The Parts Recaptured
Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk’s head and the letters
B.P.O.E.—a chip from
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
Slow horses and fast women.
— Kenneth Rexroth
I’ve been thinking about smell, taste and memory and how they’re linked. Of course, it’s hard to discuss the phenomenon of memory without stubbing your toe against Proust and rightly so. No writer has ever been so monomaniacally devoted to retrieving and examining the past (the personal past, of course, as opposed to the historical past that another hero of mine, Edward Gibbon, devoted himself to disinterring).
Proust is commonly considered the first great chronicler of a phenomenon that we’re all familiar with: random sensory input opening the floodgates of memory. In Proust’s case, famously, it was a madeleine dipped in lime-flower tea that caused the levee to break. Even people who’ve never read Proust know this…and they’re wrong.
It’s worth quoting the relevant passage in full:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ’petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, 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 myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. The tea has called up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeat indefinitely with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; which I, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call upon the tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.–Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
As we can see, far from the ‘floodgates of memory’ opening, the narrator is perplexed, mystified.
He concludes that he must ‘create…something which does not so far exist…’. In fact what Proust did is, I think, far more impressive than merely recording the flood as it passed: Proust created the past (or a past), surely a much greater achievement. But no matter…
Here are a few of the scents and tastes that have opened the floodgates for me or provoked me into creating ‘…something which does not so far exist…’:
Guerlain’s Shalimar, Patou’s Joy, 4711 (Echt Kölnisch Wasser), Lanvin’s Arpège, Chanel No.5…then there are the scents that were never really designed simply to smell good but do to me…lemons, Johnson’s Baby shampoo, WD-40, fresh cut wood or mown grass, hot tar, baking cake, the sea, cigar smoke, lipstick, liquorice, fresh-ground coffee, old books, leather, horses, wet wool, brandy, a hot engine, Paris Metro stations, the now sadly defunct Routemaster buses of London Transport, my favourite charcuterie on the Rue Cler at the Champs de Mars end of the Rue de Grenelle, the sun-roasted meseta between Burgos and Leon, fresh-opened oysters (see ‘sea’), lamb cooking over charcoal; the mint, laurel, myrtle, lavender, thyme, rosemary etc. of the maquis, furniture polish, a fresh newspaper, pencil shavings (slightly different from fresh-cut wood because of the graphite…I think), night-blooming jasmine, clean sweat, apples, Ducados (cheap Spanish cigarettes made from strong black tobacco; the working-man’s smoke and an old favourite of mine), Lifebuoy Soap (no longer made, not the original anyway), the early morning streets of Barcelona’s old town, a smell compounded of roasting coffee, black tobacco, warm stone and raw sewage…the list goes on and everybody will have their own candidates.
Give us a Terza Rima on the subject of smell, taste and memory.
(I’m a bit rushed at the moment but mine will follow…)