With the Aid of a Lorgnette

Frank Kermode

  • The Lure of the Sea by Alain Corbin, translated by Jocelyn Phelps
    Polity, 380 pp, £35.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 7456 0732 2
  • The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination by Alain Corbin, translated by Miriam Kochan
    Picador, 307 pp, £6.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 330 32930 8

Alain Corbin is a prolific new-style French historian, and these books are notable contributions to an interesting genre he describes as ‘the history of sensibilities’. The Foul and the Fragrant created something of a stir some years ago when the translation appeared in hardback, partly, I suppose, because no respected historian had ever before written so much, and so explicitly, about shit, which, as more sanitised historians had omitted to specify, occupied in former times the worry-space now claimed by nuclear waste. And by reason of its natural properties it had much greater power to compel contemporary attention.

Corbin’s documentation, collected from a huge variety of sources, the academic equivalents of Dickens’s dustheaps, is impressive as well as disgusting. Even the pages on perfumes tend to dwell on their excremental origins, though part of the story is the adoption, by persons of refined taste, of fragrances derived from flowers rather than civet cats. The malodorous effluvia of human ‘excretory ducts’ also came to be deprecated by the upper classes: these ducts are ‘the hairy area of the head, the armpits, intestines, bladder, spermatic passages, groins, the gaps between the toes’. Since the activity of these ducts was used as a measure of individual and racial vitality, doctors could at one time maintain that dirt was good for patients deficient in animal vigour. They condemned ‘the thoughtless use of water’, warning against ‘the luxury of cleanliness’, especially pernicious to women in childbirth. It is impossible to read this book without marvelling at the rich blend of credulity and chicanery that characterised medical practice, and at the docility with which patients submitted to manifestly absurd and even injurious ‘cures’. The doctors, we learn from Corbin’s new book, were just as crazed and just as authoritarian when they decided that the sea, like filth, had therapeutic possibilities, preferably to be exploited with the maximum degree of discomfort to the patient.

The Foul and the Fragrant has chapter headings like ‘Air and the Threat of the Putrid’, ‘Redefining the Intolerable’ and ‘The New Calculus of Olfactory Pleasure’, so one may expect few concessions to the hilarity that sometimes marks lay responses to disorderly ordure. Freud was unusual in devoting some attention to the relatively feeble olfactory powers of human beings, and philosophers, as Corbin remarks, have tended to ignore the sense of smell on the grounds that it has little to do with thinking, and smell, when strong, is associated with animality. Kant excluded it from aesthetics. Yet there were those who, shrewdly noting the proximity of the nose to the brain, emphasised its power to warn of ‘the presence of miasmas’, and to enable man alone to value the fragrance of flowers. Discursive contradictions of this kind are meat and drink, or offal and stagnant pools, to Corbin, and by describing the conflicts of social attitudes to olfaction he is carrying out a plan to give smell some of the authority so long usurped by seeing and hearing.

He chooses a time when there was a lot of it about. Corpses, tanneries, serried banks of latrines, vast and leaky urban cesspits, contributed their dangerous miasmas. The corridors and courtyards of Versailles were ‘full of urine and faeces’. Unlucky Montfaucon was ‘the epicentre of stench in Paris’. Corbin’s gusto as he piles it all on is an indication of his pride and pleasure in the historian’s craft, and of his hands-on approach to the subject. Like the doctors whose bizarreries he describes so fully, he has taught himself ‘to smell reflectively’. Much in the manner of their ancestors, the scientists of Swift’s Laputa, they devised experimental methods of collecting and analysing farts; with a philological ingenuity worthy of Molière’s physicians they invented the male aura seminalis, the smell of which stimulates women, while affirming that the sweaty garments of women enchanted men.

This professional interest in smells was natural enough in an age when the stink of hospitals, ships and prisons could knock you down as you passed by. But the pampered modern reader may feel a certain relief on arriving at the point, in the middle of the 18th century, when ‘odours began to be more keenly smelled’; thresholds of tolerance were lowered, and it became self-evident that something needed to be done about improving the situation. Corbin attributes this change in perception, in part at any rate, to the influence of scientific theory, but without suggesting that scientific theory was correct. Most of it was Laputan; but, as he remarks, historians of science, interested in success, have largely neglected the history of scientific error.

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