|First scene of "Zazie dans le Metro"|
“What stinks?” Or in the original French, “Doukipudonktan” (d'où qu'ils puent donc tant) is the famous first word of Zazie dans le Metro, both in the book and the film. Yes, I remember the stinks of Paris in the 1960s and also later. Rebreathed garlic and cheap wine, sweaty bodies in overheated spaces, stale smoke from Gitanes cigarettes, and some undefined decay that came up from the Metro. Well, the Metro was on strike for Zazie’s zany weekend in Paris, but anyway…
The Foul and the Fragrant by Alain Corbin is a classic academic French study* of the history of aromas and stinks and what people thought about them in the 18th and 19th century, mostly in Paris. It couldn’t be more different from the madcap irreverent work of Queneau, author of Zazie! I just happened to watch the film in the middle of reading the book this week.
There’s even a word for Corbin’s topic -- osphresiology: the study of odors and the sense of smell. He makes a case that scientific interest in smells, and especially interest in the danger of dreadful stinks, was higher in the earlier days before Pasteur discovered micro-organisms and explained previously mysterious processes putrefaction, plague, and pestilential odors.
Corbin dwells on the horrific odors from cesspools, streams and streets full of excrement and garbage; smoke from heating, industry, and cooking; odors that arise from the ground like miasmas and mephistis (another addition to my vocabulary from this book), unwashed bodies, overused bed linens, rarely-changed clothing, plaster walls permeated by oily fumes, and other joys of life back then. He discusses views of health associated with the odors; most surprising was a view held at one time that sewer gases counteracted the danger of plagues.
Dangerous fumes and odors, Corbin points out, were symptomatic of many industries like tanning and chemical production. Workers became accustomed to the smells of their jobs and to the dangers they presented, and didn’t object unless the harm was immediate and obvious. Further, the struggle to keep such industries out of central cities and residential areas was a long and troubling one. Before intervening, experts on committees responsible for public health and safety “waited till public opinion showed itself through complaints or petitions. They acted more as arbitrators than as inspectors.” (p. 132). Maybe this hesitation was like the current disconnect between measurable climate change and what we are continuing to do to increase it.
From time to time, Corbin mentions attitudes towards perfume, particularly changing taste. In the 18th century, people preferred earthy scents like musk from deer intestines, civet from cat intestines, and ambergris from whale intestines. Later, these became less popular, mainly replaced by floral aromas. Attitudes also changed towards the smell of tobacco smoke – at first, smokers were expected to hide the smell. Later, towards the end of the historic era discussed in the book, it became associated with masculinity . (Obviously it’s gone through a few more changes in the subsequent 150 years, and I guess views are more or less back where they started.)
Perfume was not only for enhanced attractiveness; it was also thought to repel plague. From a summary of such practices written in 1800:
“For people who are not in a position to afford odoriferous balls or perfume-pans, the best authors recommend sachets of rue, melissa, marjoram, mint, sage, rosemary, orange blossom, basil, thyme, serpolet, lavender, bay leaves, orange and lemon bark, and quince rind; they recommend that these always be present in apartments at time of plague.” (p. 64)
A subject that I expected to find in The Foul and the Fragrant was the attribution of bad personal smells to marginalized groups and minorities. Corbin has one or two references to this sociological or psychological topic, but very little discussion. He did mention two competing attitudes of middle and upper classes and also literary types in France to perceived smells of peasants and the poor.
“Country smells were often the objects of attack… like swamps, villages engendered miasma,” he wrote. Peasants themselves were also thought to possess bad personal odors. Such negative attitudes towards the dangerous smells of the countryside contrasted to the views expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He “exalted” the countryside, “a sweet-scented area, free of stenches from the village and its assembled peasants, wafted by nothing but the breath of spring flowers.” (p. 154-155)
As I read I thought of Marcel Duchamp, who said America’s two artistic contributions were plumbing and bridges. I’m grateful for the plumbing since it so completely saves us from the cesspools, latrines, polluted rivers, and piles of refuse I’ve been reading about – compared to France in Duchamp’s lifetime, maybe that’s one of the things he was thinking about.
Corbin never quoted Shakespeare, who was English and too early for his time frame, but I think Shakespeare offers a bit of the smell picture, for example with Caliban’s ancient and fish-like smell (Tempest, II ii). Shakespeare’s smell images are not as graphic, but it didn’t sound too good. I’m glad our “rabblement” don’t hoot and clap their chopped hands and throw up their sweaty nightcaps and utter such a deal of stinking breath that a person could have “swounded and fell down at it.” (Julius Caesar, I, ii)
Obviously, smells in our lives are vastly less dominant than they used to be. That’s not the only difference highlighted by Corbin, though. Modern science has a very different approach to smells. Consider the book Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters by Gordon M. Shepherd. Rather than concern for the smells per se, it studies how the brain handles the combined sense of taste and smell. Human beings, says this author, have an incredibly powerful sense of smell, which is created by both biology and environment. Interesting implications for studies like Corbin’s. Also an interesting contrast with the early scientific osphresiologists.
*Corbin, writing in the 1980s, is such a purist about historic writing that he summarizes the 18th and 19th century scientific theories without judgement or explanation of the twentieth century views – this is probably fine with literary types who don’t care about science. Or maybe with deconstructionists who were dominating academic thought when he wrote in the 1980s. It kind of creeped me out.