This morning, descending the pristine stairwells of the office, I’m hit by a blast of smells from the restaurant on the ground floor. Breakfast is in full swing. Croissants, bacon, a hint of sausage, a faint suggestion of frying eggs. I feel the pangs of hunger stirring. But more than that, I’m suddenly remembering moments of fried breakfasts shared with friends. At the Toad’s Mouth Too in Brockley. At a place on Brick Lane and a fierce argument that flashed across the table; at camp, where we squatted on freshly dewed grass, watching mushrooms sizzle and crackle in a frying pan. The tantalising odours floating up the stairs plunge me into memory, pitch me into overlapping pasts of time, places and moments linked by the smell of fried eggs and sizzling bacon.
“But let a noise, a scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and immediately the permanent and habitually concealed essence of things is liberated and our true self which seemed – had perhaps for long years seemed – to be dead but was not altogether dead, is awakened and reanimated as it receives the celestial nourishment that is brought to it. A minute freed from the order of time has re-created in us, to feel it, the man freed from the order of time.”
Marcel Proust, Time Regained
It’s amazing how smell can evoke memory; how it cross-talks/plays with other senses. As I recall the camping breakfast, I remember-feel the squish of mud between my toes as I crawled, muzzy-headed from my tent that morning; the way the morning sunlight glinted on dewdrops, the clatter in the tent across the way. I am suddenly there with a vividness and presence which is both overpowering and transitory, fading as I close the door. But the cluster of thoughts remain focused on smell itself.
Not so long ago, smell was widely considered to be antithetical to civilisation. Kraft-Ebbing duly pronounced an interest in odours (particularly sexual ones) to be the domain of the olfactophiliac, whilst Havelock Ellis declared that olfaction is only important for “inverts” and “primitives”. Good company then. Stigmata clings to bodily odours, particularly those we associate with sex. In premodern Europe, the senses were gendered. Men owned the “rational” senses – sight and hearing; whilst women had the “feminine” senses of touch, taste and smell, related to the corporeal practices of care. At the same time, these feminine senses were markers of a potentially uncontrollable animality, embodied in the figure of the witch, whose senses were used transgressively, for self-gratification, corruption and enticement to sin. Just as woman could bring forth life; so too their bodies could sap the health of a man, bringing death. Witches, for the sixteenth century demonologists, “reeked of corruption”.
Some years ago I had a brief stint of making incense at a local aromatherapy emporium. I’d leave each day, smelling faintly of Storax, Jasmine, Benzoin and Camphor. Often, with other workers, I’d head to a pub, where our presence would draw a number of responses. Had we been taking drugs? Had we just been to church? We would often attract curious glances, and the occasional chat-up. Hands grabbed and sniffed, copal-dusted arms stroked tentatively. Some are clearly confused – men should not smell so sweet, so unlike the pungency of honest sweat. When we said we’d been working, eyebrows would shoot up. The regime of the normal undone by a faint hint of Rose, a lingering trace of Cedar.
What is it to be a scented body? It’s to be present-distant; earthy-sublime; civilised-wild – to be hyphenated; hybrid, it invokes memory in oneself, evokes passions in others; heads turning as presence wafts faintly across a room. Anointing my fingers with Ylang-ylang, I rub them together, the heat stirring the molecules, close my eyes and try and lose myself in the smell of the goddess. Oh, to abandon the visual; to close down the internal flow of words, and delight in the goddess as pure scent, whirling and drifting. Desires distilled and made manifest; nomadic. Scent transports us; discolates us in time; drags us sideways; in anticipation; in delight; in the wisdom of flesh calling to flesh.
“To begin to understand the gorgeous fever that is consciousness, we must try to understand the senses … and what they can teach us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit.”
Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses