One of the real tests of writers is how well they write about smells. If they can’t describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?
_____________________________________ ___________ —Diane Ackerman
For your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out.
_________________________________________________—Song of Solomon
WE WERE WALKING in Central Park freshman year of college when my friend Rebeca discovered that I could not smell.
“What is that?” she said, crinkling her nose, “Do you smell that?”
And I had to admit that, no, I could not smell it—I could not smell anything. I was born without any ability to detect scent.
Most people, when they find out that I have no olfactory sense, ask whether I am able to taste. (To this I reply, as honestly as possible, “I think I can.”) But I remember that Rebeca was more interested in the link between smell and sexual attraction—a connection that no one had ever mentioned to me before, perhaps out of tact.
She couldn’t imagine being aroused without a sense of smell. A person’s particular scent, Rebeca said, was one of the major factors in fueling her desire. She told me about pheromones—the olfactory signals that animals release to attract a potential mate—and how researchers believe that human romance might also depend on this mysterious evolutionary language, unconsciously communicated through the sense of smell.
“How will you ever fall in love?” Rebeca asked, lending voice and scientific reason to my biggest fear.
She was kidding, I’m sure, but I was horrified.
At that point in my life, I had never been in a relationship, had never been on a real date. Even my obligatory youthful crushes, my few dalliances with unrequited love, were tame and half-hearted, lacking the force of true passion, not nearly as angst-ridden or all-consuming as I was sure they were supposed to be. I’d never considered the possibility that my lack of a sense of smell might be the cause. If so, my failed love life was predestined, and there was nothing I could do to improve it. My useless nose suddenly seemed to explain everything.
Of our five senses, smell is the most superfluous, the most dispensable. At least, that’s what people tell me.
I tend to forget this fact about myself—my inability to smell—until someone calls attention to it, until someone holds up a fragrant or pungent object and instructs me to sniff. It’s only during these moments of disconnect, when some mysterious scent is affecting everyone in the room—permeating the air or lurking behind the walls or maybe, God forbid, emanating from my own clothes—that I become aware of my particular abnormality. Most of the time, I don’t think about it at all.
But isn’t this how most of us view the world? Our own sensory perception is normal, our point of view unremarkable, until someone tells us otherwise.
The clinical term is congenital anosmia—the absence of a sense of smell from birth—but I only learned this recently. Before writing this essay, the need to diagnose myself had never even crossed my mind.
That I spent thirty years unable to smell yet never bothered to learn the medical name for my own condition seems ridiculous to me now, almost shameful—a radical failure of curiosity, a pathetic lack of interest in the workings of my own body. But this casual acceptance, bordering on indifference, is common. The number of people with congenital anosmia isn’t statistically known, because most of us have never reported it to a doctor. It hardly seems worth mentioning.
And I feel silly, in a way, even mentioning it now. When I think about the myriad, complex, terrifying ways that our bodies can malfunction, the inability to smell strikes me as insignificant. But to people who once had a normal olfactory sense and have suddenly lost it (which can occur due to a head injury, exposure to toxic chemicals, or radiation treatment), the experience of anosmia is not insignificant at all. It is traumatic and life-altering.
As I read Bonnie Blodgett’s Remembering Smell, a memoir of her sudden anosmia, I am shocked by the intensity of her despair. The loss of her fifth sense triggers an existential crisis which she describes as nothing less than hell itself. Without the ability to smell, Blodgett writes, all of life suddenly appears “flat and featureless.” She can no longer find pleasure in food or wine or gardening; she fears that she will never again desire her husband, fears that even her creativity has vanished. Doctors consider losing the sense of smell to be “even more crippling and more threatening than the loss of a leg.” In almost all cases, anosmia leads to some degree of depression, and occasionally even to suicide.
Surely this can’t be true, I tell myself. How can the inability to smell—which I did not even consider an important enough aspect of my identity to learn its name—affect others so deeply, to the point that life no longer seems worth living? Does that mean that the quality of my own existence, the amount of joy that I am able to experience, is exponentially less than it could be? Just as I used to fear never falling in love, I now fear that my perception of the world might be “flat and featureless,” that I’ve failed to recognize its paucity because I’ve never known the difference.
