An Age Without Scents

“The Song of Quoodle” is a rhyme by a dog (written by G. K. Chesterton). Really it’s a short lament that of all the wonders of the smellable world, we humans miss out. “They haven’t got no noses,” Quoodle opens, “The fallen sons of Eve / Even the smell of roses / Is not what they supposes” (Works 10.2, 477).

Alas, it’s true. The human sense of smell is dull, a sense we don’t cultivate with much attention. In fact, most of our entertainment is detached from the nose. Even our best novelists, the rare few writers who can put words to the human experience, mostly ignore the smells of storytelling.

We haven’t got no noses, and this is especially true in the age of the eye, an observation of philosopher Byung-Chul Han in The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering (Polity, 2017). There he compares optics and olfaction as a contrast of two ways of living: atomized time and eschatological time.

It’s one long essay on the sense of smell — a sense of lingering, a sense deeply connected to creation, community, covenant, our past, and our memory (see Gen. 27:27; Lev. 26:31). In comparison, 200 digital images can flash before our eyes in a minute. But smells don’t work the same way. Smells are immune from acceleration. You cannot enjoy 20 consecutive smells in one minute. Aromas cannot be scaled and accelerated like digital images get scaled and accelerated. Thus, in an age of acceleration, images overrun the senses and smells are ignored.

“A scent is slow,” writes Han. “Thus, as a medium, it is not adapted to the age of haste. Scents cannot be presented in as fast a sequence as optical images. In contrast to the latter, they can also not be accelerated. A society dominated by scents would probably not develop any inclinations towards change or acceleration. It would live off its recollections and its memory, off those things that are slow and long-lasting. The age of haste, by contrast, is a ‘cinematographic’ age, one that is to a large extent shaped by the visual. Such an age accelerates the world into a ‘cinematograph film of . . . things’ [Proust]. Time disintegrates into a mere sequence of present moments. The age of haste is an age without scents” (46).

We should all stop and smell the roses, and the stopping is the necessary point by which we can begin to smell. To smell is to linger. We cannot smell until we stop. We cannot smell until we see that some created beauties are immune to acceleration. This is one non-negotiable to enjoying the fragrances of the Creator, wonders more obvious to lesser beasts.

2 thoughts on “An Age Without Scents

  1. Great article Tony, as always. This really resonated with me as I love the various smells of God’s creation – even the earthy smell of soil, pine trees and bog myrtle leaves. Sometimes we can be so afraid of dying that we try to cram a great deal too much into our small lives – and miss what really matters – to stop and think/meditate and smell.

    It might be of interest to know that, following a trauma, when the memories have declined and PTSD symptoms reduced, we can still have those memories & emotions triggered by a smell-memory from the time of the original trauma. The evocation of this memory has a stronger effect on us physiologically than does a visual or cognitive memory trigger. Often, that which is unconscious can effect us more deeply as our thoughts are driven by our emotions etc if they are not under conscious control. Smell-memories, because they directly connect to our emotions, can last a life-time – for good or ill.

    There must be a way to use this to connect to our Creator using ALL the senses he provided us with, and to perhaps undo some traumatic memories by transforming old smells with new emotions/thoughts (transforming the mind).

    Take care & God bless you with beautiful scents today.

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