When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

20 December 2007

Music as a trigger for memory

She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”

— Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1: Swann's Way (Marcel Proust)
Proust's petite madeleine became so famous that "madeleine" is now cultural shorthand for anything (usually a sensory phenomenon) that triggers deep and involuntary recollection of memories.

As I'm getting older and have a constantly increasing reserve of stored memories to tap into, I'm finding that this phenomenon happens to me more and more, and especially with the senses of taste and smell. (Google "olfaction and memory" and you'll be paralyzed by the volume of current academic research on smell as a memory trigger.)

Yesterday it happened to me again. This time, music was the trigger.

I had stumbled across a good sale at a music store online and bought, among other things, copies of "Murmur" and "Reckoning", R.E.M.'s first two full-length albums on I.R.S. Records.

As a good alternative rock fan who was in high school and college down in North Carolina in the early 1980s when these records first came out -- compact discs were new, people; we still bought and played these things on vinyl -- I literally wore out more than one copy of each record.

But I hadn't listened to these songs straight through, in album order (as I must have done countless times in various altered states) for years and years.

When I did -- yesterday morning, in my office, as it happens -- twenty-five years melted away in an instant.

And I was, just for a moment or two, no longer sitting in an office in a high-rent Manhattan skyscraper.

No. I was perched on the old couch in my crappy little apartment on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill, with a glass of cheap Portuguese wine in my hand, surrounded by long-absent friends, in the fullness of deep and involuntary memory.

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