When I was young and a burgeoning insomniac, I kept myself awake at night in terror that the house was filling with carbon monoxide that I could not detect. Later, someone told me that carbon monoxide is odorless: “That’s why we have carbon monoxide detectors. What you should be worried about is a gas leak.”
Now, I do sometimes wake up paranoid about an unnoticed gas leak. Also, I have an obnoxious habit of refusing to pour milk into my coffee until I have forced my husband to sniff it, every single morning. Other than these few minor disruptions, though, my anosmia (it feels so official, now that I have learned the word) has little impact on my daily life.
Some people, when they discover my deficiency, even wonder aloud if it might be preferable, this moving through the world without the burden of smelling it. They joke about how it would help make certain scatological realities—of marriage; of dog-ownership; of motherhood, when it comes—more bearable. They weigh the pros and cons: dead squirrels in an attic versus a grandmother’s pot roast; never experiencing the stench of a skunk, but never experiencing the scent of freshly baked cookies. You can enjoy New York City more fully without a sense of smell, I’ve been told, but you miss out on the joy of the ocean, the whiff of salt in the air.
Which is worth more, I wonder: avoiding disgust, or missing out on delight?
Certain writers are commonly praised for their vivid evocations of smell: Faulkner for his bizarre synesthetic metaphors; Rushdie for his protagonist’s superhuman nose; Whitman for his evocation of America’s sensual diversity.
But I was baffled when, in one particular litany of best smell-related literature, I discovered my own favorite writer named among the olfactory masters. Apparently, I had been misreading my favorite book for years. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping—a novel I have reread more than any other book on my shelf, memorizing favorite lines and insisting on reciting aloud certain passages to anyone who will listen—was cited as containing in its opening chapter some of the most evocative language about smell in contemporary literature. I had no idea.
Now that I know to look for it, I am shocked by how obvious and necessary smell is in this chapter, ashamed that I could have missed it. The smell of the lake evokes the memory of those who have drowned, and this scent of grief, of loss, now seems to be a key to the entire book—a book that I thought I understood better than any other. The persistence of more quotidian smells—of “cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon,” the routine smells of “breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time”—competes with the scent of the grief-filled wind, insisting on the necessity of staying attuned to the present-day sensory reality, despite the haunting scent of an ever-present past.
It’s sort of funny, now, to look through my worn copy of the novel: I have underlined and highlighted almost every sentence in that first chapter except those involving smell. I just couldn’t relate, I guess, so I overlooked their beauty.
That day in the park, when we were discussing love and smell, Rebeca wore a long electric-blue skirt that she had to lift when she stepped over puddles. What I mean is, she sometimes wore that long electric-blue skirt, and anytime I remember her, that is how she is dressed, in my mind. There are plenty of other details about that day, too, that I cannot be sure of, because I am plagued with a vague and unreliable memory, something especially problematic for a writer. What time of year was it? Were we crunching autumn-colored leaves under our feet or basking in the first shock of spring? Was it really Central Park? Just as likely, we had the conversation on a tourist-cluttered Greenwich Village sidewalk as we walked from Rebeca’s dorm to dinner. Memory and smell are closely linked, and I would probably have more confidence in my own memories if I knew what they smelled like.
When we talk about smell and memory, inevitably we talk about Proust’s madeleine. Even outside of literary circles, among casual readers who have never even pretended to tackle his six-volume novel, people speak of the “famous madeleine episode” as the prime example of a smell-triggered recollection. Every book I’ve read about the olfactory sense mentions Proust. Psychologists and scholars laud him as a genius for understanding the neuroscience behind olfactory memory long before the neuroscientists discovered it for themselves.
And yet—am I crazy?—Proust’s madeleine episode is not about smell. I have read the scene again and again, certain that I must be misreading it, but no: it is about taste. The narrator is offered some tea and a petite madeleine, and he is overcome with a shocking, unknown pleasure:
I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me…. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake.
For several pages, the narrator tries to understand the sensation, to dig for the “visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into [his] unconscious mind.” Then, finally, he figures it out:
[S]uddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece which on Sunday mornings at Combray…my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it.
