My Madeleine Moment

One of the greatest masterpiece of all of literature in any language is Marcel Proust's seven volume collection of his reminiscences. And it begins with the softest of whimpers imaginable. With the taste of a Madeleine dipped in a cup of tea. The sensation engenders an automatic train of thoughts and memories which form the basis of the seven books. Proust describes this phenomenon with his characteristically stunning touch:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

Neither my imagination nor my language skills are even in the same ballpark as Proust's but if I were to think of a similar effect in my own life it would have to be the sound of certain lines from Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man. I am specifically talking about parts from the last stanza which go:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

I am sure that poets more talented than Dylan (although it would be hard to think of one) have written more beautiful and more perfect lines than the above and I am also sure that musicians more gifted than him (again, hard to find I think) have composed much more melodious songs. However, the above lines somehow very deeply connect me to the vast Pacific ocean and to a time which I think was the most formative one in my life. I have fond memories of picking up my motorcycle after work and riding, almost daily, to the North Torrey Pines beach. Of parking my bike right next to the road which lay parallel to the beach itself and gazing out at the ocean for hours on end. At times I would be late enough that the Sun had already set but it was never too cold in San Diego for a motorcycle ride. And in those evening and those nights, under the dim and vague lights of the diffused stars, with the background soundtrack of a distant and muffled ocean and with a refreshingly cold breeze blowing from the west, I'd find myself lost (find myself lost!) at the sight of an otherwise black ocean illuminated in part by the reflection of the moon. Of course, the external reality of many such nights either reflected, in synchrony or opposition, my own internal self. Far too often I sought to find both refuge and consolation in the infinitude of the mighty Pacific and I think this is why Dylan's lines remind me so much of that particular experience. His lines, more than anything else, are in search of a consolation which does not exist outside of the infinite. And there is nothing in a human life unmoored from religion which is infinite. Contemplation of nature, in fits and start, does provide such moments though.

The windy beach of Mr. Tambourine Man is not a cold and distant concept to me. It is deeply connected to my nerve endings through the still visceral touch of the salty streak of moisture which once left the corner of my eye only to disappear in my hair. I did carve out lazy patterns in the sand as the waves crashed a few feet away and stood by as their impressions were slowly dissolved by the advancing waters. I still remember the piercing aloofness of a distant figure visible only in silhouette against the ocean, its entire substance engulfed and expressed merely as a vanishingly unimportant negative to the vast, imposing, and infinite positive of the Pacific.

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