Friday, November 12, 2010

The nose knows

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!


  1. Best smells (for me): the top of my son's head and rain in the desert. :)

  2. Thank you Gabriella. What a great post.

  3. Hi TB - yes, the list goes on and on - rain has so many great smells - in the desert, in the forest, and on a city sidewalk that has been baking in the sun all day! It speaks to me of a spiritual and not just a physical cleansing! And I know many parents for whom the top of their child's head has an irresistibly beautiful perfume, one that says "all is well in the world." Thanks for stopping by and have a great weekend!

    Luis - good to see you here! I am glad you liked this one. I know I didn't talk directly about the making of art, or feature my works, but how I perceive the world is the first step in the process! Be well, my friend.

  4. TB's trumped all other thoughts: My towheaded little boys, sweaty or freshly bathed, sitting in my lap. They're men now so I don't smell their heads anymore. Will settle for fresh baked bread.

  5. A post to think about, that human nature cannot
    smell as the animals can with the first touch.
    And in our imagination it is even hard to recall.
    We need to open an old bottle of perfume to get
    an old picture back in our mind..
    Thank you again, Gabriella!

  6. Hi Don - I would love to know what it is about the top of the head of ones' offspring that makes for such an intense scent experience! I guess they smell like your own DNA, first of all, so there's that attraction. But maybe there's a helplessness or innocence too that stirs up protective feelings. I do this with my cat all the time!

    Monika - thanks for stopping by! There is so much we can learn from the animals. Frankly, I think they are better than us in many ways, but it would be good to get more people to admit that they are at least our equals, and not beneath us and beneath decent treatment. Have a great weekend, dearest!

  7. I know I cheated by not reading the entire article because I can always come back for it ... But the nose POV was kind of LOL and final one just smells good ...
    Waiting for the tasty posting from you next.

  8. TT/G - I LOVE your d'Arenberg story (if you ever make it over here -we have a nice collection of Australian reds we could share). I am the 'nose' in the household - and always smell the wine to make sure it's fine - and you are right; so much of it is about the sensation it conjures up in anticipation. I often think coffee brewing smells better than it tastes; but fresh bread wafting thru the house as we wake on the w/e - divine! It was a lovely wander thru olfactory joys - I could never express it half as well; but loved every minute of it - thank you!

  9. WONG - yes, the nose POV made me laugh too! And it's okay if you skimmed - there won't be a test on this tomorrow! I am always glad if someone gets just one thing out of my posts, so I try to put in a little bit for everyone! Have a good week.

    FIONA - You are right about coffee, it's a great morning aroma that the actual cup never lives up to! I think it is mostly the smell that wakes me up and makes it possible to face the day. And why is the smell of pizza that blows from the restaurants out onto the street, never as good as the stuff on offer? Not that I won't eat it anyway. If I really could exist on smell alone, I'd be a lot skinnier! All the best to you...

  10. Gabriella....I saw the beginning of this post yesterday, but purposely put off reading it until I knew I had the time to savor it. was so worth the wait! This is just perfect. Your sense of humor and your zest for life shining through as ever! With every post, I laugh out loud and am brought to my knees in awe at everything you are able to invoke in your writing. YES to the baked goods, YES to the Australian wines (among my favorites!), YES to the heady smell of lilacs....yes to overlooked power of our so limited sense of smell! Have you read Diane Ackerman's Natural History of the Senses? Amazing book...but given my poor memory (another book on my devoured list) here is the one thing I can recall exactly from that book: the sheepdog's sense of smell is 52 times more powerful than ours. Think of it. What power smell has for us and we're missing so much of what swirls around us! We might surely die from the intoxication! This is a post I will not forget. Yours, P.

  11. I love to remind the smell of the place i grow up with a simple and fast thought. The machine of our body is one of the most perfect thing of the nature. Well, almost perfect.
    Said a writter: "Happy are the dogs. They can make friends through smell". I think we still have not this power.

    Wines...if one day i live this country i´ll miss them.

    Great post, Gabriella!
    Kisses and have a nice week.

  12. PATTI - I had a feeling any post beginning with a librarian portrait would catch your eye! I have indeed read Ackerman, and loved it, and also forgot exactly why - your "devouring" theory at work! Glad you enjoyed this one. Have a great new week!

    CRISSANT - It makes me happy that you enjoyed this post. Dogs are simple but such noble creatures! And our bodies, yes, imperfect, but capable of much more than we allow. Kisses to you too and have a great week!

  13. Gabriella, I like you because your posts are always so gut done... you are a super blogger
    and it is so nice to read you and to have mest you

    well with smell... I agree with Monika, I smell always old smell to bring to me immediately the remember and the feeling to be in a time of my life... I rich this feeling troght the nose better as true tought, I think

  14. Laura, thanks for the kind words! Yes, remembering thing through sensations and not through conscious thoughts is so much more immediate, detailed and powerful an experience! Have a great week, my dear.

  15. Great post Gabriella!
    Smell... o yeah, I have a good nose and in company I'm often the first to say "what do I smell".
    The smell of lilacs ,hmm, I love it so much that I planted 3 lilac trees in my garden several years ago. When they are in bloom the whole garden is a feast for the nose and as you say memories come along. My grandmother had lilac trees,as a child I spent lot of holidays at her place.Great days it were and the lilac scent awake the happy child I was playing and exploring in her garden and the fields around.
    I adore the smell of each season, the fact you can smell it before it has actually arrived.
    I love perfume, and how sniffing at empty bottles still bring pictures and feelings to me of people and places.
    Strawberries,oranges,coffee,open fire,honeysuckle,sweetshops,open air dried nice.

  16. Good morning, Renilde! I'm glad you liked this one - you mention many aromas I left out but that can send me into a state of bliss - like clean sheets, open fire, berries, etc. It is SO TRUE that the seasons announce themselves by a change in the smell of the air long before the other cues catch up! Good for you to notice this and add it here! And I envy you your lilac trees! If I lived next to lilacs I'd be in such a constant stupor of delight and memory I could never get anything done properly! Have a great week.

  17. how did i lose this post ? am i following your blog ? i am going to check .
    ahhhh Proust ? cheap shot . talkng about frenchs on this post will always be a cheapt shot ;) Frenchs and their museum of aromas , i beleive it is the culture in the entire world and History that gave more importance to aromes in general .
    It is weird , but i remember more about smells when i am writing poetry .... aromas are a such important part of the existence on this world that wehn i want to dug deep a sensation aromas become present to my memory .
    well , this post is a perfume to the brain .
    smell you later , aligator !!!

  18. My dear Caio, you were one of my first followers! But don't ask me to explain how Blogger works one day, and the next day it's all crap and frustration! Today my whole gallery of followers' pictures has magically disappeared! I will let you know when I post again so you can be first to comment!

    Yeh, I know Proust was a cheap shot! In general I try to keep the French out of my posts, but this time I couldn't resist! I promise it won't happen again.

  19. Ahhhh.....smells!!! I'm not a sweet lover either but I do love the smell of fresh baked cookies and cakes and
    You had me at wine....btw. I've been told that I have the perfect nose for smelling wines. I love them so much maybe I should of been a sommelier.
    I Loved this post and the images!!

  20. Manon, so good to know you are a fellow wine enthusiast! I've met a sommelier or two and they really really like their jobs! Maybe if this whole painting thing doesn't work out for you there's a second career waiting? Kidding, kidding. We must raise a glass together soon!

  21. Interesting. I'll be back when I have more time.

  22. Welcome, Banjo52 - I do tend to write long posts! Hope you enjoy a second look when you have more time! Don't be a stranger.

  23. What a delicious post Gabriella!
    Yes, the nose is the strongest sense-organ to bring immediate memories. Working in a nursery where most people have forgotten their memories it's always a joy as a certain smell brings back some memories. This morning i was baking an old receipe of bread, milk, sugar, cinammon and suddenly a lady who is silent often, starts talking about the weekends as her mom, her sisters and she were baking this special bread.
    I work a lot with smelling all kind of perfumes with the people.
    Tnx for sharing your lovely, sweet, tender memories of your grandmother. I so love it to read such things.

    The nose is very important because we base the first contact with people, if we're going to like them or not on how they smell. Sometimes we don't like a person but we don't know exactly why that is, but that's because of the smell/odeur we sense. (often we're unaware of that.) All houses have their own smell. I only can sense the smell of my home if i've been on holidays for a view weeks. Returning i can smell our home. :-) I love to inhale the breath if my love exhale from his nose. That smells so great and sweet to me.
    I also LOVE the smell of fresh sheets on the bed, like morning dew or something. I can't describe this smell exactly.
    And there's a greek wine i adore (i forgot the name) which has an aroma of wood. Very strange and unique the smell and taste, but very delicious i think.

    And do you know the book Das parfum from Süskind?

  24. Beautiful Monica! I knew you would understand. Not just about the memories to be stirred up by the sense of smell, but how, yes, EXACTLY, we can sometimes decide if we like someone or not by their scent, and often do not know why we simply have that instinctive attraction or repulsion! They don't call it "chemistry" for nothing!All the sensations you list are wonderful - I had forgotten about the smell of "home," and the exhalations of your love.

    Hah! I have read Suskind's book in English and saw the movie adaptation last year. I loved the book - very dark and strangely beautiful it was. I was going to mention it here but wasn't sure anyone else would know it!! Thank you for mentioning it!

  25. Haha i was looking for the word scent, couldn't find it. Because doesn't the word smell mean that it smells badly? Or does it mean both way; good smell-bad smell?
    Scent sounds more delicious for me.

  26. The English language is very difficult and nonsensical - even I can't understand its rules and nuances and I am a native speaker, and have studied and read and written literature for more than three decades! I think scent does make a more positive connotation than smell, but I use smell for good smells too! I guess the good-neutral-bad range would be


    Then you have lovely words like "effluvium!" Don't get me started...have a good weekend, my dear!

  27. Gabriella,
    I love this tribute to the smell!
    wow! I like to feel everything by smell!
    and the worst is that I do who is beside me, smelling too!
    I say, look this smell!
    ... white flowers, jasmine, soaps, land, rain, Arabic spices, garlic fried in olive oil,.....
    amazing is the ability of olfactory memory that connects us to something in a few seconds.

    I inherited my keen nose of my
    grandfather Calabrian.
    I loved everything you said!
    for being of Italian origin, we are accustomed to the wonderful aromas of cooking!
    you have described so beautiful, your grandmother ... I remembered from my ...
    well, your next post will be about food .... hmmmmm

    I also want to tell you, I appreciate much your skill in write well, your text is objective, enjoyable, and full of images!

    I hope your rest is being wonderful!
    Abbraccio caríssima!

  28. Ciao, Denise! Thank you for sharing your own enthusiasm about smell! It is true, for Italians, the memory and experience of food is inseparable from smell, the way the home fills with baking or frying aromas and always seems alive and welcoming that way. When I first viewed the apartment I now have lived in for 9 years, I loved it at first sight, or actually at first smell - an old woman had lived there for her whole life and the place smelled to me like places I remembered from decades ago, the scent of wallpaper and brass fixtures, and wooden doors and cabinets. Then I went to meet the building manager (also Italian) who lived in a separate building and when he opened the door the smell of roasting green peppers hit me so hard I almost couldn't introduce myself! I knew I was home. We were immediately great friends! Have a great weekend, my dear, and the week after!

  29. You were so right to direct me here. Thank you megaheaps. Yes lilac. Vanilla and cinnamon. Lemon verbena. Intoxicating. Addictive. A tardis to take me back to other times.

    And one of our cats just shamed me into replacing a pair of plastic gardening sandals. Each time I took them off she would roll in them, dribbling and clawing at them in ecstacy. And yes, she was right - they were rank.

  30. Glad you followed the trail here, EC! As you can see, this post provoked an enthusiastic response! It does seem that many of us have powerful associations with certain smells, and the information or emotion they convey. Of course, life is a little more simple and straightforward with cats - what would we do without them? - they have no problem experiencing the world of scent, for good and bad, to its utmost! Thanks for visiting, and have a great week, my friend.