What’s Perfume Got to do With It?
Does it seem strange to you that my reflections on death are interspersed with impressions of various perfumes and scent memories? Let me try to explain. I recently attended a fascinating panel discussion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art facilitated by Renaissance Man, Koan Jeff Baysa, Director of Programming for the soon to be launched Institute of Art and Olfaction. One of the panelists was Andreas Keller, a research scientist whose work focuses on the variability of human odor perception as well as its philosophical implications. This panel was one of the breakout sessions for the Art Beyond Sight Conference in Multimodal Approaches to Learning. After the discussion, I confessed to Dr. Keller that I collect perfumes and enjoy reading scent reviews. He asserted that we lack the precise vocabulary for odors in the way that we have language to describe other sensory perceptions such as color, light, texture, weight, shape and sound. Instead we describe our scent associations and related memories, liberally borrowing vocabulary from sight, sound, touch and taste. When you encounter a smell, why write about it, when the instinctual response is “to eat it, run away from it or have sex with it!” This exchange called to mind several sensory rich books from my reading list, like Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, Colette’s The Ripening Seed, or Lawrence Rinder’s Revenge of the Decorated Pigs, which opens like so: A bus rushed passed and its fume-choked wake stirred up a small tornado of trash and leaves. Kevin gagged at the stench of stale dog shit and urine. It reminded him of his childhood, this familiar fecal aroma tinged with rotting leaves and damp stone. Three sentences packed with olfactory descriptions, the like of which the Institute of Art and Olfaction would perhaps archive or that Dr. Keller, who also works on odor based art installations might have a field day with. Then there is this from Jitterbug Perfume, in which the very protagonist of the novel is a mythic fragrance that engenders immortality. This is a description of a scent mixed by the pagan god Pan who makes a number of odiferous appearances as the plot unfolds: Like a lobster with a pearl in its claw, the beet held the jasmine firmly without crushing or obscuring it. Beet lifted jasmine, the way a bullnecked partner lifts a ballerina, and the pair came on stage on citron’s fluty cue. As if jasmine were a collection of beautiful paintings, beet hung it in the galleries of the nose, insured it against fire or theft, threw a party to celebrate it. Citron mailed the invitations. I admit that there is plenty of metaphor here, and who really cares? Passages like this leave me tingling. The description is filled with emotion, ripe with feeling and Robbins’ undeniably engages the nose of the reader. Emotion may be the key to effectively describing and linguistically translating scents since the olfactory sense is anatomically linked to the limbic system which processes emotion and memory. Since I am out of my scientific depth here, I highly recommend taking a look at Dr. Keller’s presentation outline, Odor as Art Medium and also encourage you to visit the website of Rachel Herz, (another panelist at the MMA workshop), who has researched and written extensively about the sense of smell. Give in to your nerdy inclinations and read some of her academic research. I’ll close this post with a quote from a book at the top of Renee’s Girly Reads Book List: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. The main character Cassandra Mortmain, is going through a period of existential angst triggered, of course, by unrequited love. She converses with the village vicar (see why its on the Girly Reads list?) and they talk about getting “whiffs” of God in life and how “ … it was just as reasonable to talk of smelling or tasting God as of seeing or hearing Him.“If one ever has any luck, one will know with all one’s senses – and none of them.” So there you have it, it really all comes down to my efforts at finding sparks of divinity and the meaning of life, at how being present at the deathbed for three of my family members this past year, each departing in their own unique way, has deepened and colored my musings. About how my experiences with perfume, scents of life, art and beauty feed my soul, keeping me afloat along the way, so as not to drown in the missing of my loved ones. Let’s face it. Life smells. And thank goodness for that. Image: Nose Mandala, colored pencil, drawn in the air between Newark and New Orleans Books mentioned and locations of passages: Revenge of the Decorated Pigs, Lawrence Rinder, page 9, Publication Studio Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins, page 189, Bantam Books, New York I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith, page 236, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York What are your favorite books containing memorable olfactory descriptions that feed your soul?