Skip to main content
Monthly Archives

December 2015

The memory of atmospheric smell

By Autobiography, in English 2 Comments

My PhD student Anette Stenslund has made me aware of atmospheric smell as an important dimension in our relation to the world.

In her dissertation, which she defended last week, Anette discusses smell in the hospital in terms of ‘atmosphere’ — i.e. not as a perception of specific olfactory stimuli, but as a phenomenological apprehension of situated smell.

Anette’s work is important for understanding the synaesthetic qualities of museum exhibitions (a topic I will return to later). But the notion of atmospheric smell could also add an interesting dimension to autobiographical studies of the individuals’ memory of the past. Here’s an example from my own life-history.

When I immatriculated at Stockholm University 50 years ago, I chose chemistry as my first subject. The chemistry programme began with a month-long intensive propaedeutic course, where you should learn basic stoichiometry and the whole periodic table by heart. It was a kind of rite of passage that sorted out the less devoted students and gave the rest of us license to enter the holy laboratories — inorganic chemistry and physical chemistry in the autumn, and organic chemistry in the spring.

What I remember best from my year of chemistry studies is the social life and the feeling of being in the lab. We were around 12 students in each lab group, having an intense social life together. We met at 8am for breakfast and gossip in the canteen before the morning lectures began, and then spent 6-8 hours together in the lab, two and two at each bench. We often had dinner together, comparing lab notes, before going home to write the daily lab reports and read the textbooks (and getting 6-7 hours of sleep before the next hard day). It felt more like a voluntary boot camp than a school.

Chemistry taught me that science is about abstract concepts, experiments and precise observations. We spent months learning to weigh substances, calibrate pipettes and calculate errors of measurement. There was also some heavy theory (I remember struggling hard with thermodynamics and quantum chemistry). But what lingers most strongly in my memory is that it was an intensely sensuous study (today, maybe it’s all learnt in front of the computer screen?).

All the senses were involved. I vividly remember the beautiful colours of some of the (mostly organic) stuffs we produced and the click-click-click sounds of the Geiger counter. Almost everything we did involved manipulating something, including instruments, hands-on.

And above it all hovered the smell. I remember it as if all substances we used and produced smelled of something. Ammonia, hydrochloric acid, nitrous gases, bromine, hydrogen sulphide, and a whole array of carboxylic acids, ethers, aldehydes and ketones — a constant bombardement with specific smells, many of them pleasant, and sometimes dangerous, some foul, but nonetheless often harmless, at least in small concentrations.

The lasting impression in my memory of the year 1965-66 is not the specific smells of specific substances, however. What I remember best is the unspecific smell atmosphere of the laboratories — ranging from a vague sense of bakelite and vacuum tubes in the physical chemistry room to the heavily odorous organic chemistry lab, which not even the most efficient fume hoods could remove and which impregnated the lab coats as well.

That experience has followed me throughout life. Whenever I see an image of a organic chemistry lab, I can easily recollect its unspecific odorous atmosphere — which is almost as ‘tangible’ as the visual impression of the room.

220px-PerfumeSuskindWould it be possible to write a smell memoir? Something akin to the fictional scent biography of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille that Patrick Süskind created in Das Parfum, but not fictional and not focused on specific odours: more in the form of an autobiographical report of one’s own life in terms of the different kinds smell atmospheres one has encountered throughout life. Would it be too monotonous? Too emasculated? Too vague and too short? All these probably. But it would nevertheless be an interesting exercise to use that kind of analytic perspective on one’s own life as a complement to other and richer analytic perspectives.

Under all circumstances it would be interesting to develop the notion of the atmospheric qualities of memory further. Any tips about literature or ideas how to proceed?

Note: The smell in the chemistry lab has been discussed by others; for example, David Lowe has written about the smell in contemporary organic chemistry labs, and historical aspects of smell in the chemistry laboratory has been studied by the Uppsala historian of science Anders Lundgren. But to my best knowledge, the notion of atmospheric smell as a dimension of our memory of the past has not been treated (whereas memories of specific smells are of course a commonplace topic, not least due to Marcel Proust’s famous Madeleine cake experience and its impact on subsequent generations of scholars).

This is an original blogpost which hasn’t appeared on Facebook in advance — but was reworked into a Facebook post published 2 February 2021.

I can’t recall a single meal –

By Autobiography, in English No Comments

Högbergsgatan 11 (credit:
I vividly remember the house on Högbergsgatan on Södermalm in Stockholm, where I lived on the ground floor with my mother, grandmother and grandfather during the first decade of my life, 60-70 years ago.

