Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Smells of the Time

by Jean Roberta

Here is the description of a historical novel that I picked up several years ago from the ever-changing pile of used books in the hallway of the English Department. All of us who teach there leave our leftovers out for anyone to take.

Perfume, the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (Random House, 2001).

In the slums of 18th-century Paris a baby is born and abandoned, passed over to monks as a charity case. But the monks can find no one to care for the child-he is too demanding, and he doesn't smell the way a baby should smell. In fact, he has no scent at all. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille clings to life with an iron will, growing into a dark and sinister young man who, although he has no scent of his own, possesses an incomparable sense of smell. Never having known human kindness, Grenouille lives only to decipher the odors around him, the complex swirl of smells-ashes and leather, rancid cheese and fresh-baked bread-that is Paris. He apprentices himself to a perfumer, and quickly masters the ancient art of mixing flowers, herbs, and oils. Then one day he catches a faint whiff of something so exquisite he is determined to capture it. Obsessed, Grenouille follows the scent until he locates its source-a beautiful young virgin on the brink of womanhood. As his demented quest to create the "ultimate perfume" leads him to murder, we are caught up in a rising storm of terror until his final triumph explodes in all of its horrifying consequences. Told with dazzling narrative brilliance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of unnatural passion and sensual depravity.

I was not impressed that, as usual, the supposedly fascinating anti-hero finds a reason to kill young women. What did they expect, smelling like flowers in a time and a place where that was certainly not the norm?

I put the dog-eared paperback in the hallway again, and it disappeared soon afterward. The book itself had been circulating long enough to acquire a faint smell.

Beau Brummel, a real-life English dandy of about the same period, apparently bragged that he didn’t have to wear perfume, like everyone else at the Court of King George, because he bathed every day. He was considered a fanatic.

This all brings me to my own history. I wasn’t alive in the 1700s, but nonetheless, I remember an Age of Smell. All the adults I knew were smokers, and the smell of stale smoke permeated their clothes and their houses, including the ones where I lived with my parents. In a time when most houses had bathtubs but no showers, I was expected to take a bath once a week. That was probably enough for me before I reached puberty, but I had the impression that adults didn’t see a need to bathe more often than that. After all, they had aftershave, perfume, various skin and hair products to mask their body odor. All this stuff mixed into a complicated aroma.

Apparently no one was allergic to anything in the 1950s and 60s. Little bottles of cologne were popular holiday and birthday gifts even for girls, and all the women I knew trailed sweet (usually cloying) smells behind them.

I felt somewhat like the speaker of the following poem by a popular American poet with a name that sounded like a joke, William Carlos Williams. (He died in 1963.)


Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors
for something less unlovely? What girl will care
for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways?
Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?
Must you have a part in everything?

Well, duh. Noses smell because it’s their job.

By the time I came out as a lesbian in the 1980s, the smell of the masses seemed to have receded. When apartment-hunting, I noticed that washrooms in newer buildings often contained utilitarian showers, but no bathtubs. It seemed as if there had been a quiet revolution in cleanliness. Even relatively poor, single adults had the means to shower every day, and my first woman lover was shocked that I didn’t. I smelled the coffee, so to speak, and joined the trend.

I was delighted to learn that pussy (or cunt, snatch, whatever word seemed both acceptable and sexy in the moment) always has a certain bouquet, even when its owner is squeaky-clean. Arousal intensifies the scent.

Maybe it’s because I came from an era when I couldn’t afford to be too sensitive to the smells of other bodies that I never smelled a pussy I didn’t like. I did notice, however, that no two smelled exactly alike.

Xena, as I’ll call her, had the most unusual smell and taste of any woman I had met so far. She tasted sweet, and the scent between her legs was like a preview of the dessert to come. Her body, at least, seemed healthy and innocent, even though she drank like a fish and had an alarming temper.

When she left me for a woman I had introduced her to, I felt both disappointed and humiliated. Under those feelings, like a subtle smell, I felt relief and hope, as though I had been spared to enjoy my own (and my young daughter’s) company until I could find someone more compatible with us both.

Years later, I read that body fluids that smell and taste sweet are a bad sign, much like sweetness in tofu that has been left out of the fridge too long. (It’s made from beans. They’re not supposed to smell like fruit.) The sweetness I smelled and tasted inside Xena was probably the sign of a blood sugar imbalance.

