an essay on scent

A nasal ranger in action (Who knew there was such a thing?)

I’d like to linger on this idea of fragrance or scent a bit longer (see previous 2 posts). I came across an evocative essay on the sense of smell written by AS Byatt. It’s pretty visceral, so if you’re a delicate creature, be prepared. A few of my favorite quotes to lure you in:

And the people in the house will have sweet, sanitised smells. Their perfume, their talc, their underarm deodorant, their shower gels and shampoos and conditioners and hairsprays will all be strong and probably intensify as they mingle on skin and hair. You will deodorise your shoes, socks and feet with things scented with strawberries and blackcurrants and mangoes. You will sit at dinner and eat your roast, or your delicate pea soup, or your rosewater sorbet and vanilla cream to the accompaniment of a candle which penetrates every fissure and fold of tablecloth and napkin and nostril with strong incense, myrrh, patchouli.

If these were sounds they would be a cacophony. As with sounds, you are inured to it and turn up the volume. Women don’t wear ghosts of fragrance any more – Floris bluebells, lavender water. They assert themselves with Opium and Poison, the swooning, insistent scents of the artificial paradises of the decadents.

Perfume masks. Smell is direct.

We are losing functions – we don’t recognise, we don’t detect; it is all ersatz. Ants, as EO Wilson discovered and described, communicate and organise their complex societies with odours and pheromones. We also recognise – or used to recognise – good and bad food with our noses. I know the smell of tainted meat or fish, or mouldy sprouts – but I believe our senses are being blunted by the chemical haze we choose to live in, like living in a constant buzz of high-level interference, snow on the television screen, just audible screeching on the radio to which we have had to become inured.

Taxis increasingly have swooning smells, too, from sanitising tutti frutti to lingering pot. There is legislation against decibels, which seems to do little good, or else I am prejudiced by being too old and too accustomed to hearing myself think. I have friends who are allergic to perfumes. The effect of the delicately perfumed loo paper on sensitive tissue is better not described. I have a scientist friend whose lab door bears a notice forbidding students or visitors to enter wearing perfume as it gives her migraines. I met an elegant professor from Yale who said her husband felt that she shouldn’t wear perfume because it was intrusive and impolite.

Read the rest if you’d like.

The sense of smell is an underappreciated and underutilized gift we all have, unless you have anosmia. It can be a life-saving tool – think fire. It can be arousing, in the case of pheromones. It can trigger salivation and hunger pangs if there’s an enticing aroma of something edible. It can be a bane, in my case, if subjected to heavily perfumed or artificially scented persons, places, or things. And like most of the senses and experiences of life, it is subjective. One person’s favorite scent is despised by another. Right now, my favorite is the floral-citrus essence of pomelo.

Scent is strongly tied to memory, having the ability to temporarily shake us out of the present like a subtle time machine. The aroma of baking, a reminder of grandma. A whiff of perfume, an old friend or love. The aura of woodsmoke, the first crisp day of Autumn. The distinct smack of band-aid, a big fall you had as a child.

The formidable stench of lilies reminds me of funerals. The piercing shock of moth balls of my Aunt Norma’s basement (of a house she no longer inhabits). We all have these memories scent-linked memories. What are yours?

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2 Responses to “an essay on scent”

  1. Leda Meredith Says:

    Today I baked bread in the house of some colleagues I am spending the weekend with. It occurred to me that the fabulous smell of the bread while it was in the oven, and even before that, of the ball of dough in my hands, was just as much a gift as the eventual edible. I

    • Liz Says:

      Mmmm. The scent of baking (and preparing) bread is so cozy. The preparation really is all part of the consumption of it. It’s like foreplay!

      I noticed while making cake today that every stage has its own distinct aroma and by the end they meld together. Egg mixing with sugar blending with butter. The earthy/dry scent of flour. Melting chocolate for frosting and then mixing it in with butter and sugar, vanilla and milk. Can’t wait to eat this alluring combination of edible scents!

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