FOR MARCEL PROUST, "The Remembrance of Things Past" was to unfold in a seemingly endless act of memory through the world-weary voice of his narrator, Marcel, recalling the lifetime that would forever be his story. Proust wanted his lengthy novel to put a demand upon its reader that would equal the burden of Marcel's narrative chore -- a book that would have to be lived as much as read, that would unfold until the reader's own heartbeat palpitated to the moment of its final throb.

Proust's idea, of course, was rather outlandish. After all, no matter how many days of intense reading it takes to finish Proust's great work, it does end. Yet in television soap operas, Proust's dream can theoretically come true. Of the 12 series currently aired on weekdays between 12:30 and 4:30, only two -- "The Young and the Restless" and "Ryan's Hope" -- are less than 10 years old. The others range from ages 10 to 29 (the oldest being "Search for Tomorrow"). This longevity is a remarkable tribute to the loyal viewers who have spent day after day after day watching the lives of TV characters unfold.

Daytime serialized drama originated on the radio, that breathless medium of blabbering activity. As Robert LaGuardia wrote in his history of soaps, "From Ma Perkins to Mary Hartman": "By the end of the '30s, soap opera was radio's most economically powerful product, and by the early '40s there were 39 serials on the air, beginning at 10 in the morning and ending at 6 in the evening."

Radio soap opera was a form created with deliberate care in the early years of the Depression in Chicago. The first official soap, "Painted Dreams," was conceived by a Dayton, Ohio, schoolteacher -- Irna Phillips. Although the actual invention of soap opera can be credited to Frank and Anne Hummert, it is Phillips who bestowed a certain significance upon the form that still makes it work today for millions of avid viewers.

Her radio creations, particularly "The Guiding Light," attempted to deal with the ordinary lives of working people. In a sense, she tried to capture reality in serial form, probing the birth-to-death cycle of characters doomed to melodramatic ups and downs.

In the early '40s, the soaps left Chicago and went to New York, home of the ad agencies. Gradually daytime drama began to infiltrate the new medium of television. The first network soap, "The First Hundred Years," was on CBS in 1950. It was sponsored by Procter and Gamble, whose heavy involvement in radio serials had forever cursed the genre with the tag "soap operas."

By 1954, video soaps had firmly established themselves as 15-minute intervals of tragedy every afternoon for the busy (but suffering) housewife. Easily adapting to the visual medium, Irna Phillips redesigned her radio drama, "The Guiding Light," for TV. She perceived that it was time for a dramatic change, and suggested to Procter and Gamble that the serial be expanded to 30 minutes.

There had never been a half-hour soap, and Irna's request was risky. But the detergent company conceded with one stipulation: that Irna create an entirely new half-hour drama.

The importance of Irna's creation should not be underestimated. Historian LaGuardia writes -- "On April 2, 1956, P&G premiered the most historically important soap opera in modern times: 'As the World Turns.' Irna's new show wasn't just an expanded 15-minute serial, but a fresh approach to a 26-year-old invention -- a totally visual approach. She slowed time down to a near halt, and had the cameras peer at length into the faces of actors . . . Never before had a soap probed its characters so deeply and so thoroughly."

Phillips' remarkable discovery (the point at which the structure of soaps seems to have crystallized) was that, by slowing the effect of the passage of time, one could create the illusion of realism. Thus, viewers began to be drawn into the narrative through situations that appeared plausible, developing as slowly as the world seemed to be turning on its axis.

So when an actor on a soap pauses before the camera in deep thought, it is often a structural device used to suspend time. The technique reminds us of daydreaming, reinforcing the concept that the daytime serial is in fact a timeless corresponding dimension. As Professor Dennis Porter of the University of Massachusetts observes in his essay, "Soap Time: Thoughts on a Commodity Art Form": "Soap opera derives, of course, from the tradition of realism in the theater and cinema, but more than any other literary, theatrical, or cinematic genre, its interest resides in an implicit claim to portray a parallel life. It offers itself to its audience as the representative of lives that are separate from but continuous with their own."

"Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives" -- thus, begins "Days of Our Lives," which has revolved around the character of Dr. Tom Horton (Macdonald Carey) for 15 years. In a recent episode of the serial, Dr. Horton's great-grandson, David Banning (the illegitimate son of Julie Olson, the half-sister of Hope, whose mother had cancer but met her untimely fate by being hit by a car in an attempt to save her daughter) halted in the midst of remembrance and profoundly reflected, "Isn't this what we call deja vu? Haven't I heard all this somewhere before?"

Narratives generally involve movement, but soaps are not concerned with arriving anywhere -- they do not end. (When CBS canceled "Love of Life," none of the problems of situations established by the serial, which had been on the air from 1951, was ever resolved. The fans howled in protest, but to no avail.) No matter how convoluted their plots became, soap operas are not intended to be unraveled. On soaps, dialectics do not exist; characters function mainly as means of conveying information, the exchange of which (rather than the content plots the course of the narrative. Structurally, soaps can be aligned with the Dickensian serial novel, but their spirit is rooted in the confessional forms (from the pulp of The National Star to the art of Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther"): that sentimental need to know the dismal details of everyone's life. The Human Touch

How can a formula so uncomplicated, so constrained, continue to mesmerize daytime viewers, primarily women from the ages of 18 to 49?

George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that it's because daytime serials are much more "humane" than prime-time drama. "During prime time, the men outnumber the women four-to-one. The world of prime time revolves around questions of power and violence: Who can get away with what."

Gerbner seemingly skirts the issue of sexism on soaps -- the slick contrivances that, according to feminists like Betty Friedan, are simply another method of enslaving housewives. "But daytime drama," says Gerbner, "is about the only world where women play powerful roles. Daytime serials are not as sexist as programs on prime time because, during prime time, the balance is tipped in a sexist direction, hopelessly outnumbered by males."

Of course, the idealized woman is a fundamental convention of the soap formula. On "Days of Our Lives," Marlene Craig comes home the day after her baby is born looking as cute as a button; her hair sprayed neatly in place, she immediately begins to prepare her husband an elegant lunch. Similarly, the epitome of virtue on soaps is the loyal ex-wife, who (like the male doctor) functions as a symbol of tolerance, of an undying dedication to duty, unflinching in her responsibility to preserve the sanctity of life despite all costs.

The prefabricated female can be viewed negatively, as an oppressive image that controls the unconscious housewife, or positively, as researcher Mildred Downing does in an article entitled "Heroine of the Daytime Serial," published in the Journal of Communication: "The woman of the daytime serial is a generally nonviolent person acting from a genuine concern for others and an appreciation of troublesome social issues, even if she devotes her major energies to the achievement of personal goals. Of all the dramatic characters seen on television, she may be the most worthy of emulation."

Although it may be true that soaps (a subgenre of melodrama) are less violent than the melodramas of prime time, daytime serials do possess a sense of haunting morbidity that frequently exposes itself in a violent outburst. Generally these are merely emotional. But the recent increase in on-location shooting seems to allow serials to create violent situations (fires, auto crashes, explosions) outside the interiors of domestic squabbles. On "General Hospital," a man constructed a building so that it would collapse and then crush his unsuspecting wife. On "The Doctors," faulty wiring caused a hangout for medical professionals to catch fire. For an entire half-hour, the characters did nothing but madly scramble for the club's exit, screaming until their lungs burst in a glorious epiphany of excessive hysteria. On "Days of Our Lives," a doctor pushed a girl down a flight of stairs -- her face smeared with blood, her features smashed.

On soap operas, Death's head constantly hovers over the content, as characters mope and grieve through an endless series of rooms. Here lies the paradox of the soap formula: the lifetimes of characters are spent resolving the problems of living. Through the process of exegesis, tragedy becomes stylized, reduced to the bare facts of conversation. Yet there is also always the promise of a new birth to balance the scale.