Why do so many otherwise careful readers describe this scene as a smell-triggered memory, when it’s clearly caused by the madeleine’s taste? The smell of the madeleine is never mentioned. Smell itself isn’t mentioned until Proust unexpectedly links it with taste, musing afterward that “taste and smell alone [are] more fragile but more enduring” than all else in the recollected past.
Since I am the one lacking a fifth sense, though, I must be misreading—not literally misreading the words on the page, but the sensual reality they are meant to convey. Others who read this passage, I realize now, must automatically link the sensations of smell and taste—as Proust does with his “taste and smell alone” line, as confidently as if smell had been included in the preceding pages. For people with a normal sense of smell, there must be little difference between the two. The sensations are so naturally and unconsciously intertwined that reading a description of a madeleine’s taste immediately evokes its scent. No matter how rationally we know it, it’s surprising every time: our perceived reality is ours and ours only.
Whether Proust wrote about it or not, the connection between smell and memory is what I most envy—the possibility of unlocking the past with a sudden surprising scent. I hear about people walking into a stranger’s living room and suddenly recalling a mundane moment from childhood, a moment that had been forgotten and is suddenly, miraculously, alive. Those ordinary memories are the most precious because they are so personal—moments that have never been captured on camera or repeated in family lore, that live only in one’s own muddled mind. I wish I could discover more of them, lurking inside my brain, just waiting to be found.
On our morning walks, my dog is so overwhelmed by the bounty of smells that he can’t decide which direction to stick his nose first. The scents in the air and the scents under his paws are all equally enthralling, worthy of his utmost attention. This ecstatic delight returns each and every day, as if he has never smelled our neighborhood before. I am thrilled by my dog’s joy, and a little jealous. Even with the senses that I do possess, I rarely experience such blatant pleasure in the sensory world.
Sight: the ability to see—why do I not take full advantage of this miracle? Why do I not spend hours staring at the curve of a hill over a blue horizon, or the curve of a knuckle on my husband’s freckled hand, when I am able to do so?
My dog’s name is Gilbert—after the poet Jack Gilbert who writes, in a poem about his dead wife, that passion gives off a different odor than love. He is a black-and-white mutt whose markings resemble those of a cow. Toddlers, spotting Gilbert in the park, will point at him from their reclining strollers and confidently exclaim, “Moooo!”
A father of one of these toddlers once told me how impressed he was that his young son would draw this visual connection. “I can see it now—your dog does look just like a cow,” he said, gushing with paternal awe, “but I would never have been clever enough to come up with that on my own.”
Maybe it’s young children’s lack of education, their limited understanding and vocabulary, which allows them to perceive the world more creatively—to make connections that adults overlook.
As I write, I am sitting next to a tree—I don’t know what kind—the trunk of which is spotted with perfectly spaced black dots like a domino. Calling from one of its branches is a bird—I don’t know what kind—whose song sounds like the creaking whir of a camera after taking a picture. It would be more accurate to name this tree and this bird scientifically, but I prefer describing their mysterious resemblances. Maybe I only want to justify my ignorance, to excuse my laziness when it comes to research, but I tend to believe that poetry beats knowledge every time.
My husband will sometimes remark on a particular scent in the air, wonderful or awful, but if I ask him to describe it, he can’t—not in a way that I can understand. We are both writers; we believe in the power of words to bridge the gap between limited human perceptions—to make the mysterious concrete and, with the perfect word, make the unknowable felt in the body. But when it comes to smell, words are meaningless. It’s nearly impossible to explain what something smells like without comparing it to another smell.
This lack of vocabulary, writes poet Diane Ackerman, is one of the reasons that smells are so powerful; the impossibility of describing odors “gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without name, a sacredness.”
If scent evokes an unexplainable, unnamable mystery for those who can smell, shouldn’t my own further distance—my even greater lack of understanding—only enhance its sacred quality? But, no. You have to know what it is to smell, I guess, and know the difficulty of putting it into words, in order to sense the magic.
This description of smell—a mysterious distance, an unnamable power, a sacredness which cannot be described—sounds to me a lot like God. At least, that’s the way I think about God now: that holiness is a mystery, that mystery itself is holy.
