18 November 2009

Le Nez, La Nariz, Nasus, Die Nase

I am reading a little book entitled Modern Delights, in which various famous people take a very short space to dwell upon one thing that delights them, and the reason why. This got me thinking about what I would put in such a book, leaving aside all the things the contributors already put in. Interestingly, no one selected as their delight Petty Hatreds, in my opinion one of the most delicious delights life has to offer ("Peas? God, I despise peas!" "Look at that haircut! What a stupid haircut!" - these little stabs of rage let you know you're alive and vivid). Nor did anyone select Talking About People You Know When They're Not Around, another joy of minor but complete exquisiteness (a subdivision of this, Talking with Someone You Like About Someone Both of You Don't Like, is perhaps even a little more pleasurable). I cannot select Music, because that goes beyond delight, and I was going to select The Smell of Cut Grass, but Tim Rice beat me to it. Plus, I own a candle that smells like cut grass, and once something gets into the state where it can be imitated and thus enjoyed separate from its self, it would seem to be unavailable as a source of enjoyment in its own right. So after careful thought I decided to enlarge upon the I've Got a Candle That Smells Like Cut Grass strand, and name my delight as: Smelling.

Right, don't get me wrong. Not the way I smell, but the act of smelling. And let's be clear: when I say "smelling" I mean not just generally being hit by the smells of the world, but rather really smelling stuff, deeply and fully. The best way to do this is not to smell actively (although you can do that), but rather to let the scent seep into you slowly, while you attempt to clear your mind of anything else.

Scent is underrated as one of life's delights. We know we like to see and touch (actually, another one of my delights could be Touching Stuff You're Not Supposed to Touch); we know we like to taste; and we're pretty sure we like to hear. But rare indeed is the person who admits to being conscious of scent, or who gives it primacy. Big mistake. Scent is, I believe, the only sensuous experience you can have that isn't mediated by thought or conscious neural byways, and it has the most plangency of any such experience. And smelling deeply gives you maximum pleasure in this regard.

Let's take the example of spring sunlight. Spring sunlight has a definite smell, and it's one of the happiest smells in the world: it smells not yellow, or even clear, but a little bit hot. I don't mean it IS hot - if I meant that, I'd say it - but it smells like heat. Next time you go out into spring sunlight, give a big deep sniff. It smells different from winter sunlight, or from late summer sunlight (which offers its own olfactory pleasure): it has a little hint of hot lying underneath it.

Most smells have layers, and those layers are very interesting if you don't let them go past but rather try to grab and describe them. The clothes of S.A., for example, smell like an old (but not antique!) dry wooden wardrobe (incidentally, he does not keep his clothes in an old dry wooden wardrobe). For a long time I thought that was just his scent, but then I discovered that B's clothes smell exactly the same way. So maybe it's some male Russian thing, although since they don't eat the same things, and S.A. doesn't even live in Russia anymore, I'm not sure that can be true. At the milonga on Tuesday I put my face partially in O's hair while I led her, and although her hair smelt of coconut (as she confirmed afterward), at that level of closeness the coconut divided itself into several sub-scents: a slight sense of oil or cream, a vague sweetness, and a slight dark nuttiness that I also associate with the smell of coffee (one of my top favourite smells). Books smell a number of distinct ways: some high and acidic, some like inexpensive paper, some glossy and heavy. I wouldn't know any of this if I didn't linger over those scents, at least in my mind, and that lingering is a source of enormous delight.

I would say I think every scent can be interesting and even pleasurable, if you linger over it the right way, but then I remember the smell of feet, and I am forced to admit that such is not the case.

Interestingly but unsurprisingly to those who know me and him, this disquisition leads me to think of my FTT, who perhaps smells better than any person or thing I have ever smelt. He smells so good that the only way to describe it is to say he smells so good that the only way to describe it is to say he smells so good. In fact, the only real way to describe it might be just to say he smells so. But as this suggests, the pleasure of this smell is not increased by anatomisation: its ideal experience is as pure sense; you just open your nostrils, blank your brain, and breathe in. Que onda, indeed!

But perhaps this is true of all delights: they are worthy of examination, dissection, and precise description, but ultimately the primary delight of delight is just revelling in it. So I say, Bring on the scents!

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