Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol.1: Snap, Crackle And Pop

Transmissions from nowhere. Digests from the digital netherscape. They are trauma memories preserved in silicon and chrome. They are Chuck Person’s Eccojams.

Introductions done, now the exposition: Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 is a cassette originally released in 2010, in a run of just 100 copies, by Daniel Lopatin, usually known as Oneohtrix Point Never. Now available via YouTube and whichever file sharing program you happen to indulge in, it contains a series of loops taken from pop songs released between 1967 (The Byrds – Everybody’s Been Burned) and 2006 (JoJo – Too Little Too Late), slowed down and dragged with delay and pitch-shifting, with further sound-bending effects added on top. I don’t think those dates were picked with any design in mind, but their integration into the aesthetic of the album is quite revealing. 1967 was the explosion year for popular music – Radio 1, the Monterey Pop Festival, Sgt. Pepper’s, the first Rolling Stone magazine – while September 2006 was the month in which Facebook became available to non-student users, and less than six months later Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone;


Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone. (c) Barry Patterson / Wikimedia Commons

arguably the two most important events in our current technological landscape. So what does it matter? Lopatin picks from pop songs during a forty year epoch before the Internet became truly social and mobile, when music was represented by physical media which had to be loaded onto a device to be played, rather than bits of data downloaded, and latterly streamed, across different platforms. The convenience of it all makes it tempting to think it has always been so for those that cannot remember a state of affairs before it, but it is still all incredibly recent. The UK Singles chart did not include downloads until 2005, and the first song to top it from downloads alone, Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, did not come until a year later.

As any vinyl bore will tell you, records have a memory bound up with their physical product – a Spotify playlist can’t be rediscovered in an attic. Hence the cassette release of Eccojams; with no track listing provided, it is self-consciously in the tradition of the mixtape: a portable selection of hand-picked songs, designed to be passed on to an intimate audience. 2006 is the year in which, arguably, pop culture stopped being an institution controlled from the top down, and where a consumer-led model of curation and creation began to dominate. Let us not forget in 2006 Time Magazine nominated its person of the year as ‘You’. For music, instead of buying those CDs (and at that time it was for all intents and purposes just CDs) and consuming those products as they had been engineered, the new paradigm was to download songs from iTunes, or listen to them slyly through YouTube, from all time periods. The vaults of history were wide open to scroll through and consume, instead of being held back for reprints and reissues issued at a label’s whim. Eccojams is in some ways a response to the phenomenon of engaging with pop, with its sense of a permanent present, as something archaic, almost geologically old.

Eccojams is the best vaporwave release (a label that doesn’t really fit, as that movement coalesced after the release of this album) I know of to convincingly balance corporate anonymity with a softer, lyrical side. Distorted by technology they may be, but these decontextualized pop pieces gleam with feeling in Lopatin’s judicious selection of material. The intimacy that a cassette engenders is further suggested by the themes of love, loss, and missed communication which emerge from the mix. Two of the songs sampled talk about letters – like cassettes, another medium which has been technologically superseded, but in so doing has stripped away technological necessity, and revealed the emotional core inherent to it. To craft a hand-written letter now is inherently a thoughtful act because it will take longer to compose than the electronic messages we send the rest of the time.

The pop songs ebb in and out of a distorted span of time: these gleaming, once futuristic-sounding mixes are saturated with delay and slowed down, giving them a more legged, static quality which represents how obsolescence inevitably catches up with them. Eccojams feels more like a discovered artifact than it does an album. It begins with a fairly straightforward treatment of Toto’s ‘Africa’, concentrating on a spiral keyboard pattern which gives the impression of a curtain being revealed to the main entertainment, which starts with the next track; the one whose structure most resembles a three part pop song. This is the same song which featured on Sunset Corp’s ‘Angel’ video, its name taken from the Fleetwood Mac song which provides the sample. It begins with some extreme cut and pasting of the sample, creating a syncopated dance rhythm through the speed of the edits as different sections of the loop overlap with each other. The second part of the track possesses that same quality of ‘forcing’ different music from the loop, this time by creating a new melody by pitch shifting individual notes. The song fades into nothingness, before it is leapt upon by a snatch of JoJo, which in turn gives way to one of the more underrated jams, a loop of Ian Van Dahl’s ‘Castles In The Sky’. The original song is a quite brainless Euro house anthem. The jam sounds simple but each repetition contains nuanced developments in the delay. Chugging away underneath it all is a synthesiser pattern which sounds like it is constantly ascending, utilising the quality of a loop of an unresolved theme to bring forward a quality of incompletion and tension. The ‘castles in the sky’ are like purpled retrofuturist takes on a forgotten utopia. 

