It’s the basic bureaucracy of the brain- all sensory nerves have to synapse through the thalamus before they get to the neocortex and we process them properly. But the olfactory nerve does something strange and special, grandfathered in from our reptile ancestors. It goes the allocortex first, near the seat of memory and perhaps emotion, and does its fast and furious business ahead of the neurological queue of higher reason. Proust describes the subjective experience of this physiological curiosity in Swann’s Way.
And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach ofintellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that materialobject will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
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, hadany existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, mymother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I didnot ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particularreason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plumplittle cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though theyhad been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon,mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressingmorrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soakeda morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs withit, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and Istopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached,with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of lifehad become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevityillusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love hasof filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was notin me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental,mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I wasconscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but thatit infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of thesame nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? Howcould I seize upon and define it?
I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is timeto stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the objectof my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. The tea hascalled up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeatindefinitely with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; whichI, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call uponthe tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at mydisposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine myown mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyssof uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayedbeyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark regionthrough which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail itnothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with somethingwhich does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality andsubstance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.
And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of itsexistence, but only the sense that it was a happy, that it was areal state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted andvanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughtsto the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I find againthe same state, illumined by no fresh light. I compel my mind to makeone further effort, to follow and recapture once again the fleetingsensation. And that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut outevery obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit allattention to the sounds which come from the next room. And then, feelingthat my mind is growing fatigued without having any success to report,I compel it for a change to enjoy that distraction which I have justdenied it, to think of other things, to rest and refresh itself beforethe supreme attempt. And then for the second time I clear an emptyspace in front of it. I place in position before my mind’s eye the stillrecent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start withinme, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise,something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; Ido not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I canmeasure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.
Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being mustbe the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, hastried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are toofar off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourlessreflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley ofradiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, asthe one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of itscontemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea;cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, ofwhat period in my past life.
Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, thismemory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical momenthas travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of thevery depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now that I feel nothing, it hasstopped, has perhaps gone down again into its darkness, from which whocan say whether it will ever rise? Ten times over I must essay the task,must lean down over the abyss. And each time the natural laziness whichdeters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, hasurged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merelyof the worries of to-day and of my hopes for to-morrow, which letthemselves be pondered over without effort or distress of mind.
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumbof madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on thosemornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say goodday to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping itfirst in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of thelittle madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it;perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, withouttasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their imagehad dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place amongothers more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandonedand put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; theforms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry,so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were eitherobliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power ofexpansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in myconsciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, afterthe people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still,alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, morepersistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised along time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for theirmoment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in thetiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure ofrecollection.
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked inher decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memorymade me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, whereher room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself tothe little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built outbehind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment hadbeen all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning tonight and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon,the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we tookwhen it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by fillinga porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paperwhich until then are without character or form, but, the moment theybecome wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctiveshape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable,so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park,and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village andtheir little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combrayand of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid,sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.