From Aristotle to Kant, intellectuals have delighted in denigrating the sense of smell. In doing so they have dampened the boundless pleasures of the olfactory. It is time we rediscovered our nosesby Lara Feigel / December 16, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
The fallen sons of Eve
Even the smell of roses
Is not what they supposes
But more than mind discloses
And more than men believe.
GH Chesterton, “The Song of Quoodle”
I plead guilty to Chesterton’s charge. Mine is a mediocre specimen of a post-lapsarian nose. As a fallen daughter of Eve—or, more accurately, a fallen granddaughter of a sharp-nosed chimpanzee—I am conscious of smell only a few times each day. I put on perfume in the morning, but because I use the same concoction every day and therefore suffer from what the perfumers call “nasal fatigue,” I apply far more than I should, and end up fatiguing the noses of my fellow passengers on the train en route to work. Occasionally I sniff the milk to see if it’s off, but more often I just glance at the sell-by date. Visual clues are more reliable than olfactory ones for a two-legged fallen human. On buses or tube trains, forced during rush hour into sardine-like proximity with a smelly person, I might—with due subtlety—shade my nose from the worst of his (or her) emissions. But for most of the day, it is unusual for me to notice any particular smells. I do eat food, of course, but with the illusory impression that I am tasting rather than smelling the myriad different flavours that make up even an ordinary meal.
I am not alone in my olfactory bubble.We have been turning up our noses at smell for centuries. Some 2,000 years after Aristotle blithely labelled smell the most undistinguished of all our senses, Immanuel Kant denigrated it as the “least rewarding and the most easily dispensable” of the five. He viewed it as more likely to bring disgust than pleasure and as, at best, a “negative condition” of our wellbeing. In other words, we can use smell to avoid noxious air and rotting food. Kant, perhaps, would have been grat eful for sell-by dates and the chance to abandon such an inferior sense altogether. Predictably, it was left to the French to champion the sensual in a rationalist age. In 1754 Jean-Jacques Rousseau extolled smell as “the sense of imagination” and his contemporary Jean-François Saint-Lambert lauded the nose for giving us “the most immediate sensations” and “a more immediate pleasure, more independent of the mind” than the eye. A century later, French olfactory enthusiasm had seeped across the border into Germany, where in 1888 Friedrich Nietzsche somewhat bewilderingly announced: “All my genius is in my nostrils.”