The Æsthetic Value of the Sense of Smell
THE olfactory nerve of man is known to be a mere relic of what, on the evolution theory, it must once have been. As use strengthens and disuse weakens an organ or tissue, and as in course of time civilized man has relied less and less on the sense of smell, it is no wonder that we now find many inferior beings in the possession of a much more acute faculty of scent than we ourselves enjoy. Some animals can detect the approach of a foe at an immense distance, and everybody is familiar with the illustration of the dog, that will track his master’s footsteps through forest, field, and city. To the dog this world is perhaps not so much an aggregate of sights and sounds as of smells, to such an extent does he use his nose for purposes of recognition and discrimination ; and Mr. Wallace has even advanced the theory that a dog taken away from home in a closed conveyance finds his way back by a remembered train of smells. Savages, also, who have to rely more on their senses than we do, often display remarkable powers of scent. It has been proved by repeated experiments that Indians and negroes can recognize persons in the dark by their odor, and tell what race they belong to. The case of Julia Brace, a deaf and blind mute in the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, shows that this power may be regained by the Caucasian, when it is needed. This girl “ knew all her acquaintances by the odor of their hands. She was employed in assorting the clothes of the pupils after they came from the wash, and could distinguish those of each friend.”
Now the question arises whether it is desirable that we all should have as delicate olfactory nerves as this girl, and be generally more sensitive to the odorous condition of the surrounding atmosphere than we now are. There is no special need of adding to the purely physical acuteness of the sense of smell, for, notwithstanding its present rudimentary condition, it is even now the most delicate of all our senses. Every school-boy knows that a single grain of musk is sufficient to perfume a room for years; and Bernstein says that “ no chemical reaction can detect such minute particles of substances as those which we perceive by the sense of smell; and even spectrum analysis, which can recognize the fifteen millionth of a grain, is far surpassed in delicacy by our organ of smell.” We know, moreover, that by increasing the physical acuteness of this sense we would not add to its practical utility in enabling us to avoid what is offensive and injurious to our organism. “ The sense of smell is of extremely slight service, if any, even to the dark-colored races of men, in whom it is much more highly developed than in the white and civilized races. Nevertheless, it does not warn them of danger nor guide them to their food; nor does it prevent the Esquimaux from sleeping in the most fetid atmosphere, nor many savages from eating half-putrid meat.”
Mr. Darwin, who points out these facts, does not attempt to account for them, as far as I am aware; and there is only one way of explaining them: although in these savages the physical acuteness of the sense is very high, the æsthetic sensibility is at the minimum, and accordingly they are indifferent to, or even enjoy, what otherwise must be highly repulsive to them. The savage loves the most glaring and discordant colors, the most hideous and unmusical sounds, for the same reason that he enjoys malodorous objects, — the want of æsthetic refinement of the senses in question. The average civilized man has learned to abhor discordant noises and inharmonious colors, but he has as yet no serious occasion for looking down on the savage for his indifference to noisome odors. A German writer says that the air towards morning in most modern bedrooms is no more fit to breathe than water in a cess-pool after a spring shower is fit to drink. In our parlors in winter the air is often little better. Of our school-houses it is stated by a competent authority that as a rule they are worse ventilated than the cotton and woolen factories. Great pains are taken to make the victuals which we eat three times a day in every respect acceptable to the palate, but few think of paying equal attention to the lung food, of which they consume about a pint with every breath. It is evident that if æsthetically refined noses were as common as good musical ears, these evils would be speedily remedied. Questions of taste are often more effective motives to action than hygienic considerations. Have it understood once that to live in a room filled with bad and malodorous air is vulgar, and a change in affairs will soon take place.
If there is any difficulty in realizing the full import of these views, it is because it is usually assumed that odors are entirely beyond the sphere of æsthetics. Psychologists and physiologists have so persistently and universally undervalued and misrepresented the sense of smell that men have come to feel almost ashamed of having it, and to regard it in very much the same light as the goats in Lessing’s fable did their beards. Nevertheless, supported by an occasional hint from the poets, who in such matters are usually in advance of philosophers, owing to their closer communion with nature, I shall endeavor to point out the real rank and dignity of natural perfumes, first by showing the variety and extent of the odor world and eliminating the non-æsthetic part, and then considering in succession the sensuous, emotional, and intellectual value of the remaining part, —these being the three necessary factors of every æsthetic analysis.
