Music as a Key to Time in Proust and Augustine

Always seeking after fulfillment, yet unable to truly reach outside of himself in any creative act, Swann in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is both a pathetic and a tragic character whose example leaves a deep impression on the narrator of the novel. Throughout the story of Swann’s doomed attempt at love, a (fictional) work of music acts as the chief symbol of this love both for the reader of the novel and for the character of Swann himself. Centuries earlier, Saint Augustine of Hippo tells the story of his own tumultuous life and quest for meaning, in which music also plays a noteworthy role, providing an occasion for meditation on the transience and fragmentation of temporal human existence.

Both Augustine and Proust see in music a microcosm of time: immaterial yet sensible, somehow unified yet never present all at once. But Augustine, unlike Proust, realizes that even the immaterial transcendence we experience in music still falls short of the truly eternal, for our grasp of a musical work remains only an image of the eternal logos of the divine mind. By an exposition and comparison of the role music plays for each of these thinkers (in both of whose writing literature and philosophy are closely intertwined), I hope to show that although both see music as a distinctive avenue for human fulfillment, the presence or absence of the divine as the ultimate end of human artistic striving determines whether such fulfillment can ever be truly realized. Thus while Swann’s story ultimately is one of failure, Augustine finds rest in the divine beauty, ever ancient and ever new.

While Swann himself was never able to produce any lasting artwork, the art of another acts as a central motif in his story: the work in question is the composer Vinteuil’s sonata for violin and piano and, in particular, its distinctive recurring five-note “little phrase.” Swann’s first encounter with this sonata is an ordinary listening experience at a dinner party, an immediate, surface-level encounter with the material, physical sounds of the instruments and the pleasure those sounds evoke. Yet suddenly Swann is hit with a superabundance of meaning.

Then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils (Proust, Swann’s Way, 308).

Swann himself has little idea at the time of the significance of this impression, either simply qua musical or as the future “anthem of his love” (Swann’s Way, 308). Yet retrospectively this encounter serves as an exemplar of the expressive capacity of music, a unique (and even privileged) species within the more general class of “immaterially equivalent” artworks.

The medium of music, unlike the visual or tactile media we find in many other kinds of art, is particularly elusive insofar as it is diachronic. The whole of a work is never concretely given, but rather unfolds successively over time. Thus the musical composition seems more immaterial or fleeting than, for example, paintings or sculptures. Reflecting on the sonata brings these peculiarities of music to the fore:

Perhaps it was owing to his ignorance of music that [Swann] had received so confused an impression, one of those that are none the less the only purely musical impressions, limited in their extent, entirely original, and irreducible to any other kind. An impression of this order, vanishing in an instant, is, so to speak, sine materia . . . And this impression would continue to envelop in its liquidity, its ceaseless overlapping, the motifs which from time to time emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and disappear and drown, recognized only by the particular kind of pleasure which they instill, impossible to describe, to recollect, to name, ineffable—did not our memory, like a laborer who toils at the laying down of firm foundations beneath the tumult of the waves, by fashioning for us facsimiles of those fugitive phrases, enable us to compare and to contrast them with those that follow (Swann’s Way, 294-295).

Pondering the piece of music in his memory, Swann begins to grasp it as a unified whole: it is “no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought, and which allowed the actual music to be recalled” (Swann’s Way, 296). He also distinguishes for the first time the “little phrase” which stands out above the mass of sound, and catches a glimpse of the meaning it will one day hold for him. “It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him; and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire” (Swann’s Way, 296).

This experience strikes Swann as a beacon of hope, as he encounters “one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe and to which, as though the music had had upon the moral barrenness from which he was suffering a sort of re-creative influence, he was conscious once again of the desire and almost the strength to consecrate his life” (Swann’s Way, 298). Yet he is unable to discover the name or composer of the piece until he happens upon it a year later in the salon of his acquaintances, the Verdurins. The “little phrase” that greeted him once more,

Was so peculiarly itself, it had so individual, so irreplaceable a charm, that Swann felt as though he had met, in a friend’s drawing-room, a woman whom he had seen and admired in the street and had despaired of ever seeing again. Finally the phrase receded, diligently guiding its successors through the ramifications of its fragrance, leaving on Swann’s features the reflection of its smile (Swann’s Way, 299).

