There have been a couple of very interesting articles regarding the sense of smell in the New York Times recently. The first one describes recent medical research contending that loss of olfaction, particularly in old age, is a fairly reliable precursor of oncoming death. More than any other health indicator – blood pressure, liver function and other weakenings of our vital signs included, the severing of the connection between the brimming sensual world of smell and its woozy inhalations apparently seems to suggests an end to life itself.
Like most people, I have absolutely no idea what happens when we die. Whether there is an afterlife of some kind, some form of rebirth in another incarnation, or, quite likely, the simple cessation of it all – a great, silent nothing. A confirmed agnostic, I take what is to me the most logical and sensible viewpoint – that we simply do not know. Nobody (apart from the odd ghost or two) has come back to hand in a report from the other side, and the world is so full of conflicting theories and belief systems that it can make the head spin. Faith is a beautiful, transcendent thing in many ways, but my eyes are too wide open to blindly accept any man-made tenet or dictate. For me, religion is largely geographical and arbitrary, making the fervent head-lopping and declarations of ‘godly truth’ by the bands of religious fanaticists that continue to roam the earth these days all the more laughably contemptible, hateful, and absurd.
But I myself don’t have any certainties, either. I think about all these things, but have no answers. Each person looking for answers to life’s questions is locked into the cell of his or her own thought processes. And, to complicate matters, the last few weeks or so I have been assailed with what you might call a particularly overwhelming form of E.S.P – Excessive Sensory Perception. The perfume, the films, the newspapers, the synaptic fuck-rush of the internet and its instantaneous judgements, its sound-bites and overstimulations, the clamour of the school life….. in order to retain some sanity I have just had to temporarily down-size and simplify. I have not touched the internet for almost a month, developing an extreme aversion to its penetrative displeasures. It can all just get too much, sometimes, this online universe, and sometimes I just can’t sleep. I lie in bed at night, and to compound things, these last few momths, before I fall asleep into my world of lurid, plunging dreams, I have been intrigued, delighted, but also slightly dismayed by something I felt I then had to write about on Facebook – the principle cause, perhaps, of my shutdown – so much fatuous, smiling selectivity – look at me and my delicious luncheon! See me grinning with colleagues over post-work drinks! – but still, a forum I find useful, and definitely a good way of staying connected with all the people I like and know. But, on this occasion, rather than just posting up some pouting, side-angled selfie, or a picture of a steaming bowl of noodles (oishii!!) I decided, in order to find out if anyone else had similar, strange experiences to my own, to mention this pre-dream stage phenomenon (what I refer to as ‘radio cosmos’). To my relief, I found I was not entirely alone in my madness. A couple of friends knew exactly what I was talking about and suggested we meet up and talk about it in more detail. Everyone else ignored it, of course, as the shallow, the easy, and the immediately accessible is ultimately what most people are looking for on there.
In brief, what I am describing here is the time before I fall asleep when I feel as though I am tuning into some kind of Jungian constellation of human souls. Some colourful, interstellar radio station. Where my dream life is emphatically mine – an absorption and surreal re-dramatizing of recent stimuli; recognizably my emotions, the people I know, things I have sponged into my cerebella during the waking hours; fantastical, uproariously alive and wonderful in many ways even when disturbing, this pre-stage feels very different. It feels exterior to me, outside my body – other rooms, other voices – whole dialogues by strangers in accents I couldn’t possibly come up with by myself, across often exquisite images floating across my dream screen (even though I am not asleep) in the process. This is either simply my overactive imagination, or else some form of psychic antennae that are, literally, picking up other people. Just like the melancholic angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire, a film that we both saw and fell in love with for the first time recently: such a tender film, full of love for humanity and the frailty of our souls; the weary guardian angels of Berlin listening in to human troubles and the secret fears of their hearts and trying to (invisibly)provide some succour, although in my very non-angelic case, the banter is far more animated, dramatic, and often quite hilarious. But before you suggest internment in some home for the criminally insane, all of this whirligig of disembodied conversation does not remotely feel abnormal, or even intrusive (not like ‘hearing voices’, which my paternal grandmother was tragically afflicted with in the latter stages of her life). The scenarios, here, are light and fleet-footed, fast changing, ethereally pin-pointed and direct. I tune in and am dazzled by what I am hearing (wondering where it is coming from), but then am already being treated to the next, delicate exhilarations, a spectator….. fascinating, always, but not exactly conducive to a sound and refreshing sleep. And with this hectically busy new term coming into exam season, I really could do with a good night’s kip.
