alt

There was a big ceremony, speeches. The lieutenant governor even showed up. Three days later, another car rolled off that same line. No one gave two craps about her. But they should have, because this 1967 Chevrolet Impala would turn out to be the most important car -- no, the most important object -- in pretty much the whole universe.

– Chuck, Swan Song

Supernatural is, despite being a thoughtful show shot through with a vast web of emotion, a program that lives largely on red-blooded everyman American action. So what the hell am I doing comparing it with that most interior of novels, a septet of bourgeoisie etiquette, titled nobility and late nineteenth-century French salon culture, Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu?

Not the entire work to be sure, for I don’t recall Sam and Dean ever sipping gentle fare in sartorial dress – though they came close at the Sea Pines Maritime Museum. Proust’s work, for all intents and purposes, begins with the most famous moment of involuntary memory in literary history, the dipping of a madeleine in tea. That’s where his story began, and to paraphrase, if not mangle, Chuck, the end, our end, is where this involuntary memory, er, ends. Why such an inversion? The world of Proust, though fiction, is highly autobiographical and real, rational. Sam and Dean inhabit a world that scholars of the ancient Greeks would have called the irrational; except the irrational is really the rational, only most of us civilians don’t know it. Thus where else would we find the key save when the last lines of ink are still drying on the sheet?

(In)volunteers

Hey now it's time for you and me Got a revolution Got to revolution Come on now we're marching to the sea Got a revolution Got to revolution Who will take it from you We will and who are we We are volunteers of America

– Jefferson Airplane, Volunteers

And suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because that day I did not go out before it was time for Mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime blossom. The sight of the little madeleine had not reminded me of anything before I tasted it; perhaps because I had often seen them since, without eating them, on the shelves of the pastry shops.

– Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, p.47, translated by Lydia Davis

The Impala is ubiquitous; it has been part of the background for 106 episodes, a commonplace like rock salt, smart aleck demons, devil’s traps and Sam’s ugly ass paisley shirt. But, as Chuck relates in Swan Song, this hunk of steel is more than meets the eye. As the scenes roll by and we find ourselves in Stull Cemetery for the ultimate revolution, the final showdown between brothers, one pair heavenly and the other flesh, Dean is saddled with a full plate, getting pummeled by a Lucifer-possessed Sam whilst simultaneously pouring his guts out to no effect. Mais, quoi? The lightbringer is blinded, not by some magical, Elysian trick, but by the light of involuntary memory.

An involuntary memory forged by his meatsuit in this car with his brother, Dean.

And upon this rock, I will build my church

Oh let's go, let's strike a light We're gonna blow like dynamite I don't care if it takes all night Gonna set this town alight What do you want? What do you want? I want rock'n'roll, Allright! Long live rock'n'roll Rock of ages, rock of ages Still rollin', keep a-rollin' Rock of ages, rock of ages Still rollin', rock'n'rollin'

– Def Leppard, Rock of Ages

But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.

– Swann’s Way, p.47

The psychological power of Lucifer, the ontological control Sam is subject to, is severed. Sam’s resolve to fight, his anger, only fed the Prince of Lies, and this anger has now been replaced by its polar opposite. The death of people (Mary, John, Ellen, Jo), the destruction of things (Ilchester, Maryland; Carthage, Missouri; Chicago; those afflicted with the Croatoan virus), these cannot stem the inexorable tide of memory. Lucifer, for millennia, ate of nothing but that anger, revenge. Once upon a time, he too loved, but he had forgotten this pleasure, lost this vital substance of existence to the fog of time. This was his weakness. Whatever memory he had of it had been overwritten.

Sam? He could smell Dean’s burger overpowering his salad, the smoky aftermath of fireworks, taste the beer after one more exhausting save, and more; hear the classic rock chords under his badly sung vocal, touch the Legos and little green army men, see them hid inside the car’s nooks and crannies. Those are memories founded upon a bedrock of love, and what defense could Lucifer hope to have against that?

