Literature and olfaction  

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"THE IDEA OF writing a book about the perception of odors came to me as I was reading the memoirs of Jean-Noel Halle, a member of the Societe Royale de Medecine under the ancien regime and the first incumbent of the chair of public hygiene established in Paris in 1794."--incipit The Foul and the Fragrant (1982) by Alain Corbin

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

This page traces instances of how olfaction and odors have been treated throughout the history of literature.



The sense of smell in literature has first been noted in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 4, the work of British sexologist Havelock Ellis in which he points to a study:

Throughout Zola's novels--and perhaps more especially in La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret--there is an extreme insistence on odors of every kind. Prof. Leopold Bernard wrote an elaborate study of this aspect of Zola's work [...] In the same way Nietzsche, in his writings, shows a marked sensibility, and especially antipathy, as regards odors, which has by some been regarded as an index to a real physical sensibility of abnormal keenness; according to Moebius, however, there was no reason for supposing this to be the case.Huysmans, who throughout his books reveals a very intense preoccupation with the exact shades of many kinds of sensory impressions, and an apparently abnormally keen sensibility to them, has shown a great interest in odors, more especially in an oft-quoted passage in A Rebours. The blind Milton of "Paradise Lost" (as the late Mr. Grant Allen once remarked to me), dwells much on scents; in this case it is doubtless to the blindness and not to any special organic predisposition that we must attribute this direction of sensory attention. Among our older English poets, also, Herrick displays a special interest in odors with a definite realization of their sexual attractiveness. Shelley, who was alive to so many of the unusual aesthetic aspects of things, often shows an enthusiastic delight in odors, more especially those of flowers. It may, indeed, be said that most poets--though to a less degree than those I have mentioned--devote a special attention to odors, and, since it has been possible to describe smell as the sense of imagination, this need not surprise us. That Shakespeare, for instance, ranked this sense very high indeed is shown by various passages in his works and notably by Sonnet LIV: "O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem?"--in which he implicitly places the attraction of odor on at least as high a level as that of vision."

In a more recent study, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Zola's obsession is further analyzed and Alain Corbin remarks that Zola's obsession with smell reflected the medical writings before the "sanitary reform around 1835 after the great cholera morbus epidemic."


There is Les Odeurs dans les romans de Zola (1889) by a certain Leopold Bernard which is a study of the odors and olfaction in the work of Zola with its apotheosis, the cheese symphony.

The Cheese Symphony is the name given to a passage in Le Ventre de Paris by Émile Zola.

The scene describes the odors of a cheese shop, featured below in a translation by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly:

"As the three women stood there, taking leave of each other, the odour of the cheeses seemed to become more pestilential than ever. It was a cacophony of smells, ranging from the heavily oppressive odour of the Dutch cheeses and the Gruyeres to the alkaline pungency of the Olivets. From the Cantal, the Cheshire, and the goats’ milk cheeses there seemed to come a deep breath like the sound of a bassoon, amidst which the sharp, sudden whiffs of the Neufchatels, the Troyes, and the Mont d’Ors contributed short, detached notes. And then the different odours appeared to mingle one with another, the reek of the Limbourgs, the Port Saluts, the Geromes, the Marolles, the Livarots, and the Pont l’Eveques uniting in one general, overpowering stench sufficient to provoke asphyxia. And yet it almost seemed as though it were not the cheeses but the vile words of Madame Lecoeur and Mademoiselle Saget that diffused this awful odour."

Original French:

"Elles restaient debout, se saluant, dans le bouquet final des fromages. Tous, à cette heure, donnaient à la fois. C'était une cacophonie de souffles infects, depuis les lourdeurs molles des pâtes cuites, du gruyère et du hollande, jusqu'aux pointes alcalines de l'olivet. Il y avait des ronflements sourds du cantal, du chester, des fromages de chèvre, pareils à un chant large de basse, sur lesquels se détachaient, en notes piquées, les petites fumées brusques des neufchâtel, des troyes et des mont-d'or. Puis les odeurs s'effaraient, roulaient les unes sur les autres, s'épaississaient des bouffées du port-salut, du limbourg, du géromé, du marolles, du livarot, du pont-l'évêque, peu à peu confondues, épanouies en une seule explosion de puanteurs. Cela s'épandait, se soutenait, au milieu du vibrement général, n'ayant plus de parfums distincts, d'un vertige continu de nausée et d'une force terrible d'asphyxie. Cependant, il semblait que c'étaient les paroles mauvaises de madame Lecoeur et de mademoiselle Saget qui puaient si fort."


Charles Baudelaire was obsessed with smell and olfaction, with odors, niffs, pongs and fragrances. That he was particularly fascinated by bad smells is evident in "Le Chien et le Flacon". It has been suggested that this is in line with the cult of ugliness which was fashionable at the time.

"Mon âme voltige sur les parfums comme l'âme des autres hommes voltige sur la musique" is a phrase attributed to Charles Baudelaire. The first time it appeared in print was in an article on Baudelaire by Théodore de Banville in the journal 'L'Artiste', published on the first of January 1868. Théophile Gautier cites it in his préface des Fleurs du Mal.

A translation is "My soul hovers over perfumes as the souls of other men hover over music!"

The sense of smell in the work of Baudelaire has already been noted in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 4, the work of British sexologist Havelock Ellis:

It is certain also that a great many neurasthenic people, and particularly those who are sexually neurasthenic, are peculiarly susceptible to olfactory influences. A number of eminent poets and novelists--especially, it would appear, in France--seem to be in this case. Baudelaire, of all great poets, has most persistently and most elaborately emphasized the imaginative and emotional significance of odor; the Fleurs du Mal and many of the Petits Poemes en Prose are, from this point of view, of great interest. There can be no doubt that in Baudelaire's own imaginative and emotional life the sense of smell played a highly important part; and that, in his own words, odor was to him what music is to others.

Baudelaire on connecting poetry with cooking and cosmetics

Que la poésie se rattache aux arts de la peinture, de la cuisine et du cosmétique par la possibilité d’exprimer toute sensation de suavité ou d’amertume, de béatitude ou d’horreur, par l’accouplement de tel substantif avec tel adjectif, analogue ou contraire. -- Baudelaire, projet de préface pour la seconde édition des Fleurs du Mal (1859),[1]
"That poetry is like the arts of painting, cooking, and cosmetics in its ability to express every sensation of sweetness or bitterness, of beatitude or horror, by coupling a certain noun with a certain adjective, in analogy or contrast" --translation by Marthiel Mathews, Jackson Mathews

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

In Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a 1985 novel by German writer Patrick Süskind, the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry is explored.


See also

thematic literary criticism, olfaction

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