Yoy. While too many of the gay men I knew were picking up HIV in the 1980s, the dykes were suffering the consequences of uncontrolled drinking: weight gain, diabetes, serious injuries (in some cases, death) from vehicle accidents on ice in a prairie winter.

I’ve heard that Xena is still alive in another town, though I haven’t seen her for years. I hope her health is good, especially since it would now be completely inappropriate for me to check out her most intimate smell, knowing more than I did when we were an item.

It’s probably just as well that I enjoyed any womanly smell that wasn’t downright rancid.


  1. "Perfume" was a wonderful atmospherical book. Suskind managed to put us there, in the 18th century. They made a movie of it too, and it was almost as good as the book, something not always the case.

    I remember slow-dancing with girls back in the 50's and early 60's. Their hair spray would stick their hair to my cheek. At the time, that was what we thought of as sexy. Then the 60's developed into something far from the 50's. Yesssss...

  2. I suppose it's for the best that my stepson isn't growing up with as many Bohemian scents as he might have known had he been born several years earlier. No clove cigarette smoke wafting through the air while I click away on the keyboard (back when keyboards still clicked). The Left Bank version of the house was before his time. Ah well. Sic transit gloria mundi.

  3. It's interesting how people in different eras adapt to different levels of personal hygiene. In times when everybody smelled strongly of sweat, etc., and chamber pots were emptied into the street gutters, well, that's just the way it was. Ladies might carry pomander balls (oranges studded with cloves) to hold to their noses when among the underclass, but even the ladies weren't likely to bathe often. In Connie Willis's time-travel work The Domesday Book, the prospective time-traveller to, I think, the 14th century was warned that the hardest part to face would be the smell.

    1. There were also "vinagrettes", little openwork metal boxes, (silver or gold for the best) a piece of vinegar-soaked felt inside to cover objectionable body odors. Historically in some cultures, baths were considered unhealthy.

  4. I was a little kid back in the 50s and 60s, I had forgotten until you mentioned it but, yes tobacco smoke in all it's variations was every where. In fact it was considered courteous to immediately offer an ashtray to a guest when they visited. I especially liked the smell of pipe tobacco in the can. I had forgotten we didn't bathe all that much and there was never any mention of allergies. I think even as technology progresses we are as a species becoming more vulnerable and poorly adapted without all our special gadgets. If we lost our grid and internet we'd be almost helpless now.

  5. Hmm. We always bathed pretty regularly, as I remember,though maybe not as often as I shower now. I don't recall body odor being something I was aware of.

    Tobacco smoke, yes. Both my parents were smokers when I was growing up.

    As for allergies and such, I've read that today's kids are much more susceptible to both allergies and disease, possibly because their environment has become so sanitized that they don't have any opportunity to develop resistance.

    1. I remember body odor being a big concern of mine as a teen, so I showered pretty much every day. I worried about bad breath, underarms, ass crack and feet. My father had a pair of cheese feet, making us quite aware of funky smells as a turn-off.

      Never be tempted to spray one's crotch with Right Guard! YEOW!

      Some lessons we only have to learn once.

  6. Thanks for commenting, all. I’ve considered the possibility that growing up in a sanitary environment has made the youngest generation vulnerable to bugs their bodies don’t recognize. As a teacher, however, I’m grateful that no one in my classes seems to have body odour any more. Anonymous, the smells of yesteryear would be easy to rediscover if you just avoid washing for a few days. :(

  7. Really interesting post! As someone with an extremely sense of smell, I’m interested in the premise of the perfume book, though I’m sad it ends up with murder.

    I once had occasion to spend time with Appalachian trail thru-hikers, and I thought I’d die from the smell of them. But they seemed to be used to it. I honestly wondered how it was possible for them to hook up with each other (which they certainly did), because I thought I’d never be able to be close to another human in that condition. But I suspect there may actually have been something freeing about it...

  8. Sensitivity to various things certainly varies. Imagine our distant ancestors having sex!

  9. It's funny how scents can trigger memories, and sometimes other things can trigger memories of scents. When I was a teen ager Saturday night was bath time, and my turn always coincided with when my dad in the living room was watching Saturday Night Boxing on tv, sponsored by Gillete. For years the Gilette theme song--"To look smart/a-a-nd Feel smart too..."--immediately made me smell the warm soapy aura of a bathroom (a tub with shower) where a series of baths have been taken. That song would probably still do it, but I don't think they use it any more, or if they do it's not on any tv show I'd be likely to be watching.


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