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.

In the pattern of the mentalités school of history, The Foul and the Fragrant is a ragbag of a book which surrounds and probes the subject of ‘Odour and the French Social Imagination’ from all sorts of different directions. One approach is physiological. It is the peculiarity of the nose to be physically adjacent to the brain, which explains the sub-verbal short-cut Proust takes between the madeleine and the forgotten past, or the rotten apples which Schiller kept in his desk drawer to revive flagging literary inspiration. The nose’s pleasures may be wordless, but they are fast. Hence the instant ‘rush’ relished by glue and cocaine-snorters and Bisto kids, and the less savoury gratifications of those whom Freud calls renifleurs – underwear-sniffers, among whom Corbin lists Goethe and Henri III.

Erroneous world-view and bad science have played a main part in the social history of smell. The old regime inherited such vulgar errors as that the ‘bowels of the earth’, and all material objects, secrete and sweat out harmful ‘airs’ by virtue of their continual atomistic fermentations. Floors and walls were particularly suspicious. Thus in 18th-century Paris, ‘new buildings were left to prostitutes, a practice known as “drying out the plaster”.’ Once dried, the human blotting-paper was evicted to make room for respectable owners. Mud was an object of particular terror on account of the dangerous odours brewed within it: hence the intricate mythology of the swamp, marsh, slime and reeking bog. Anything that ‘stood’ was suspect. Air, as an elementary fluid, could have a whole range of tonic and toxic effects, which might be interpreted in quite contradictory ways. As Corbin tells us, until quite recently French schoolteachers believed in the rejuvenating effects of being enclosed with children, and went into the stuffy classroom with the same gusto that their English colleagues hurled open windows in the depth of winter to let in the ‘fresh’ air and doubtless hasten the deaths of their charges from exposure. Before Pasteur’s identification of the microbial communication of disease, ‘miasma’, or bad air, was conceived as an invisible source of deadly infection. This had all sorts of consequences for the thoughtful person’s relations with places, things and people. And it persists into modern culture as a morbid preoccupation with healthy and unhealthy ‘atmospheres’.

Corbin’s survey from 1790 to 1880 is one of general progress from a ‘sensualist’ barbarism, rich in tolerated stench, to a modern deodorised civilisation in which to ‘create a stink’ is the height of bad form. The ‘lowering of the threshold of olfactory tolerance’, as Corbin calls society’s growing social discipline over smell, was achieved in complex ways. First, by a privatisation of excreta, with everyone, as the 18th-century edict of Villers Cotterêts bluntly put it, expected ‘to look after his own shit’. This stress on individual waste-disposal partnered the rise of capitalism (making your pile), and was assisted by public hygiene and ventilatory measures, aimed at reducing the mephitic. Strong smells for a while held their own in the belief that aromatics or balsamics could actually annihilate harmful putrescence – a doctrine which Corbin traces through the widespread use of musk as an all-purpose fumigant. This ‘pharmaceutical’ use of the overpowering smell (which survives in most large hospitals) eventually gave way in the 19th century to a connoisseurial cultivation of ‘weak’ perfume used delicately to beautify one’s ‘private space’. Musk was finally discredited when ‘the use of a powerful perfume cast doubt upon a person’s cleanliness’. Ambiguity about what aromatics say about their user re-surfaces in the present-day conflict in the United States between the virtues of the perfumed deodorant and the neutral anti-perspirant. Historically, the final victory of ‘fragrance’ was marked by the emergence of the cosmetic perfume industry with Worth in 1858: true culture entailed the ability to modulate one’s repertory of smells as consciously as one controlled dress or voice.

Corbin argues that a meditation on the social place of odour opens a trap-door on the kind of common experience that normally lies below the level of examined historical fact. I believe him. But his book will attract a wide and lay readership for the same reasons that made Lawrence Wright’s delightful history of the lavatory, Clean and Decent (1960), a perennial best-seller. And for the reader only mildly interested in French history, Corbin, like Wright, supplies a wealth of fascinating tidbits: for instance, that in the 18th century it was thought that ‘the ambiguous marriage between the woman and the flower she smelled could end in orgasm,’ or that people entirely lost their odours when sad and regained them with double strength when angry.

