A madeleine and the vast structure of recollection

Madeleines de Commercy

‘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; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. 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 immaterial, 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.

And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.’

Marcel Proust À la recherche du temps perdu


The affinity of modernism with mysticism has been confirmed by the modern writers and philosophers themselves too often to allow for denials. Whether the affinity suffices to characterise modernism itself as a form of mysticism depends upon one’s definition and on the modernist.’

Andrew Weeks, German Mysticism – From Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1993, 232



14 thoughts on “A madeleine and the vast structure of recollection

    • Hi Jason,
      the red star symbolises my belief in the potential of idealism, from a socialist perspective.

      Plato knew the power of idealism and expressed it in his art even as he tried to ‘banish’ it by encasing it in (appropriating it to) linguistic reason (‘philosophical idealism’).

      Plotinus made the creative aspect of idealism the core of his philosophy and Proust along with many others have responded to and drawn on that.

      My compliments on your blog.
      Best wishes, Phil

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Jason,

        thank you for your interest. I define ‘idealism’ as ‘the inspiration to that which is felt to be “higher than”.’

        My definition places emphasis on the emotions and brain functions ‘below’ (possibly more primitive than) conscious thought because I think of idealism as an emotional orientation (‘Sarah is an idealistic girl’) or potential (just as we can love or hate), without a specific focus.

        That focus is given to it – it could be spiritual, religious (organised spirituality), political or in a personal relationship (‘I love you absolutely’).

        The Nazis (German capitalism in extremis) exploited it with skill (appealing to a primal mythology) as do other governments and those who achieve power.

        The manipulation of idealism is essential to the practice of power.

        In the US, dating from Winthrop’s ‘We shall be as a city upon a hill’ speech, idealism came to be focused on the flag. In Australia, because of the convict origins of white domination (Phillip’s reported founding words included ‘Men are not to go into the womens’ tents at night’) it has been very difficult for the bourgeoisie to find that focus, as they search and stumble from one symbol of loss, failure and defeat to another.

        The military disaster at Gallipoli in the first world war – in a far-away country and in the service of the dominant power has finally been turned into some success, ideologically. The requisite amount of gore should silence all criticism.

        Idealism is the source of an immense and immensely creative energy (Plato and Plotinus fully understood this) and large amounts of it (together with many of those who embody it) are consumed in every revolution, after which there is the slow but inevitable re-accumulation of its depleted reserves as idealism, having attained far short of perfection, goes into retreat to lick its wounds and prepare to dare again.

        And this is my point – we are animals, and idealism is an expression of our animality.

        Philosophical idealism’, beloved of cobweb-spinning academics, is the appropriation of idealism by and to linguistic thought (what is known simplistically in academic philosophy as ‘reason’) – ‘philosophical idealism is the belief that…’ It is the harnessing of, the attempt to control and constrain, the chariot.

        Philosophical idealism is not simply the placing of consciousness and its products before objective reality – one never has to go looking too far in its manifestation before one comes upon ‘God’ or another expression for ‘higher than’.

        What are your thoughts on the subject?

        Best regards,


        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you Phil. I just re-read your post and was wondering if we could clarify the following: ‘the inspiration to that which is felt to be “higher than”.’

    Could you rephrase this statement using completely different words?

    And could you also provide a general definition to the term ‘Idealism’ that could potentially be used in a college dictionary?

    As to your question I would like to follow it up, but for the sake of good communication, it may be best for me to fully understand you first, before we proceed to my thoughts on this ancient concept.

    Kind regards,



    • Hi Jason,
      You have motivated me to reconsider my definition of ‘idealism’.

      By ‘inspiration’ I refer to a heightened emotional state that is conducive to creative activity in some way.

      If I was lying in bed and heard something on the radio that motivated me to get out of bed (an ethical speech, music I think uplifting…), it would be to get up and do something productive – to ‘get on with the day’, to ‘get things done’.

      Inspiration is an intensification of that feeling, hence the urge to productivity becomes more concentrated, more creative – I might start on that painting I had been thinking about or enrol in a photography course…

      Idealism, as well as having a spiritual focus (a focus on ‘connectedness’, however one thinks of that – it may be to one’s team, to ‘God’, to the flag, to nature, to one’s community, to the world community…) is an orientation and commitment to a prolonged state of creative potential, realised to whatever degree.

      The expression ‘felt to be “higher than”’ does two things – it points to and emphasises the emotional nature of what idealism is and leaves the manifestation of idealism open – it specifically avoids the containment of what idealism is by linguistic thought.

      That linguistic thought both gives it direction and, in the case of philosophical idealism, appropriates it through definition, is secondary to this.

      An improved definition of ‘idealism’ would then be that it is ‘the inspiration to that which is felt to be “higher than,” manifest as a prolonged and creative emotional state with a spiritual focus’.

      Definitions, while most important in philosophical discussion are deceptive. Cusanus believed that our ‘minds’ (try defining ‘mind’ – after you’ve defined ‘reason’!) are the image of Divine Mind, that how the latter functions is modelled by ours.

      He believed that just as we can never fully know the Divine Word and embody a complete knowledge of it in our ‘mental’ words, because the Divine Word is infinite while we are finite and therefore limited to perspectives, so too the words of the sensory world cannot fully ‘know’ and express the words of our ‘mental’ world.

      And in the latter part of this, having been ‘stood on its feet’, he has a very good point.

      I can give you a ‘working’ definition of any word, but there will always be much more in our thought (including memory) regarding what that word symbolises for you and me, which completes our perspectival definition of the word.

      Of ‘cat’ I can say that it is ‘a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws.’ But my experience of cats inevitably completes my perspectival definition of the word.

      Words dealing with the emotions further complicate the issue. Exploring what lies beyond a ‘working definition’ of words and how those perspectival ‘definitions’ inter-relate is fundamental to poetry, just as exploring what ‘lay beyond’ the material reality of a madeleine had so much potential for Proust.

      Logical atomism took the drive to define and control in philosophy to a ridiculous extreme (for which Wittgenstein was well-suited).

      Donald Phillip Verene countered this:

      ‘…we have so little experience in taking metaphorical speech seriously as a carrier of philosophical meaning that we read right past it. …we have become so accustomed to the monotone hum of the abstract concept and the category, the fluorescent buzz of the argument, that we have lost track of the dimensions of philosophical language. We have forgotten its secrets and cannot recollect its manner of eating bread and drinking wine.’ (Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1985, 34-35)



      Liked by 1 person

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