Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Mute Sense

The first line I read when I picked up the New York Times on Wednesday morning, smack in the center of the Dining and Wine section, was in an article by Harold McGee.

"Last week I went to Stanford University to hear a lecture on the molecular biology of smell," he wrote, "and then drove home buzzing with thoughts about what it might mean for people who love to eat."

As I read, standing by my kitchen table in a pair of bright yellow slippers and an old white T-shirt, a dark knob of anxiety immediately began to throb in the pit of my stomach. An immediate, physical reaction to seeing 'smell' and 'eating' in the same sentence, I had to put the paper down and remember to breathe for a moment before I could look at the words again.

The article was not really about smell and its relationship to food—the subject which inspires such a visceral reaction—but was more of an introduction by the author to a column that will appear on occasion in the Dining section of the paper. McGee writes about the science of food and, is known for his book On Food and Cooking, and is highly revered in the culinary world (the Chef for whom I once worked would often say, “In the kitchen, McGee will change your life”).

But with the jolt of that first line, I realized how afraid I have been of knowing more about the effects of my loss of smell. It has been 16 months since I lost the majority of my sense of smell in a car accident and while it was easy to research the immediate effects at the time and write about the day-to-day of recovery ever since, it has become increasingly difficult to look at the long term.

For example, I have been "reading" Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, for over six months now. A narrative collection of essays and stories on the five senses, it has been constantly perched on the top of one of the mounds of books in my over-crowded room, 'always next' on the list to be fully tackled. It has accompanied me on many subway and train trips, tucked neatly into my bag with every intention of reading but hardly ever done. It even spent a night flapped open over my face when a late reading attempt brought sleep before I had a chance to either turn off the light or place the book to the side. It begins with a chapter on smell and each time I flipped it open I could feel lines of panic snaking up my legs, stomach, resting in the back of my throat. I always had to put the book down immediately.

The problem for me is that Ackerman writes beautifully and effectively about smell—in language laced simultaneously with poetry and science. She ties smell to pleasure, memory, language, literature, history, sex… all things so intrinsically bound to life. And reading about what I have lost makes it that much more real. If I don’t read the book or the chapter or the article, my subconscious tells me, perhaps I won’t have to face what may potentially be gone.

But after having such an adverse reaction to the Dining section of the paper, generally the best part of Wednesday morning, I decided that enough is enough. I can’t hide from it forever—especially since scent-related writing has been recently getting more attention. Chandler Burr was named the New York Times Perfume Critic; Patrick Suskind’s well-lauded novel Perfume, a book about a murder and a man with an inhuman sense of smell (lying unread, of course, on a pile of books in my room) is soon to come out as a movie; and in last Sunday’s Times Book section there was a review of Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent, a more scientific look at the theories of olfactory perception and the world of perfume makers. And so Wednesday night after work I sat myself down with Ackerman and fully made my way through the chapter on smell. It wasn’t very hard in the end—perhaps because my sense of smell has been consistently sloughing its way toward recovery (body odor at the gym! toasted almonds at thanksgiving dinner! sautéing garlic from three rooms over!) or, simply, that I have more faith in its future. Its return is a mysterious and interesting phenomenon—one intertwined with all that Ackerman writes of, a delicate reassertion of memory, language, and pleasure. And it’s one that I want to more fully understand.

It’s difficult to write about scent. As Ackerman says, it is the ‘mute’ sense—“…extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it.” Metaphor is ubiquitous—in The Secret of Scent (which arrived on my doorstep from the gods of amazon.com yesterday), for example, Luca Turin describes the scent of a perfume, Nombre Noir, as having the voice “of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated and faintly capricious.” And it’s very easy to fall into the chasm of noxious purple prose (“It seems possible that a good few potential readers of The Secret of Scent will send the book windmilling across the room as soon as they encounter Nombre Noir,” says the Times review on Turin’s description). But when done well, the description of a scent can be as transportive as the smell itself. In Swanns Way Proust describes a moment of his day:

I would turn to and fro between the prayer-desk and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like a pie the appetizing smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted, which the dewy and sunny freshness of the morning had already “raised” and started to “set,” puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into in invisible though not impalpable country cake, an immense puff-pastry, in which, barely waiting to savor the crustier, more delicate, more respectable, but also drier smells of the cupboard, the chest-of-drawers, and the patterned wall-paper I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to bury myself in the nondescript resinous, dull, indigestible, and fruity smell of the flowered quilt.

When I read that passage I am immediately there, lost in the scent of Proust’s words. I may have lost the ability to wholly experience my own world of smell. But, in coming to terms with the slow and unsure process of recovery, I’m happy to yet again be able to step into that of others.

1 comment:

Terry B said...

Another beautiful, honest, poignant, slightly scary post, Molly. Thank you for sharing so bravely and so eloquently. I'm very, very glad your sense of smell is beginning to return.