Smell is the pariah among the senses, or has been until now. Kant wouldn’t admit it into his aesthetics, Freud dismissed it as an aspect of anality, for many people it has aspects of bestial sexual behavior summarized in the image of two dogs mutually sniffing. Most of us do not smell as good, for as much of the time, as we think we should. Perhaps it’s true that the more clean-minded we are, the more we are obsessed by nasty ideas, of which fecality and body odors from groin, rump, armpit, and mouth are the most embarrassing. Different people vary widely in the acuteness of their smell sense, as in the different odors to which they are sensitive. But compared with those of the other animals, like blood-hounds to be sure, but also insects such as the emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia), our keenest noses are gross and pitifully short of range. It’s not beyond thought that smell is a vestigial sense, much reduced from what it once was, likely to vanish altogether before long.
Despite many efforts, it is still impossible to classify or even describe odors more than clumsily; our terms for different smells are the names of the objects causing them. We can talk of an onion smell, of balsam, roses, or skunks, but cannot categorize the odors themselves convincingly. Smell is clearly allied to taste, but the relation is hard to define. Some people like Limburger cheese, while disliking the smell. I have heard of a Southeast Asian plant that smells like sewage drains but tastes delicious; people build special huts in the woods where they eat it because nobody can stand them during or after their orgy. Serious garlic eaters (by the bulb) are generally unaware of the havoc they spread around them. As an experience, a smell tends to be evanescent; an odor that struck you originally as very strong will lose its force within a few minutes and fade into the background.
Smell is a very suggestible sense. Despised racial groups and social classes were sometimes said to have a distinctive odor; one of the many French words for prostitute, putain, derives from the superstition that sexually active women smelled of sperm, and the fetor judaicus was attributed to the race, not to the crowded ghettos in which they were forced to live. On the other side, the odor of sanctity, more a phrase than a fantasy and more a fantasy than an actual experience, was thought to emanate from ascetic practices; some saints were even reputed to have existed in a fragrant aura of fine perfume.
Plump Horace lost his favorite redhead, Pyrrha, to a stripling who had the extra advantage of being perfusus liquidis odoribus. Homer tells us nothing of Circe’s fragrance; but she, like Medea, was a famous contriver of potions and elixirs; thus the devising of perfumes, associated from the first with the practice of alchemy, added from witchcraft implications of occult sexual fascination. The Egyptians were famous perfumers of antiquity and Shakespeare, describing Cleopatra on the Cydnus River, twice emphasizes the clouds of fragrance that encircled her. The burning of incense, inevitably entangled with animal sacrifice, either as an accompaniment or a substitute, was alternately indulged and deplored by the ancient Hebrews, the early Church fathers, and modern churchmen, whose disagreements over the censer’s role have occasionally had to be settled in courts of law.
Depending on current mores, strong body odors were sometimes thought sexually provocative, sometimes rejected as gross. For years (despite, or perhaps because of, the Roman example) baths were discouraged as debilitating; the water closet long preceded the bathroom. From time immemorial, human waste was regarded under a double aspect: as filth, it was a source of infection and contamination; as fertilizer, it was valuable stuff. At one stage some doctors argued with straight faces that dung collectors not only enjoyed especially good health but rejoiced in the special favor of the female sex. Before the discovery of microbial infection, the quality of air as such was a major concern of private doctors and public health investigators. Because of miasmas rising from swamps, the unhealthy vapors of night air, people avoided certain districts entirely and kept themselves indoors after dark. A major index to the quality of air was its smell.
It came with the force of a major discovery when, during the 1880s, doctors began to proclaim that “everything that stinks does not kill, and everything that kills does not stink.” But in the centuries before that decisive Pasteurian discovery, smell was a major index to pathological conditions of almost every sort. Prisons, ships, and hospitals, as traditional recesses of bad smells, received the special attention of reformers. Though innocent of the real causes of disease, the agitators and investigators encouraged better lighting, more physical exercise, and increased circulation of the air, and thus did far more good than harm in their generation. This is but a small sample of the many ways in which consciousness of smell impinged on a wide range of social disciplines from city planning and naval architecture to hydraulic engineering and penology.
Less portentous, more airy and expansive, are the reflections surrounding the active pleasures of scent. As the general level of human stink diminished, perfume no longer had to be heavy enough to cover a ground bass (as it were) of body odor. Instead of being based on animal substances like musk or ambergris, perfumes turned to the lighter odors of flowers. Multiple analogies blossomed between women and flowers. Slowly the industry learned how to combine a maximum of sexual invitation and temptation with the ultimate in reserved innocence. By no coincidence, emphasis on innocence came to coexist with its contrary, deliberate perversity. A libertinage of the nose, as represented by Baudelaire and more strikingly by Huysmans’s Des Esseintes, investigated the psychology of exotic blends and cultivated the aphrodisiac implications of neurasthenic sensitivities. One erotic young heroine took to her virgin bed a single grain of musk which titillated her into orgasmic excesses so extreme that she actually died of them—within the pages of a Goncourt novel, of course.
As we investigate the subject of the nose and its sensations both ecstatic and disgusting, a whole new vocabulary swims into our ken. Parosmia and cacosmia, not to mention the still more deplorable anosmia, become familiar concerns. Osphresiology is the subject and osphresiologists become primary actors on the stage of history. There is nothing human that the nose finds alien to its interests.
Alain Corbin is a dean among the osphresiologists, whose book The Foul and the Fragrant has inspired, directly or indirectly, most of the above reflections. The volume describes a period of crucial transition in the history of the French olfactory imagination. The period in question covers about two hundred years, from 1750 to 1950. It takes us, without tying itself to a strictly historical exposition, from the ancien régime to within hailing distance of the modern world. It deals alike with the crudest social facts and the most rhapsodic works of literary imagination, with folklore and cholera epidemics, jail fever and high fashion, the clochard in his rags, the virgin at her toilette, and the peasant in his dark hut with his wealth displayed in a reeking pile before his door. Like the subject itself, M. Corbin’s book is encyclopedic and all-pervasive; yet throughout, the reader is likely to retain a curious sense that smell is not so much a topic in its own right as an aspect of a great number of other themes. The great battle over sewage disposal was fought out in the nineteenth century between advocates of the closed-circuit versus the torrent systems; but nobody seriously differed over the offensiveness of sewer gas, and what most perturbed public opinion, to the extent of enormous investments in sanitary plants, was fear of contagious disease.
M. Corbin writes with a light, allusive touch and a flexible sense of chronology. He moves rapidly around the two hundred years of his period, leaving sometimes too few clues behind for the reader to be confident whether he is in 1770, 1830, or 1880. With geography he has fewer problems. The book is thoroughly Francocentric, and alludes only in passing to matters of major concern to Anglo-Saxon readers. For instance, a fine story told by Mrs. Trollope describes an experienced and an inexperienced traveler landing in Calais after a Channel crossing. “What’s that dreadful smell?” asked the novice, wrinkling up his nose in disgust. “That, sir,” said the more seasoned voyager, “is the smell of the Continent.” But was John Bull’s island really that much more fragrant in 1835? London certainly was not, nor were the slums of the Midland manufacturing towns. Chadwick’s Sanitary Report of 1842 bore little practical fruit until 1865 when the first municipal sewage line was laid in London. So was England really that different thirty years before, and if so, why? Or was Mrs. Trollope, who had a shrewd notion of what might appeal to the insular prejudices of her readers, simply exercising on France the same sort of caustic disparagement that she had applied, three years earlier, to the domestic manners of the Americans?
To the traveler, foreign sanitary customs often appear at first glance weird if not disgusting, like foreign food habits. (I think women visiting France for the first time are still a bit dismayed by those cabinets d’aisance for which the English vernacular has no better name than “squatters.”) Sometimes it is hard for a foreigner to realize that these unfamiliar manners are not the result of gross perversity on the part of the natives. For centuries travelers protested against the horrible stuffiness of German inns; the travelers who did the protesting were very likely oblivious of equal or worse practices in their own countries.
Incomprehension may be a matter of class as well as nationality. In a series of fascinating chapters titled “The Stench of the Poor,” “Cleaning Up the Wretched,” and “The Battle against Excrement,” M. Corbin shows how deodorizing the bodies of the poor was viewed by some social improvers as a step toward socializing—in a word, domesticating—the proletarian barbarians; and how, as if defiantly striking back, the proles clung to their squalid habits and scatological talk. Indeed, they actively fought efforts to sanitize them. They opposed the new covered dung carts and sometimes burned them up. They spread rumors of intended genocide to prevent the introduction of a chlorinated water supply. But were these and other manifestations of working-class hostility directed at cleanliness itself or at the class trying to impose cleanliness? For many reasons we are left uncertain; not the least of the reasons being that most reports on the matter come from middleclass sources.
All this doubt suggests the evanescent, personal, impressionistic nature of the subject. It leads to many more speculations and uncertainties than heavy historical results. Some reports say that cesspool cleaners occasionally died on the very spot from the foul vapors they had to breathe; others say they were unusually vigorous and long-lived. People used to claim, and some may still do, that odors make a deep impression on the mind, and therefore summon up strong chains of association, because the special sensitive area (a postage stamp 600 square millimeters of membranous lining in the upper nasal chamber) is so close to the brain. But it’s not all that much closer than the ears, the eyes, or the palate; and the original fact itself is open to question. Not everybody does have a strong olfactory—or, for the erudite, osphretic—memory. Not every literary form is capable of dwelling and expatiating on a smell experience. To do so may well imply a special concern with, a special attitude toward, the self. There may be a linguistic side to it, as well. Some languages, such as Gaelic, are strikingly rich in exact expressions for particular nuances of color. If there are any such smell-conscious languages, this amateur inquirer has not heard of them, but it would be interesting to know if they are the languages of hunting tribes at the bare level of subsistence, or of ancient, opulent empires. Personally, I find music a much more potent suggester of associations than odor.