The variety of odors on our planet is practically infinite, and scent supplies us, perhaps, with more distinct and peculiar data than even the sense of sight. Several years ago Dr. Jäger, of Stuttgart, after a long series of experiments and observations, came to the conclusion that there are characteristic and distinctodors for every class of living beings, for every order and family, for every species, race, and variety, and finally for every individual. This result must seem marvelous to those who know the boundless wealth of the animal world. To illustrate this doctrine, let us take one or two cases at random. No one can fail to recognize the differences of the effluvia of fishes, reptiles, birds, and mammals, or to distinguish ruminants from carnivora. Subdividing still further, the canine is found to differ markedly from the feline species, as those could judge who attended last winter’s dog and cat shows. Moreover, a dog or horse fancier will tell you that it is easy enough to distinguish Bruno from Fido in the dark, or Bucephalus from Rosinante. That the same is true of human races and individuals we have already seen.
In the vegetable kingdom there seems at first sight to be less variety, because, according to Darwin, only those flowers have gay colors and fragrance which are fertilized, not by the wind, but by birds and insects. Where the flowers are devoid of fragrance the leaves, at least, crushed or dried, yield their peculiar odor. Many plants have a great variety of odors, — the root, bark, wood, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, and exudations being all distinguishable and sui generis. Whether an individual pansy or rose differs from other specimens of the same plant it will be impossible to say, until some one shall have invented an instrument that will do for the nose what the microscope does for the eye.
Inanimate objects, again, all have their characteristic simple or compound odors, although here the esoteric or organic individual differences disappear, leaving the class odors. One illustration will suffice. It is a curious fact, which I believe has never before been noticed, that newspapers and books differ in smell almost as widely as they do in style and contents. The New York Tribune, Times, Herald, World, and Graphic can be readily known in this way after a first trial, even by an ordinary nose. And those who are fond of paradoxes may reflect that many newspapers that are not in good odor are nevertheless quite fragrant. A little practice will enable a person to go to his library in the dark and pick out a certain book from a multitude of others on the same shelf. From a practical point of view, this is not a trifling matter. It is also comparatively easy to distinguish English and French from German books and newspapers. Printers may know why some books are remarkably fragrant, as, for instance, among those on my table, the 1864 edition of Gray’s Structural and Systematic Botany; and I never neglect to have a sniff at the Fortnightly Review before dipping into its interesting contents. That the manifold associations which in course of time come to be connected with such literary odors give them a certain emotional or æsthetic value is selfevident.
According to Professor Bain, three things are necessary to make a sensation or feeling æsthetic: (a) it must have pleasure for its immediate end ; (b) it must have no disagreeable accompaniments ; (c) its enjoyment must not be restricted to one or a few persons at a time, nor must it be connected with any of the vital functions, such as eating and drinking. If we now apply these tests to the classes of odors just enumerated, we shall find that a great many will have to be eliminated, especially of those belonging to the animal kingdom. For although the smell of the cow is often called fresh and sweet, and many people seem to be fond of musk, yet most animal substances are either disagreeable, or have disagreeable accompaniments. The fragrant atmosphere of a candy manufactory, a German sausage shop, or a baker’s shop is excluded by (c), because too closely connected with the stomach. For the same reason, the fragrance of fruits, such as melons, pears, oranges, is not purely æsthetic; it makes the mouth water, besides being monopolistic. Smoking is another interesting case for the application of the third test; for I suppose it will not be denied that the chief pleasure of smoking comes from the aroma of the weed affecting the nostrils. The verdict must be unfavorable, because smoking is a pleasure which is seldom enjoyed by any one beside the smoker in each case. Usually it gives positive discomfort to all non-smokers in the same room ; and in a German café you may often see even inveterate smokers so unpleasantly affected that they have to light a cigar of their own, for pure self-defense against the smoke of others. Another mode of using tobacco — snuff-taking — must seem to a refined nose little better than throwing pepper and salt in the eyes. The æsthetic nose of the future will abhor snuff as a delicate musical ear does the filing of a saw.