One of the shrewdest parts of Corbin’s study is his teasing-out of the differences between the Anglo-Saxons and the French in their love-hate relationship with odour. Britain’s social history is one of spectacular public hygiene – particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, which saw the innovation of mains sewerage, mains water, and massive drainage schemes which effectively abolished standing cesspools, middens, ponds and marshes (and, in the 1950s, smog), thereby creating an environmental ‘clean air’. In England the property right to one’s personal odour was overridden, a high-handedness which continues in such things as the 1980s abolition of the travelling public’s relatively innocent smoking privileges on public transport.

Meanwhile, France stubbornly resisted the authoritarian reforms which were cleaning up its neighbour, insisting that the diffusion of odour, even foul odour, enjoyed the status of a personal civil right and might even be a public service. Hence the quite deliberate obstruction to decent drainage in Paris, the condemnation of toilet training for tots as cruelty, and the preference for rank smoking materials like the anti-social (and patriotically-named) Gauloise, which out-stinks the innocent Woodbine about five to one. While the English created the massive public (but underground) sanitisations of the mains sewer, France promulgated the private (but highly visible) sanitation of the bidet – a proverbial source of bathroom confusion for the English tourist. The closeness of the French to their excrement had an equally confusing linguistic dimension. I can remember the astonishment of seeing my first Brigitte Bardot film in the Fifties, with the French sex-kitten making her entry with an exasperated Merde! The thought of Jean Simmons or Patricia Roc blithely allowing the word ‘shit’ to pass their lips on-screen was as unthinkable as Celia’s turds in the Swift poem. French resistance to legislation distancing man from his excrement, dung, smoke, body odour and personal rubbish long confirmed Anglo-Saxons in a spurious sense of national superiority. It was English bourgeois class-lore that the French people smelled for the same reason as did English workers: because they were ‘dirt-ignorant’.

Corbin puts forward a number of subtler explanations for the Gallic ‘loyalty to filth’. In France there was more firmly based adherence to the venerable belief that excrement is highly therapeutic. According to Chauvet, in the late 18th century, the mass depositing of faeces in public streets was a useful preventive against plague. At the same period, another French medical authority, Parent-Duchâtelet, declared that dipping rheumatic limbs in cesspools produced miraculous cures. (A version of this theory persisted into the 1960s in the barrack-room belief that marching blisters can be cured by dunking the feet in urine. It didn’t work for me.) The French, as Corbin notes, associated compulsory baths, delousing and ventilation with prison and shunned them accordingly. More touchingly, he notes that, for the poor, ‘dirt could satisfy the canons of beauty, which demanded paleness. It alone was capable of protecting the peasant woman, exposed to the heat of the sun, from sunburn – beautiful complexions are formed under dirt.’ The rich matron of today attests to this truth with her facial mudpack.

Norman Mailer claims that there is not a single smell in Hemingway. The Anglo-Saxon cultural persecution of stink has had a sadly impoverishing effect on creative literature, while the French licence of private odour led, not just to the best perfume industry in the world, but to a masterpiece of olfactory fantasy, Huysman’s A Rebours (1884), with its ‘perfume-artist’ hero, Des Esseintes. (Corbin draws attention to Huysman’s less well-known eulogy on the female armpit in Le Gousset.) There is no such work as A Rebours in English, for the good reason that such works are inherently un-English. I suspect that one reason why Ulysses remained banned for so long in the English-speaking world (and was finally cleared in the US on the bizarre grounds that it was ‘emetic’) was its incidental references to Bloom’s breakfast of grilled mutton kidney, ‘which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine’, and his sitting asquat the cuckstool a few minutes later, ‘calm above his own rising smell’. Similarly, it is probable that Eliot’s drafts of The Waste Land were decently ‘lost’ during his lifetime because of their painful reference to the ‘hearty female stench’. In Anglo-Saxon literature, these are uneasy territories. It is, by contrast, quite in the national character that Nineties France should have given the world its first ‘perfume-comedian’ – the virtuoso of the concert-room fart, Le Pétomane, and that he should have become a cult figure in Britain only in the 1960s, after Alan Brien’s pioneering articles on breaking wind in the New Statesman.

