Monday, June 7, 2021

The Memory Meme that Refuses to Die


A reader’s letter to the Financial Times relates a charming story about her son, who as a two-year-old blurted out that a lady in a store smelled like his godmother. Lo and behold, both women wore L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain.

Thirty-one years later, he pulls the same stunt at a restaurant: he correctly identifies his godmother’s signature scent on a lady sitting at the next table.

The letter writer thought she was illustrating a point made in a previous edition of the paper, namely “wouldn’t it be a fine thing if there was a good smell that reminded people of you?” In fact, she did so quite effectively. We can also applaud her son for having a good nose, a keen awareness of scent, and a long memory.

But why did the FT have to spoil it all by slugging the letter “The power of scent is like a Proustian madeleine”? There is nothing Proustian about this anecdote. The first incident shows a toddler with a precocious awareness of smell. The second shows that as an adult he retains his smell identification ability, along with a good memory.

In neither instance was he transported to a full-blown evocation of an earlier time and place—whether by the instantaneous, effortless process described by many pre-Proustian writers, or by the slow, labored process described by Proust in Swann’s Way.

My guess is that some junior editorial assistant probably read French Literature at Cambridge and simply couldn’t resist justifying all that tuition money by working in a Proust reference.

Basta. In the interest of accuracy and history, isn't it time we begin to forget Proust’s madeleine?

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