Anthropology of fragrance
The six tapestries entitled The Lady and the Unicorn [La Dame à la licorne] were woven with silk and wool around 1500. The theme of these late gothic allegorical depictions, stored at the National Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris, is human senses. The sense of smell is symbolized here by flowers: sniffed by a monkey, woven in a wreath by a lady and filling the basket, which the maid is holding. The flowers are supposed to remind the viewer of their mortality. Flower petals wither and fall, their fragrance is short-lived. What is more, the representation of fragrance enhances the status of nature and does not demand human invention.
|The Lady and the Unicorn also called the Tapestry Cycle is the title of a series of six Flemish tapestries depicting the senses, Wikimedia, public domain|
Unlike the representation of the sense of sight, whose attribute is a mirror, or the sense of hearing, where the lady is playing the portative. The presence of the monkey depicting the sense of smell on the tapestry — European iconography does not count the monkey among creatures elevated by God — draws our attention to how this sense belongs to the category of lower senses.
The six tapestries from the National Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris confirm the hierarchy present in the Western culture, in which the senses of sight and hearing are higher senses (intellectual, abstract), whereas the senses of smell, touch and taste are classified as the lower (animal) senses. In the hierarchy of senses, ancient philosophers — to name but a few, like Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Diogenes of Apollonia — placed smell right behind sight and hearing. In their opinion, these senses provide information about the world with greater speed and directly refer to the heart of the matter. Plato, in Timaeus, directly says that sight is the “cause of the greatest benefit”, because it allows one to see stars, the sun and sky, to watch day and night, to create the concept of time and, consequently, to examine the nature of the universe. It was through sight that philosophy was born, “and the greater good mortal kin neither received nor will receive as a gift from the gods”. The same applies to hearing, which “is given to us because of harmony”, counteracting the states of soul deprived of measure and grace. The relevance of this hierarchy is beyond any doubt, especially if we consider the statement of visual culture researchers legitimate, according to which modern life takes place on screens. At the same time, it is difficult to tell unambiguously whether the domination of sight and hearing over other senses is a product of culture in which intellectual cognition literally “gains the upper hand” over sensory cognition or whether it is the natural disposition of man.
|The sense of smell: a man lying in bed smells flowers as another lights some incense, above, a priest stands before a burning sacrifice of a lamb. Engraving after G. Collaert, Wikimedia, public domain|
As the contemporary olfactologist Paolo Pelosi states, it is with the use of sight that we receive the most precise information about the external world:
“We create visual maps that allow us to find the way, recognize people and places, and make decisions. Our emotions are largely stimulated by visual and auditory sensations; our memories are visual, just like dreams. When we describe a place, a house, a street, a scene, we use pictures because they contain the greatest amount of information”.
A human being does not need the sense of smell to survive and reproduce. Its loss (anosmia) does not bring such dramatic consequences in everyday functioning as loss of sight. It is different in the case of animals: “from the simplest organisms to mammals, from insects to fish, life of most species depends on the efficiency of the olfactory system”. It is related to the brain structure, which in animals is more focused on the processing of smell sensations.
Olfactology is a relatively new branch of science. It was at the beginning of the 20th century when, together with the discoveries in organic chemistry, chemists turned their attention to molecules that we perceive as fragrances. It was the research in olfactology which showed that a human being processes smell stimuli differently than other sensory impressions.
“Vision, hearing, touch, taste and kinaesthetics are processed at the apex of the brainstem in the thalamus, where sensory information is integrated and then transmitted to the anterior cortex. Conscious thoughts appear in the reciprocal circulation between the cortex, where the sensory data is stored, and the thalamus. Smell takes a different path.”.
