notes from 'Deleuze, Proust and the Image of Time'

Writing about Deleuze’s exploration of time in Proust, Patrick Ffrench says 

Sensuous signs are associated predominantly with the recovery of time at the heart of time lost. The experience of involuntary memory – madeleine, paving stone, starchy towel, establish an identity between two moments, two presents, one that is now and one that has been present but is now past. The sensation includes within it, as if sealed within a hermetically sealed vessel, the essence of a place: Venice, Combray, Balbec. This essence, however, is not just the ‘past’. The ineffable joy that results is not simply due to the recovery of lost time. The essence recovered is not linked to any present that has been, but is a more original past, the pastness of a past which has never been present: the past itself. [...] The being of the past in itself is what Bergson called the virtual. Deleuze thus forges a link between the Proustian ‘past in itself’ and the Bergsonian ‘virtual’.’ 

The event of eating a madeleine is thus an ambiguous mixture of virtual and actual. The sensual encounter with the madeleine contains a bifurcation, one fork leading to actual memory of a childhood, and a cup of tea with an aunt, and the other leading to a virtual encounter with ‘past in itself’. Deleuze’s concept of time consists of numerous bifurcations between the actual and the virtual, the experienced and the pure idea.  

Another bifurcation differentiates between memory that is registered and may have occurred before (‘I often recollect this one time when...’) and involuntary memory (‘I never knew I had remembered that...). Ffrench says involuntary memory can be viewed in connection with Freud’s theory of trauma that displaces the shock from consciousness, yet lurks undetected in the subconscious. The ‘shock’ has been repressed and displaced to the ‘back’ of the mind. Ffrench uses the example of Marcel bending to tie his shoelaces and suddenly remembering, for the first time, his grandmother’s death. It might be possible to take the return of an experience that was repressed or not registered as an encounter with virtual time, time in itself. Perhaps this time is usually repressed or deferred, and only enters our consciousness in a later and sudden encounter. 

The pure or virtual time that Deleuze sees in Proust is not so much a Platonic ideal as a vessel-like thing that contains in it irresolvable differences. Artwork, including Proust’s output, is like this ‘vessel’, containing in it bifurcations between conscious and involuntary memory. Deleuze sees Ozu’s static shot of a vase, crosscut between shots of a girl’s face (in Late Spring) as an example of this vessel in cinema, which contains time or memory that is both actual and virtual. Like the madeleine, the vase stops the usual flow of everyday life and filmic sequence and causes Marcel and the reader (or the viewer in the case of Late Spring) to consider time in its heterogeneous form. In this kind of motif, the vase or madeleine are actual, but also emit the virtual like a reflection or crystal image. Ffrench quotes Deleuze: ‘the virtual and the actual are in continual exchange and are indiscernible. […] The crystal image is the indivisible unity of the actual image and ‘its’ virtual image.’ 

This ‘double’ or crystal image is also evident when Bergson writes about the encounter with déjà-vu. In déjà-vu, we experience the ‘pure’ time or past in itself as a crystal that is reflecting an ‘actual’, in an image almost indiscernible from itself. This past is virtual (it is not a memory of a past that has been, but one that is contemporaneous with the present) yet it is actual too because the experience that prompts the déjà-vu does occur. In the same manner as the involuntary memory, déjà-vu is an encounter with time in its most heterogeneous and bifurcated state. 

Considering Proust’s dates and those of cinema, it is perhaps not surprising that his magic lanterns, madeleines and other ‘vessels’ for time are like cinematic motifs that affect conventional narrative progression. Deleuze’s plug-in of Proust’s literary machine into the cinematic machine is important because it enriches a reading or viewing of both.

Ffrench, P (2000) ‘Time in the Pure State: Deleuze, Proust and the Image of Time’ in Gill, CB (ed.) Time and the Image Manchester: Manchester University Press p.161-171