Proust and Merleau-Ponty on memory, naming, and perception

Memory, naming, and perception: three daily aspects of human life. One cannot collapse them to each other, but they are closely linked. Our memories – who we are, what we know, how we have experienced things previously – shape our perception, give us the ability to name old things, and anticipate our future expression. Naming draws things, people, and categories out of an undefined generality and thereby gives birth to and sustains much of our perception and memory; the moment of naming often coincides with the moment of seeing or of memory. At the same time, we seek for our naming to coincide with what we perceive, and a good memory must bear a close relationship to what we have perceived in the past. Memory, naming, and perception are inseparable and persistently separate.

How we remember, name, and perceive matters quite a bit. It is often rightly observed that how we see the world bears a close relationship to our ability to act well in the world. Only if we can see and name violence, goodness, where God is working in the world, the potential for human flourishing, and so on, can we act ethically. And because the world is made up of stories, our ability for such sight and naming will come largely from the stories we receive and encounter, and whether we receive them with the grace to remember them well.

Here is some of what two of the books I am reading have to say on memory, naming, and perception. The first two quotations are working notes from Merleau-Ponty’s unfinished The Visible and the Invisible and the next two are from Proust’s The Guermantes Way.

“It is in better understanding perception (and hence imperceptions) [that we can address the problem of forgetting] – i.e.: understand perception as differentiation, forgetting as undifferentiation. The fact that one no longer sees the memory = not a destruction of a psychic material which would be the sensible, but its disarticulation which makes there be no longer a separation, a relief. This is the night of forgetting. Understand that the ‘to be conscious’ = to have a figure on a ground, and that it disappears by disarticulation – – the figure ground distinction introduces a third term between the ‘subject’ and the ‘object.’”

“Likewise one can ask why he who knows how to handle colors knows also how to handle the pencil or sometimes to sculpture – – What there is in common – – // All this is indeed obscure as long as one thinks that to sketch or to paint is to produce something positive out of nothing…. But we would see a relation if we understood that to paint, to sketch, is not to produce something from nothing, that the drawing, the touch of the brush, and the visible work are but the trace of a total movement of Speech, which goes unto Being as a whole, and that this movement contains the expression with lines as well as the expression with colors, my expression with lines as well as the expression with colors, my expression as well as that of the other painters.”

“If as I came downstairs I relived those evenings at Doncieres, suddenly, when we reached the street, the almost total darkness, in which the fog seemed to have extinguished the lamps, which one could make out, glimmering very faintly, only when close at hand, took me back to a dimly remembered arrival by night at Combray, when the streets there were still lighted only at distant intervals and one groped one’s way through a moist, warm, hallowed crib-like darkness in which there flickered here and there a dim light that shone no brighter than a candle. Between that year – to which in any case I could ascribe no precise date – of my Combray life and the evenings at Rivebelle which had, an hour earlier, been reflected above my drawn curtains, what a world of differences! I felt on perceiving them an enthusiasm which might have borne fruit had I remained alone and would thus have saved me the detour of many wasted years through which I was yet to pass before the invisible vocation of which this book is the history declared itself. Had the revelation come to me that evening, the carriage in which I sat would have deserved to rank as more memorable for me than Dr Percepied’s, on the box seat of which I had composed that little sketch – which, as it happened, I had recently unearthed, altered and sent in vain to the Figaro – of the steeples of Martinville. Is it because we relive our past years not in their continuous sequence, day by day, but in a memory focused upon the coolness or sunshine of some morning or afternoon suffused with the shade of some isolated and enclosed setting, immovable, arrested, lost, remote from all the rest, and thus the changes gradually wrought not only in the world outside but in our dreams and our evolving character (changes which have imperceptibly carried us through life from one time to another, wholly different) are eliminated, that, if we relive another memory taken from a different year, we find between the two, thanks to lacunae, to vast stretches of oblivion, as it were the gulf of a difference in altitude or the incompatibility of two divergent qualities of breathed atmosphere and surrounding coloration? But between the memories that had now come to me in turn of Combray, of Doncieres and of Rivebelle, I was conscious at that moment of much more than a distance in time, of the distance that there would be between two separate universes whose substance was not the same. If I had sought to reproduce in a piece of writing the material in which my most insignificant memories of Rivebelle appeared to be carved, I should have had to vein with pink, to render at once translucent, compact, cool and resonant, a substance hitherto analogous to the sombre, rugged sandstone of Combray.”

