A Moment with Proust: How Names Repeat

[. . .] should a sensation from a bygone year — like those recording instruments which preserve the sound and the manner of the various artists who have sung or played into them — enable our memory to make us hear that name with the particular ring with which it then sounded in our ears, we feel at once, though the name itself has apparently not changed, the distance that separates the dreams which at different times its same syllables have meant to us. For a moment, from the clear echo of its warbling in some distant springtime, we can extract, as from the little tubes used in painting, the exact forgotten, mysterious fresh tint of the days which we had believed ourselves to be recalling, when, like a bad painter, we were giving to the whole of our past, spread out on the same canvas, the conventional and undifferentiated tones of voluntary memory. Whereas, on the contrary, each of the moments that composed it employed, for an original creation, in a unique harmony, the colours of that time which are now lost to us and which, for example, still suddenly enrapture me if by some chance the name “Guermantes” resuming for a moment after all these years the sound, so different from its sound today, which it had for me on the day of Mlle Percepeid’s marriage, brings back to me that mauve — so soft and smooth but almost too bright, too new — with which the billowy scarf of the young Duchess glowed, and, like two inaccessible, ever-flowering periwinkles, her eyes, sunlit with an azure smile. And the name Guermantes of those days is also like one of those little balloons which have been filled with oxygen or some other gas; when I come to prick it, to extract its contents from it, I breathe the air of the Combray of that year, of that day, mingled with a fragrance of hawthorn blossom blown by the wind from the corner of the square, harbinger of rain, which now sent the sun packing, now let it spread itself over the red woolen carpet of the sacristy, clothing it in a bright geranium pink and in that, so to speak, Wagnerian sweetness and solemnity in joy that give such nobility to a festive occasion. But even apart from rare moments such as these, in which suddenly we feel the original entity quiver and resume its form, carve itself out of syllables now dead, if in the dizzy whirl of daily life, in which they serve only the most practical purpose, names have lost all their colour, like a prismatic top that spins too quickly and seems only grey, when, on the other hand, we reflect upon the past in our day-dreams and seek, in order to recapture it, to slacken, to suspend the perpetual motion by which we are borne along, gradually we see once more appear, side by side but entirely distinct from one another, the tints which in the course of our existence have been successively presented to us by a single name.

– The Guermantes Way (1920-21, trans. 1981, rev. 2003), pg. 4-6 (Modern Library Edition)

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