Inspired by Diana Ackerman’s phenomenal work, ‘A Natural History of the Senses,’ the writer takes a trip down literature after an aroma.
(You can’t brush such possibility off with a dismissive smile.
Instances are countless in the long history of earth where the advancement of many a species in the world was thrown haphazard by an errant meteorite or an immitigable disease. Stupidity also helped).
Fancy something like that happen. So you wake up in a jungle with all the trappings of 21st century gone.
How many of you have the natural instincts, skills and senses to survive in such a world where you have to fight it out every day with the wild beasts for a sliver of meat?
Here’s a perfect survival-of-the-fittest scenario.
At least how many of you have that keen sense of smell to keep away from the lunch-track of a tiger and set yourself on course after a deer or a rabbit?
One reason why we get handicapped in the wild is that we are olfactorily dried out. Empty.
They say our nose can sift through 10,000 different smells. But we’re fast going bankrupt on all that. Try describing the smells you know like the back of your hand. Try describing a childhood smell to your sweetheart. You’ll know how inarticulate you’re in the department of smell.
So the rot begins with our poor language. “Smell is a mute sense lacking vocabulary”, says Ackerman.
Take the case of eyes. When we see something we commit them to our memory with their colour, texture, shape and size (that red, hexagonal, fat, tall, grainy thing). We know how to describe them in gushing details, in a cascade of images.
“Disgusting”, “revolting”, “alluring”, “hypnotic”, “sickening”. Smells are so intimate, but we do not know their names. We try to describe them by how they make us feel.
When was the last time you stopped on your way to office and stretched towards a jasmine plant that tumbles over the neighbourhood wall? You won’t be able to remember. We are that far away from the true nature of things. We know jasmine through the perfumes we wear. We wash our environment in synthetic perfumes that poorly imitate the flowers in our garden, which we never savour.
Napoleon wrote to his wife, Josephine telling her “not to bathe” during the next two weeks before they’d meet because he wanted to enjoy her subtle aromas. Can you relate to his feelings?
Thankfully, many writers are also olfactorily keen like Napoleon.
A trip down literature will reveal to us how writers still sweep us off the ground with aromas and stenches.
Perhaps the cure for our malady lies there.
Read Virginia Woolf as she tells us about city smells. Catch Flaubert as he goes rhapsodic on his lover’s slippers and mittens, which he keeps in a drawer. Follow Theroux as he walks through the moonlit fields where tassles of corn smells like dried hay, the huckleberry bushes oozes mustiness, and the berries of the wax myrtle smells like “small confectionary.”
Robert Herrick knows his sweetheart by the aroma which emanates from her “breast, lips, hands, thighs, legs,” where, “All the spices of the East/ Are circumcised here.” To Walt Whitman, sweat’s “aroma is finer than prayer.”
I don’t know what violets are, but when Shakespeare asks the flower, “Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal the sweet, if not from my lover’s breath?” I desperately want to have a bunch of them in my hands.
To Czeslaw Milosz’s, his linen closet is “filled with the mute tumult of memories.” Ah! ‘the tumult of memories!’ That is exactly what a widow would feel when she opens the linen closet of her husband for the first time after his death. If you can relate to her feeling, take heart my reader, you still haven’t lost the faculty.
Some have written a lot about nasal hallucinations – the faint smells that trigger fainter memories of childhood.
“My mother’s hair domestic hair:
Absorbent to the scent
Of her cooking-
Milkfish, garlic, goat.”
When Joseph P Legaspi wrote that in the poem, Ode to my Mother’s Hair,why do I smile so helplessly! My mother’s hair also smelled the curries she cooked when I was young, I remember.
Of all the waxing on aromas that has ever gone into print the one that takes the cake is the smell-drenched poem, ‘The Song of Solomon.’
Catch the lovers sweetly dueling with compliments all dunked in aromas.
To the man, her virginity is a secret “garden…a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” Her lips “drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.”
Then he tells her sweetly that on the wedding night he would enter her garden to savour the fruits and the rich aromas of “frankincense, myrrh, saffron, camphire, pomegranates, aloes, cinnamon, calamus, and other treasures” all sealed in her body. He knows that she will “weave a fabric of love around him and fill his senses until they brim with oceanic extravagance.”
‘Senses brimming with oceanic extravagance’! Ente daivame! Can’t you feel the sea brimming with love overflowing your senses?
“Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.”
The best way to round off a literary journey through smells is to read Perfume, a novel by Patrick Suskind. The poor hero is congenitally trapped in a whirlpool of smells right from the moment he was born: “Soon he was no longer smelling wood, but kinds of wood: maple wood, oak wood, pinewood, elm wood, pearwood, old, young, rotting, moldering, mossy wood, down to single logs, chips and splinters.”
Right now as you read this can you remember the smell of freshly chopped wood? Or trampled grass?
You’ll survive the woods.
If yes, I’ll rub off that tiger from your track.