The sense of smell is directly connected with emotions and memory, which the olfactory cortex, overlapping with the limbic system, is responsible for. Inside the limbic system, the amygdala instinctively instigates, among others, the fear reaction, while the hippocampus integrates short-term memories. From these centres, information is passed to the thalamus and the anterior cortex (responsible for conscious thoughts); only then does it “connect with emotions and memories, and later with cognition”. The visual memory is not usually accompanied by an explosion of emotions. It is different with smell memory.
“Our smell associations are generally highly individualised. If we do not have strong shared collective memories related to a fragrance, our associations can be completely individual. Therefore, a human’s memory often works in contradiction to communication.”
When speaking of fragrances, and thus communicating our feeling of a fragrance to someone, we use the metaphorical phrase “it smells like...”. Therefore, in the olfactory reality, we must use descriptions and memories, because fragrances — at least in European languages — do not have their names (as opposed to colours).
In the Polish language, the very word “smell” constitutes a problem, appearing neutral but unfortunately every time demanding specification (e.g. “pleasant smell”) and having its negative equivalent, which is the word “stench”. In the modern Polish language, the word odór is rarely used. Borrowed from Latin (odor), it has been deprived of its lexical ambiguity and today it means “unpleasant odours”. For example, in the English language the word odour is used (in the United States — odor), which means both “smell” and “stench”, but also a bit more: body odour is “the smell of sweat (of a human body)”, whereas the odour of sanctity is the “aura of holiness”.
Smell was — and probably still is — marginalised in research because of the emotional potential, the tendency to cross borders, as well as its deep subjectivity. According to Alfred Gell, the olfactory world remains so subjective and unstable because fragrance creates a “secret language” that functions between impression and symbol. What is more, modern societies demand distance from emotions; social structures and divisions are constructed as objective and rational (not emotional), while the boundaries that each of us sets out demand respect. Smell is not conducive to this type of categorization, mainly because it operates on a semi-conscious or even subconscious level.
|The making of lily perfume, fragment from the decoration of a tomb, Wikimedia, public domain|
Perfumes are the answer to these fears. It was already in ancient Egypt that fragrant substances were used to mask unpleasant odours or act as gifts for the gods. The very word “perfume” comes from the expression per fumum and directly refers to the activity of incensing, burning or the vaporisation of incense (related to vapours, that is — according to the old Polish language — an attack of depression or hysteria). In many cultures, it was believed that perfumes have healing properties which are able to separate healthy from diseased people (the stench of decomposing dead bodies). Perfumes also allow the creation of an ideal olfactory image of society. Today, stereotypical residents of the United States can be recognized by a fragrance that gives the impression of freshness. It is the smell of the body immediately after stepping out from the shower. The situation is different in Japan, where perfumes are not accepted with the exception of brothels.
Every year, our fragrance space is increased by 200 perfumes, created on the basis of 50 to 250 ingredients. The use of perfume has not changed significantly since the renaissance period in Italy, when it was flourishing. According to Avery Gilbert, this practice involves improving specific cognitive skills, to be precise: learning about new thought categories and matching fragrances to them. “To become a fragrance designer, you do not have to be able to smell like them; it is enough to think like one of them”. A special example of such thinking is Christine Nagel, the first female perfume creator in the luxurious Paris-based Hermès fashion house, founded in 1857. Christine Nagel, when designing perfumes, combines touch with fragrance impressions. In an interview for “L’Officiel Hommes” she says:
“When I touched Doblis, a velvet-like calfskin, a story appeared in my head. I got goose bumps! And then I heard someone talking about fleur, "flower", i.e. the smooth side of the skin (i.e. the opposite of goose bumps). This word echoed in my thoughts: flower, skin... Marry a rose to skin.”
In this case, the creation of a new fragrance connects or marries impressions perceived by various senses following the principle of free combination of associations. It is no different in the case of perfume bottles. The Smell of Luxury collection, presenting antique bottles (as well as other nursing devices) from the collections of the Sosenki Family indicates the multi-sensory aspect of the olfactory experience. When speaking of luxury, we do not mean only an expensive object that facilitates or enhances life.
|Krzysztof Lubieniecki, The Sense of Smell, Wikimedia, public domain|
The word “luxury” refers to light (from Latin lux), which makes things visible. And going further: it is because of the bottle that volatile perfumes become visible and obtain their objective representation. There is also another meaning of the word “luxury” (from Latin luxus), referring to what is displaced, shifted, dislocated. In this sense, the experience of the fragrance of luxury would be a spatial experience. Therefore, it is not surprising that Oliver Polge, Chanel’s main perfumer, when describing new toilet waters, refers to the experience of specific spaces:
“When I am smelling Deauville, Biarritz or Venice [meaning toilet waters created by him], I travel in my imagination. Not necessarily to these specific places. Deauville is juicy and woody, the city lies by the sea and is surrounded by greenery, so you can smell bitter, herbal notes in the composition. While Biarritz tells a story about the power of the sea. There is orange, grapefruit, but also lilies of the valley, which, in this juxtaposition, give a specific, ozone accent like the air after a storm. The scent of Biarritz brings to mind freshness. Venice is very ambiguous and has warmth to it. This scent has an urban character. I added irises and a delightful cedar extract to it. Associating the fragrance with a specific place is good exercise for the brain. What about emotions? I hope that the new toilet waters will evoke them; they do not have to tell about them”.
An olfactory experience, arranged in such a way, engages all the senses. In this sense, the fragrance does not follow the hierarchies set by philosophers, and by triggering our emotions and memories can turn out to be a threat for a rationally-minded society. Smelling means touching the skin, seeing the past, hearing the sounds of the city, learning the taste of sweat. In other words, it is to cross boundaries.
Maciej Topolski – translator, essayist, poet. PhD student at the Faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Former editor of niedoczytania.pl (2009–2011). He prepared a selection of poems by Adam Wiedemann Domy schadzek [Houses of trysts] (Poznań 2012). He published a volume of poems at the end they are going (na koniec idą) (Łódź 2017), for which he was nominated for the Gdynia Literary Award. He lives in Kraków.
 C. Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1999, p. 154.
 See also Han Baltussen, Ancient philosophers on the sense of smell [in:] Smell and the Ancient Senses, ed Mark Bradley, Routledge, London-New York 2015, p. 30.
 Plato, Timaeus, transl. Władysław Witwicki, Kęty 2002, pp. 45-46.
 Cf. Nicholas Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture, London-New York 1999. A special example confirming this domination was an April Fool’s joke by Google which announced the introduction of the Google Nose platform in 2008. Its fragrance base was to contain over 15 million scent data (nosobits), from camomile through a bonfire to the Egyptian tomb. This application was to help photons to combine with infrasounds and encourage molecules to emulate the small sensation. Then, it would have been enough to get close to the screen to sense the smell searched for in the browser.
 Paolo Pelosi, On the scent. A journey through the science of smell, Oxford University of Press, New York 2016, p. 4.
 Laura Marks, The logic of the fragrance, transl. Maciej Topolski, „Opcje 1.1” 29–30/2017, access at: http://opcje.net.pl/laura-marks-logika-zapachu/ (date of access: 4.06.2018).
 More about fragrance memory: Donald A. Wilson, Richard J. Stevenson, Odor Memory, [in:] ibid., Learning to Smell: Olfactory Perception from Neurobiology to Behavior, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2006, pp. 188-242.
 Alfred Gell, Magic, Perfume, Dream ...[in:] The Smell Culture Reader, ed. Jim Drobnick, Berg Publishers, Oxford 2006, p. 401.
 Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Smell in Everyday Life, Crown Publishers, New York 2008, p. 19.
 Lionel Paillès, Surface of the skin, “L’Officiel Hommes Polska” 1/2018, p. 113.
 With Oliver Polg, Chanel's nose,interviewed by Joanna Lorynowicz, “Vogue Polska” 4/2018, p. 89.