Although many inorganic chemical substances might be named which would pass a satisfactory muster, still in a large measure the æsthetic treasures of perfumery are confined within the limits of vegetable life. This result is, however, far from discouraging, for the number available, with their countless combinations, is still enormous. The variety of flowers which, in the struggle for life, have developed the most exquisite perfumes, in order to attract birds and insects for purposes of cross-fertilization, is immense. To these must be added the many leaves, spices, woods, roots, barks, seeds, gums, grasses, and ferns, which add fragrance to the surrounding atmosphere and delight our senses whenever we come under their influence. These odors stand the most rigid æsthetic test. They are not connected with any of the vital functions, but are sought for simply as pleasures; they are of all sense enjoyments least apt to lead to excesses ; they are not monopolistic, but can be enjoyed by many at the same time ; and they have no disagreeable accompaniments except when used in excess.
The kind of enjoyment which the fragrance of flowers yields is primarily purely sensuous, and hence many good people of mediæval habits of thought will feel disposed flatly to deny its claims to the name of æsthetic. But our delight in a glorious sunset or in the gorgeous instrumentation of a modern symphonic poem is in itself equally sensuous; nor is the color of a flower less sensuous than its fragrance. And yet who would deny the æsthetic claims of such colors and sounds ? Those ascetic times are past, when it was considered sinful to listen to the sensuous notes of a nightingale in the forest, or of a female singer in church; and modern eyes and ears have been gradually trained by poet and artist to appreciate and value the many forms of sensuous beauty found everywhere in nature. At a time when even the austere Ruskin defends color against those who inveigh against it as being “ purely sensuous,” and replies that “ all good color is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy, and the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most,” we may feel safe in attaching great importance to the fact that of all simple sensations those given by the sense of smell are the most intensely delightful in themselves. No isolated color without form (which is an intellectual and not a sensuous element), no sound without melody or harmony, is in itself so keenly enjoyable as the fragrance of many flowers that could be named.
Under the head of emotional value an equally strong case can be made out for odors. Some time when you are in the country go into a flower garden on a summer night, when there is no obtrusive sound of living being in the air. The eye and the ear, which usually monopolize our attention, are here put at rest, and the nose is for once master of the situation. Being a person of delicate poetic sensibility, you will find, in slowly walking along the fragrant beds of verbenas, mignonettes, sweet-peas, and evening primroses, that the sentiments inspired by their odors are as distinct and marked as those which follow the sight of a modest pansy, a delicate phlox, a grotesque larkspur, or a fanciful orchis. For such an experiment an unclouded, dewy night should be chosen, as moisture is known to be favorable to the development of odors. The fact that the atmosphere of the night and early morning in itself seems to be fragrant and health - giving must be connected with the influence of dew in developing the latent perfumes of flowers, trees, and soil.
Allusions to fragrant flowers are frequent in good verse, and a poet is apt to borrow from nature only what has an emotional value. Of all the poets, Shelley seems to have been the most sensible of the charms of sweet-smelling flowers ; and in general it must be said that the poet who delights in walking through forest and field in spring, when bush and tree are in full bloom, owes much more of his emotional inspiration to the manifold exquisite odors floating along the currents of the air than he is usually aware of. The exhilaration which the air of a forest produces on a visitor is commonly ascribed to the greater amount of oxygen supposed to exist in forests than in cities. But Professor Max von Pettenkofer has recently proved that “ vegetation exercises no perceptible influence on the composition of the atmosphere, in the open air,” and that accordingly the proportion of oxygen is not noticeably greater in the country than in the city. From what we know, therefore, of the general action of odors in stimulating the nervous processes — their medicinal uses against mental disorders and faintingfits, etc. — the inference is forced on us that the exhilaration in the forest is chiefly due to the semi-conscious influence, on the senses of the visitor, of the delicate odors which the shade and moisture of the locality have developed. Only thus can we explain why a pine forest, in its effect on the sentiments, is very different from an apple orchard in full bloom, a Southern orange grove, or a hay field covered with freshly mown, fragrant grass. In tropical countries, where the whole atmosphere is pervaded by ever-varying odors of myriads of plants,
Smells of every flower that blows,”
these effects must be still more marked and noticeable.
