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“la vaste rumeur d’autrefois”: Noise, Memory, and Mediation in À la recherche du temps perdu

© 2019 Johns Hopkins University Press

The narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu is exquisitely sensitive to noise. We know this in part through the testimony of his closest companions, some of whom express concern at different moments in the novel about their friend’s susceptibility to auditory disturbance. In Le Côté de Guermantes, for instance, Saint-Loup recommends a hotel at Doncières because it is “assez adapté à votre hyperesthésie auditive” (“more or less adapted to your over-sensitive ears”) and in La Prisonnière the chants of street hawkers prompt Albertine to ask, “Cela ne vous gêne pas, tous ces bruits du dehors? . . .  vous qui avez déjà le sommeil si léger?” (“Don’t you mind all those noises from outside? . . . you sleep so lightly”).[1] By this point in the novel, the reader has had numerous opportunities to verify the narrator’s sensitivity to “ces bruits du dehors” for herself, beginning with the whistle of distant steam-engines on the first page of Du côté de chez Swann.[2] From the late-night revelers who keep the narrator awake after seeing La Berma for the first time in À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur, to the analysis of matutinal street sounds at the beginning of La Prisonnière, the text of À la recherche du temps perdu displays a marked interest in acousmatic sonic ephemera, each detailed description testifying to the narrator’s “hyperesthésie auditive.”[3]

This trait of phonosensitivity bears an obvious resemblance to one of Proust’s own most famous personal characteristics. The solicitude shown by Saint-Loup and Albertine, for instance, resembles the kind of concern that Proust himself inspired in friends like Reynaldo Hahn, who once described his anxiety, in a letter to Proust’s parents written while the pair were holidaying together in Normandy, that “le seul bruit de ma plume” (“the mere noise of my pen”) would disturb his companion’s sleep.[4] With the interviews and articles that accompanied the publication of Du côté de chez Swann, this biographical detail became a prominent part of Proust’s public persona. André Levy’s promotional interview, published in Le Miroir on December 21, 1913, offered a detailed, picturesque rendering of the famous “chambre . . . toute tapissée de liège” (“bedroom . . . all carpeted with cork”), designed to prevent “les moindres bruits des appartements voisins et de la rue” (“the slightest noises of the neighbouring rooms and of the street”) from interrupting Proust’s creative reverie.[5] For Levy, moreover, there was an obvious connection to be made between Proust’s sound proofed working conditions and the central conceit of his unfinished novel: ensconced in the “silence immense” of the reclusive author’s bedroom, Levy writes, “il semble bien qu’on soit hors du temps” (“it truly seems that one is outside of time”) (Lhomeau and Coelho, Marcel Proust, 295). Four decades after his death, Proust’s housekeeper, Céleste Albaret, added her recollections to the now well-established biographeme of Proust’s sensitivity to noise. Musing on the rationale behind her employer’s noise-cancelling domestic regime, she, too, posited a connection between silence and the search for lost time: “toute la recherche de M. Proust . . . a été de se mettre hors du temps pour le retrouver. Quand il n’y a plus de temps, c’est le silence. Il lui fallait ce silence, pour n’entendre que les voix qu’il voulait entendre, celles qui sont dans ses livres” (“M. Proust’s entire quest . . . was to put himself outside of time in order to find it again. When there is no more time, there’s silence. He needed this silence, so as to hear only the voices that he wanted to hear, those that are in his books”).[6] Precisely echoing Levy’s formulation, Albaret concludes that the suppression of noise was a way for Proust to put himself “hors du temps.”

Jules Chéret, “Théâtrophone (Theater Phone),” 1890, lithograph. Image courtesy MoMA, New York.
Fig. 1. Jules Chéret, “Théâtrophone (Theater Phone),” 1890, lithograph. Image courtesy MoMA, New York.

I cite these items of Proustiana not in order to affirm their biographical accuracy, but to illustrate a certain plausible interpretation of the relationship between memory and sound in Proust’s literary imagination. In what follows, I want to take seriously the suggestion that aurality is central to the recovery of lost time in À la recherche du temps perdu. But whereas anecdotal observations like those of Levy and Albaret tend to emphasize the role of silence in this process, my aim here is to consider an inverse proposition: memory in À la recherche du temps perdu, I suggest below, is closely identified with the experience of noise. Noise: unwanted or unintended sound, a “resonance that interferes with . . . a message,” as Jacques Attali puts it, as opposed to the message itself.[7] This, rather than Albaret’s “voices,” is the auditory figure that best describes the return of the past in À la recherche du temps perdu. Instead of approaching noise as an impediment to the retrieval of lost time, then, or even as a catalyst for it, I want to suggest that noise in Proust’s novel is something like the content of memory—the ineluctable modality of pastness itself.

This way of understanding and representing the past, I further suggest, was conditioned not only by Proust’s own personal sensitivity to sound, but also by the media environment of the early twentieth century, and in particular by the advent of sound reproduction technologies like the telephone (patented in 1876) and the phonograph (patented in 1878).[8] As various media theorists and historians have argued, one of the more subtle cultural shifts occasioned by these technological changes was a heightened sensitivity to the phenomenon of noise. As soon as “fugitive” sounds (as Edison put it) could be inscribed on wax cylinders, and electrical signals could be used to convey, not just words, but whole sonic data-streams, noise went from being something that communication systems tended to exclude to a ubiquitous feature of the analogue media environment.[9] These are the perceptual and epistemological conditions that allowed noise to assume the importance it does in À la recherche du temps perdu, both as a figure for the authentic return of the past, and as a metonym for mediation itself.

“L’ère nouvelle des sons et des bruits”

In order to illustrate how both silence and noise acquired new connotations during the era of reproducible sound, I want to begin by noting a small but significant distinction between the image of silent memory proposed by Levy and Albaret, on the one hand, and Proust’s use of a similar motif in Du côté de chez Swann, on the other. When, following the episode of the “drame de mon coucher,” the narrator describes how the sobs he emitted as a child have recently begun to echo in his ears again, he, too, attributes this resurgence of memory to an abeyance of everyday noise:

En réalité ils n’ont jamais cessé; et c’est seulement parce que la vie se tait maintenant davanage autour de moi que je les entends de nouveau, comme ces cloches de couvents que couvent si bien les bruits de la ville pendant le jour qu’on les croirait arrêtées mais qui se remettent à sonner dans le silence du soir. (Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, 36–37)

They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is quieting down around me more and more now that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamour of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening. (Proust, The Way By Swann’s, 40)

But although the idea of competing sounds resembles Albaret’s account of Proust’s insulated bedroom, the implications of this image are slightly different: whereas Albaret and Levy imagine a veil of impenetrable silence, which then enables the perception of absent “voices,” the subsidence of daily hubbub in the novel results not in perfect quiet, but rather in the detection of a previously unnoticed layer of sound.[10]

