Do you have a smell like that?
My eyes aren't too great, my ears are easily overwhelmed, but my nose...my nose works very, very well. This is a blessing and a curse.
Humans can smell between 4,000 and 10,000 smells, all based on seven distinct odors: Camphoric, musky, roses, pepperminty, etheral, pungent, and putrid.
I can't produce smells on a blog, but I can (hopefully) evoke them with some key phrases, such as:
Dress straight out of plastic from dry cleaner
Spoiled egg salad
Garden of roses on warm summer day
Baby clean from bath and powdered
Baking banana bread
Hot plastic on a computer printer
These are all individual, however. What about the smell of people? And smells between people?
In Common Scents, Janice Carlisle explores how great Victorian novelists such as Dickens, Eliot, Meredith, Oliphant, Trollope, and Yonge used scent to establish status and relationship between characters:
In depictions of comparative encounters, the commonplace meetings of everyday life, such fiction often registers the inequalities that distinguish one individual from another by marking one of them with a smell. In a surprisingly consistent fashion, these references constitute what cultural anthropologists call an osmology, a system of differentiations that reveals the status within a particular culture of the persons and things associated with specific odors. Featuring often innocuous and even potentially pleasing aromas emanating from food, flowers, and certain kinds of labor, novels of the 1860s array their characters into distinct categories, finding in some rather than others olfactory proof of their materiality. Central to this osmology is the difference between characters who give off odors and those who do not, and this study draws upon the work of Victorian psychophysiologists and popular commentators on the senses to establish the subtlety with which fictional representations make that distinction.
The concept in Common Scents intrigues me. What truth does smell reveal, especially among and within people?
One review particularly struck me:
"Important for [its] interest in how the senses register modernity, and for the broader social implications of the ways in which the outside world penetrates the bodily sensorium;...whether the nose smells the proximity of the poor or the odor that belongs to the habits of another--and often threateningly social ascendant--class."--Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
I think most of us are very attuned to odor, and are not as easily able to tune it out as we can other sensations.
I personally find scent one of the most intrusive things. How something looks or sounds doesn't affect me near as much as how it smells. That's why it is easier for me to keep an open-mind about other sensory input, but I am more likely to judge (or draw a conclusion) based on scent because the smell of another person does directly affect me, and might strongly affect my enjoyment of an event, for example.
Take last night.
My husband and I went to see a play, Subject to Fits (A Response to Dostoevsky's The Idiot, by Robert Montgomery).
I was a little concerned about the play, going in, largely due to the broad use of superlatives in all the reviews: outrageous, unorthodox, highly theatrical, a trip, zany, bold, wild humor, original, and unpredictable. I was also worried about something from the 1970s that calls itself a response to The Idiot.
Do you know this play? If you do, then you'll understand the experience I had last night.
At least you will with regard to the play. What you don't know is how it smelled in there. It smelled like the musky, camphorus perfume the lady in front of me apparently uses to wash herself and her clothes, followed by an extra shower of it for good measure.
I can't identify which perfume it was but it was overwhelming. It wasn't bad, according to us, simply because it was overpowering. It truly was a highly unappealing scent, above and beyond its olfactory assault.
During Intermission, my husband asked if I thought there was something rotten near us. "Outside of taste?" I replied, "No."
I got a little obsessed. Why that scent? It smelled disgusting to me and my husband, but what about it appealed to her? Why did she need to wear it, and so much of it? Did she want to be noticed, get attention? Be smelled?
Or, did she want to be remembered?
Was she as aggressive a person as her scent implied?
Isn't shoving your scent heavily up someone else's nose really aggressive? It's a heady characteristic, I think.
In fact, it is a sort of branding yourself on the other person. It's territorial. Your scent pervades the territory. You've marked it. It's yours.
It can also transfer to more than just the air. I swear when I got home I smelled that scent on me, my clothes, in my hair. I bet the next person to sit in that seat will smell it too.
She not only marked her territory while in place, but left behind her scent to mark it after she left.
It's a very basic instinct.
I wonder if she even was aware.
This type of marking scent is why I quit my job. Oh it's not that simple, but it was the trigger moment.
When my very brief maternity leave with my first daughter was over and I returned to work, I lucked into an excellent home care situation. The lady lived right next to my office, and I could use my breaks to run over and see and feed my daughter. Plus, she was highly recommended, had a great setup (renovated the basement into a children's wonderland), and obviously took great care of the kids.
I knew she cuddled my baby, but I really knew it because every day when I picked up my daughter, she smelled of this women.
My response to this was illogical, emotional, and inexplicable. It was also subconscious, initially. I only knew that I felt vaguely unhappy with this woman. I felt tremendously unhappy with my baby in her care.
My husband kept trying to get to the reality of the matter, "Do you think she lets her cry?" he asked, "Doesn't feed her? Leaves her in her chair too long? Ignores her? Doesn't care for her properly? What? What is it?"
I couldn't explain. I kept trying to find concrete clues, examples I could use.
But my daughter was always clean, and happy. When I popped in unannounced, Patience was generally being held or entertained in a bouncy seat or exersaucer. Her diapers were always clean, her tummy full, her day interesting and fun. All in all, I could find no fault with the care she received. Yet, I kept looking, even though I didn't really understand why I was so keen to find fault. I told myself, this is what any loving mother does. I reassured myself, I'm only looking out for my baby's welfare, you can't be too careful.
Every day I'd walk into this perfect room, and this wonderfully nurturing woman would hand me my happy baby. I'd clutch her close to me, trying to rebond with her. I'd bury my nose in her neck or on her head and I'd inhale, looking for the scent of my baby. Instead, I got a nose full of her caregiver. Every evening, instead of feeling joyful to be reunited with my baby, I felt depresssed.
It eventually started to make sense. As soon as we got home, I'd bathe my baby. I'd use our soap, and our lotion, and I'd cuddle her next to me, re-establishing myself as mommy, and getting us back to nothing outside of our scent.
One day, I cried to my husband, "I can't stand the smell of another woman on her!"
That scent encompassed every guilty feeing and sadness I felt not being able to mommy my baby all day every day. That scent was a sharp reminder that someone else was taking care of my baby. Every time I smelled it on Patience, it evoked wrenching sadness. I wasn't ready to hand her over to someone else's care. I wasn't ready to be back at work, apart from my much longed for first child.
And so...I quit my job.
The first day home, at about six o'clock, I sniffed my baby and she smelled simply of only herself, and maybe a little of me. In that moment, I felt completely at peace with my decision.
Scent is powerful, even if it is subtle. It's emotionally evocative and reminiscent (no pun intended). It makes a statement we might not intend to imply, and others infer something about us from our scent. It says something about us, our truth, and might help us recognize a truth.
Tell me one of your scent stories...
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
Tags: sense of smell, overpowering perfume, scent, meaning of smell, scent of a woman, effect of smell and scent, scent, smell and memories, pungent stench odor, osmology, olfactory