Smell is a sensual sense


In high school there was a time when I got fond of Heinrich Böll. Also literary passions follow season and today I would not feel the same emotions I felt back then. Still, there is one novel from Böll who remained impressed in my mind. The title is “Opinions of a Clown” and I remember that after reading it in my still bad German, I read it better in Italian.
It is a rather melancholic story lasting for only three hours. I was inexplicably fascinated by the idea of squeezing so many reflections, expressed over some hundreds pages, in so few minutes. The story per se is static, with no action, but full of emotions, deeply nostalgic and leaning towards a depressive spirit that still attracts me in an almost morbid way.
The protagonist is Hans Schnier, a young clown from Bonn who locks himself in his apartment following the umpteenth social failure, and surrenders to a painful and self degrading self pity. He goes mentally through his disappointments and frustrations, to which he feels to be condemned forever. The most painful is the deep romantic setback with Maria, whom he loved and lost, because of the attraction of a bourgeois world which she felt much more attracted to than a sad circus tent. Hans can just seek refuge behind is colored mask, without any hypocrisy and let himself be surrounded by suffered memories, while indulging to an emotive decadence in a vicous alcoholic circle. I still have the final image of the novel clearly printed in my mind: a grimace of make-up against the grey of a sidewalk, with his collar up and his hat in hands, to beg for smiles…a sad clown, grotesquely camouflaged in an equally sad carnival.
The book is actually rich in social implications which can help to judge. However, what attracted me most and still fascinates me today is the psychological underground and un expected quality of the miserable clown. Hans had the mystical prerogative to smell through the telephone. When he took the phone in his desolate flat, Hans not only heard a voice, but also smelled perfumes, aromas and scents, a mix a mix of absolutely intangible fragrances, impossible to transmit and to distinguish even in presence of the source itself. It seemed to be a nonsense, a paradox, that a young man who relinquished to enjoy life could grasp in such a way the essence of life itself, the primordial and animal signs of existence: scents!
The smell is a suave, elusive, sensual, powerful and involving sense, right because of its pheromonic action which seduces and inadvertently induces.
This painting like image of Heinrich Böll’s novel is even more attractive today, after amassing knowledge in psychology and neuroscience. I am attracted to the bizarre idea that, maybe, somebody can actually live this sensorial experience. Somebody with such a refined and sensitive sense to be able to decipher codes in the air, which are not perceivable by most, even at kilometers of distance and through complex technological tools. Maybe, if such a sense existed, it would not just pertain to the olfactory sense, but to a more complex and intricate neural network, where manifold sensorial organs would be entangled, including neurons, neurotransmitters, synapses, and who knows what else…
And I ask, then, if also the pronounced world, beyond the written one, can transmit scents, which can be perceived by people who are particularly gifted with this receptivity?
The question is not that mischievous. It could happen that an email or facebook message, would release smelling particles in the air from the monitor: tobacco, coffee, chocolate, jasmine, sandalwood, mandarin, mint, cinnamon, all through the communication transmitted from far away, and by means of a meaningless keyboard, projected in a wall of pixels, which can divide bodies but unify souls, as a hypnotic virtual veil.
I confess that this happens to me, at times, and I am sure it happens to some of you too! It happens that you read messages and smell scents which fills the atmosphere, or sharp aromas, or bubbling perfumes, all coming from the vortex of written words and rhythmical prose.
If this a seventh or tenth sense, an ingenuous suggestion of the mind or a magic charm of the heart, I do not know. Still, I know the fascination of following sensations towards a shared, more tangible and less virtual “elsewhere”. A dimension beyond logics and reason, aimed at capturing the soul of a person who writes to us from far away, with kindness, passion, irony, desire, embarrassment, excitation or love. Written words transmit the scent of the writer much more than a voice in a telephone or headset. This scent can change your mood and it can be imagined and shared if we learn to “feel” through the heart.
A lightly honey scent accompanied this lazy fall day, a day which appeared colorless but suddenly acquired a taste. I do not known if this is thanks to the memory of a novel of my youth, or some lines which came unexpectedly out of my monitor…but this was a sweet and growing olfactory “intoxication”, which is still lively and that I would like it to never disappear.
If some smell sensitive soul, like me and poor Hans, happened to read my delirious lines, I would understand if he turned up his nose at this absurdity! However, he should not worry about bad smells: my words would just leave an innocent a candid talcum underground scent with a vanilla aftertaste, mixed with a bit of fire red pepper, to stimulate the slightly honey scent which still lingers languidly between nose, head and heart…

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