I have, fortunately or unfortunately, a nose that works rather well, sometimes too well for my own good. I can catch the whiff of uncleaned cat litter from the doorway, when the litter boxes are far off on the other side of the house. The odors of an ethnic grocery store are almost too much for me sometimes, and when I was a child, I had to flee the smell of pizza, which made attending birthday parties rather difficult sometimes.
We eat with our eyes, but also with our noses, and this is perhaps why I enjoy walking into a bakery or restaurant, even when I am not hungry, feeling almost as satiated by the smell as by the actual consumption of food I buy there.
But what caught my attention yesterday on NPR was not something involving food but the smell of perfume, and what scents have been favored over the years.
Perfume is necessary for humans, I assume, because our noses work rather poorly, when compared to our other mammalian counterparts. Cats and especially dogs put us to shame, catching and reading the meaning of the most subtle signals of emotion, illness, or sexuality. The sensitivity of their olfactory apparatuses goes far beyond the simple reproductive function of locating a mate by pheromones, and becomes a whole different dimension of existence. The dog with its nose to the pavement can suss out whole histories we walk over and past, oblivious. Like archivists of scents, they could tell us, if we could comprehend their language, who had passed here and when. Sherlock Holmes had nothing on them.
But perhaps feeling our inferiority in this department, we have sought to strengthen our own personal smells, to personalize and thus own them. The most natural desire of human beings is to want to emanate a pleasant odor, most often one associated with flowers or perhaps with more homely domestic scents, like lemon or other fruits, herbs, such as rosemary, or vanilla, which I suppose is a flower (an orchid) after all).
Yet as any canine could confirm, smell is not always about attracting another of the species. Sometimes it is a kind of a warning, a territorial claim, like the scent of a dog, urinating around the periphery of its perceived property, which might include the unlucky owner or his property.
As the commentator on NPR last night proclaimed, this impulse is not extinguished even among the most refined artists of scent. Sexuality is directly linked to scent, as we know, and perfume, though it masks our natural scents, makes use of them as well. One famous creator of French perfume went on record as saying that he always included in his blends "a whiff of his mistress's behind." And perhaps this explains why some current scents hew to the more raw scents of our lives, like Lady Gaga's "blood and semen," the odors she desires to enshrine in her new perfume.
As long as the purveyors of perfume stay away from eau de mildew or the like, they will always have my attention, if not my dollars.