Descartes and the Joyous Madeleine

Descartes and the Joyous Madeleine

Part I  Seeking the truth through meditation
In November 2000 I had the pleasure of hearing Roger Shattuck address the Proust Society at the Mercantile Library in New York (on snobbery.) In the course of his talk, Shattuck referred to a scene with “Pascal waiting in the wings.” Afterwards at the reception, I shamelessly pressed myself forward through his fans and corralled him in order to sketch out an idea. Proust could easily have kicked out 50 pages on this scene of a jam-packed reception where the famous man, trying desperately to gulp some air and take a sip of wine after his address, is besieged by admirers, autograph seekers, well-wishers and now, competing with the din of the cocktail buzz, comes an earnest lady of a certain age (me) demanding his attention in order to enlighten him with her insights. Nevertheless, buoyed by his indulgence, I here set forth my idea, not on Pascal and not on snobbery, but on another philosopher who also waits in the wings in a certain scene. In the scene that I will speak of, I believe that that philosopher is not at all coy. He comes forth to shadow Marcel right out there on the stage.

The philosopher is Descartes; the scene is the famous Madeleine in a teacup. The scene is usually summarized as a unified whole and as a paradigm for

Descartes in Amsterdam - near our apartment

Descartes in Amsterdam – near our apartment

memory of the involuntary kind. It is glossed as memory precipitated unexpectedly, out of the blue, aroused by the raw sensual taste and smell of the madeleine. But, in that summary emphasizing just the initial rush and joy, some critical moves are overlooked. Right away, a careful reading discloses that the madeleine incident comprises not one but three, separate stages. In the first stage, Marcel tastes the tea where he has dipped the Madeleine and experiences a rush of pure feeling, inchoate and indeterminate; there is an “all-powerful joy”. No memory has appeared, just a joy. Marcel does not know origin of the feeling. At the second stage, M engages a disciplined and difficult project to find “the truth” of this felicity, to seek out the source of the feeling and to repeat it. He decides that the answers will not be found in the external world but in his own mind. He prepares his mind. He find his labours difficult and dangerous. He is prone to fall into the abyss, to sink back into the darkness of the unknown. Yet, with determination he essays his task many times – at least ten! In the third and final stage, at last comes the sought-for repetition of joy and truth; this time memory arises not inchoate but with all its desired detail and knowledge.

My interest and theory concerns this second stage of trying to recover the joy and the truth that attended the initial inchoate memory. I claim, that this stage is exactly modeled on the first few Meditations of Descartes. To convince you of this theory of mine, I invite you to think about the Cartesian project for demolishing mere opinion and for gaining undeniable truth. Cast your mind back to Philosophy 101. You may remember Descartes’ project to cast out mere opinion and to gain certain truth. That project entailed a method and a mood and it is the method and mood that hover in shadow as Marcel quests for the truth – in what I’ve called the second stage. Descartes’ method for seeking the truth is one of disciplined introspection. He will eradicate doubt, demolish mere opinion and seek truth through the inspection of his own mind; he looks within; his method is an introspective search. His search will be conducted as a meditation – quiet, solitary, disciplined and focused.

Now, all meditations require preparation to allow clarity and truth to reveal themselves; a purging of all extraneous thought and sensation must take place. One doesn’t just sit right down in the middle and din of, say, a wine and cheese reception, and immediately begin to meditate and seek. Descartes carefully prepares for his labours in the quiet and solitude of his attic. He clears his mind. He purges distracting sights and sounds. Only then can he quietly and determinedly begin to inspect his mind. Once launched in the meditation, he finds the process arduous; it is a struggle and fraught with danger. There is the danger of sliding down into the darkness of opinion. There is the fear of falling, of getting sucked into the whirlpool of uncertainty. Thus a kind of vigilance and courage is needed. These are some aspects of the method and mood of Descartes’ Meditations on first Philosophy. (But no summary can ever do justice to this monument of – dare I tempt censure by PC police – our Western tradition. A remarkable treat is in store for you if you will pull down from your shelves what you probably put up there years ago. In just a few pages, you will have before you the sea-change in philosophy that was written by Descartes – and with a grace and clarity hardly ever again equaled.)

Part II.  My Proof –  the Citations
After the first rush of happiness, Marcel enters the second stage of the madeleine scene where he prepares for its repetition, truth and origin. The parallels between the method and mood of Marcel’s search to Descartes’ are striking. To be very clear, I am not comparing results of the search. Descartes finds his quarry in the clear and distinct ideas of pure cold reason. Marcel’s is not so clearly spelled out. I claim here an identity in the method and the mood – Marcel’s method is the meditative method and atmosphere of Descartes. Here are some significant citations.

