Undoubtedly, the largest thematic element in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is the use of memory and involuntary recollection as a means of discovering personal truths in one’s life. It is in the analyses of looking back which revelations of our character, hopes, and desires are made manifest. If broadened to a more philosophical outlook, these recollections – especially the unbidden, involuntary ones – reveal the essence and motivating factors that have created, not merely influenced, one’s life. Life is a conclusion of a sequence of actions, tastes, and preferences. Hence, it is a sequence of memories. These memories reveal whom one is, as well as how one has become. It is in remembrance analyzed and revealed that one can affirm and confirm his own presence.
But why should this confirmation matter? The answer to this question is found in another thematic element, one that is consistent throughout the first volume, Swann’s Way: loneliness. The narrator, the first person we encounter and by whom we are made confidantes, relates the dire situation of loneliness to a greater loneliness we all will one day experience – death. Our narrator is an insomniac and by way of describing his condition and ritual of spontaneous memory recall he also describes his despair at the loneliness to which, if it were not for the memories, he would succumb. In one description, he explains his sensations as an “invalid [and what is an invalid but someone with a condition that may someday prove fatal]…in an unfamiliar hotel” (4) who awakens at the sight of light coming from under his door. He is heartened by the light, believing it is morning, and “the hope of being relieved gives him the courage to suffer,” (4) until he is greeted by the servants and other guests. Hope crashes when the invalid discovers it is not day but midnight, and the servants have left him after turning off the light (hope of companionship). This loneliness as a living death is repeated a few paragraphs later, when the narrator describes waking disoriented in the middle of the night. “I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then memory […] would come to me like help from on high [again, with the usage of religious terminology, mortality is implied] to pull me out of the void from which I could not have got out on my own” (5). The desire to prove to oneself that loneliness can be escaped, that solitude is not an eternal condemnation, is the force behind the necessity of recollection. But memory and recollection are images of retrospective exercise.
For the individual seeking escape from his or her solitude in the present, the tool manipulated is language. More precisely, it is not general communication but lingo. Lingo, as defined here, is the specific language or system of code belonging to a certain set or group aimed to recognize those within the set and exclude or identify those without. Walter Benjamin makes this connection between the individual seeking a respite from solitude and lingo when, in his work Illuminations, he states, “Proust, too, has as its center a loneliness which pulls the world down into its vortex with the force of a maelstrom. And the overloud and inconceivably hollow chatter which comes roaring out of Proust’s novels is the sound of society plunging down into the abyss of this loneliness” (212). If recollections seek to reveal the truth of life, then lingo’s, or “hollow chatter,”aim is to mask or hide that truth. (One of the truths being the individuality of all experiences, even if similarities between one person and another are found. If experience is individual, then by necessity, so is life in totality. This realization is the one we wish to avoid, because an individual life ultimately leads to an individual death).
How does lingo mask that truth? The insufferable Verdurins are masterful wielders of “hollow chatter…plunging into an abyss” of idle nonsense and prejudice. Their lingo rests upon facades and euphemisms signaling a self-created and tightly controlled exclusivity. “To belong to the ‘little set,’ the ‘little circle,’ the ‘little clan’ [already, their euphemistic name signaling the penchant for lingo] attached to the Verdurins, one condition was sufficient but necessary: You had to abide tacitly by a Credo” (195) that consisted of a series of clichés and pantomimes. Their comical and infuriating pantomimes of artistic appreciation, such as Mme. Verdurin’s feigned physical inability to withstand moving music (196) is indicative of their fierce desire to be seen by others and feel for themselves a community which can’t be broken. “Any ‘new recruit’ who could not be persuaded by the Verdurins that the soirées given by people who did not come to the Verdurins’ house were as tiresome as rain and immediately excluded” (195). Excluding those of differing opinion, or rather, those who did not catch on to the Verdurin lingo and system of codes were a risk to Verdurin themselves. By admitting that another soirée could be of equal value as of one held by the Verdurin “clan” was to diminish the protective unit and facade they had carefully constructed. By diminishing their social importance, the “new recruit” was inadvertently exposing their social and personal irrelevance. A personal irrelevance is equitable to an irrelevant life, thus exposing the loneliness the Verdurin were running from.
A far more sympathetic figure seeking escape from loneliness through lingo is the narrator’s aunt Léonie, who was also the one to have provided him with a means of recollection: the madeleine. However, it is not her habit of taking tea and madeleines in the morning that concern us, a habit that she shared openly with her nephew. The habit of importance here is the one to which she thought no one was privy. Also an invalid, and after sequestering herself in a few rooms of her family’s house (a symbol of entombment), she developed the habit of speaking to herself. “She always talked rather softly,” the narrator states, “because she thought there was something broken and floating in her head that she would have displaced by speaking too loudly” (51). It’s as if Leonie knew that by speaking too loudly, a mark of “hollow chatter,” she would usher greater illness/death along faster than she would have cared. She was aware of the balance beam between life and death we all walk, but for which most of us don’t acknowledge on a daily basis.
Even so, Leonie could not abide loneliness – a symbolic death – either. “[B]ut she never remained for long, even alone, without saying something, because she believed it was beneficial […] she would reduce the frequency of the fits of breathlessness and the spasms from which she suffered […] she endowed them [words] with a mobility that made it difficult to keep to herself, and lacking a confidant to whom she could communicate them, she announced them to herself […] that was her only form of activity” (51 – 52). This passage is crucial because it displays application of lingo’s mask. She spoke because, in a very literal sense, she felt it would stave off choking. It wasn’t even the Vichy water that she felt paramount to her health regiment, but the use of words. Activity is our physical understanding and manifestation of life. By speaking, even if ever so softly to herself, Leonie was confirming at that moment and time the existence and presence of her own life. She could not be dead, she reasoned, because she was speaking words aloud. But, as the narrator also points out, because she had no confidant and because language is first and foremost a tool of communication with others, to be deciphered and affirmed by others, her logic and proof were faulty.
This is why, as added reassurance in her efforts to ward off death and loneliness, Aunt Leonie instituted a routine and lingo for the family and members of the household to follow. No where is this lingo, and the influence of the lingo to create a band of unity, more pronounced than on Saturdays, when the family would eat an hour earlier than on subsequent days. “What was more,” explains the narrator, “the early lunch gave Saturday, for all of us, a special face, indulgent and almost kindly” (112). Unlike the nightly dinners where one member of the family, notably the narrator, faced the cruelty of fate in the looming loneliness when exiled to his room, these Saturday luncheons excluded no one within the household. They served as the symbol describing who the family was, and how they operated. Like the Verdurin, the lingo appropriated to Saturday lunch was one to unify themselves by excluding all others.
“The surprise of a barbarian (this was what we called anyone who did not know what was special about Saturday), who, arriving at eleven o’clock to talk to my father […] and that my father himself had not realized that the barbarian might not know this [the family’s early lunch hour] and had responded with no further explanation to his astonishment at seeing us already in the dining room: ‘Well, what do you expect, it’s Saturday!’” (113).
Clearly, the visitor was no barbarian in the technical meaning of the word. But by taking on the euphemism of one who does not know the family’s lunch schedule, the inside-jokes and stories made possible by this barbarian served to create a sense of presence at that moment and space in time for them.
By implementing and manipulating language into a code to create unity with some and exclusion with others, lingo is born and raised to sustain our insistence and belief that we are not alone. Even if we truly are living individual experiences, marching on in our individual mortality, loneliness is pushed to the end of life through the usage of lingo. It serves to keep our present alive until such time we have collected enough memory to reveal the truth of whom we have become.