‘Abscent’

~ THE YEAR WITHOUT SMELL ~

Memories are often triggered by real-world cues. Songs evolve into anthems for particular eras, and photographs act as visual timestamps. 2020 is a time where, contained in our homes, we are probably accruing an extensive catalogue of music and films that, in retrospect, will define this year. The feel of pyjamas against our skin and the taste of comfort food will also likely become central to our experience of being housebound. But what about scent?

The human nose has the capacity to distinguish upward of 1 trillion different smells, however, it could be argued that 2020 is a year where scent is absent. Due to COVID-19 hundreds of thousands of people have suffered anosmia (loss of smell) and/or parosmia (distorted smells). Those lucky enough to avoid the deadly virus still have masks to contend with, which stifle local scents. On top of this, closed borders and grounded flights remind us that new adventures, and thus new smells, are currently beyond our reach. I started to consider what we miss, by losing scent, and why our rather lacklustre smellscapes have gone somewhat unnoticed. 

Of all the senses—unless you are a perfumer, chef or sommelier—smell is often overlooked. A pecking order for the senses, established long ago, sees scent pushed to the periphery. Aristotle claimed that seeing and hearing were superior because these are only senses we can distance ourselves from, allowing objective thought. The remaining senses he considered more subjective, leading to self-indulgence. Plato favoured sight, linking it to intelligence and the ‘eye of the soul’. Da Vinci and Galileo agreed. Scent does, however, have Michel de Montaigne on its side, who dedicates a whole essay to smell (although at one point he does consent that it’s better to be free from smell than to smell at all).

Smell is also the biological outlier, processed in a separate part of the brain to the other four senses, which reside together in the thalamus—the gateway to consciousness. Olfactory detections are relayed to an area called the amygdala which is responsible for storing and sorting emotion and memory. Encounters of the nose are translated by feelings, rather than thoughts, an explanation why many of us have a unique relationship to smell compared with the other senses. It also elucidates why smell functions like a tripwire for involuntary memories. Scent is a Proustian archaeologist, exhuming a small piece from the remains of your former self, and attentively brushing off the dirt and dust. 

 “An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”

— Proust, In Search of Lost Time

A powerful trigger for me is freshly washed, still-damp linen (which, I assure you, smells different from dry linen). Memories of my mum, and my youth, cascade over me: she and I pushing the washing trolley—with the squeaky wheel—up the red brick path to the old Hills Hoist washing line, hidden behind a wall of ivy. The harsh Australian sun shining hot on my cheek and cooling it down by resting it against a damp bed sheet draped over the clothesline. My eyes squinting from the bright glare emanating from the sheet’s white flatness.

Due to life’s later experiences, a whiff of tequila will cause my hairs to stand on end while swiftly depositing me back to my twenties, slumped over on a stairwell, vomiting a river into a cooking pot. More pleasantly, the smell of one book will often remind me of a completely unrelated book; one whose pages flickered across my fingers years prior.

The company, Supersense, realised the nostalgia-inducing power of smell and marketed it. They describe their Smell Memory Kit as an “emotional snapshot”. It comprises a capsule, worn around your neck, containing an arbitrary human-made smell. When you are having a pleasant time, you break open the capsule and breathe in deeply. Now, whenever you revisit the capsule’s smell you will return, emotionally, to that pleasant time.

Not just for prompting memories, smell also helps induce hunger. Scent does for eating what foreplay accomplishes for sex. The waft of delicious food stimulates your appetite, making you salivate, before even glimpsing or sampling a meal. Put more romantically, smelling food is like the anticipation leading up to a first kiss. However, smell’s job doesn’t stop there, it continues to elevate the gustatory experience throughout eating—our nose is responsible for eighty percent of the flavours we taste. Our sniffer also offers assistance when involving things we shouldn’t eat, often seeing what the eyes do not, which is why I apply the whiff test to suspect items in my fridge (use by dates be damned!). 

Even during a pandemic, food is one comfort most can still enjoy. With fewer stimuli to excite us, the inability to smell (and taste) a delectable meal would be even more torturous than under normal circumstances. Imagine garnering no joy from food—your mouth, tongue and teeth simply going through the motions, jostling around non-contextual shapes of varying degrees of heat and texture, survival the only driving force.

Going through the motions has become a mainstay of our COVID-led existence. Cut off from the rest of the world, many of us have gravitated to posting old travel escapades on social media, from when we roamed freely across the globe. Limited to so few novel sights and sounds, old photographs and videos act as a balm for our lockdown-fatigued eyes and ears. Smell is harder to conjure up, and to share, which is a shame because it is the most effective sense in transporting us to another time or place. When I arrive in a new part of the world, the first unfamiliar sensation to greet me is scent. This novel smell flicks on some internal switch, alerting my other senses which scramble to keep up. My eyes and ears only see and hear familiar airport sights and sounds, and my body only recognises a climate similar to temperatures experienced in the past (all while the taste of stodgy aeroplane food still lingers on my tongue). But the redolence of a new destination is always unique. I long for that first wave of unacquainted city smells—aromas so complex you cannot translate them into words.

In her essay, Losing Smell, Shruti Swamy considers how few words exist for scents. She quotes Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses: “When we use words such as smoky, sulfurous, floral, fruity, sweet, we are describing words in terms of other things (smoke, sulfur, flowers, fruit, sugar).” Our language encourages us to consider smell less than the experiences of our eyes, ears, skin and mouth, where descriptive words are bountiful. Sometimes, however, particular scents are so special a neologism is required to capture them. The waft of dry earth that tickles your nose before rain falls is one such smell. The English word used to describe this is Petrichor. Coined in the sixties by two Australian scientists—petros, in Greek, means ‘stone’ and ichor, in Greek mythology, describes the ethereal blood that flows through the veins of the gods. More scientifically speaking, the name refers to an oil, trapped in rocks and soil, that gets released into the air before, and during, a downpour (so: ‘blood from a stone’).

As part of the English language, figurative expressions and idioms often employ the senses to create new meaning. When implemented in figurative language, a common theme running through taste, touch, sight, and hearing is of ‘understanding’—a conscious recognition (e.g. I see what you mean; I hear what you are saying; he’s in touch with the youth of today; she has great taste in art). But smell, when used colourfully in language, lends itself to intuition rather than consciousness. If you smell a rat or something smells fishy, you “detect or suspect (something) by means of instinct or intuition”. If you smell smoke, you sense trouble on the horizon. Or how about telling someone to stop and smell the roses? It’s a phrase telling you to stop thinking so much—trying to understand—and to start feeling. In this sense, smell reminds us to enjoy, or appreciate, what we commonly ignore.

The downtime which was thrust upon so many of us, at the onset of COVID, offered some a unique opportunity for reflection; for taking stock of what is important. But, other than a brief interlude to ‘smell the roses’, we have mostly been plagued by a range of encumbering emotions: fear, isolation, uncertainty, boredom. Considering scent is the most evocative of the senses, for reliving previous-felt emotions, perhaps an absence of smell in 2020 is actually a blessing in disguise? Because what you don’t smell cannot remind you. When we can breathe in freely again, I’m sure the world will smell all the more sweet.