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Aroma begins with an idea that pulled me up short: Smell is a cultural, hence a social and historical, phenomenon.

Have a good sniff

Aroma begins with an idea that pulled me up short:

“Smell is not simply a biological and psychological phenomenon … Smell is cultural, hence a social and historical phenomenon. Odours are invested with cultural values and employed by societies as a means of a model for definiting and interacting with the world. The intimate, emotionally charged nature of the olfactory experience ensures that such value-coded odours are interiorized by members of society in a deeply personal way.” (p. 3)

I like to think I’m pretty well switched on to the nature of cultural constructs, yet I’d never really thought about how my reaction to a “good” or a “bad” smell might have only a small biological component.

The first part of Aroma consists of a survey of the ancient history of smell, which contains some great tales, if lacking in an overall theme to tie it altogether. And indeed from this it is obvious that some elements of the sense of smell are probably biological, since we and the ancients shared many reactions of distaste, although Aroma never explores this fact. (There are some examples on my blog post here.

“Modern” Western ideas of appropriate smells for various classes of people developed only relatively recently, however, as the next section of the book explores. During the Renaissance strong scents of animal origin, including musk, civet and ambergris, were popular, but by the late 18th century these were consider too strong, too beastly. (Although the Empress Josephine bucked the trend by adoring musk.) (p. 71-73)

The second half of the book takes first a ethnographic turn, skipping across Asia, Africa and South America, before going sociological about the last century in the West.

It was disappointing because I’d been expecting a clearer methodological and theoretical approach and it never came. Overall this is a collection of anecdotes about smell from all parts of the world, with the thesis that smell is as much a cultural as a biological construct, but it never gets beyond its parts to make a real whole. If it was an undergraduate essay you’d say the sources were under-digested.

Nonetheless, they are good anecdotes, e.g.

* Quechua, the language spoken by the Incas and still used in the Andes, had at least eight words for the act of smelling, including ones for “to smell a good odour”, “to smell a bad odour”, “for a group to smell something together”, “to let oneself be smelled,” “to come across a food odour”, a word that also meant “to inspire”. (That word is camaycuni, BTW.) Smell was obviously important to the culture. (p. 112)

* For the Dogon of Mali, onion is the loveliest fragrance. Young men and women fry the plant in butter and rub the result all over their bodies as a perfume. (p. 124)

* European languages still contain a value-judgement of women by scent. The Spanish puta and the French putain, both meaning whore, are derived from the Latin for putrid. (p. 162)

* Halitosis was an old almost obsolete medical term when recovered by some bright advertising spark in the 1920s. Its succession in advertising Listerine mouthwash – company profits from $100,000 in 1920 to $4 million in 1927, led to the development of many other diseases, including “homotosis”, the lack of attractive home furnishings, and “accelerator toe”. (No it doesn’t explain what that was, and Google couldn’t help.) (p. 183-4)

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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