October 15, 2011

What's that smell?

There is no scent in cyberspace. But then isn’t its sterility its appeal? Its retreat
from the loam and volatility of real life? Scent is stubbornly non-negotiable.

There are few if any aromas that repel an animal. Everything incites curiosity.
Analysis. Evaluation. Dogs prefer their food a tad rank. Wild horses roll around
in wildflowers to pick up their fragrance. Jungle cats mark their territory with a
pungent spritz and nobody is offended. Few things are more transporting than the
aroma of some savory dish simmering delectably on a stove. I'll walk by the
local rib shack, smell the aroma of mesquite in the air, and damn near have to
suppress a howl. Yet the odor of the slightest trace of this morning’s fried eggs
in an unwashed frying pan is intolerable. What is it, exactly, that threatens and
oppresses me? My refusal to share my space with an unacceptable olfactory
presence is near absolute. One of us must go.

I suspect I’m more tolerant than most. I like fragrance. I’ve followed women
enveloped in a cloud of Shalimar down a grocery store aisle. I enjoy the
cuminesque aroma of a male in a stale T-shirt. A whiff of fresh tobacco smoke
from a sidewalk cafe. Wet cement after a rain. And the usual popular
assortment of fresh-cut lawn, gasoline, jasmine in bloom, sizzling bacon, sun-
dried linen, are all appealing. Yet the fragrance of a bank of alyssum, so
redolent to me of a fetid baby powder, is difficult for me to inhale twice.

This olfactory territorialism seems distinctively human... culminating in such
things as the fragrance-free office, a step beyond the expectations of normal
hygiene, wherein the deliberate and complete preclusion of an important
sensory faculty makes coexistence possible. We’ll tolerate, perhaps even enjoy,
an ugly face. A grating voice. And all the gossip, trivia, and boring pedantry
that is thrown at us. But a whiff of a day-old sock, or the wrong perfume, sends
us running for olfactory cover. We don’t even like to talk about how things
smell. It’s gauche. It’s beneath us.

Shamans of old could accurately diagnose what was ailing you by smelling your
stool. Dogs can be trained to sniff out cancer cells. But the ascendancy of sight,
and secondarily hearing, in the migration of human beings away from olfactory
input is striking. I suspect that this has to do with aroma’s singular intimacy,
and its subliminally perceived consequences. These are not abstract photons or
sound waves, sharing a range on an ethereal electromagnetic spectrum, but
carnal molecules, physical bodies, that lodge in the moist intimacy of our nasal
passages. Nobody gets a cold from seeing a sneeze, or hearing one. There is
both clear and present danger, and vivid delight, in this most primal of sensory
gateways to the world around us. It has the power to allure, or repel, or suspend
us in tantalizing ambivalence. What’s that smell?