Smell was the first of our senses, the mass of olfactory material budding atop our nerve cords eventually blooming into a brain. The center of this liminal, limbic system – the amygdala – not only produces emotional responses to stimuli, but connects the senses. I inhale: physical odor molecules huffed to the back of my nasal cavity, behind the nose’s bridge, where microscopic hairs called cilia sweep them into absorbent mucosa containing receptor cells. Eight molecules trigger a receptor impulse, sending a signal to the olfactory nerve that lays only two synapses apart from my amygdala. If a mere forty receptors out of my five million fire up, I smell something. And I smell it directly, unedited, unmediated.[i] Perhaps this is why my eyes close or go unfocused when sniffing a scent deeply – because sight is unneeded, even distracting. Most emotional long-term memory is thus coded by scent, across time and distance.
But it took me a while to recognize this power and attempt to employ it. As a professor, I would try to engage my students’ intellects through their senses. When I taught Modernist Literature, I used a multidimensional approach so they could comprehend the radical aesthetic departures of the art of this period. In order to understand attempts to represent multiple character perspectives simultaneously in Eliot and Joyce, we studied Picasso’s Cubist paintings and listened to Stravinsky’s polyphonic compositions; to learn about absurdism in Kafka, we heard Mahler’s First Symphony – the third movement with “Frère Jacques” played as a minor-key dirge until interrupted by an oompah band – and looked at slides of Dadaist lobster phones and fur mugs.
The last time I taught this class coincided with the start of my perfume obsession and research, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know what these Modernists smelled like. What, if anything, could this sense teach us about the people of this period? Our sniffing sessions helped round out our perception of the shifting gender roles: garçonnes, those young women, raided not only men’s closets but their scents, and perfumes followed suit. Since smoking and drinking in public were barely tolerated, fragrance gave cover, cloaking women in heavy tobacco and boozy scents.
Using smell to understand a moment is one thing; writing about it is another. Almost immediately, I ran into problems. Through researching perfume, I realized I needed to learn to incorporate descriptions of smell into my writing. Perfume has been linked with language since the days it rose as prayer per fume, through smoke from burnt offerings and incense. But why write about something that you cannot experience along with me? As perfume blogger Denyse Beaulieu laments, “Write about perfume, and you’ll be caught between your own limitations, those of your readers and the fact that, usually, they won’t have the fragrance on hand to compare their impressions with yours.”[ii] Your own limitations begin with the limbic system itself, olfactory messages sent straight to the brain, undiluted by language or even thought. Even once processed, the physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are weak. While smells might lodge in the memory, “without language, without a name and a context, even the most familiar smells can be fugitive, teasing things.”[iii] Plato gave smells no names, claimed they could only be defined in terms of other smells which, while disappointing, I recognize in our habit of describing a smell as “it smells like ___.”
This issue is compounded by the difficulty of conveying your experience to another, especially when people persistently believe that smell is subjective. Critics Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez strongly assert that smell is objective – it’s the language that’s subjective: “Mostly, we don’t smell things differently – we interpret and describe them differently.”[iv]
So, while our sense of smell is actually quite precise, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to describe a scent to one who hasn’t smelled it. Fortunately for perfume enthusiasts, Beaulieu says, “the very nature of the object seemed to attract a particularly literate community of amateurs.”[v] And perfume – or what Turin calls “chemical poems” – has a language and an approach that is worth examining in order to understand how we can apply these descriptive techniques to writing about scent and memory.
When I started writing about my experiences with perfume, the perfume blogs provided a place for me to compare my perceptions. As I worked my way through samples – loving some, hating others, ambivalent about many – I practiced my descriptions, first taking notes based on my own experiences: what I noticed, what notes I recognized, reactions. Then, I would compare against reviews posted in online blogs and discussion boards, learning the name for that dusty, bitter herbal note I kept smelling (vetiver), or why so many florals carry a not-unpleasant funk (indoles – fecal/decay notes that lurk beneath a good jasmine), or those powdery, soapy notes so popular in old vintages (iris and/or aldehydes, what most call “old-lady” scent). Some early entries from that time: CB I Hate Perfume’s I Am a Dandelion, “sharp green but with a sickening sweet note like the sanitizer at the veterinarian’s office”; Estée Lauder Private Collection, “flowers and cut stems in a power suit – reminds me of Lucille Bluth”; Serge Lutens’ A La Nuit, “a singular jasmine note shooting through a woodsy base, like a winter moon through bare trees – Mozart’s Queen of the Night.”
Comparison – what something smells like or of, of what it reminds you – is a natural and a useful starting point. As you can see, my descriptions above include some “smells like” language. But descriptions of smell can be more compelling if they move past that, into synaesthesia and metaphor. Because smell is processed in the limbic system prior to language, at the amygdala that makes connections between the senses, a smell is an inherently synaesthetic object. And we can use that sensory overlap to overcome the gap between smell and language. Once we try to put a smell into language, we interpret it, translate it into the descriptions of other senses and even arts, endowing smells with shape, color, sounds, textures, personalities, and narratives. To return to the example of scent, there’s a whole category of perfumes called “green” – Vent Vert, Chanel N° 19, Silences – a vegetal effect achieved with the herbaceous resin galbanum. A perfume might be rounded (Chamade, Diorissimo) or angular (Bandit, Laine de Verre); plush (Cuir de Russie) or dry (Vetiver Extraordinaire). It could be mouth-watering (Shalimar), spicy (Tabu), or bitter (Scherrer No. 1).