Maybe noses are about to assume or resume a central position in the modern social imagination, for a new novel from Germany, Perfume by Patrick Süskind, points a preliminary finger, or proboscis, in that direction. It is about an alleged sniffer of genius, born to squalor in eighteenth-century France, who by sheer concentrated nose-power rises to be the supreme perfumer of his age, and simultaneously an atrocious criminal. The book has been translated by John E. Woods, who did such a spectacular job with Arno Schmidt’s Evening Edged in Gold. That was a virtuoso, a world-class exhibition of the translator’s craft, and there is no reason to think Woods has not done just as well by Süskind’s novel. But this time he has had, regrettably, a lot less to work with. From start to finish, Perfume is a ridiculously improbable piece of verbose claptrap which the author himself evidently found impossible to take seriously for very long at a time.
The central personage, named Grenouille (it means “frog,” but the batrachian implications aren’t emphasized), is a medical anomaly, but otherwise devoid of character. Born a bastard and quickly orphaned, he starts life in the absolute pits of Parisian slum society. Though endowed with a preternaturally acute sense of smell, he otherwise possesses little sensitivity of any sort, whether verbal, intellectual, or auditory; he feels no human sympathies whatever, neither lust nor hate nor kindliness, and is generally regarded by those who come into passing contact with him as a rather loathsome little creature. Throughout the book he hardly speaks at all, and does little thinking, in the usual sense of the word: he smells. His physical body is naturally devoid of any odor at all; sometimes the author remembers this fact and makes use of it for a particular occasion, mostly not.
Growing up in the brutal Parisian underworld, Grenouille is hired and exploited by an established perfumer. For reasons never very clearly explained, he leaves this position and the city of Paris to live for seven years (on raw salamanders and dry lichen) in a cave atop a mountain in the Auvergne. He does this to be rid of the smell of other human beings, an odor that distresses him unspeakably on this occasion, but doesn’t bother him particularly elsewhere in the book. Descending from his mountain peak, he makes his way to Grasse, takes employment again as a perfumer’s apprentice, and embarks on a secret career of murdering young women in order to extract their essential aromas for the manufacture of a superperfume. He does away with no fewer than twenty-five of them—but at about this point the story gets so preposterous that your reviewer is ashamed to summarize the rest of it. Süskind implies it is an allegory of the Third Reich. But this does not quite account for the way Grenouille, after anesthetizing people in Grasse, is literally eaten up by people in Paris. As allegory, it is more portentous than clear.
Since very little happens within Grenouille’s mind, and he achieves with other characters no relations capable of development, the book requires a good deal of stuffing to achieve the dimensions of a small novel. The best of this material is several different listings of the materials and procedures involved in perfume making. Süskind has done his homework on the topic, and regales us with many words like “opopanax,” “pelargonium,” “bergamot,” “tuberose,” etc. Less successful are the author’s ventures into minor characters. Giuseppe Baldini, Grenouille’s first employer in Paris, delivers a nine-page soliloquy on the state of the world that fills space, to be sure, but serves no other point. Then there is an episode with the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, which takes up twenty pages without accomplishing anything. When he is finished with both of these peripheral characters, Süskind, displaying an admirable sense of economy, kills them off as with a cleaver.
The writing of the book is verbose and theatrical. A typical passage tries to explain why Grenouille, having got up on his mountain, decides to come down. The answer is, “a catastrophe.”
The catastrophe was not an earthquake, nor a forest fire, nor an avalanche, nor a cave-in. It was not an external catastrophe at all, but an internal one, and as such particularly distressing, because it blocked Grenouille’s favorite means of escape. It happened in his sleep. Or better, in his dreams. Or better still, in a dream while he slept in the heart of his fantasies.
He lay on his sofa in the purple salon and slept, the empty bottles all about him. He had drunk an enormous amount, with two whole bottles of the scent of the red-haired girl for a nightcap. Apparently it had been too much; for his sleep, though deep as death itself, was not dreamless this time, but threaded with ghostly wisps of dreams. These wisps were clearly recognizable as scraps of odors. At first they merely floated in thin threads past Grenouille’s nose, but then they grew thicker, more cloudlike. And now it seemed as if he were standing in the middle of a moor from which fog was rising. The fog slowly climbed higher. Soon Grenouille was completely wrapped in fog, saturated with fog, and it seemed he could not get his breath for the foggy vapor. If he did not want to suffocate, he would have to breathe the fog in. And the fog was, as noted, an odor. And Grenouille knew what kind of odor. The fog was his own odor. His Grenouille’s, own body odor was the fog.
And the awful thing was that Grenouille, although he knew that this odor was his odor, could not smell it. Virtually drowning in himself, he could not for the life of him smell himself!
In brief, the catastrophe is a physiological peculiarity, however improbable in itself, about which the reader has known since page 10. I think it was Dr. Johnson who said, “A man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it.”
November 20, 1986