There was a brief thunderstorm last night; lightning flashes, rumbling thunder, and raindrops pelting the empty streets of Brussels. I flung wide open all the windows in my living room. I wanted to bring the smell of the rain into the apartment. Impatient, I stuck my head out of a window; it was so nice to feel the wisps of rain that the wind carried onto my face, like cool caresses or kisses. I wanted to remember, to remember whatever it may be that the smell of this rain would trigger in my mind…
I recently read a beautifully-written article by Edward Readicker-Henderson about the art of perfume-making in Grasse, France. He mentioned that smell is the strongest memory trigger amongst the five senses, that smell is “the one that takes you back to love, to walking into a desert temple, to a fine dinner, or even to the burning ozone of a Japanese train on a winter night. Scent is the filing system of our lives. It allows us to place who and what and where we are in the world.”
This made me stop and ponder as I’ve never thought of smell as being the most prominent amongst the five senses when it comes to arousing memories. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have a keen sense of smell (nor taste) as my nose is often blocked – I blame this on my allergy to dust/house/storage mites.
Since reading this article, I’ve asked two men and two women which of the five senses were the most likely to trigger memories for them. I didn’t receive clear answers from the latter, but both men replied ‘smell’ with certainty. NT gave an example of revisiting the university of his youth, how being surrounded by its distinct smell brought back memories from those earlier days.
I researched a little on the Internet and learnt that this idea – of smell being a powerful memory trigger – is not new. Marcel Proust wrote about it in À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time / Remembrance of Things Past), which was published in the early 20th century:
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, 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… Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify?
The protagonist eventually joined the dots and you can read the full story – which is the first volume, Swann’s Way – on the wonderful Project Gutenberg. This observation of smell evoking distinct memories has since been referred to as “Proustian Phenomenon“.
So what did yesterday’s thunderstorm bring back to my consciousness? To be honest, memories didn’t come flooding back as swiftly as I hoped. Perhaps it’s because the smell of the rain in Brussels is not quite the same as that in Singapore, which, by the way, I’ve always associated with freshly cut grass.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the smell of rain. Yesterday, I was reminded of idyllic afternoons and nights, lying in bed reading; chasing after a soccer ball with my bare feet sinking into the cool mud puddles with every step; melancholic late nights spent drinking brandy or single-malt whisky with a dash of warm water added; running from Kallang MRT station with a former boyfriend and arriving completely drenched at (the now defunct) Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips restaurant to eat chicken wings; a five-year-old me riding piggyback on my father as he carefully maneuvered down the dark wet stairs on one stormy night when he picked me up from Auntie Susan’s and the lightning had cut off the electricity in the building.
Isn’t it impressive how a certain smell could evoke such strong and varied memories?
P.S. I’ve not worn any perfume since I moved to Europe in 2010, but after reading this story by Readicker-Henderson, I would like to explore the jasmine fields of Grasse and to visit Madame Roux of La Source Parfumée – what would her intuition tell her about me and what scent would she suggest for me?
P.P.S. If you’re interested to create for yourself some madeleine-related memories, here’s an amusing piece by Edmund Levin who investigated and tried to recreate a Proust-worthy madeleine.