The next track takes just one word from Michael Jackson’s ‘Morphine’, but a pretty crucial one given the circumstances of his death: Demerol. This is another jam originally released via the Sunsetcorp channel, less than a month after Michael Jackson died. Some peace is granted by the next loop, the oldest on the tape, from ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’, where the sustain of Roger McGuinn’s guitar complements the reduced speed and delay which Lopatin uses all over Eccojams. As the Jackson and McGuinn examples show in particular, the expression ‘cratedigging’ is not appropriate to describe the acquisition of samples on this album: there is a sensitive artistic mind at work behind it, one which can hear beyond what sounds good or unusual, and one which is in tune with its predecessors. By magnifying lines like ‘I know that door/That shuts just before’ which wouldn’t be considered especially deep on a standard play through, and repeating them multiple times, they obtain a raw emotional potency.

Janet Jackson samples follow, ones which emphasise the ability Lopatin has to preserve a surprisingly sincere emotional core – the only audible words for this one are ‘lonely’, ‘feelings’, and ‘hold on’. The next sample, from Aphrodite’s Child’s ’The Four Horsemen’ is the closest thing to a misstep on the cassette, though it functions beautifully in the album’s overall structure by bridging the heavily distorted Janet Jackson samples to the closer of the tape’s first side, a virtuosic breakdown of a loop from the end of Marvin Gaye’s ‘My Love Is Waiting’. Gaye sings ‘baby, baby, when I make you mine/I’ll be fine’, but the confident resolution to this 80s pop number is left to keep on waiting by Lopatin, making the singer lose himself in a wall of echo, and synthesised orchestral flourishes


The man himself. (c) user: transmediale / Flickr

ring in almost sarcastically. Lopatin keeps distorting and chopping it, in the one instance of the tape where it actually sounds like a mangled cassette rather than effects put through computer software. Somehow, within the space of a seconds long sample, Lopatin manages to turn a sexually confident R&B track into a paranoid descent into madness, while also using the technology he uses to accomplish this to undermine the nature of recording in the first instance. If physical media are the bulwarks of culture, then Lopatin is positing what happens when those media decay and corrupt; whether or not their artistic centre and ‘message’ can be preserved when the physical shell disintegrates. The first side closes with a descent into white noise, where transmissions threaten to pop in and out. The bookending of the tape sides with these walls of static is a useful tactic in conceptualising the pop loops as found objects, like something that has been dredged from the bottom of the sea.

The second side opens calmly with a slick John Martyn sample, the glistening keyboards of which are fed back on themselves until they resemble a free jazz workout. Martyn sings about the ‘letters that you just don’t write’; more references to missed communication, compounded by technological fault. Segueing from that is one of the least manipulated samples on the album, and one which is the yang to the previous track’s yin. Samples are treated in two ways on this album: either degraded to artful destruction, or slowed down with minimal intervention, so that a single snippet of a pop song becomes a mantra whose profundity keeps hitting you like blows to the head. Kate Bush imploring ‘Don’t give up, you know it’s never been easy’ is an example of the latter, punctuated as it is with the capital letter of a cool keyboard at the beginning of each iteration. Another burst of screwed noise follows, before Fleetwood Mac make their second appearance in the form of ‘Gypsy’, where Lopatin cleverly shifts the emphasis to build to the phrase ‘lightning strikes’ rather than the word ‘gypsy’. This track is given some of the classic treatment accorded to ‘chopped and screwed’ tunes, as pioneered by DJ Screw in the 1990s: an immensely slowed down beat, and rapid crossfading between the record and one played one beat behind, to give the impression of a track skipping forward at the same tempo. The difference is whereas Screw’s technique accentuated the beats in hip-hop songs by slowing them down so they were palpably different, Lopatin’s technique affords this snatch of a soft rock song an impossible grandeur; growing from jaunty folk-rock to something which, in its references to ‘night’ and ‘lightning’, portends something about the destiny of civilization itself.

