The Librarian by Arcimboldo, 1566
In previous posts, I’ve examined and celebrated what can be apprehended by the eye, ear and hand. Not to deny the remaining two senses their due, I decided to write a little about the role of taste and smell sensations in my life, and of course what began as a few stray ideas grew quickly into a long essay! Why would I feel any less passionate or any more reticent about these aspects of a full experience of what life has to offer? Readers of this blog must think I have only two states of being: irrepressible synesthetic elation and craven crippling self-doubt, and that I am a sort of walking library of topics, each of which requires not a pamphlet, but a weighty tome to contain. Not surprisingly, it turned out there was so much to say about these two remaining portals of pleasure, it will require two separate posts, neither of them brief. This week, I consider smell.
doors of perception
I was so happy to discover in recent times that science figured out what I always knew – that our sense of smell is more than just a simple stimulus processor, but a translator and supplier of complex and provocative information to our brains. Just think of all those receptors in our nasal passages, and how close they are to our gray matter! Just think how cut off and vulnerable we feel with a stuffy nose, even though of all the senses, I’m sure most of us would sacrifice this one first as the lesser, most dispensible tool for survival!
Proust's bedroom, Musee Carnavalet, Paris
Well, Proust was right, turns out, about all that souvenir involontaire stuff, and how a taste of madeleine cookie dipped in tea could lead to a whole insurmountable novel’s worth of memories the conscious mind could never retrieve with such intensity and detail. As with taste, so with smell. Not only does our sense of smell carry with it tons of coded information about the world around us we have forgotten in our lazy human way how to process and appreciate, but it also has the ability to create, or re-create, or even anticipate states of mind from this input, both past and present. We are not just remembering, we are living and feeling the thing itself. Literary motif aside, this makes all kinds of biological sense to me in terms of survival – it is far more effective for quick identification of a friendly or hostile situation if you not only recognize it with your intellect but actually re-experience it in your whole body!
Dan Yaccarino cartoon, 1993
Funny thing about baked goods and writers and memory. For me it is anything made with lemon extract. I can scarcely write those two words without swooning. I was going to take a photograph of my resident miniature bottle of this nectar of the gods, but I’m afraid if I open it and take a whiff I may never finish this post, last seen headed for the nearest Italian bakery and blogged no more. In any Italian section of any city, especially during holiday seasons, this is the heady smell that wafts from every pastry shop, blended with a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. For me it represents not just the items it gets mixed into, like ricotta pie, sesame seed cookies, biscotti, lemon gelato, torrone and struffoli to name a delectable few, but every Christmas morning waking up to that smell lingering long after the oven has cooled and the pots and pans stored away. It smells of everything in me that is undeniably and unsuppressibly Italian. It smells of family, cultural heritage, where I come from, who I am, how I carry on the life of my ancestors into modern times. I do not have a sweet tooth, and in fact have a dietary sensitivity to white sugar that makes consuming desserts not worth the unpleasant aftermath, so I tend to avoid sweets altogether. But still, the smell of Italian dolci sends me into a trance state not unlike intoxication, or stroking a purring cat…I suddenly feel I am in another time and place, another dimension, another life. My eyes close and I hear my grandmother singing. I can feel the soft skin of her wrinkled hands, delicate yet tough like parchment, and her fingers bent every which way at each joint from long years of hard work. I see the little faux pearl buttons on the white cardigan she wore in every season, to take the chill off. I am aware of the progression of images I have of her, changing year by year, growing smaller and duller, like a flame lowering to a mere fraction of its former vitality, but the smell of the things she pulled out of the oven, that rush of warm aroma as the door opened, that will not diminish or disappear, now, 25 years since her death, or ever.
And then there is wine. A while back, I heard good things about Australian wine and decided to confirm that their enviable growing conditions really were producing reds that could shake my longterm loyalty to the French and Italian vineyards. What I liked most about the Shiraz I soon began to purchase in increasingly expensive and delicious varieties, was the nose. I thought up until then that good wine was all about taste, but really, the first time you pause to inhale the aroma contained in a glass, and then hold that first sip on the back of your tongue, letting the perfume expand and rise before swallowing, you understand that it is just as much about smell. My journey into high end wines ended with a half bottle by d’Arenberg that cost more than any whole bottle I’d ever purchased. I drank it alone lying on my couch, was rendered nearly immobile by pleasure, and after every sniff and sip, exhaled and exclaimed “oh my god oh my god oh my god” followed by “I can die happy now.” Later at my favorite NYC wine shop, I found out there was another year and variety from this same vintner that cost twice as much, only came in whole bottles and was EVEN BETTER. I special ordered it as a birthday gift to myself. When the scent was released from that bottle, it was like one of those sinister yet beguiling cartoon vapors that turn into a finger and gently crook, beckoning you onward…it told me all I knew before, and all that was yet to come, and I was besotted before I even dared have that first taste. What followed defies description. Because, like music, sensations of smell are something you can write about only in terms of how they made you feel. You cannot capture and show the thing itself, its essence is beyond words, and can only be known by experiencing them again. But the wonderful thing about music and perfume, is that once summoned by memory, in all the details that first indraw of sensory information provided, you can indeed experience them again.
photo courtesy of BBG
I would be remiss not to pay tribute here to that first and best scent sensation delivery system, the flower. I am so glad that in order to propagate, these beings developed not only such unavoidable visual beauty, but also amazing aromas to get their alluring message across to pollinating insects. I understand the bees' helpless attraction all too well, who could resist? My favorite place on Earth, if you read me you know by now, is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. They have an annual riot of cherry blossoms, they have a lily pond whose picturesque orange fish I’ve photographed and immortalized here, they have all varieties of native and imported trees and a veritable fireworks display of late summer roses, but most of all they have a grove of lilacs. One that has made me exhale and exclaim my readiness for an immediate and happy demise to a degree only outrageously costly Aussie wine can provoke. Lilacs everywhere, in every color from white to dark purple, early and late blooming, short and tall, dense and spare, and every one of them providing an intoxicating perfume that once inhaled makes you want to lie down on the grass and let out a salacious sigh as if you were in an opium den. It feels deliciously indecent. I have more than once leaned into a cluster, breathing deep, and emerging looking around almost guilty lest someone witness my performing some illegal act, or emitting some indecorous sound. Then I move on to the next cluster, and the next, bold, unseeing, uncaring, like a woman in love.
close your eyes and breathe deep
To navigate and understand her world, my cat smells everything, rubbing her cheeks on all surfaces both to take in and set down scent. She can’t ask when I come home “where have you been?” Instead she avoids my expectant gaze and greetings and goes right for my shoes, or the knapsack or clothes I shed as I re-enter our home territory. Once she’s had a good sniff, she proceeds to put her own smell all over everything to claim and familiarize it. Ah, now it’s okay, she seems to be saying as she walks away and continues to put scent on everything else in her path, as she will do, repeatedly, all day, every day, just to make sure all is well, because all smells well. Animals can tell who is sick or healthy, friend or foe, approachable or best avoided, just because their nose knows. When and how did we lose that faculty or the need or desire to keep it sharp? So much can be learned and enjoyed if we only pay attention to what the nose knows. In this day and age we are very much a culture geared to the visual. I urge you all to take a moment this week to close your eyes, breathe deep, and feel intensely.
Next week: food, glorious, food!