Kage Baker quite liked Marcel Proust. She actually read all of Remembrance of Things Past, and claimed to have enjoyed it. But then, she was also very fond of French surrealistic cinema, so God only knows what she was seeing in her mind’s eye as she read through that massive recollection.
Me, I’m a much less classy person. I too have read the entire thing, but I hated it. I think Marcel Proust with a whiny little neurasthenic with a silly moustache and pop-eyes. And he looked like Percy Dovetonsils; though that is a point in his favour … also, I have a most working-class dislike of French surrealism; except for Jean Cocteau, who seems to have been almost the only Frenchman in the 20th century who enjoyed sex. Him, and Maurice Chevalier.
If any of you, Dear Readers, do like Proust, please accept my apologies for undoubtedly offending you. I admit to having some low tastes in literature
On one aspect of memory, though, Proust was entirely correct: the effect upon it of taste and scent. Entire time lines can be evoked by a flavour, as Proust carries on about interminably in the incident of the madeleine. What works for flavour works even better with aromas, too, since the nasal nerves are about the only ones that connect to the brain without any intermediary. And they connect to emotional areas, so that smells can actually conjure up feelings.
It goes beyond mere memory or even nostalgia – the brain, and the body along for the ride, reacts as it did the first time. So, if you were threatened at an early age by a babysitter with a gorilla mask and a handful of lemon cookies, that explains why you now wet your pants when offered a Cosmopolitan with a slice of lemon … awkward, that. But your brain can’t help it.
This Saturday I went to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, out at the Sante Fe Dam Recreational Center in Irwindale. A bit of background is needed here, Dear Readers, so be patient. Also, caveatum, expect no pleasant objectivity from me …
The Faire was bought from the Pattersons, who invented it, some years ago – lock, stock, and most of the actors, except for the troublemakers who scarpered with their favourite props under their cloaks. I was one of those. A lot of other very good people stayed, heroically doing their best to keep the event on track: because the new owners (based in the Cheese Paradise of Wisconsin) don’t like things to be “too California”. To this end, they have imported modern acts with electric guitars and amps, downplayed historicity, and parked un-camoflaged taco trucks around the place …
Since they also own the copyrighted name, they decided to celebrate the Faire’s 50th anniversary this year (there is some confusion as to actual dates), and billed themselves as The Original Renaissance Faire. Which they are not, except that a lot of fossil performers, booths and acts are still hanging on stubbornly, refusing to give in to the Nouveau Regime. And a lot more fossils came to visit this weekend. Including me.
I came with an old friend. We did not wear costumes. We wore sensible shoes, heat-proof clothing, industrial-weight sunscreen. So the first blast from the past hit us while getting out of the car in the weedy field that was the parking lot, under the hot morning sun: the rising pineapple smell of crushed chamomile under foot, along with the smell and taste of sunscreen melting on one’s lips. Whoosh! Thirty years hit us, three decades of staggering into site while frantically lacing a bodice and trying to fish your passes out of your boots …
The crowd was light at the Front Gate, but walking in was another BANG! to the brain. The smell – incense, garlic, beer, cinnamon, hot wax, cold steel, the fireworks reek of a working forge. Leather steeped in odorous substances you’d rather not know about, but also perfumed by the villainous mercenary walking by wearing it and smelling inexplicably of Axe body spray. Lilacs, lavender, roses, sweet peas, lily of the valley, carnations twisted from their stems like confetti poppers and the petals thrown over the crowds’ heads in a rain of cloves and nutmeg.
Dust. Hay bales. Canvas, burlap, new lumber under new paint smelling like peaches, old wood under new paint smelling like compost. Hot bread, hot beef, hot chicken, hot cooking oil, hot diesel oil from a hidden generator and a dreadfully visible taco truck. Strawberries. Chocolate. Frangipani everywhere.
Ten feet inside that front stockade gate, and I was reeling with the sensory onslaught. Twenty feet, and I was drunk on 1973 – lithe and strong and 20 years old again, plumes and ribbons on my hat, dancing down a dirt road and completely intending to fall in love that day. Which I did. And never came up for air nor fell out of love, neither; but have continued in that sweet mania ever since. Even if my beloved is currently living coarse with an unworthy bawd, and is a little the worse for wear … I know the perfume of his breath.
They say, when you go to Fairieland – or the afterlife – taste nothing, or you will never escape. But with the very firmest of intentions, I couldn’t help but taste the past, which sneaked up and then assaulted my lips with no shame or subtlety whatsoever.
I have kissed that mouth a thousand times. And so I walked back in.
Such a web you weave of sense and recollection!
Even the little Faire at Jubilee College in central Illinois had those smells – and I am such an old theatre bum that it felt like home. But in your circumstance, I would not have been so brave. I’d have declined the invitation, likely to my loss.
Tom – I said NO the first several times. Then someone posed the question in such a way that I could not bear to refuse. Or maybe my common sense wore out, I’m not sure which. And I’m glad I did it, glad I tell you! I hadn’t felt this alive in 2 years, 2 months and 9 days.
Do you mind if I quote you to friends who wonder why I Never Went Back? I’ve been trying to frame these words for years. I’m glad you were able to go back. I still can’t.
Quote away, Catharine! You will note I have not rejoined the cast: I merely bought a ticket and went as a civilian, and wrested such unexpected joy as I could from the REC’s greedy hands. But those wretches – not all our friends who still labour to produce art under difficult circumstances, but the owners – have cut down my Wood Outside Athens and paved over Arcadia. And THAT I will never forgive.
A lovely remembrance, well worth the wait. I’m sorry to hear about the taco trucks. I haven’t been to the Faire in decades, but what I loved about it was its authenticity and the actors never losing their characters amidst the hurly burly.
PJ – the authenticity is still there, it’s just concentrated in smaller areas. Needlessly. And the actors, the real actors, still maintain their characters through everything from heat to snow to some passing whackjob with a portable mike who thinks he’s a Muppet Pirate ,,, But where the performers used to be hundreds of exquisite cameo gems set in silver and gold, they are now dozens of still-exquisite cameo gems set in – plastic. Nonetheless, they shine. Oh, they do!