What is Smell?

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‘The man who smells nice, in fact stinks.’

Thus wrote Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French philosopher, in his essay ‘On Smell’. (De Montaigne, 2003, p. 352)

The mere absence of offensive smell from body and breath was as pleasing to Montaigne as sweet fragrance: ‘The best we can hope for is to smell of nothing,’ he says. He acknowledged his enjoyment of living among good smells, but nothing pleased him better than the mild and natural smell of a healthy body. He suspected that people who cover their body with expensive perfumes stink the most. Clearly, he was a sceptical philosopher as regards perfumes. He theorised smell as a marker of health and the treatment of illness, of religious purification (the use of scents in churches), gender difference (the distinction between the genders in Montaigne’s time was based largely on bodily odours), as having a close affinity with the sense of taste (the oral drive) and finally, since malodourous air was considered to be the cause of illness, he was of the opinion that choice of place to live should depend on the smell of the air. So, for Montaigne, our sense of space was associated with olfaction. Socrates was like Montaigne in disdaining the use of perfumes. However, in ancient society there was a another logic at stake, since perfumes could disguise the olfactory differences between free citizens and slaves (Classon, 1994).

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in Émile that smell has the lowest rank of all the senses, justifying his idea by references to human evolution in a way that perhaps predicts what Freud had to say about olfaction and the anal drive in modern man. Rousseau also links the sense of smell to the imagination. So, for him, olfaction is stronger in women because they are more imaginative. He believed that children cannot be excited by odours because their other senses are not yet sufficiently well developed. Rousseau deals with olfaction in terms of evolution and sensuality rather than as a sense which has been transformed for a speaking being (Rousseau, 1991).

It is believed that the principal role of smell in pre-history was for detecting food, identifying threats and mating behaviour, or, in a word, to keep the human race from extinction. The development of language in human societies has complicated sensory experience for the subject of the unconscious, which came into being with the advent of language. The Freudian theory of the drive was the first attempt to theorise subjective function of the sensory field in speaking beings. We will discuss and elaborate the concept of the drive in more detail in the chapter devoted to the olfactory drive.

Human beings have always tended to preserve, retain and go back to whatever generates enjoyment for them. Many innovative ideas and inventions in the history of science can be seen as responses to such an original urge. Technologies that record images and sound effects are obvious examples. More recently, information technologies have enabled us to recreate the voices, noises and look of the Ancient World. Olfaction, however, is the most naturally preserved form of the senses and can extend backwards as far as recorded history and beyond. We do not need technological recreation of the smell of the Ancient World to tell us how woods, sea, roses, rotten carcases, etc., smelt thousands of years ago. The objects of olfaction, odour and scents that we have here and now let us be time travellers without need for a time machine!

Smell is the most powerful and intuitive among all types of sensory experience in a dialectical relationship between the subject and the Other, from the smell of the first significant Other, the mOther, to the smell of food and excrement, carrying a form of narrative while punctuating the subject’s relationship with the mOther, temporal and spatial metrics and, most importantly, their own body as the first Other. Smell is the most powerful marker of the past as well as leaving a mark at the level of the formation of the subject. Smell has a leading role in our relationship with the past and with historical life events. An olfactory stimulus can catapult us into the past even when we are not actively searching for a particular memory. Although it is often considered as what is most evanescent in the presence of the care giver and in the subject’s own presence (as compared with visual image, milk, voice and skin), smell is in fact the most profoundly preserved sense as a marker of being in the field of the subject and the Other. Such a complex power should make us ask what is smell? What is the status of olfaction for a speaking being whose existence and mortality finds a new meaning at the level of culture, influenced by language.

At another level of presence, in the dream work, smells and tastes are frequent references alongside images, sound and touch, in a subject’s account of their dreams. Let us start from a clinical anecdote to show the complexity of the meaning and function of olfactory experience from a psychoanalytic viewpoint.

Freud believed that the process of mourning can be manifested in a subject’s dreams and it is not uncommon in the clinic of psychoanalysis to hear of olfactory experiences in the patient’s dreams after they have lost someone close to them. A patient of mine who started analysis soon after losing her father reported that she was not able to see her father in her current dreams, but she sensed her father’s familiar smell before or upon waking up. So, she was reassured of her father’s presence in the dream through an olfactory experience, even though there was no image of him in any of the dream scenes. As her grief was processed over time, she recounted to me in a session that she had begun to see her father in her dreams and she no longer made mention of his familiar smell. It was as if the replacement in her dreams of olfactory sensation by sight marked the passing of the acute stage of her grief. The suggestion is that smell is a primitive sensual experience, more powerful than sight. It emerged from exploration of her earlier life events that she had been an anxious and temperamental child and had a very difficult relationship with her mother. She was often angry and dissatisfied with her mother and had experienced some paranoid phases in respect of her since childhood. She also remembered finding it difficult to focus in her studies and being hyperactive at school. Her parents had separated soon after her birth and she saw her father at weekends or during school holidays. A significant memory of her relationship with her father was of falling asleep quickly and peacefully in his arms. Olfaction had a significance presence in the accounts she gave of her childhood experiences. She had felt a calmness and used to fall asleep easily when she sensed her father’s smell. Much later in life, after her father died, she told me that the only memento she selected from her father’s belonging was his shirt, which carried his smell. From a Lacanian perspective we might say that her father’s smell was a marker of his name (the Name of the Father). It was a marker with a magical power, carrying an inscription from the past that had a reassuring interpretation for the subject. Another case extract with an olfactory reference shows again why there is more to olfaction than a mere sensory, corporeal perception and that olfaction cannot be pinned down to a conventional functionality. In a case of anorexia, a subject had developed the habit of satisfying her hunger by the smell and flavour of certain foods. She went shopping for food flavourings instead of actual food. The avoidance of eating, after a painful break up with her boyfriend, was her way of coping with separation – a theme that went back much further in her life history. Seen from the outside, she had replaced food by the object of olfaction (smell) as the oral object. But why smell could function for her in this way remained an open question and the particular type of smell (food flavour) that she chose offered a starting point for the analyst to tackle the question of enjoyment in a meticulous manner. The food flavourings she chose were mainly ‘basic flavours’ (banana, apple, cinnamon, vanilla, butter), which can be found in most baby foods. She added them to water or other low-calorie liquids, which she consumed. Further investigation revealed elaborate toiletry and defecation rituals, which she had developed since her teenage years. She had almost zero tolerance of unpleasant bodily smells, either her own or other people’s. These avoiding habits might suggest that she would live more happily and easily without her sense of smell. And yet her libidinal investment of this sense (her displaced eating habit, and also extravagant use of perfumes) indicated strong dependence on it. What was smell for her? Was it a proxy or a shield punctuating her distance from the Other, giving meaning to her existence, or was it simply an enjoyment derived from her olfactory faculty?

In this book, we will approach the aforementioned questions through the lens of analysis at the level of the speaking being by exploring cultural and clinical references.


Classon, C. (1994). The Aromas of Antiquity. pp. 13 – 25. In: Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. London: Routledge

De Montaigne, M. (2003). On Smells. pp. 352 – 354. In: Michel De Montaigne: The Complete Essays, M.A. Screech (Trans). London: Penguin Group

Rousseau, J. J. (1991). Emile; Or On Education. London: Penguin