From the Madeleine to the Mandala

Sacred Geography and Buddhist Enlightenment in Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’

The idea that Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time represents, in one sense, a journey of disillusionment is no new thesis.1 It is the very surface level of the narrative, which nevertheless concludes not in despair, but in several moments of transcendence. In this author’s view, it is not a disillusionment with life itself, but with the vanity of time as a historical process. I intend to make that argument that, in the course of the novel, Proust moves from a Judaeo-Christian narrative view of time to a, roughly speaking, “Eastern” (specifically Buddhist) philosophical conception. I do not mean to say that Proust was consciously adhering to Buddhist notions of time, but that the terminology which that philosophy offers most closely correlates to the dramatic revelation of the Search. In this brief article, we will also see how the notion of sacred geography plays a key role in this journey of the protagonist, Marcel, to transcend time; leaving behind the Christian scheme of salvation as a linear narrative.

From the Garden to the City: Christian Narrative Symbolism in the Search

The Biblical narrative spans a (closed) progression from the Garden paradise of Eden to the Heavenly Jerusalem – the redeemed city of the New Heavens and the New Earth at the end of time. This is a powerful symbolism which is deeply ingrained in Western art and literature, with Proust being no exception. Other scholars have shown his penchant for Biblical themes in the Search, and the use of typological relations between the various volumes to assert a thematic unity (like that between the Old and New Testaments) across the whole.2

M. H. Abrams, in his seminal book Natural Supernaturalism, defines the romantic movement’s revolutionary spiritual achievement as an interiorisation of the old Biblical narratives. Rather than referring to a real, macrocosmic history, the stories of the Bible are interpreted psychologically – within the microcosm of the mind. Wordsworth, Abrams argues, outlined this revolution of thought in his Prospectus, but he was not alone in making this transformation.3 As an interior narrative of salvation, the Biblical story can be reintegrated into the growing romantic consciousness and reinterpreted according to its particular, modern sensibilities.

Proust is a clear inheritor of this romantic, revolutionary tradition, but he does not remain in full continuity with it. The overarching structure of the Search is rather a breakaway from the orthodoxies of the romantic era in its adherence to the Judaeo-Christian narrative, in favour of a pre-Christian philosophical world view. It was perhaps an inevitable result of the failure for the romantics to make a paradise of the natural world that led to this disillusionment and, ultimately, a flight from time as the domain of history and narrative itself.

The Judaeo-Christian narrative (in its romantic reinterpretation) appears in the Search in the movement from the Garden to the City – a Paradise Lost to a Paradise Regained. The Biblical story is bookended by these two states of perfection and order – the Garden of Eden and the Heavenly Jerusalem. Abrams has noted the symmetry of this structure, and its radical breakaway from the cyclical conception of time that preceded and stands in opposition to the Judaeo-Christian view.4

This movement features prominently in the Search, as Marcel leaves behind the rural Combray of his childhood and moves to the city, Paris. Yet Paris, as a home which is all too familiar and habitual to Marcel, cannot provide him with any inspiration – it cannot even motivate him to begin writing. The world he inhabits, the world of everyday reality, is sterile and barren – in Biblical terms it is the fallen world wherein man must toil and labour, working the ground. To find his image of the Heavenly City, he must look elsewhere – hence his imagination directs him to Venice, the place of his dreams since his early childhood. Yet his nostalgia and longing for the Paradise Lost of Combray leads him on some lengthy diversions, the most significant being his infatuation with the band of girls at Balbec, who blossom like a ‘budding grove’ in Eden – the chief of these, Albertine, even preventing him from seeking his promised land of Venice.

After he is at last free of the longings which bind him to Albertine, Marcel is finally able to make his pilgrimage to Venice, which has as much spiritual significance for him as Combray, with the added advantage of being foreign and new, of surpassing the familiarity his childhood home has for him. Yet when he does arrive there he finds that, remarkable as the city is, he has not attained the kind of cathartic repose he sought there. Ultimately, Venice, like Balbec (another spiritual centre of his imagination) becomes just another earthly city. Its romantic associations lie in its sense of being unattainable. Something, too, holds him back from a commitment to the place – he runs back after his mother at the last minute of her departure, and joins her in a return to Paris.

