Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On Proust's Olfactory Sense

Much has been made of Proust's madaleine, but in this example, we see his union of language and smell intersect in a way that proves that the olfactory and the brain must be conjoined in a manner of exceedingly powerful sensitivity.  This is the narrator describing the rooms of his Aunt Leonie's house:

The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully, because I had just arrived then at Combray: before I went in to wish my aunt good day I would be kept waiting a little time in the outer room, where the sun, a wintry sun still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, lighted already between its two brick sides and plastering all the room and everything in it with a smell of soot, making the room like one of those great open hearths which one finds in the country, or one of the canopied mantelpieces in old castles under which one sits hoping that in the world outside it is raining or snowing, hoping almost for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of shelter and security to the comfort of a snug retreat; I would turn to and fro between the prayer-desk and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like a pie the appetising smells with which the air of the room, was thickly clotted, which the dewy and sunny freshness of the morning had already 'raised' and started to 'set,' puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country cake, an immense puff-pastry, in which, barely waiting to savour the crustier, more delicate, more respectable, but also drier smells of the cupboard, the chest-of-drawers, and the patterned wall-paper I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to bury myself in the nondescript, resinous, dull, indigestible, and fruity smell of the flowered quilt.
- From: Swann's Way, Vol. I

From what I understand of our sensations is that if sight has the capacity to detect depth via parallax, and hearing can detect sound via the varying pressure of air against the cilia in our eardrums, then the olfactory must be some kind of mashup of these senses.  It must have the capacity to enfold memory in a way that is inherently "brain-like", by which I mean it is multidimensional.  Perhaps the olfactory bulb was the first model for the brain in the evolutionary spectrum, before specialized senses like hearing and sight were even possible.

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