There is an experience that many well-read Americans have when they visit Paris. They head to the first patisserie and order up a small box of madeleines. The result of this purchase is universally the same: utter disappointment, because the madeleine of their imagination is rife with the magic of memory, the power invested in this tiny cookie by the words of Marcel Proust. In the most famous section of his seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu, when Proust bit into one as an adult, the taste caused his childhood to flood back in an irrepressible wave of nostalgia.
The disappointment these readers feel is caused by the fact that a madeleine is such an unimpressive morsel, a sponge of little flavor or texture. It is primarily used for soaking in a cup of sweetened tea — the way we dunk a plain donut into our morning coffee. The madeleine itself is insipid and boring.
Its magic for Proust was not in the eating, but in the association of the madeleine with his childhood. His, not yours. It was a door to who-he-used-to-be. But we have all had a similar, if not so profound experience concerning our own past. Often it is a tune. Perhaps you don’t immediately recognize why you react so emotionally to it, but then, you can recall exactly where you were when you heard it.
For me, it is often a color, a deep, dark blue, or the mix of green and cream white. That blue paired with yellow brings to mind a set of blocks I played with as a bairn. Not just any blue and yellow will trigger this rush, but only a very specific combination of colors.
One puzzles over what, in fact, a memory is. It would seem to be a videotape filed away in the synapses that can be retrieved by pressing the right buttons. But science can tell us memories are encoded as electrical impulses, carried between neurons by chemicals known as neurotransmitters. How does that farm I visited when I was two become a little zap in the cells of my brain, and what magic mechanism retranslates that buzz into the pictures I see so clearly behind my eyelids?
For Proust, the madeleine brought an involuntary flood of memory. And that memory inevitably exists not as a discrete neutral image, but as a wooly complex of image, emotion and thought, a whole ball of inextricable who-you-used-to-be.
The easiest aides-de-memoire are old photographs. That box of family snapshots holds a passel of memories. But there is always the sneaking suspicion that what you remember are not the events, but the pictures themselves. But then, some research implies that each time we retrieve a memory, what we are remembering is the last time we remembered that event, and so the memory degrades, like succeeding copies of a Xerox image — copying the copy multiple times. Details are lost, and what remains becomes murky and misremembered. You visit your brother or sister, now all grown up, perhaps retired, and you say, “Remember that day you fell into the creek?” and they reply, “That wasn’t me, that was your other brother, and it wasn’t the creek, it was the river upstate.”
Whose memory, then, do you trust? Your own feels so real, so re-lived in the recollection.
My late wife had a supernatural memory. She recalled events from her childhood in infinite detail. I asked her to write those stories down for her grandchildren, but she declined. “Then I will start remembering the remembering,” she complained, “and the original will be lost,” its authenticity diluted.
There is a difference, noted Proust, between the memory you search for voluntarily, and the involuntary memory summoned up, like a genie from a lamp, when you smell a smell; hear a sound, a song; see a color or a picture. The first, while not so spontaneous, is often more rewarding.
A number of years ago, I made a pact with my two brothers. We had all gone to college and moved away to our separate jobs, wives and lives. I wanted to know more about those missing years we had been apart. I suggested we each write a short autobiography for the other two brothers. I began mine, which covered only the years from my birth to when I was about 30. Even though I thought of it as a summary, it grew to 250 typed pages. Even now, I could go back and between each paragraph add new detail.
Where does all this stuff come from? Each time I call up a memory, it is like opening a door into a forgotten room, and each room has three or four other doors, each of which opens into yet another room, each with its four doors, and on and on, like Borges’s fictional library.
There seems no end, as one memory suggest two or three others. Colors come back, sounds, emotions, textures, smells, chronologies, acquaintances, pains both caused and suffered, moments of transcendence, moments of relief.
As I get older — I am already old — it becomes harder to retrieve simple things, such as words and names, but the older memories still burn underneath and can be accessed. I will sometimes, when I have trouble going to sleep, call up a scene of tranquility and walk through it like a movie or play and slowly drift off as the memory metamorphoses into a dream.
Originally posted Dec. 1, 2017 on the Spirit of the Senses website