The Proust Effect: Oral History and the Senses

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The Oxford Handbook of Oral History, 2012
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© 2011 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. At least one of the five senses-sound, vision, touch, taste, and smell-is essential to all human experience. Oral history is no exception. The importance of the senses has taken new conceptual approaches to interpreting the nature of experience, first by anthropologists working with different cultures, then later cultural historians, that is, before these ideas became more widespread. This article traces the importance of the five senses in experiencing oral history with special reference to Marcel Proust. It is well known that senses can act as a mnemonic device or a trigger to remembering. The smell and taste of tea and madeleines stimulated Proust's recollection of his past, in one of the most famous of all literary passages about memory. Proust called it the involuntary memory. Oral histories are by nature, articulating experience in speech and language. This article further traces several ways by which one can consider the role of the senses in oral histories.
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