1.) Seeking truth within. Both Marcel and Descartes are seeking truth. That truth is to be found not outside in the external world, in objects out there, but within ourselves. Therefore the route to truth is for Marcel, as for Descartes, within the dark region of introspection. Marcel says:

It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it …I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth.” [SW pg 48-49]

The region is dark because the seeker and the sought are the same:

… when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking …” [Vol I, SW pg 49]

2.) Clearing the mind. A requisite step in beginning a meditation is to disencumber the mind of its quotidian preoccupations, its sorrows and its joys.

So today I have expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a stretch of free time.” [Meditations on first Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Meditation I, page 12]

And then, for the second time, I clear an empty space in front of [my mind]. [Vol I, SW pg. 49]

3.) Removing visual and audio distractions. For meditation, all distracting obstacles must be purged.

I will now shut my eyes, stop my ears, and withdraw all my senses. I will eliminate from my thoughts all images of bodily things. [Meditation III, pg. 24]

And so that nothing may interrupt [my mind] in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention against the sounds from the next room. [SW, pg. 49]

4.) The dangers, the whirlpool, the abyss. Meditation is not secure. The danger of falling into untruth and uncertainty is ever-present.

It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top. [Meditation II, pg.16]

Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. [SW, pg.49]

What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking … [SW, pg.49]

5) The darkness of not having the truth. Light/dark is a common metaphor for truth/ignorance.

… amid the inextricable darkness of the problems I have now raised [Meditation I, p15]

… it has stopped, has perhaps sunk back into its darkness … [SW, pg. 50]

6) Procrastination; reasons for delay or even abandonment of the search. A search for the truth is not easy. An assiduous commitment to the task must prevail over one’s fear of the abyss and awe of its difficulty.

Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and my hopes for to-morrow, which can be brooded over painlessly. [SW, pg. 50]

This led me to put the project off for so long that I would now be to blame if by pondering over it any further I wasted the time still left for carrying it out. [Meditation I, pg.17]

I am like a prisoner who is enjoying an imaginary freedom while asleep; as he begins to suspect that he is asleep, he dreads being woken up, and goes along with the pleasant illusion as long as he can. In the same way I happily slide back into my old opinions and dread being shaken out of them, for fear that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to toil not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems I have now raised. [Meditation I, pg.15]

Part III – Some thoughts about the Madeleine scene
Does it matter that Descartes shadows Marcel in this very early scene of the novel? I think the answer is yes; it’s not just a clever and covert nod to belles lettres. The connection launches some important leitmotifs concerning the mind and philosophy that ripple throughout.

Marcel seeks “the truth.” Truth will often be presented as a hidden reality behind suspicion in love and jealousy. The importance of the senses in seeking truth and meaning is paramount but never excludes the intellect, the mind – there is always an inextricable interplay of mind and senses. The senses triggered his search for the truth behind the madeleine, but his mind propelled it forward. Truths in a teacup are usually handled by a woman with a bandana and lots of lipstick; those leaves capture the future with questions like “will I marry?” “will I come into fortune?” “when will I die?” Here the leaves in the teacup reverse the usual, they consider the past. They set the stage for considering what went into the chrysalis of that “I” that now meditates on itself.

This early scene shows immediately that portraying Marcel as a hothouse flower, a teapot or an effete aesthete is reductive and wrong. Yes, the taste and smell of the madeleine causes Combray ultimately to rise in the teacup.

My madeleine baking form

My madeleine baking form

But, look at the hard meditative work that went into coaxing the memory to repeat and disclose itself. That hard work was a labor of pure intellect.

Finally, the second stage of the madeleine scene augurs the resonance of philosophy and philosophers that will sound throughout The Search. This resonance sounds now as reverence, now as ridicule. Sometimes the philosopher’s lucubrations and tortured reasonings are such that you risk falling over your chair convulsed with laughter if you continue to read. Other times there is pure reverence and acknowledgement. This latter tone is sounded, I think, in the madeleine scene.

A teeny note about that rush of happiness is dropped within parentheses so that the first-time reader will quickly glide over and almost unconsciously park that tantalizing puzzle in some back alley for future consideration.

…(although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) … [SW, pg. 51]

The second-time reader has been well-trained to take note of teeny jokes, hints, puzzles and foreshadowings and to treat them as watchwords in the many pages to come.

1 thought on “Descartes and the Joyous Madeleine


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s