Of Memory and Madeleines

Fin in snow

Listening to the River Café Table 4 podcast interview with the director Alfonso Cuarón, I paused to take in something he said that spoke directly to me.

“I think it’s the same with any creative endeavor, [whether] this is a technical endeavor or an artistic endeavor. I think that everything comes from the concept. You know, at first there’s a concept and that concept, interestingly, I think comes out of memories. And those memories, in the specific case of food, I mean that’s why food is so amazing because it combines the two biggest centers of memory, that is taste and smell.”

Alfonso Cuarón, River Café Table 4 podcast (Ruthie Rogers) 15 March 2022

Taste and smell“.

Echoing Proust, Cuarón emphasizes the integral role played by our sensory imprints, as they join the past to the present in recalling memory.  In Remembrance of things Past, Proust’s spoonful of tea, soaked with a morsel of a madeleine, recalls a past moment linked by the taste and smell of the tea-soaked cake. Whereas he had been “weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow,” this sensory memory evokes a powerful change in him, transforming him instantly: “An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses.” Proust then pivots to his native intellectual mode, analyzing his experience and its origins.

Influence of the Enlightenment

 Western European cultures, which are highly influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, primarily use reason to understand and shape experience.  The Enlightenment made possible today’s world of technology, in which most people can work without debilitating labor, live longer, and enjoy more time for pleasure in daily life. It made possible a world in which no matter where we are we can easily view the creative endeavors of directors like Cuarón or listen to an intimate dialogue between him and a renowned chef from a chic London restaurant.  I’m grateful for the benefits the Enlightenment has enabled when I’m treated for illness with scientifically tested and approved medicines rather than with leeches to suck out the bad ‘humours’ in my blood.

And yet, excess inevitably uncovers the limitations of any good thing. Trying to understand the world and one’s own history exclusively through reason is futile. No life can evade the experience of loss, sometimes tragic, and every life ultimately ends in death. To be close to others, a primary source of joy for social animals, inevitably conscripts a person to grief when the other is gone.  Reason offers paltry comforts when confronting death, which perhaps is why we experience so many stages during the grieving process. It’s truly not fair. It makes no sense. You may know the cause of death, but the ‘why’ eludes reason.

Not every culture awards reason the primacy it has in the post-Enlightenment Western world. Spiritual rituals often employ sensory triggers – fragrant smoke, steamed herbs, song, and dance – to facilitate a sensory understanding of lived experiences, past and present. The effects can be powerful for the celebrants, precisely because they are attuned to the entirety of the human mind, not just the center of reason.

Call for balance

The 3rd Sense Health blog advocates for using dogs’ sense of smell to assist science in detecting the presence of illnesses in humans. Using Enlightenment principles, many scientists have proven that dogs are as effective, and sometimes much more so, as lab tests in detecting cancers and virus-borne illness. Despite this, proponents offer little hope that this effective, inexpensive, and quick method of assessment will be scaled for widespread use.  The prevailing ideology insists on a singular reliance on man-made technology. Only persistence will overcome the limits of this ideology.

Photo by Nicolay Osmachko

Consider, though, the impact you might have on your own life experiences if you find more balance between your rational understanding of your world and your sensory understanding. At any moment you might find yourself struck silent by a memory evoked from a taste or smell. Dwell there for a moment, letting the sensory memory fill your mind. Savor the moment from your past and let the scene of your memory overtake the present, just for a moment. It is possible that those lost to your present are not lost at all, but remain alive, in you.  

More about the podcast

In her podcast “River Café Table 4”, Ruthie Rogers introduces her listeners to the widely diverse — creatively and culturally — people she’s fortunate to call her friends. In every conversation, she explores the interface between food and art, relationships, memories, and personal narratives. She’s a superb interviewer who elicits genuine and thoughtful responses from her guests. Importantly, even though her guests are celebrities in their fields, the podcasts reveal them authentically, in conversation with a friend. The River Café itself is a celebrated restaurant in London, and even if you never dine there, the podcast will introduce you to people whose ideas and stories may illuminate your own.

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