Marcel Proust’s Madeleines to Memory

If not the first, certainly the most famous literary illustration of the connection between the senses and memory occurs in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, published between  1913 and 1927. In that classic work the narrator writes:  

“And suddenly the memory returns.The taste was that of the little crumb of  Madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did  not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my  aunt Léonie used to give me, wiping it first in her own cup of real or lime-flower tea.” 

This short excerpt in a much longer discourse is a thorough examination of a phenomenon that pervades art in all its forms but may have never been so distinctly investigated in a literary sense before Proust.

An artistic investigation of our senses

We’ve all become familiar with the notion of “comfort foods” or the “new car smell” — very distinct sensory wormholes capable of transporting us to pleasant and highly specific memory.  These smells and tastes and sounds can take us, similarly, to a negative space, as with fireworks or backfires among veterans and others with PTSD, or certain tastes and smells that inspire deep grief or strong repulsion for often unknown reasons.  

In my own personal experience as a performer in theater, the harnessing of the mysterious realm of the senses has become part of the training of actors, Sometime in the early ’30s, the magic of the best performances was recognized as being accessed via the “unconscious” —  the “allowing” or cultivating of what can’t be planned or manipulated being preferable to consciously planned mimicry and repetition. Legendary performers like Laurette Taylor, Marlon  Brando, and Kim Stanley left audiences in amazement: how could something artificial appear so real? Famously, Stanley was said to have blushed in performances — certainly a most rare and fragile feat. The much-maligned and misunderstood “Method” that originated in  Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre was broadcast to wider America via the actors and teachers of the Group Theater, and later the Actors Studio, and tools such as “sense memory”  and “emotional memory” were taught and began to be part of an actor’s toolkit. 

Long before Proust, poets were delving into the rich world of the senses. Chefs have been working the shared lineage of satisfaction through taste and smell since salt and fats were found to be among the common preferences of the vast array of diners. Music has long imitated the natural world, transporting us from wherever we happen to be listening. The visual arts have drawn, since their beginnings, on finding common or uncommon resonance through the senses and their mysterious and shared individual and collective storage, from the “still life”  to depictions of domestic life.

A madeleine moment

Proust pointed out the circuitry: the Madeleine sparking the flood of recall. What I’ve thought of  as the “conduit of memory”, Proust so very poignantly, originally, and completely investigated  as sensory-to-memory in his masterpiece: 

‘…in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and all the  water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and  the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper  shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup  of tea.”

And so we have the “Madeleine de Proust”, or “Madeleine moment”, eventually coming to describe the very human notion of being unconsciously transported by sensory stimuli to another time and place — an experience in creative endeavor that predates history — as old as cave paintings or the first actor compellingly describing the thrill and terror of the hunt. It’s something we didn’t know we shared until Proust inspired us specifically to see how we share it.


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