The Proustian Magic Of Marie Kondo

Yvonne Medina
Curious
Published in
12 min readFeb 7, 2021

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Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash

At first glance, the Oscar Wildean French socialite and innovative modernist, Marcel Proust, has little to do with Marie Kondo, our beloved Japanese domestic goddess who teaches us how to properly fold socks. For the uninitiated, Proust wrote A La Recherche du Temps Perdu or In Search of Lost Time, a seven-part series of novels thousands of pages long and almost as digressive as James Joyce’s Ulysses. Marie Kondo wrote a slim volume, the internationally bestselling The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Both authors have touched my life in surprisingly similar ways as they teach me about memory, mindfulness, and materiality.

Proust’s series is the longest book in the Western canon if counted as one book. It is considered a badge of honor (or perhaps folly) to have read all the books. Proust’s navel-gazing prose and rambling sentences reflect the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis. Reading his prose is like plunging into the psyche of the most erudite and neurotic person you know. The claustrophobic interiority makes you privy to his every fleeting thought in the most florid prose. By contrast, Marie Kondo’s spare prose, minimalist layout, and practical advice could not be more different stylistically.

If Marie Kondo is a trip to a therapist’s office whose highly curated space includes a spider plant, a white couch, and a few Tibetan spiritual objects, then reading Proust is like visiting a beloved eccentric relative’s rambling apartment bursting with antiques, memories, and layered smells of dried flowers and cooking sherry. Both visits will impart wisdom, but they will do so in completely different ways.

Most French people read only the first chapter, usually as a patriotic exercise in school since it is one of the most famous first chapters. It follows a man’s recollections of his early childhood vacations in the provincial French village, Combray, and magnifies the most mundane occurrences like not receiving a kiss from mother before bed to the level of existential drama. At the end of the first chapter, readers are rewarded with the famous scene featuring the petite madeleine. The entire action consists of the author as an adult eating a madeleine, a buttery French pastry cookie in the shape of a scalloped seashell, une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Eating this tea-soaked cookie involuntarily summons a flood of memories from his childhood; suddenly long forgotten architectural structures from his childhood neighborhood spring into his mind. He takes several sips of tea while he wonders: “Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being?” The cookie’s magnetic force summons the mental energy to recreate the world he had hitherto forgotten. He writes:

“And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

This lengthy paragraph is only two sentences long, ending the first chapter on a nostalgic note like a minor chord reverberating across a large room. Interestingly, Proust compares the way his sense memory conjures up a street in Combray to a Japanese wet origami art wherein crumpled paper transforms into recognizable shapes when submerged in water. Perhaps my forgotten memory of Proust’s Japonisme, or exoticized interest in Japanese culture, triggered my connection of him to Marie Kondo. References to Japanese culture flow throughout A La Recherche du Temps Perdu like an undercurrent of thought, revealing Proust’s interest in Eastern wisdom. Marie Kondo has translated some of these concepts for a global audience and it has resonated around the world.

I admit I did not take an intensive undergraduate course on A La Recherche du Temps Perdus to explore modernist aesthetics. I took it to understand the question French people kept asking me the semester I studied in Paris: “Quelle est ta madeleine de Proust?” Or, in English: “What is your Proustian madeleine?” I quickly learned they wanted to know what food evoked an instantaneous hit of nostalgia for me. Perhaps they were curious what an American would choose — Oreos, peanut butter, a McDonald’s happy meal? For me, it is sliced strawberries with a sprinkle of sugar.

I distinctly remember my mother giving me sliced strawberries with a neat little pile of sugar on a dessert plate patterned with faded roses. I was about three years old and this was a common treat for me after dinner, but this time I remember feeling compelled to savor every bite. In the shadows of a dark blue dining room of our rambling Victorian home I vowed never to forget this particular moment. My mother had sliced the strawberries to perfection. I tasted the tartness of the strawberries on my tongue, the red juices bleeding the foothills of the sugar mountain pink like the faded roses on the plate beneath. Even as a child I could feel my memories sliding past me too quickly, and I wanted to trap one that I could remember forever. I think I was right to pick a food memory for the one I vowed to crystallize in my memory since many of my earliest childhood memories involve food.

