The Poignancy of Perfume in Literature
By Sherika Tenaya
From the times of our earliest ancestors, we have been enraptured by scent in all its various forms. That love affair, while somewhat lessened in modern day man due to all his “civilizing”, has nevertheless been perfectly captured in the words of our most highly revered poets, philosophers, writers and cultural thinkers in their various literary works. Here we will explore the works of some of those cultural titans and discern humanity’s relationship with scent and perfume, in all its various forms, through the ages.
Perhaps no other writer captures the overwhelmingly powerful, potently raw influencer that is scent on the psyche more than Patrick Suskind in his work Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, when he writes, “Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”
To some degree, scent has the ability to overcoat our mind, shift our mood, transcend the present moment and many writers have oft pondered the deeper relationship scent has on all aspects of our being. Oscar Wilde captures this well when he writes in The Picture of Dorian Gray,
“And so he would now study perfumes, and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily-scented oils, and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one’s passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots, and scented pollen-laden flower, of aromatic balms, and of dark and fragrant woods, of spikenard that sickens, of hovenia that makes men mad, and of aloes that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul.”
Yes, scent does play a vibrant role in stirring our psyches, our passions, and our creativity, particularly when it is experienced in context of synaesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense, say a color, gets intermingled with a secondary sense, such as a smell. For example, someone may be able to “smell” the color yellow, or discern the “taste” of lavender oil without ingesting it.
In writing, synaesthesia is considered to be a necessary component to creativity, allowing the author to paint a vibrant scene by cleverly suffusing the senses together, as Charles Baudelaire infamously does in his Les Fleurs du Mal, “Perfumes there are as sweet as the oboe's sound, green as the prairies, fresh as a child's caress – and there are others, rich, corrupt, profound.”
Scent associations can also transport us to other places, fueling creative imagination, as poignantly depicted by Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer, “But about the smell of rancid butter... there are good associations too. When I think of this rancid butter I see myself standing in a little, old world courtyard, a very smelly, very dreary courtyard. Through the cracks in the shutters strange figures peer out at me.”
Scent associations can even transport us across time, reawakening old memories and vivifying long past emotional experiences, as Helen Keller passionately infers, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.”
The connection between scent and emotion is equally evocative, allowing such distinguished writers like Mark Twain to bring to clarity the emotional experience that is forgiveness by tying it to a scent, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Poignant, stirring, beautiful and somehow perfect.
Look no further than the literary artists who successfully capture not only the stirrings of the human heart and mind but also the authenticity of the the human condition, to appreciate scent and its inherent power to work with us, on us, and through us in all aspects of our personhood, both collective and individual.