Writing in La Revue politique et littéraire on December 27, 1913, Lucien Maury compared Proust’s remarkable ability to capture psychic nuance with a sense-augmenting machine: “quel sphygmographe,” he asked, “quel microphone pourraient enregistrer avec une plus précise ténuité les battements d’une artère, les vagues imperceptibles du silence?” (“What sphygmograph, what microphone could record with a more precise subtlety the beating of an artery, the imperceptible waves of silence?”; Lhomeau and Coelho, Marcel Proust, 310). Two sensory prostheses: the sphygmograph, a gadget that measured the patient’s pulse more accurately than a physician’s sense of touch, and the microphone, a word primarily associated at this time with the amplification of sound in telephony.[11] Pedestrian enough in itself, Maury’s microphone analogy suggests one way of understanding the difference between the “hors du temps” motif and the narrator’s auditory memory of sobbing. In Proust’s image, to recall the past is not to conjure an inner voice, but rather to become aware of an ambient noise one hadn’t noticed, much as, in Maury’s article, Proust’s preternatural psychic acuity reveals that silence itself is only a sound one hasn’t heard yet. To be sure, this way of thinking about silence—as latent noise—did not originate with the advent of technological media. As Maury’s review suggests, however, and as we will see in greater detail below, the invention and dissemination of sound reproduction technologies like the telephone and the phonograph made this elusive realm of unheard or unnoticed noise palpable and thinkable in a new way. One of the effects of these media was to cultivate an awareness of noise as “vagues imperceptibles”: an ocean of sonic data, ebbing and flowing beneath the threshold of ordinary conscious perception.

The novel’s first description of mémoire involontaire suggests that noise is an integral part of this form of memory, too. In some ways, the narrator’s attempt to decipher the sensation aroused by a madeleine dipped in tea resembles Albaret’s common-sense explanation of Proust’s insulated room: in order to locate the source of this experience, the narrator “abrite [ses] oreilles et [son] attention contre les bruits de la chambre voisine” (“shelter[s his] ears and [his] attention from the sounds of the neighbouring room”) and concentrates his mind on the sensations “au fond de moi” (“deep inside me”; Du côté de chez Swann, 45; The Way By Swann’s, 48). This introspective exertion eventually produces the memory of the narrator’s dominical visits to his Aunt Léonie, along with the other details of his Combray life-world. The beginning of this process, however, is marked by an obscure internal commotion, which the narrator characterizes as an indistinct kind of noise:

Je sens tressaillir en moi quelque chose qui se déplace, voudrait s’élever, quelque chose qu’on aurait désancré, à une grande profondeur; je ne sais ce que c’est, mais cela monte lentement; j’éprouve la resistance et j’entends la rumeur des distances traversées. (Du côté de chez Swann, 45)

I feel something quiver in me, shift, try to rise, something that seems to have been unanchored at a great depth; I do not know what it is, but it comes up slowly; I feel the resistance and I hear the murmur of the distances traversed. (The Way By Swann’s, 48)

In the example of the narrator’s sobs, the returning memory was imagined as a suddenly perceptible background noise, like convent bells in the evening. Here, the process of remembering is accompanied by a similarly incidental sonic texture: the “rumeur des distances traversées.” If, moreover, this “rumeur” is only a preliminary phase in the operation of involuntary memory, destined to be displaced by the return of lost time, it seems an important one nonetheless, authenticating the veritable remoteness of the experience the narrator seeks to retrieve. Arriving prior to the recollection of any content in particular, it is as if the “rumeur” were the abstract sound of pastness itself: the sign that “distances” are being “traversées.”

The suggestion that the “rumeur” is not a temporary impediment, but rather the very stuff of remembrance, is even more clearly implied in an earlier use of the same motif, in one of the pieces collected in Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896). “Les rivages de l’oubli” (“The Shores of Forgetting”) is a short meditation on mourning and unrequited love, anticipating, in its description of being “saturé” (“saturated”) with the “essence” of the lost object of desire, one of the central themes of Albertine disparue.[12] Whereas, Proust writes, the departed lover is initially “plus que mort” (“more than dead”) for us, trapped in a phantom loop of longing and rejection, this first, exhausting phase of grief eventually subsides, allowing the past to return in a more nostalgic form:

Si cette grande marée de l’amour s’est retirée à jamais, pourtant, quand nous nous promenons en nous-mêmes nous pouvons ramasser des coquillages étranges et charmants et, en les portant à l’oreille, entendre avec un plaisir mélancolique et sans plus en souffrir la vaste rumeur d’autrefois. (Les Plaisirs et les jours, 198)

If this great tide of love has receded forever, even so, when we stroll within ourselves we can gather strange and charming seashells and, in lifting them to our ear, hear with a melancholy pleasure and without suffering from it any longer, the vast murmur of yesteryear.[13]

As in Du côté de chez Swann, the return of the past is imagined in aural terms, not as a clear auditory perception, but rather as a throb or a hum: a “rumeur.” This passage also highlights the resemblance between the conventional image of the past-preserving shell and the motif Proust would later develop of the preservation of past time in “quelque objet matériel” (“some inanimate thing”; Du côté de chez Swann, 44; The Way By Swann’s, 47). Like the shell, the madeleine serves as a time capsule. Indeed, the stock notion of the seashell as a storage mechanism for the waves of the past is implied in the episode of the madeleine itself: this delicacy is, as the narrator says, a kind of “petit coquillage de pâtisserie” (“little shell made of cake”), seemingly molded “dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques” (“in the grooved valve of a scallop-shell”; 46, 44; 49, 47). Inclined as we might be to dismiss the allusion to memory in Les Plaisirs et les jours as comparatively trivial, the idea of preserving the “rumeur” of the past in a physical object, along with the trope of the seashell, are both themes that Proust would reprise in Du côté de chez Swann.

Neither in the case of the “rumeur des distances traversées,” nor in that of the “rumeur d’autrefois,” does Proust draw an analogy with mechanized sound recording: neither the madeleine nor the shell is explicitly likened to that other “rainurée” (grooved) physical object in which the past is stored, a phonographic cylinder or disk. However, the image of the past-preserving shell was certainly capable of carrying this connotation, as we can see by consulting a roughly contemporary instance of the same device: Maurice Renard’s 1907 story “La mort et le coquillage” (“Death and the Seashell”). The premise of Renard’s story is an episode of creative paralysis: a fictional composer, Nerval, is tormented by his inability to write the choral section of a nautically-themed “[p]oème symphonique” (“symphonic poem”), based on the mythical figure Amphitrite.[14] To lift Nerval’s spirits, and drawing inspiration from the technological possibilities of the phonograph, the story’s narrator suggests light-heartedly that, just as the voices of their deceased friends have been engraved on phonograph cylinders, so, too, a shell in the composer’s room might have preserved the antique soundscape he seeks to recreate: “Après tout, peut-être distingues-tu le crépitement des flots séculaires?” (“After all, perhaps you will distinguish the whisper of ancient waves?”; Renard, Le Voyage Immobile, 108). Entranced by the rhythmic drone of the shell, which has transmitted, the narrator later fears, not only the waves of antiquity, but also the maddening song of the sirens, Nerval dies mysteriously the next morning.