When I teach the first chapter of Swann’s Way I show a brief clip of Disney Pixar’s film Ratatouille. It is the climax of the movie, the moment when the aptly named food critic Anton Ego decides whether Chef Gusteau’s restaurant deserves a strong review which would bring back its former glory. The rat makes a dish of ratatouille, a bold choice to serve to a food critic since it is a meatless peasant dish. When the critic takes his first bite the film’s pace switches to slow motion; Ego drops his pen in horror as drumbeats punctuate its bounces on the floor. He experiences a moment of recognition and an involuntary flashback to a childhood memory; his mother consoles him after a bad day with his favorite comfort food: a piping hot bowl of ratatouille. My students immediately make the connection to Proust’s madeleine.

A Proustian madeleine in Harry Potter terms is a cross between a Portkey and a Pensieve. Portkeys are ordinary objects most people would throw in the garbage since they are designed to be repulsive to Muggles (non-magical humans who should not interact with the magical community.) These discarded items can teleport large groups of magical people to far flung destinations when they all touch the portkey at the same time. A pensieve, however, is a beautiful magical object, a stone basin covered in runes, that allows one to enter a memory of another person. That person can watch the memory as if they were immersed in the scene, but they observe it like a film director watching the actors from a distance. This is a memory, so the people in the memory cannot interact with the observer. The pensieve offers a way to preserve subjective memory while inviting others to participate in it, a fantasy of being able to enter another person’s memory and subjectivity.

After college I found myself surrounded by Harry Potter books and other bestsellers as patrons checked them in and out of the library’s collection. I was working full time as a librarian and dedicated myself to the work unlike Proust’s brief stint as a librarian. (He hardly ever showed up to work and the library finally let him go after paying him a salary for several years.) I read Marie Kondo’s book in the winter of 2016, two years after it took off like wildfire on the international bestseller lists. Most of the other librarians mocked it. We were skeptical of anything this popular as a general principle. The book still could not stay on our new bookshelf longer than a few hours. I snatched a copy home one day and read it partly out of curiosity and partly out of a genuine desire to pare down my possessions. I lived in a small space where I could almost touch both sides of my bedroom if I stood in the middle of the room and held out my arms to either side.

I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up voraciously in one sitting and was more surprised than anyone to watch it magically change my life. I was not expecting to find wisdom in Marie Kondo’s exhortation to thank my socks as I folded them according to her specific pattern. My mindset started to shift after I overcame my skepticism with the process. I began by learning the most space-efficient methods for folding clothes and mastered how to fit almost anything in a shoe box. Although her practical advice on folding and organizing works well, it is her central tenet that has crept into popular parlance: only keep objects that “spark joy.” Once you practice the process of determining whether a possession sparks joy, you cannot help but apply it to the rest of your life. The combination of practical advice with Eastern wisdom worked for me.

In Marie Kondo’s Netflix T.V. Series “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” she makes a musical noise “Ching!” that sounds like someone striking a triangle bell to describe this moment of joy. Kondo does not speak English fluently and works with a translator in the series. This onomatopoeic sound, though, transcends any language barrier as every viewer knows exactly what that “Ching!” sound means to them; whether they hear it when they touch a long sought after antique painting or catch sight of their favorite Faragamos finally on sale.

Kondo’s method is much more affirmative than negative. She does not make you dwell on your reasons for accumulating possessions or wallow in shame. She helps her followers identify what brings joy to them and in that process, what does not. Marie Kondo does not have a one size fits all method of tidying up. She does not tell you to eliminate a certain percentage of your possessions or build a capsule wardrobe; instead, she empowers you to make your own decisions as you develop mindful relationships with your possessions. I tried thanking my items for the purposes they served in my life, whether the purchase was a well-loved object or perhaps an ill-judged purchase that did not quite fit my lifestyle. Every thank you next moment as I consigned an object to Goodwill or the trash was a moment of reckoning with my past self. I had a reason for acquiring and keeping that object, and it had imparted some use to me, even if that use was no longer necessary.

It was the easiest decluttering process I have ever tried, and it changed my life in some subtle and not so subtle ways. I began to shop more carefully and preferred to handle the object in the store as I asked myself: “Does this object spark joy? Will it spark joy in the future?” As a result, I started buying fewer consumer items. The process may also have contributed to the breakup of a long-term relationship and a career shift. Marie Kondo warns that some people make drastic lifestyle changes after implementing her program. I was already contemplating a career change that would probably necessitate a big move. The relationship was winding down anyway, but this decluttering process may have been the tipping point. (An unintended effect of this is that subsequent boyfriends have low-key panicked when they hear me announce I am making a donation trip to Goodwill.) I decided I wanted to go to graduate school to get my Ph.D., and this resolution was strengthened by Marie Kondo’s advice to find things that spark joy. I do not think anyone should undertake a Ph.D. program if the subject does not spark joy for them.

Kondo’s experience helping others worship in Shinto shrines certainly informs her philosophies about how people should interact with the material world. Marie Kondo devoted herself to a Shinto shrine in her youth. Shintoism is an indigenous Japanese religion that emphasizes animism, the belief that inanimate objects have souls or are part of a supernatural force organizing the material universe. Admittedly, I know very little about Eastern philosophies and Shintoism; however, the parallels with Romanticism are unmistakable.

Pantheism, or the belief that divinity can be found diffused across all the natural world, was popular among English Romantic poets. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s stunningly evocative poem, “Eolian Harp,” positions the artistic mind as a harp waiting for a divine wind to blow across it with inspiration. John Keats’ contemplation of a piece of ancient pottery in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” leads him to his most immortalized line “beauty is truth / truth beauty.” No one has been able to locate the specific piece of ancient pottery which inspired this thought, but that is decidedly not the point of this poem. It does not matter if the urn ever existed in actual form. Romanticism teaches us that the object is an excuse for the rabbit hole of memories that it awakens in us. Of course, a real danger of romanticism is treating a human like a beloved object. It is wrong to treat people as repositories for one’s hopes and dreams, for they deserve better than that. Proust warns us of this failing in Swann’s love triangles with Odette. Intrepid readers will learn way too much about Proust’s relationship with his mother and the rise and fall of Swann’s love affair with Odette, a coquette.

Proust’s intense interiority can produce dizziness whether you read it in the original or a translated version. He encourages readers to draw connections in ways they never thought possible among literature, painting, music, and other arts in an intricate web of erudition. People have written about how Proust anticipated important findings in neuropsychology decades before they were scientifically proven. Proust may not have invented stream of consciousness writing, but he is undoubtedly one of its greatest practitioners. Readers must follow the minute, fleeting impressions the mind makes which defy any length of text to capture adequately. The effect is like the impressionist paintings Proust honors so well. This style of painting emerged around the same time trains revolutionized transportation. Impressionist paintings capture fleeting impressions like the almost blurry, quick moving countryside one sees outside a train window. These paintings also capture the fleeting impressions of the painter, emphasizing the artist’s subjectivity and the play of light across the landscape. The particularity of the artist’s eye and the shifting sun are paramount in this style of art which emphasizes a personal connection with the natural world by painting outside en plein air in the exact landscape the painter is depicting.

This proximity between memory and materiality is triggered by the immediacy of physical contact with a material object. Proust teaches us how to be attentive to involuntary memory, observing the thoughts that arise from mindful contact with these objects. Marie Kondo urges us to engage with the materiality of our objects: touch them, and observe what effect it produces on our minds, bodies, and souls. Does it stir within us some music? If not, then in the wise words of Ariana Grande, we need to “thank you, next” that item. In thanking these items for the music they once stirred in us we make room for those that produce the music we now want.

As the caretaker of a beloved and occasionally destructive cat, I try to keep a piece of Buddhist wisdom in mind: imagine an object already broken, so you do not become too attached to it. This reminder of the temporary nature of material objects helps me detach my emotional connection to objects from my material one because even the most sentimental object or treasured piece of artwork is inanimate at the end of the day. It is not the object itself that matters. What matters are the feelings the object awakens in us, and those feelings are indestructible.

Maybe I have promiscuously mixed the philosophies of Marcel Proust, Marie Kondo, and even Ariana Grande here, but I have a feeling they would all approve of searching for truth and beauty wherever you can find it.

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Yvonne Medina
Curious

Yvonne Medina has a Ph.D. in English literature. She writes about children’s literature, French culture, neurodivergence, and memoir.