One night last December I put some Vicks VapoRub under my nose to help me breathe, and I failed to experience that familiar hit of camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol that makes you feel like the top of your skull is about to blow off. Instead of smelling anything, I was intensely aware of the touch of my ointment-smeared fingers on my skin. But when I tried to discern the odor that I knew was there I came up against a kind of weird blankness. My nose had gone blind.
(You know what loss of smell is a symptom of, right?)
Determined to smell something, I got out my box of essential oils. I started with my favorite, lavender, inhaled, and got nothing. I tried sandalwood, then rosemary, oregano, and white thyme and got that same odd absence. I was saving tea tree oil for last. Even if none of the others worked, surely that resinous, woody scent would come through. I took a deep inbreath…and the only sensation was of the air rushing into my nostrils.
This went on for days. I couldn’t smell the white vinegar I poured into the washing machine, or the bitter almond Jergen’s on my hands, or, and this was especially distressing, my morning coffee, which simply tasted brown and warm. Other than at mealtimes, however, I can’t say that I missed my sense of smell very much. I would have lost my mind if I had had to go for days unable to see or hear. Without proprioception I might have fallen into a snowdrift, and if at the same time I had lost my sense of touch I would have gotten frostbite. But without the sense of smell and the concomitant loss of taste, life wasn’t all that different from the usual, which is a measure of how pathetically limited, even at its most acute, the olfactory sense is in us humans.
On the other hand, losing the sense of smell would have been disastrous for my little dog Bisou, whose nose, according to the AKC, is 100,000 times more sensitive than mine, and describes for her a rich and endlessly captivating universe, as you know if you have ever taken a dog for a walk. This leads me to wonder what else I am missing as I wander our multi-colored, multi-textured, multi-scented, polyphonic planet. Other creatures—including other humans—see, hear, smell, and feel sensations whose existence I don’t even suspect. Even when Covid-free, my senses take in only a few measly crumbs from the earth’s sensory banquet.
This is where Art comes to the rescue. Each poem, sonata, sculpture, and still-life constitutes a window into the universe of the individual artist, of which we would otherwise remain ignorant. Here, in the poem, Correspondences, is Baudelaire on smells: “There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children,/Sweet as oboes, green as meadows,/— And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant…” (Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants/Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies/—Et d’autres corrompus, riches et triomphants…)
Wow, triumphant perfumes, who knew? But if Bisou could read poetry, she would know exactly what Baudelaire meant.
For days on end I couldn’t even smell burnt toast, and I wondered if my sense of smell, along with its handmaid, taste, had abandoned me forever. I read online that it was important to “retrain” the nose by exposing it to strong stimuli. Did this mean that the brain could forget how to smell? To avoid this catastrophe, every night before bed I faithfully stuck my nose into the jar of Vicks, and followed it with a deep sniff of tea tree oil. And one blessed day I was finally rewarded with the slightest hint of camphor from the ointment, the merest soupçon of resin from the oil.
My ability to smell is slowly becoming stronger, but I still have a ways to go, and I continue my Vicks and tea tree exercises. No matter how hard I practice, however, I will never come anywhere near Bisou’s olfactory virtuosity. But I’m hoping to return to a full appreciation of my morning coffee, and perhaps someday to encounter one of those oboe-sweet, prairie-green fragrances, or even some that qualify as corrompus, riches et triomphants.