Nostalgia Series – Perfume and Proust

If blogs could have smells attached to them, this one would hit you with the smell of rain on dirt, petrichor as I have come to learn, it is called. For some, this petrichor scent might pinch their nose and pull them back to younger days when rain was a cue to call up one’s friends and gather at the football field. After all, rain and muddy fields only aid a select few sports, football being one of them. 

On the flip side, some others might think these mud football players are imbeciles, for all they want to do when it’s raining is to sit on the balcony with a warm cup of coffee, enjoying a book or a movie. 

But because an attachment format of ‘.whif’ hasn’t been invented yet, I’ll try to lure you into this exploration of smells with a little help from a poet, e.e. cummings. His poetry, specifically “The Rain is a Handsome Animal”, holds the potency to transfer one into a space that simply feels comfortable, much like smells from childhood that envelop us in a warm embrace.

The rain is a handsome animal 

Whereupon i seize a train and suddenly i am in Paris toward night,in Mai. Along the river trees are letting go scarcely and silently wisps,parcels of incense,which drop floatingly through a vista of talking moving people; timidly which caress hats and shoulders,wrists and dresses;which unspeakingly alight upon the laughter of men and children,girls and soldiers. In twilight these ridiculous and exquisite things descendingly move among the people,gently and imperishably. People are not sorry to be alive. People are not ashamed. People smile,moving gaily and irrevocably moving through twilight to The Gingerbread Fair. I am alive,I go along too,I slowly go up the vista among the hats and soIdiers,among the smiles and neckties,the kisses and old men,wrists and laughter. We all together irrevocably are moving,are moving slowly and gaily moving. Intricately the shoulders of us and our hats timidly are touched by a million absurd hinting things;by wisps and by women and by laughter and by forevenwhile, upon our minds,fasten beautifully and close the warm tentacles of evening. 

This poem might have transported you to a place where you have never been, but you’re glad to have found it, or maybe it reminded you of a train ride, or maybe even it didn’t do anything much for you, regardless, you’re a poem richer now.  

Sometimes, some things should be free of a strive for potential gain, some things should just be done solely to enjoy it. This poem is like one that was enjoyed and thus shared. In a similar vein, the concept of nostalgia isn’t beneficial to the human race who detect it most intensely.

Nostalgia is defined as a wistful desire, a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time in one’s life. 

Smells play an important role in evoking nostalgia being one of the first senses that a baby develops. It is the sense that helps babies establish familiarity with their mothers as they are usually born with a fully developed olfactory system. Thus oftentimes, just a baby’s nurturer’s scent is enough to calm it down during irritable spells. 

We might not realize why it is that the scent of your mom’s perfume makes you more nostalgic about your childhood than your mom incarnate (‘your mom’ has been used innocently in a sentence, get your mind out of the gutter). 

Interestingly, the reason humans aren’t rife with this realization- as is evident when 2Pac sings “we’ll have a race of babies, that will hate the ladies that make the babies”- is: as a result of the road human evolution took, the sense of sight evolved to be a stronger sense than their olfactory senses. 

As humans evolved to walk upright and become bipedal, vision became a crucial sense for spatial awareness and navigation. They also developed as diurnal – active during daytime – creatures whose reliance on vision became a primary survival tactic, because sunlight aided vision. Due to certain other factors, humans decided that they’d much rather look and find out rather than smell and find out, effing around and finding out was unprecedented and uncalled for. 

As a result, vision became the dominant sense in humans. On the other hand, as a by-product of a different evolutionary road- the road not taken by humans- dogs are blessed with a heightened sense of smell that allows them to detect and distinguish between a wildly wider variety of scents. 

Ironically, vision became humankind’s Achilles Heel, a weakness in spite of all of its strength. Blindness is thus one of the most life-threatening sensory losses that affects humans. 

The sense of smell, however, in comparison to vision, seems too basic, but some would argue otherwise and call it based

While it is true that the sense that lets us smell roses isn’t exactly as important for survival as the sense that lets us stare down at our impending doom – sight; lacking an understanding of how sweet roses smell would leave us numb to the impending doom because we would then have nothing to salvage from the brink of damnation.

Olfaction brings, quite literally, a flavour to life because the tongue can distinguish only among five distinct qualities of taste, while the nose can distinguish among hundreds of substances, even in minute quantities. 

