How Proust Can Save Memorial Day (Really)

Memorial Day, it’s worth reminding ourselves, is about memory. And what we’re remembering this weekend, in theory, is the long line of men and women in the past who sacrificed – in something approaching religious devotion – so that we in the present could enjoy the freedoms and benefits of living in America.

That’s how you might hear about it from a public school teacher or at a Memorial Day event. And there’s much right with that. The trouble is many people have lost even simple historical memory: students and even mature citizens can’t say in what century the Revolutionary or Civil Wars were fought, or who our Allies were in World War II or Iraq. Not that long ago, we worried about this. Now, we’ve just largely given up.

Memory of names and dates and battles, of course, is not the Holy Grail. You can Google and store them on your computer. That’s memory of one sort. Though on a wholly different plane than gratitude towards benefactors and proper love of country.


But there’s another kind of memory. A Christian who believes in the Real Presence meets it regularly: “Do this in memory of me.” The Christian churches have not done very much better than the secular world in preserving bare-bones knowledge of sacred history. Who today knows who Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samson, David, Moses, and Job were? Still, we seem more and more to be suffering from an even worse failure of another kind of memory.

We only really remember things vital to us. Today, the typical American takes America for granted, as if it’s the normal condition of humanity instead of – many deep problems notwithstanding – a rare achievement. The typical Christian thinks the two great commandments are 1) Be Nice; and 2) Don’t judge. And everybody already knows that, so what is there to remember?

How remedy secular and religious amnesia? Let me suggest that there’s strange light in the esoteric and far-from-typically-American Marcel Proust. Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past, is “not for everybody.” Indeed, in its sprawling totality, it’s almost not for anybody.

But Proust made a crucial discovery. There are two kind of memory. One voluntary: like Googling some search term. It’s not much different whether a computer or human brain recovers the item.

But there’s another kind of memory, involuntary memory, which only a living being can have – though, by its nature, not possess. (To jump to another literary reference, William Faulkner remarks in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s always there whether we acknowledge it or not. And sooner or later it forces us to acknowledge it.)

The second sort of memory comes to us when we’re awakened to some connection that’s hard to specify, but has a living and vital link across time that seems to make no sense in a world conceived along strictly materialistic lines. In one of the most famous episodes in all of literature, Proust’s narrator is having tea with shell-shaped cookies called madeleines, when something strange happens:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. . . .And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. . . .Whence did it come? What did it mean? . . .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.
So what, you say? So everything, say I.

How can an ordinary sweet named after Mary Magdalene lead us to an experience that transcends ordinary time? Modern life has been so flattened out that we believe we live in a narrow moment and can search the hard drive for some past input and maybe peer a little into the future. But as ancient mythology asserted, the Muses are the daughters of Memory – this kind of transcendent memory. If we want to have all those higher things that distinguish the human race from its animal relations – religion, poetry, art, music, love, loyalty, fidelity, patriotism, all the unbought graces of life – we need that memory.

            Like all graces, the gift of living memory is not under our command. It comes on its own terms or not at all. Young people were once taught names, places, and dates so that maybe, someday, a Madeleine-like moment might transform those seemingly lifeless facts into gratitude for this land.


The parallel with religion is not accidental. We once learned sacred history, dogmas, moral principles by rote so that some day, by a process known only to God, we might see how they are right – and insert us into our own living place in a communion that, like some recent theory in physics, jumps over our normal understanding of time.

On this Memorial Day, in an America that sadly neglects or refuses memory, there’s much to recover. Robert Frost remembers in “The Gift Outright”:

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.