Renard’s conceit depends upon a new technical possibility: Edison’s phonograph had given reality to the once-magical hypothesis that a material object could preserve the sound of the past. But the specific way in which the past returns in the story, as an inhuman and unintelligible noise, also illustrates one of the cultural changes that accompanied this technical innovation. As Friedrich Kittler has argued, Renard’s image of the song of the sirens figures an essential characteristic of mechanized inscription, which differed from conventional writing in its ability to record the “stochastic disorder of bodies”: “all the noise produced by the larynx prior to any semiotic order and linguistic meaning.”[15]

Renard’s story reminds us not only that shells and phonograph recordings shared certain connotative affinities in early-twentieth-century literary culture, but also that storing the “rumeur” of the past was one of the most distinctive properties of the phonograph. As James Lastra points out, the importance of Edison’s invention was often explained by means of an analogy with iconic or hieroglyphic scripts: unlike the arbitrary symbols of alphabetical writing, mechanical inscription promised a “causal . . . link between sign and object.”[16] Complementing the materialist paradigm of contemporary psychophysics, Edison’s phonograph seemed to reduce both listening and speaking to mechanical cause-effect sequences, devoid of conscious agency.[17] In one of his earliest reflections on the significance of his own invention, Edison noted that this causal system of inscription enabled the preservation of sounds that had previously hovered beyond the grasp of any script: the first of the “several essential features of the phonograph” listed in his 1878 article “The Phonograph and its Future” is “[t]he captivity of all manner of sound-waves heretofore designated as ‘fugitive,’ and their permanent retention” (530). Whereas alphabetical scripts are limited by both the available system of phonemes and the sensorium of a human observer, mechanical inscription promised to record “all manner of sound-waves,” whether or not they were expressive of human intention.

Few contemporary observers contemplated the scientific implications of this change with greater enthusiasm than the anthropologist Léon Azoulay, whose 1900 lecture “L’ère nouvelle des sons et des bruits” (“The New Era of Sounds and Noises”) outlines an ambitious project for a universal phonographic museum. The “new era” of Azoulay’s title refers not to the new kinds of anthropogenic noise that populate the soundscapes of industrial modernity—the theme of the Futurist composer Luigi Russolo’s manifesto “L’Arte dei rumori” (“The Art of Noise”) thirteen years later—but rather to the invention of the phonograph, which had made it possible to store these and other noises mechanically, and reproduce them at will. The scientific applications of this development naturally include the study of languages, which could now be conducted using reanimated voices rather than the “cadavre” of phonetic transcriptions.[18] But the scope of Azoulay’s proposal went well beyond recorded speech, encompassing “tout ce que le phonographe est susceptible d’enregistrer, conserver et reproduire: parole, chant, musique instrumentale, phénomènes acoustiques des animaux, de la nature, de l’industrie, etc” (“everything that the phonograph is capable of recording, conserving and reproducing: word, song, musical instrument, acoustic phenomena of animals, of nature, of industry, etc.”; “L’ère nouvelle des sons et des bruits,” 177). The phonograph expanded the range of aural phenomena that scientists could study, but it also erased the epistemological distinction between organized or intentional emissions and sounds that occur without human intervention. Henceforth, speech, song, and music would be part of the same field of study as the noises of the non-human world.

Theoretical definitions of noise tend to emphasize its relational character: to designate a transmission as noise, it is necessary to make a figure-ground distinction, separating what is intended, appropriate, or significant in a given context from what is irrelevant or accidental. Thus, for Steven Connor, “voice” is the “antonym of noise,” while “noise” is the “matrix or ground of voice”; for Attali, “a noise is a resonance that interferes with a message in the process of emission”; for William R. Paulson, informatic noise is “anything that arrives as part of a message, but that was not part of the message when sent out” (Attali, Noise, 26).[19] As Azoulay’s lecture suggests, a large part of the cultural significance of Edison’s phonograph lay in the absence of such a meaning-making subject—someone for whom the message/noise distinction makes sense. By making it possible to record sounds that no one was even conscious of having heard, mechanical inscription seemed to transform the audible past from an orderly storage-house of signs into a seething ocean of noise.

When the narrator strains to recover the past in Du côté de chez Swann, he hears “la rumeur des distances traversées.” In Les Plaisirs et les jours, the vibration of past time is again imagined as a “vaste rumeur,” like the sound of waves preserved in a shell. As in Renard’s story, where the shell is explicitly likened to the phonograph, the return of the past is figured in these images, not as the successful transmission of an acoustic message—the sound of voices, for instance—but as noise. In the context of the new era of sound and noise, at a moment when observers like Azoulay were imagining the whole aural environment as a potential archive of noises, this way of figuring the past carries certain historically particular connotations. To associate non-signifying noise—the “rumeur des distances traversées”—with the storage and retrieval of past time is to refer, however obliquely, to the advent of a mediasphere in which noises as well as signs can be reproduced.

“le monde inorganisé des bruits”

I am suggesting that this way of thinking about the past, as a form of noise, is also a way of thinking about sound reproduction—thinking about the unscripted, uncensored, involuntary sonic traces that technological sound reproduction made possible. I return to the analogy between technological media and the retrieval of lost time later in this article. At this point, however, I want to consider Proust’s response to new media more directly. As we will see, Proust’s portrayal of telephony in La Recherche suggests both that technological media brought with them a heightened awareness of noise, and that the experience of noise reveals something essential about technological mediation. In order to draw out the implications of this relationship, I focus in what follows on a series of allusions to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, first performed in 1865. Much has been written about Proust’s interest in Wagner, whose name appears more often in La Recherche than that of any other composer.[20] What interests me about Proust’s attitude to Wagner in the present context, though, is a relatively local detail within this larger corpus of allusions and reflections: one of the distinctive qualities of Wagner’s music for Proust seems to have been its close affinity to noise.

“Impressions de route en automobile,” first published in Le Figaro on November 19, 1907, and later collected in Pastiches et mélanges (1919) as the first part of “En mémoire des églises assassinées” (“In memory of assassinated churches”), recounts a journey taken by Proust and his chauffeur, or “mécanicien,” to visit his parents in the Normandy countryside, stopping off along the way to inspect the cathedral at Lisieux.[21] Proust blurs the line between musical and environmental sounds twice in the article: first, by comparing the driver at the wheel to an organist before a keyboard, and then by drawing an elaborate analogy between the car’s horn and a phrase from Tristan und Isolde.

Le mécanicien donne de la trompe pour que le jardinier vienne nous ouvrir, cette trompe dont le son nous déplaît par sa stridence et sa monotonie, mais qui pourtant, comme toute matière, peut devenir beau s’il s’imprègne d’un sentiment. . . . Au coeur de mes parents il a retenti joyeusement comme une parole inespérée . . . Et je songeais que dans Tristan et Isolde (au deuxième acte d’abord quand Isolde agite son écharpe comme un signal, au troisième acte ensuite à l’arrivée de la nef) c’est, la première fois, à la redite stridente, indéfinie et de plus en plus rapide de deux notes dont la succession est quelquefois produite par le hasard dans le monde inorganisé des bruits; c’est, la deuxième fois, au chalumeau d’un pauvre pâtre, à l’intensité croissante, à l’insatiable monotonie de sa maigre chanson, que Wagner, par une apparente et géniale abdication de sa puissance créatrice, a confié l’expression de la plus prodigieuse attente de félicité qui ait jamais rempli l’âme humaine. (Pastiches et mélanges, 98–99)

The mechanic sounds the horn so that the gardener will come and open up, this horn whose sound irritates us with its insistence and monotony, but which, however, like all matter, can become beautiful if it is impregnated with a feeling. . . . And I thought about how in Tristan and Isolde (first in the second act when Isolde waves her scarf as a signal, next in the third act at the arrival of the ship) it is, the first time, to the strident, indefinite and increasingly rapid repetition of two notes, whose succession is sometimes produced by accident in the unorganized world of noise; it is, the second time, to the pipe of a poor shepherd, growing in intensity, to the inexhaustible monotony of his meagre song, that Wagner, by an apparent and brilliant abdication of his creative power, confided the expression of the most prodigious expectation of happiness that has ever filled the human soul.