Some move beyond synaesthesia and into metaphor, even elaborate extended ones, granting perfumes personalities. One of my favorite characterizations is of Caron’s Narcisse Noir, by Patty of the Perfume Posse blog, who says “this tramp drags the orange blossoms around through the dark mud of crazy… [it] doesn’t waste a second trying to look innocent, sane or normal, and I find the lack of pretense refreshing.”[vi] Luca Turin describes Creed’s Love in Black as iris that “just suffered a disfiguring car crash.”[vii] And some extend the characterization into a full narrative. In Turin’s appraisal of Insolence, he says “it feels like a seventies action-movie poster, with a helicopter hovering over a burning building to the right, two cars jumping off a pier in the middle, a girl in a white dress being lifted out of a swamp in a guy’s arms at left, and an erupting volcano in the background…. There is something reckless, irreversible, cataclysmic about pressing the spray button” (I should note he gives this scent his highest rating, 5 stars).[viii] Blogger Barbara Herman literally makes the metaphor literal: “A great perfume…invites us to shore up all of our senses, to borrow their metaphors to make perfume’s story more legible, its cinema more visible.”[ix]
So let’s try to make scent more visible. To practice developing your sense of smell and your descriptive abilities, set out a range of scented items from your home: a candle, a child’s blankie, something from your spice rack, cough syrup, toothpaste. Select one; sniff. Understand that while some scents are linear, smelling the same from beginning to end, others have layers – perfumers call these top, heart, and base notes. Top notes are what you smell right away, usually the sharpest, brightest, freshest notes (think citrus, pepper, green herbs). Heart notes comprise the main body of the scent (florals, woods, spices), while the base notes form the underlying structure that lasts the longest (oakmoss, animalics, vanilla). The most complex scents (of any kind, not just perfume) will unfold like this, so look for them as you sniff.
What top notes strike your nose first? Sniff again as the scent unfolds. Is it linear, or does it develop and change? Start pushing into synaesthesia. Here are some descriptors: sweet, sour, floral, green, spicy, decaying, rich, leathery, sweaty, woodsy, dry. Which would you say apply? Move toward metaphor. What story does the smell tell to you? What memories spark? If it had an aura, what color would it project? What images come to mind? If you were to cast a person to play the role of this scent, whom would you choose and why? If this scent were a song or a kind of music, which and why? Try to write a description of the scent without using any adjectives whatsoever – only nouns, imagery, similes/metaphors.
There are two main ways to apply these techniques to writing about memory, one the inverse of the other: you can start with the memory and try to remember its associated smells, or you can start with smells and let them lead you into memories. If you have a particular memory or time period in mind that you’re working with, you may already have a scent in mind that you can smell to mine for more memories. You could also work to think of what scents would have paralleled that period – what foods were present? what scented products (perfume, aftershave, hairspray) would the people in the memory have been wearing then? what other smells might have been in the air (cigarette smoke, motor oil, pine needles, dog fur)? Locating and re-sniffing these scent sources might round out those memories, revealing new aspects.
You can also start with a range of smells, as in the previous paragraph, and allow the scents to free-associate memories for you. One fun generative exercise I like to do with my students is have each of them bring in a scented object, and we pass them all around the room. We spend 3-5 minutes describing and free-associating scent memories, and students are almost always surprised by what’s evoked.
Immediately, we may run into at least one of two problems. First, what do we do about smell and teaching about smell now that we as a culture have become so scent averse? Or, rather, that we claim to be: many spaces now request guests be fragrance free. But 80% of the fragrance market is not in perfume – it goes to scent body and home products, detergents, etc., most of which are cloaked in a chemical-masking white musk we’ve come to associate with “clean.” That’s not the same as fragrance-free. Yet because perfume is noticeable, it takes the blame. Nonetheless, if doing a class experiment with smell, you may need to choose scents with sensitivities in mind. Second, I have to wonder what effect this will have on memory – what happens if mom eschewed perfume and therefore didn’t have a signature scent? If dad wore no cologne or aftershave? Many of our students were born in or after the 1990s during which, as an antidote to the big-shouldered perfumes of the ‘80s, scents that smelled of nothing, of water, predominated – the birth of “clean.” Will we link smell-memories with white musk? I think we can still mine smell for other associations – places, cooking, and even lotion, soap, or shampoo. But I’m preemptively lamenting this loss of a rich source of smell.
The difference between writing specifically about perfume and using smell to write about memory is one of purpose. Given the olfactory cortex’s role in the limbic system, how it governs us, it cannot be detached from subjective memory and emotion. With perfume, that can be a problem, in that perfume writing represents the difficulty, if not impossibility, of delivering an identical experience to all, of an objective correlative of scent. We ultimately cannot be forced to experience a scent other than how our animal brains have each individually developed to encounter it. But for memoir and personal essays, scent is merely an access point for memory – whether or not the reader can “smell” what you’re describing isn’t as important as the memory it gets us to. And as the sense most directly plugged in to memory, it would be a shame to let smell go undeveloped. Or, as perfumer Edmond Roudnitska says, “the sense of smell is…entry into a special universe infinitely rich in signs.”[x]
[i] Diane Ackerman, “Smell,” A Natural History of the Senses. Vintage: 1990. Page 10, 13.
[ii] Denyse Beaulieu, The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent. St. Martin’s Press, 2012. Page 157.
[iii] Alyssa Harad, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride. Penguin, 2012. 25.
[iv] Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Perfumes: The A—Z Guide, 2009 ed. Penguin. Page 51.
[v] Beaulieu, 156.
[vi] Ackerman, xvii.
[vii] Turin and Sanchez, 360.
[viii] Turin and Sanchez, 313.
[ix] Barbara Herman, Scent & Subversion. Lyons Press, 2013. Page 6.
[x] Edmond Roudnitska, L’Esthétique en Question, 1976.
Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released poetry collection Conjoining, and the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as the winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and for Poetry City, and mentors with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com