There are some powerful odors that can pass
Out of the stoppard flagon; even glass
To them is porous. Oft when some old box
Brought from the East is opened and the locks
And hinges creak and cry; or in a press
In some deserted house, where the sharp stress
Of odors old and dusty fills the brain;
An ancient flask is brought to light again
And forth the ghosts of long-dead odors creep.
When opening a perfume bottle and receiving a jolt that lifts some recollection from the depth of memory, I often think of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flask. The word perfume derives from Latin: per means through, fumum signifies smoke. Through the smoke of incense offerings to the gods… Through the mist of time, the past comes back in veils of images long lost under the layers of information the brain processes on daily basis. Three percent of our genes are devoted to olfaction, which is an impressive number. According to my neuroscience textbook (Nicholls et al., 2001), “odors are detected in a patch of about 100,000 olfactory receptor neurons whose axons project through a thin portion of the frontal skull to the olfactory bulb.” In comparison to visual and auditory receptors (four and one, respectively), the number of olfactory receptors is much higher, about 1,000. Moreover, unlike other receptors, they are continuously replaced….
I step into the blinding June sunlight, determined to take a walk despite the heat. The scent of my sunscreen mixed with a hint of Après l’Ondée almost changes the scenery around me, taking me back to Warsaw, where I was gathering data on economic reforms in July of last year. I was interviewing various Polish politicians, and in between talking about the benefits of establishing local governments and copying endless data from the Statistical Library, I would wander around the city, exploring its parks—my favorite Park Łazienkowski overgrown with mock orange and some white shrub that smells like wet paper, outdoor café shops, and museums. After a Polish guide went on a long harangue about Russians during a visit to yet another palace, I wisely decided to hide my Russo-Ukrainian origins. I would usually say that I was Estonian, until a cab driver asked me what is “hello” in Estonian. I muttered something incomprehensible and quickly paid my fare, giving him far too large of a tip by accident.
And suddenly, I am standing in a middle of one of the oldest American cities, and the memory of Warsaw, including this incident springs to my mind as if some invisible button was pushed. The same feeling of being caught in a lie makes me blush immediately, followed by a nostalgic longing for a cup of coffee and a piece of charlotka, a Polish apple cake, at Blikle café. Someone once remarked, if only moments can be bottled. Indeed, they can.
Yet, the scent can not only conjure the past, it can shape new longings and new visions. In conclusion, I would like to quote another of Baudelaire’s poems, Exotic Perfume, which explores the images that the poet envisions after inhaling his lover’s perfume:
Islands of Lethe where exotic boughs
Bend with their burden of strange fruit bowed down,
Where men are upright, maids have never grown
Unkind, but bear a light upon their brows.
Led by that perfume to these lands of ease,
I see a port where many ships have flown
With sails outwearied of the wandering seas…
Painting: Portrait of Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet, 1848.
References: Nicholls et al, 2001; The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire. Ed. James Huneker.