The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination
by Alain Corbin
Harvard University Press, 307 pp., $25.00
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
by Patrick Süskind, translated by John E. Woods
Knopf, 255 pp., $16.95
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 …