaker’s sense of self through involuntary memory, one which resonates with Proust’s model but does not completely align with it. Eliot’s poem depicts a gradual unraveling of the speaker’s sense of self, through many smaller instances of sense memory, rather than the instantaneous flash of the madeleine scene in Proust. Still, the nature of the experiences presented in the poem do resonate with Proust, with the sum total of each instance of sense-induced memory functioning like many Madeleine moments all bundled into one. In “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” Each new instance of sense memory is marked by a new time. The street lamp calls out five different times, between “twelve o’clock” and “four o’clock,” and with each new interval of time, the poem enters a new section, and the speaker encounters a new sight on the street which calls up another past memory.6  All the memories are involuntary; the speaker describes the voice of the lamp as being like “a fatalistic drum” implying that he has no control over the memories which the voice of the light forces him to recall, and says that “midnight shakes the memory” again implying that he is prompted to remember various images by the environment in which he is walking.7 These involuntary memories do not return to him all at once but rather gradually appear to him, one by one, in time with what he sees in the street.

In another departure from Proust’s model of involuntary memory, the sensory experiences of Eliot’s narrator are not directly tied to the memories which those experiences recall. The links between the senses and memory in Eliot’s poem are present by associations rather than through a direct sensory encounter with an object from the speaker’s past. Where in Proust the narrator drinks the same tea he drank as a child, and thus recalls an associated set of experiences and version of himself, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” presents the extrapolation from what the speaker sees on the street to another sight in the speaker’s past. So, for example, on the speaker’s walk home, a street light directs him to look at a woman, one of whose eyes he notices “twists like a crooked pin.”8 Then he recalls a series of memories through the association of that twist of the woman’s eye with various objects, “a twist branch on the beach” and “a broken spring in a factory yard,” two objects whose visual forms are similar to the woman’s eye.9 Thus in Eliot’s poem, the sensory encounter which spurs old memories is indirect, working by association rather than by a direct encounter with the object of a lost sensation. Finally, the images that the speaker recalls are also fragmentary, not bound up in a narrative as with Proust’s narrator’s memories of Combray. This difference is accounted for by form. The mode of the novel is narrative, the mode of poetry is, on the whole, images, and  in accordance with this, Proust depicts narrativized memories while Eliot impressionistic images. 

Despite the formal departures from Proust, the poem still showcases the same disruption of the speaker’s sense of self, but presents a very different prognosis of this disruption. Unlike Proust’s narrator, who rejoices at the prospect of recovering lost memories, the realization that dawns on the speaker of Eliot’s poem is one of the futility and contingency of his normal self which is revealed by the self’s reliance on the environment. It is for this reason that I think the poem reflects a process of dismembering rather than remembering. It is through a combination of images, as well as the disruption of his normal sense of self that the speaker comes to realize the futility and the instability of his normal understanding of life. Each of the images he sees contribute to a growing sense of unease. All of the images are of decay and death, represented through the senses. The “twisted branch” likened to bone and the “broken spring” rusted in a “form that the strength has left” both represent death and decay; a child with “nothing behind” its eye is an image of a person without a sense of self; the face of the moon like a face with “washed-out smallpox cracks” recalls illness, and is a subversive and alienating use of lunar imagery, which in poetry is often beautiful and comforting. 10 The speaker’s visual memories are triggered by their similarity to the environment which he is walking through. The gloomy impressions made by the sight which the streetlight directs him to call up an equally gloomy series of memories, which dissociate him from his normal sense of reality. Through his senses, the speaker perceives external decay, recalling various visions from his past which reflect the same motif of isolation, illness, and decay, which then disrupts his feeling of himself as in control of his life.

The speaker’s dissociation from his sense of self is accomplished through the senses, by the bleak environment acting on the speaker through his senses. The nightmarish memories provoked by the nightscape which the speaker walks through so dissociate him from his normal sense of self, that when he finally nears his home, the street light calls out the object inside as if they are just another of the grotesque images he has previously encountered. The mocking irony of the street light’s final words—“the bed is open; the tooth brush hangs on the wall, / put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life”—show the speaker returning to the environment that was once familiar to him to be surrounded by the sensory stimuli which once made up his sense of self.11 But the poem’s final line refers to the lamp’s final words as “the last twist of the knife,” undercutting the possibility of return.12 The past self represented by the quotidian images of home-life is no longer accessible to the speaker, and it is the return to this environment, only to find that the stability that was once found there gone is the poem’s final cruelty, a representation of involuntary memory acting as a kind of dismemberment, unmooring the continuity of one sense of self, and leaving the speaker feeling the contingency of his formally normal and familiar existence. 

Both T.S. Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and Marcel Proust’s  scene of involuntary memory overlap in their understanding of the way the senses can draw up past memories, but both understand the way the return of these memories very differently. Eliot’s poem reflects a process of dismemberment, where a series of grotesque images and memories lead to reflection on mortality, which reveal the speaker’s persona as contingent. In Proust’s model, the return of lost memories sparks a joyful, nostalgic recovery of the past for the narrator, one which sees his sense of self enlarged and leaves him with access to a more complete understanding of his life. Neither model is, of course, the complete one. Both seem to me to be of equal importance and accuracy, throwing into relief aspects of the ways in which our sense of self is dependent upon our senses. 

  1. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Time, edited by D. J. Enright, translated by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (Modern Library, 2003), 60.
  2. Proust, Swann’s Way, 63.
  3. Proust, Swann’s Way, 60.
  4. Proust, Swann’s Way, 58.
  5. Proust, Swann’s Way, 61.
  6. T.S. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” Selected Poems (Mariner Books, 1964.)
  7. Eliot,  “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” 11.
  8. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” 22.
  9. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” 25; 30.
  10. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” 25; 30; 40; 56.
  11. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” 76-77.
  12. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” 78.
Back to Top