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Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time
Involuntary memory (fr. mémoire involontaire) is a concept articulated by the French writer Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time, although the idea was also developed in his earlier writings, Contre Sainte-Beuve and Jean Santeuil. Proust contrasts involuntary memory with voluntary memory. The latter designates memories retreived by "intelligence," that is, memories produced when we put conscious effort into remembering events, people, and places. Proust's narrator laments that such memories are inevitably partial, and do not bear the "essence" of the past. Involuntary memories, on the other hand, function similarly to the phenomenon known as déjà-vu: they possess a vivid and plenary sensory immediacy that seems to obliterate the passage of time between the original event and its re-experience in involuntary memory. The most famous instance of involuntary memory in Proust is known as the "episode of the madeleine," but there are at least half of a dozen in In Search of Lost Time, including the memories produced by the scent of a public lavatory on the Champs-Élysées.
The function of involuntary memory in the novel is not self-evident, however. It has been argued that involuntary memory unlocks the Narrator's past as the subject of his novel, but also that he does not begin writing until many years after the episode of the madeleine, for example. Other critics have suggested that it is not the recovery of the past per se that is significant for the Narrator, but rather the happiness produced by his recognition of the past in a present moment. Maurice Blanchot in Le Livre à venir points out that involuntary memories are epiphanic and pointed, and cannot effectively support a sustained narrative. He notes that the difference between Proust's uncompleted Jean Santeuil and In Search of Lost Time is the voluntary memories that provide the connective tissue between such moments and make up the vast bulk of the narrative of the later novel.
A contemporary influence on Proust's conception of involuntary memory may have been the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who in Matter and Memory (1906) made a distinction between two types of memory, the habit of memory as in learning a poem by heart, and spontaneous memory that stores up perceptions and impressions and reveals them in sudden flashes. However, Proust criticism of the last quarter century has tended to discount the influence of Bergson on Proust's ideas.
In psychological research, involuntary memory was systematically studied by Soviet psychologists who investigated primarily the interrelation between specific human activity (other than deliberate remembering), the place of the material to be remembered in it, and qualitative and quntitative characteristics of recall. The pioneer of the research in this field was the student of Vygotsky and Leont'ev and one of the leading representatives of the Soviet school of psychology Pyotr Zinchenko, who published the results of his ingenious study as early as in 1939. The distinction between involuntary and voluntary memory (i.e. such memory that results from deliberate memorization as opposed to memory as a by-product of other, non-mnemonic activity) was subsequently developed by such Soviet psychologists as Smirnov, Istomina, Shlychkova, particularly, by such representatives of Kharkov School of Psychology as P. Zinchenko, Repkina, Sereda, Bocharova, Ivanova, etc. to mention but a few.
Soviet research on involuntary memory significantly influenced psychological research in the West. A wide range of European and North American studies on involuntary remembering in children (e.g. by Meacham, Murphy and Brown, Sophian & Hagen, Schneider, Reese, Ivanova & Nevoennaya, Mistry, Rogoff & Herman) demonstrated viability and promisingness of the activity-based model of human memory.
Literature on involuntary memory
- Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time.
- Zinchenko, P. I. (1939/1983-84). The problem of involuntary memory. Soviet Psychology XXII, 55-111.
- Zinchenko, P. I. (1961). Neproizvol'noe zapominanie [Involuntary memory] (in Russian). Moscow: APN RSFSR. -- Chapter 4 (pp. 172-207) is published in English as --
- Zinchenko, P. I. (1981). Involuntary memory. In J.V. Wertsch (ed.) The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology (pp. 300–340). Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, Inc.
- Smirnov, A. A. & Zinchenko, P. I. (1969). Problems in the psychology of memory. In M. Cole & I. Maltzman (eds.), A handbook of contemporary Soviet psychology. New York: Plenum Press.
- Istomina, Z. M. (1948/1977). The development of voluntary memory in preschool-age children. In M. Cole (Ed.), Soviet developmental psychology (pp. 100–159); -- the same as: Istomina, Z. M. (1975). The development of voluntary memory in preschool-age children. Soviet Psychology, 13, 5-64.
- Meacham, J. A. (1972). The development of memory abilities in the individual and society. Human Development, 15, 205-228. Reprinted in J. G. Seamon (Ed.), Recent contributions in memory and cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. Pp. 415-430.
- Meacham, J.A. (1977). Soviet investigations of memory development. In R.V. Kail & J.W. Hagen (Eds.), Perspective on the Development of Memory and Cognition (Vol. 9, pp. 273–295). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Murphy, M. D., & Brown, A. L. (1975). Incidental learning in preschool children as a function of level of cognitive analysis. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 19 (3), 509-523.
- Sophian, C., & Hagen, J. W. (1978). Involuntary memory and the development of retrieval skills in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 26, 458-471.
- Van der Veer, R., Van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Valsiner, J. (Eds.) (1994). Reconstructing the mind. Replicability in research on human development. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Ivanova, E. F. & Nevoyennaya E.A. (1998). The historical evolution of mnemonic processes. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 36 (3), May-June, 1998, p.60-77.
- Reese, H. W. (1999). Strategies for replication research exemplified by replications of the Istomina Study. Developmental Review, 19, 1—30.
- Mistry, J. Rogoff, B., & Herman, H. (2001). What is the meaning of meaningful purpose in children’s remembering? Istomina Revisited. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 8(1), 28-41.