Scents affect us in many ways. One is that they give us pleasure. (Or the opposite if we are unlucky). Another is that they connect directly with our memory and imagination. Who would we be without our memory and imagination?
When I moved to Amsterdam to study communication I had the fortune to make many Italian friends in the student house where I stayed. After I had introduced myself to one of them he started to recite a poem. (If you are Italian, or from a Latin culture or maybe just from anywhere south of the Baltic Sea this might sound normal to you. To me, raised in Sweden, this was magic). The poem was ’A Silvia’ by Giacomo Leopardi. Naturally I became Leopardi’s biggest fan that very second and bought a book with his poems within a week. For years I had an inner image of this poet as a tall charismatic sensual passionate Man of Art & Words. And then one day I started researching and found out that this ardent heart belonged to a man who had a very short, very isolated and very non-carnal life due to illness. He was not attractive, and in lifelong physical and emotional pain. He was also alone. Much of the time physically, most of the time emotionally it seems. Not only in a romantic sense, also in his family and in an existential sense.
Yet this man created the most tender, sublime, dynamic and powerful poems that you can imagine. About life and what being human is about, yes. But also about women, desire, the dance of heart and the reflection of one soul in another. What is reality? The inside or the outside?
In an earlier post I wrote about Polge comparing poetry and perfume, that perfume is like a kind of language. It is something that communicates. Naturally, the creation of perfume is much like the creation of poetry. But I would like to highlight one particular power that they share – poetry and perfume both have this almost undefinable ability to create The Other. The feeling, experience, world or phenomenon that does not yet exist or that is not here. A creation for the senses that they do not yet know about, or cannot anticipate. I think what I am trying to say, put in a very simple way – the power of sensual experience to take us on journeys… somewhere. And this somewhere can be back, future or away. The somewhere can be known or unknown until we get there. Art can do this, also music. Take you somewhere.
Proust referred to involuntary memory. That does not mean necessarily “unwanted” but rather that it is not deliberately created by your intellect. The term is described here, but you will probably experience it the best if you read Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ where you will find the episode with the madeleines. You can find an excerpt with this part of the book if you google, for example here.
We should not undermine the power of scents. Not only as an aesthetic, as an attribute, but as something that affects our brain. Scents have a fascinating capacity to activate memories and feelings and can be used in therapy to activate the brain. Scents can give you real physical pain when you find a sweater that still bears the smell of a lost person. Scents can create collision between the past and the present. Scents can awaken desire to have something or someone that is not at all in that zone of your life yet. Scents can make you feel more comfortable in one country than in another. Scents help us choose our partners and teach our children that we are theirs and they ours. (Speaking of which, I have been reading about pheromones lately and there is so much that I want to tell you that I just do not know where to start.)
Try to activate the scents of your life and relationships. The lilies at your wedding. The summer clothes drying in the sun. The first snow. Swimming in the sea at night. Hair damp from summer rain. Freshly baked bread. Airports. A new piece of writing on a sheet warm from the printer. Your favorite ingredient. Your friends home. Coffee. The way your city smells when you take your first step outside in the morning. Think about what smells there are in different places and situations that are significant to you. See if there is some way for you to make them concrete and possible to re-create. Add olfactory memories to your relationship – maybe there is a particular fragranced candle or flower or spice that you can return to on anniversarys and important days just to evoke that special feeling. Give your child fragrance memories because he or she will remember them forever. Buy spices on your travels or find the plants that grow in the destination your fantasies like to return to. Also it is not unusual that perfume houses have fragrances inspired by specific places, just look at Byredo and Chanel. But it is of course not sure that their memories are the same as yours.
The attentive returning reader of this blog might now be thinking that I am contradicting myself. Because I have said many times that we should search for the fragrances that reflect who we are and avoid trying to create something else with superimposed olfactory characteristics. True. But I am not saying that you should wear a fragrance that smells of Buenos Aires, Cape Town or Tokyo but not of you. You want a scent of a geographical place that probably reminded you of a place in yourself. This is precious, and personal. Your memories are parts of your inner you. Some memories, and some parts of ourselves, we prefer to let rest un-activated, but some we want closer. Scents can help you with that.