***I originally wrote this as part of a conference paper which analysed Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, but the ideas were a little too abstract and veered more into psychology as opposed to literature, and I couldn’t clearly express my meaning so I instead decided to cut it out. I’ve put it on here as a reminder to myself as it might be worth returning to and rooting up further at some point***
In Perfume what scent allows for, and which Grenouille exemplifies, is the exposure of a total inadequacy of language which is unique to the evocation of the senses: scent is a domain Symbolically ‘quarantined’ from all other senses. How so? I’ve really been struggling to conceptualise this. Let’s first think about the use of Symbolic language in the evocation of the senses, and how, for the most part, we can find direct and fundamental examples of the senses demonstrating a convolution of the Lacanian Symbolic order and the Real or the hidden kernel object (das ding). With the sense of hearing, this can be most overtly seen for example with onomatopoeia whereby audible sound merges with language. Touch does something similar, which can be seen clearly with words like ‘smooth’ and ‘rough’ which express a sense of the objective merged with language, and so still we have that crucial tether between the two which goes beyond the purely Symbolic veneer. With this example of touch in language sound acts as a byway; sound becomes the way by which a texture and so the sense of touch becomes manifest. It’s also important to acknowledge that these real-symbolic evocations of the senses are cross cultural and multi-lingual, as what we’re talking about is obviously deeper than the words themselves, more structural and yet not linguistically so (my Spanish and Italian friends both gave copious examples).
More abstractedly though nevertheless still crucially entwined with objectivised language is the sense of taste: we use words like sharp, or bitter – coming from the Germanic word bite, or tang, which comes from an old word for the blade of a knife. So these words for the sense of taste – much like the words for touch which use audible sounds – are using object textures, that is, by way of the sense of touch; thereby again demonstrating a tether between Symbolic and Real. It is important to emphasise then – and this is most evident with the sense of smell and taste – that whilst 2 senses can be inherently tied in their biological, sensory function, they are not in any way linked in their Symbolic function. I’m aware such isolated examples may seem insufficient, but actually what is vital is the mere existence of any single example of Symbolic words being in any way tethered to the Real. Which leads onto my next key point, which is that there are no words in the field of scent, which can possibly demonstrate a tether between Symbolic and Real. This is the same for sight, which, being what we might locate as the ‘foundational’ sense in the creation of language, is inherently and crucially detached from the Real – in fact it’s primary function is exactly that, to shield the real in a reality-encompassing veneer. So whilst with touch and hearing and taste we have this kind of tiered, cross-fertilisation of the various senses in order to evoke the Real, this is distinctly absent from the remaining 2 senses: sight and smell.
So why is this important? Well this unique dislocation of Symbolic and Real in the realm of scent is perhaps key to pinpointing how it is that only with the sense of smell, can we form associations with much more abstract concepts: the most overt of such being memory. The reason for this stems from the fact that smell has no possible direct tether to the symbolic universe. If smells were symbolically registered, then we would be incapable of associating certain smells with certain memories as we now do. This also explains why Freud situated scent in such a pivotal role in the designation of the neuroses (see Rat man case, 1909).