I remember the physical features of the house, and also the four-room apartment we lived in. I recall the outline and ambience of the rooms, the hallway, the bathroom, and the kitchen. And I still remember the distribution of light and shades throughout the apartment at different times of the day.

But I remember very little about the family members and our daily activities. And I can’t recall a single meal!

I must have had around 7,000 breakfasts, dinners and Sunday lunches in that apartment. I clearly remember where the sideboard stood, and the shape and colour of the dinner table! But not a single meal has survived in my memory. Not a single one!

Summer 1951 (4 years old) titled "Gröt är bra att ha i magen innan man börjar dagen".

Summer 1951 (4 years old) titled “Gröt är bra att ha i magen innan man börjar dagen”.

There is photographic evidence that I had meals :-). But only in two photos, and none of them in our apartment in Stockholm. One (on the left) is of me with a plate of porridge, probably outside my grandparents’ summer house in Bergshamra, some 50 km north of Stockholm. I was 4½ years old when it was taken.

In the other photo, taken in 1954 when I was 7 years old, I’m having breakfast with my grandmother on the porch.

Breakfast on the porch. Summer of 1954.

“Sunny breakfast” on the porch. Summer of 1954.

(Seeing these two photos today suddenly makes me remember one small thing though: I often (or always?) had graham flour porridge, and sometimes cornflakes, with milk for breakfast. But I still don’t remember the ambience of the meals.)

I have read somewhere that we tend to forget the mundane activites of our earlier life. Dressing, undressing, brushing one’s teeth, eating porridge and potatoes are such everyday events. They are the fundament of our lives, and yet they easily get lost in time.

So maybe it’s quite natural that I don’t remember any of the ~7,000 meals I had during the first decade of my life. But it’s also sad that such an important aspect of life has disappeared altogether from my memory. Instead of having to remember the day when I found out I was a mistake.

This short essay is a combined and extended version of two Facebook post, one in English of 8 September 2015, which gave rise to the two comments below, and another in Swedish of 27 December 2015 (which give rise to several very interesting comments about my mother more than five years later)

Read More

Writing memoir for publication or for the desk drawer?

By Autobiography, in English No Comments
Around 1950, ~3 years old.

Around 1950, ~3 years old.

I have not yet made up my mind as to whether I shall 1) restrict myself to the process of writing about my own life, interspersed with observations about memoir writing (using myself as the empirical case), or 2) also write a full memoir.

The first choice has been my priority so far. I’ve immersed myself in the archive and the process of memoir writing. And I have taken every opportunity to interrupt my readings and note-taking with reflections on what is going on in my mind in the process.

The alternative — writing a full memoir or autobiography —also has its attraction, however, and it feels like a kind of mental abortion to reject this option out of hand.

What has so far dissuaded me from thinking seriously in terms of a full memoir, I think, is the spectre of going public, of having to share private and intimate details about my life. There are too many things in life I still feel ashamed of.

desk drawerBut I am beginning to realise that I don’t really need to go public even if I should decide to write a full memoir text. Because I can also choose to write for the desk drawer (or rather the harddisk).

Is this really a realistic option for a person like me, who have lived my whole life in writing for the public domain?

The American writer and scholar William Zinsser (best known for his bestseller On Writing Well, 1976; free pdf here) have some interesting thoughts about this.

zinsser-memoirIn a 2006 essay in The American Scholar, Zinsser pointed out that there are many good reasons for writing memoirs “that have nothing to do with being published”:

“Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.”

And added that memoir writing can be “an act of healing”.

Zinsser’s point is that you can actually get full personal satisfaction from writing for the desk drawer. It’s of course okay to write for the public, but there are so many positive side-effects of writing privately, that one does not even have to contemplate the public alternative.

Still, the idea of writing only for private use is pretty anathematic for an intellectual like me, who have spent my whole life writing for publication. Private writing is something amateurs do.

For us intellectuals, there is something taboo-ish about writing for the desk drawer. We are heavily socialised into writing in the public domain, we are supposed to publish our manuscripts as books with academic or trade publishers, or as articles and essays in publicly available journals and magazines. Our works should not only be of the highest possible quality, but preferrably also have as wide a circulation as possible. The worst fate befalling an intellectual is to be unread by others. The quality of his/her works is secondary to their circulation and citation. It’s all about visibility and impact. That’s our destiny.

So for today’s intellectuals, writing for the desk drawer equals self-annihilation as an intellectual. And maybe it is exactly therefore that the idea of writing a memoir only for private consumption is so titillating. Rejecting the publication imperative is probably the strongest critical statement one can make about one’s social status.

