At the end of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the spirits have all “melted into air” and Prospero laments the passing of the “insubstantial pageant” that is life. It’s a common dream, discovering an enchanted land and searching for a way back only to find a faded photograph or an aching absence.
In his novel Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), the French writer, Henri Alain-Fournier, tells how Augustin Meaulnes stumbles across a “lost domain” where a children’s party is taking place and where he meets for the first time the girl he later marries. In reality, the domain symbolises Alain-Fournier’s past, the childhood that was irrevocably lost to him and which cannot be rediscovered even by writing it into a book. For a brief period, Alain-Fournier taught French to the American poet T.S. Eliot. He would have appreciated the latter’s lines in Four Quartets:
“Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.”
The theme of loss as a consequence of passing time is explored in À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust’s great seven-volume novel. Book One has long been famous for the involuntary and nostalgic recollection triggered by a petite madeleine dipped in tea. It magically restores the middle-aged narrator’s lost memory of his enchanted childhood in the fictional village of Combray, launching him on a lifelong search for personal meaning and artistic fulfillment. Proust observes:
“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
Proust dramatises loss – of loved ones, of affection, friendship, and innocent joy – in the belief that a work of art can recapture what has vanished and recall it from oblivion. Yet the black paradox of the human condition is that there is no way back and that, even if we could get there, we would not be the same.
Dreams are also madeleines. They summon up their siren songs like dark oboes of the soul, haunting us with their portent of oblivion. Dreams temporarily console us in our attempts to regain time, to revisit places that no longer exist except in memory, and to touch once again the hand of someone we loved. Recognising this, while raging against it, we might recall Richard Holloway’s words of wisdom at the end of Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning (2004):
“When the map of our life is complete, and we die in the richness of our history, some among the living will miss us for a while, but the earth will go on without us. Its day is longer than ours, though we now know that it too will die. Our brief finitude is but a beautiful spark in the vast darkness of space. So we should live the fleeting day with passion and, when the night comes, depart from it with grace.”