My wife (her name is Jeanette, not Kate, and she has a rather fine nose) has suddenly got her sense of taste and smell back after a senseless four or five years. She tried many things over the years, including many returns to the House on the Top of Great Orme for their lemon meringue pie (that worked once). Her senses have been restored just when she had given up trying. She is now going round sniffing things (Comfort fabric conditioner is a favourite) and is enjoying the tastes of food. It’s like coming to life again. I am delighted for her.
Our senses of taste and smell are often overlooked. There are no words that I am aware of which describe the taste-less and smell-less state. Blindness and deafness describe severe visual and hearing impairment, but there is no equivalent words to describe the impairment of the other senses. Maybe that is because blindness and deafness affect lives in a far more critical way, whereas the senses of taste and smell are pleasures. The pleasure is usually taken for granted, and our senses are often dulled because we don’t really appreciate the senses we have been given.
The Smell Report suggests that western civilisation has devalued the sense of smell in a tendency to compare and rank the senses. The sense of smell won the wooden spoon in the Sense Games, while the gold medal went to the gift of sight. Long noses and nosiness are not welcome here. “You smell” is a common playground insult, whereas “you see” isn’t.
The Smell Report points our noses at other cultures. For example, in some Arab countries breathing on people as you speak to them is a sign of friendship and goodwill – and denying someone your breath and smell is a shameful sign that you don’e want to get involved with them.
The Onge people of the Andaman Islands tell the time by smell. They have a calendar based on the odours of the flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Their greeting is not “How are you?”, but “Konyune onorange-tanka?” which means “How is your nose?”. Sometimes people respond by saying “I am heavy with odour”, at which the greeter, to be polite, must inhale deeply to remove some of the surplus. At other times the greeter may need to blow heavily on the person she is greeting if that person is a bit short of odour energy.
Ivan Illich discovered that smell is not something to be sneezed at when he was in Peru. It was pointed out to him that there was a connection between nose and heart, smell and affection that he had not made. In his address The Cultivation of Conspiracy, Illich recalls:
“I was in Peru in the mid-1950s, on my way to meet Carlos, who welcomed me to his modest hut for the third time. But to get to the shack, I had to cross the Rimac, the open cloaca of Lima. The thought of sleeping for a week in this miasma almost made me retch. That evening, with a shock, I suddenly realised what Carlos had been telling me all along, “Ivan, don’t kid yourself; don’t imagine you can be friends with people you can’t smell.” That one jolt unplugged my nose; it enabled me to dip into the aura of Carlos’s house, and allowed me to merge the atmosphere I brought along into the ambience of his home.”
Illich refers to the old German adage “Ich kann Dich gut riechen” (“I can smell you well”) which goes with another German saying “Ich kann Dich leiden” (” I can suffer you well”).
We mustn’t look down our noses at the sense of smell, or taste. And if you think that’s cheesy you might be interested in Giles Milton’s book, Edward Trencom’s Nose: a novel of history, dark intrigue and cheese. Milton has a nose for history. Trencom, and his predecessors, has a remarkable nose, just for cheese.