The Madeleine Tea Cake is the most renowned pastry in world literature.
When Marcel Proust’s narrator in Remembrance of Things Past began eating the sponge cake after it had been dipped into warm tea, a flood of memories was released—a watershed of seven volumes, 1.5 million words.
Here is that celebrated moment: “As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime blossom which my aunt used to give me, immediately the old grey house upon the street rose up like a stage set…and with the house, the town from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I used to be sent before lunch, the street along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine…”
Fellow author Vladimir Nabokov described the book as a treasure hunt where the treasure is time and the hiding place is the past. The most lauded novel in history is deeply tied to the subject of nostalgia, which the American Psychological Association defines as a longing to return to an earlier period or place in life which is associated with better times.
Proust actually experienced what he later called “an involuntary memory” when he was writing Remembrance. It occurred in mid-1909 as he was eating toast with tea — suddenly, “the partitions of my memory caved in.” He began to remember summers in the country with his grandfather, an episode only slightly re-cast in the final version of his novel.
Although he was not a psychologist, the memory experiences Proust chronicled are remarkably in line with what experts know about nostalgia today. Pleasant recollections are often unlocked by taste or smell.
Hal McDonald, Ph. D., wrote last year, just when the Covid-19 virus was starting to take hold, that he bit into a piece of apple strudel, not his ordinary fare, probably a remnant of his daughter’s recent visit. He was immediately transported back 20 years to a strudel breakfast in a more convivial time and place.
“My nostalgic response to a taste that I had not experienced in over 20 years was not, in and of itself, particularly surprising,” McDonald wrote. “The power of taste and smell as nostalgic triggers has been abundantly documented. What was surprising was the intensity of the feeling…nostalgia is, in fact, a common response to distress, and actually serves as an adaptive function that can help us emotionally weather tumultuous circumstances.”
The term was coined in 1688 by a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer. Using the Greek words Nostos (coming home) and Algos (suffering), he diagnosed nostalgia as a cerebral disease in mercenaries caused by demons—the chief symptom of the disease was an obsession with longings to return home.
Conceptualizing nostalgia as an illness persisted until the 20th century.
Today, nostalgia is omnipresent: Leave it to Beaver brings 50’s values to the present; artists from Norman Rockwell to Henry Moore depict warm family images; and singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald romanticize youthful passions.
Nostalgia is now viewed as a universal, natural emotion. It serves a number of life enhancing functions, according to Krystine Batcho, Ph. D. “It helps unite our sense of who we are, our self, our identity over time,” she said. “Nostalgia helps to unite us to that authentic self and remind us of who we have been and then compare that to who we feel we are today.”
There is an element of wishful thinking in nostalgia, because as Dr. Batcho pointed out, “Our memories are not faithful.” Events remembered are sometimes frosted over to eliminate sharp corners.
By its very nature, nostalgia is a bittersweet feeling. “It’s sweet because we’re remembering the best times, the good times of our lives,” Dr. Batcho noted. “The bitterness comes from the sense that we know for sure that we can never really regain them, they are gone forever. The irreversibility of time means that we absolutely cannot go back in time.”
On balance, unless it traps us in the past and renders us ineffective in current behavior, nostalgia is a healthy form of escape. Studies have shown that it does not increase negative emotions, but rather it increases positive ones — it puts people in a good mood.
Research by Dr. Clay Routledge, supports this position. He wrote, “Nostalgia does not harm people, it benefits psychological health and well-being.”
Proust deserves the final word — here’s Christmas, as seen through his always amber-hued lens:
“While Christmas loses its truth for us as an anniversary, by the gentle emanation of accumulated memories, it takes on an increasingly lively actuality, where candlelight, the melancholy resistance of its snow to someone we want to arrive, the smell of tangerine drinking in warmth from the room, the brightness of cold and fires, the smell of tea and mimosa come back to us, smeared with the delicious honey of our personality, which we’ve unconsciously been depositing for years while we didn’t notice, but now suddenly it makes our heart beat faster.”