The elimination of odour from English literature, and even from English pornography, in the 19th and 20th centuries argues deep internalised censorships, even within libertine literature. Smell hardly figures in the ‘liberating’ Lady Chatterley’s Lover (one coy reference to all men being ‘dogs that trot and sniff and copulate’ is all I can find), despite Lawrence’s avowed ‘hygienic’ aim to demolish his countrymen’s sexual inhibitions. I seemed to remember that Orwell’s 1984 was rich in smell references: but, on checking, I could only discover two in the first chapter (‘the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats,’ Victory Gin ‘gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice spirit’). There are other isolated moments of odour in the narrative, such as Winston’s orgasmic whiff of real coffee and Parsons’s diarrhoea in the Ministry of Love. But for all Orwell’s obsession with bad smells, 1984 is relatively thin on the subject. And most English fiction and poetry might as well have been written by a noseless species.

There have been many recent English and American novels devoted to the visual and aural arts. But the only full-length novel devoted to olfaction originates, like A Rebours, in an alien culture. Patrick Süskind’s Perfume was translated from the original German and published in Britain and America in 1986. The novel (originally put out in hardback by Hamish Hamilton) neatly partners Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant. Set in pre-Revolution France, it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Born in ‘the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom’, in a sweltering July, under a fishmonger’s stall, Grenouille inherits misfortune and the single talent of a preternaturally keen sense of smell, which he puts to good use. The first phase of the novel chronicles the hero’s apprenticeship to a Paris perfumer; the second his period in the wilderness, where, a hermit for seven years, he makes the extraordinary discovery that every human has an individual smell, different from all others. He travels to Grasse, the scent-laden centre of the perfume industry. There follows a spell of olfactory vampirism in which Grenouille kills maidens so as to distil and enjoy their pure and infinitely distinct fragrances. Caught and condemned to death by breaking on the wheel, he escapes by releasing a pheromone (his smell) on the scaffold. The odour subliminally convinces the townspeople that he cannot be guilty, and they surrender themselves to a mass orgy of scent-induced sexual lust. Released, and now possessed of this latent political power over the masses, Grenouille returns to Paris, just before the Revolution.

Süskind’s allegories are rather heavy-handed. But they parallel exactly Corbin’s thesis that in the last two hundred years society (particularly French society) has progressed from a communal ‘sensualism’ of natural odour to a world in which – like money or libido – scent is controlled by the property-owning and political individual. But the fascination of the novel is that, unlike the abstract disquisition of the historical treatise, its rhetoric can capture the strange textures and affective nuances of the smell world, as in Süskind’s dense (and finely translated) prelude describing malodorous 18th-century Paris:

There reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces.

Süskind’s nasal rhapsody was an unexpected but quite logical best-seller with an English readership traditionally denied smell gratification in literature. Encouraged by Perfume’s success, the author’s English publishers have dug up an earlier novella, The Double Bass, first written in German in 1984. This work does for the ear what Perfume does for the nose. A serio-comic monologue, it probes the instrument’s ungainly but necessary supporting role in the orchestral whole. The double bass is like the ‘mother earth’, it is ‘feminine’, it is indispensable, it is discriminated against, it protests and threatens revolution: but finally it conforms and plays its allotted secondary part. The Double Bass is a pleasant and clever piece of writing that will be admired, but not, like Perfume, relished.