Purportedly, this blog is about “wonder”–and for me, smell ranks right up there with the most wonderous of them all. Over the years, I have been fascinated by smell, the conscious inquiry of ones’ environment through this particularly rich sense, and even more so since losing (and since regaining) the ability to smell almost two years ago. So, when a friend offered me one of her favorite reads, “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind, I was eager–more than eager, really.
It was about ten years ago that I discovered smells — that is, the first time I really smelled, with intention, hope and judgment. Up until this point, I knew only the general aromatic milieu of, you know, wet dog, big sister, dank basement, movie popcorn, mom’s baking–there was no precision, no granularity; smell was blurry and opaque, asking and giving in most modest proportions.
When they finally arrived, outdoors smells came first, though slowly–camp fires, grilled fish, fir trees, wet leaves, forest moss, fresh great lake water (which, to be sure, is full of smell and flavor).
It wasn’t long before I discovered people too. Surely, people smelled before this changing of the guard, but it was only after smell took over from vision did I really start to notice the attractive force of “chemistry”. For myself, and maybe for others, I had come to consciously identify “chemistry” with the left brain activities of language: “he understands me so well”, “we never run out of things to talk about”…etc etc…we’ve all seen people getting along like a house on fire when they’re caught up in a dialog of passion (romantic and otherwise). But as smell took over from vision, I came to wonder about vision, language and attraction…how do they work in concert to flood my body with excitement and demands? Still too, I had this lurking suspicion that music/aural sensation was yet a fourth sense to include in the mix of human pushes and pulls. How else can one explain the sudden repulsion from my up-to-then best friend upon hearing The Eagles blasting from his dorm room…? Was that a joke? At that precise moment, I realized there was alot I didn’t know about him–it was like this huge iceberg, and I dreaded finding out what else lurked in those waters of dubious aesthetics. And so, here I was with this book, Perfume, and I thought: Ah, now I’ll finally figure it out; I’ll plumb the great depths of what it means to be a sensory being.
I didn’t figure it out, and the book as a whole would have been more interesting if I hadn’t been been thrust into an inquiry along this very line of thought a great many years ago, at the very moment The Eagles made assault on my senses. That not withstanding, Suskind’s ending is superb, if only because he raises a truly great question: What if we know, we really know with certainty, and in fact we are right about it–what if we know how to make people like us, no not like, but rather to love us, to adore us, to worship the ground we walk upon, to cast off everything that is of great importance to be just that much closer to us…? So, let’s say we could have that power…but it would require changing ourselves in some way, or, to be more specific, it would require an enormous investment over years and years. And at the end of this period of work and investment, we would quite literally materialize before others as a fundamentally different person. The interesting revelation that Suskind provides, at least to my mind, is the rather startling notion that though you may appear different to others, you still appear exactly the same to yourself! The upshot: the very same sense of self that drives the main character to seek more power (because he is dissatisfied with having “less”) remains stuck to him like glue even after he has successfully summoned all the power he ever dreamed of!
We all know this. We do. The wisdom of every family member and self-help book repeats this, and yet, still we look constantly — all the time! — to change the way others perceive us. It’s as if we think that the goal of “self-improvement” can be achieved without feeling impact from the process and drive required to give birth to that goal. I think of weight-loss and two different view points, 1) I must lose weight because I’m too fat, and 2) I must lose weight because I am healthier and fitter than this. The first one nearly begs you to continue feeling sorry for yourself even as you may (or may not) succeed in shedding the pounds, and the second asks you to suspend disbelief and to change your own perception of self– placing the change required from YOU to come before the change you’re expecting from others. It’s not that we can’t and shouldn’t change ourselves, that we should avoid any kind of in-life adaptation of the self — but rather that we should watch carefully over our motivations to change. We can not expect to make ourselves anew if it is the old person responsible for the making.
This is exactly where Suskind’s main character serves as the perfect foil to himself — he revels in his own isolation, his very depression provides the one lasting source of contentment. And, so, it’s with revelatory irony that Suskind provides for him a life-long obsession with gaining the appeal and love of all of man kind. He ultimately achieves his dream and finds that he is loved, and that he still hates himself, that he still lacks the appeal and love of the one person he forgot to win over, himself.