Hovering between me and her name

. . . Such is the cowardice of society people.

That of a lady who came to greet me by my name, was greater still. I tried to recall hers as I talked to her; I remembered quite well having met her at dinner, and could remember things that she had said. But my attention, concentrated upon the inward region in which these memories of her lingered, was unable to discover her name there. It was there none the less. My thoughts began playing a sort of game with it to grasp its outlines, its initial letter, and finally to bring the whole name to light. It was labour in vain; I could more or less sense its mass, its weight, but as for its forms, confronting them with the shadowy captive lurking in the interior darkness, I said to myself: “That’s not it.” Certainly my mind would have been capable of creating the most difficult names. Unfortunately, it was not called upon to create but to reproduce. Any mental activity is easy if it need not be subjected to reality. Here I was forced to subject myself to it. Finally, in a flash, the name came back to me in its entirety: “Madame d’Arpajon.” I am wrong in saying that it came, for it did not, I think, appear to me by a spontaneous propulsion. Nor do I think that the many faint memories associated with the lady, to which I did not cease to appeal for help (by such exhortations as: “Come now, it’s the lady who is a friend of Mme de Souvré, who feels for Victor Hugo so artless an admiration mingled with so much alarm and horror”)–nor do I think that all these memories, hovering between me and her name, served in any way to bring it to light. That great game of hide and seek which is played in our memory when we seek to recapture a name does not entail a series of gradual approximations. We see nothing, then suddenly the correct name appears and is very different from what we thought we were guessing. It is not the name that has come to us. No, I believe rather that, as we go on living, we spend our time moving further away from the zone in which a name is distinct, and it was by an exercise of my will and attention, which heightened the acuteness of my inward vision, that all of a sudden I had pierced the semi-darkness and seen daylight. In any case, if there are transitions between oblivion and memory, then these transitions are unconscious. For the intermediate names through which we pass before finding the real name are themselves false, and bring us nowhere nearer to it. They are not even, strictly speaking, names at all, but often mere consonants which are not to be found in the recaptured name. And yet this labour of the mind struggling from blankness to reality is so mysterious that it is possible after all that these false consonants are preliminary poles clumsily stretched out to help us hook ourselves to the correct name. “All this,” the reader will remark, “tells us nothing as to the lady’s failure to oblige; but since you have made so long a digression, allow me, dear author, to waste another moment of your time by telling you that it is a pity that, young as you were (or as your hero was, if he isn’t you), you had already so feeble a memory that you could not remember the name of a lady whom you knew quite well.” It is a pity, dear reader. And sadder than you think when one feels that it heralds the time when names and words will vanish from the bright zone of consciousness and one must forever cease to name to oneself the people whom one has known most intimately. It is indeed regrettable that one should require this effort, when still young, to remember names which one knows well. But if this infirmity occurred only in the case of names barely known and quite naturally forgotten, names one wouldn’t want to take the trouble of remembering, the infirmity would not be without its advantages. “And what are they, may I ask?” Well, sir, infirmity alone makes us take notice and learn, and enables us to analyse mechanisms of which otherwise we should know nothing. A man who falls straight into bed night after night, and ceases to live until the moment when he wakes and rises, will surely never dream of making, I don’t say great discoveries, but even minor observations about sleep. He scarcely knows that he is asleep. A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to the study of the phenomena of memory. “Well, did Mme d’Arpajon introduce you to the Prince?” No, but be quiet and let me go on with my story.

— Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah

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