French Air

John Sutherland

  • The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination by Alain Corbin, translated by Miriam Kochan
    Berg, 307 pp, £18.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 907582 47 8
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind, translated by John Woods
    Penguin, 263 pp, £3.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 14 009244 7
  • The Double Bass by Patrick Süskind, translated by Michael Hofmann
    Hamish Hamilton, 57 pp, £8.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12039 X

In his autobiographical papers, Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman?, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, describes being piqued by an article in Science about how well bloodhounds can smell. Feynman hates not being best, and so he took time off from inventing the atom bomb (he was working at Los Alamos) to run an experiment. He had his wife handle certain coke bottles in an empty six-pack while he was out of the room for a couple of minutes. Detection proved too easy: ‘As soon as you put the bottle near your face, you could smell it was dampish and warmer.’ So he had Mrs Feynman take down a book and replace it on the shelf:

I came in – and nothing to it! It was easy. You just smell the books. It’s hard to explain, because we’re not used to saying things about it. You put each book up to your nose and sniff a few times, and you can tell. It’s very different. A book that’s been standing there a while has a dry, uninteresting kind of smell. But when a hand has touched it, there’s a dampness and a smell that’s very distinct. We did a few more experiments, and I discovered that while bloodhounds are indeed quite capable, humans are not as incapable as they think they are: it’s just that they carry their nose so high off the ground!

Feynman makes two interesting points here. The first is that we lack or have lost a sensitive vocabulary for describing smells. Etymologists bear this out. In an article in Muttersprache (1984) Arthur Kutzelnigg calculates that since the Middle Ages the German lexicon of smell words has shrunk from 158 to 62, of which a large number survive only in dialect or the ‘little languages’ used in adult-child discourse (‘stinky-poo’ words). And those words we retain tend to be blanched. For Shakespeare, ‘sweet’ was primarily a smell word (as in Gertrude’s ‘Sweets to the sweet, farewell’). For us, ‘sweet’ is exclusively a taste word. Poor in vocabulary, the commonest articulation of reaction to odour is the non-verbal grunt, grimace, lip-smack or the vague analogy (‘Yuk – rotten eggs’). And it is not just that the words are missing: expertise with the nose is suppressed by social conventions which stigmatise any strong smell as a bad smell. In one of the few investigations of the subject before Corbin’s, Adrian Stokes noted that unlike the other four senses, that of scent had not inspired any art, or aesthetic cultivation. (I think Stokes may have overlooked the use of the nose in wine-bibbing.) There is no educational encouragement to improve one’s keenness of smell, no professional applications; and its loss, as insurance policies confirm, is regarded as simply the removal of an unvalued sensory appendix. Nevertheless, as Feynman argues (and will happily demonstrate at any party), an animal acuity of smell survives, however we choose to ignore it. And it resurfaces in the oddest places. When Judge Caulfield eulogised Mrs Archer as ‘fragrant’, newspaper readers’ nostrils all over the country must have twitched and immediately intuited the olfactory opposition being made between the sweet-smelling wife Mary and the mephitic whore Monica.

The other point Feynman makes is that unlike the bloodhound, civilised man sticks his nose uselessly in the air. And the more civilised he thinks himself, the higher he sticks it. As Orwell confessed in The Road to Wigan Pier, the superiority that the English middle class secretly claims for itself is that it does not smell and that the lower classes (‘the great unwashed’) do. Bloodhounds know different. In one of the many digressions in his book Alain Corbin suggests that the marked reluctance of the lower classes in 19th-century France to surrender their ostentatious stench, their stubborn adherence to the sweaty armpit, the public fart and garlic-powered halitosis, was political: a fear, that is, of losing their class authenticity in the wash. Hence their determination to get up the nose of their toffee-nosed betters and all nosey parkers (according to Orwell, the most derogatory term in the working-class lexicon), and their contempt for truckling brown-nosers. In the British Army, ‘Your shit smells too’ is an insult that can only be addressed mutinously from other ranks to commissioned officers; it is meaningless in the other direction. Unlike, say, the Spanish tu madre, an insult applicable to any male, irrespective of class.

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