On Breathing

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Smelling is inseparable from the act of breathing. Olfaction cannot exist without respiration, on which our survival from moment to moment depends. The breathing in and out of air, whether fragrant (giving pleasure to the subject) or foul (perhaps hazardous for health), gives meaning to the border of our being through a simple but foundational structure. The contrast of inside and outside is felt constantly, continuously and unconsciously. The tactile, scopic and invocatory faculties, unlike olfaction (and also taste), do not distinguish the inside and outside of our body, but only show the outer border of our body as distinct from its surroundings. Breathing and hence smelling are exceptional because they enter and exit the body without conscious awareness. We can control what we smell only by controlling our breathing. We breath in smells that are unwelcome and can only stop their inflow by holding our breath or breathing through our mouth, neither of which are sustainable for long. A patient of mine with severe obsessional rituals related to cleanness and dirt told me that she held her breath in public toilets and when standing close to others. Her aversion was not to foul odour, but rather to the bodily waste of others, as if that object was equated with its smell and breathing was a conduit, through which it might enter her body.

The air we breathe is always scented. We usually get used to new smells quickly and stop noticing them, but our first breath in every new space that we enter comes with a particular smell. When we arrive in a new city the smell of the air establishes its character and gives us new markers of space and time before we can make sense of its sights and sounds.

Our living being, which depends from moment to moment on breathing, is essentially marked by language and this fact gives other dimensions to the act of breathing. In religions and in literature breathing has been accorded a status beyond its physiological essentiality. In Judaism and Christianity, smell and breath play an important role in portraying and making the distinction between heaven and hell and, more generally, between what is pleasant and what is unpleasant. The common motif is that sweet smell is pleasant and is also healing or sacred. Religions forge links between the breath of God and the human soul. In the biblical account, human beings came into existence out of the dust and were given life by God’s breath – the breath of life into man’s nostrils.

Breathing is living and claiming life. It is intimate: lovers breathe each other’s air. The language of breathing is sexualised, and yet it is associated with a higher being. Respiration and hence smell are woven into our descriptions of our lived experience to an extent that would often surprise us if pointed out – the words of our descriptions become ‘smelly’. From the bad breath of the devil to the sweet breath of a lover, our speaking being is marked by breathing. One of the ultimate expressions found and used in the language of lovers is to be each other’s breath – a radical reference to mutual dependence – and intimacy is marked by breathing and tolerating each other’s bodily odours. Narratives around the first signs of love or on the contrary, the impossibility of intimacy with someone, are often enriched with references to breathing the air or smell of the other subject. We breathe each other’s air and this gives air (and odour) a unique quality compared to the other objects of the drives. Our shared yet individual dependence of the air around us makes breathing almost a competitive activity. In the Imaginary register, we make sense of our organic survival based on the air we take in. Breathing is living and as we strive to live we can find ourselves in competition with others. The first dyadic contrast with the other for an infant subject happens at birth when it has to breathe independently of its mother’s body. Certainly, the body of the new-born has to claim life in other ways as well, but breathing is surely the most radical change that occurs after birth compared with life in the womb. Breathing, as the key difference between life inside and outside the womb, can also be read as the first marker of freedom. The new-born child must still address its organic needs to the mOther, but the acquisition of language with all its layers and properties, starts with the independent breathing of air. So breathing opens a door to the matrix of complex communication and trading with the Other of body and language, involving both freedom and dependence.

First Breath

In human beings the first breath is simultaneous and identical with the first cry. The sound of air opening millions of air sacs in the lungs is the baby’s cry for life, and this coincidence of sound and respiration also coincides with the first olfactory experience as the inhaled air brings with it the first scent. Air penetrates the body before the body begins to ingest food, and brings with it odour – the olfactory object. As breathing proceeds autonomously, the young child is exposed to a diverse range of odours, pleasant and unpleasant. We might think of this division between fragrance and stench as the way in which a new-born perceives and interprets qualities prior to the acquisition of the language. Olfaction is the first tool for recognising people, food and places, when vision is not yet fully developed. As the new-born breathes in and out, odour is company to the vital air, so that vitality is bound up with the presence of odours. The meaning of otherness prior to any visualisation of the other (of non-self) also depends on olfactory experience. A subject breathes in the other and steps into life (both organically and psychically) before seeing themselves in the mirror in the presence of the other who speaks of the child’s appearance. So the beginnings of subjective formation come with olfactory experience of the other and predate the Lacanian conceptualisation of the mirror phase. It is thought-provoking that in most cultures there are more sayings around a child’s appearance than around its smell: olfactory perception has a silent presence in language compared with visual input. Many commentators (including Havelock Ellis) have speculated that this could be a fairly recent development, as if human smell has become unaesthetic in the modern world. The smell of the subject and other at the level of the mother-and-child relationship was elaborated in the previous chapter. Here, we want to emphasise breathing as an autonomous act, from which olfaction is inseparable. Later in life, a subject can control their breathing in order to avoid a strong odour, a stench or a particular scent. In infancy, however, olfactory experience happens to the subject involuntarily as it breathes air in order to survive.