His longings for eros, to be completed by another person, are another image of the return to Eden and a cause of this ambivalence. In the Biblical narrative, as in many religious mythologies, man is, in principio, conceived as the androgynethe Adam of Genesis from whom God derives the woman, Eve. This symbolism abounds in the Search, in surprising ways: from the cross-dressing of Lea and other lesbian characters, to the homosexuality of the Baron de Charlus (with his high-pitched, effeminate laugh), to the naming of Andrée, the main rival to Albertine in Marcel’s affections. While these are negative manifestations of the androgyne, this all fits within that complex of symbolism and testifies to the failure in the novel to effect a return to paradise and the primordial state through erotic relationships.

Finding his complementary “other half” (in Platonic terms) becomes a hypothetical means of return for Marcel, made all the more poignant when he learns how close he was to this goal even in his childhood. In Time Regained, Gilberte, his childhood crush, tells him how their encounter in the garden at Combray filled her with the very same longings, but in her desperation to communicate them to him, she ended up offending the young Marcel instead. Since he is already disillusioned with love, this is small cause for regret for the older Marcel. On the contrary, it fills him with quite a different kind of amazement, since it gives the lie to his conventional notion that the attainment of his quest for completion (or transcendence) must come at the end of a long journey – a historical, temporal narrative. In fact, it could be right before him – all that is lacking is the ‘open sesame’ to unlock that mysterious, hidden door; to step outside of time.

Sacred Geography and the Escape from Time

I believe Proust’s intense preoccupation with place amounts to a psychological reintegration of traditional ideas around sacred geography, a concept perhaps best outlined by Mircea Eliade, in his book Images and Symbols. In traditional symbolic terms, the search for (or movement towards) any sacred site represents, in a microcosm, a search for “the centre of the world”, the point where the axis of space runs through all planes of existence – Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld. Eliadeexplains that the ascent along this axis represents a movement from the microcosmic sacred centre to the real, metaphysical centre of the universe – which is also the point of origin for creation itself; for both Time and Space.5

Eliade tells of how, in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha reaches this summit of the world, ‘but by the same token he has also transcended Time, for, in the Indian cosmology, this summit is the point from which the creation began, and accordingly it is the “oldest” part of the world. That is why the Buddha exclaims: “It is I who am the Eldest of the world” (jettho’ham asmi lokassa) for, by reaching the top of the cosmos, Buddha becomes contemporaneous with the commencement of the world. Having magically abolished time and the creation, he finds himself in the temporal instant which preceded the cosmogony.’6

Crucially, for our concerns, he writes:

‘The law of the irreversibility of cosmic time, so terrible to those who are dwelling in illusion, is no longer binding upon the Buddha. For him, time is reversible and can even be anticipated, for the Buddha knows not the past only, but also the future. Not only can he abolish time; it is important to note that he can travel through time backwards (patiloman Skr. Pratiloman) “against the fur”, and this will hold good equally for the Buddhist monks and yogis who, before attaining their Nirvana or their samadhi, effect a “return backwards” which enables them to know their former lives.’7

In Proust’s own Search, what is Marcel’s achievement other than such a transcendence? Yet it is not his former lives that he ends up knowing, but rather the single life he has lived and reflected on in this cyclical, self-referential novel. The transmigration of souls, and the notion of eternal recurrence, is only vaguely hinted at in the novel, with a reference to certain ‘Celtic’ beliefs – Proust is, on a conscious level, too committed to a modern, materialistic perspective to allow for such possibilities.8

Nevertheless, he has an intuitive grasp of traditional symbolism that goes beyond rational expression. Marcel’s fascination with the spires at Combray, the “hierophany” of the trees on the road at Balbec, and the terror of the staircase in his childhood home, all manifest this axial symbolism that Eliade outlines in his Images. They are constantly hinting at the kind of ascent Marcel longs to make, but cannot logically articulate.

Time and Movement as Illusion in Buddhism

It will be useful for our purposes to quote, in Eliade’s words: ‘[t]he philosophy of time elaborated by Buddhism, especially by the Mahayana. For the Buddhist also, time consists of a continuous flux – samtana – and because of this fluidity of time, every “form” that manifests itself in it is not only transient but also onto logically unreal. The philosophers of the Mahayana have commented abundantly on what might be called the instantaneity of time; that is, on the fluidity and, in the last analysis, the non-reality of the present instant which is continually transforming itself into the past, into non-being…

‘Vasubandhu writes: “Because of immediate destruction [of the moment], there is no [real] motion.” Movement, and therefore time itself – duration – is a pragmatic postulate, just as the individual Ego is a pragmatic postulate according to Buddhism; but the concept of motion corresponds to no external reality, for it is “something” of our own construction.’9

This conception of time offers a point of connection with the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno, whose paradoxes on this very question Proust was very familiar with.10 Richard E. Goodkin has gone into some depth at outlining the links between the Search and this elusive paradox of Zeno’s, most convincingly; it only remains to tie this back in with the structure of the Search as a whole, and Marcel’s constant search for sites of sacred geography which correspond to a “centre of the world” enabling such an escape from time.

