Ideas and Issues

January 16, 2021

Pearl River     How can anyone resist reading a book about the sense of smell? Ok, maybe it’s easier for some than others, but these days somehow it hit a nerve when I read about it, so away to Kindle I went. As it happens, the publisher reached out about whether I would be interested in interviewing the author, Robert Muchembled, a former professor at the University of Paris, now solidly in the 347 New York City area code. Heck, I’d already read the book, so let’s go, and so we finally found ourselves on Wade’s World now talking about his research that produced Smells: A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times. To be honest, much of the smells’ backstory is French, since that was the professor’s bailiwick, and originally, I had thought it was a cultural history of modern times, like now, rather than “early modern,” but whatever, it’s a fascinating collection of tidbits and insights that were contrary to how we think now about smell, making it worth the climb from start to finish.

Smell is not “biologically programmed,” but culturally acquired. In fact, it takes children between 5 and 8 years to “construct disgust at their own excrement.” There’s a sobering thought, but something many of us who are parents have seen firsthand. We have four hundred olfactory receptors and according to a study from Rockefeller University cited by Muchembled, “humans are capable of discriminating over a trillion smells.” Not me, mind you, but some of the species, it seems.

There was time in France where dung and urine were stored outside various workshops and “pointed to the owner’s prosperity.” In fact, “until as late as 1901, barrels were left at major crossroads to ‘harvest’ urine from passers-by and local workmen.” Raise your eyebrows if you may, but I read recently in one of our major newspapers that there were thoughts of harvesting urine for other purposes now in our post-modern world as well.

Periods of plague, just as in our current pandemic, forced changes in the way smells were understood. The precautions for plagues, recommended hundreds of years ago without the understanding of air-borne virus, as we know it now, were remarkably similar, even if more crudely fashioned. The mask was a beak looking affair that held various mixtures to change the smell. People were clothed from head to toe. Social distancing and air circulation were seen as critical. It all sounds familiar. Time and plagues also led to a transition from using animal essences to attract the fairer sex to perfumes and powders becoming more floral as women embraced the new regime of smells.

I could go on, but you see what I mean, it’s a smelly world, then and now, and an ever surprising one.