“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” – Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Even people who have never read In Search of Lost Time know about Proust’s cup of tea and the little french scallop-shaped cake called the madeleine. Since Proust’s book, madeleines have been equated with the concept of involuntary memory. At the end of the first chapter of Part One of the novel, the narrator has tea with his mother. He places a morsel of cake onto his spoon, dips it into his tea and raises it to his lips. The moment he tastes the tea and cake, “an exquisite pleasure…invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” He feels a visceral sensation of joy, but he’s not sure where it comes from (the tea is good, but not THAT good). Being of a sensitive and self reflective nature, the narrator spends the next four pages trying to recapture and divine the meaning of this sensation.
Each moment of consciousness is examined so minutely in the novel that we’re not sure how long it took before “the memory revealed itself” and he was transported back in time to his aunt’s bedroom in Combray. It may be only a few minutes, or even seconds. But the sensation of being flooded with feelings from the past is instantaneous.
Since Proust’s era, scientists have spent a lot of time researching consciousness and memory, usually voluntary memory. We use voluntary memory in the service of both our intellect and our emotions, as we remember everything that makes us “us”, from our first kiss, the first insult that wounded, to the answers for our geography test and where we put our car keys. It seems most likely that we recreate these memories each time we recall them, following the familiar paths our brain has lead us down before, however misleading, rather than retrieving data archived in one reliable place by a sweet and well organized librarian with glasses and a bun. Involuntary memory, though, is ALL about our emotional life. It’s the drunk driver who slams into us out of the fog when we smell bacon or eat a marshmallow toasted over the campfire.
Someone recently told me that she couldn’t remember her children’s infancy, and that as she held a new baby in her arms, she felt a sense of loss for an unremembered past. Could you sneak past voluntary memory, and go through the back door with involuntary memory? I think so. I’ve found that when you write, you can be startled by the memories that resurface unbidden as you’re looking for something else. And keeping a notebook of scribbled thoughts and emotions, along with a record of your physical surroundings (the goldfinches are on the feeder, the sky is grey, a toad hops on the patio, my skin is damp with sweat) cements the bright shards of an ephemeral present together, creating a shape you may only discern later, from a distance.
For many people, music is our madeleine. We score the heightened emotions of our young adulthood with songs that speak to our experience. When we listen to those songs years later we reconnect with our geeky, lonely young selves.
A song on the radio, the taste of a childhood treat, the fragrance of lilacs after a spring rain; the past is revealed to us over and over, because it never really went away.
“And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the waterlilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”
For Proust’s narrator, a cake drenched in tea is the key that unlocks the door to the past. What’s yours?