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  • Writer's picturearthurbyrd

Literature and "The Vast Structure of Recollection"

Updated: Mar 11


Now I’m going to ask you to take a long sip of coffee and come with me. Our journey begins with the following sentence from the French writer, Marcel Proust. Don’t worry, we’re together here, but brace yourself in case we find some elusive place where time doesn’t seem to pass or where voices now stilled continue to whisper. We’re wandering in search of lost time.


Marcel Proust:


“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.”

Dense. I know with all its darting between permanence and temporary, but then isn’t this simply the life we all know? Read it again, just for me; we’re old friends, you know. Let yourself home to the awareness of vistas parading the unnoticed past. Dip your attention for an instant beyond the flooding current of now, feel the still pool underneath where the accumulation of your life holds every sensation you’ve ever known. Yes, there it is, “the vast structure of recollection,” life suspended and unrippled by the torrent of now, but mere memory won’t be our final destination here today.

An ever-filling reservoir of familiarity, what a lovely idea, that secret place holding the essence of the person each of us has become and into which no one else can peer, that private playground where heightened moments of our existence lie packed away, still available but waiting for the right circumstances to call them forth. Yet Proust isn’t talking about mere recall here, not exactly, because he details something he calls “Involuntary Memory,” a trigger event so profound that it returns us to a moment of deep sensory awareness, a place in time we may have forgotten. Take a look at the following quotation I came across last night while reading my Proust again:

“And so it is with our own past. It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.”

Heady stuff here but the key idea is that we can’t simply rewind memory to relive these highly charged experiences because in memory the event no longer possesses the poignancy of the original emotion. Let me offer Proust’s example.

One afternoon as a child he came inside cold and tired when his mother offered him a cup of hot tea. Delightful in itself, but when she produced a French confectionery called a petite madeleine ordinary delight intensified when he dipped the treat in the hot tea. The instant that taste touched his brain, he found himself again reliving a day with his cherished Aunt Leonie back on a summer sojourn while visiting her in Combray, France. Days of ecstatic freedom, wonder, enchantment with life exploring the treasures of his blossoming mind became real again. The flowers, the gentle river idling past, the church bells chiming up the hill, his aunt offering him books, introductions to fascinating friends, delicious tastes unfamiliar in his pedestrian world of Paris. Through that one taste of cookie, the joy of childhood awakened instantly without a single word uttered, and in this flashing moment Proust realized how dulled ordinary experience is with its rush to pass by, how much less vibrant life appears even in memory.

Each individual encounters the passing of time as a daily blur of detail. We receive input, respond, organize and file away life even as we receive floods of new life each moment. Shards of importance are noted, connections processed, and our conscious minds perform an impressive orchestration of future, present and past, but it is challenging to achieve perspective amid such change. Do you ever have the sensation of merely skimming life, not fully grasping the emotional richness available but diluted by the immensity of sensory volume? I think most of us do. And so books and art have come to help us fill the void of thinness we experience as the passing of life. Through fiction we objectify life experiences of other people as windows into our sense of self, our own emotional relationships where we seem never to have the time to sort properly the profound from the banal.

The search for meaning is a universal literary theme. Writers conjure imaginary characters to help sharpen our understanding of self but also to construct specific portals peering into childhood, the challenges of growing old, and the riptide of betrayal. In fiction, the gamut of human experience becomes the backdrop against which we contrast our own lives, those dense thickets of accumulation we spend a lifetime yearning to understand more completely.

It sounds easy enough to capture experience (real or imagined) and to tell a story, but as in real life the overwhelming volume of detail flooding us taxes our ability to segregate importance from mere overabundance. Writers are likely to be far more daunted by having too much to say rather than too little. Think of this blur we each experience in each moment of each day, now magnify that by the infinite variety of language options available for assembling this wealth of detail into a tailored, orderly rendering. Selection of detail determines whether a piece will be engaging, dull, extraordinary, or offensive. Perhaps not an intuitive thought but the curse of too much is what makes writing so hard.

