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The memory of smell, smell atmospheres, and memoir writing

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The recent covid-19 pandemic has made many of us aware of the importance of smell — or rather the loss of smell — in our lives. Which makes me think back on the importance of smell in my own life.

When I immatriculated at Stockholm University 50 years ago, I chose chemistry as my first subject. I learnt, among other things, that science is about abstract concepts, experiments and precise observations. We spent months weighing substances, calibrating pipettes and calculating errors of measurement.

But what lingers most strongly in my memory is that chemistry was also an intensely sensuous discipline (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. But most of all I remember the experience of smell.

As I remember it, 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 — it was a continuous bombardement with specific smells, many of them pleasant and sometimes dangerous, some foul but nonetheless often harmless, at least in small concentrations. (note 1)

The lasting impression in my memory is not the specific smells of specific substances, however. What I remember best is the unspecific smell atmosphere (note 2) of the laboratory — ranging from a vague sense of bakelite plastic and vacuum tubes in the physical chemistry room to the heavily odorous organic chemistry lab, which even the most efficient fume hoods couldn’t remove and which impregnated our lab coats and underwear.

That experience of vague smell atmospheres has followed me throughout life. I am very much aware of the vague, yet specific, odourous impression of other peoples’ homes, of restaurants, schools, pharmacies, inner-city streets, suburbs, forests, etc.

Would it be possible to write a memoir that focuses on my experience of smell atmospheres? Something akin to the fictional scent-focused biography of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille that Patrick Süskind outlined in Das Parfum. Not a fictional story and not focused on specific odours, but more in the form of an autobiographical report of my life in terms of the different kinds smell atmospheres I have encountered throughout life.

Would a smell memoir be too monotonous? Too emasculated? Too vague and too short?

Probably. But it would nevertheless be interesting to develop the notion of the atmospheric qualities of memory further. To my best knowledge, the notion of atmospheric smell as a dimension of our memory of the past has not been treated in the literature (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).

Any ideas how to proceed?

Notes:

1. 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.

2. It was my former PhD student Anette Stenslund who made me aware of the phenomenological concept of ‘atmosphere’ and smell as a component of the sensuous ‘atmosphere’.

(photo credit: https://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/joy-milne-can-smell-parkinson-s-before-it-is-diagnosed-a-1295601.html

This post was first published on this website (http://www.canities.dk/autobiography/english/the-memory-of-atmospheric-smell (30 December 2015); later revised and expanded into a Facebook post on 2 February 2021, it gave rise to the following comments: Read More

Memoir writing keeps self-absorbtion in check

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Memoir writing is surrounded by many prejudices. Many people seem to think that authors of autobiographies are very focused on themselves — that they are egocentric, egotistic, self-centered, selfish, self-serving, and self-absorbed.

I think it’s the other way around.

As Karl Ove Knausgaard says, to write autobiographically means to wind down your self-consciousness:

“The whole point of writing is to lower your self-conciousness down to 0.1 percent. I’m not present in myself, I’m present in something else than myself. This is what happened when I wrote autobiographically. It was this that made it it possible for me to write My Struggle: that my self-consciousness was almost gone. It was an incredibly good place to be.” (Interview in Danish newspaper Information, 25 September, 2020).

[In Danish: “Hele fidusen med at skrive er, at man skruer sin selvbevidsthed helt ned til omkring 0,1 procent. Jeg er ikke til stede i mig selv, jeg er til stede i noget andet end mig selv. Det var ikke mindst dét, som skete, da jeg skrev selvbiografisk. Det var dét, som gjorde det muligt for mig at skrive Min kamp: at selvbevidstheden var næsten borte. Det var et utroligt godt sted at være.”]

After reading this interview, I wrote a short post (in Danish) on Facebook, which prompted one of my friends (both IRL and online), historian of science Ken Caneva, to ask me to explain the apparent paradox in Knausgaard’s statemant. To which I answered:

“Ken, it’s paradoxical indeed. I understand autobiographical writing as a process in which you focus your attention on the self in the past as if it was an object of investigation that is separated from your current selfish needs. The object of your attention could as well have been another person, another living being, any other object in the universe – what characterizes such processes of attention on objects is that you loose interest in your own appetites and worries and become less self-oriented, more oriented to the world outside yourself, a process of liberation. The apparent paradox is thus that you achieve this state of lessened self-orientation and higher attention to the world outside your self-absorption by focusing on your self of the past – as if he was an insect under the dissection microscope. I don’t know if this is what Knausgaard means, but that’s how I interpret him.”

“I understand your explanation”, Ken replied: “Is that also your experience?”

“Yes, very much so”, I answered, “the more I delve into my past self and his interactions with other people, books, ideas and the physical world, the more he turns into a generalized person, and the more finished the text becomes the less interested I become in him. Finally, hopefully my former me will have turned into a He who won’t occupy me any more and let me get rid of my self-indulgent me.”

To which Ken replied: “Very interesting! At some point I intend to read through my collected body of work. It will be interesting to see what distance I feel from the texts.

(Image: Karl Ove Knausgaard, 2011: credit: Wikipedia / creative commons)

Published on Facebook 19 January 2021 – one comment:

Barbro Berg: Thoughtprovoking indeed!

I’m eschewing new life experiences

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Sitting here in front of the screen, writing my memoirs, page after page, month after month, it suddenly strikes me that I have absolutely no need whatsoever for experiencing anything new and exciting.

I feel no need for travelling to new places, no need for meeting new people, or reading new books, or watching new movies.

Not because I’m getting old or tired. But because I’m incessantly bombarded with a ceaseless stream of experiences from my past life through notebooks and memories.

Exploring my past eliminates my appetite for new experiences. It’s overwhelming. It’s a blessing.

Originally published on Facebook 11 September 2020, this short post gave rise to a single appreciative comment:

Liz Farthing: To me that’s the power of reflecting and oddly for me I feel like that too … it’s amazing you are writing your memoirs 😊

Thomas Söderqvist: Amazing? 🙂

Liz Farthing: Yes because you are recording your experience of life … and life is transient – I have always found the journey fascinating!

Is memoir writing a socially irresponsible activity?

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Is memoir writing an irresponsible activity in times of crisis? Ought I not rather focus on what I could do to alleviate the dire situation? Write someting that spreads positive vibes and contribute to societal optimism?

Or is it the other way around? Maybe by looking back on my own life and preparing myself for my own endgame is a more prudent alternative?

It might even be a small contribution to lowering the general unease? If all of us began writing our memoirs we might develop a more relaxed attitude to death. Just saying.

Originally published on Facebook 30 March 2020, this short post it gave rise to a handfull of comments: Read More

The life course as a process of punctuated equilibrium

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My remote FB-friend Mark Hineline came up with an interesting idea the other day. “It occurs to me”, he wrote, “that the self can develop over time in the manner of punk eek – punctuated equilibrium,” and then gave an example from his own life before summing up: “It’s almost as though my 1989 self was a substrate on which that new layer stuck as though epoxied. The point is that these weren’t gradual accretions. They were jumps.”

The theory of punctuated equilibrium was first proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972. Based on their empirical studies of the fossil record, they opposed the mainstream idea of gradual evolution, and suggested instead that once a species appears in the fossil record it will become morphologically stable (stasis). Significant evolutionary change occurs only rarely, but rapidly (punctuations). There have been lots of discussions about the theory (read more here: http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Punctuated_equilibria) but basically I think it’s sound.

But what about transferring the theory to developmental psychology and life-writing, as a metaphor for the life-course? I do indeed think it catches an important aspect of our lives. A life-course can be described as a mixture of long periods of mental and emotional stasis interrupted by short periods of rapid personal development (punctuations). I guess I could describe my own life in these terms, and I remember how other autobiographers have viewed their own lives in terms of long periods of stagnations and bursts of rapid change, although I have never seen it described in terms of punctuated equilibrium.

The only reason for my mild skepticism is that I’m generally wary of importing metaphors from the natural sciences. This one is particularly problematic, because even though it may be an interesting analogy for those of us who are familiar with evolutionary biology, it may not be equally useful for someone who isn’t.

Nevertheless it made me think. Thanks, Mark, for giving me a creative start of the day.

Originally published on Facebook 26 March 2020, this post generated the following comments:

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Visualization of my publication record

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Aside from some experiments with a photo memoir, most of my autobiographical work has so far only been about recalling memories, reading documents and writing texts — words, sentences, sections, chapters, a single story. And so it will remain. I’m a text person.

But I’ve also played with visualizations of the life course. A simple chart can sometimes say more than pages of words. Here, for example, is a diagram of my published academic articles, from the very first in 1967, when I was 20 years old, until 2018 (produced with Visual Paradigm (https://www.visual-paradigm.com).

Not many words are needed to show that my productive academic career culminated in my 50s and 60s and then went downhill. (The books show the same tendency – a peak at the age of 50-60 and then downhill).

Obviously, such visualizations do not capture the essential qualities of life — creativity, love, anxiety, you name it — but only captures measurable surface phenomena. However, they can be an quantitative complement to the qualitative rendering of the subjective life story. A kind of ‘digital autobiography’, analogous to ‘digital history’.

