I’m tired of madeleines, and the thought of madeleines. I’m tired of Proust as well. Though I’ve never read the man, the smell of Proust and his madeleines follows me wherever I go. The thing is, people in diaspora love (hate?) to reminisce, almost as much as they hate (love?) to forget. And wherever there’s a conversation on the vicissitudes of memory, on the nameless something that links thought to memory and memory to that most inaccessible modality of being that is the past—in the middle of this private conversation, someone will feel compelled to throw poor Marcel into the mix, platter of madeleines and all.
You probably know the scene, though you may have, like me, never actually read the passage from Swann’s Way in context. It begins, provocatively,
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin …1
The eponymous Swann has eaten a madeleine, and with it, the entire Western tradition’s conception of memory. Just try eating a madeleine without thinking of Proust, and you’ll see the gravity of the situation. The thought of memory triggers the memory of Proust, triggers the thought of madeleines, and so on and so on; as Žižek would say, ad perversum.
But not all of us remember those Sunday mornings at Combray, and not all of us seeking out the imperatives of memory need follow Proust’s cookie-crumb path through the forest of Western thought. Thinking diaspora requires thinking about the persistence and the impossibility of memory. Diaspora inheres a remodulation of presence and a recalibration of the senses—our sense of place, as the phenomenologists note, is a composite of our percepts and the flavours, textures, visions, sounds and scents that populate our world. These are the implements we use to construct and come to know our dwellings.
Home has its flavours, and exile has a smell. Co-occurring with the geopolitical theatre that binds and distributes our bodies following the demands of markets and states, there exists a geontological plane upon which the economies of yearning, of affect, and of the subtle bodies that permeate our senses operate. What then of Third World memories, and the demands of flatbread? Who attends to our shuddering bodies, our invaded senses, our displaced remembrance?
I remember the smell of the market and the blood red tiles on the outside of the building that houses small merchant stalls, on the corner of Altamirano and Revolución and just north of my grandparents’ home in downtown Xalapa. As one approaches the Mercado Jauregui, the smell is one of freshly cut flowers and ripening fruit, with accents of chiles and spices. As a child, I used to fix my nose on the overpowering scent of papayas. Years later, in Texas, and even later in Brooklyn, when I thought of my infant meanderings through the steep and narrow streets of Xalapa, a college town and the capital of Veracruz state in eastern Mexico, it was often the walk to the market and the scent of papayas to which I returned.
My Mexico is full of such smells, each anchored and anchoring some momentary confluence of space and time. There’s the smell of the perpetual rain that descends from the mountains and drenches the cobblestones in town and country, and the taste of dew on the young grass into which I pressed my face as I rolled down any number of hillsides. In my family’s village there is the smell of horses as they amble through the streets, and in the houses of all my relations, the smell of coffee brewing in a red clay pot. I smelled the pigs and turkeys in my mother’s mother’s house, and the tiles and wooden window frames in my father’s father’s house. I could continue this way, recounting the smell of my memories, until the materiality of the places of my childhood finally sublimated entirely and only Lucretian particles remained, suspended in air.
Reality, Epicurus and Lucretius argued, partakes entirely of a singular substance, which they identified as matter, and described as being composed of infinitesimal indivisibles, or atoms. The process whereby this atomised reality was differentiated within itself, yielding the world as it is, this they called the “clinamen.” The clinamen, explains Lucretius, is the adventitious swerve of things, which brings the world into being:
When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.2
This notion of truth, as a habit of swerving, speaks to me. I feel Lucretius, a Greek who lived in the first decades before the beginning of the Christian era, and myself, a Mexican in the last few moons before the beginning of the thirteenth baktun. I imagine our bodies, infinitesimally divisible, swerving across the expanse of years, and oceans. The fact of our collision, of our affective encounter across the void, speaks to me the truth of this swerve. But to return to the matter at hand, what does Lucretius say of smell? I wonder if, by following the scent of memory back to the opening moves of the Western tradition, we might find a back door, and come out into the open.