Sam, it's okay. It's okay. I'm here. I'm here. I'm not gonna leave you. I'm not gonna leave you.

– Dean, Swan Song

The Impala isn’t the story nor is it the narrator any more than a cookie was in Proust’s masterpiece, but it was that key to the mansion containing the relics of who Sam was and is, a key that could only have been brought by one person, and one person alone.

Proust’s novel is veiled in a bittersweet mien, as is Supernatural. Monsters, demons, specters, the devil himself, these are the vapid duchesses and bigoted anti-Dreyfusards with whom Proust’s narrator must deal. Here, as there, all disaffected, wounded, none more than Sam and Dean Winchester. These wounds, and the accompanying strength to deal, are found in those relics, joined by new artifacts each and every day, ready to be summoned by the subconscious without anticipation. We hope, when needed most.

[so] now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

– Swann’s Way, p. 48

Cup of tea? Alright, a bottle of beer. 

Comments  

CitizenKane2
# CitizenKane2 2010-09-04 20:03
As with most of your articles, I don't claim to completely understand this one :P - but I enjoyed reading it. For me, definitely food for thought. :-)
Karen
# Karen 2010-09-04 22:28
Hi Randal
This is a wonderful article. I love all the references you made.
Memories can bring on powerful emotions.
I believe that when Sam first saw Dean arrive, he starting fighting tooth and nail to take control. But he would have been frantic, building his rage when his attempts kept failing. Especially when Lucifer was pounding on Dean. This of course only fed Lucifer, giving him more strength.
But when Sam became flooded with memories, the rage faded and he became overwhelmed with love and peace of mind. These emotions would have been long lost on Lucifer and had taken him off guard. So now Sam was able to take control.
The Impala indeed helped save the day.

Thanks Randal and I’ll take you up on the beer. Cheers!
Julie
# Julie 2010-09-05 06:53
Randal, it takes a strange , weird and wonderful mind to make this connection, but it really worked.
Memories can indeed be very powerful things invoking all manner of emotions. I love the way you again explain that Dean and The Impala and the memories of the love between the two brothers was the real thing that saved everything and everyone and helped Sam find the strength to regain control over Lucifer.
Thanks for this , and you know I dont want the beer , or (despite all the steroetypes about we brits) the tea, but I would always buy you one , Ju
faye
# faye 2010-09-05 08:10
Yes, exactly.
A beautifully written and thoughtful article. Thank you.
Freebird
# Freebird 2010-09-05 08:13
Enjoyed reading this, Randal. Thanks, man.
Cheers!
Randal
# Randal 2010-09-05 11:20
CitizenKane, I'll take that as a compliment, backhanded or not. 8-)

Karen, exactly. Neither of them knew this was going to happen; it's called involuntary for a reason. Sam was taking the "standard" fighting route, one I imagine the vast majority of us would. We'd be pretty pissed for everything that had happened up to that point if we were in his shoes.

Not to stir up again the hornets' nest of Swan Song backlash, but to us (as we've previously discussed) I think this shows that both *did* play their roles, their characters as expected. Sam did about the most heroic thing he could have given his extremely limited options, and Dean wanted to be there for his brother in the end, the long shot of their respective plans notwithstanding.

It simply turned out that love trumped anger and all the other bullshit, which has been the point of the show since the Pilot.

Julie, not even Earl Grey? You're ruining a perfectly good cultural stereotype. ;-)

If one wants to quibble with the paths the brothers took, especially during season five (even I thought Dean should have lightened up on Sam just a bit, though his actions and things said/unsaid *were* understandable; we're not talking a brother stealing your ATM card, the fucking apocalypse was nigh yesterday), that's okay, but to me, this episode, particularly this scene, was a microcosm of the show's spirit, and given how both put up the strong, silent type as often as they do, feelings not being the realm of manly men of manliness, for it to unfold the way it did, unexpectedly, was perfect.

faye and freebird, thanks!
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2010-09-05 14:01
I love your brain, Randal! It might not be necessary to say that again, but - to paraphrase Mae West - 'Too much of praise can be wonderful', ha! So, let me praise you for this intruiging connection to Proust.