So it was goodbye internet for a while (could that be it? Somehow absorbing the elements from the fragments of all the people that are travelling along the wires?); no more music – only myself on the piano; more solid, somehow, and self-containing. Just work, which I am prioritizing for a while, and novels (curiously, I also became partially anosmic due to a cold and could hardly smell anything; yet rather than worrying about impending death, I actually found this non-smell cocoon strangely soothing at the time, as it suited my general sense of retreat: yes the world is infinitely more boring when viewed from an odourless perspective, but it is also quiet).
I decided to go back to reading. Novels. How lovely to lock out the noise for a while and surrender oneself to another one’s words. I have been reading the novels of Junichiro Tanizaki, one of Japan’s pre-eminent twentieth century literary masters. Kagi – The Key; Chijin No Ai – A Fool For Love, or Naomi, and Tade Kuu Mushi – Some Prefer Nettles, entanglements of male and female desire, perverse pleasures, and brilliant analyses of the inherent tensions between traditional Japanese culture and the ‘encroachment’ of western imported cultural norms – Naomi (1924) in particular quite lavishly entertaining – a manipulative fleshpot who drives her older husband quite mad with desire in quasi-Lolita fashion; a Pygmalion gone wrong, if you like, but quite ravishing in its understated but quite vivid sensuality, even in English translation. Naomi’s smell, in particular – she is a slovenly, creature, never washing her garments; merely stuffing them in drawers when she is through with them, closets full of summer kimonos that are entrenched with the scent of her body, and later, western perfume, that seem to actuallly permeate the walls of the house where the cuckholded husband breathes her absently in, tortured; the animal scent of her kisses and breath enrapturing the air as she tantalizes him by blowing kisses but refusing to go any further until he relents to her demands (she has surreptiously daubed perfume near her lips, confusing him into paroxyms of erotic exasperation). Smell suffuses the book like waves from a dream, and the entire novel, in truth, was one of the best that I have ever read. It was, quite simply, a delight.
My nocturnal Starlight FM distractions have mercifully subsided a little as a result during this ‘quiet period’, although last night I must say that did dream, in one sequence, that I came across an amazing cache of perfumes, both new, unknown, and rare vintage (they do say that dreams are all about wish-fulfillment) and though asleep, I was physically smelling them (this must have been what the creator of the beautiful Ma Griffe by Carven, Jean Carles, did when inventing his masterpiece; like Beethoven and his deafness, the perfumer had entirely lost his smell by the time he made Ma Griffe). In my own dream, one in particular, Caron’s Pois De Senteurs De Chez Moi, in extrait, smelled utterly gorgeous and alive, even though I am not sure that I know the original very well. There is no doubt though, that in that subconscious state, the smell of the perfume, as I slowly took off the lid, was at least as beautiful as it would have been in reality.
Dreams of perfume. What does it all mean? Oneiric smellscapes. Smelling with the brain, not the nose. Could this be what happens in the Islamic paradise after death, when the gates of heaven open and the faithful are overwhelmed by the beautiful odours of maidens and flowers? Could it be that the loss of our sense of smell in old age is like some pre-mortal tease : a black and white Dorothy traversing a desolate and barren Kansas landscape in The Wizard Of Oz looking for home? Do we emerge, when the moment has passed, into some glorious technicolour dreamworld of flowers and heavenly scent after the colourless paucity of the pre-stage has been passed through, the odourless countdown that is just a prelude to unimaginable sensory pleasure?
The other article on smell that caught my eye these last couple of weeks was a quite mindbending study on the link between natural body odour and personal philosophy (“Smelling liberal, thinking conservative”, from October 4th) that claimed, according to a study conducted recently by social scientists at Harvard, that you can literally sniff out a person of similar political persuasion. Using the standard procedure of swabbing and absorbing a part of one’s natural body scent with some smell-absorbent material for twenty four hours, the smell keys to our political affiliations were sealed in jars, the people participating in the study asked to rate each sample on a scale of attractiveness (this kind of test is of course often used in experiments connected to sexual allure and fertility). This time, however, the researchers were of course evaluating political attractions, but, astoundingly, the majority of people did select partners whose basic political viewpoints matched their own, revulsion at particular smell samples and their corresponding ideologies here being not only corporal and instinctive, but also cerebral. This I found quite fascinating. That the smell we exude naturally should have such a profound effect on our aura, that our thoughts come out as smells, that the odour we give off so greatly affects how we are perceived by others; that friendship and sexual relationships can be literally based on ‘chemistry’……of all this speaks volumes about the sheer voluptuous bounty of the reeking, cellular make-up of this thing we call human life.
Which makes its annihilation all the more tragic. Smell is life, and life is smell. Could there possibly be a world that follows afterwards, if we do go on as spirits, or will all this be lost forever in the blinding, celestial light? Or might we somewhere, in the vestiges of our brain stems, still remember – the past, our loves, those smells: the beautiful, and heartrending, memory of scent?