Time, Memory and Proust

Correction Jan. 14, 2006

The audio for this story misidentifies the nationality of the philosopher Seneca. He was Roman.

How do we perceive time? How do we form and retrieve memories? Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, tells Linda Wertheimer how the French novelist might answer such philosophical questions.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Another year is passing, but do 12 chimes of the clock on the wall signify time lost or memories gained? New Year's inevitably inspires us to look backward and forward, to reflect on the passage of time, to anticipate how best to make use of it in the future and to lament the hours wasted. Alain de Botton is a philosopher and author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, including "The Consolations of Philosophy" and also "How Proust Can Change Your Life." In that literary guide, Mr. de Botton finds advice about all sorts of challenges and questions in the life and legacy of Marcel Proust, the author of "Remembrance of Things Past." Alain de Botton joins us from London.

Thanks very much for speaking with us today.

Mr. ALAIN de BOTTON (Philosopher, Author): Thank you. Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now Marcel Proust's great work, "Remembrance of Things Past," is also known in English and in French as "In Search of Lost Time." Are there two different meanings to be taken from the two titles of the same work?

Mr. de BOTTON: I think in--the title "In Search of Lost Time" gets to the heart of what the book's about, because this very long novel by this very strange Frenchman is mostly a consideration of how time, as it were, slips through our fingers, how we are alive but most of the time not properly attuned to the world around us. In other words, we're constantly wasting our time.

WERTHEIMER: Now in today's world, we're urged to live in the moment, which of course, is not new advice, to borrow from the Greek philosopher Seneca's idea, `If we do not live now, then when?' But we are drawn to the past. I mean, what do you think is the value of memory?

Mr. de BOTTON: I think the odd thing about memory is that not all memories are as clear as one another, just as not all moments of the present are that clear. So it's very possible to remember with incredible clarity a moment that occurred to us, you know, in early childhood, while the whole of last week seems lost in a kind of murkiness. And if someone says, `Hey, what have you been up to?' we can't even remember anything. So our minds store information in very bizarre ways. And one of the things that Proust brilliantly brings out is the way that suddenly a bit of our past, a bit of memory, can surge in front of us when, for example, we smell a certain kind of smell that might have been around in our childhood, or we taste a long-unfamiliar food that we once had known. And these little stray moments can suddenly bring back to us a period of our lives that we thought was lost forever.

WERTHEIMER: In Proust's case, a cookie.

Mr. de BOTTON: That's right. This most famous cookie in Western literature, which got dunked in some tea and suddenly the narrator's early childhood comes back to life, although unreliably for him it's not really a cookie so much as one of these strange French cakes that get called a madeleine.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that Proust is in the classical, philosophical tradition, beginning with the Greeks, moving through Montaigne? Is that where you see him?

Mr. de BOTTON: Well, Proust was very philosophically aware. He studied philosophy as a young man. So, yes, I mean, I think he can be very adequately traced back to the sort of big questions of philosophy, chiefly the question how should we live, and how can we be happy? In this sense, he was a philosopher of happiness, and I think that's what makes his very long novel interesting and more than simply a story, more than simply entertainment. It's also a quest for what one might call, without any kind of mysticism, for spiritual enlightenment.

WERTHEIMER: Marcel Proust was a sickly person. He lived only to his early 50s. I think that, you know, here in the United States we have this whole phenomenon of the largest chunk of our population, the baby boomers, beginning to turn old. Do you think we can actually feel ourselves age?

Mr. de BOTTON: Well, there's a famous party scene in the last volume of this long book where the narrator, who's been living outside of Paris, away from his friends, for a long time, is invited to a party and it's a chance to catch up with old friends. And he has a terrifying moment where he arrives and he looks around, he sees gentlemen with snowy hair, ladies who are leaning on canes, and he can't--he doesn't understand where all his friends are. And suddenly he realizes that actually his friends are all in the room. It's just they've become old. There's a lovely line in a Paul Auster a novel, where he says, `Growing old; it was a funny thing to happen to a young boy.' And I think that beautifully captures the idea that actually all of us inside always still feel like children, even though to the rest of the world, we become the old.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. de Botton, what are you doing New Year's Eve?

Mr. de BOTTON: What--watching the clock with anxiety, observing the passage of time but trying to remain cheerful about it.

WERTHEIMER: Alain de Botton is the author, most recently, of "Status Anxiety." He's a commentator for "All Things Considered." He joined us from his home in London.

Thank you very much for this.

Mr. de BOTTON: Thank you.

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