The shepherd’s pipe and the waved scarf resemble the car’s horn in that they are both signals, which serve to announce the arrival of an eagerly-awaited loved one. But what also leads Proust to compare these moments in Tristan und Isolde to the blare of the horn is the way that the shepherd’s pipe and the motif of the scarf both seem to be fashioned from heterogeneous sonic materials, like field recordings dropped into an operatic score. The shepherd’s air is lifted, supposedly, from the rustic soundscape of the fields, while the scarf motif is transplanted from “le monde inorganisé des bruits.”

This theory that Wagner quoted actual sounds and noises in Tristan und Isolde is developed further in À la recherche du temps perdu. When, awaiting Albertine’s return from the Trocadéro in La Prisonnière, the narrator plays the Vinteuil sonata to himself on his piano, he is struck by an affinity between Vinteuil’s composition and a passage from Tristan. This insight triggers a complex meditation on the ability of great artists to communicate the sensual quiddity of their experiences, which leads Proust back to the idea of noise that features in the 1907 essay. Wagner’s genius is to allow each motif—“le chant d’un oiseau, la sonnerie du cor d’un chasseur, l’air que joue un pâtre sur son chalumeau” (“the song of a bird, the note of a huntsman’s horn, the tune a shepherd plays on his pipe”)—to “garde sa réalité extérieure et entièrement définie” (“keep its exterior and entirely definite reality”), preserving “son originalité première comme un huchier les fibres, l’essence particulière du bois qu’il sculpte” (“its original character, as a woodcarver does the grain, the individual essence of the wood he sculpts”; Proust, La Prisonnière, 149–50; Proust, The Prisoner,143).[22] Wagner is able, that is, to incorporate sonic objets trouvés into his compositions, without divesting them of their original, unrefined “fibres.” The narrator goes on to suggest that such remembered noises as the “chalumeau” (“shepherd’s pipe”) were not present in the composer’s design from the beginning, but rather became “rétrospectivement nécessaire” (“retrospectively necessary”), drawn forth from his mental “tiroirs” (“drawers”) only after the piece had already taken shape (Proust, La Prisonnière, 150–51; Proust, The Prisoner,144). Wagner must, the narrator supposes, have been inspired with joy at such moments, “quand il découvrit dans sa mémoire l’air du pâtre, l’agrégea à son oeuvre, lui donna toute sa signification” (“when he discovered in his memory the shepherd’s tune, built it into his work, gave it all its meaning”; 151; 145).

This assessment of Wagner as a sonic bricoleur, making music out of hoarded fragments of noise, entails a series of secondary aesthetic considerations. In the first place, the narrator specifies, this method of composition depends upon preserving a copy of sounds that the composer has actually heard: rather than being original products of Romantic inspiration, these noises have been stored in the artist’s “tiroirs,” to be retrieved at the opportune moment. Further, this practice has particular implications for the aesthetic unity of the work as a whole. While not, the narrator specifies, “factice” (“artificial”), the “[u]nité ultérieure” (“ulterior unity”) achieved by “rétroactivement” (“retroactively”) inserting these remembered noises into the work depends upon a marked display of artifice (La Prisonnière, 150–51, my translation). The final synthesis is achieved self-consciously, by “auto-contemplation,” and the exhilaration that Wagner feels as he fashions these elements together is the “allégresse du fabricateur” (“enthusiasm of the fabricator”; 150, my translation).

The implication that there is something mechanical about the process of soldering these “morceau[x]” (“fragment[s]”) together becomes explicit as the passage continues (150; 144). Having praised Wagner’s deft use of noise, the narrator admits to being “troublé” (“troubled”) by the very “habileté vulcanienne” (“Vulcan-like skill”) and “technique de l’ouvrier” (“workman’s technique”) on which this facility depends (151; 145). This line of thought culminates in an elaborate analogy, in which Wagner’s technically proficient opera is likened to a distinctively modern form of mechanized transport:

Peut-être, comme les oiseaux qui montent le plus haut, qui volent le plus vite, ont une aile plus puissante, fallait-il de ces appareils vraiment matériels pour explorer l’infini, de ces cent vingt chevaux marque Mystère, où pourtant, si haut qu’on plane, on est un peu empêché de goûter le silence des espaces  par le puissant ronflement du moteur! (La Prisonnière, 152)

Perhaps, just as the birds who soar highest, who fly fastest, have the most powerful wings, we need those thoroughly material devices to explore the infinite, those hundred-and-twenty-horsepower Mysteries in which, it must be said, however high one soars, one’s appreciation of the silence of space is somewhat impeded by the powerful rumble of the engine! (The Prisoner, 145)

The image of the airplane literalizes the mechanical connotations of Wagner’s “vulcanien” skill: like a modern aeronautical engineer, Wagner has fashioned the various “morceau[x]” of his opera into a machine for exploring the “infini.” This startling conceit also gives allegorical form to the narrator’s nagging reservations about the technical or mechanical nature of Wagner’s achievement: Wagner’s flying machine may attain the infinite, but its passengers are continually aware of the noise of the engine.

Proust’s hypothesis about Wagner’s use of noise invites comparison with the culture of mechanical sound reproduction in a number of ways. To begin with, the composer’s putative practice of storing extra-musical noises in his mental “tiroirs” seems to belong to the same sensory regime as Azoulay’s lecture or Renard’s story: to imagine an art that preserves the “fibres” of real sounds is to adopt the figural vocabulary of mechanical sound recording. The reflective passage in La Prisonnière implies, moreover, that there is something not only technical, but also technological, about this aspect of Wagner’s music. Wagner’s ability to forge these disparate sonic pieces into a unified work of art elicits the narrator’s admiration for his “technical” skill, but the allusion to Vulcan, the blacksmith-metallurgist, implies that technê here is close to technology. This connotation is then confirmed by the bizarre image of the airplane. Wagner’s opera is not only “technically” accomplished: it is a machine.

The conceit of powered flight also introduces a further complication into the relationship between Wagner and noise in Proust’s imagination, by implying that Wagner’s opera not only assembles materials drawn from the “monde inorganisé des bruits,” but also generates a noise of its own. By far the most commonly discussed instance of technological sound reproduction in À la recherche du temps perdu is the scene in which the narrator, visiting Saint-Loup at his regimental posting in Doncières, speaks by telephone with his grandmother in Paris. Before recounting his harrowing perception of his grandmother’s “voix elle-même” (“voice itself”), however—a striking example, as Sara Danius points out, of sensory “abstraction”—the narrator describes hearing a preliminary whisper of noise: “un bruit léger—un bruit abstrait—celui de la distance supprimée” (“a shred of sound—an abstract sound—the sound of distance suppressed”; Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes, 126–27; Proust, The Guermantes Way, 130–31).[23] White noise, in other words, makes the narrator conscious of the operation of the medium: the sheer fact that distance is being annihilated. Although the “ronflement” in Proust’s aeronautical image is not associated with a medium of communication, I want to suggest that the trope of noise in this passage performs an analogous rhetorical function. According to the narrator’s neat allegory, the reason why Wagnerian opera cannot attain the silence of space is that the listener’s spiritual journey is enabled, assisted, or, as we might otherwise put it, mediated by technology: modern opera-goers use “appareils . . . matériels” to attain the “infini,” just as modern travelers rely on a noisy machine to move rapidly through space. As with the “bruit abstrait” of the telephone, that is, the murmur of the plane’s engine is the sound of distance being suppressed. 

