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Marcel Proust Defines the Self in Remembrance of Things Past Essay

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Marcel Proust Defines the Self in Remembrance of Things Past


Proust seems to be unique among the twentieth century authors in that his denial of rational thought is through the use of sensation to respond to the problem--instead of experience, for example--by defining the self as a retrievable essence comprised of all past experiences.

Our human condition is defined by mortality, contingency, and discontentment. This reality combined with the new outlooks of relationships between our lives and the objects that surround us in our world, have caused authors in the twentieth century to question traditional Western thought. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust extends these comparisons to include one's use of memory and sensation as well as objects. By doing so, he temps to answer the question: 'Who or what is the self?' and in looking at this work, we begin our look at the abandoning of reason in order to try and find a solution to our situation. According to Proust, the self is the retrievable essence defined as the summation of all observed experiences and their relationship in and amongst themselves. He represents this idea by establishing the importance of memory and providing a key event in the life of the protagonist whose own quest is a solution to this problem.

The novel begins with Marcel's awakening--both literally and metaphorically (in relation to his quest to define the self). At the critical moment between sleep and consciousness, various thoughts pass in and out of his mind. He is disoriented--not exactly sure of his current location as his thoughts are those of experiences from a different place and time. His thoughts are unlike any he has had while awake; his confusion therefore, justifiable:

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...onsciously, they do have an effect on the way in which we view objects and the opinions we take on others' ideas at present. Quite literally, who we were is all of who we are.

Proust defines the self as an essence comprised of layers of hidden memories depicting past experiences. The memory and all that it contains, is stored behind a sort of 'one-way' door. Old events ever change the way that new events will be stored; new events on top of the old will change the way the latter were once viewed. For the most part, the door is locked. It opens only for a split second, given the correct key, if for no other reason than to prove that everything is still there--the self still defined--and nothing has ever been lost.

Work Cited

Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past, Volume I. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.


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