How To Make Sense of Scents

The New Yorker magazine, renowned home of literary legends, has published a piece called “How To Make Sense of Scents”, by staff writer Rachel Syme. She reads Fragrantica! Like many fragheads, she traces her interest in perfume back to childhood and her mother’s favorite scents, which included Anais Anais and Poison. She became a hoarder of perfume samples from Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court, like many of us.

Ms. Syme’s piece discusses the way that most of us lack the vocabulary to describe scents accurately and consistently. She also highlights a recently published book (October 2020), Harold McGee’s “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells” (Penguin Press). McGee is actually a food scientist, so his observations range from the molecular to deviled eggs, with many stops between.

Another 2020 book Ms. Syme discusses is “Smells: A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times” (Polity), by French professor and historian Robert Muchembled. She sums up their different approaches:

Where McGee seeks a common vocabulary for exploring the osmocosm, Muchembled reminds us that the variables of time and place may defy a truly shared language. What we smell depends on what’s in vogue and what’s valued—on what cultural forces happen to be swirling in the air.

She ties Muchembled’s discussion of the impact of plague epidemics of the Middle Ages on the populaces’ relationship to the sense of smell, to the current pandemic in which we face a deadly virus that spreads largely through aerosolized forms and can also deprive sufferers of their sense of smell, temporarily or permanently.

I will have to seek out more of Ms. Syme’s writing! I’ve already bought the Kindle version of McGee’s book and will likely do the same with Muchembled’s tome (as an incorrigible book hoarder, I try to buy most books in digital form these days). After all, who doesn’t love a writer who voices these scentiments:

I also have a new appreciation for the elusive quest to track down smells: while there is an undeniable appeal to pursuing a “proper language” for discussing the osmocosm, there is also something to be gained by accepting that much of the pleasure of nasal perception is untranslatable. When we are at last able to swoon together again, unmasked and unmoored, over lilacs or hot brioche, what we will really be sharing is secret reverie.

Featured image: Photograph by Delaney Allen for The New Yorker.

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