Ernest Jones wrote about breathing and olfaction in a paper, which can be found in the second volume of his Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis. Referring to biblical accounts of the act of breathing, he highlights the connections made in the Bible between the act of breathing and fertilization (Mary’s impregnation by the breath of Gabriel) and the story in the Old Testament of the creation of man out of dust, where God breathes into man’s nostrils to make him into ‘a living soul’ (Jones, 1951, p.274). Jones elaborates the act of breathing on two planes: orality (breathing and speaking) and anality (the emission of air from the body). Equating breathing with the symbol of life and noting that absence of breath is the most basic test for death, Jones emphasises what he calls the ‘mysterious invisibility’ of this act. The same is also true for smell: it is invisible and therefore mysterious. However, Jones believes that the act of breathing has much less of a role in the formation of unconscious ideas compared with the emission of air from the body. Breathing, like heart-beat, is automatic, so the subject does not pay attention to it or show any interest in it. For Jones it is ‘excreted air’ (flatulence) which becomes associated with various affects and ideas in later life. The smelly air that issues from the intestines contributes to the formation of unconscious phantasies and other mental formations. He notes the identification between intestinal gas and sexual excretion in a reproduction phantasy that is common among children, whereby the flatulent gas/air from the father is what impregnates the mother. Jones refers to odour as just one of five attributes of the air that is emitted from the body (through either flatulence or eructation). His list of attributes is thought-provoking in relation to the various types of drive, which have been described in psychoanalysis. This list includes blowing movement (anal drive), sound (invocatory drive), invisibility (scopic drive), moisture, warmth (tactile drive) and lastly odour (olfactory drive) (Jones, 1951, p. 279). Jones applies his list to psychoanalytic accounts of unconscious phantasies and ideas around birth.

For Jones, then, it is not only the air which is breathed in and out, but specific characteristics of the wind emitted from the body which mark the inception of a subject. In Jones’ conceptualisation the subject takes breathing for granted as part of organic life, while mental life and phantasy stem from a ‘wind of life’! Discussing the connection between wind and the ‘fertilising principle’ he refers to both Greek mythology and the mythology of the Algonkin people in North America, both of which associate wind/air with the concept of fertility. In the Greek myth, Hera, the goddess of marriage and protector of women during childbirth, conceived Hephaestus by the wind, without union with Zeus (there are other versions of the story of Hera’s impregnation with Hephaestus, but Jones picks the version, which makes the wind into the fertilizer). He gives more examples from ancient philosophy (Aristotle and Pliny) and the myths of various peoples, which ascribe fertilizing qualities to the wind, and shows how the power of wind/air is elevated from a source of life, birth and creation to something akin to life itself or the essence of God. Air as an agent of birth and creation is transformed into the sacred breath of God, as if God is poured into the body of the subject with the power of turning him/her into a living and sexualised being.

Breath, then, is associated with mortality (the power of life and birth/rebirth) and sexuality (inhaling magical air with fertilizing power) as well as the soul and joy of being in a human subject. Is the first breath not a claim of life? Can we not see the infant’s first breath as the first step to independence from the caregiver, away from the dependence implied by the other essential needs, such as food, touch, warmth? This makes breathing a particular action of the subject, an assertion of individuality. Unlike sucking, defecation, the need to be held and kept warm or to hear the reassuring sound of the caregiver  near at hand, all of which call for the involvement of the Other, breathing happens autonomously and independently after birth. It does not call for the Other’s intervention. The new-born has to claim life by his or her first breath. What does this mean for the subject on the way to coming into being? In which way can the act of breathing, as an independent act intertwined with olfaction, mark the significance of the body (the Real body), the liveliness of a subject, his or her access to the enjoyment of the drive montage and formation of the first desire (being loved/wanted)?

At least, such thoughts and questions make it unsurprising that we find breath described as the ultimate form of shared life (‘being each other’s breath’) in poetic literature devoted to love and intimacy. Disgust at the odours of each other’s bodies, including the smell of each other’s breath, is usually far from the thoughts of lovers. In the language of poetry statements such as ‘you are the air I breathe’ or ‘you are my breath’ not only express the sense of being alive and the dependence between lover and beloved; they capture the extent and depth of connection between the couple, where the absence of boundary or of selfhood apart from the beloved is a key feature. Being ‘blind for love’ suggests an intimate connection between rationality and the visual faculty, both of which are obscured by love. But breath and olfaction take the level of intimacy and loss of boundaries to a whole new level. As was already discussed, olfaction, through its close relationship with breath, is the only sensory faculty which travels to the inner body (the Imaginary body), changes the subjective interpretation and significance beyond what can be imparted by a look or touch (the Symbolic body) and leaves the subject with an uncanny sensation or a particular excitation that is beyond any symbolic meaning (the Real body). Having agreed that the first breath is both an organic and a symbolic event, we then need to ask what happens around the new-born’s first experience of inhaling odorous air, which can leave an invisible mark on the Real being of the subject to be. This is a bodily event and any interruption or obstruction of breathing at the level of the organic body, and the way in which such situations are handled by the medical team or the mother, can have an impact on a subject’s mode of being. The presence and resonance of events around the first breath at the level of the caregiver’s narrative (and the narrative told by others) can also mark a subject. Such invisible marks are not necessarily focused on the airways of the body or the respiratory system as a whole: they can be manifest at the level of the olfactory faculty.


Jones, E. (1951). Essays In Applied Psychoanalysis, Vol II. London: Hogarth