SMELL & DEATH

 

 

Skull 1988, printed 1990 by Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

21 Comments

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21 responses to “SMELL & DEATH

  1. ninakane1

    Beautiful to read this Neil. You are wise to take time off the internet and allow yourself space to ground yourself in the physical world away from technology. I have had similar periods off and it’s a huge delight and relief when you suddenly find yourself concentrating on a book, or being with the people in the immediate physical vicinity. And enjoying events without feeling the imperative to share it instantly online with 600 people! It’s one of the reasons i don’t have a mobile – something that exasperates, intrigues and puzzles most people around me and i’m always treated like i’m some luddite or weirdo, but i still stand by the fact that human beings should be able to navigate themselves through life without having a little plastic and chrome machine attached to them! We’re not robots yet – and in fact never will be! The thing is with all the technology is that we’re like young children with it in developmental terms – it’s all so new really – all feeling our way with it – even the people who make it! The internet is a wonderful tool, but it is a huge psychic conductor and for someone as perceptive, intuitive and emotionally at the surface and open and engaging as you, there are bound to be times when the overload of information and vibes is too chaotic abd messy. And smell – perfume- is linked to sensing life and surviving – it’s about navigation through life, which is presumably why they’re discovering that people close to death lose their sense of smell. I think sound is the last sense to go. It’s interesting that you didn’t smell things as strongly on your technology break. That sounds like a really healthy rebalancing to me. Like your senses had been in overdrive from excessive outside influences demanding survival mechanisms and now were able to reorientate themselves and find their own space. Sensory detox! Anyway, this is a lovely piece to read. Xx

    • Thanks Nina.

      I know you also take breaks from the screen sometimes as well, and funnily enough, I actually LOST my iPhone in Tokyo on Saturday night. It will be a huge expense to replace it, but I wonder if I did it subconsciously deliberately?

      As I have said before, sometimes it gets cut off because I haven’t paid the bill, but I almost always find that I prefer not having it anyway and it takes me weeks to get round to paying for it again. Then I find myself delighted to have access to all the ‘information’, and to being able to take nice pictures, and fill it with music, and know that Duncan can contact me if need be (we panic now about not being able to reach people instantly, but in the past, up until 2000 we somehow managed, didn’t we?

      I think also, there is the whole idea of ‘evaluation’. I mean, I am constantly being watched and judged by the students, who will have to do their bi-yearly evaluation of my abilities quite soon (funny: I swear I can remember it was the other way round in England); Facebook is a literal evaluation with the ridiculously simplistic and playground brutality of ‘likes’, that you can count your worth on, and even writing on here is all about stats and who comments. Sometimes I just want to be invisible, lie in front of my DELIRIOUSLY wonderful private cinema screen, and soak up somebody else.

  2. ninakane1

    Also – on dreams of perfume- i had a strange one just before i woke up that i was at someone’s house and she was selling off her things to go abroad ir away somewhere. There were these bright blue woolly gloves and then next to them, this gorgeous, huge, curvy perfume bottle with a brown and cream Box – looked very 40s – called ‘House of New York’. Then i woke up!

    • I love dreams like that. I have quite similar ones; treasure troves of discarded bric-a-brac and flea markets or more likely antique shops. I dream about finding rare records a lot as well; unheard of 12″ mixes and the like, but perfume usually remains the most thrilling.

      • emmawoolf

        I think you dream of what you love. In your case, perfume. To my knowledge, I have never had a perfume dream, even though it fills my daydreams and regular mindwanderings. But I always have musical dreams and if when I wake during the night, a tune is inevitably there. Trying to remove it from my brain plays a large part in the insomnia that follows. Lovely post, N, and good to have you back x

  3. Your piece brings up a lot of really interesting themes. Will muse and scrivee further de plus tard xx

    • It was a bit of a mess, really, because I was just going in circles without trying to tidy it up, but both articles I found very stimulating to the imagination. The idea that we can smell politics is especially fascinating to me.

  4. What a beautiful piece. Just reminded once again, of Hesse’s Beim Schlafengehen, which ends : und die Seele unbewacht, will in freien Flügen schweben, um im Zauberkreis der Nacht, tief und tausendfach zu leben.

  5. emmawoolf

    Thank you for this, N. Replying to you now x

  6. The fire (love) that consumes and turns all to ash is perfume (per fumem). Here’s a poem by Hafiz for your delectation. Missed you!

    I
    have
    learned
    so much from God
    that I can no longer
    call
    myself

    a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
    a Buddhist, a Jew.

    The Truth has shared so much of itself
    with me

    that I can no longer call myself
    a man, a woman, an angel,

    or even pure
    Soul.

    Love has
    befriended Hafiz so completely

    it has turned to ash
    and freed
    Me

    of very concept and image
    my mind has ever known.

  7. Nancysg

    Ginza, I have been thinking of you recently, hoping that all was well. And missing your thoughts, views and comments. Happy to see you back with these intriguing observations. With scent being such a strong memory vehicle, perhaps the loss of smell signals a radical change in our bodies and mind.

  8. David

    Japan is the best place to go on a social media fast. All those old school and unwired places like kissaten and stationery shops and shotengai. God, I miss it!… I was thinking about how Facebook saved me during the weeks after the 2011 earthquake. It was the only place to get updated info on the blackouts, the reduced train schedules, the embassy alerts. I do still chuckle that something called a “newsfeed” has photos of my acquaintances’ cats and lunch…. I was also thinking about Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. I loved getting lost in that novel.
    When I get overwhelmed it’s time to listen to Fleetwood Mac, watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. I discovered a body oil by the Brazilian cosmetic company Natura called Seve that just takes me to peaceful place.
    Missed you when you were gone!

    • That’s nice of you to say.

