Scent: Repulsive and yet Desirable

Source: Scent

People who lose their sense of smell suffer greater emotional deterioration than people lose their vision. That’s because smell is a powerful way to read emotions.- David Brooks on Social Animal (2012: 16)

The sense of vision is overvalued. It has been suggested that vision is the site of knowledge. To see is to believe they say. Some would even go further as to claim that to see is to know. Convention has it that vision is the most superior sense of all, while other senses such as hearing, touching, tasting and yes smelling are all considered inferior to vision and therefore marginalized.

Unlike the superior sense of vision, the other marginalised senses including but not exclusively the sense of smell cannot be a reliable reference, because how could we verify that what we smell and how we smell are exactly the same thing? For example, imagine looking at a lavender, we can all provide an accurate and homogenous description of it. Although we all know the smell of lavender and would all could agree that what we are smelling is indeed a lavender, the emotions and experiences that the smell of lavender triggers are different from one person to another. While we can reproduce what we see, we cannot really reproduce what we smell nor translate them.

Vision is objective and transcendent, because it requires certain distance and detachment to see the object of gaze objectively. Sense of smell on the other hand is said to be subjective and situated because in order to smell, one has to establish proximity to the object being smelled. Like sense of smell, sense of taste also requires proximity. These two are intertwined. The smell  is so palpable. How many of you who have not eaten a soap and yet claimed that something taste like a soap?

Our civilization has organized smells based on the desirable and good smells from the repulsive and bad smells. We are preconditioned to like the good smell such as the smell of a flower which explains why perfumes are mostly flower scented. We are instructed to reject the smell associated with the uncultivated nature as body odours, sweat, animal extractions both by humans and non-humans.

Tradition dictates that when we encounter repulsive smells, we should reject and contain them. However, it is exactly those what we believed to be repulsive smells are the smells to which we are drawn. The flowery scents of the perfume we buy is just a decoy of the smells we find repulsive, because those repulsive smells that we find most exciting. In other words, when a woman wears a lavender scented perfume, it is not really the smell of the lavender that a man (or another woman) finds exciting, but the natural smell of body secretions of a woman (or a man) we are trained to find repulsive.

You do not believe me? Check the article written Laura U. Marks entitled ‘Thinking Multisensory Culture’. In that article she claims that: ‘The base notes of perfumes, similarly, are often sexual or animal odours that we have learned to find noxious in themselves, yet are seductive when masked. A fine meal or elegant perfume both recalls and refines our animal and vegetable nature. Smell, the chemical communication, is uncanny because it reminds us what we have in common with pigs – and with mushrooms’ (2013: 146). Of course, this article cannot stand as evidence on it’s own, but that could be a lead for further investigation.


Brooks, David. Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.

Marks, Laura U. “Thinking of Multisensory Culture.” Papenburg, Benita and Marta Zarzycka. Carnal Aesthetics: Transgressive Imagery and Feminist Politics. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 144-157.