James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Remembrance of smells past

THE PAST is a foreign country only dimly perceived through our fading memories unless some stimulus – a familiar odour or a few bars of music – electrifies the brain’s circuits and a moment from long ago comes flashing back, not just the memory itself but the sense of actually being there.

For the late (and sadly missed) Colin Welch, a former Deputy Editor of The Daily Telegraph, several different smells could evoke the ghastliness of the “days long past” when, as a young soldier, he took part in the Normandy landings: “The reek of explosive and burning, of cider and calvados… the methitic stink of sewers blown to the sky… and the corpses giving off that sweet-sour stench which once smelt is not forgotten… memories still unbidden bring back those times and we shiver…”

Odours evoke the past more powerfully than any other sensation, suggesting that there must be something special about the way they are recorded in the brain. The perception of smell does, indeed, have unique “Proustian” characteristics, so-called by psychologists in deference to Marcel Proust – the man who did so much to make recalling the past a respectable passtime: “When from a long distance past nothing persists… taste and smell alone remain, more fragile but more enduring, and sustain unflinchingly, in the tiny inpalpable drop of their essense, the vast structure of recollection.”

First, it appears that smells are etched more deeply in the brain, because, paradoxically, they are so difficult to pin down. There are many cues to help us recall a person’s face or the sound of voice, but it is very difficult to imagine what a smell is like, or even give it a name. Thus, for the memory of smells to survive, they have to be almost soldered into the wiring of the brain.

The other distinguishing feature of smells is that, being particular to a time or place, they are less likely to be interfered with by subsequent experience; the memory of smell is “purer” than that of other sensations and more long-lasting.

The potency of smells as the main record of the past also explains why so often they are the precipitant of memory disturbance, or deja vu – that uncanny sense of familiarity from “another life”. For reincarnationists, deja vu is evidence of a previous existence; for Jungians, it gives support to the notion of a collective unconscious; but it is Proust (again) who provides the commonly accepted explanation – that a smell evokes the sense of familiarity of a past experience and transfers it to the present.

Or, in Proust’s words: “The sensation common to past and present, seeks to recreate the former scene around itself.”

Smells are so evocative that it seems negligent to depend upon a chance and fleeting odour to plunge one back into a nostalgic reverie. They should be kept bottled in a cupboard alongside the photograph album for ready recall, as suggested in a short story by Primo Levi. In this, an old family physician, Dr Montesanto, invites a younger colleague to sniff one of his bottled odours. He responds that it is the “odour of the barracks”.

“Not exactly,” replies Dr Montesanto, “or at least, not for me. It is the smell of my primary-school classroom. I still have a photograph of my 36 schoolfellows, but the odour of this bottle enormously more readily calls to mind the interminable tedium of the syllabus… When I smell it, my guts react like they did when I was seven years old, waiting to be questioned by the teacher…”

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd