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Storytelling by Smell

Storytelling by Smell
  • Swann's Way (Volume 1 of Remembrance of ... (by )
  • Remembrance of Things Past Volume Ii (by )
  • Remembrance of Things Past Volume Ii (by )
  • The Flowers of Evil (by )
  • Flush : A Biography (by )
  • The Works of Aristotle, the famous philo... (by )
  • L'Assommoir (by )
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Great storytellers create a world without seams in which the suspension of disbelief on the reader's part leads to a mirroring of the real world, and thus to one of the great tenets of art as Pablo Picasso once put it: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth."

So do the five sensory details work in tandem with a story's arc to create a world that reflects our own. Although all the senses are used in writing, smell remains the least developed. Many scientists argue that our ability to smell is diminished by living in the city, where congealing scents of sewage and exhaust spurn our noses and find us seeking refuge in fattier, saltier, and generally stronger tasting foods. Each of these extremes prevents us from experiencing the nuance of smells, and thus forming more smell memories. (Some scientists even link smell deficiencies to depression and eating disorders). Studies have shown that the sense of smell has the highest capacity for emotional storage and recollection. Smell memory is said to tap straight into the limbic part of the brain, known for its emotional aspects.

How should these bits of knowledge affect the sense of smell in literature? Does a passage describing a fully functioning environment of smell have the potential for a stronger impact on the reader's experience of the story and subsequent recollection of passages after the book is put down? Surely, it doesn't play on smell memory, since the act of smelling never takes place. But what if the descriptions are close enough to the actual smell? What if readers can connect to a simulation of their own smell memories, thus forming a different platform from which to engage with the story? Would this format then create a better sense of story immersion?
Few writers have tackled scent-dependent storytelling, but many of them have created a strong framework for the canon of smell literature. The foremost of these is Marcel Proust's novel of involuntary memory, Remembrance of Things Past: "When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls." (Remembrance of Things Past Vol. II)

Peter Suskind achieves in Perfume beautifully organic descriptions of smell through a character with a superhuman nose. He aptly captures the nebulous nature of smells:

This scent had a freshness, but not the freshness of limes or pomegranates, not the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or birch or camphor or pine needles, not that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water... and at the same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress, or musk has, or jasmine or daffodils, not as rosewood has or iris... This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering silk... and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk.
Charles Baudelaire used smells to investigate the sensual. In the poem "Exotic Perfume” within Flowers of Evil,  he speaks of a vision induced by the perfume of a woman:

When, with closed eyes, on a hot afternoon,
The scent of thine ardent breast I inhale,
Celestial vistas my spirit assail;
Caressed by the flames of an endless sun.
By thy perfume enticed to this region remote,
A port I see, laden with mast and with boat,
Still wearied and torn by the distant brine;

For more books with great smell passages, check out Flush by Virginia Woolf, Problems by Aristotle, and L'Assommoir by Emile Zola.

By Thad Higa

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