We start our life in a specific place, and our journey through our existence takes us to many more. In the process, each place etches its particular effect on our memory and imagination, so that we are filled with our individual notions about those places. Proust’s famous madeleine moment is about the memories of the narrator’s childhood, but more importantly it is about a specific place, Cambray, and the fact that the narrator spent his summers there as a child. The taste of the madeleine revives in his imagination the memories of the village and its church, St. Hilaire; its two passages, Guermantes’ Way and Swann’s Way; the hawthorns blooming in the summer; and a host of other visions of a place; Cambray - all brought about by a sweet crumb dipped in tea.
A memorable event, happening in a specific place and time, can put its mark on our memory forever. That is why people always remember where they were when a historic event occurred. Those of us who were alive in 1963 know where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated.
Memories are essentially geographic in nature with the two dimensions of time and space each providing the basis of our identity. Apart from the human nature that defines us, we are who we are because we were born and lived at a certain period of time and at a certain place on earth. That is in essence the origin of our identity.
The specific geography, climate, vegetation, views and characteristics of a place can induce a nostalgic effect in us. A place is not the same to all people. The view of a mountain for someone born and raised on the mountainside has a different meaning for him than for another born and raised by the sea. The view or the climate of a specific place can act as a sensory stimulant and invoke feelings just like the effect that a smell, a taste, or a sound has on our mind. A place is a three dimensional concept, but Proust adds a fourth dimension; the dimension of time.
Not only a place or physical space has a specific setting or design that is recognizable from memory: a church, a building, even a tree, but a place is also where something special happened in a specific time, something good or bad. That is what gets the concept of “self” intertwined with the idea of a precise place in our mind. If the memory is good, we might try to recreate the moment by going back, not realizing that it is not the physical place, but the metaphoric, idealized notion we have of that place. When the narrator of Proust’s book strolls down the Champs-Élysée as an old man, trying to recollect his childhood encounters with Gilberte and her mother, Odette, he finds the place so changed and the people, the fashion of the time, and the cars in the traffic all so different from many decades ago that they all become hindrances to reviving his memories. We can’t go back; the moment is there only in our imagination and only for as long as we are there to recollect it. As Proust has said “real paradise is a paradise lost”. His concept of time explains this maxim. We don’t reflect on our life as we live it. We never stop ourselves thinking that this moment that we are living now is going to be a happy moment that we will always remember with nostalgia and melancholy. And so we never try to savor it slowly with deliberation and reflection. We just live it. It only becomes unforgettable when it is gone, hence a paradise lost.
Still, our past and our connection to it are integral parts of our existence. Without our memories, we lose our identity and our life transforms into a vacuum without any meaning. But memories, even the sweetest ones have a hint of melancholy and sadness for what once was but is now unattainable. Even though we might become homesick for a place or nostalgic for old times, we are lucky to have our memories.