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October 21, 2016

I’ll Have What Proust Had

21 October 2016 | by Andrea Frost

The other night, I was enjoying a moment of heightened pleasure resulting from that exquisite mix of company, conversation, conviviality and wine. As I did, I noted how the fusion of aromas with such intoxicating moments are how sensory memories are made. Running away with the idea, I wondered if it were possible to intentionally fuse an exquisite moment with an equally attractive wine aroma, so that every time I devoured the wine, I would be reminded not of the accepted technical descriptions available to everyone, but of my particular moment of assigned pleasure. In short, could I engineer my very own remembrances of things past?

What I am talking about, of course, is creating my own “Proustian moment”, the famous moment in Marcel Proust’s novel À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, in which a petite madeleine dipped in tea triggers a precious childhood memory. “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.” With reflection, the memory’s origin revealed itself. “The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings … my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea.”

For Proust, the experience was nothing short of profound: “At once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.”

Replace the tea with wine, exchange his aunt for someone of my choosing and I want what Proust had. My thinking was this: I am yet to taste a galaxy of wines and commit hundreds of others to memory. When I do, I’ll likely be offered a suite of descriptors to assign to the wines. While this information is helpful for professional moments, it rather limits the aesthetic ones. I wondered if I could engineer my own associations so that in future, when I taste a Barolo, for example, I recall not just dried roses, sour cherries, spice and hints of liquorice but a “pleasure that invades my senses” and”‘sends a shudder right through me”? Or if I taste a Chambertin, say, I recall not just opulent red fruits, sinewy tannins, savoury and complexing spice, but an experience whereby the “vicissitudes of life become indifferent” and I too am filled ‘with an essence similar to the effect of love’. Could I too ‘cease to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal’ all from a glass of wine, as Proust had done, all from a cup of tea?

To find out, I paid a visit to Professor Barry C. Smith, Director at the Institute of Philosophy, Centre for Advanced Research at the University of London, Bloomsbury. In addition to his duel interests in wine and philosophy, Smith specialises in consciousness, emotions, taste and smell. I was delighted to learn that, not only is it possible to engineer my very own Proustian memory, but that the instructions to do so were good counsel for enjoying life in general.

“Smell is hugely involved in creating episodic memories. That’s what it’s good at. It is a way of laying down memories by binding and integrating the surrounding information.” Smith suspects this has to do with survival. When our evolutionary ancestors discovered a good food source, which made them happy, it was vital they remembered where it was so that they were able to go back. “Smell is a pleasurable way of telling you to ‘Pay attention. Take in the details. Something good is happening here’. That’s why a lot of these Proustian memories tend to be happy memories.”

The first step to creating my own Proustian wine memory is to drink with people I like. “Do it with pleasure and share the experience,” explains Smith. Sharing the pleasures of wine, minds, conversation and ideas, will heighten the experience and amplify the moment. It is about paying attention to the taste, sounds and sociability — the full bandwidth of the moment — to extract every ounce of pleasure to help form a meaningful memory.

One also needs to be content when attempting to lay down a Proustian moment. “Memory and attention are very connected. When your internal environment is good, you are relaxed, receptive and able to pay attention to the aroma and not treat it as background,” explains Smith. Intuitively we know this; tasting wines when we are distracted by negative emotions is like trying to hear music through a badly-tuned radio. When our mood is off, so too is our ability to taste.

Now, what about the wine? For the best chance of embedding a wine to a Proustian memory, it must be great and it must be complex. “Great wines break through the noise and make us pay attention. They tell us there is something wonderful here,” explains Smith. In the same way that the pleasure derived from abundant food sources made ancestors pay attention to the details for future recall, so too does a great wine. We’ve all had those wines that are so profound, so beautiful, so special that they make the room full silent. “If the wine is powerful enough to give you that hedonic swelling in the heart, the brain will remind you ‘something very good is happening here. Pay attention to everything around you’. That experience will bind the information and give you the best chance of a Proustian memory.”

Interestingly, as well as being great, the wine should also be complex. “The brain pays more attention to complex odours. The brain says ‘Interesting! I need to figure something out’.” Perhaps this is why so many seasoned tasters prefer interesting wines over perfect wines. It is not just our suspicion that perfect wines can be boring; our brain tells us so. And while the brain likes a problem, it also likes to resolve it. So even with the slight disturbance necessary to add complexity, the best wine for a Proustian memory must ultimately be harmonious.

Now for the complex piece of my Proustian puzzle (see how your brain engaged just then?). Upon engineering an emotionally pleasing, sensorially evocative, happy memory attached to a great, complex and harmonious wine, I then have to forget about it. The defining feature of the Proustian memory is the involuntary nature of it. It is a powerful memory that, once created, is locked away in pristine condition, uncorrupted by constant retelling. Then one day, without warning, it is triggered back to life by the aroma of a petite madeleine or, hopefully, a glass of wine. As Proust reflects: “It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect.” Smith confirms this: “You can’t force it. It’s not something you undertake, it’s something you undergo. It is not doing but sensing. You need to give yourself over to your senses.”

While surrendering to my senses is something I’m good at, not thinking about the experience is something more difficult. (A not entirely unrelated aside; in the Proust questionnaire, ‘my favourite virtue’ is thinking. ‘My main fault’? Overthinking). Anyway, there were still so many issues to consider: Who or what do I want to remember forever? Or, if it came to that, be reminded of forever? What wine should I assign to my special memory? What happens if my tastes change so much that my great wine today turns out to be mediocre in the future? Do I need to assure simultaneous evolution of my tastes and my wine? And what if I never had access to my great, harmonious, complex wine again? Would my memory be lost forever?

Excited, perplexed but undeterred, I left the university and wandered back through the streets of Bloomsbury. I figured that even if I set out to make my own memory and the moment didn’t return in the true Proustian sense, any efforts to create it would not be wasted. As I saw it, the foundations for creating a Proustian memory were an excellent guide to amplifying the pleasures of wine and life in general; drink wine with people I like in a convivial environment and with thoughtful conversation. Pay attention to the details and extract every ounce of pleasure. Engage all my senses so the most beautiful moments are imprinted forever. Drink great wine that is complex and harmonious. And perhaps most importantly, should such a delicious communion of wine and humans collide, surrender to my senses and enjoy the moment. As Proust discovered, one never quite knows when it will return to us again.