The challenge of writing about smells


In 3QuarksDaily.com, Rishidev Chaudhuri writes a brilliant review of the now classic book on perfumes, “Perfumes: The A-Z Guide” by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. Turin and Sanchez review 1,800 fragrances from both niche and mainstream companies and weigh their merits in some of the most exhilarating and witty writing I have read in a long while about anything.  Chaudhuri discusses the near impossibility of writing about smells because of the paucity of vocabulary to describe olfactory sensations. Most of the describing happens through metaphors and similes, but how can we account for how a “fecal” note might smell from one person to another?

This difficulty is precisely why I’ve shied away from writing about perfume. I am an art critic, but I find it impossible to write about abstract painting because it taps into my visual world yet frustrates my access to language to adequately write about it. As I come upon each thought or phrase, the next one escapes me in a puff of smoke. Perhaps this is the wonderful thing about good art: it transcends comprehension, makes you believe you know what you are seeing (or smelling) but it is beyond our linguistic skills to categorize it in any way.

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