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Under the Sun/Eastern Smells and Western Noses



IN his essay showing that a certain nation — contrary to the generally applauded notion — “do not stink,” Sir Thomas Browne uses with effect the argument that a mixed race cannot have a national smell. Among a mongrel people he contends no odor could he gentilitious; yet he nowhere denies the possibility, or even impugns the probability, of a pure people having a popular smell, a scent in which the public should share alike, an aroma as much common property as the National Anthem, a joint-stock fragrance, a commonwealth of odor, — a perfume with which no single individual could selfishly withdraw, saving, “This is my own, my proper and peculiar flavor, and no man may cry me halves in it,” as Alexander or Mahomet might have done, who, unless history lies, were divinely scented. Not that individual odors, as distinct from those of the species, have been uncommon in any times. Many instances may be found, if examples were required, to support “a postulate which has ever found unqualified assent.”

“For well I know,” cries Don Quixote, “the scent of that lovely rose! and tell me, Sancho, when near her, thou must have perceived a Sabean odor, an aromatic fragrance, a something sweet for which I cannot find a name, — a scent, a perfume, as if thou wert in the shop of some curious glover.”

“All I can say is,” quoth Sancho, “that I perceived somewhat of a strong smell.”

It would, however, be pure knavery to argue from the particular fragrance of Don Quixote’s lady that all the dames of La Mancha could appeal to the affections through the nose. Equally dishonest would it be to disperse Alexander’s scent over all Macedon, or with a high hand conclude that all Romans were “as unsavory as Bassa.” On the other hand, to argue, from the existence of a scentless individual, the innocence of his brethren, is to suppose that all violets are dog-violets, or that the presence of a snowdrop deodorizes the guilty garlic: whereas, in fact, the existence of such an individual enhances the universal fragrance; as Kalidasa says, “one speck of black shows more gloriously bright the skin of Siva’s bull.” If a number of units produce an aroma, it will be hard to believe that each is individually inodorous, in which argument from probabilities I have to a certain degree the countenance of the Pundits in their maxim of the Stick and the Cake. What is more to the point, we have on the globe at least one fragrant people, for (leaving Greenlanders out of the question) no one denies that Africans are aromatic. This is no novel suggestion, but an old antiquity; it is a point of high prescription, and a fact universally smelt out. If, therefore, one nation can indisputably claim a general odor, it is possible another may; and much may be found to support any one who will say that in this direction “warm India’s supple-bodied sons” may claim equality of natural adornment with “the musky daughter of the Nile.” If it were not for the blubber-feeding Greenlanders, I might contend that “it is all the fault of that confounded sun,” for heat presses odor elsewhere than in Asia and Africa, and I can keep within “Trismegistus his circle” and “need not to pitch beyond ubiquity” when I cite Pandemonium as an instance of unity of smell in a large population. We read in Byron’s “Vision of Judgment” that at the sound of Pye’s heroics the whole assembly sprang off with a melodious twang and a variety of scents, some sulphureous, some ambrosial; and that the sulphureous individuals all fled one way gibbering to their own dominions, that odorous principality of the damned whither in old times the handsome minstrel went in quest of his wife. That the infernal fraternity is uni-odorous we know, on the authority of the immortal Manchegan Squire, who says: “This devil is as plump as a partridge, and has another property very different from what you devils are wont to have, for it is said they all smell of brimstone,” that is, like the Vienna matches — ohne phosphor-geruch — that Wendell Holmes hates so honestly.

To return to India, it is very certain that a single Hindoo is not always perceptibly fragrant; yet it is equally certain tha.t if, when a dozen are together, an average be struck, each individual of the party must be credited with a considerable amount. In any gathering of Orientals the Western stranger is instantly aware of a circumambient aroma; he becomes conscious of a new and powerful perfume, — a curious je ne sais quoi scent which may possibly, like attar of roses, require only endless dilution and an acquired taste to become pleasant, but which certainly requires dilution for the novice. No particular person or member of the public seems to be odorous beyond his fellows, but put three together, and they might be 300. Perhaps this is produced by sympathy, by some magnetic relation between like and like, the result of natural affinities. It may be that each Hindoo is flint to the other’s steel, and that more than one is requisite for the combustion of the aromatic particles; and that, as evening draws the perfume from flowers, and excitement the “bouquet” from a muskrat, contiguity and congregation are required for the proper expression of the fragrance of Orientals. Cases of individuals innocent of all savor carry therefore no weight, unless to those who believe that all asses can speak because Balaam’s quadruped was casually gifted with articulate utterance, or that fish as a rule possess stentorian lungs because Mr. Briggs once caught a pike that barked.

A notable point about this Eastern savor is that, though it approaches many others, it exactly resembles none. Like Elia’s burnt pig, it doesn’t smell of burnt cottage, nor yet of any known herb, weed, or flower. Though unique, its entity is intertwisted with a host of phantom entities, as a face seen in a passing train, instantly recognized but never brought home to any one person from its partial resemblance to a hundred; and they say that no number of qualified truths can ever make up an absolute verity. By smelling a musk-rat through a bunch of garlic an idea of it may be arrived at, but hardly more; for the conflicting odors hamper the judgment by distracting the nostrils, keeping it hovering in acute uncertainty between the components without allowing it to settle on the aggregate — “so blended and running into each other, that both together make but one ambrosial result or common substance.” This seems to be affected not by an actual confusion of matters but by parallel existence; rather by the nice exactitude of balance than mutual absorption; not so much by a mingled unity as from our impotence to unravel the main threads, to single out any one streak of color. It is like a nobody’s child, a Ginx’s baby, with a whole parish for parents; or one of those puddings which at every mouthful might be sworn to change its taste, and which when finished leaves one indelible but impalpable fragrance on the memory of the palate, that may be called up by every passing odor, but is never in its composite singularity again encountered. It is a lost chord.

In the West no such community of fragrance obtains, and the great science of perfume, though exquisitely perfected in certain details, does not command as in the East the attention of the masses. With us it is the exception to use scent, but with them the singular person is the scentless one. The nose nevertheless plan’s an important part even in Europe, and it is well, therefore, that this feature has at last found one courageous apostle.

Dr. Jäger, a professor of Stuttgart, has, after most patient experiments with his own nose, proved it to be the seat of his soul. Simply with the nose on his face the learned professor is enabled, eyes shut and ears stopped, to discriminate the character of any stranger he may meet, or even that he has passed in the street. He can, then, by merely putting his nose to the keyhole, tell what the people on the other side of the door are doing; and, more than this, what they have just been doing, can assure himself whether they are young or old, married or single, and whether they are happy or the reverse. Proceeding upon the knowledge thus acquired by a process which we may call successful diagnosis, the professor argues, in a lecture which he has given to the world on this fascinating subject, that if different scents express different traits of character, each trait in turn can be separately affected by a particular scent , and his experiments, he gravely assures us, prove him here as right as before. For not only can Dr. Jäger smell, for instance, bad temper or a tendency to procrastination in any individual, but by emitting the counteracting antidote odor, he can smooth the frown into a smile, and electrify the sluggard into despatch. Yet Dr. Jäger does not claim to possess within himself, his own actual body, more perfumes than any of his neighbors. He does not arrogate to himself any special odors, as did Mahomet and Alexander the Great, or ask to divide honors with the civet-cat or musk-deer. There is no insolent assumption of this kind about the professor, no unnatural straining after the possession of extraordinary attributes. He merely claims to have discovered by chemical research certain preparations, which, when volatilized, produce certain results upon the nostrils. There is no o’er-vaulting ambition in this. The merest tyro can compass as much with a very few ingredients; and, as a matter of fact, any boy of average, on. even the meanest, capacity can, by a courageous combination of the contents of his chemical chest, produce such effluvia as shall at once, and violently affect the nostrils of the whole household, not excluding the girl in the scullery or the cat on the nursery hearthrug. But the boy’s results are miscellaneous and fortuitous. He blunders upon a smell of extraordinary volume and force by, it may be, the merest accident, and quite unintentionally, therefore, lets loose upon himself the collective wrath of his family circle. Dr. Jäger, however, has brought the whole gamut of smells under his own control; and so, by letting out from his pocket any one he chooses, he can at once dissolve an assembly in tears or make every face in it ripple with smiles. The great secret of composition once attained, care in uncorking is all that is demanded; and the professor, with his pocket full of little bottles, can move about unsuspected among his kind, and, by his judicious emission of various smells as he goes along, can tranquilize a frantic mob, or set the passing funeral giggling, or a Punch-and-Judy audience sobbing.

