It’s been over a hundred years since the publication of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) about involuntary memory, whereby cues one encounters going about daily matters trigger recollections of the past. Proust was the originator of the term ‘involuntary memory’ which is now understood to be a common mental recall experience that happens without any effort, but it is also a process that can play a role in psychiatric syndromes such as in post-traumatic stress disorder.
Smell and taste are now understood to be common priming sources of involuntary memory, bringing one back to the original event. It was in Swann’s Way that Proust described his childhood pleasure of eating the small French cakes dipped in linden tea.
"And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine (Proust, 1928)."
The tea-soaked madeleine story is famous, and there are very few articles on autobiographical memories or olfaction that don’t pay homage to what is now called the Proust phenomenon. It’s even interesting that one of Proust’s translators, the British poet and novelist D.J. Enright’s married a French women named Madeleine.
However, until recent years there were few studies that put the Proust phenomenon to the test. A study by Rachel Herz and Johnathan Schooler published in The American Journal of Psychology (2002) upheld the hypothesis about olfactory cues stating that they ”increase the emotional intensity of autobiographical recollections relative to verbal or visual cues.”
But what about the visual or verbal label of the madeleine that has become emblematic of involuntary memory?
Well it seems that Proust’s madeleine may have been a literary choice. The French publishers Saint Pères has said that early drafts of the novel recently found in a his notebooks showed the main theme of the involuntary memory trigger to have been toasted bread mixed with honey. It wasn’t until the third draft of the hand-written manuscript that the food reference shifted to the little madeleine.
It appears the emblematic confectionary that has dominated olfactory literature for decades, becoming an associative object in itself, may have been, in reality, just a literary device.
Or maybe in the repeated process of memory reconsolidating, a new memory was literally rewritten.
Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time Volume I: Swann’s Way. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
Herz, R. and Schooler, J.. “A naturalistic study of autobiographical memories evoked by olfactory and visual cues: Testing the Proustian hypothesis”. American Journal Of Psychology. Spring 2002, Vol. 115, No. 1, pp. 21–32.
Chrisafis, A.. “Proust's memory-laden madeleine cakes started life as toast, manuscripts reveal”. The Guardian. Monday, October 19, 2015.
© 2016 Gayil Nalls, All rights reserved.
Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is published online and in print, most recently with her essay "TOXIC: Coming to Our Senses" in Paradise Paradoxe (Zurich, Edition Patrick Frey, 2016).
Follow her @olfacticinkblot and @themassinglab