At last he learns the identity of the sonata and can hold it safe, “could have it again to himself, at home, as often as he wished, could study its language and acquire its secret” (Swann’s Way, 299). By capturing, synthesizing, and reflecting upon this phrase Swann begins to believe himself capable of transcending, in some way, the distension of ever-vanishing time.

As Swann’s story unfolds, the “little phrase” takes on even greater meaning, becoming a motif of his relationship with his beloved Odette and tracing the trajectory of their failed romance. In the blissful early days of their romance, spent always at the Verdurins’, “the pianist would play to them—for their two selves—the little phrase by Vinteuil which was, so to speak, the national anthem of their love” (Swann’s Way, 308). Yet even then Swann saw the phrase as occupying an ideal realm far removed from the finitude of their love; “agonized by the reflection, as it floated by, so near and yet so infinitely remote, that while it was addressed to them it did not know them, he almost regretted that it had a meaning of its own, an intrinsic and unalterable beauty, extraneous to themselves” (Swann’s Way, 309). Already the phrase betokens the disenchantment that lies ahead, though Swann shrugs this off, focusing his thought less on the composition as an immaterial entity and more on its concrete role in his particular romance.

Over the course of their romance this sense of dread deepens, and so too does Swann’s stubborn denial:

He began to realize how much that was painful, perhaps even how much secret and unappeased sorrow underlay the sweetness of the phrase; and yet to him it brought no suffering. What matter though the phrase repeated that love is frail and fleeting, when his love was so strong! He played with the melancholy which the music diffused, he felt it stealing over him, but like a caress which only deepened and sweetened his sense of his own happiness (Swann’s Way, 337).

Though the phrase communicates to him in an abstract manner the impermanence of love, he insists to himself that his love is the exception to the rule.

Yet eventually it becomes impossible for Swann to ignore the reality that this love is falling to pieces, and it is then that the sonata makes another appearance, this time at a concert. Swann tries to leave the gathering, feeling that there is nothing to keep him there since Odette herself is not present; yet he becomes detained by an acquaintance and is suddenly struck by a familiar melody:

And before Swann had had time to understand what was happening and to say to himself: “It’s the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata—I mustn’t listen!,” all his memories of the days when Odette had been in love with him, which he had succeeded until that moment in keeping invisible in the depths of his being, deceived by this sudden reflection of a season of love whose sun, they supposed, had dawned again, had awakened from their slumber, had taken wing and risen to sing maddeningly in his ears, without pity for his present desolation, the forgotten strains of happiness (Swann’s Way, 490-491).

He is overcome both by a wave of vivid memories of their romance and by the certitude that their love is wholly over and done. Yet he also realizes, as he could not before, that for all its immateriality, the little phrase does indeed “know” him and Odette, and has borne witness to their love.

For despite its failure, their love had a certain “essence” that was embodied in the immortal phrase, even though the concrete accidents of their relationship had long since disappeared. Though the sonata is not bound by the confines of the spaces and times during which it served as the anthem of their love, it nevertheless has a real (albeit immaterial) existence. Ever since Swann had first encountered the piece, he “had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadow, unknown, impenetrable to the human mind, but none the less perfectly distinct from one another, unequal among themselves in value and significance” (Swann’s Way, 496). He now understands, however, that Vinteuil’s composition had been a conduit by which this otherworldly entity descended to the material realm. And so “Swann felt its presence like that of a protective goddess, a confidante of his love, who, in order to be able to come to him through the crowd and to draw him aside to speak of him, had disguised herself in this sweeping cloak of sound” (Swann’s Way, 494).

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, commenting on Proust, explains that the unique combination of temporality and immateriality we find in music stands at the interface between the visible and the invisible spheres of reality.