“agréable mais pourtant un peu amorphe”

The experience that this metaphor is used to convey, moreover—the idea of sublime music permeated by mechanical noise—closely resembles one of Proust’s own more intriguing anecdotal encounters with telephony. On February 21, 1911, Proust informed two of his musically-minded correspondents, Reynaldo Hahn and Georges de Lauris, that he had recently been initiated into a novel listening experience: “je me suis abonné” (“I have subscribed”), he told de Lauris, “au théâtrophone.”[24] The technique of telephonic narrowcasting that would later be baptized the “théâtrophone” was first demonstrated at the 1881 Exposition universelle de l’électricité in Paris, where members of the public flocked to hear live performances at the Opéra and the Théâtre-Français transmitted via a closed telephone network to four insulated listening rooms.[25] After again drawing crowds at the 1889 Exposition universelle, the “systême Ader”—named after Clément Ader, its inventor—was finally monetized the following year, when Ader’s Compagnie du Théâtrophone began offering subscribers to the telephone service the opportunity to listen to live performances transmitted directly to their homes from select theatres and concert halls. Parisians who did not have access to a private telephone line, or to the annual 180 francs subscription fee, could also sample the service by means of coin-operated listening posts installed in a variety of leisure spaces, offering five minutes of musical or theatrical entertainment at a cost of fifty centimes. By 1892, according to Le Magasin pittoresque, this latter incarnation of the théâtrophone had become ubiquitous, with “[t]out hôtel de renom, tout cercle de bon ton, tout café en vogue” (“every famous hotel, every distinguished social circle, every fashionable café”) providing listening stations for the amusement of their habitués.[26] The more exclusive private service that Proust subscribed to in 1911 continued operating until 1932, persisting in competition with the technology that was destined to supplant it—broadcast radio—for more than a decade (Laster, “Splendeurs et misères du théâtrophone,” 78).

Although visitors to the 1881 exposition marveled at the clarity of the transmitted performance, Proust’s letters to his melomane friends imply that from a musical point of view, the commercial version of the device left much to be desired. To de Lauris he observed curtly that “[o]n entend très mal” (“one hears very poorly”), while he joked to Hahn that he once failed to notice the arrival of the intermission, so indistinct was the sound of the music: “à un moment je trouvais la rumeur agréable mais pourtant un peu amorphe quand je me suis aperçu que c’était l’entr’acte!” (“at one moment I was finding the murmur pleasant although a little amorphous when I realized that it was the intermission!”; Kolb, Correspondance, 254; 250). To an inattentive listener, the sound of telephonic opera was a “rumeur,” indistinguishable from the babble of the audience: the transmission, in short, was awash with noise.

Jules Chéret, “Musée Grévin. Auditions téléphoniques,” l883, lithograph. Image courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
Fig. 2. Jules Chéret, “Musée Grévin. Auditions téléphoniques,” l883, lithograph. Image courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

The poor sound quality that Proust described was doubtless partly due to the deficiencies of the medium. The weakness of the signal at its source would have been one limiting factor, owing to the crude amplifying capabilities of early—i.e., pre-electronic—carbon microphones. Unlike the special connections rigged up for the 1881 and 1889 demonstrations, moreover, Ader’s commercial system used the public telephone network, meaning that it was subject to the same problems of line noise and “friture” (“sizzling”) that afflicted other telephone communications during this period.[27] But in addition to these technical inhibitions, Proust’s use of the théâtrophone in 1911 may also have been affected by a kind of internal interference, engendered not by the failure of the reproduction mechanism, but by its too-successful functioning. As a reporter for the magazine La Nature noted in 1881, the very fidelity of the “système Ader” was itself responsible for introducing a form of noise into the transmission: “Non seulement on entend les artistes, mais on reconnaît leur voix, on distingue les murmures du public dans la salle, on perçoit ses applaudissements” (“Not only does one hear the performers, but one recognizes their voices, one distinguishes the murmurs of the public in the hall, one perceives the applause”).[28] According to another account of the device in 1889, even “the voice of the prompter” was sometimes “faithfully repeated.”[29] As with the phonograph, that is, one of the striking features of the théâtrophone for its early users was the lack of distinction between message and background: when it arrived at its destination, the intended emission was intermixed with the incidental noise of the theatre. Proust’s momentary failure to distinguish between the “rumeur” of the intermission and the performance itself may well have been influenced by this effect, which collapsed the foreground of the music into the background of audience noise: “murmures,” coughing, feet-shuffling, program-rustling, and so on.

Tristan und Isolde is not one of the operas that Proust could have listened to remotely in 1911, but he did report using the théâtrophone to listen to another of Wagner’s works, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, on February 20. Moreover, as Hiroya Sakamoto conjectures, the other composer whom Proust recalls listening to in his home around this time, Claude Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande he discovered for the first time on February 21, may have inspired the moment in La Prisonnière when the narrator perceives an analogy between Tristan and the Vinteuil sonata.[30] But even if the meditation on Wagner in La Prisonnière was not specifically influenced by telecommunication, we can still refer to Proust’s experience of telephonically mediated music in 1911 to shed light on the figuration of noise in the aircraft image. We have seen that Proust’s conception of Wagnerian opera as a kind of machine, which incorporates the noises of the non-musical world without altering their “réalité extérieure,” invites comparison with the new technology of sound reproduction, which also used mechanical means to store “fugitive” natural sounds. Proust’s théâtrophone experience suggests a correlative for another aspect of this image, by providing an example of a technologically-mediated musical performance permeated by noise. As with the metaphor of powered flight, the noise that attends a théâtrophone transmission is not external to the performance, but rather an integral part of the listening experience: an indissociable quality of the medium itself.

As I have suggested, moreover, both the aviation metaphor and the experience of the théâtrophone revolve around the concept of mediation. The point of Proust’s metaphor is that something mechanical intervenes in Wagner’s operas between the audience and the experience of the sublime: the listener’s journey to the infinite is mediated by a machine. In Le Côté de Guermantes, we have seen, the narrator’s account of a telephone conversation with his grandmother includes a brief reference to white noise: the “bruit abstrait . . . de la distance supprimée” (“abstract sound . . . of distance suppressed”; Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes, 126; Proust, The Guermantes Way, 130). The abstract noise of the telephone line is imagined as the aural manifestation of distance, much as, in the madeleine episode, the obscure rustling the narrator detects somewhere in his mental soundscape is identified as “la rumeur des distances traversées.” “[L]a rumeur des distances traversées”; “le bruit abstrait . . . de la distance supprimée”: both of these phrases might be applied without undue violence to the “ronflement” of a plane’s engine, which likewise is the sound of a machine for annihilating distances. The théâtrophone may not have shaped Proust’s meditation on Wagner in La Prisonnière—although, as Sakamoto argues, the possibility cannot be discounted—but it does illustrate how technological mediation can bring about an encounter with the phenomenon of noise, a “rumeur” that becomes indistinguishable from the performance. In the Wagner passage, moreover, as well as in the “bruit abstrait” of the telephone, this effect of mediation is identified with the operation of the medium itself: noise in these examples is the supplementary sign that a “distance” is being “supprimée.”