You know this experience yourself, don’t you? A friend tells a story but drifts into useless detail as he struggles to heighten impact? A conversation drones on as we think to ourselves, “my friend, you can only discuss nothing for so long.” Yet when a true raconteur speaks or a great writer lulls us into a vivid new world, then the profound separates itself from the banal and a Homer emerges or Shakespeare or Proust, civilization’s shepherds of perspective.

Proust’s great novel is A la recherche du temps perdu (often translated as “Remembrance of Things Past” or “In Search of Lost Time.”) In it he documents vast landscapes of his interior life retrofitted as fiction, but I’ll warn you in advance, Proust’s sort function delivers maximum output. The blur of detail he effuses is not only staggering but highly constructed. Some think his detail too rich, too voluminous, but his effort entombs his moments of perspective as grasped emotion to which he links the backdrop of universal human experience. And yet, at the same time he details a brilliant social satire of French society adorned with limitless personal detail from his childhood. And this is where genius differs from the rest of us, his private story so awash in color carries us along in a rip tide of sentences that can run for a page or two of swirling thought permutations slowly layering a controlling social vision.

I’ve written about the following Proust quotation previously, but it is important to our discussion here so forbear me a repeat: “Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature.”

What a delicious thought---life uncluttered and clarified as literature where stories mimic our personal experience of living. Through the printed word we suspend time, rewind, reread, and relive not only stories which unlock our secret emotional lives. When artists call for us to hover over a moment, they’re in touch with something distant, the past, or maybe the future, an idea, an image, a note, or a food dish swaddled in the compressed poignancy of their past now reshaped as an invitation for us to witness the collective experience of shared humanity. And if we’re truly lucky, literature can transport us away to our unnoticed lives.

Proust’s “involuntary memory” is doubtless one we’ve all experienced where a simple flavor or smell evokes a childhood mulberry tree sat in with a best friend, the sound of a squeaking screen door at a cherished grandmother’s home, or the smell of buttermilk biscuits the last moment our aging Mom kissed our cheek. These vistas exude sensuous recall, the instant journey to a place of deep intimacy now refreshed in slow-framed intensity. Vivid, holographic renderings of taste, sound, and smell. Time remembered. Aliveness re-lived. But let’s be clear here, Proust calls us to his experiences, his tender moments of childhood, his crushing disappointments, so that we might in turn visit our own. His selection of detail prompts us to explore our similar moments of fullness. Perhaps this what all art does, and it is one of the reasons art and creativity became such a theme for me in Crossing Lake Pontchartrain. I wanted people to see how the sculptures in Reid Perder’s studio affected Larry even without his full understanding of why, how Larry’s own writing collaboration with Emma served to open both of them to their past and to accept their past traumas as fresh catalyst for a relationship. Literature affords an invitation to interpret our separateness as the common denominator linking us as people.




Modern brain theory talks about how our minds process objective reality. We like to think we see an experiential world and interpret it, but we receive input while simultaneously projecting pre-formed models of interpretation we’ve assembled through experience. This function of consciousness allows us to respond quickly to situations and has evolved as a best practice for survival. But such capability is not without drawbacks as childhood trauma might result in a debilitating anxiety or betrayed love an indelible imprint of suspicion about intimacy. But life moves on and models must be updated, though often we struggle to keep up and lazy stubborn views take root, especially as technology makes it easier to meme rather than think. A heroic high school athlete falters in adulthood, a brainiac lacks the emotional intelligence to balance book smarts with people skills and struggles in business. Some people enter a crowded room envisioning threat, others an opportunity to seduce; people often approach food with hardline choices about what they refuse to try or are certain they hate though they may never have tasted gumbo, or sushi, or Indian food. Inflexibility is easy but can retard updates to our mental models. Might you have a proclivity or two? I’m certain I do.

This complex interaction of physical and abstract plays out in other realms as well, and much like Proust's “involuntary memory” literature serves up an almost limitless supply of detailed perspective. The great advantage of literature lies in the breadth of human experience available to us in compressed timeframes. In a couple of hours a person might vicariously experience deep emotional involvements, joys, disappointments, and euphoric love. By not being a personal memory but rather someone else’s rendering, emotional distance is created for the reader. Yet through an excited imagination, a person might launch well beyond a writer’s fictional dream to find herself among the most poignant moments of life stored in the dullness of memory.