The Madeleine Scene as an ‘Opportune Moment’

Ultimately, it is not by outward pilgrimage to these sites that Marcel effects his escape. If Time and movement is illusory, how can one hope to escape it by making such a journey in illusory “Space”? Eliade outlines the paradoxical way in which a real transcendence can be said to “occur”:

‘He “whose thought is stable” and for whom time no longer flows, lives in an eternal present, in the nunc stans. The instant, the present moment, the nunc, is called ksana in Sanskrit and khana in Pali. It is by the ksana, by the “moment”, that time is measured. But this term has also the meaning of “favourable moment”,’ “opportunity”, and for the Buddha it is by means of such a “favourable moment” that one can escape from time. The Buddha advises us “not to lose the moment” for “those who miss the moment will lament.” He congratulates the monks who ‘have seized their moment” (khano vo patiladdho) and pities those “for whom the moment is past” (khanatita; Samyuta Nikaya, IV, 126). This means that after the long journey in cosmic time, passing through innumerable lives, the illumination is instantaneous (eka-ksana). “The instantaneous enlightenment” (eka-ksanabhisambodhi) as it is called by the Mahayanist authors, means that the comprehension of Reality comes suddenly, like a flash of lightning.’11

The ‘opportune moment’ in Proust – the Madeleine scene, to give but one example – in a sense interiorises the attainment of the centre, attributing it to a memory that is not only associated with a particular “sacred” site, but mystically bound to it. It summons up Combray in its very essence, from out of a cup of tea, just as the napkin at the Prince de Guermantes’s summons up Balbec, or the uneven paving stone on the street summons up the baptistery of San Marco’s in Venice.

As Eliade further explains:

‘All symbolism of transcendence is paradoxical, impossible to conceive at the profane level. The most usual symbol to express the break through the planes and penetration into the “other world” -the transcendent world, whether that of the living or the dead-is the “difficult passage”, the razor’s edge…

‘The hero of a tale of initiation has to go “where the night and the day meet together”, or find the door in a wall where none can be seen, or go up to Heaven by a passage that half-opens for only an instant, or pass between two millstones in constant motion, between two rocks that may clash together at any moment, or between the jaws of a monster, etc. All these images express the necessity of transcending the “pairs of opposites”, of abolishing the polarity that besets the human condition, in order to reach the ultimate reality.’12

Thus we can understand the mysterious, even mystical ‘open sesame’ that Proust refers to, as this very passage the initiate must pass through, and we can situate his idea within a broader spiritual world view of Buddhism as opposed to Christianity.

In conclusion, we find in the Search a modern reintegration of the traditional ideas of sacred geography, taken from a macrocosmic plane of existence and interiorised at the level of the individual psyche. The author, Marcel Proust, escapes from the illusions of historical, “profane” time, and from this vantage point receives the inspiration to construct a work of art that will point the way – like the very sayings of the Buddha – towards a similar “enlightenment” in his readers.

1 See Roger Shattuck, Proust’s Complaint, in Marcel Proust, pp.81-107

2 Richard E. Goodkin, Around Proust, pp.40-4

3 Natural Supernaturalism, pp.23-5, pp.29-30

4 Ibid, pp.34-7

5 Images and Symbols, Symbolism of the “Centre”, pp.39-50

6 Images, Indian Symbolisms of Time and Eternity, p.76

7 Images, pp.76-7

8 Remembrance of Things Past, Vol. 1, p.47

9 Images, pp.79-80

10 Around Proust, p.88

11 Images, pp.81-2

12 Ibid, pp.83-4


Marcel Proust, tr. C. K. Scott Montcrieff and Terence Kilmartin, Remembrance of Things Past (Penguin Classics, 1985)

M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (W.W.Norton & Company Inc., 1973)

Mircea Eliade, tr. Philip Mairet, Images and Symbols (Harvill Press, 1961)

Richard E. Goodkin, Around Proust (Princeton University Press, 1991)

Roger Shattuck, Marcel Proust (Princeton University Press, 1982)


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