Sunday, September 22, 2013

Smell and Memory

My roommate made coconut red lentil soup the other night.  She started by sauteing the onions with the spices--curry and cinnamon.  The smells were so rich, so warm, so inviting--it was an instant pick-me-up after my second consecutive twelve hour workday, transporting me to warmer, more exotic places.

What is it about smell that is so directly linked to mood and memory?  When I was an undergraduate studying French literature, I must have had to read Proust's iconic madeleine passage--the one where he dips it in tea and is instantly transported back in time --in at least three classes, in one context or another.  Here is the relevant passage:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

Here it is, this time unabridged, in French; the relevant passage begins under the heading "Le texte celebre de la madeleine".  (I'm also struck by the contrast of the English to the French--it's a cliche, but to me, it rings true-- the French language is seductive, rich, smooth.  But I digress into reveling in another of the senses).

The distinctive, instinctual memory associated with smell is for me evocative of places as well as time.  Perfume mixed with cigarette smoke = streets of Paris.  Sage = hiking in California. Fresh baked bread== home, mother, love, all things domestic.  Bleach = comforting cleanliness.  Herbal Essence shampoo= college, showering in the late afternoon to avoid the morning rush in the dorms, my old  fuchsia bathrobe.  Beer plus food deep-fried plus smoke = Czech pub.

How fascinating are the strange connections in our human brains: associating smells so intensely with memory is powerful and creativity-inducing, but it's also limiting in the sense that it colors perceptions of new events and therefore inhibits our ability to make impartial observations.  This, I think, is part of what makes being human so interesting--our very flaws are so often inextricably linked to our greatest capacity.


Jenica said...

Yes, I made the blog!

Czechdeb said...

Ha! Make me dinner more often, and I'll find ways to work you in. That's right, I'm a sell-out.