Marcel Proust's lifelong tour of the Parisian Neurological Intelligentsia: from Brissaud and Dejerine to Sollier and Babinski

Eur Neurol. 2007;57(3):129-36. doi: 10.1159/000098463. Epub 2007 Jan 10.

Abstract

In Search of Lost Time, the main novel of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) gives prominence to medicine, especially to neurology. Proust possessed excellent medical knowledge and maintained lifelong contact with neurologists. From 1881 onward, he experienced recurrent attacks of asthma, a condition which, at the time, was considered belonging to 'neurasthenia'. Marcel's father, Adrien Proust, was a famous physician who had written papers on stroke, aphasia, hysteria and neurasthenia, and who introduced his son to Charcot's pupil, Edouard Brissaud, the founder of the Revue Neurologique. Three years later, Brissaud published a landmark book on asthma with a preface by Adrien Proust. In 1905, when Proust intended to undergo a 'cure' in order to improve his asthma and other symptoms, he first considered treatment by Jules Dejerine, who was to become Charcot's second successor. He also considered two Swiss physicians who had studied with Charcot and Vulpian: Henry Auguste Widmer, founder of the Clinique Valmont above Montreux, and Paul Dubois, a schoolmate of Dejerine, who practiced in Berne. Brissaud recommended Paul Sollier, under whose care Proust followed a 6-week 'isolation cure'; Sollier, along with Babinski, was considered the cleverest of Charcot's followers. He had studied memory extensively, in particular affective memory, which caused him to reject Bergson's theories and now makes his work a major precursor. Sollier attempted to trigger 'emotional revivals' (reviviscences), 'reproducing the entire state of the personality of the subject at the time of the initial experience'. This concept was integrated by Proust into his novel, with emphasis on 'involuntary memory'. Proust's last neurologist was Joseph Babinski, whom he consulted repeatedly because he feared becoming aphasic, like his mother. Proust's unusual life journey with the most celebrated neurologists of his time highlights aspects of his literary work and also provides a unique perspective on the neurological intelligentsia at the turn of the 19th century.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • France
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine in Literature*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurology / history*

Personal name as subject

  • Marcel Proust