Feel free to make literary connections anytime - with these characters so well drawn and quite archetypical, it's not a far stretch (I will make one, soon, in another article which I hope to complete before Hellatus ends... ah... the pains of being a writer *swoons quite theatrically*.. . what? No hero to pick me up? *pulls herself up with élan* ;-)...

Off to cook dinner - and, Randal, I feel inspired to have some beer with it! Thanks.

and thank you for this great piece! Jas
Bevie
# Bevie 2010-09-05 14:13
Thanks Randal. That was beautiful.

The love (never spoken, but remembered) conquered all!
Yirabah
# Yirabah 2010-09-05 14:34
Hun I guess we should leave you alone at work on a saturday more often if the result will be such a perfect piece.

Love all your quotes. Especially the music onces. I sometimes are reminded too of the Winchesters while I am listening to certain lyrics of good old rock songs.
Christine Apple
# Christine Apple 2010-09-05 15:14
Randal, by George I think you've got it! (that was my best British accent by the way. I know, being from the States it was pretty sad.) Wonderful article as always.

The power of love is a curious thing make a one man weep, make another man sing. Change a hawk to a little white dove, more than a feeling that's the power of love. Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream. Stronger and harder than a bad girl's dream, make a bad one good make a wrong one right, power of love that keeps you home at night.

You don't need money, don't take fame
Don't need no credit card to ride this train
It's strong and it's sudden and it's cruel sometimes but it might just save your life.
That's the power of love
~Huey Lewis and The News

I know it's not what you would call classic rock, or Proust, but seemed appropriate :-)
CitizenKane2
# CitizenKane2 2010-09-05 21:17
Hi Randal,

It was (and is) a compliment. :-) Perhaps I should have phrased my comment better. It's a great article - just that I didn't understand all of its depth.
Randal
# Randal 2010-09-06 10:57
Sorry Jas, your heroes are either busy hunting monsters or cutting a 2x4 for the job site. (should I have put a SPOILER! warning back there?)

Even if a connection to a work of literature or music or art isn't explicit or was purposely laid in by the writer, I think we can make connections because, as you said, these characters *are* archetypal. There's a bit of a Jungian cultural memory, and Kripke himself has noted and praised the work of Joseph Campbell. The universal is amply found in the specificity of Sam and Dean (and others).

bevie, thanks!

Yirabah, any chance you can get work during the week to be slow as well? :-) The cliche is true, music is the universal language and I hope we get more tunes in season six. I loved last season, but I missed those extra hues in the storyline.

boobula, bloody 'ell, right, shag bird knickers bollocks. I think that's the extent of my Brit slang. Huey Lewis? What, no Asia?

CK2, oh no, I was just being snarky, it's my default tone, methinks.

Dany, it's no Bugs or Route 666, but it's an alright episode I guess.

I don't know, I still don't get the vocal minority's rage, rage against the rising of the light. To bring up cliche again, a Godzilla/King Kong-size battle would hae been ridiculous, and completely against the ethos of the show. Plus, what both brothers did was about the most heroic thing they could have done. Of course Sam figured he couldn't stave off Lucifer, of course Dean figured he was going to die in that cemetery. That's what makes them heroes. Humanity showed that it's better than the jerks above and below.
boobula
# boobula 2010-09-06 14:31
No Asia. And apparently no breakfast either. Bloody 'ell! :-)
Yvonne
# Yvonne 2010-09-06 22:03
:o
Dammit man, why won't you stay in a box? Soon as I think I've found a label that might, sorta fit you, you go and bust out of it. Again.
WHT!!!!
Amazing article and thanks for it. You've highlighted another facet of that amazing episode of this amazing show. Now I'm off to read Proust...or at least move him to the top of my 'to read' list.