Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Whiff of California

 Palm Drive, from the entrance of the Stanford University campus

           We just returned from Palo Alto where I participated in an academic conference that had been to some degree inspired by my recent book, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment.  This fact would have been rewarding enough even had the papers not been, as they in fact were, so rich in their variety and so impressive in their quality.  I really ought to report to you on some of them.  Did Comenius compromise his Enlightenment credentials with his embarrassing interest in popular prophecies?  Did Pope Benedict XIV succeed in bringing “enlightened” standards of anatomical and physiological science to the Church’s medieval process of canonization?  But instead I am choosing another topic, the vagaries of unbidden memory and the remarkable role played in the mechanism of memory by the olfactory sense.

            I had a wonderfully happy childhood on the whole, considering.  For only a period of about three years—roughly late-1945 to early-1948—was I sometimes consciously aware of being unhappy, even if fearful of admitting it.  My father, returned from long absence in the war, took us all to California, where Okies and Arkies had been going since time immemorial for all I knew, in search of an obscure destiny.  He was animated by the fantasy that the unique camaraderie and competence of men fighting for their lives in the malarial jungles of the Solomon Islands could be transferred to a civil partnership of house-builders in the East Bay.

            We landed in a grim place called Richmond.  At first we were in a housing project shoddily built for shipyard workers late in the war.  Later we moved to a modest rented house in what passed for the nicer side of town.  The school was an ordeal, crowded, full of mean, dumb kids and bullies and what are usually called “racial tensions”.   The enterprise of my Dad and his friends began foundering immediately on the shoals of selfishness, indiscipline, and alcohol.  I was ten years old, and I could figure it out.  Why couldn’t they?  I don’t think that those popular historians who talk so blithely of the “Greatest Generation” have taken adequate account of the war’s terrible trauma as evidenced among its veterans.

            My elder brother and I sought spaces of our own.  He was six years older than I, which meant his susceptibility to dangerous distractions was much greater than mine.  What I did mainly was take very long walks, sometimes with Pete but more often alone or with a like-minded school friend.   In those days the rising steeps of Contra Costa County from El Cerrito to the Berkeley Hills, today a Gold Coast of five or six miles of million-dollar houses, were almost entirely open country.  In spring the profusions of eschscholzia (California poppies) was magnificent, but the poison oak was everywhere.  The views could be great.  I actually saw part of the action in the so-called “Battle of Alcatraz”, a spectacular failed prison-break attempt of May, 1946, from a perch high above El Cerrito.

            Toward the Berkeley side of this expanse were two or three small plantations of eucalyptus trees with their distinctively semi-medical aroma and their weirdly peeling bark.  I loved one of these little groves in particular.  I would lie in the sweet grass on my back in the half-shade looking up through the trees to the blues and whites of the sky high above.  I had not yet read Wordsworth, but I was prepared, when I did meet him, for the meaning of “the bliss of solitude.”

A eucalyptus grove

            The Enlightenment conference began with a session late Friday afternoon, and we had most of the earlier part of the day to knock about.  Our only definite destination was the University art museum (vaut la visite, incidentally).  We had assumed it would open at ten, but arriving there at ten forty-five discovered that we were still a quarter of an hour early.  The bright, cloudless day had begun almost cool, but by now, with the sun already high in the sky, it was almost hot.  Some other early arrivers sat waiting in the full sun, but we looked around for some shade.

            One of the striking features of Stanford’s magnificent campus is the lavish open space at its entrance.  From its architecturally imposing front gates where University Avenue and the town of Palo Alto begin, there is a straight broad avenue, aptly named Palm Drive, that in the other direction runs for the better part of a mile down to the main old quadrangle and its imposing neo-byzantine church.  On either side of Palm Drive are many acres of open ground, tended with that exquisite care that alone can leave the impression of being untended, of distinctive northern California semi-desert.  Looking out into this artful wilderness from the museum steps we could see, perhaps fifty or seventy-five yards away, a couple of shaded rustic benches.  Thither we repaired.

            It is fortunately not necessary to have read every word of Proust to know what a Proustian experience is: a sharp, unanticipated attack of memory triggered by sensory experience.  In this instance it was the aroma of the eucalyptus combined with the faint brittle rattle of the breeze blowing through pin oak leaves, the synaesthesia of a peculiar geography, that instantly transported me back more than six decades to a world that no longer exists and to thoughts that I would have imagined had been so deeply buried as to be beyond mental excavation.