During the Covid 19 pandemic, a primary symptom of Covid 19, was the loss of the sense of smell and taste. It has been documented to have negatively affected the mental health of a lot of the victims, who not only fought with the abyss that lack of social interaction pushed them into during an isolating pandemic but also had to deal with another sacrifice of the rich human experience which was the diminution of the sense of smell and taste. 

It is intriguing to discover that the connection between olfaction and memory is stronger than any other of the five senses. This phenomenal attribute of the sense of smell wherein powerful and involuntary memories are triggered by certain smells is referred to as the “Proustian Effect”, named thus after the French writer Marcel Proust. 

In his novel, “In Search Of Lost Time” (translated from the French “À la recherche du temps perdu”)  the narrator dips a madeleine cookie into tea and the aroma and taste of the madeleine instantly transports him back to deep childhood memories which had been long forgotten or ignored. This literary example has frequently been studied in psychology and neuroscience to unveil how intricately smell is intertwined with personal memories and can serve as a time capsule preserving memories associated with an emotion, a place or people from the past. 

The reason for this intricate interlacing of smells and memories is found in the unique relationship between the olfactory system and the brain’s limbic system – that is the part of the brain associated with emotion and memory. Unlike smell, most other senses like vision aren’t directly connected to the brain’s emotional centres and thus don’t evoke as strong and vivid memories as olfaction. 

One such tasteful glance into this dynamic nexus of scents and memories is presented in the movie Ratatouille when the stern, obnoxious Anton Ego takes his first bite of Linguini and Remy’s ratatouille. Ego’s pupils dilate and he melts into a profound but forgotten childhood memory of his where his mother, having cooked him a delicious ratatouille after he had had a sad day, left him crying at the dinner table. 

That scene wherein the nostalgic character arch renders Anton Ego a changed man is reminiscent of a delicate poem by P.B. Shelly, especially in its last two lines. 

If nostalgia had to be expressed through a poem, this one would certainly be on the list of poems that do so impeccably well:

Music, when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory—

Odours, when sweet violets sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,

Are heaped for the belovèd’s bed;

And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,

Love itself shall slumber on.

Unlike this poem, very few poems, movies or books explore the magic hidden in scents. However, the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Süskind, introduces the main protagonist of the movie with the line “His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille whose ambition was restricted to a domain that leaves no trace in history: To the fleeting realm of scent.”. 

With that line, the stage is set for Grenouille, who has a superior olfactory sense, to dialogue exclusively in the realm of fragrances. Set in Paris in the 1700s which was overcrowded, dark, unhealthy, and had little light, air, or drinking water, the movie strikes a balance between the smells of the sewer-ridden streets of France which is paradoxically also the birthplace of modern perfumery. 

A perfume is built on mixing 12 notes- 12 different essences. Grenouille was dead set to reimagine a scent that he had smelled which was slowly ebbing away from his mind. With his smelling prowess, he could make a perfume strong enough to transport anyone who smells it into a state of euphoria, into a state of wonderful nostalgia.  

Deplorably, the only thing that enthralled Grenouille enough were the seraphic trains of scent left by beautiful women, but ways to immortalize a living being’s scent hadn’t been invented yet; so heinous ways he developed. 

With the precious perfume he created, he could yield the invincible power to command the love of mankind, when to his dismay he found, that nobody loved him or could love him like he could love just the scent of certain things. He realised that he didn’t have a smell of his own in a world where everything had a very distinguishable scent, an effortless identity of its own. And he’d fall into oblivion – a nobody.

The movie and, even firmly, the book, forces one to take in the elaborate world of scents around them. It is very unique in its approach and exploration of the topic of scents along with being a poignant glance into the human psyche which is terrified to do things only for the sake of doing things. 

Humans are afraid of doing futile things without a set goal in mind, and in the race to reach a goal, they barely ever sit and smell the roses. The sense of smell in comparison to all the five senses might be termed a solely aesthetic sense, without a vital purpose, thus the lack of it doesn’t kill a human like blindness can. 

It is a cheeky trick of human evolution that in itself might not be very pivotal but without it, life would lose its rich flavour and a bland life would slowly become unlivable. There are a few things that sustain life and then there are things that sustain the desire to sustain life and the sense of smell closely linked with another seemingly useless human ability to be nostalgic gives one the desire to not only sustain but stay alive.  

It is as Mr Keating in Dead Poet Society says:

“Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Lastly, it is characteristic of humans to overlook particular details ergo you might find the poems and movie references in this train of thought futile. However, so long as the ‘.whif’ format isn’t invented, these recommendations in the form of references are what add melody and flavour to this piece, much like scents to one’s life.


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