The Curious Language of Olfaction
'We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form; beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness........'
(T.S.Eliot; The Dry Salvages)
Whilst writing the texts which accompany a range of smell training kits I became increasingly aware of the bias we have in using visual metaphors. On many occasions I wanted to use the ‘word’ – olfact – in place of vision – since we so often speak of having a vision for the future of a topic – but when it comes to aromas and smells and olfaction – surely we should speak of an – ‘olfact’ in place of vision.
The ‘olfact’ dilemma is in addition to the ‘normal’ problem we have in describing the smell of a place or a person or a new smelly molecule. Unlike sound or colour we have no easy objective way of describing the experience. We simply use the expedient of saying that something smells ..like the sea; or a rose; or a roasting pig. OK-ish if you have experience of any of these; utterly without meaning otherwise.
Some of the new purely synthetic aroma chemicals in contemporary perfumery do not occur in nature and sometimes have abstract but beautiful scents which are difficult to relate to any natural object. We really have no words to describe them and you must sniff them and feel the rush of emotion – otherwise you cannot capture the experience in our language.
In a way; smell is a language entire onto itself!
‘What bait do you use,’ said a Saint to the Devil,
‘When you fish where the souls of men abound?’
‘Well, for special tastes,’ said the King of Evil,
‘Gold and Fame are the best I’ve found.’
‘But for common use?’ asked the Saint. ’Ah then,’
Said the Demon ‘I angle for Man, not men,
And a thing I hate
Is to change my bait,
So I fish with a woman the whole year round’.
(John Boyle O’Reilly, 1844-1890
(Perhaps a hint of pheromones; women; and fish? – the Kiotech story)
Said a foolish young lady of Wales:
‘A smell of escaped gas prevails.’
Then she searched with a light,
And later that night,
Was collected in several pails.
(a relaxing morning at the house of Hesse in the Napa Valley; where you can discuss the
aroma notes with the wine masters)
BUT A MARGIN
The difference between
Butter and Margarine
Is the distant connection
Between love and affection.
If this be error and upon me proved
I cannot taste, nor no man ever loved.
(An anonymous writer in the Evening Standard’s
(do the experiment – the big difference is in
the taste – which really means aroma)
And thus they parted, each by separate doors;
Baba led Juan onward room by room
Through glittering galleries, and o’er marble floors,
Till a gigantic portal through the gloom.
Haughty and huge, along the distance lowers;
And wafted far arose a rich perfume:
It seemed as though they came upon a shrine,
For all was vast, still, fragrant and divine.
(Lord Byron; 1788-1824; Don Juan LXXXV)