“comme une motte de terre”

Let us consider one last allusion to Tristan und Isolde in À la recherche du temps perdu, deployed, this time, explicitly in connection with a telephone call. Images of telephony proliferate in the parts of the novel devoted to the narrator’s obsessive relationship with Albertine, where telephonic communication serves him as a tool of surveillance.[31] The telephone conversation I want to consider here could be inscribed at the very origin of this series: although it takes place before the crisis of jealous panic that precipitates the carceral psychodrama of La Prisonnière, it is an early example of the narrator’s use of the telephone to pry into Albertine’s activities, foreshadowing, as we are proleptically told, his later jealous mania.[32] In this episode, the narrator has returned from a soirée given by the Princesse de Guermantes to his family home in Paris in order to wait for a telephone call from Albertine, with whom he has planned a rendez-vous. Much like his younger self listening intently for the sound of the garden bell on the evening of Swann’s visit, the narrator waits anxiously by the phone installed in his bedroom, ears attuned so avidly for its ring that “il semble que nous écoutions directement avec notre coeur” (“we seem to be listening directly with our hearts”; Proust, Sodome et Gomorrhe, 128; Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 134). It is in this posture of unbearably acute anticipation that the narrator finally hears, “tout à coup, mécanique et sublime, comme dans Tristan l’écharpe agitée ou le chalumeau du pâtre, le bruit de toupie du téléphone” (“all of a sudden . . .  mechanical and sublime, like the brandished scarf or the shepherd’s pipe in Tristan, the spinning-top sound of the telephone”; 129; 134).

The telephone’s ring is itself a shard of unrefined sonic matter, just like the two-note sequence of the scarf and the rustic shepherd’s tune. The most potent irruption of noise into this scene, however, is yet to come, caused by the sudden intrusion of Albertine’s acoustic environment into the narrator’s sphere of awareness.

A ses paroles se mêlaient d’autres sons: la trompe d’un cycliste, la voix d’une femme qui chantait, une fanfare lointaine, rétentissaient aussi distinctement que la voix chère, comme pour me montrer que c’était bien Albertine dans son milieu actuel qui était près de moi en ce moment, comme une motte de terre avec laquelle on a emporté toutes les graminées qui l’entourent. Les mêmes bruits que j’entendais frappaient aussi son oreille et mettaient une entrave à son attention: détails de vérité, étrangers au sujet, inutiles en eux-mêmes, d’autant plus nécessaires à nous révéler l’évidence du miracle; traits sobres et charmants, déscriptifs de quelque rue parisienne, traits perçants aussi et cruels d’une soirée inconnue qui, au sortir de Phèdre, avaient empeché Albertine de venir chez moi. (Sodome et Gomorrhe, 129)

Other sounds were mixed in with her words: a cyclist’s horn, the voice of a woman singing, a brass band in the distance, sounded as distinctly as the cherished voice, as if to prove that it was indeed Albertine in her present surroundings [milieu] who was close to me at that moment, like a clod of earth with which you have carried off all the grasses round about it. The same sounds that I could hear were striking her ear also and hindering her from attending: truthful details, unconnected with the subject, futile in themselves, but all the more necessary to reveal to us the evidence of the miracle; prosaic, charming features, descriptive of some Parisan street, yet cruel, sharp-pointed features also of an unknown evening which, on leaving after Phèdre, had prevented Albertine from coming to see me. (Sodom and Gomorrah,  134–35)

This scene is important for the jealousy plot because it makes the narrator unpleasantly aware of Albertine’s elusive autonomy, provoking a first twinge of the maddening desire to know and control her movements that will later consume him: “je commencai à comprendre que la vie d’Albertine était située . . . à une telle distance de moi” (“I had begun to realize that Albertine’s life was situated . . . at so great a distance from me”; 130; 136). The sense perception needed to make this abstract state of affairs present to him, though, is noise: the miscellany of “autres sons” that floods the channel of transmission, bringing with them the ineluctable thereness of an unseen physical location. This is, we note, not only an intrusion of “le monde inorganisé des bruits,” but also an example of noise in the informatic sense of the word: unintended particles of data, accidentally mingled with the desired exchange of information. Like the “bruit abstrait” that makes the narrator conscious of “distance supprimée,” moreover, the noise communicated accidentally by a telephone connection carries with it an intuition of “l’évidence du miracle.” It is noise that brings home to the narrator the sheer fact of the medium, considered not as a container for messages, but as a more basic ripple in the fabric of space. Not incidentally, this experience of telephony as a pre-semiotic background rather than a vehicle for communication leads to the conflation of two different senses of the word “medium” (milieu). The perception that makes the “miracle” of the medium of telephony palpable is at the same time a perception of Albertine’s own medium or milieu: “son milieu actuel.”

This image of telephony is not related in any overt way to the novel’s larger preoccupation with the storage and retrieval of past time. At the level of both rhetoric and conceptual structure, however, Proust’s depiction of telephonically mediated space closely resembles the motif of mémoire involontaire. In the first place, the media phenomenon sometimes called sensory “autonomization”—the isolation of a single sense from the other organs of the human sensorium, so that, for instance, a location is reduced to a soundscape—is also one of the essential conditions of the recovery of the past.[33] Perhaps the single most recognizable principle governing the phenomenon of mémoire involuntaire in the novel is that the narrator’s out-of-time experiences are always initiated by a monosensory stimulus: the taste of the madeleine, the sound of a spoon striking a plate, the feel of a serviette, the musty smell of a public lavatory, a glimpse of three church steeples, or three trees.[34] In the same way, the episode of the narrator’s conversation with Albertine, like the telephone call to his grandmother, emphasizes the separation of aural perception from other channels of sensory experience.

The elusive second phase of mémoire involontaire, moreover, in which these isolated sense impressions enable the resurrection of a whole forgotten life-world, also presents analogies with telephonic noise. The capacity of isolated sensations to trigger the return of a whole temporal microcosm is first described in the episode of the madeleine, where this process is compared to a Japanese paper model that expands when immersed in water. In the same way, the flowers of Combray, along with the townspeople and the town itself, “est sorti, ville et jardins, de ma tasse de thé” (“emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea”; Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, 47; Proust, The Way By Swann’s, 50). Different metaphors are used to evoke the same process in Le Côté de Guermantes, where Proust returns to the distinction between “mémoire volontaire” (“voluntary memory”) and its involuntary counterpart. The flood of memories released by a particular enunciation of the name “Guermantes” is compared first to a tube of paint, and then to “un de ces petits ballons dans lesquels on a enfermé de l’oxygène ou un autre gaz” (“one of those little balloons that has been filled with oxygen or some other gas”), receptacles which preserve within themselves the color palette and atmosphere, respectively, of a whole era (6; 10). The same motif recurs in the long exposition of redemptive memory offered in Le Temps retrouvé, prompted by the narrator’s account of his epiphany at the matinée of the Princesse de Guermantes. As with the earlier discussions of mémoire involontaire, Proust emphasizes the way that chance sense impressions can evoke the whole Umwelt of an epoch:

la moindre parole que nous avons dite à une époque de notre vie, le geste le plus insignifiant que nous avons fait était entouré, portait sur lui le reflet de choses qui logiquement ne tenaient pas à lui, en ont été séparées par l’intelligence qui n’avait rien à faire d’elles pour les besoins du raisonnement, mais au milieu desquelles—ici reflet rose du soir sur le mur fleuri d’un restaurant champêtre, sensation de faim, désir des femmes, plaisir du luxe—là volutes bleues de la mer matinale enveloppant des phrases musicales qui en émergent partiellement comme les épaules des ondines—le geste, l’acte le plus simple reste enfermé comme dans mille vases clos dont chacun serait rempli de choses d’une couleur, d’une odeur, d’une température absolument différentes. (Le Temps retrouvé, 176)

the slightest word we have spoken at any point in our lives, the most insignificant action, was surrounded by, and was a reflection of, things which logically were not connected to it, were separated from it by the intelligence which had no need of them for its rational purposes, but in the middle of which—here, the pink reflection of the evening on the flower-covered wall of a country restaurant, a feeling of hunger, the desire for women, the pleasure of luxury—there, the blue scrolls of the morning sea enveloping the musical phrases which partially emerge from them like the shoulders of mermaids—the gesture, the simplest action remains enclosed as if within a thousand sealed vessels each one of which would be filled with things of a completely different color, odor and temperature. (Finding Time Again, 178)

As Gérard Genette has pointed out, the structure of Proustian memory is no less metonymic than metaphoric: the initial sensory correspondence depends on an “irradiation métonymique” in order to reconstruct the world of the past.[35] Although deployed in a different context, the image of the clod of earth used to describe a telephonic soundscape belongs to the same rhetorical family. Like the Japanese paper pellet, the tube of paint, the balloon, and the vase, it, too, is an image of metonymic association. The “choses qui logiquement ne tenaient pas à lui,” packed indiscriminately into the “vases clos” of involuntary memory, are analogous to the “détails de vérité, étrangers au sujet, inutiles en eux-mêmes” that travel unbidden down the telephone line into the narrator’s bedroom. As in mémoire involontaire, the compression of the narrator’s whole sensorium into a single organ is succeeded by the unfurling of a richly miscellaneous environment: the bank of noise in which Albertine’s voice is embedded. Later in this same expository section of Le Temps retrouvé, the narrator will borrow a metaphor from the new language of telephony to castigate the pretentions of realist literature, which purports to present a faithful record, but manages only to “couper brusquement toute communication de notre moi présent avec le passé” (“unceremoniously cuts all communication between our present self and the past”; 191–92; 193). If, to extend Proust’s metaphor, the return of the past can be figured (however fleetingly) as a telephone call, then the logically unrelated baggage it brings with it, mnemonic detritus dragged along in the wake of the catalyst-impression, might surely be described as noise.

I have suggested that Proust’s description of the past as a “rumeur” is conditioned by the culture of mechanical sound reproduction—a culture in which not just speech and music, but all aural phenomena could be durably inscribed and transmitted to the future. The striking experience of noise contained in the narrator’s phone call with Albertine belongs to the same sensory paradigm: the telephone, like the phonograph, communicates a motley scoop of sonic data, in which the message is inextricable from its bed of background noise. To be sure, the telephone is not an inscription device. However, the series of analogies we have examined between the noisiness of telephony and the characteristic structure of mémoire involontaire allows us to say that noise—metaphorical, but not only metaphorical—is a characteristic element of Proust’s depiction of memory: noise as the accidental, the contingent, the extraneous, and the unintended: the same kind of ambient stuff that a telephone or a phonograph impassively picks up, along with whatever message it was intended to transmit or record.

The prominent role played by the trope of contingency in Proust’s portrayal of mémoire involontaire is well-known. Contingency, in the root sense of the Latin contingĕre, to touch or come in contact with, is the mechanism that allows Genette’s principle of metonymic contagion to operate. In the narrator’s telephone conversation with Albertine, we have seen, a precisely analogous structure is applied to the representation of noise, literalizing an affinity between noise and the return of lost time that a cyberneticist or an electrical engineer might already have been tempted to suppose. That the recollection of the narrator’s Sunday mornings with Aunt Léonie is heralded by a “rumeur” is precisely what we should expect of this kind of memory, which recovers the past in the form of noise.

Just as contingency—informatic noise—is an essential element in the figuration of lost time, so noise is a key term in Proust’s phenomenology of media. For not only does the trope of noise itself align Proust’s representation of memory with Azoulay’s “ère nouvelle des sons et des bruits,” but noise also operates in À la recherche du temps perdu as the purest audible trace of mediation. It is noise, we have seen, that reveals “l’évidence du miracle”: when the content of a transmission has been stripped away, the “bruit abstrait,” “ronflement,” or “rumeur” that remains is the sound of the medium, the auditory sign of physical “distance supprimée” or temporal “distances traversées.” The way that this figure of noise indexes mediation in À la recherche du temps perdu is thus rigorously equivalent to the role of contingency in the return of lost time. A “souvenir involontaire,” Proust insists, is not the figure but the ground: what returns in the retrieval of the past is not a memorable event but a web of circumstances, a forgotten life-world, recalled by an insignificant sense impression and knitted together by mere contingency (Sodome et Gomorrhe, 165; Sodom and Gomorrah, 158). So, too, noise in Proust’s portrayal of mediation serves to figure the “matrix or ground,” to use Connor’s phrase, against which signification takes place (Beyond Words, 7). To hear the sputter of the line when no one is speaking, or the noises that seep into a telephone conversation uninvited, is to be exposed to the sheer facticity of the medium. The random acoustic phenomena that the narrator hears in Sodome et Gomorrhe are, as he says, themselves a milieu: they are the warp and weft of communication itself, the underlying structure that supports the transmission of a voice.

In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan famously declared that the proper objects of media studies are “sense ratios or patterns of perception,” rather than the “opinions and concepts” that a medium may happen to convey.[36] The implications of this model, as Raymond Williams was among the first to point out, are both technologically determinist and technocratic: divorced from social “practices,” technology becomes fate; without content (“opinions and concepts”), politics is reduced to “a kind of allocation and rationing of particular media for particular psychic effects.”[37] The trope of noise in À la recherche du temps perdu might seem to anticipate McLuhan’s project, by giving sensory thickness to the experience of mediation apart from content. The idea that the one irreducible effect of technological media is noise, however, upends the determinist implications of McLuhan’s model. For McLuhan, a “medium without a message” is the same as “pure information,” an Enlightenment ideal which he illustrates, appropriately enough, with the example of electric light (Understanding Media, 8). For Proust, conversely, the closest one can come to a medium without a message is not “pure information” but its opposite: the contingent, the unintended, the “rumeur” that a microphone just happens to pick up. To listen closely to new media is not to dissolve the content of communication into the technicity of the medium, but rather to experience a heightened awareness of contingency: to have one’s acts of communication exposed as never before to the unorganized world of noise. For such a phenomenology of media, it would be false to identify the medium with the message. In À la recherche du temps perdu, on the contrary, the medium is the noise.


[1] Marcel Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 65; Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, trans. Mark Treharne (London: Penguin, 2003), 68; Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), 112; Marcel Proust, The Prisoner and the Fugitive, trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier (London: Penguin, 2003), 107.

[2] Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 3; Marcel Proust, The Way By Swann’s, trans. Lydia Davis (London: Penguin, 2003), 7.

[3] Marcel Proust, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 60; Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. James Grieve (London: Penguin, 2003), 63. The most famous example of this trope is perhaps the cris de Paris passage, also in La Prisonnière, which elicits Albertine’s concern about the narrator’s ability to sleep (107).

[4] Quoted in Jean-Yves Tadié, Marcel Proust (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 1:386.

[5] André Arnyevelde [André Levy], “A propos d’un livre récent,” Le Miroir, December 23, 1913, reproduced in Franck Lhomeau and Alain Coelho, Marcel Proust à la recherche d’un éditeur: À la recherche face à l’édition (Paris: Olivier Orban, 1988), 291–95, 292.

[6] Céleste Albaret, Monsieur Proust (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2014), 69.

[7] Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 26.

[8] I follow Jonathan Sterne in grouping the phonograph and telephone together under this rubric: sound reproduction technologies such as Bell’s telephone and Edison’s phonograph transduced sound from one form (sound waves) into another (electrical current or indentations in a material substance), and back again (The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003], 22). While telephones and phonographs can be classified in different functional categories—“connective” and “representational,” respectively, to use David Trotter’s pair of terms—I suggest in this paper that they exposed their early users to essentially similar experiences of noise (Literature in the First Media Age: Britain Between the Wars [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013], 22). The historical origins of both devices are closely linked, as many histories of the subject point out.

[9] Thomas Edison, “The Phonograph and Its Future,” The North American Review 126, no. 262 (1878): 527–36, 530.

[10] The narrator uses a similar aural image to characterize the workings of memory in the closing pages of Sodome et Gomorrhe, albeit in connection with a more short-term process of recollection. Alone in his hotel room, having successfully persuaded Albertine to accompany him to Paris, the words that revealed her intimacy with Mademoiselle de Vinteuil echo again in his ears, “comme ces bruits intérieurs de l’oreille qu’on entend dès que quelqu’un cesse de vous parler” (Marcel Proust, Sodome et Gomorrhe [Paris: Gallimard, 1989], 512). This line translates to “like those noises inside the ear that we hear as soon as someone has stopped talking to us” (Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. John Sturrock [London: Penguin, 2003], 519–20). I’m grateful to the anonymous reviewer who drew my attention to this passage.

[11] The word appears in English as early as 1684, but it was given a new currency by the invention of telephony. When David E. Hughes used the term in this context in an 1878 paper—the earliest instance cited in the OED—he evidently believed that he was coining a new term, or at least reviving an obsolete one (“On the Action of Sonorous Vibrations in Varying the Force of an Electric Current,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 27 [1878]: 365–66).

[12] Marcel Proust, Les Plaisirs et les jours suivi de L’Indifférent et autres textes, ed. Thierry Laget (Paris: Gallimard, 1993), 197.

[13] My translation.

[14] Maurice Renard, Le Voyage Immobile suivi d’autres histoires singulières (Paris: Editions G. Crès and Cie, 1922), 103–09, 104. My translation.

[15] Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 15–16.

[16] James Lastra, Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 29–30.

[17] On the influence of the early science of acoustics, and especially of attempts to simulate human speech, on the development of new sound media, see Lastra, Sound Technology and the American Cinema, 36–45. On the relationship between psychophysics and sound reproduction, see Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 207–28.

[18] Léon Azoulay, “L’ère nouvelle des sons et des bruits. Musée et archives phonographiques,” Bulletins de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris 1 (1900): 172–78, 175.

[19] Steven Connor, Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 7; William R. Paulson, The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 67. On the paradoxes involved in identifying and defining noise, also see Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Voice, Sound, and Aurality in the Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 21.

[20] Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Proust as Musician (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 1. In one of the earliest critical appreciations of La Recherche as a complete work, Armand Pierhal argued that Proust’s novel was Wagnerian in its structure: as in the Ring cycle, motifs introduced in the “prélude” are reprised and developed in later volumes. “Proust,” he noted, “s’est formé intellectuellement au temps de la plus grande influence de Wagner en France” (“Sur la composition wagnerienne de l’oeuvre de Proust,” Bibliothèque universelle et revue de Genêve [1929]: 710–19; 711). Georges Matoré and Irène Tamba-Mecz, however, caution against naively assimilating Proust’s use of foreshadowing and repetition to the Wagnerian device of the leitmotif; see Musique et structure romanesque dans La recherche du temps perdu (Paris: Klincksieck, 1973), 246–54. On Parsifal as an aesthetic model for La Recherche, see Nattiez, Proust as Musician, 12–33.

[21] Marcel Proust, “En mémoire des églises assassinées,” in Pastiches et mélanges (Paris: Gallimard, 1919), 91–210, 96. Translations are mine.

[22] As Antoine Compagnon has shown, this passage resonates with fin de siècle debates about the organic unity of the work of art, which would seem to be jeopardized by any such reliance on ready-made fragments; see Proust entre deux siècles (Paris: Seuil, 1989), 45–52.

[23] Sara Danius, The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 17.

[24] Correspondance de Marcel Proust, ed. by Philip Kolb (Paris: Plon, 1983), 10:254.

[25] I draw in this paragraph on Danièle Laster, “Splendeurs et misères du théâtrophone,” Romantisme 13, no. 41 (1983): 75–78, and Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 209–10.

[26] “Le Théâtrophone,” Le Magasin pittoresque 10 (1892): 184.

[27] In France, the pages of the monthly Bulletin de l’Association des abonnés au téléphone teemed with complaints about “friture” and the poor quality of connections in general. As the author of one 1907 article observed, “[l]es abonnés se plaignent souvent—et à juste titre—que leurs communications sont mauvaises, qu’ils entendent mal, qu’il y a de la friture, etc” (“Mauvaises communications,” Bulletin de l’Association des abonnés au téléphone 4, no. 41 [1907]: 10).

[28] “Auditions théâtrales téléphoniques à l’Exposition d’Électricité,” La Nature 9, no. 434 (1881): 257.

[29] William Henry Preece and Julius Maier, The Telephone (London: Whitaker, 1889), 462.

[30] “Du théâtrophone au téléphone: repenser la mise-en-scène du dialogue dans À la recherche du temps perdu,” in Marcel Proust Aujourd'hui IV: Proust et le théâtre, ed. Romana Goedendorp et. al. (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 254–55.

[31] See Proust, La Prisonnière, 91–93, 145; Proust, The Prisoner, 87–89, 139.

[32] See Proust, Sodome et Gomorrhe, 512; Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 519, and Proust, Sodome et Gomorrhe, 131; Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, 137.

[33] For a discussion of the technological “reification, autonomization, and differentiation” of the senses in À la recherche du temps perdu, see Danius, Senses of Modernism, 11–17, 17.

[34] See Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, 44; Proust, The Way By Swann’s, 47; Marcel Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), 175; Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson (London: Penguin, 2003), 176; Proust, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 63; Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, 67; Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, 179; Proust, The Way By Swann’s, 180; Proust, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 284; Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, 296.

[35] Gérard Genette, “Métonymie chez Proust,” in Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972), 41–63, 62.

[36] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 18.

[37] Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Routledge, 2003), 131.