Monday, January 26, 2015

I Can Still Taste Les Madeleines

A couple of days ago I was organizing and archiving the textual copies of the 300+ posting to this blogspot since late 2008.  They have accumulated to almost 600 single spaced pages collected into two large binders.  I commented to a good friend at the time that Marcel Proust would be proud of me and he suggested it might be time to break out the madeleine cakes to celebrate.  I had not thought about les madeleines in over forty years . . . certainly not in connection with Proust.  This gave me pause.

I think the first time I had a madeleine was in late 1971 during a visit to the Meuse Valley, in the Lorraine region of northeastern France.  I was there ostensibly to search out places where my dad’s US Army unit fought during the late months of 1944.  I found myself in Metz and wandering a back street one morning I chanced upon a small boulangerie with a rich variety of offerings.  I selected several madeleine cakes . . . cookies, actually . . . to go with my morning coffee.  They were quite unique in their shape and consistency, and they tasted wonderful.  I can still taste them even after all these years. 

The reason I tried them that morning, however, was because at that time I was reading  selections from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time] in a French literature class at the German university I was attending.  Probably Proust’s most famous work (begun in 1909, and eventually published in several volumes between 1913 and 1927), it swelled to almost 3,200 pages.  We were reading selections from Du côté de chez Swann [Swann’s Way], the first volume published in 1913, including the section entitled “Combray” which concludes with the now famous madeleine episode  – its theme the existence of involuntary memory.  Returning home to the US, I finally had an opportunity to read the entire multi-volume English translation by Charles Scott Moncrieff to which he attached the rather obsequious title, Remembrance of Things Past (1922-1930).  The final volume of the translation was completed by "Stephen Hudson," (a pseudonym adopted by Proust's friend, Sydney Schiff), after Moncrieff’s death in 1930.   Reading the Combray episode:

 No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. 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. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea. 

So, perhaps I was correct when I posited that Proust would be proud of me after assembling textual pages of these blogspot posting, which I have characterized from the outset as “Random Thoughts From the Edge of America.”  And my friend was also correct to suggest a celebration of this undertaking with the serving of madeleine cakes.  Eating them with his tea was, for Proust, an incident of involuntary memory triggered by sensory occurrences,  awakening still other memories and recollections, the “essence of the past” over which he had no conscious control over recollections of past people, places and events.

These postings really are random thoughts . . . involuntary memories triggered by something I have done, or seen, or heard, or read.  Yet, once triggered, I do try to think about then intelligently, and in depth.  I will do a little research to flesh them out before sharing them with my readers.

So let us dip our madeleines into our cups of tea and see what comes up.  I am sure there will always be something to dredge up and write about.

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