This is an extended English version of a Facebook post written in Swedish on 26 December 2015, which generated a number of comments (also in Swedish):

Read More

I was a mistake

By Autobiography, in English No Comments

s 2Here are the first photographs of me. I’m “not more than a few weeks old”. Somewhat blurred, out of focus. Like my life.

Vintern 1947-2I was a mistake. My mother was a shy young woman, only 23 years old when giving birth for the first and only time, in December 1946.

During the first decade of my life, we lived with her parents in Stockholm. Gradually I realised that I had a father somewhere. At some point I also learned about the family secret — that they were not divorced, but that I was born out of wedlock, and that she had formally married and divorced a friend to acquire a married woman’s surname.

Around the age of 15, being alone at home one day and sneaking around in her belongings, I found a small calendar book from 1946 in the back of a drawer. I remember opening it with some trepidation, feverishly browsing the entries nine months before my birth, and finding a mid-March note: “Party at the Academic Association” — she was a lab technician in training at the University of Lund in southern Sweden, and apparently liked hanging out with the students — and then the next day: “God, what have I done!”.

I still remember the shock, holding the diary in my hands, feeling a bit guilty for having sneaked in her private papers — and saying loud to myself over and over again: “That’s me, that’s me! What have you done? I’m a mistake!”

I don’t think I ever mentioned my breach of privacy, and I’m sure we never spoke about the entry. It was something I kept to myself, and I have never forgotten the feeling that afternoon of being a mistake. I think that was the moment when I lost my innocence.

I don’t blame her for anything. She was young and lonely, far away from home, probably didn’t know much about prevention. In those days, having a child out of wedlock was a family scandal, so I don’t blame her for keeping the diary entry to herself. (The diary was not among the few belongings left after she died in 2014.)

But it hurts nonetheless. Both to think about it and to write about it. And I feel slightly embarassed about sharing it like this.

One aim of this project is to explore the experience of sharing such memories with others in the public domain. Why is it embarassing? And what does the embarassment tell me about myself and my understanding of privacy? And most importantly, does it help making the painful memory fade away? Is this kind of public sharing of painful memories a way towards healing?

Published on Facebook 22 December 2015, this post generated a number of very interesting responses: Read More

Ethical considerations

By Autobiography, in English No Comments
With my mother. Stockholm, 1947.

With my mother. Stockholm, 1947.

As I explain elsewhere, this is a study of the genre of autobiography / memoir. It is not an autobiography or a memoir as such, and thus there is no need to name a lot of other people that I have met throughout my life.

As a rule, if I need to illustrate my arguments with reference to individuals whom I have engaged with privately during my life I will therefore anonymise them. I can mention them by initial letters (L, K, A, etc.), or by cover names, but I will make every effort to make certain they cannot be identified.

There are three  obvious exceptions to this rule. I will reserve the right to mention 1) the few persons who cannot be anonymised (like my mother), 2) individuals who have explicitly given their permission to be named, and 3) people whose specific relation with me can be easily found in the public domain, for example, those I have engaged with in public discussions.

Are these reasonable ethical measures for a genre investigation of this kind? Or have I forgotten something?

Published in  Facebook 18 December 2015 and generating a few comments:

Peter Larsson the exceptions is the base, not more

Thomas Söderqvist Can you say a little more, Peter?

Peter Larsson That only rules who should be valid, is what you are calling the three execeptions No initial letters or cover names just to avoid misunderstanding or rumours.

Thomas Söderqvist Aha! Yes, it’s very important to avoid rumours and misunderstandings. Thanks!

Fox or hedgehog?

By Autobiography, in English No Comments


Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

The folkish distinction between the two personality types can be found already in a  text fragment from the Greek poet Archilochus, who flourished around 650 BC:”A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”.

Like so much else from classical Greek literature, Archilochus’ proverb became popular in the Renaissance. In Adagia (see the full text here), Erasmus of Rotterdam gave the Latin version of it as “Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum”.

Berlin hedgehog-foxIn our time, the dichotomy was again popularised by philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), Berlin distinguishes between human beings “who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and those who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system.” (quote from here).

Most of my academic friends and colleagues over the years have been hedgehogs. They have stayed with the same academic discipline throughout their career and focused on a rather small set of problems, which they have circled around for years and decades, often with a large number of publications. They have produced comprehensive textbook articles and regularly been invited as keynote speakers to conferences to lecture on the state of the art in their fields.

I am definitely not a hedgehog. I have moved between several disciplines — from biology in the late 1960s, to the history and sociology of the intelligentsia in the 1980s, to the history of science/medicine in the 1990s, to museum studies in the 2000s — and I have also jumped from topic to topic within the discipline: as a historian of science I worked on the rise of ecology in Sweden, on the history of 20th century immunology, on scientific biography as a genre, etc.

Thus I have been working on shell formation in ectoprocts (my research topic in 1967-1969), on the use of cladistics in molecular evolution (1969-1971), on the history and sociology of intellectuals (1978-late 1980s), on the history of ecology (1977-1986), on the class structure in the information society (1982-mid 1980s) on the history of immunology (1990s), on new scientometric methods, on the life and work of the immunologist Niels K. Jerne, on studies in scientific biography (late 1980s-mid 2000s), and on collecting and display of contemporary science in museums (2006-2014).

I have actually done substantial work in all of these fields, publishing the results in peer-reviewed international scientific journals and so forth. In several of these fields I was a recognised expert, in some even a leading expert (and in at least one small field I am still the world expert).

But I never had the enduring passion (or patience) to remain within a single research field. As soon as I had marked my territory — by writing a couple of articles or a book, or edited an anthology — I went on to another field. There was always something more exciting, something more important, somewhere else. I never shifted abruptly; there was usually an overlap of one to several years when I worked in both fields simultaneously. But ultimately I always jumped on to something new.

Being an intellectual fox is a mixed blessing. On the positive side: you never get bored, you meet new and exciting scholars and learn something new all the time. It is always fresh territory. You become a kind of polymath (polyhistor).

The negative side of being an academic fox is that you feel you never get to the bottom of things. You never really master a whole academic field; you never get the chance to play the role of a grand old man in the field; you will never receive a Sarton medal (even if you had been as clever as the actual recipients).

Also, being a fox you make few academic friends of the kind that Aristotle describes as ‘accidental’, i.e., based on pleasure and utility. On the other hand, it might be easier to cultivate Aristotle’s third kind of friendship — that between people who are good and alike in virtue — because you are neither competing with nor utilising each other.

Isaiah Berlin once said he did not really take the fox-hedgehog dichotomy very seriously, telling his biographer that the title of the book was almost a joke. But even if we accept the dichotomy — and I think one shall take seriously adages that have survived since classical antiquity — the distinction is only ideal typical. I am not a fox 24 ​hours a ​day, seven ​days a ​week. I have hedgehogianic bouts as well, at least for shorter periods of time.

What makes the distinction interesting for my study of autobiography is not only that it apparently provides a neat summarising label for my life’s intellectual journey, but also that it draws my attention to other aspects of my life, where I seem to have displayed the same kind of behaviour. For many years I was an idealtypical fox in my private life as well, jumping from one relation to another and moving from one place to the other. Also with respect to cultural taste have I been serially promiscuous. (Politically, I have been pretty stable though.) Only now, towards the end of my life, I realise how great it is to live in one place and in a long-term stable relationship. So perhaps foxes turn into hedgehogs with age? Or maybe I have always been a hedgehog in fox disguise?

To what extent do such simple personality labels have a place in autobiographical writing? Are they common? Helpful? Too simplified? Misleading? Or is there, in spite of Berlin’s joking attitude, an ancient and uncontestable truth behind such labels? I will get back to this question in later posts.

A link to this post was published on Facebook 17 december 2015 and gave rise to a number of comments:

Read More

Canities — what’s that?

By Autobiography, in English No Comments
If I were an animal, I would probably be a hoary fox; cf. Archilocus' fox-hedgehog distinction

If I were an animal, I would probably be a hoary fox; cf. Archilocus’ fox-hedgehog distinction

The domain name for this site is derived from the Latin word canities, meaning ‘a grey colour, grayish-white, hoariness’. Like a hoary fox.

According to Lewis’ Elementary Latin Dictionary (1890), Virgil used it occasionally as a metaphor for ‘old age’ (Aeneid, 10.549) I cannot find the exact locus right now. Anyone who can help?

Thanks to my good colleague and friend, classical philologist Kirsten Jungersen, for help in finding a fitting domain name.

(photo credit:

Posted on Facebook 16 December 2015, this text generated one comment only:

Kenneth L. Caneva: Oxford Latin Dictionary provides the Vergil reference: Aeneid, 10.549.

Thomas Söderqvist: Great, I found it: “dixerat ille aliquid magnum vimque adfore verbo crediderat caeloque animum fortasse ferebat canitiemque sibi et longos promiserat annos” (P. Vergilius Maro 10.547-49).