The “little phrase,” the notion of the light, are not exhausted by their manifestations, any more than is an “idea of the intelligence”; they could not be given to us as ideas except in a carnal experience. It is not only that we would find in that carnal experience the occasion to think them; it is that they owe their authority, their fascinating, indestructible power, precisely to the fact that they are in transparency behind the sensible, or in its heart.[1]

Music is thus capable both of touching Swann in his temporal, embodied existence, and of giving him a powerful experience of the essence of his love in an ideal manner unachievable in ordinary life. The catharsis he experiences in this encounter with the sonata is the catalyst that causes him to finally acknowledge and accept that his love for Odette is over (as is hers for him). The benevolent goddess of the sonata guides him as he relives the memories that have been sublimated into the music and then lays those memories to rest.

Thus for all its tragic moments, Swann’s story does contain some closure, and this closure is chiefly occasioned by his experience with the sonata. This kind of experience is exactly what Proust’s narrator seeks to achieve in his writing: the creation of a work that “sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them” (Swann’s Way, 117). The immaterial character of all art facilitates a kind of learning, about the world and about oneself, that cannot be accomplished in physical experience. And in Swann’s case particularly, the diachronic immateriality of music is a means of both reuniting with and coming to terms with the time that he has lost.

A millennium and a half before Proust lived, another author was writing a meditation on time that straddled the line between philosophy and literature. In book XI of his Confessions, Augustine laments the incomprehensibility and elusiveness of time: “What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an enquirer, I do not know” (Augustine, Confessions, 230). It seems foolish to talk about time as an entity, for “the cause of its being is that it will cease to be. So indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence” (Confessions, 231).

No matter how far we subdivide time—from a century, to a year, to a month, a day, or even an hour—no amount of it will ever be present at once. So rather than speaking of time as an existing thing possessing a duration of its own, Augustine characterizes time as a distension of the soul, insofar as an object perdures in it (Confessions, 240). When we speak, then, of a past or future time as being “short” or “long,” what we ought to understand by these words is that we have a long memory of the past or a long expectation of the future (cf. Confessions, 243). Thus although the human soul certainly does not create or cause time, nonetheless time is unintelligible apart from our conscious experience of it.

It is no accident that Augustine illustrates this conception of time through the example of reciting a psalm, a passage of scripture written and intended to be prayed in the form of a song. Before he begins to pray a familiar psalm, he explains,

My expectation is directed towards the whole. But when I have begun, the verses from it which I take into the past become the object of my memory. The life of this act of mine is stretched two ways, into my memory because of the words I have already said and into my expectation because of those which I am about to say. But my attention is on what is present: by that the future is transferred to become the past (Confessions, 243).[2]

Abstractly, one can consider the psalm as a complete, unified song or prayer, and there is a rhythm and a narrative as one prays. And yet the psalm is necessarily such that its parts cannot exist all at once: the process of recitation requires that one successively expects, experiences, and remembers each element in turn.

Augustine explains that this feature of the psalm—that the whole can be made manifest only in its fragmented parts—demonstrates on a small scale the structure of each human life and even of time as whole (if we can speak of such a thing).

What occurs in the psalm as a whole occurs in its particular pieces and its individual syllables. The same is true of a longer action in which perhaps that psalm is a part. It is also valid of the entire life of an individual person, where all actions are part of a whole, and of the total history of “the sons of men,” where all human lives are but parts (Confessions, 243).

The psalm, whose structure and unity we can comprehend with relative ease, can thus serve as a model of temporal phenomena in general. Any life or event in the finite, created cosmos will be transient, incomplete, in flux; to greater and lesser degrees, the human memory can grasp and unify these events, yet our minds, too, are finite and incapable of ever possessing and contemplating the whole of time.