One of the more immediately recognisable jams comes next, with a sample from ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty, which lacks the punch of the rest of the album, though it does keep the momentum chugging along. The loop has a ‘sneezing’ quality, where the rhythm and completion of the loop is frustrated, without the benefits of danceable syncopation. The words – ‘just one more year and then we’ll be happy’ work well with some of the other dispossessed fragments on the cassette, but the whole package falls a bit flat. The momentum is picked back up straight away though for a glorious run to the end of the album. First Lopatin painstakingly re-assembles a sample one note a time, creating an otherwise nonexistent driving rhythm and pitch shifting up and down the frequencies, diving down before catapulting upwards into…Phil Collins. In a duet with Marilyn Martin no less, from the 1985 single ‘Separate Lives’. If you want to take it personally, there are hints of a heartbreak story hidden in this album, interrupted by these decaying transmissions, which is one of the reasons why it succeeds when a lot of anti-corporate vaporwave fails, as the artists don’t have the vision or ability to match personal and political threads.

The next jam is the most well-known, and could have a blog entry all on its own. It dates back to at least 2009, when Lopatin’s YouTube alter ego Sunset Corp uploaded a video titled ‘nobody here’, which features a continuous scrolling of a rainbow road type highway through an urban sky, all dimmed by a layer of video noise. The music is taken from Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’; the snippet of a chorus line ‘There’s nobody here…’ is extracted. Without the ‘…just you and me’ from the original song to bring it back to earth, the loop keeps on yearning and returning without resolve. Thanks to the waves of delay, the guitar possesses an anxious quality and the synthesiser sounds expansive and choral; the two in tandem paint the emptiness which DeBurgh sings about.

Following that drama, a chopped and screwed treatment of Tupac’s ‘Me Against The World’ feels a bit out of place, but demonstrates Lopatin’s sense of humour, if nothing else, to hear all the G-Funk tropes – sexualised female singer, swaggering synthesiser – have all their macho braggadocio sucked out the backside. Something Eccojams left as an influence on the nascent vaporwave scene was a penchant for treating samples with pitch shifting so that they sound much more androgynous. Talented producers like Macintosh Plus have developed this further.

What becomes apparent on the next jam, a rework of Heart’s ‘These Dreams’, is that using delay is not an artistic open goal, and sometimes the abundance of a particular sound creates phantom aural effects. Like the best artists, Lopatin uses this to his advantage, as the sibilance of ‘the sweetest song that I’ve heard is silence’ creates the sound image of rushing grass, with wind running through it; an astonishingly organic quality for something treated so abrasively through editing. ‘Silence’ is important – more indicators of missed communication. That’s a theme which is picked up in the final jam, a concise three part suite which opens with Jeff Lynne singing ‘Letter from…’ over and over, not saying ‘Letter from Spain’ as he does in the original ELO song of the same name. The letter’s sender is unknown, rubbed from history. Womack & Womack give us a jaunty bridge to the final sounds of the album, which come from ‘Woman In Chains’ by Tears For Fears. The last word on this album is one of the most plaintive on the whole cassette, and means that everything before it is qualified with that focus; hence my emphasis on the hidden love story suggested by many of these pieces.

That Eccojams remains difficult to classify exactly is a testament to its power and originality. I have even read opinion pieces which describe them as the peak of sampling as an artform. My view is that they present pop music, the forever dominant idiom, in photo negative: a style which relies upon sounding new, technologically innovative, and emotionally distinct, whittled down into a set of gnomic mantras of emotional ambiguity, all accompanied by a contextual point, arising after 2006, of how permeable and permanent pop music, transmitted as digital media, truly is.


