An ode to smell
Smelle alone amongst the senses can Either destroye or quite remake a man.
– Jerome Cardan, De subtilitate rurum, 1550
When is the last time you stopped to think what your life smells like?
You probably are quite aware of how your surroundings look like, how the voices of your closest people sound like, what your favourite kind of coffee tastes like and how your softest sweater feels like on the skin. And why wouldn’t you? Our societies are built on aesthetics, acoustics, tastes and comfortable things. Since antiquity, smell and taste have been ranked as our most “animal” and “primitives” senses, whereas especially sight and hearing have been linked with beauty, civilisation and advancement. This isn’t hard to imagine, if we think about the nature of our most valued artistic masterpieces: they are all either something you can see or something you can hear. This, of course, has partly to do with the ephemeral characteristics of smell, but there still is a hierarchy there.
We rarely think about our fifth sense, even if it’s the only sense we can’t turn off unless we’re ill. We smell everytime we breathe. We know that smells profoundly impact our happiness, how we remember things and how we choose our partners. Smells are everywhere and constant. Why then, do we talk so little about them?
For one, it’s quite hard to actually describe a scent. There isn’t much vocabulary around smells and scents. Sure, you can say something smells sweet or earthy, but what about describing something more complex, like the way a person smells like? You have to attach smell to something real and tangible, otherwise it becomes too elusive to describe. Unlike the field of vision, in which we recognise three essential colours (electromagnetic wavelenghs), we don’t have specific, independent points of reference to describe odor. If we say “it smells sweet”, what we mean is that it smells like something which tastes sweet (1).
This isn’t to say that odor doesn’t have a place in our societies. Every culture has its own rules on scents: What should smell noticeably and what shouldn’t, who’s supposed to smell like what and what odor says about a person. One’s odor is a way to communicate with others.
With all this said, Helsinki Perfume Society is an invitation to think differently about smell. The main mission of this website is to encourage you, dear reader, to make sense of the world nose forward. Once we start paying attention to scent the same way we pay attention to say, vision, the world unravels itself in a whole other dimension.
(1) Low, Kelvin E. Y.. Scent and Scent-sibilities : Smell and Everyday Life Experiences, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.