When I was young, though, such intangibility was disappointing. I wanted to experience God, to feel his presence in my body, the way other people claimed to. I wanted to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” as the Psalmist says, but I didn’t know how. In church, people spoke of seeing clear visions, hearing an unmistakable voice. Nothing like this ever happened to me, even though I tried really hard. My sense of the divine was always hazier, impossible to pin down, just barely out of reach—and at the time, I didn’t like this mystery; I craved certainty.
The church I now attend puts more emphasis on metaphor, which suits me. Episcopalians don’t talk much about hearing God’s voice, but they talk a lot about Communion—the tasting of the bread and the wine. The liturgy each week reminds us to “do this in remembrance” of Christ—like Proust’s madeleine, in a way, linking memory to taste. I like this ritual, because even if I can’t see or hear God directly, I can taste actual bread and wine (at least, I think I can), and imagine the different ways that they can symbolize love.
Sometimes I’ll find myself at a church which burns incense during Communion. I watch the perfumed smoke curl around the altar, and I wonder what it smells like, what it is supposed to make me feel, whether it is supposed to smell like God. But I imagine that, whatever power the incense holds, it’s just as much of a mystery to those sitting in the pew next to me—those who can smell it but can’t explain its meaning in any sensible way, those who might think that the smell is bringing them closer to something sacred without knowing how or why.
So I enjoy watching priests swing their strange incense chains. It reminds me of how much we can’t understand and how we keep trying anyway, how we do what we can with whatever we have—with our limited perceptions, with whatever heightened or diminished senses we have at our disposal—to experience as much beauty as we can possibly squeeze out of the world.
People often ask me, when did I first realize that I had no sense of smell? A baffling question. I must have always known, and yet I’m constantly in the process of realizing it. My mother also cannot smell, and maybe she assumed from the beginning that I would take after her.
All of the women on my mother’s side of the family, in fact, either have no sense of smell or an extremely poor one. (Also, we all share an absurdly terrible sense of direction, often exclaiming in our very own neighborhood, blocks away from our own homes, “I have no idea where I am!” Perhaps this navigational confusion, this tendency to feel lost even along the most familiar routes—rarely panicked, just amused—is related to our useless noses.)
Could an inability to smell cause someone to make an unwise decision, to mistake something as love which is not love? The women on my mother’s side of the family—all smart, kind, funny, and loyal—have also all divorced their first husbands. Could it be that their lack of a sense of smell led them all to choose the wrong mate—like a bad sense of direction, leading them to turn right when they should have turned left? This is an absurd question, right? I hope it is absurd. And yet, I can’t help but wonder.
I imagine it, sometimes: waking up one day to discover that my sense of smell has magically been restored. I imagine the pleasure, the sudden reality of the tiniest details, like George Bailey’s wild joy at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. The smell of cotton sheets! The smell of my favorite books! The smell of an approaching rainstorm! I hope that, discovering for the first time the scent of my husband in bed next to me, I would be thrilled by its particular perfection, its puzzle-piece harmony with the scent of my own skin. But what if I didn’t? What if I woke and realized, with my new sense of smell, that my attractions had changed, that I no longer loved my husband the way I thought I did? In that case, I’d rather remain in ignorance.
It’s been twelve years now since my conversation with Rebeca in Central Park (or wherever it was) and contrary to her predictions, I have fallen in love. Still, I wonder if I am doing it right—if I am loving passionately enough, as deeply as I should. Maybe we all wonder that, though. Whether we possess five senses or less, maybe we all secretly suspect that the tools we do have aren’t fully adequate when it comes to love—the giving and receiving of it.
Saint Paul says that all we see is nothing “but a poor reflection,” as if we are looking through a dark mirror. Our flawed bodies are never adequate, our own perceptions never enough to bridge the distance between two people, between ourselves and the abundance around us. There’s beauty in mystery, sure, but that doesn’t keep me from wishing I could know more fully. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” says the Psalmist, and I still want to. I wish I could see and taste and smell every ounce of the goodness of the world. But for all that I cannot perceive, I stand at a distance, in wonder.
Photograph above: “Day 34, from Lavacolla to Santiago de Compostela, 26.0 km: The Botafumiero,” by David Herwaldt, featured in Image issue 40.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.