Why It Works: Kraftwerk – Computer Love (1981)

The song most relevant to our times was released 35 years ago. 1981 saw the release of the first IBM PC, MS-DOS (the precursor to the Windows operating system), Minitel in France (a videotex service, a precursor to the Internet) and Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the musical prophecy of that year which somehow managed to identify the still nascent field of computing and identify the emotional strands of our interaction which would linger even now.

The title track’s three note motif initially seems quite disappointing, after the band’s previous album kick-started with spiralling synthesisers cartwheeling through the continent on the Trans-Europe Express. But it is a masterclass of artistic efficiency, channelling the pips and notifications which have become more prevalent in the app-driven technoscape. ‘Pocket Calculator’ seems charmingly out-of-date until you realise that the choice of device is merely a springboard to explore the mix of giddiness and ignorance which accompanies interaction with portable technology, the kind which follows us around all of the time. The song tells us more about our relationship with smartphones than their subsequent effort ‘The Telephone Call’ on Electric Café does.

‘Computer Love’ stands at the peak of this album, and possibly on the whole of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre. It is irrelevant to think about whether the ‘proper’ version of this song is sung in English or German. Even though some critics fairly point out that the scansion of the vocals at least suggests that it was written in English in first, it wouldn’t be Kraftwerk without the vocals sounding a bit unwieldy and computer generated. The band was built to serve translations of their work – to English, French and even Japanese. Their work transmits freely through cross-national boundaries, underpinned as it is by the technocratic globe which their music describes. By singing bilingually, they also ensure that at least one version of their songs will sound remote and unhuman.

The subject matter is ideally suited to Ralf Hutter’s deadpan delivery. The image he invokes is striking in its similarity to a situation familiar to most of us in 2016. Nights spent alone in bed watching TV (Netflix), bored by choice, swiping left and right in search of a ‘data date’; a soulmate mined out of big data. Each vocal line is offered twice, an indictment of the abundance and repetition presented by digital media, which leads to apathy as data repeatedly scrolls past. In a counterintuitive move typical of the band, the second half becomes much more revealing and more human when the machines take over. The instrumental section can be admired from a distance, like filigree wallpaper patterns, but you can trace even more by analysing it deeply. The synthesiser which punctuated the melody line between the lyrics in the first half and the synthesiser played during the chorus begin playing call-and-response patterns at each other, like distant male and female voices. They echo, tantalisingly overlapping near the end but at a slightly different rhythm before disappearing from each other again as the song fades out. The two users never connect. This is driven with an increase in tempo and a bass line which sometimes withholds or spits out extra notes like an impatient loading bar; all of which cements this concept of technological progress dampened by human stasis.

The second half of this song is the engine room of the Computer World album, and it deserves resuscitating when it was savagely edited for a radio version to serve as B-side to ‘Das Modell’, when it was almost entirely cut. The full version is inspiring and caustic, emotional and robotic; it is the satisfaction of seeing a new device welcome you into its grasp, it is the ignored message you sent to someone whose presence haunts you from SMS to WhatsApp to Facebook timeline. If Coldplay’s pilfering of the riff for their 2005 single ‘Talk’ has achieved anything, it is to demonstrate how their emotionally incontinent output has the earnestness and robustness of a belated birthday card. Kraftwerk, the automatons, hardcode emotion onto you.

Even without the technology generating the music, the song would reveal a lot about relationships. But now our world is built out of data, and it is what cocoons connected, yet alien souls in the night.  



Why It Works: Kommunion (Alternate Version) (2012)

If you take the Manchester Metrolink from Eccles to Piccadilly, your tram window will allow you to see newbuilds springing up on formerly derelict sites, with railway arches and old warehouses peppered with units of restaurants and bars and nightclubs. The Metrolink is the shuttle which defines the city. A fleet of sleek radiation-yellow trams built in Germany pierce through it in resurrection of the trains which ran in the early 20th century. Manchester on the surface is a success story in Britain, of how a manufacturing city can survive post-industrialisation, while recycling enough of its heritage to make it feel culturally autonomous. The records put out on the Manchester-based Modern Love label on the other hand, suggest something deeper, a haunting in brick and steel; a part of the north-west’s past which does not gloss onto brochures.

Since 2010, Modern Love has consolidated about an axis of two acts: Andy Stott and Demdike Stare. These producers create Brutalist techno, dance music which plunges to a darkness and depth which Lustmord might recognise, but with beats. Demdike Stare are Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker, the latter of whom is currently based in Berlin. ‘Kommunion (Alternate Version)’ is taken from their 2012 release Elemental, a compilation of four EPs released previously – the original version of ‘Kommunion’ can be found on the first, Chrysanthe. While the name of the LP seems nature-inspired, industry is as much a point of reference: the first half of the song is a pitch-black rising from the ooze, a perpetual thunderstorm, which is propelled along with a mechanical rumbling, generated by a cog turned by tortured souls in Hell. The machines dictate the operators and wreak vengeance: the second half of the song features the sound of a piano being poltergeisted inside and out, with keys mashed and wire scraped.

The song is possessed; you can hear percussion morphed from demonic voice samples and hisses of white noise or steam. The dancefloor at its best offers a model of a sexless, raceless space, where all can join. The title of ‘Kommunion’ is devilish as it creates a wash of connotations: a more sinister comingling of souls on the dancefloor, or a dark transubstantiation, or a gathering organised by a faceless communist diktat. So many terrible songs from goth rock or metal or industrial try to scare you but end up reliant on the same tired tropes of SUDDEN LOUD NOISES or rehashed imagery (blood, Satan, puppets etc). The difference between them and ‘Kommunion’ is like the difference between your standard surprise-heavy slasher film and a David Lynch film, where the terror comes through having the rulebook of the viewer-film relationship torn up. To continue that analogy, ‘Kommunion’ is scary not because it tries to scare you, but because it presents an opaque world that can’t be shaped to pre-existing expectations. It’s the difference between shallow and deep surprise. The difference between surprises coming along like punctuation marks, or as if woven into the very fabric of what you are seeing or hearing.

Looking at the best-selling dance tracks for 2012 shows you the social media dancefloor vanguard: a torrent of self-celebratory piss-weak EDM tracks which are presumably meant to detoxify and empower the listener like a dose of Dulclolax. ‘Kommunion’ is refreshing because it subjects you completely under its will, trapping you in a black cyclone. That sense of circuitousness in the first half inverts the convention of dance music as an addictive burst into drowning layers of terror, the late arrival of a four-to-the-floor beat like a Manchurian Candidate-style call to zombified dancers.

It’s this sense of vastness, of resurrection, which allows the song to feel like it communicates on behalf of the entire city, dredging up forgotten voices. The current incarnation of Manchester reflects its manufacturing past, but machines have to obsolesce. They have to improve and economise and become redundant. The music of Demdike Stare brings them back and delves beyond the surface of converted factories and warehouses. It does not offer a direct social comment as such, but rather exposes the unromantic sublime of large-scale machinery, of the simultaneous terror and wonder it can inspire as much as any Wordsworthian vision of a mountain, which we can forget in our rush to tame them with clubs and studios and pop-up barbecue meat dispensers. It’s something to consider the next time you take the Metrolink and look out the window. And if you’re in the area, my Mum thinks the Harvey Nichols is pretty great.

Proust in Purgatory

“The marine dining-room of Balbec, with its damask linen prepared like so many altar-cloths to receive the setting sun, had sought to shatter the solidity of the Guermantes mansion, to force open its doors, and for an instant had made the sofas around me sway and tremble as on another occasion it had done to the tables of the restaurant in Paris. Always, when these resurrections took place, the distant scene engendered around the common sensation had for a moment grappled, like a wrestler, with the present scene. Always the present scene had come off victorious, and always the vanquished one had appeared to me the more beautiful of the two, so beautiful that I had remained in a state of ecstasy on the uneven paving-stones or before the cup of tea, endeavouring to prolong or to reproduce the momentary appearances of the Combray or the Balbec or the Venice which invaded only to be driven back, which rose up only at once to abandon me in the midst of the new scene which somehow, nevertheless, the past had been able to permeate.”

