It often happens: we hear a smell, in the street or elsewhere, it reminds us of something (but what ?!) and suddenly it is as if we fell into a trap door, we slip into another dimension that is not better defined . Sometimes the memory grabs it immediately, a drawer opens in the brain and behold, we have the image in front of our eyes: of course, it was the glue we used as children. Or we set up a short film of flashbacks, from one memory to another, where faces, places, encounters are added together, linked to the smell that has fallen upon us. Then there are the situations where we don't even notice.
The Atlas of found odors
A special writer, Roberta Deiana , helps us take the first step into the almost unknown territory of our sense of smell and the memories that she lights up with her Atlas of rediscovered smells, recently published by HarperCollins. A journey into the memory of our most submerged emotions, which distills unexpected stories and tales, revealing the poetry that can surprise us every day, behind every material and every sum of molecules, if we know how to listen to it and give it space.
Getting to know each other through the sense of smell
What is the smell of tempered pencils made of which, in a flash, brings us back to school? No, it's not just graphite. And that of petrol, why is it so popular? What do cities smell like? Deiana gives us the whys, the words and suggestions to start a new adventure, that of knowing ourselves, through the sense of smell, our very personal intangible emotional archive. He collected the smells of childhood, travel, food, night, metropolis and nature, and investigated why they have power over our lives. He selected, organized and analyzed them, looked for their origins, cultural ties, thanks to a surprising bibliography and literary witnesses such as Baudelaire, Proust and Pessoa. To then dedicate a compendium to artisan perfumery, which treasures the alchemy hidden among the most unthinkable smells.
Even smells can be designed
Yes, even for perfumes we can speak of a project, it is an “invisible design”. If some are designed to put a metropolis on us, others take us on a journey thanks to hints of asphalt. But there is also the one that contains the essence of gunpowder, which tells of the French Revolution and others that evoke the special smell given off by the earth after the rain. We are not used to talking about it, but in smells there are our experiences, sensations, moods, experiences, places, and the author, like a seeker of gold, has sifted them up to the molecules, to make us go back to the roots of our experiences, emotions. And she warns us, paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut: “When you smell a smell, pay attention to it”.
Roberta Deiana, research into smells, that digging deep, can it be compared to philosophy?
The procedure is similar, I really think that smells have a philosophical nature, you can stop at the appearance, or you can scratch under the surface and discover that they are something else. If we think of the pencil, we would like to say that the smell that most of all brings us back to childhood and to an experience, that of tempering, which has remained stuck in our memories, is given by graphite, but is also the result of the process of production, or the cedar wood that holds the lead and the glues used. Or we would think that what we hear of the sea is given by water and salt, but in reality it is the smell of the beach. There are complex themes, such as those that are intertwined with the smell of cleanliness that brings with it moral, social and historical implications.
In the book he writes that we lack the lexicon of smell. Why? What did we miss?
It is a sense that has always been very little talked about. Instead, the taste is overrated, because in reality it hears only five macro categories, sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (the savory, ed), but it does not feel the nuances such as the sense of smell, which is much more powerful than we think. Not only was it underestimated, but it was a source of fear. During the plague, bad smells were thought to be carriers of the disease. There has always been an escape from smells, a debasement. The meaning in Italian is almost negative, and since the lexicon follows the thought, there are no specific words for the sense of smell. On the one hand, there is no habit of describing smells, but there are no words either, so much so that we are used to using synaesthesia.
Sometimes smells bring us another world. Because?
What strengthens and gives power to smells is precisely the fact that they are invisible, when they are about to envelop us we don't realize it, we walk around with our defenses down. Instead, scientifically, there is a precise reason for this enormous power. Unlike the other senses, the impulses that the sense of smell captures do not go to the brain stem, which deals with vital functions, but go directly to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are the areas of the brain responsible for emotions and memory.
Can smells affect our life?
Of course, there are different disciplines that use it, from aromatherapy that uses essential oils to change moods to olfactory marketing, with which a company, a shop or a chain of hotels decide to diffuse certain smells in the air so that guests like to stop in a certain place, but also to increase the willingness to buy.
What did you discover that you never expected?
I speak of “rediscovered smells” because each chapter was a surprise. For example, I discovered that metals are odorless, what we feel is the chemical reaction of our skin and our sweat. Simple objects such as a key, a coin, a handle activate our smell, which speaks to us about us.
So we can say that every smell is relative? In the sense that it is how each of us feels it?
Everyone has their own sensitivity, it also depends on what we were used to as children. Since Ancient Egypt, good smell was considered a direct emanation of the gods, therefore moral. Instead, the bad smell was synonymous with immorality. This legacy reached as far as Christianity, where pagan smells were considered blasphemous and bad smells marked proximity to the devil. This has had very strong social implications . During colonialism (and not only, ed) the smells of other people, of foreigners, were used as proof of inferiority. There is a Japanese expression, bata-kusai, used to define us Westerners, who "know of butter", not exactly a compliment.
What are the smells that we would never have thought, contained in the most experimental perfumes?
When you ask someone about their favorite smell, you expect a romantic answer, many have mentioned petrol, solvents, glues and dry cleaners to me. Antiromantic smells, rude, but much loved and exploited by different perfumes. In some there are notes of petrol, asphalt, hints of gunpowder. Artistic perfumery has opened unexpected worlds.
What would our homes be like if the designers' choices were guided by smell as well as by sight and touch?
It would be desirable to have an interior design attentive to the sense of smell, to choose the materials by enhancing their smell, I am thinking of wood or leather, because it happens that the materials are treated so that they have less odor, in the name of control. Much depends on the degree of odor of the different materials, some are very strong and you may like it or not, we should create flexible shades. For now, we are working a posteriori with home fragrances, essential oils and candles.
Writes that every city has a perfume. Is there a gentrification of smells?
According to the scholar Victoria Henshaw, who made sensory maps of cities, we are losing them, because gentrification involves control and deodorization , in the sense that strong smells are perceived as inelegant and unsuitable for certain neighborhoods. The olfactory interventions in cities are transformative, then we can discuss the fact that the smell of fried food enriches a city, certainly changes and transforms it.
Has anyone ever thought about safeguarding places by virtue of their smells? A sort of new Unesco intangible heritage ?
In Japan they did it, the Ministry of the Environment has selected the 100 sites with a good smell. In France they have done the same for the countryside, in safeguarding the landscape odors are included, even that of fertilizer. In Italy the olfactory culture is neglected.
What would the reader of the book do when finished?
I would like you to come out with the awareness of how rich our world is and how much we can make our experience more special, paying attention to what may seem like details. We need to stop. Being able to stay in the moment they say is the secret of happiness, smells help.