Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Knows

I was reading an article about the bonds between memory and smell when suddenly the air in my subway car was filled with the scent of a wood fire and I was instantly and simultaneously transported to this summer and a Fourth of July barbeque in Michigan; to a camp fire in Bryce Canyon seven years ago; to many winter nights by the fireplace when I was young. "The passage of time, which rots and corrodes the content of visual memory, has no measurable impact on the olfactory senses," the article explains. Strangely, while we are very bad at recalling smells, nothing triggers a recollection as surely as the smell to which it is linked. Indeed, "the ability of specific smells to trigger episodic memory," as the article points out, is immortal as well.

Many authors have explored the layers of memory that a sensation can produce. Proust, Faulkner and Sebald, to name a few, have produced famous sentences and paragraphs and pages and novels excavating the mental strata revealed by the fissure a particular taste or sight opens up. But has any author reproduced the instanteity of those recollections - the experience of being in several places and times piled on top of one another, resonating with one another? What would that look like?

I've long thought that we only feel at home in a place when we become accustomed to its smell. It is as if the unconscious says this does not smell like home - I can not feel at home here. I could never quite get comfortable at a friends' houses that didn't smell right to me.

Scent's memories may be immortal, but scents are not. Before I can locate the phantom subway campfire, its odor evaporates from my consciousness. "Smells are fleeting," the article points out; "the smell of violets is famous among perfumers for persisting for only about half the duration of an inhalation." The scent becomes as unnoticeable as the gray of the car or the rumble of the tracks.

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