I am about to make similar visualizations of my unpublished lectures. Stay tuned.

This post is adapted from a post in Swedish on Facebook 28 January 2020, which didn’t provoked any comments.

Scientific memoirs as stories of personal decline

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I still remember the day almost two years ago when I read the best scientific autobiography I’ve ever held in my hands. The best description of the life of a scientist, the best insider view of research I’ve ever read.

Of course it’s a story of decline. A story about total personal defeat. I’m glued to the text, I suck in every word. Success stories are so uninteresting.

This post was published (in Swedish) on Facebook 5 October 2018, where it generated the following comments (in Swedish):

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An image that encapsulates my life

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I’m thinking about how I could use a single image to summarise my life.

Think of the cover image of a book, an image that’s intended to symbolise its contents. In a similar way, I’m looking for images that encapsulates the content of my life.

At first I thought that a photograph could perhaps do the job. Innumerable biographies and autobiographies have a photo of the protagonist on the cover for exactly that reason. (My biography of Niels Jerne was no exception). But the problem with photographs, I think, is that they are too contextual: it’s difficult to view them without thinking about when and where and under what circumstances they were shot. By putting a photo of myself on the cover of the autobiography I single out a snapshot of myself at a specific place and moment in time. And that’s not what I’m looking for.

I’m looking for something less contextual, something that catches the timeless ‘essence’ — and I’m deliberately using the metaphysical e-word, sorry about that, all contextualists out there — of me in a single image. Something like what Plutarch called a “slight deed” (πρᾶγμα βραχὺ), for example, a word in passing or a small gesture, which often, he said, reveals more of a person’s character and disposition (ἦθος) than his public appearance or deeds (in Plutarch’s famous opening to his Alexander biography).

I don’t rule out the possibility of actually finding a photograph that reveals my character over time. But so far, I haven’t found one, and therefore I’ve also thought about other kinds of images, like caricatures or allegories.

The problem with caricatures is that they are usually drawn by (street) artists, who don’t know anything about the subject’s personality, but make the drawing from the physiognomy only. And I’m not interested in my physiognomy; I’m interested in an image that reveals my character (my disposition, my habitus), and I don’t know of any caricature artist who knows me well enough to catch this aspects of me.

So what about allegory then? I’m not thinking about the autobiography as an allegory (cf. David Herman, “Autobiography, allegory, and the construction of self”, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 35 (4) 1995, p.351+), I’m thinking of allegorical images as summaries of lives. For example, in earlier post I’ve characterised myself as a typical intellectual fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. So Archilochus’ proverbial fox might be a good allegorical summary of my life — and a fitting cover for the autobiography.

But there are most probably other, and perhaps better, possibilities. So I’m continuing my search for good allegorical images (as well as habitus-revealing photographs). And those of you, who think you know me well, are very welcome to send me images which you think encapsulate my personality and life.

(image from here)

Adopted from a Facebook post published 4 January, 2018, which gave rise to some comments: Read More

‘Diminishing returns’ i biografiarbetet

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Ett exempel på ‘diminishing returns’ i memoararbetet – som ändå ger livskvalitet:

I maj 1969 bodde jag hos en äldre brittisk kollega under ett par veckors forskningsuppehåll vid Queen’s University i Belfast. Ron, som han hette, var mycket hjälpsam och vi fortsatte att korrespondera ett par år tills han flyttade till en helt annan del av världen och våra vägar gick i helt olika riktningar.

Häromdagen hittade jag honom via LinkedIn, skrev till honom — och fick ett entusiastiskt svar. Han är nu 91 år gammal och vid gott mod.

Han mindes mitt besök i Belfast som om det var som igår. Han hade också ringt upp sin drygt 60-årige son, Owen, som hade sagt att han “remembers you well and that you were a Beatles fan, as he was. He also remembers that you shared a liking for one of their songs, “Get Back.”

Har just slagit upp “Get Back” på Wikipedia; den kom ut på single i april 1969, dvs. en månad innan Belfast-resan, vilket understödjer sonens excellenta minnesbild. Har också lyssnat på “Get Back” på Youtube; minns ingenting.

En liten oväsentlig detalj i pusselspelet. Memoarmässigt ett mycket litet utbyte. Men den förnyade kontakten med Ron efter nästan 50 år gjorde mig ändå glad. Så min livskvalitet tog ett rejält skutt framåt.

Publicerades första gången på Facebook 20 augusti 2017, men då fick den inga kommentarer. Återpublicerad i utvidgad form på Facebook 3 februari 2021 och i FB-gruppen Högskoleläckan samma dag gav den upphov till flera kommentarer: