“Of all the senses, the act of smelling, which is attracted without objectifying, reveals most sensuously the urge to lose oneself in identification with the Other. That is why smell, as both the perception and the perceived - which are one in the act of olfaction - is more expressive than the other senses. When we see, we remain who we are, when we smell we are absorbed entirely." - Adorno & Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment
§ The nose - I am the owner of an aquiline, or in more vulgar terms, Jewish, one, bequeathed to me by my father. My recollections regarding scents - particularly the musky wafting smokiness of incense - will always be tied to my father’s utterly unashamed reactions to them: of stricken refusal and adamant eviction. Burdened with the self-designated responsibility of a bloodhound, he continues to censor my mother’s noisome eau de toilettes. Once on a visit to my parent’s house, I brought my mother a potted purple hyacinth plant. It got unceremoniously sent back home with me to wilt and die within a few days. I can’t say that I necessarily enjoyed the luridly indolic, powdery scent of hyacinth, as much as I did its ferocious spirit and intensity, but in the end the flower’s fragrant bouquet became associated with the death throes of this amethyst jewel’s abandonment. From then on, the smell retained an element of bitterness - it became yet another aroma of rejection, an indication of my inadequacy in the face of discerning parental judgment. A spirit of rebellion may have manifested itself in the gift, as I must have unconsciously sensed that my father’s fragile nasal constitution would revile it.
§ According to that champion of the squalid, Georges Bataille, the language of flowers is the script of death.
“Risen from the stench of the manure pile – even though it seemed for a moment to have escaped it in a flight of angelic and lyrical purity – the flower seems to relapse abruptly into its original squalor: the most ideal is rapidly reduced to a wisp of aerial manure. For flowers do not age honestly like leaves, which lose nothing of their beauty even after they have died…flowers…die ridiculously on stems that seemed to carry them to the clouds. It is impossible to exaggerate the tragicomic oppositions indicated in the course of this death-drama, endlessly played out between earth and sky, and it is eveident that one can only paraphrase this laughable duel by introducing, not as a sentence, but more precisely as an ink stain, this nauseating banality: love smells like death. It seems in fact, that desire has nothing to do with ideal beauty, or, more precisely, that it only arises in order to stain and wither the beauty that for many sad and well-ordered personalities is only a limit, a categorical imperative. The most admirable flower for that reason would not be represented, following the verbiage of the old poets, as the faded expression of an angelic ideal, but on the contrary, as a filthy and glaring sacrilege.” Bataille, “The Language of Flowers,” Visions of Excess, 12-13.
§ Scents in my memory were always dangerous territory, a fault line for the unknown: smells often edged onto the precipice of shame. And often it was I who was doing the sanctimonious work of a Sherlock Holmes, smelling the silverware for telltale traces of pungent onion or smoked herring, the customary culinary offenders in my post-Soviet home. The smell-test became a de rigueur pre-meal ritual. And the odors that were felt obscene to me, such as the greasy, marine residue of pickled fish, often indicated my squeamish recalcitrance in the face of my cultural heritage. As each fork or knife unveiled its culpability through a malingering odor, I perceived an indictment of my perennial status as immigrant, outsider, and fool. At its worst the ritual could lead to a kind of phantosmia, the pressing in of olfactory delusions.
§ To be aware of smell: always to be at the cusp of something foul.
“The triumph of the sign, of the exchangeable, is a direct accomplice of the elimination of smells, which – when not deemed pleasant or masked by a superior musk – can only be equal to their terrible selves. The concept of perfume, be it man-made or natural, is bound by the conditions of odorlessness. If we speak of limits, it is because odorlessness can only be approached or approximated. Perfume, whether essence of lemon or of orange blossom, is nothing more than an inclination toward an impossible goal…The ideal hygienist dream quite clearly contains a compulsive need to eradicate human smell and the ‘olfactory animal’ that man had once been…Smells have no place in the constitutive triad of civilization: hygiene, order and beauty. In the empire of hygiene and order, odor will always be suspect. Even when exquisite, it will hint at hidden filth submerged in excessive perfume, its very sweetness redolent of intoxication and vice.” Dominique Laporte, The History of Shit, (83-84)
§ Amber is a scent that I adore for its inveterately animalic qualities, its indication of unseemly protrusions and secretions beneath a sweetish and rounded fleshy surface. Today, amber is a composite scent that has no direct correlation or substance of extraction from the plant or animal world; it’s now created from various resins –frankincense, sandalwood, patchouli, as well as vanilla, musk, rose – to approximate the scent of ambergris, an outlawed substance. The story of ambergris is itself a tale of colonialism, natural resource mining, and vomit. Ambergris, which would wash up in chunks on the shore, was believed to be the throw-up of sperm whales – aquatic hairballs, as it were - but consisting of the indigestible remains of other underwater creatures the whale had swallowed: beaks of squids, for example. Ambergris would develop a particular aroma once expelled, congealing in the ocean waves for days, months, years, then drying in the sun. The smallest diffusion of ambergris would create a heavenly scent, but in full force in the undiluted grey viscous chunk washed up ashore, it’s purported to smell like the most pungent shit.
§ The deodorizing idealism of freshness served as the antidote to the fetid, cloying and prickly. (Witness the fashion for “clean” scents and ozonic notes in mainstream perfume that eradicate any bodily implications of the soiled.) Images of my Vinnitsa childhood are peppered with the vibrant smells of ambient wild brush; the greening of walnut shells as they fell to the ground from the tree in our riverfront backyard; the smell of ripening raspberries and gooseberries on the bush; the smoky, snowy, arid reed-like white birch of the Russian national imaginary; the fragrance of crackling leaves on the pear trees I would climb for shade and privacy to evade collective scorn and judgment; the sparklingly crisp scent of lilies of the valley, their fragile white bells ensconced in enveloping green leaves; the sweet homemade confectionary aroma of Napoleon dessert, with its endless thin layers of baked wafers and milky, eggy clotted cream; and most importantly of all - the warm opaque tannic aroma of tea, with the acidity of lemon, as comforting to me as the obliging babushka who unfailingly served it, then as now.
§ As a teen I discovered the world of the bazaar throwback perfume oil vendor. I acquired small coveted, diamond-shaped vials of Frankincense and Myrrh – evoking the ancient bacchanalia of faceless libertines and dark draped, candle-lit chambers - as well as Amber – in its resinous manner, hovering like a warmed over wraith on the skin, a drunken, sweaty, tousle-haired guest who has overstayed their welcome. Based on notes alone, these cheap potions read to me no differently, no more distinctly, than the miniature bottle of Christian Dior’s Poison which I would sniff covertly on my mother’s black formica bureau every other day as a pre-teen, catching a whiff of its excessive, and now infamous, Oriental accords distilled into purplish-black glass. The resplendent bottle, the shape of a rotting heart, with veiny protrusions and gold print, suggested a redolent, bejeweled genie in a bottle, about to be released. Perfumes were a stolen pleasure, a secret fix.
§ How did I get from then to now, to fantasizing about impossible blends, as if perfumery was so easy for auto-didacts? Could mixing aromas be made akin to the art of cinematic montage, or the recombinant geometries of writing itself?
§ Seemingly, the obsession took hold in direct correlation to my failure to write. For Roland Barthes, contemplating the relationship between writing and speech, scent could be a trope deployed as a challenge to the abstracting permanence of the written:
“As soon as you have finished speaking, the vertigo of the image begins: you exalt or regret what you have said, the way you have said it, you imagine yourself (you consider yourself as an image); speech is subject to remanence, it smells. Writing has no smell: produced (having accomplished its process of production), it falls, not like a collapsing soufflé, but like a meteorite disappearing; it will travel far from my body and yet it is not a detached, narcissistically retained fragment, like speech; its disappearance is not disappointing; it passes, it traverses – no more.” Barthes, “Writers, Intellectuals Teachers,” The Rustle of Language, (321-22)
§ We are often caught between two modes or two traditions of relationships to smell. The first is the nostalgia-inducing madeleine of Proust. The second, the absurd caricature of Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose,” in which a middling official wakes up without his nose one day, and ends up getting rebuffed by this very organ, which he sees promenading the city in a more-high ranking uniform. The disgrace, his own nose that refuses to rejoin its owner in his rightful place on his face!
§ If we could blindfold ourselves and be led only by our sense of smell through a teeming city, along a riverbed, or through the brush of a forest, what would we see through our nose? There is a charming blackness in the potential caricature of the nostrils as eyes, both a horror of baroque proportions, and a physical comedy, monstrous and carnivalesque, body genres each. Synaesthesia in its most brute manifestation as a switching of sense organs yields an almost comical vision of the body out of order. Yet something radical underlies their exchange, the physiognomy of perception malformed.
§ To be a tentative olfactive libertine: an oxymoron. One can’t measure out a practical form of abandonment with the index of a single breath. I can never actually possess what I desire, which facilitates an endless perusal of descriptions that would draw near the coveted object, outline the shape of the smell, but never make it whole. I read endless writings by perfume connoisseurs, their language recalling the intensive devotion and thrall of the cinephile – florid prose and the deeply subjective language of cathected attachment.
§ How does one verbalize the scented life? The power of smell is both resistant to description but also prone to exegetical excess, to the limitations of simile and the associative leaps of the comparatist. As the anthropologist Alfred Gell suggests, scent has no formal or semiological system of its own - its very power emits from its formless nature:
“It would seem that we are dealing neither with a system of chemical communication which could be handled within a purely ethological system – nor yet with a ‘sign system’ – since the smell aspect of the world is so intimately bound up with its purely physical and physiological constitution that it can in no sense be considered conventional. Somewhere in between the stimulus and the sign a place must be found for the restricted language of smells, traces which unlike words only partially detach themselves from the world of objects to which they refer.” Gell, “Perfume Magic Dream,” The Smell Culture Reader (401)
§ Smells bear a residual and insistent relationality to the world from which they emanate: they cannot be separated into distinct, abstracted representational forms, but always returns us to that world and its valuing contexts. If vision is the privileged sense, bearer of evidence, embodying an architecture of horizons, edged forms, and perspectival space, smell is perhaps the most evanescent, edgeless and unpredictably tenacious. It lingers beyond its appearance and spatio-temporal presence, recurring wraithlike, bringing with it a trail of unforeseen recollections. Scent is the sense of contingency.
§ Can olfactophilia ever approach or analogize cinephilia, or vice versa? Just as one goes to the cinema for an indulgence in fantasy, a vision of an alternate world, and an experience previously frozen, recorded, replayed again, in space and time - I seek out perfumes and otherworldly aromas as a different kind of corporeal travelogue. Rather than the illusive movement through the diegesis, aromas move through me, my body’s porosity exposed. Here, perfume, in its political economy, distinctions of taste, and visceral charge, intersects with the touristic tenors of the gourmand.
§ There is something utterly expansive about losing oneself in, being transported by a certain smell. The mind and one’s emotions expand and contract to attempt to occupy the imaginary space made by the scent itself, as if one is following a story or constructing a set of abstract ideas in cubist form. Olfaction desubjectivates me, in a state of unbecoming in which I disperse into a trail of matter, pure sensation, hazy dissolution, non-sovereign being (a developing motif here, I suppose.) The experience of scent is embedded in the process of decay, the substance being smelled processually linked, in the activity of smelling, with its dissipation, particle by particle. It maps an experience of becoming matter, of feeling oneself as organism rather than as subject.
§ The top note, middle note and base notes of a fragrance create a certain narrative or structure of development and unfolding. This organization of unraveling attests to the fact that fragrances, like films, are time based. They depend on the temporal component - of evaporation and chemical transformation - to be truly felt, discerned, understood. If the filmstrip has emulsion, exposure, photographic development, printing, and projection, the perfume has a rich history of blending, curing, application, and sillage. In both mediums, these are durational and laborious forms of unique and enthralling alchemy.
