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‘A Faint Mortal Odour’: The Elusive World of Smell in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

From: Dublin James Joyce Journal
Number 5, 2012
pp. 82-98 | 10.1353/djj.2012.0008

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As odours affect us on a physical, psychological, and social level, olfaction deserves our attention. And yet, despite its importance in our emotional and sensory lives, smell is probably the most undervalued sense in the modern Western world. We usually breathe in the aromas surrounding us without being consciously aware of their importance.1

This article explores some scentscapes and scentsibilities in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.2 Odours in their various manifestations will be traced, and Stephen’s susceptibility to and recall of smells will be discussed. The historical neglect of smell among the senses will be examined; the role of the olfactory in the religious realm across time will be considered as will the part played by scentsibility in literary characterization on the one hand and between readers on the other.

An outpouring of historical work on the senses in the past three decades has placed a major focus on vision and hearing. Concentrating on the West, especially Europe and North America, numerous critics such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Michel Foucault have argued that in the modern period, all other senses, and especially the sense of smell, have been relegated in favour of the ocular.3 These critics see the print revolution and its associated developments as enabling vision in crucial ways, so that sight became ‘the pre-eminent means and metaphor for discovery and knowledge, the sense par excellence of science’.4 Empowered by print, it objectified what was seen and allowed for distance and perspective.5 The importance of the other senses ‘dulled and lessened’ accordingly.6

The relative neglect of the olfactory sense has most commonly been explained by the treatment Sigmund Freud accorded it in Civilization and Its Discontents.7 Freud, of course, was working in the wake of Darwin, the naturalist who had postulated that in the evolutionary process, humans had lost their acuity of smell. Consequently, relegating olfaction seemed necessary for cultural progress; cultivating it would have signified regression to a more primitive state. Freud maintained that the visual sense had overtaken the olfactory one when humans began to walk upright. The nose was no longer close to the ground to pick up scents, while the visual field increased: ‘this made [man’s] genitals, which were previously concealed, visible and in need of protection, and so provoked feelings of shame in him’ which, in turn, produced ‘the fateful process of civilisation’,8 with all its attendant neuroses. As Freud held that individuals repeat the evolutionary process in their psychological development, the maturing person would replace the infant’s olfactory pleasures with visual ones. He considered adults still emphasizing the olfactory to be arrested in their psychological development.

In Odour Preferences, Robert Montcrieff, like other scientists, stresses that smells are loaded with affective tone:

Vision and hearing convey spatial and temporal relations accurately but they are often devoid of meaning in an emotional sense, whereas smell carries with it a liking or disliking.9

He maintains that ‘[i]t is because olfactory sensation is so heavily loaded with affective tone that it is so closely linked with temperament’,10 and claims rather pithily: ‘If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is fragrance in the nose.’11

If scientists and psychologists are right about the importance of smell, it ought to be worth paying more attention to it in literary texts as well. Although smells are notoriously difficult to capture in words, the sense of smell is often employed as a means of characterization: bound up with memories, it is highly subjective and hence intimate and emotional. It is the sense that pre-eminently mingles outer and inner as smells surround and penetrate us even more ineluctably than sounds.12

When attempting to investigate Stephen’s scentsibility in A Portrait, it is interesting to compare it with the narrator of Beckett’s novella First Love, not least due to the ironic tone of the key passages in both texts:

Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must. The smell of corpses, distinctly perceptible under those of grass...

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