Music, Memory and the Impermanence of Love
At Mme Verdurin’s, Swann heard the Vinteuil sonata for the second time and was again enraptured. The first time was pre-Odette. The notes of the sonata have no material equivalent in the real world, the narrator remarks; they don’t correspond to anything. Therefore, were it not for memory, they would live out their lives in performance and then vanish completely.
Memory saves music from vanishing into non-being, into oblivion. Memory acts as music’s stenographer – recording a transcript and thereby making it permanent. The notes won’t float off into nothingness. This compressed notion of the permanence of music through memory, bursts out in full at Mme Euverte’s dinner party some 150 pages later.
At Mme Euverte’s dinner party, the Vinteuil sonata becomes the Rosetta stone for Swann’s clear realization that Odette has fallen out of love with him. He begins an excursus on music and memory :”There are in the music of the violin ..” [Vol I SW 378]. Swann understands that Odette’s love is transitory because he understands that memory of music is permanent. The tenacious and persistent permanence of musical memory is held up in relief against the fickleness and impermanence of love.
To see how this works, we need first to see how music is permanent. Musical memory is set on an equal footing with certain ideas of the intellect like notions of “light, of sound, of perspective.” [Vol I SW 381] These “ideas” are firmly lodged; they are divine captives
of the soul; they don’t vanish. We can no more get rid of these general and abstract ideas than we can, say, doubt that the room is light after the lamp is lit. The permanence of music through memory is explained in terms of this notion. To memorize a piece of music is to install that music into the inner hardware of the soul as firmly as light or perspective. The music is then never forgotten. Consider how music you’ve heard decades ago is still “in” there somehow. You have only to jump-start the first few notes from, say, an advertisement or an overture in order to ignite the whole song or piece, to re-call it into being. Music, once installed, becomes as stubbornly and irrevocably existent like a Kant category inside or a Platonic form above. It exists permanently without material equivalent, “sine materia.” [SW,Pg. 228] Through this thought-train, “Swann was not mistaken in believing that the phrase of the sonata really did exist.” [Vol I SW 381]
Music is not only existent in reality, its ontological status is high; it enjoys a very chic kind of existence. It has a lot of “ontos” in two ways: music is determined and it lasts a long time. How “determined”? The very reality of music is determined in that there’s no open-endedness about it. To clarify this concept, Swann compares musical dialogue between the piano and violin
to spoken dialogue. Unlike speech, music has an inner “inexorable logic.”
The fundamental premises move “inevitably to the conclusion as in a syllogism.” Spoken dialogue is filled with fancy and possibility; the outcome is open, unknown and indeterminate at the beginning. But musical dialogue has no such indeterminacy. It is closed. To illustrate what Swann is thinking, consider the resolution of a chord set, where any other chord except the right one would jar and be immediately recognized as inauthentic, as a “counterfeit.” The resolution “determines” the dialogue. Thus music trumps speech, it is “here”, has more chic by the evaluative criterion of determinacy.
And … music lasts a long time, once it gets “in” to the memory. The destiny of the ideas like light, sound and, now, music in the mind or soul is linked to the future in that their mortality is identical to our own. They will perish only when we do. Music is not forgotten because it becomes a structure within the very soul itself, like an idea – a form of the understanding.
But love, on the contrary, hangs out on the outer fringes, rising and falling away. Perishes. So music also trumps love in time as well as determinacy.
The music excursus ends abruptly with
“From that evening onward, Swann understood that the feeling which Odette had once had for him would never revive….” [Vol I SW 384]
This conclusion initially puzzled me. What did Swann’s musing about the permanence of music have to do with love? It wasn’t until I had performed the tortuous exegesis (above) that the passage disclosed itself to me. That is, I had to “decipher” it.
“What we have not had to decipher and to analyse by our own efforts, anything that was clear before we came, does not belong to us.” [Vol III TR 914]
But effort and persistence rewarded; I understand the connection now. It is a connection simply by way of contrast and opposition. (Now, it seems obvious!) Love, unlike music, does not persist in memory in the way that “ideas” do. When I say that someone “gets under my skin” (meaning that I am in love with that person, can’t stop thinking about that person) that’s exactly the limit of love that is described. Love is just skin-deep. Never deeper. Love never achieves status as an idea; it never becomes a divine captive of the soul nor an idea of the intellect like light or sound or perspective or music; that would be a far deeper and permanent place.
PS. The Search has several kinds of memory weaving in and out. Famously, there is memory of the involuntary kind – exemplified by the tea and madeleine incident. But musical memory and madeleine memory are quite different. One way to distinguish them is by the onset. Madeleine memory
erupts via the sensory transmitters of taste, smell and feel. Musical memory can erupt merely by a jump-start of the first few notes; the rest follows.
So, one difference is that madeleine memory is mediated by a sensory experience totally different from the memory that ensues. Musical memory is unmediated altogether or is mediated by a sample of the same or similar music.
These sections [Vol I, 227-230 and 378-384] suggest that music has a privileged entrée to what is “underneath” appearance, to what is really really real and are often read as subscription to Schopenhauer’s theory of music. For Kant, knowledge of the phenomenal world – a mixture of sensation and intellect – is the limit of human understanding. One cannot penetrate beyond what appears to us to some deeper “essence” or to the “thing-in-itself.” Not music, nor anything else will get us beyond the phenomena. Schopenhauer, in opposition, said that music would, in fact, contact the thing-in-itself – the noumena, the world beyond appearance. Hearing music puts the soul directly in touch with essence (the transcendent, substantial) – unmediated by human tools for knowing and perceiving.