Something might be said here of the use of frankincense at ancient rites and in modern churches for producing among the members of the congregation an attitude of mind in harmony with the solemn surroundings ; but we must pass on to what is the most important point in this connection, — the influence which odors exert upon our emotional life through their close connection with our associations and memories. Rousseau speaks of smell as the sense of the imagination, Schopenhauer calls it the sense of memory, and the Autocrat of the BreakfastTable deemed this subject so curious and important that he drew up and printed in italics the following formula : “ Memory, imagination, old sentiments and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than by almost any other channel.” And he goes on to say: “ Perhaps the herb everlasting, the fragrant immortelle of our autumn fields, has the most suggestive odor to me of all those that set me dreaming. I can hardly describe the strange thoughts and emotions that come to me as I inhale the aroma of its pale, dry, rustling flowers.” Other similar passages might be quoted from poetic writers, testifying to the intimate association of odors with our feelings and early experiences. Sometimes, indeed, long-forgotten scenes of early youth, with all their attendant pleasures and pains, are suddenly recalled by a flower or like object, in the most mysterious though delightful manner. Everybody is familiar with the curious fact that sometimes on opening a book such a crowd of thoughts will arise in the mind that it is impossible to fix the attention on its pages. In many cases this may be due to various other causes, but I have no doubt that often it arises from the suggestive powers of the odor of the book.
The third or intellectual factor now remains to be considered. The question here is simply this: Can odors, like sounds and colors, be made to serve as the basis of an art ? A sort of smell piano, or instrument for producing harmonies and contrasts of odors, has been more than once suggested in a humorous vein.
To such an instrument there are, however, various objections, two of which appear to be fatal. The first is that odors cannot be reduced to scales, like sounds, nor to a fundamental triad, like colors ; and the second is that for such an instrument artificial perfumes would be required, and artificial perfumes are too inferior to those prepared in nature’s workshop to be available for such a purpose. The prevalent opinion which condemns artificial perfumes as vulgar is not far from the truth, in spite of the fact that the ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, and even the æsthetic Greeks made such extensive use of them. A perfume in a room merely conceals the noxious vapors present in it, without making them less dangerous to health.
It is well, however, not to be too dogmatic in asserting the impossibility of an odor art. It took many centuries of experimenting before the youngest of the arts, music, became what it is now, and it might therefore be said that by the time as many great minds shall have devoted their lives to the building up of an odor art as have done so in the case of music, greater results might be obtained than are dreamt of in our present philosophy of art. If it were true that there is no ideal persistence of odors in the memory, as is usually imagined, this would of course prevent them from ever becoming material for the mental laboratory of genius. But it is not true. Shelley was right when he sang that
Live within the sense they quicken.”
The power of recalling odors is of course not innate, and must be cultivated. After many trials it will be found that the fragrance of flowers can be recalled almost as vividly as their forms and colors, and that a corresponding amount of pure æsthetic enjoyment can be derived from such ideal odors.
Flower perfumes also derive a certain intellectual value from the fact that there are certain harmonies and discords among them, as is well known to those who have studied the art of bouquetmaking. Nor is it at all improbable that future generations will discover some satisfactory classification of odors on an æsthetic basis. Take a dozen flowers at random, and it is not at all difficult to class them according to certain peculiarities, which are as marked as those which, for instance, distinguish the various shades of blue from those of red, or a violin from a viola. Thus, the lily, tuberose, hyacinth, and yellow evening primrose have a very heavy, sweetish odor, which is apt to become sickening if inhaled too long. The common red rose, violet, and phlox drummondii represent another class, which is known by an exquisite delicacy and ethereal (not heavy) sweetness. A third class is represented by the verbena, sweet-pea, and pink, being characterized by a peculiar richness, which never palls on the sense, and is in delicacy intermediate between the first and the second class. This list could be easily extended, but I merely wish to indicate the proper mode of procedure.
Henry T. Finck.