Smell: The Reliable Narrator

We’ve all been there. A word, a color, an image, a flash of light - something triggers an involuntary memory, something that has lain dormant for years and years. Perhaps you had thought you’d forgotten it, and given the amount of life-altering information you forget on a seemingly daily basis, you may find it truly remarkable that it’s still bound up in your memory folds, hidden away, just waiting for the surface world to bring it into focus for you. More often than not, it is a smell. There’s a reason for that.


I could talk about how, when we smell, the thalamus is bypassed, the olfactory bulb is immediately engaged (which is directly connected to the hippocampus and amygdala), resulting in intense, detailed memory and strong emotions, but I’d only be regurgitating scientific lingo that I only just made myself familiar with.


Instead, I’ll talk a little bit about the smells that set my brain on fire with undiagnosed nostalgia. Some smells come from a specific time and place in my life, and others are completely unmoored from any sort of geographical or physical location.

Art by Meredith Waugh

I will offer several examples of the former, and hopefully you find a point of relation. Even if your hometown doesn’t have a describable scent as mine does, you know it down in your bones, trust me. The smell would never announce itself to you, but if it were removed from its location and dropped into the middle of the Montana wilderness (in this scenario, you are lost in the Montana wilderness and are also not a native of said wilderness), then your mind would perk up and you’d know just how far away from home you really were.


I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a few different cities throughout my life, and each has a smell to me. Or at least one that I can pick out and isolate. San Francisco, the city of my birth, is the easiest to identify. It’s the eucalyptus trees. Acres and acres of them, towering high above the parasitic hands of Silicon Valley, the old neighborhoods that are rapidly gentrifying before our eyes, and the sliver of the old town that’s still left. When you’re driving in and out of the city, just roll the windows down, and sure as it is that the Giants won’t make the playoffs this season, you’ll smell them. Speaking of the Giants, I was seven years old when I went to a game with my newly-purchased Magic 8-Ball in-tow. Barry Bonds was at the plate. Since I was still a believer in the power of such trinkets, I asked the 8-Ball if he would hit a home run. He hit one on the next pitch. Yet amidst all the numerous smells that could take me back to that night, the one that acts as a universal trigger is the eucalyptus.


London is where most of my childhood happened, and therefore I’ve spent more time sniffing glue in that wonderful city than I have anyplace else. Just a Pritt Glue Stick, mind you. The stuff they give to kids in elementary school. I was probably bored in class, tired of learning about the Tudors for the twentieth time. In fact, Pritt Glue Stick was my remedy of choice after I impulsively cut my school uniform with scissors. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. But anyway, it’s a toss-up between assorted crusty glue sticks and the hot air that rises out of the ground on random street corners. The city often felt like it was moving on wheels.


Now, the smell I associate with Baltimore is only because the McCormick spice factory had an explosion during the summer that I moved there, so the air all smelled like spice for weeks and made you feel slightly intoxicated and whiplashed at all times. It was a really bad time in my life, and the fact that everywhere I went smelled like turmeric probably didn’t help.

All of these smells bring back locations, conversations, snippets of mood, instances of elation, passion, regret - all fully three-dimensional scenes with memories attached like a chain of rusted paper clips.

Art by Meredith Waugh

The French writer Marcel Proust famously wrote about such a sensation in his 1907 novel, In Search of Lost Time, in which he described the memories associated with the consumption of a madeleine biscuit, a childhood-triggering event so beloved in the literature world for its universality that any involuntary memory brought about by taste or smell is often referred to as an example of “Proust’s madeleine.” Now, what that phrase neglects to take into account is that Proust’s madeleine didn’t start that way at all. In its first draft, it was toasted bread mixed with honey. In its second, a biscotto. And in its third draft, the madeleine was born. What did Proust not find inherently interesting about toast with honey? It sounds plenty interesting enough to me. Perhaps he was searching for something a little more nationalistic, something nostalgic in its essence. Perhaps he’d never tried a madeleine in his life.


To that end, there’s no guarantee I’ve ever smelled any of the smells I listed before. I may have never been to any of those places. I could just really want to be from San Francisco. I could be editing my choices in an attempt to make a connection with the reader, like Proust might have done. This could be draft two, three, or four. There’s no guarantee that I’m in any way reliable.


But should that matter? Should it make a difference whether I’m really writing about the smells that shaped me? Or is it enough to merely talk about something that forces the reader to sift through their own past? It’s a question of artistic license and the ethics therein. Does Marcel Proust have to have tried a madeleine for the title In Search of Lost Time to hit you somewhere unexpected, even if, like me, you’ve never read it? Especially if you haven’t read it, and it sounds like an experience made just for you, and you know that the smell of your copy will exist as a bridge between now and then through the generations?


So if you find yourself scanning back through your mental archives and trying to remember what that old shed in your backyard smelled like, or what the McDonald’s on the corner was cooking up on a Sunday morning in September 2002, then you’ll have to return to those places (or some approximation of them). There are no shortcuts. That’s arguably the most fascinating thing about smell. There’s no picture you can look at, there’s no song you can listen to - you have to experience it again as if it were happening for the first time. As if you were once again a small child playing in the grass, the sun shining high in the sky, your troubles far away like a stormcloud on the Iowa plains, when you were face down, fully in focus, enjoying your own private version of a madeleine.


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