Odors and their effects

Her sweat smelled as fresh as sea wind, the tallow of her hair as sweet as nut oil, her sex like a bouquet of water lilies, her skin like apricot blossoms … and the combination of all these components resulted in a perfume so rich, so balanced, so magical, that everything Grenouille had smelled so far in perfumes, everything he himself had playfully created in his inner olfactory edifices, all at once degenerated into sheer futility. A hundred thousand scents seemed worth nothing before this one scent. This one was the higher principle, after whose model the others had to arrange themselves. It was pure beauty.

from: Patrick Süßkind: The Perfume
Smells and their effects

I remember the year 1985 well. Patrick Süskind’s “The Perfume” had just appeared on the market and we walked around sniffing. We had rediscovered one of our senses and now perceived the world with our noses. Everything was smell. Every bush gave off its own scent, we smelled the approaching rain as well as the freshly brewed coffee. And even love experienced an extra dimension, because we no longer just let ourselves fall into the encounters of two skin surfaces, but began to smell each other intensely.

The Dispatch of Napoleon to his lover Josephine has become famous: “Come back to Paris tomorrow. Do not wash.” At first, that sounds quirky. But love goes through the nose. We decide on the basis of the smell whom we look for as a partner. Even if we are usually not aware of it.

Meanwhile, there are even perfumes that contain artificial pheromones. So those substances that we cover up with deodorants, aftershaves and just perfumes in the first place. And which are actually there to help us choose the ideal partner. It is not for nothing that the most beautiful evening dresses leave the armpits free. The armpit region is where most of the scent glands nest.

But this blog is not about cultural criticism, but about the attempt to make eroticism tangible with all senses. And here the smell offers amazingly many possibilities, which often fall behind in literature. A well-written text passage can activate the olfactory memory of the reader and offer him something that the Internet clip eroticism can not give him. In other words, a real added value.

Take the following passage from Laura Esquivel’s “Bitter Sweet Chocolate“:

“Her sweat was pink and exuded a pervasive, truly beguiling scent of roses. […] In the twinkling of an eye, the scent of roses that her body exuded had spread to a considerable radius. Yes, it had penetrated beyond the village, where the revolutionaries and the Federales, the troops loyal to the regime, had just fought a bloody battle. Among them, that Villa supporter who had entered Piedras Negras a week earlier and had met Gertrudis in the village square, distinguished himself by particular bravery.
A rosy fragrance cloud reached him, enveloped him, and caused him to rush unawares at a wild gallop toward Mama Elena’s farm. Without knowing why, Juan, as this man was called, had turned his back on the battlefield, leaving there one of the enemy more dead than alive. A higher power guided his actions. He was driven by an overwhelming desire to search as quickly as possible for something unknown in an unspecified place. It was not difficult for him to find it. He only had to follow the scent of Gertrudis’ body.”

Totally apart from whether or not the reader can relate to this form of Mexican hyperbole, the scent of roses, perhaps paired with a dull top note of sour sweat, will be with him for a while.

He can hardly resist it either. This is because the same areas in the brain that are active during the actual perception of odors are stimulated when these key olfactory terms are read. This has been known at least since a study by Spain’s Jaume I Castelló University measured their subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They flashed words at the subjects on a monitor and watched how they responded. The brain responded exactly as if it had actually perceived the smell. So it was indistinguishable between literary and material reality.

As writers, we can take advantage of this by letting our protagonists sniff each other without restraint. Whether this is the smell of soap right after the shower, the perfume your sweetheart has put on, armpit sweat, or the very specific, animalistic scent of the intimate region, may be up to the plot at hand. At this point, I simply want to encourage people to try their hand at literary writing in this area.

To see how smells can best be described, I recommend you to start by reading (again) Süskind’s “The Perfume”. After all, it deals with the natural and artificial smell of people for more than three hundred pages. Make a list of those sentences with which he describes smells. In this way, I acquired a sense of the various techniques with which he processed smells literarily. And Süskind took a long time to make sure his descriptions didn’t seem stereotypical.

All the best,

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