In other Augustinian works this theme appears in a more explicitly theological key. The ultimate purpose of his treatise De Musica, he writes, is that his reader “might with reason guiding be torn away, not quickly but gradually, from the fleshly senses and letters it is difficult for them not to stick to, and adhere with the love of unchangeable truth to one God and Master of all things who with no mean term whatsoever directs human minds.”[3] For Augustine sees creation as the work of the divine composer who “[has] arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:20, RSV); the rhythm and harmony we find in our earthly music, together with its fleeting, elusive character, ought to impel us to seek after the perfect divine harmony of which it is an image. Further, Augustine explains, the harmony of creation offers us a model for ordering our own souls:

Let us, our Lord and God helping, order ourselves between those below us and those above us, so we are not troubled by lower, and take delight only in higher things. For delight is a kind of weight in the soul. Therefore, delight orders the soul. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Where delight, there the treasure; where the heart, there happiness or misery. But what are the higher things, if not those where the highest unchangeable undisturbed and eternal equality resides? . . . So terrestrial things are subject to celestial, and their time circuits join together in harmonious succession for a poem of the universe.[4]

Much like a psalm, the cosmic composition’s unity, regularity, and self-containment show forth the order and stability of which even temporal things are capable, and for which we ought to strive in our own spiritual lives.

In fact, music serves not only as a model for the well-ordered human soul but also as an image (if only a negative one) of the divine, eternal mind. A human can grasp the whole of a psalm in abstract expectation, but must fragment that whole in order to carry out the concrete act of recitation; on the other hand, the harmony by which the divine intellect creates and comprehends creation is present to God all at once, simply and actually. Paul Plass writes that,

We can imagine that God knows events all at once as we know an entire psalm while singing each part, but the Creator’s knowledge must be “far more wonderful and hidden” than that (Conf. XI.41). Presumably it is superior to human memory and anticipation because its simultaneous grasp is not embedded in time as ours is.[5]

Thus from our grasp of a musical piece we can extrapolate to God’s eternal knowledge of the poem of the universe as a limiting case, or perhaps a negation, of the kind of knowledge we are capable of attaining.

In his autobiographical as well as his philosophical writings, Augustine deploys the example of music to illustrate key aspects of life and temporality. In the example of the psalm we find a finite model of the incomprehensible time that is never fully present except (perhaps) in the memory; in the harmony of the cosmos we see the work of the divine artisan whose beauty inspires us to compose our own lives after its pattern; and we can attempt to imagine the knowledge and life of this artisan as even more perfect, beautiful, and self-sufficient than our comprehension of a musical piece. In each of these cases, the peculiar status of music as successive and ever-fleeting, yet articulating order and beauty, makes it an apt example by which we come to better understand our place in relation to the universe and to God, and in particular the finitude of our temporal existence in relation to God’s eternity.

Both Proust and Augustine experience time as a distension of the self, something that we ought to pursue and attempt to grasp despite its elusiveness; and both, in different ways, seek to better comprehend time through music. For Proust, music is a point of contact between temporal, material life and the transcendent, immaterial realm of art, an entity that sounds in time without fully inhabiting it. For Augustine, music is an image both of time’s transience and of its divine source.

Yet in music Swann ultimately finds not true fulfillment, but only a melancholy resignation to the reality of the irreparable loss of his love. On the other hand, Augustine’s meditation on music and time in the Confessions leads him to realize that the fragmentation of his own being points toward the necessity of union with God, the only source of true fulfillment: “You are my eternal Father, but I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you” (Confessions, 244). For while music may be a soothing remedy for the disenchantment Proust (and Swann) so acutely feel, in the end it remains a human artifact. Augustine recognizes, however, that although art might be a necessary step in our search for meaning, it cannot be the terminus thereof, but must ultimately point us toward the God of whose mind the beauty and order of our music is but an image.

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Intertwining—The Chiasm,” in The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, IL: Northwestern, 1968), 150.

[2] cf. Augustine’s De Musica, VI, 8 for a very similar passage.

[3] Augustine, On Music (De Musica) (Washington, D.C.: CUA, 1947), 324.

[4] Ibid., 355.

[5] Paul Plass. “Augustine and Proust on Time and Memory.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal vol. 73 (1990), 350.