About a third of the way through In Search of Lost Time and I can tell you that what most people think about the book — that it’s all about memory, especially involuntary memory — is wrong. Yes, Proust does write about the power of memory, but he writes even more about the power of anticipation. His largest theme seems to be the way that our minds shape experience both by thinking about what’s going to happen, or what might happen, and then by reconstructing events after they pass. Experience itself always seems to evade Marcel, the narrator, or to disappear behind what he imagines it ought to be or believes it was. This is I think what the Proust means when he writes, “Our imagination [is] like a barrel-organ out of order, which always plays some other tune than that shown on its card.”
For instance, for a long time the young Marcel pleads with his parents to let him go to the theater, where he is especially eager to see a great actress named Berma. But when he finally (and unexpectedly) gets his wish, he is disappointed: Berma isn’t all he had hoped she would be. Indeed, no one could have been, because the anticipation was so intense and the expectations so high.
But then, when he is older, he gets to see Berma again,
And then, miraculously, like those lessons which we have laboured in vain to learn overnight and find intact, got by heart, on waking up next morning, and like those faces of dead friends which the impassioned efforts of our memory pursue without recapturing and which, when we are no longer thinking of them, are there before our eyes just as they were in life, the talent of Berma, which had evaded me when I sought so greedily to grasp its essence, now, after these years of oblivion, in this hour of indifference, imposed itself on my admiration with the force of self-evidence.
My impression, to tell the truth, though more agreeable than on the earlier occasion, was not really different. Only, I no longer confronted it with a pre-existent, abstract and false idea of dramatic genius, and I understood now that dramatic genius was precisely this. It had just occurred to me that if I had not derived any pleasure from my first encounter with Berma, it was because, as earlier still when I used to meet Gilberte [Swann, his first love] in the Champs-Elysées, I had come to her with too strong a desire.
One of the reasons he is so captivated by Berma’s art is that when he comes to the theatre he isn’t thinking about her at all: rather, he is thinking about the Duchess de Guermantes, whom he is obsessively besotted with and whom he expects will be in attendance. But it never occurs to Marcel that he might be building up the Duchess in his imagination just as excessively as he had built up Berma. That old barrel-organ is still out of order, but he doesn’t notice.
This is part of the ongoing comedy of the book, which is often overlooked. Proust is very shrewd about the ways we never really learn from experience — or rather, like the generals who are always fighting the previous war, we learn from our last experience but fail to apply its lessons to what faces us today.