Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Letting smells be themselves...

I was thinking today about smells. I like smells, in general. The olfactory experience is a fascinating one. And then I began to think that, in much the same way we regard sounds as musical or cacophonous, we regard smells as those fit to be appreciated, and those that aren't. Think about it. It's socially acceptable to profess a love of the smell of oregano, bread baking in the oven, pine sap, lavender, spices. They even make candles scented to mimic the smell of sugar cookies, various fruits and flowers, even "midnight breeze," whatever that is. There's an entire industry developed around the nose and millions upon millions are spent each year on perfumes, colognes and aftershave. But all of these smells marketed to the public are those deemed to have met a certain standard.
I understand that some smells trigger the gag reflex and that the reaction of disgust to various odors is a natural and perhaps evolutionary response (protecting us from dangerous or unsanitary things), but there are other smells that are found to be pleasant by many -or maybe only a few- that aren't being bottled. How about fresh-cut grass, new crayons, or charcoal? These aren't bad smells. Personally, I must confess to a love of the smell of rotting leaves and fresh-tilled soil.
It's been proven that smell is the human sense most efficient at triggering memory, and therefore it would naturally follow that the sense of smell would be most subject to having value attributed to it by positive or negative association. I don't eat goetta, would never eat it, and knowing the composition of the stuff makes the possibility even smaller, but the smell reminds me of my grandpa, and so I like the smell. The smell of Listerine and rock dust remind me of my dad, and I like those smells, while catching a whiff of "new car," eau de toilette or canned mixed vegetables is automatically off-putting due to some negative association (the particulars of which I'm not willing to discuss). And so it leaves me rather surprised that these scents are often overlooked in the mainstream. Why should it be acceptable for flowery scents to be sold in lotions, bubble bath and perfume while sawdust, basil and rainwater remain in their original forms.
In the spirit of John Cage, shouldn't we embrace the possibility of all smells to be perfume? Should all smells be regarded as equally smellable?