Structurally (at least in a daily dosage), soaps are certainly mimetic. Each episode of a given serial usually begins and ends with a glimpse at the same incident or at similar points in time.In this way, the episodes form their own cycle, as if in reference to the birth-death cycle of human lives.

Violence becomes a dramatic strategy, a convention used to interrupt the formal structure of this cycle. CBS vice president of program practices Donn H. O'Brien observes that "daytime soaps are not excessively violent. If something were not presented in the manner of good taste, the producers would immediately get a strong response from the loyal viewers.

"In prime time, an act of violence occurs and then it's not there. But on soaps, you can live with one act of violence, through flashbacks and so forth, for a long time. The perception, therefore, is that the act is more violent. One relives it again and again."

Yet most of the action is talk. In a study conducted in 1971 by Nathan Katzman of Michigan State University, during a four-week period, observers coded the characters and conversations in one episode per week of each current daytime serial. The data involved coding 1,789 characters engaged in 884 distinct conversations. Katzman's conclusion was that "almost everything that happens in the soap operas takes the form of verbal activity. One indications of this was the fact that of 884 locations coded, only nine were clearly not indoors, while 690 were in homes, offices, of hospitals. . . . w

"The world of the soap opera is populated by male and female adults -- mainly male professionals, their wives and lovers. These people almost always appear indoors (most people in a living room), where they spend most of their time talking. During their conversations, males tend to pair off with females. The males tend to be the same age or older, and they are less likely to have been married. Over 90 percent of the conversations are about people, typically people who are not present at the time." Formulas for Success

The writers, producers and directors of television's daytime serials must confront problems different from those of filmmakers. Prime-time TV's rotating schedule calls for 22 episodes a year (plus repeats) aired weekly. The soap-opera maker must create 260 original episodes of drama per year (with no allowance for repeats). The schedule restrictions imposed by daytime television, as well as frugal budgets, have limited any expansive and extreme innovations within the soap formula.

Even within those constraints, both avid viewers and antagonistic critics feel that the form is not to be construed as escapist drama. No matter how politically topical or socially realistic a particular soap may appear to be, it creates the impression that everyday experience is being reflected.

Although they may not be conceived as escapist drama, soap operas do imply what they rarely reveal -- that hope always looms on the horizon, that life is eternal, that there is indeed a romantic dimension not unlike the televised drama depicted before our eyes.

In "The Uses of Enchantment," Bruno Bettlelheim postulates that the fairy tale offers fantasy materials that suggest to children in symbolic form what the battle to achieve self-realization involves. Similarly, the fairy-tale reality of soaps may help some adults better understand the meaning of their lives by offering an alternative existence. Any "therapeutic value" is grounded not in the drama's relationship to actuality but in its allure as fantasy.

The soaps "definitely go back to the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen," says Claire Labine, head writer and (with Paul Avila Mayer) the creator of "Ryan's Hope." "The plots are primitive, primeval and Oedipal. They are concerned with the simplest forms of human relationships within an embellished reality with none of the pauses in between, where a day can have more incredible events than our own reality."

Are soaps perhaps television's equivalent to Proust's prodigious novel? Or, in the final analysis, are they merely Saniflush for the mind?! "We write about people who celebrate the human condition rather than endure it," says Labine. "We take it very seriously. We write out of our own experiences, but you cannot imagine how the formula uses that up.

"There's really damned good stuff on most soaps. But the demands are such that, to keep it good, you practically have to kill yourself. I would die before I would ever willingly write trash." CAPTION:

Illustration, no caption, by Dan Sherbo -- The Washington Post; Pictures 1 through 3, Daytime dramatic serials: From "Ma Perkins" on radio to "The Doctors" on TV to the new "Texas."; Picture 4, Bradley Greene and John Berardino of "General Hospital."