Tag Archives: Olfactory Memory And Death

PATRICK SUSKIND’S PERFUME BECOMES A REALITY

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According to an article I read in the newspaper the other day, it seems that it will soon be possible, at a price, to bottle the scent of our loved ones. Our deceased, dead, loved ones.

A French fragrance company has  devised a way to steep their scent – from clothes, their pillows and sheets they have slept in – extract the unique smell; and capture that fragrance, peculiar to the person alone, in a perfume.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. We all know how searingly evocative smell (and perfume) can be in its associative power to bring a person momentarily back to life or make the absent present – and I of course understand perfectly how the poignant smell of an unwashed item of clothing, or a used and unlaundered pillow case could be heart-piercingly painful when inhaled in a moment of grief: the desire to thus keep that smell for as long as possible; the knowledge that this physical remnant of a person will inevitably fade. But yet: the idea of this very private odour being recreated in liquid form for bespoke, commercial purposes (a bottle of your loved one will go for around six hundred dollars) still strikes me as somewhat macabre. It is ethically sound? Would the departed person necessarily have wanted these private smells to be exposed to these strangers?

To me, the concept is mortifying. Perhaps to some extent, my uncomfortable reaction to the thought of being ‘bottled’ is the idea of wondering what particular smell that exists in this teeming mass of cells and bacteria I call my physical self would be ‘captured’ ( I admit that the idea sickens me). Do we, in fact, only have one odour? Could I bear to have that unadorned smell analyzed; reconstituted; and packaged by women and men in white coats?

The unpleasant fact remains, for instance, that my own bedtime pillow is never especially fragrant. You might even say that it stinks. We live in a very humid country, and especially in summer, when I sweat, and it dries, and I sweat, and it dries (I am allergic to air conditioning so it has to be au naturel, and I don’t have the time for daily washing) and Duncan really starts wrinkling his nose, would he then want a parfum de toilette of that stench bestowed upon him in the funeral lounge in the event of my demise as an extremely expensively scented memento (and what would it then be called? ‘Dog In A Swamp?’) The sour-sweat smell of a stressed-out day?; the smell of my bath robe; the sickly aura when I’ve had bronchitis?

The hero of Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume’, Grenouille, was obsessed to the point of complete insanity with the odour of a flame-haired maiden in Paris that he scented one fine day on the air, a smell that so possessed him and maddened him that he had no choice at all but to kill her. White skinned. Beautiful. A virgin. A young girl whose natural body scent so entranced him that he eventually, after abducting her, succeeded in immortalizing her in liquid by enfleuraging her murdered corpse in fat until she had exuded every last drop of her natural essence and he could wear it himself as an elixir; an extrait, a scent so disorientatingly beautiful that he was then consumed and torn to shreds by the crowd. She was an unblemished angel, however, and I fear, that my own enfleuraged natural odour would not quite be up to this level of exquisite, instinctive refinement.

If I could be bottled at my very best, say post-bath; dressed in clean cotton, no deodorant; a walk in the sun for a couple of hours – that smell maybe I wouldn’t mind so much and it would certainly be representative of something. I don’t hate my birthday suit smell in the right conditions, particularly when sun-kissed and happy; horny and free. But even if this particular smell, which certainly isn’t present all the time, were ‘perfected’, would this still really bring me back for people who wanted to remember me? Are we that simplistic?

It’s hard to know if this venture, about to become reality in September, reeks of true compassion or whether there is an element of exploitation: the commodification of something that perhaps we should take with us to the grave. Of ‘perfumes’, kept alive unnaturally, as haunting, and literal liquid ghosts. 

And while the idea of these ‘perfumes’ is fascinating (if somewhat sinister), and I do definitely want to know more about the project, as I can see very clearly that the possibility of even the smallest olfactory glimpse of a person you miss keenly and would do anything to bring back could bring solace in some ways to the bereaved in the darkest moments of despair, at the same time, looking at it in a different way, couldn’t the virtual presence of that person conjured in that way through smell also bring only more torment? The cruel semblance of their corporeal realness, taunting you in the dark?

Even if the true olfactive memory of this person you have lost were kept alive to some extent in its rawness, in its almost pitiable humanity (the smell of hair always makes me feel this way), would you really want that person, in any case, to be reduced, concentrated, to just one intimate, bodily, smell? Could this not, in fact disrupt, almost corrupt even, the complicated beauty of their memory?

For its complexity, its romance, its commingling with a person’s natural smell and spirit, its ability to ignite the heart’s passions when linked to anyone we have known and loved, I know I love perfume, and I am pretty sure that I myself would rather not have this strange, creepy new extraction process done to me (and I would sign a legal order saying the same). At my funeral viewing, if you happen to be present, there may be a selection of perfumes on display to peruse, mull over, and you can see if any of them do the trick. To see if I am brought to life even just slightly. If not, you can just  sigh along to Kate Bush.

You will not be given the opportunity, however, to inhale the smell of my socks; my earwax; or my suit.

Those smells, and others I will have accrued in the meantime, I will be taking with me.

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