In his magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust writes of a moment that transports us back to our childhood and gives us an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and peace, where the collective memory of one’s past crashes into the present, aka the ‘Proustian Moment’.
The original instance of this occurs when the protagonist, now in his thirties, drinks a cup of tea with a Madeline cookie.
As Proust, or the Proust-like protagonist, enjoys his afternoon treat, he is transported back, with an astounding clarity, to a time where he was young and spent summers with family.
The first lesson we can take from this is that everybody loves cookies, but Proust would argue that there is a little more too it.
A group of my colleagues and I were sitting in the office discussing baking and pastries and out of that discussion came one of the purest moments of innocence I have ever witnessed.
During the discussion, I mentioned that I wasn’t really into the whole British baked treat known as an ‘Iced Bun’.
My comment was met with fierce animosity.
In my opinion, it’s basically a hot dog bun with some icing. When I mentioned this to my wife she laughed and said her Mom used to make exactly this for her and her brothers when they were little.
Regardless, a range of responses were fired back at me varying from gasps of disbelief to exclamations of, ‘How dare you?!’ and confused retorts like, ‘Yea, they’re great, right?!’.
Everyone around me then began an in depth discussion on these seminal childhood pastries.
The first lesson we can take from Proust is that everybody loves cookies, but Proust would argue that there is a little more too it.
Off to the side, one of my colleagues sat and contemplated his memory of this distinctly British treat. As he began to profess his love of them, a sense of calm washed over his entire being.
He told a story about how his mother would take him to the supermarket every Thursday after school to do his family’s weekly shop and that if he was a good boy, he was rewarded with an Iced Bun.
As he recalled the moment, he spoke, moved and appeared so different to only moments prior that it was heart warming to witness his mind be transported back to his childhood as he narrated the experience.
I’ve thought a lot about his story and how he physically changed while recalling his childhood Thursday afternoons, but it wasn’t until recently when I asked a couple of other friends if they had similar connections to a taste or smell that would deliver such a Proustian Moment.
One friend, without hesitation and almost reflexively, exclaimed, ‘Buttons!’
He recounted a similar story where his older sister would look after him while his parents were out and they were the rewarded for good behavior with Cadbury’s Giant Buttons.
The simplicity of these moments are what Marcel Proust believes are the very essence of happiness and importance in the world.
During In Search of Lost Time, a young man looks for the true meaning of life as he explores the lifestyles of the French aristocracy, the bohemian world of the artists and others. He slowly discovers (over 4,000 pages slowly) that the aesthetics of the world and these intangibles are what truly matter to us.
During a time of my own recent inner turmoil, I tried to find something that drew me back to a happy memory and, at first, I drew a blank and it saddened me that I couldn’t think of a trigger that could transport me in this way.
Then on a visit to the US to see some family, memories flooded back through sounds, tastes and smells that wafted around my hometown.
My strongest Prustian evocations is second hand smoke, preferably menthol.
The smell of Brugger’s Bagels, a bagel shop in the town center, instantly brought me back to Saturday mornings after little league and how they inexplicably ran out of bagels every single week at the exact same time, which was then met by dozens of people uttering the exact same phrase, ‘How can they be out of bagels?! They’re a bagel shop!’
When I was last home at the start of summer there was a heatwave starting that made it feel like the dead of August.
For those unfamiliar with Northeast summers, it gets to the level of hot where you can actually smell the heat coming off the road. I call it ‘melting into the pavement’ hot.
While this is not a pleasant smell by any means, it is the smell of Youth’s summers, endlessly wandering suburban streets to friend’s houses and the malls with nothing to do.
Those two memories aside, my strongest Prustian evocations is second hand smoke, preferably menthol.
It’s remarkable that something as weightless and insignificant a wafting puff of smoke or an iced bun can have such a bodily effect on a person.
Before I started school, my maternal grandparents looked after me while my parents were at work and my grandfather powered through at least a pack of these mint tinged death sticks everyday and I loved it.
Maybe, like my grandfather, I was addicted to that sweet, sweet nicotine or maybe it was the strongest and most frequent aroma present during the formation of many early memories. Many of which I can still recall with surprising detail.
Either way, I went from feeling like there was no specific sensory trigger that could act like a sort of time machine, to being overwhelmed with the sounds and smells of summer while back in the US.
When I returned back to the UK I was reminded of all these sensations again when I was running on an inexplicably hot day in England and I was met with the feeling of that heavy, muggy, humid heat that can only be achieved either before or after a large rain storm on a day of over 80 degrees.
The most remarkable thing about all of these moments, both for my colleagues and myself, is the physical change and sensation from something as metaphysical as a memory and, to some degree, a taste or an aroma. While Proust is correct in positing that these moments do inform us as to the importance of certain aspects life, like human connection and nature, it’s remarkable that something as weightless and insignificant a wafting puff of smoke or an iced bun can have such a bodily effect on a person.