There is precedent in In Search of Lost Time for paralleling secular and religious experience- the famous of episode the madeleine dipped in tea occurs because the young Marcel does not go out before Mass on Sundays; he has tea with his aunt Leonie instead. In the quotation I have provided above, another example of involuntary memory is framed with recognisable props from Catholic worship, along with the word ‘resurrection’, to give the moment a religiously charged air.  An implied relationship is established between the historic ceremony, part of France’s cultural fabric, from which a transcendent experience is achieved, and the narrator’s personal revelation at the bottom of a cup of tea. In Proust’s customary sustained exposition of the scene, he links memories to the souls of the dead, lying in a dormant state before being recalled by a shock of involuntary memory. This, of course, is an allusion to the Catholic doctrine that death is not the end; prayers are necessary to establish worth for the Second Coming, and there is the particular emphasis on the living to pray for the souls of the dead in purgatory in order for them to finally achieve release into heaven. As the Council of Trent decreed – “the souls therein detained are aided by the suffrages of the faithful and principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.” There is little literature that I can find which develops upon how Proust’s vision of memory is influenced by Catholic doctrine (particularly purgatory) and the status of Catholicism in France during his formative years; this is my attempt to make a few suggestions.

But first, some context. Proust was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic mother, split between two cultures each with an enormous pressure on filial inheritance. France’s religious laws at the time meant that his mother was free to practice her religion, but her son had to be baptised in the Catholic faith. Still, Proust’s close connection to his mother ensured that he did not become detached from the religion, and Milton Hindus notes that, notoriously poor health permitting, Proust would arrange an annual pilgrimage to the Jewish cemetery in order to visit his ancestors. 1905 was arguably the formative year beyond all others for Proust, as his beloved mother died and France passed its Separation Law, which seismically ruptured Church from State. The Law was borne out of the Dreyfus Affair, an event whose divisiveness in French society is difficult to overstate. The fallout meant that France split into two political camps, with the increasingly anti-clerical Drefyusards coming into government after 1899. With the Separation Law, Napoleon’s Concordat of Church and State was broken, religious schools were secularised, and the nobis nominavit was adjusted to say that bishops were now state employees, rather than delegates of Rome. One should always be wary of second guessing an author’s feelings, but I believe that the two events coalesced to inspire the writer to form his particular renditions of memory in his novel. He loses his closest relative, friend, and love of his life at the same time as France shears religious buildings of their innate power, putting religion on the same level as any secular activity that may take place there. Exacerbated by Proust’s duality of religious inheritance (Proust’s mother was not given a Christian burial), religion no longer has sole claim to the process of commemorating the dead and, in effect, resurrecting them through ritual. The use of involuntary memory in In Search of Lost Time is an attempt to find a compromise to this, to pull up the ‘dead’ matter of someone’s life in an unexpected moment of clarity and discovery.

Proust was compelled enough by the issue of Separation to write two articles on the subject, arguing in the ‘Death of Cathedrals’ in 1904 that:

our churches may, and often will, be alienated from their true purpose; not only will no government subsidy be forthcoming for the celebration of the rites, but the very fabrics will be transformed in whatever way may seem fit for those in authority: to serve the purpose of museums, lecture halls or casinos.

Proust wants to maintain churches as an oasis of transcendent experience, not static ‘museums’, even though he was no committed Catholic himself. He also states:

no longer will you listen to the Mass that was assured to you through the most undeniable sums of your money donated to the building of the church. No longer will the dead govern the living, according to the profound saying. And the forgetful living will have ceased to carry out the wishes of the dead.

This is largely inspired by his great influence Ruskin.  From Ruskin he develops a peculiar affectation for Gothic religion and architecture which is neither fully within the realms of religion nor fully in the world of art – an in-between space, where cathedrals provoke the rapture of art but with a sense of obsequiousness in the viewer to the enormity of the effort and belief which is memorialised by the architecture. The character of Marcel has his own special influence within the novel, the author Bergotte, and his death is described as follows:

He was buried, but all that dismal night, his books, laid out three by three in the lighted shop windows, kept vigil like angels with their wings spread, and seemed for he who was no longer, the symbol of his resurrection.

