Thursday, June 12, 2014

Smells Like Human Spirit

“Or why should earth, landscape, air-- each filled at every step and every breath with with yet another odor and thus animated with another identity-- still be designated by just those three coarse words?”

Ask almost anyone which of their five senses are expendable and they would almost to a man say, with little deliberation, they would forego their sense of smell. An underused sensory perception, the word “smell” generally has a negative connotation-- if we say something “smells” it is not a generous observation, but one that implies rottenness, decay, or corporeal fumes. But to even describe a disagreeable smell exposes the paucity of our language to describe that odor precisely. In any case, modern life has managed to suppress the stench of living with good sewage treatment, sanitization, hot water showers, and a multiplicity of helpful, pleasant scents (although new unpleasant chemical-based ones have evolved with our technology as well). Few things in this world seduce our noses with their divine essence, and even when they do, not many of us have the time to stop and (ahem) “smell the roses.” 

The German writer Patrick Suskind's Perfume, is one of the only novels I know of that concerns our underutilized nasal appendages. The novel, set in pre-revolutionary 18th century France, concerns a certain Jean-Baptise Grenouille, “one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.” He is born in Paris in a wretched fishmongers' marketplace, abandoned by a useless mother, unwanted and unloved in various homes, becoming a child laborer in a tannery. All the while he is aware of the potency of his nose to pinpoint various odors good and bad and these only had any meaning to him: “It was as if he were an autodidact possessed of a huge vocabulary of odors that enabled him to form at will great numbers of smelled sentences.”

The child gets his big break when he gets a job apprenticing for a déclassé perfumer named Baldini. Once inside a laboratory, with access to all these marvelous ingredients, Jean-Baptise turns out to be a born alchemist in the realms of essences and revives Baldini's business fortunes. But (once more, ahem) the sweet smell of success doesn't mean anything for Jean-Baptise. Now a slight ogre of a man, he recognizes the limits of Baldini's laboratory, wanting to master the arts of distilling purer essences. Moreover, he is exasperated and haunted by the olfactory ravages of Paris, “a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw.” He packs a few edible items and a letter of introduction and leaves Paris for the countryside.

On the way he discovers the righteousness of what a later Frenchman would say, “Hell is other people” and winds up a hermit in a mountaintop cave. Jean-Baptise's story might have ended there but always there was the problem of his belonging to humanity, for for all his olfactory superpowers, the little man himself has no physical smell whatsoever. The novel posits that body odor, for lack of a more precise choice of words, constitutes our human aura (or literally, an essence). Whether we fall in love, trust a stranger, avoid a creep, and other automatic instinctual reactions might have something to do with the other person's smell, even if we are unconscious of it. Jean-Baptise then feels compelled to find another laboratory where he can experiment with different additives to give himself a smell and thus admission to the human race, to have presence among other men: “There was a basic perfumatory theme to the odor of humanity, a rather simple one, incidentally: a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive basic theme that clung to all humans equally and above which each individual's aura hovered only as a small cloud of more refined particularity.”

18th century stinky metropolis

However, Jean-Baptise is interested in composing a more elusive, ethereal scent that is (unfortunately) derived from human specimens. This is where a good novel becomes great, at the expense of empathy for our hero. Nevertheless, Suskind pulls off a remarkable, if not hysterical climax that, for a novel championing the nose, is as visually surreal as anything I've ever read. No one reading Perfume can ever forget the book's final pages and the strange twisted fate of Jean-Baptise Grenouille. I loved the novel so much that when I finished reading it I opened the book and plunged my face into its pages, inhaling deeply. I wish I could tell describe articulately what they smelled like, for in my own inadequate grasp of nasal intelligence, the pages just smelled like paper to me. That's all I got, that and my own idiosyncratic human sour-sweet smell.

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