In Book IV of De rerum natura, Lucretius describes the functioning of the senses. Of smell, he says,
Whatever assail the nostrils, some can travel
a longer way than others …
For slowly on a wandering course it comes,
and perishes sooner, by degrees absorbed
easily into all the winds of air …
wherefore, besides, thou wilt observe ‘tis not
so easy to trace out in what place
the smelling object is.3
The particles of smell, he says, are large, and heavy, and burdensome. They may only go so far, then they are exhausted. And even when they reach us, our noses may lose their trail, and with it, their source becomes forgotten. Lucretian scent seems to be radically divergent from Proustian taste. While the latter constitutes an overpowering intensity and the inescapability of memory, the former bespeaks fragility, a subtle and tremendous heaviness, and what in Spanish we call vaivén—the errant back-and-forthness of remembrance. Here is materialism, and disappearance, and melancholia.
One of my favorite meditations on the despondency brought on by smell is Pablo Neruda’s Walking About:
It happens I am tired of being a man.
It happens I enter the tailor’s shops and the cinemas
wilted, impenetrable, like a felted swan
navigating in water of origin and ash.
The smell of barbershops makes me wail.4
This is what the smell of memory can do to us exiles and expatriates. It can approach us softly and leave us wilted; it can overcome us suddenly, permeating us only to remind us of what we’ve forgotten. After ten years of being away from the alleys and market stalls of Xalapa, the memory of the city’s scents became a fog “of origin and ash.” After long enough, memories and dreams can meld together, and scents can dissipate. The smell of the known world weighs heavy on migrants—it is one of the heaviest burdens we carry, and aroma has a hard time in the dry air of our desert crossing.
Ten years on, my mind still wandered back to the market, seeking out that scent of ripening fruit, but history intervened. The papaya’s flesh receded, overcome by the chlorine smell of public school cafeterias. Highland rain had to coexist with Texas summer sprinklers, and slowly, the swerve of my memories extended into a curve so long it began to look like the straight line of a perpetually receding horizon. With each year, this horizon became all the more real, all the more material. The logics of this world and the clinamen of politics are such that the imagined horizon accumulated ever larger, heavier particles. The border fence that grew faster and larger in the years after September 11th kept us away from the mountains, and the scents that live in their valleys. But the border fence has its own smells—of gas, diesel, and the black bile of hopelessness.
Melancholy was, to the ancient Greeks, not only the feeling of sadness or despondency. It had a material manifestation in black bile, one of the four humours of the body, produced by the liver. For Mexicans, the liver is traditionally the seat of the ihiyotl, which, alongside the tonalli and the teyolia, constituted the tripartite soul of the Aztecs. Ihiyotl is the wind or breath-like part of the spirit, and the word is related to Ehecatl, the wind god, depicted as a man wearing a hummingbird mask. Ehecatl descends from the mountains as a powerful wind, using his hummingbird beak to sweep the way for the coming of Tlaloc, the rain god. With its wind attributes, the Mexican soul is prone to such swerves in space and time, and is susceptible to becoming separated from the body, swept away by a strong current.
While this affliction goes by different names in different communities—in Spanish it is called susto, in Nahuatl nemouhtli, in Totonac we call it hikwanit—the cure is largely similar. A curandera, a healer, must go in search of the misplaced soul and call it back to its body. To do this, the healer relies on prayer, medicinal herbs, and copal: the pungent Mexican incense made from the resin of the Bursera simaruba tree. The incense smoke carries and strengthens the prayers. As the smell dissipates and spreads through the void, it calls for the soul to return to its dwelling. But soul-fetching is a difficult task—it requires skill, and an irreproachable tenderness.
Such tenderness, it requires us to disappear. Like the papaya of my memory, which becomes soft only as it ripens, and as it softens, its particles dissipate through the air and call us to it—such is what I imagine to be the tasks of the healer, the poet, and the expatriate. Faced with distance, loss, and forgetting, we cannot simply be Neruda’s felted swan, wilted and impenetrable, constricted in our own insufferable yearning. We have to let the melancholy out, let the bile spill, let the ihiyotl wander.
All images belong to the author
1 Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost time Volume I: Swann’s Way, trans., C.K. Scott Moncrieff, (New York: Modern Library, 2004)
2 Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics), Ed., EJ Kenny, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)
4 Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics), Ed., EJ Kenny, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)
Francisco Salas Pérez is a writer interested in the articulations of memory, bodies, history, and technology. His work focuses on the ethnography of the Southeastern Highlands Totonac in Mexico and Chicanos in North America. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and Xalapa, Mex., and is currently preparing for the 13th baktun @casi_pajaros