Do you know that feeling when the smell of something or listening to music brings you back in time, reminds you of happy moments spent with dear friends or family?
Smells and sounds have this effect on me. They bring me back in time and I feel exactly the same I felt years and years ago. We all do this when we look at pictures, photographs, and I experience the same when I look at paintings or art in general that is precious for me. It’s a pleasant way to time-travel. Sometimes it makes me feel sad – because the moment is over and I’m very aware that it will never come back (like Portuguese saudade or Welsh hiraeth) – but most of the times I just am glad to (still) be able to re-experience those moments.
Recently I experienced several moments like that and they all brought me back to the same period of my life. During our recent trip to Switzerland I ate something I really loved eating with my friends in Italy when I was 16-18 years old. During a walk longside a garden, a few days later, the smell of flowers brought reminded me our garden in Italy during the same period. The other day I listened to music that brought me back to my teenage years, because it was the favourite band my sister used to listen over and over again…
When I re-read some books in the last months, one in particular brought back memories like the smells, tastes and pictures just mentioned. Interestingly the whole topic of this oeuvre is related to this feeling.
The French author Marcel Proust (1871–1922) wrote a series of seven volumes, “À la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time” or “Remembrance of things past”) which starts with a flash-back caused by the taste of the madeleine cookie. In the first volume of this series, Proust reminisces a long forgotten childhood memory when tasting a madeleine dipped into a cup of tea. This episode is called “involuntary memory”.
By reading those endless sentences I thought about the first time I held a talk in front of my class about the first volume “Du côté de chez Swann” (“The way by Swanns'”). It was my first presentation of many more to come. I was 17 and it quite a challenge because of Marcel Proust’s complicated style and it was in French. Funnily, this particular book was one of the main reasons why I decided to study French literature and linguistics.
I found out that I have many “madeleines” in my life: smells, sounds, pictures and words. They all resonate like a great symphony of memories.
(excerpt of the episode of the madeleine):
Il y avait déjà bien des années que, de Combray, tout ce qui n’était pas le théâtre et le drame de mon coucher n’existait plus pour moi, quand un jour d’hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison, ma mère, voyant que j’avais froid, me proposa de me faire prendre, contre mon habitude, un peu de thé. Je refusai d’abord et, je ne sais pourquoi, me ravisai. Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaient avoir été moulées dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d’un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause. Il m’avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même façon qu’opère l’amour, en me remplissant d’une essence précieuse: ou plutôt cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi. J’avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel. D’où avait pu me venir cette puissante joie ? Je sentais qu’elle était liée au goût du thé et du gâteau, mais qu’elle le dépassait infiniment, ne devait pas être de même nature. D’où venait-elle ? Que signifiait-elle ? Où l’appréhender ? Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. Il est temps que je m’arrête, la vertu du breuvage semble diminuer. Il est clair que la vérité que je cherche n’est pas en lui, mais en moi. Il l’y a éveillée, mais ne la connaît pas, et ne peut que répéter indéfiniment, avec de moins en moins de force, ce même témoignage que je ne sais pas interpréter et que je veux au moins pouvoir lui redemander et retrouver intact, à ma disposition, tout à l’heure, pour un éclaircissement décisif. Je pose la tasse et me tourne vers mon esprit. C’est à lui de trouver la vérité. Mais comment ? Grave incertitude, toutes les fois que l’esprit se sent dépassé par lui-même ; quand lui, le chercheur, est tout ensemble le pays obscur où il doit chercher et où tout son bagage ne lui sera de rien. Chercher ? pas seulement : créer. Il est en face de quelque chose qui n’est pas encore et que seul il peut réaliser, puis faire entrer dans sa lumière.
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, on my return 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 for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines”, whiih look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. 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. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?
I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then 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 thruth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink had called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightement. I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth. But how: What an abyss of unvertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it mus go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.
Do you have a “madeleine”, a smell, a sound, a book, a picture or just something that brings to your mind special moments in your life?
Categories: Being expat, Being multilingual, Culture/Traditions, Expat Life, French
One of mine is Earl Grey Tea … it takes me back to the 50s in Torino when we discovered it thanks to my brother ‘s girlfriend, later his wife. She introduced him to it and he to us at home. It had a special charm because it could only be bought
at a high-end elegant specialty store in Piazza San Carlo. To this day the light yellow Twining tin, and the cup of tea from it, has the special feel of the ‘madeleine’ for me… Thank you for his post. v.
Thank you, Vera! Earl Grey Tea reminds me of the afternoons spent with my friends in Italy. In my case it was an English friend who brought it once and I discovered my love for tea 😉 Che bella coincidenza però… 😉
Oh, I have lots of madeleines! But one that was unexpected was a recent short stop in Varennes, to visit the Babin ancestral home. My husband’s family history has become so intertwined with my own that I felt a familiar spirit as we visited a few key spots: a school named after my husband’s grandpa, cemetery, a WWI memorial. It was all the more delicious because I could see my children were also having a madeleine moment. Isn’t something that our madeleines are often sensory objects that remind us of people close to us, of family and relationships and the emotions these create?
Oh I’m sure I have many such madeleine experiences but for me this has brought back memories of the tasty sweet itself! Back in the days when I would regularly visit Paris where friends lived and hang out there. I loved madeleines.
On a separate note I’m pleased my rusty French was up to translating the passage. I read it and enjoyed it all before realising on scrolling down that you had translated it into English! Again, happy memories of days in the past desperately cramming French vocab into my head. After 6 years of studying Bengali, French seems quite easy now 🙂