P E N S É E S
“Nothing is more memorable than a smell,” author Diane Ackerman said. Smells can trigger memories quite suddenly: The apple pie, fresh from the oven, transporting you back to your childhood in the countryside, decades ago; the perfume your partner wore on your first date brings images of that evening setting from the past to the present. Smells are like an elemental force. They break through all barriers and enter our system as fast as lightning, where they color everything. Without taking any detours, they flood the brain’s limbic system, which is where our emotions are located. These emotions have the power to conquer you in a positive or in a negative way, to cause euphoria or to overwhelm. In this respect, smells have a mystical, incomprehensible quality. “Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it,” Patrick Süskind writes in his novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer..
We only smell with one half of our noses for three quarters of the day. In the same way as there are left-handed and right-handed people, there are also left-nosed and right-nosed people.
Odors are omnipresent; just as we have to breathe, we have to smell. Interestingly, research has found that most people only smell with one half of their nose for three quarters of the day. In the same way as there are left-handed and right-handed people, there are apparently also left-nosed and right-nosed people. The topic of smelling is larger than we might think – we even include it in our language: Some things ‘stink to high heaven’; and when something’s not quite right, we ‘smell a rat’ or tell others to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.
There are intense odors – such as the scent of a perfume – and less intense ones. The grandparents’ house has a smell. A new book, freshly peeled from its plastic wrap. The city has an odor. The morning, just after sunrise. And then there are odors you cannot smell: Every person has a scent that is barely perceptible. But it is there, and it plays a decisive role in our choice of a mate, according to neuroscience. These individual scents are called pheromones – chemical messengers via which people exchange sexual information. “Due to its close connection to sexuality and voracity, the sense of smell bears the sign of animality,” sociologist Jürgen Raab writes.
Smells make us feral – this assessment is one of the reasons why philosophy has regarded the olfactory sense as primitive and subordinated it to the other senses for a long time. Aristotle and Kant denigrated it, as did Descartes, who called the sense of smell ‘coarse’. It wasn’t until Nietzsche that this sense received a more positive attention again, when he linked it to the faculty of cognition: “My genius is in my nostrils.” Later, French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote entire poems about odors; he was crazy about them and – as the story goes – loved working with scented ink. Today, perfumes are increasingly regarded as an independent art form. Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena calls his perfumes poems, short stories, novellas or novels.
In Patrick Süskind’s novel, protagonist Jean-Baptiste Grenouille does not possess a smell of his own. His feeling of lacking an identity eventually becomes so unbearable that he turns into a murderer: he wants to create the perfect perfume from the scent of young women – in order to be loved, just like they are. If one’s own smell contributes to one’s sense of identity, can wearing a perfume enhance it? Can something individual be made visible by making it smellable? Or can a perfume even distract from one’s own smell? Can it conceal or modify an identity?
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