So I realize that, as is so often the case with me, this is very much a personal response. And even so, my hope is that others may find some value in it, even if I’m speaking from my own heart, from my own experience, rather than from the kind of Apollonian position so often valued by academe.
Would it be too much to say that it’s become a cliche to say that Proust has been identified as a neuroscientist? Not that I actually know anything about such matters. But as I’m reading the early pages of the “Combray” section, I’m fascinated by the ways in which Proust explores not just the nature of memory and its connection to the material world but its connection to the physical body. And in the interest of disclosure I suppose I should admit this–lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot not just about the mind-body connection but even more specifically about the ways in which the physical body is connected to and reflective of one’s emotional life. And it’s as though on pages 9 and 10, the physical body for Proust’s narrator becomes not just a way of locating the memory but of locating the self within a set of possible memories. Memory and construction of the self become embodied in a very literal way.
Specifically, the narrator describes the sense of disorientation he has sometimes felt upon waking, a disorientation that manifests as knowing neither where nor who he is: “[W]hen I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was. . . ” I have no idea whether I’m unique in this experience, but I certainly (and more frequently than I would like) have had the experience of waking, even in my own bed, and thinking I’m in my own bed, but my own bed at another address, my own bed of another era. It’s quite disconcerting and can even lead to feelings of sadness and loss when I momentarily think that I’m in some earlier version of my life in which some relationship, now lost, was still available to me.
What I find particularly fascinating, however, about this experience of disorientation and dislocation for Proust’s narrator is that the physical body and its position in bed becomes a way to attempt to locate and define the self. It’s as though the experience of having a body allows access both to memory and to the sense of self, which are arguably intertwined. The narrator explains that his “body, too benumbed to move, would try to locate, according to the form of its fatigue, the position of its limbs in order to deduce from this the direction of the wall, the location of the furniture, in order to reconstruct and name the dwelling in which it found itself. Its memory, the memory of its ribs, its knees, its shoulders, offered in succession several of the rooms where it had slept. . .” Its as though the memory, and the attendant sense of self, is located within the body, rather than the mind in this passage. Upon waking, the attempt to deduce one’s physical location, earlier tied to the attempt to remember one’s own identity, is permitted by the position and the “memory” of the physical body.
One theory that I’m willing to buy into is that we somehow carry emotional traumas in our physical bodies– that even if our conscious minds don’t remember the emotional traumas, the tightness in our shoulders or the pain in our stomachs bear witness to our own suffering. Proust must have understood this–that the body carries its own memories, memories that may be separate from those of the conscious mind. These embodied memories, however, are particularly powerful precisely because we cannot access them via the conscious mind, and yet we carry them, quite literally, around with us day by day.