Notice that word ‘resurrection’ again, as well as a simile which establishes the indeterminacy between whether religion or art is the key to memorial. This is another side effect of the Separation Law in Proust’s work and one which is unique because it affects the reception of artists; do they occupy a domain with its own rules for remembrance, or are they part of a bigger religious collective which, in essence, means their creative works have no more need for remembrance than that of the ordinary man? It’s a difficult debate, and one that can be analysed by looking at Proust’s engagement with another of his important influences.

Another of Proust’s important influences was Francois de Chateaubriand, a useful case study to consider as Proust borrowed much from him but fell short of becoming the Christian apologist that Chateaubriand was. At one point in The Genius of Christianity Chateaubriand writes:

Finally, not satisfied with having fulfilled these duties in behalf of each individual, Religion crowns her pious work in honor of the dead by a general ceremonial, which recalls the memory of the innumerable inhabitants of the grave, that vast community of departed mortals where rich and poor lie together, that republic of perfect equality where no one can enter without first doffing his helmet or crown to pass under the low door of the tomb.

By his conception, the wonder of the Catholic rites of death is to show the real equality of the kingdom of man, as death is the inevitability that unites everyone. With regards to purgatory, Chateaubriand writes:

My virtue, insignificant being as I am, becomes the common property of Christians; and, as I participate in the guilt of Adam, so also the good that I possess passes to the account of others.

Here there is a similar emphasis on religion’s ability to reconcile rich and poor – a few lines later Chateaubriand equates prayer with ‘giving bread’, the symbol of sharing and selflessness par excellence. Coming from a chimeric religious background, Proust cannot possess the same confidence in one faith alone. The quotations taken from the novel in this essay point to wars a peripheral religion, one where the symbols are recognised and adopted in the prose to provide a confirmation of transcendent experience, but the kernel is essentially secular. The next step in democratisation of an individual’s remembrance is to promote their history and its recollection as the best way of achieving that. Maybe it is a warning of sorts against Separation (Proust’s irony is underappreciated by most readers who, like myself, fall in love with the fluidity of his prose), or maybe it is a reflective suggestion on how the past can stay with an individual without the rigorous structure of Catholic ceremony.

There is another piece of context to consider here on top of the Separation Law, one which lacks the immediate political expediency and influence of Drefyusism. In the last decades of the 19th century, European states increasingly looked at cremation as a necessarily effective method of disposing of dead bodies, because the increased population density of urban centres was promoting the spread of infectious diseases. In France a Cremation Society was formed in the 1870s to agitate for a law to permit it, which was eventually passed by 1889. Between the latter date and 1907, over 70,000 cremations took place in Paris. Apart from exceptional circumstances, Catholic rites for the dead depend on the presence of the body in the church to realise their full symbolic power. With cremation, the church was dealt another blow to coincide with the state’s claim over the buildings. The two factors combined to puncture the religious sanctity around preservation and commemoration of the dead. The specialised realisation of post-mortem remembrance could no longer be taken for granted.

Proust is magnificent in opening up the ambivalence of such a paradigm shift – at once it means that the reserve of France’s cultural power is completely drained of its heritage, but on the other hand it democratises memory to the point at which anything can be sacred, so anything can become a mnemonic towards recalling the past and propagating its importance. On the subject of deomcratisation, another development towards preserving the dead was a law of November 1881 which ended religious discrimination on burials and allowed Protestants, Jews, and Catholics to be buried side-by-side. Proust’s intense concentration on individual experience is inevitable in that case, because the vision of a community restricted by religious sect is ameliorated. The memory of the individual is more important than commemoration of an entire religious community on their behalf.

It is easy to think that with a narrator as wordy as Marcel, who appears to insert his entire manifesto into the second half of Time Regained, that all aspects of the author’s philosophy are communicated directly to the reader. And yet, it is difficult to establish whether Proust attempts to find a subtle invocation of Catholic practice in secular activities, or whether he promotes the miracles of everyday life as an alternative to Catholicism following the Separation of Church and State. His article on the ‘Death of Cathedrals’ doesn’t make matters much clearer, as it is most effective only at projecting his ambivalence between valuing Christian architecture for its cultural heritage, and the uniquely religious purpose of the ceremonies which take place within it.