“Words do not change their meaning as much in centuries as names do for us in the space of a few years. Our memories and our hearts are not large enough to be able to remain faithful. We have not room enough to be able to remain faithful. We have not room enough, in our present mental field, to keep the dead there as well as the living. We are obliged to build on top of what has gone before and is brought to light only by a chance excavation, such as the name Saintrailles had just opened up.”

4 thoughts on “Proust and Merleau-Ponty on memory, naming, and perception

  1. When you say: “It is often rightly observed that how we see the world bears a close relationship to our ability to act well in the world. Only if we can see and name violence, goodness, where God is working in the world, the potential for human flourishing, and so on, can we act ethically.” I can’t help but think of Wittgenstein’s famous line: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    It makes me think of where that limit might be drawn — in ordinary experience or actively engaged philosophical thought. Often it seems like evental thought is spoken of as if it comes from nowhere, the outside, etc. I wonder if, after reading your post, that working within restrictions “how accurately” we can name is actually the MOST productive thought that gives rise to evental thinking. Marx’s journey into the commodity, Wittgenstein’s journey through ordinary language, are examples of not trying to think the outside, but look at towards the outside (the large scale) from where one is (the small scale). Even Plato or Badiou could be looked at with this type of analysis: Plato tries to reconcile the differences of things that occur under the same name, rather than starting with a theory and seeing if it works.

    All of this is to say, perhaps this idea of thinking from the outside needs to be re-worked. Rather we should attempt to think with precision. Aim for precision, work with what we have, then look deeper, and work some more. An ethics that continually dives (work) and surfaces (breathe and name). Is this what you have in mind? or would you place an emphasis on act first, find a name after?


  2. Yes. I think that is more or less what I have in mind. Naming and acting require each other and we can’t do one well without the other. We will name well if we act well and will act well if we name well – at least to a certain extent. But neither comes first in a kind of clear-cut way.

    I hadn’t thought about the relationship between naming and evental thinking, but, along with your post on cycling, I think you’re right that there is a tremendous power to names informing how we see the world.

    I see your point (I think) with preferring precision over a grand or outside view, but it’s not the word I would focus on, at least not exclusively. For one, precision often comes along with a certain form and content that excludes other voices and perspectives (with their own names) that don’t accord with dominant ways of knowing. For another, ambiguity, nuance, and complexity is often done away with in the name of precision (though I understand that another sort of precision can emphasize and help us to more clearly see important ambiguities, nuances and complexities). Finally, I’d contend that naming well involves a good deal of patience, listening, and immersion in uncomfortable settings; precision often carries a certain hastiness along with it that doesn’t allow for this. I’d certainly hate to be the one who said that essays always help us to better know and name the world than literature or music, for example, or even other (imprecise) people.


  3. Out of naming, perception and memory, what is the second quote pointing towards? I can kind of see memory because some of the skills required of sketching will translate into another visual art medium like painting and so memory functions to relate one discipline to the other… but is that what you were going for?


    1. It’s interesting how much one’s approach to a text can alter that text in one’s own eyes. When I first read the passage you ask about, I was asking the text questions about naming, memory, and perception, and so I found questions that I had addressed in the passage. I don’t think I misread it, but certainly questions of naming, memory, and perception are not explicitly addressed. They need some interpretation for that, and not to simply be stand-alone quoted. In short, I read the bits about speech and expression and especially *my* expression as pointing towards a naming of Being that, in that very act, shapes one’s perception of and encounter with Being.


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