§ I sniff feverishly at my half empty 1ml vial of perfumer Andy Tauer’s hallowed Orris. After applying two drops to each wrist and huffing, I am transported to a wordless space – of arid landscapes, sweaty cuminy skin, the most sinuous of mysore sandalwood, agarwood, ambergris, with traces of rose and orris root laced with the vanillic textures of benzoin. Iris flower is an impossible tincture, a flower that has no odor, and therefore approximations of its scent must be extracted from its roots. It is an anti-floral floral. The earthy, leather-laden scent of Tauer’s Orris is perhaps the most carnal, libidinal perfume I have ever experienced. The droplets on my skin evaporate, leaving image traces of smoky campfires, worn-out saddles, drying tobacco, resinous ambers, and Tunisian woods. Orris, the flower as root, embodies the meeting line between flesh and landscape. This is what I imagine the tobacco twists in Dead Man, the desert sands in Lawrence of Arabia, the skin under jeweled fabric in Ashik Kerib smells like.
§ On a literal level, the movie theater itself is redolent with smells that only return us to our sense of disbelief and self-awareness as film cultists, pulling us out of the fictional diegesis and into our placement in the space of exhibition. Buttered popcorn, the scent of musty fabric seats, jelly bellys, melting chocolate, the plasticky starchiness of Twizzlers, syrupy cola, sometimes Chinese food or McDonald’s when the food is bravely snuck and stowed, the smell of anticipating, hushed, bodies sitting in close proximity, monitoring their own movements, or sometimes the smell of fecund bodies, usually attached to rustling bags with many papers inside or an improper cine-etiquette. Drive-ins of course must have had their own attendant smells: dusty grass, car exhaust, warming milkshakes, the indications of leftover suntan lotion and the secreted energies of summer sex. These smells can provide a mapping of our habitus and placement within particular conditions of spectatorship. But this is perhaps too sociological to be of any use...
§ Instead, one could ask – if films could be translated into olfactory landscapes, what might they smell like? Here is a tentative, somewhat facile set of perfume formulas for films, with a series of base, middle and top notes, with the genres that might house them - like etched glass bottles of various hues, thicknesses and opacities.
• Cigarettes, whiskey, aftershave, office paper, gunpowder = Film Noir
• Gardenias, honeysuckle, soap, pink powder, briny tears = Melodrama
• Leather, pine, ocean, rocks, burning rubber = Action Film
• Sweat, cream pies, banana peels = Screwball Comedy
• Blood, dirt, stainless steel, bodily excrescences = Horror
• Sperm, lube, latex, nail polish, silicone, motel sheets = Pornography
§ The reverse might be easier – perfumes registered as cinematic fragments…
§ Guerlain’s L’ Heure Bleue always smells to me like dried, tear stained flowers, of the dusky air before a thunderstorm, of the powdery dust of vintage maquillage, and of the cold metallic musty smell of empty passenger trains. Originally formulated in 1912 by Jacques Guerlain, its transliteration meaning “the blue hour,” the time in Paris when day turns slowly, frozenly and beseechingly into night. It was one of the first modern perfumes to use aldehydes. L’ Heure Bleue’s notes – rose, iris, carnation, vanilla, jasmine, musk - barely encapsulate its essence. It is a fragrance that hearkens back to a lost time, to a panorama of historical affect that reads in relation to the romantic horizons and stark contradictions of modernity itself. It is cold in many ways, and therein lies its modernism – a fragrance that evokes a sensation of spring melancholy as well as arrested longing. There is a particular time in early April when I insist on wearing it, before spring blooms and while the weather is still rainy, gray, wet, but pregnant, incipient atmosphere. This is Catherine Deneuve’s purported perfume…. It’s cinematic equivalent: Anna Karina’s acrid, stalactite tears, set against Falconetti’s sainted faciality, in the movie theater in Vivre Sa Vie.
§ Are there particular scents for you that evoke films, or films that evoke scents?
(I have of course left out Smell-o-vision and The Scent of Mystery, John Water’s Polyester, and various other more direct confrontations between smell & cinema in history and theory – these will have a central place in another piece of writing, elsewhere.)