I came across an article today about the poetics of smell; that is, about the relationship between the experience of smell and the literary depiction of it. As the author, Clare Brant, explains: “Smell, I argue, has a poetics, one that looks to metaphor to diffuse beyond its limited and unstable lexicon, and metaphor may focus or widen or filter the world of a smell. A name by any other rose may smell as sweet” (544). What she’s interested in is the interweaving of smell as experience and meaning. I’ve read Clare Brant’s work before. Her book, Eighteenth-Century Letters and British Culture is a standard text for those interested in understanding the politics and practice of letter writing in eighteenth-century Britain. But I hadn’t read her work on smell, and on the role of smell in shaping identity.

Particularly intriguing to me was her method. Brant kept a “smell log” to “log smells that invite consideration, including how one might organise them into categories” (548).

What follows in the article are her observations, considerations and thoughts about smell and how it works.

Brant goes through her smell log with her “research assistant” (otherwise known as her dog), and she indicates that this process too, shapes her smell experience. After all, “[d]ogs,” she writes, “ignore human proprieties about smell: with no embarrassments, dogs sniff mouths, genitals, arses, and mostly seem satisfied with the information they get” (549). She writes about the smells of leaves and fresh lumber, and the ideas and emotional responses these evoke.

She also comments on urban life, and her journeys through London, where she works, and Oxford, where she lives. It’s and intriguing read.

“If I’m working in London, the day is distinct in its smellscape. Getting to London, I endure a plasticky smell on trains and greater proximity to people smells, of which the worst for me is not sweat but peppermint, which I loathe and which is a daily endurance. There’s an occasional gag-inducing experience … but or me, machines smell worse than people. Vehicle fumes make it hard to breathe, chokingly so. It begs the question, in the wake of public smoking, why our air is so noxious. London is not all a negative log: indeed one effect of living with a dog is that I accept readily that people are animals too” (549-550)

“I stood one winter evening at Paddington Station, waiting for a train. There were smells of diesel, plastics, traffic fumes, oil, newsprint, chips, burgers, disinfectant, coffee, cigarette and cigar smoke. I amused myself by distinguishing them, and thinking about the significance of naming a smell, whether putting a word to it changes its effect. It was cold and I put my fleece gloves to my face, for warmth. A surprise – my gloves had a delicate smell of dog …. I realised I must have patted or stroked her often enough for my gloves to have absorbed her light perfume. It was a beautiful moment of connection. It also made me pause and reflect on the rhythms of smells: when – and how! – do you decide on the removal of smells – time to wash this sweater, time to bath the research assistant?
Working at home in Oxford, most mornings I walk to the parks with my research assistant. She insists on examining many smells on walls an in gutters, especially the pee-mails left by other dogs which have to be carefully ‘read’ and sometimes answered. A whole zone of smells below human knee-level is thus revealed.” (550)

All of this made me realize the role that smell plays in how we understand ourselves and our histories. I returned to the smells that turn me on and to those that turn me off. I thought about the intensification of olfactory senses during pregnancy. And about the complex array of smells that enveloped me when I returned to The Netherlands last year for the first time in a decade.

And I wonder if I, too, should take some time to create a ‘smell log’ – just cataloguing, recording, and reflecting on the various smells in my environment and then thinking through what these smells might mean.

A lot of stuff to think about – and a whole world to smell!


Clare Brant, “Scenting a Subject: Odour Poetics and the Politics of Space.” ETHNOS 73.4 (2008): 544-63.


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