Hitherto the nose has been held, as compared with the other organs of sense, in very slight account indeed. It has always been looked upon as the shabby feature of the face, and, in public society, has been spoken of with an apology for mentioning it. Many attempts have been made to render it respectable, but the best-intentioned efforts of philosophers have been thwarted by the extremes to which their theories have been pushed by the longer-nosed individuals of the public. The nose may be really an index of character, but the amount of nose does not necessarily imply, as some people contend, a corresponding pre-eminence of genius or virtue. Many great and good men have had quite indifferent noses, while the length of the proboscis of more than one hero of the Chamber of Horrors is remarkable. The feeling against this feature has, therefore, been irritated rather than soothed by the well-meant efforts of theorists. When the urchin, innocent of art, wishes, with his simple chalk, to caricature the householder upon his gate-post or garden-door, he finds in the nose the most suitable object for his unskilled derision. Grown up, the same urchin, exasperated with his neighbor, seizes him by the nose. This ill-feeling against the feature admits of little explanation, for it seems altogether unreasonable and deplorable. It is true that the nose takes up a commanding position on the face, and does not altogether fulfil the expectations naturally formed of so prominent a member. Vagrant specks of soot settle upon it and make it ridiculous. An east wind covers the nose with absurdity. It is a fierce light that beats upon a throne, and the nose, before assuming a central place, should perhaps, remarking the fact, have been better prepared to maintain its own dignity. But beyond this, impartial criticism cannot blame the feature. On the other hand, much can be said in its favor, and if Dr. Jäger is right, a great future lies before the nose. Lest it should be thought I exaggerate the importance of Dr. Jäger’s discoveries, I give the learned professor’s own words. “Puzzled as to the meaning of the word soul,” says he, “I set myself to inquire, and my researches have assured me that the seat of the immortal part of man is in his nose. All the mind affections are relative to the nasal sensations. I have found this out by observing the habits of animals in the menagerie; and, finding how exquisite was their sense of smell, I conceived my great idea, and experiment has proved me right. So perfect can the perceptions by the nose become that I can discover even the mental conditions of those around me by smelling them; and more than this, I can, by going into a room, tell at once by sniffing whether those who were last in it were sad or mirthful. Aroma is in fact, the essence of the soul, and every flavor emitted by the body represents a corresponding emotion of the soul. Happiness finds expression in a mirthful perfume, sorrow in a doleful one. Does not a hungry man on smelling a joint of meat at once rejoice? I myself have been so overcome by the scent of a favorite fruit that, under an uncontrollable impulse, I have fallen upon and devoured the whole plateful! so powerful is the sense of smell.” To present the different perfumes accurately and easily to the eye, the professor, when first delivering his lecture, drew upon a blackboard a number of diagrams showing the various curves taken by the scent atoms when striking upon the soul-nerves, and explained briefly certain instruments he had constructed for registering the wave motion of smells, and the relative force with which they impinged upon the nose of his soul or the soul of his nose. The audience meanwhile had become restless and agitated, and the professor therefore hurried on to the second section of his discoveries — those for counteracting the passions detected by the nose. “I have here,” he said, “a smell-murdering essence, which I have discovered and christened Ozogene, and with which I can soothe the angry man to mildness or infuriate a Quaker.” But the audience, such is the bigoted antipathy to the exaltation of the nose, would not stand this on any account, and the professor, in obedience to the clamor, had to resume his seat.

Dr. Jäger did not, therefore, secure a patient hearing; but he should remember how at all times the first apostles of truth have been received, and live content to know that posterity will gravely honor his memory, though contemporary man makes fun of Ms discoveries. Indeed, posterity will have good cause to honor the great man who shall thus have banished from among them strife and anger. The Riot Act will never have to be read to an excited populace, since a squirt of perfume will suffice to allay their fury. The comic lecturer or charity-sermon preacher may assure themselves of the sympathy of his audiences quite apart from the matter of their discourse. Science will have new fields opened to it, and humanity take a new lease of its pleasures. The nose, hitherto held of little more account than the chin, will supersede all the other features, and, like Cinderella, rise from the kitchen ashes to palace dignities, developing under the Darwinian theory into proboscidian dimensions of extraordinary acuteness. The policeman will need no evidence but that of his nose to detect the thief, actual or potential, and the judge, unhampered by jury, counsel or witnesses, will summarily dispense a nasal justice. Diplomacy will be purged of its obscurities, and statesmen live in a perpetual palace of truth. Conscious of each other’s detective organs, men will speak of their fellows honestly, and hypocrisy will cease from society. How will war or crime be able to thrive when the first symptom of ill-temper in a sovereign or of ambition in a minister can be quenched at the will of any individual ratepayer? And thus a universal peace will settle upon a sniffing world.