The historic French city of Saint-Malo is Brittany’s most popular tourist destination, with many places a weary traveler can rest their feet. But if you ever find yourself in the ancient port city, and after a long day of fortresses, cathedrals, and pirates, can resist the urge to collapse in the first brasserie you find, I could tell you of a particular place that is well worth your while. Right on the corner at the end of the road on the other side of the city facing the port, is an 1820 neighborhood bistrot named … ‘le café du coin d’en bas de la rue du bout de la ville d’en face le port.’
Swings at the bar. A piano in the corner. Clowns, masks, cuckoo clocks, and more dolls than you have ever seen in a single room… the place catches you off guard and sweeps you off to a far off time where life was simple and the air was sweet. A time of sticky caramels, bedtime stories and soft lavender sheets. There is a reason this café is on the European Union’s list of cultural heritage sites; it is the little feeling you get when you walk in, that the French call la madeleine de Proust.
A madeleine is a little lemon cake shaped like a seashell that French writer Marcel Proust… did not invent. But the expression originates from an excerpt of his 'Remembrance of Things Past,' one of the most famous literary works of the twentieth century. The scene takes place on a gloomy, rainy afternoon, at a gloomy, rainy time in Proust’s life. He sits down to a cup of hot tea, into which he dips a madeleine then brings it to his mouth.
‘No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver 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. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disaster innocuous, its brevity illusory…. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.’
The madeleine, which he had not tasted since his childhood, had transported him back to the intimate, pastel-colored Sunday mornings he used to spend with his aunt Léonie.
La madeleine de Proust. A happy memory unconsciously elicited by a fleeting sensory experience… a scent, a taste, a few notes from an old tune. A vague, bittersweet memory, of the kind that makes our lower lips quiver and our hearts ache.
That ache, Proust’s madeleine, is universal. The Russians call it ‘toska,’ a longing for something missing, ‘and even if you’re not sure what it is, you ache for it. Down to your bones.’ In Portuguese, it is ‘saudade,’ and it carries the melancholy assurance that whatever you are longing for will never happen again. ‘A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.’ The Welsh describe it as an actual place; they define ‘hiraeth' as a homesickness for the lost places of our past.
Looking back is not just universal; it is endearingly human. J.M. Barrie said that ‘God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.’ God gave us memory because somewhere between dunking little cakes into hot tea and playing imaginary games, we grow up. And in the story of our grownup present, there is no clear ending.
We turn to the past, not because it is more beautiful, but because the past is safe, because it is all we know. In the past, the dots are already connected. So rather than contemplate an uncertain, scary future, we embellish our memories with nostalgia and ache for a time that was never real.
The danger is that in doing so, one day we will find ourselves aching for today.
In the Akan language of Ghana, there is a proverb that says ‘Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi:’ It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten. The Akan believe that the past illuminates the present; it is not wrong to look backward, it is wrong to live backward.
There is beauty in the present, even without the creamy shades of nostalgia:
‘You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.’
― Homer, The Iliad
As for the future, a friend once told me: 'Don’t worry, life has more imagination than you.'