      Actually, I wrote all about the earthquake once on here and it was indeed Facebook that saved the day. Without it I would have gone completely nuts. It was a literal lifeline.

      But sometimes my neural hard drive simply can’t absorb it all on a daily basis, and I agree that all those old Japanese places are the perfect antidote. Do you know Ginza Kissa in Ebisu? The most amazingly retro cafe with cherry velvet velours chairs, and on Saturday night they were playing rock and roll records and there was a really dreamy, Lynchian vibe that both me and the D sank very happily into. I think ultimately that is the state I like being in the most. The hard steel of daily reality just doesn’t cut it.

  9. I am so pleased to see you writing agai; I do enjoy the vicarious pleasure of you postings, saves me from doing my own 😉
    This was such a wonderfully thought out and deep piece and it touched a chord in me. I sometimes feel very overwhelmed at this constant state we are living in of always being connected, I too remember when life existed sans cell phone and devices constantly alerting us to the happenings in the world. On the other hand, it is glorious to instantly be connecting with someone on the opposite side of the planet regularly.
    The novels you are describing sound glorious, Naomi in particular sounds lasciviously delicious.
    I am also intrigued by your presleep hardwiring to the cosmos. I never feel any connection such as that, so I find it fascinating. Maybe you truly are more emotionally open at that point in time and are able to experience the vibe that runs through the atmosphere. While being empathetic to a fault, I sometimes find it hard to feel truly connected with all the other souls on our planet. You should delve into that magical place a bit more and see what you discover.
    It is funny, I never feel I need-nor enjoy a break from scent. I adore smelling something lovely on myself at all times, even when I am under the weather and have diminished olfactory awareness. Just knowing the scent is on me helps me to feel better. Alas, while I was in Hong Kong, I found myself going out daily without fragrance and enjoying the smells around me. HK was rich in olfactory temptations and most places smelt just glorious…even the off smells were intriguing. I also found myself trying scents I would not usually entertain; By Terry fragrances, the Armani lux line, etc… They just felt so “perfect” for HK, whereas my vintage scents I brought along felt rather, well, matronly. Interesting how change of continent and country could do that to me.
    Well, I am happy to see you rejoin us here in the virtual universe, it does have its virtues.

    • It most certainly does. I mean like you, I love the connectedness, but I think if you are (luckily enough) to straddle both generations, the pre- and post- internet and to know both well, I think you sometimes yearn for the apparent simplicity of the former, in which I did, it has to be said, feel much more lonely at times. My mother is adamantly anti-internet; my father is on it all the time, but my mum basically finds all the minute-by-minute self exposure obscene and I sometimes instinctively have the same feeling – you suddenly want to seal yourself off like a hermit crab.

      As for the sleep thing, I don’t know if it is me with some joyful love of humanity and connecting with everybody or something filtering in (or just my brain coming up with nonsense), but I agree, it is quite intriguing. I do have a vaguely psychic element that I have not properly explored in myself, but I think it is that element in me that causes all the exhaustion. I don’t really have the outer psychological enamel that most people seem to have.

      I am fascinated by your Hong Kong story. Somehow it makes complete sense. I have been there once but would like to go back, but can definitely remember the pungent ripeness of the odours :all the bubbling vats of god knows what in the street and the humidity.Japan does that to you as well. A lot of perfumes that would seem quite normal to wear elsewhere feel quite outrageous here (which of course I love), whereas other things, say I were to wear Madame Rochas, would smell quite normal, as taxi drivers and men in their sixties all wear woody floral aldehydes, as that was the standard for their generation. Where our men had that Brut smell, the Japanese after shave colognes all smell like Infini or Madame Rochas, meaning that while I think I am being all transgressive and cool wearing my vintage Parisians, I in fact just smell like a run of the mill old man.

      Speaking of which: Naomi – YES. It is lascivious, but done in the most exquisitely subtle way imaginable. I recommend it highly.

      • I definitely think those of us who enjoyed life pre inter web and now have the ability to be able to exist without constantly being connected. I understand your mother’s feelings about constant minute by minute updates; it really is tedious hearing about some peoples minutiae, but there are some virtues there. I am also intrigued by folks, such as your father, who have really embraced the “connected” age.

        Now, why are you not exploring these psychic inklings of yours. I would love to have something like that. I feel spiritually connected at times, but never truly psychically connected. I would love to see where you could go with that.

        Ah, the smells, sights and sounds of Hong Kong, how I truly miss it. It really is such a magical place, I am sure Japan is even more so. I will hopefully plan a visit to Japan in the next year, I am so looking forward to experiencing Japan; I would also love to learn the language, guess that is a stretch goal. I find it interesting that men of a certain age there would have that fabulous “woody-floral” ambiance to them. Here in the states I am never aware of men really ever having much scent love, outside of a few who seem to worship Aqua de Gio, maybe a bit too much. But back in France, oh men do smell lovely and they would also have the aura of woody-florals and such. Well, I think it glorious to be able to splash on a bit of Mme Rochas and be in sync with the crowd. In the states here, as a rule, I am usually not n sync with the crowd. But then again, I am not in a very cosmopolitan area, it is much more rural where I am.
        Oh, I am definitely excited to make my way to Japan in the future, I will probably want to stay.

        I also have to look for Naomi and order a copy.

      • I look forward to meeting up with you!

        But doubt that you would necessarily want to stay. There is much to dislike, as I am sure you have gathered from the ranting and raving from me on here. Still, ultimately it is a place you have to experience at least once: there is a whole Japanese way of being that is utterly unique.

  10. Anything would be more interesting than suburban/rural New Hampshire in the states. But i guess i will be better able to decide after my initial visit, hopefully in the not too distant future. Plus, my great grandparents were Mongolian, so I already have a inherent fondness for all things Asian.

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