Today I Bite the Hand that Feeds Me

… Never bite the hand that feeds you. But today I will.

Yesterday, apparently (according to an urgent communiqué from my mother), my performance of Brahms E-flat Sonata with Richard Stoltzman was played on NPR’s Performance Today. Apparently the host of that program, the delightful and eternally curious Fred Child, mentioned my blog, and there is a link on NPR’s site!!! I am grateful.

But then, by a curious twist of fate, today I read an article on Slate … an article also featured on NPR’s Day-to-Day… which has enraged me, beyond reason. In it, the author attempts to “reconstruct” a recipe for Proust’s madeleine from Proust’s own words. Read it yourself, if you must; he comes to the conclusion that the madeleine, such as Proust describes it, “never existed.” Short rebuttal: duh. Longer rebuttal, with ranting:

1) Anyone who obsesses about the madeleine and Proust hasn’t really read Proust. (“Oh yes, Proust, the chap with the madeleine, rather long book, that.”) There’s a lot more book out there, kids, go to it! If you get past page 40, let me know! I’ll be really proud of you!

2) The WHOLE MASSIVE NOVEL is ABOUT the elusiveness of experience, memory, time… it debunks “realist” description at every turn. Nothing is ever as it seems; everything is in flux, subject to change, perception, etc. etc. Therefore, it is not a place to seek “recipes.” Again: read the book! The whole thing!

[Insert Howard Dean-esque scream here. Magnify times 10. Then imagine me in my pajamas running around my bedroom yelling like that as I read the article, and write this post.]

3) OK, I’ll quote from the article: “Many cookbooks claim that you can reproduce Marcel Proust’s magical madeleine in your own kitchen. But do any of the recipes yield the genuine article? ” Aaarrgggghhhhh. Repeat after me! THERE IS NO “GENUINE ARTICLE.” Keep repeating until you have a literary sensibility. The whole proposition is patently absurd! Then later on, he refers to Lydia Davis’ translation as the most “accurate.” Again, with the ridiculous words!

It’s enough to send me scrambling through my volumes for the perfect debunking Proust quote, and within 5 minutes I found:

“For things … as soon as we have perceived them [i.e. the madeleine] are transformed within us into something immaterial [are you listening?], something of the same nature as all our preoccupations and sensations of that particular time, with which, indissolubly, they blend. A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables the strong wind and brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were reading it. And this is why the kind of literature which contents itself with ‘describing things,’ with giving of them merely a miserable abstract of lines and surfaces [refer again to article, and various diagrams in it], is in fact, though it calls itself realist, the FURTHEST REMOVED FROM REALITY [emphasis added, mea culpa, I’m in a mood] and has more than any other the effect of saddening and impoverishing us, since it abruptly severs all communication of our present self both with the past, the essence of which is preserved in things, and with the future, in which things incite us to enjoy the essence of the past a second time. Yet it is precisely this essence that an art worthy of the name must seek to express; then at least, if it fails, there is a lesson to be drawn from its impotence (whereas from the successes of realism there is nothing to be learnt), the lesson that this essence is, in part, subjective and incommunicable.”

This endless baker’s dissection of Proust’s description… reminds me so much of cocktail party conversations where nothing is ventured or gained, where trivia are exchanged endlessly and knowledge hovers in the background, unable to penetrate. Also to some extent, it reminds me of some post-concert receptions, where people come up, very friendly, wonderful people, and ask me all sorts of bizarre minutiae about composers, their eating habits, the strings on their pianos, their views on elephants–I don’t know, whatever. And while I am telling them I have no idea, I am thinking “I could tell you a lot, maybe, if you’d ask the right questions.”

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted May 13, 2005 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I have made the Proust Madeleine and served it with great success. The almond hint in it is irresistible.And the pleasure of the name…Madeleine..Madeleine. Too bad I forgot the recipe…Or who I served it to. But I do remember their content faces…

  2. Anonymous
    Posted May 13, 2005 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Madeleines are little cakelike cookies that are baked in special molds that give them a delicate shell shape. According to one story the name “Madeleine” was given to the cookies by Louis XV to honor his father in-law’s cook Madeleine Paulmier. Louis first tasted them at the Chateau Commercy in Lorraine in 1755. Louis’ wife, Marie introduced them to the court and they soon became all the rage at Versailles. Whatever the origins, they have become inextricably linked with the author Marcel Proust, who described them as “…little shell of cake, so generously sensual beneath the piety of its stern pleating.”

  3. DO
    Posted May 13, 2005 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the right question: Jeremy, are you some kind of postmodernist whack job or something?

  4. Jeremy Denk
    Posted May 14, 2005 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I love getting comments on my blog, so thank you all! I have to wonder if some of these anonymous posts are by masquerading provocateurs, wanting to goad me into even further rants…

    I stand by my assertion that Proust’s revelation has nothing whatsoever to do with the specific taste of the madeleine (whether made with almond, lemon, or whatever, whether it is well-made, etc.) but with the relation between that taste and an earlier time of his life. I also assert that there is no “Proust Madeleine.” The fact that it happened to be a Madeleine, and not some other pastry, food, or sensory stimulus, is completely arbitrary.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted May 14, 2005 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Stick to your guns, Jeremy. You know whereof you speak.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted June 5, 2005 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree-the madleine only works for Marcel, and only because of his associations with it. The actual food has precious little to do with the memory rush.

    So kids, out there, when you read your Proust (and by all means do) don’t rush out to Starbucks, buy a threepack of Madelines, wolf one down and expect it to kick in like a psychedelic–that is, unless of course it spells out your primal scene, your childhood.

    So recipies, schmecipies, let us read!

  7. Anonymous
    Posted June 12, 2006 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    And while I am telling them I have no idea, I am thinking “I could tell you a lot, maybe, if you’d ask the right questions.”

    So, do you ever give them a second chance? Do you ever dare to ask them “the right questions”? Perhaps they are also merely hiding behind their syllables.

  8. Kim
    Posted June 15, 2006 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I think you all need to calm down…it’s a little cake. Personally, I don’t doubt that Proust was reliving his Madeleine vicariously thru a soggy piece of toast. It’s just the sort of thing he would do. However, I doubt he intended the Great Debate regarding his work to be over a little cake.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted April 27, 2007 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I thought the slate article was hilarious. You’re just having a sense of humour failure.

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