The creation of a fictional dream frequently roots in a writer’s past. Certainly two of my favorite authors, Thomas Wolfe and Proust, mined their childhoods for heightened emotional intensity to be shared as vicarious moments of sadness, the youthful yearn to be heroic, and the devastation of betrayal. Most of us haven’t been a military hero, a prince in waiting, or a sociopath obsessed with anger, yet in moments of leisure we often find fascinating the depiction of such lives. When we see a movie or read a book that moves us, our past also leaks into the present as we experience stories. We journey. We reflect and clarify life as we explore fictional reality unfamiliar to us or scenes mimicking situations we’ve experienced. Both levels of interaction allow us further depth of penetration about our place in human culture.

Emotional connection calls forth the potency of past experience, and language is a critical tool for expressing intricate facets of human interaction. Through the catalyst of spoken and written language, grief can be unlocked or passion re-lived and these repeated psychological/emotional engagements serve to sophisticate our communications competency. We become more facile at understanding ranges of behavior. Writing gets better with repetition, creative skills with the acquisition of technique, and brain competency with adroit usage. And so, is it possible that literature not only helps us access the most touching moments of our lives but also helps promote emotional intelligence, (the ability to manage emotions and the emotions of people around us?) I believe it does.

Civilization has progressed through social binding with language as a key facilitator. With time, we identify with ever-broader groups, i.e. tribes, towns, cities, nations, and perhaps one day as citizens of planet earth. And “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (the last line of The Great Gatsby). Our past informs us about the future. But the past is when we knew less, when we were capable of less and had not yet collected lifetimes of awareness. Yet the romanticized past calls to us as moments when life was simpler perhaps, or happier, when we were loved and appreciated, a rarified view that may not be realistic. This glorification illustrates the filtering mind at work as it simplifies understanding while we progress towards ever faster transactional speeds of thought/reaction, the evolutionary process at work. Literature delivers a similar sorting of detail; it frees us to speculate, to investigate outside our narrow shortcuts of understanding as we read about humans coping with life. And the beauty of literature unlike in conversation where we’re called upon to react immediately is that entering a fictional dream allows us time to wander and absorb a directed mental/emotional focus because we remain in control of pace as we digest experience.

Maybe the creative arts sensitize empathy, they at least afford a sense of practice as we study characters adapting to their worlds. Empathy opens a universal window beyond self-absorption. To be human isn’t easy, but to study other people being humans facilitates our skill at human interaction.

I’ve enjoyed our little chat here today; I hope I haven’t worn you out too badly. That’s one of those proclivities of mine. Thanks for coming along, but now I need a coffee so I can plop myself down on an old river bank with my dad and try to find that day when the smell of timelessness filled my head, and I believed words could change the world, back before I knew almost no one was listening. Maybe I’ll visit Tom Bradburn, too, that odd fellow in What the River Wants that I’m rereading to prepare for the writing workshop I’m giving in June. Tom’s tired words always help me find my dad again slipping through those halcyon days of my youth. And this very morning a painting with those squirmy Van Gogh olive trees reminded me of when I was a teenager and Dad and I camped in a grove of ironwood trees on the banks of the Leaf River. I heard something that night over 50 years ago, something that later became the seed of that Tom Bradburn character. Funny how some things simply pass away, and some things yearn for one more day.  ab



 “Daylight Breakfast”

The .22 iced through my jeans,

Alien as a Martian thing

Dropped onto a seven-year-old,

While a breath of steam

Fed the buzzing fog

Welting hands

Soaked in a 6-12 slather

Useless as a shadow in the dark.


A jay bird gang

Rains acorn pieces onto

My puzzling brain

Stumped between caws or barks,

Till a gray clump jumps

Behind a blinding sun

Because I left Grandpa's spot

Where I lurched a shot

And now only an echo rains.


A daylight breakfast

Of marigold stink

From gunpowder burnt

And young dreams burned

Leaves hands a frozen pink

And a soaring soul



But the Ithaca roars and

The Catahoula pours

Toward a supper of

Squirrel onion stew,

Where truth will get told

And a secret untold

Because I never

Know what to do.

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