Philosophy through Odor

by Chris Mack

May 14, 2018

Like all good art, good literature speaks to us on multiple levels. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind, gives us many levels to enjoy right from the start. It's a "how's this going to turn out" page-turner with possibly the creepiest villain in all of literature. It's an informative look at the art and science of perfume manufacturing. It's an historical novel full of sensuous details that also provides a hilarious skewering of pre-revolutionary French society (I know, like shooting fish in a barrel). But for me, the most interesting and engaging level of this magic realism novel, the whole point of the book really, is the philosophical one. For Perfume explores, using the sense of smell, one of the most important questions we can ask: what does it mean to be human?

Throughout the novel we encounter many characters that are all too human: vain, stupid, selfish people who show us that to be human is to be flawed. But we also meet numerous characters who lack one or more traits that most of us consider essential to our humanity. There is the mother who lacks all motherly instinct toward the multiple children she births and then then leaves for dead. There is the foster mother who, thanks to a blow to the head, lacks both the sense of smell and the ability to feel - a totally rational creature. There is the scientist who lacks even the slightest aptitude towards science. And then there is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, our hero, who has not a hint of a moral conscience.

Grenouille makes up for this lack by being endowed with two superpowers: his extraordinary, amazing sense of smell, and a memory of smells so complete as to provide recall as vivid as the original experience. Through these extremes, Grenouille provides the ideal proving ground for Rene Descartes' theory of mind-body duality, that mind and body are distinct and separable and that this duality is the defining characteristic of being human.

To explore the body, Suskind picks the sense of smell, an underappreciated sense that often works on an subconscious level. It is our most animal sense, and of course many animals have far superior abilities in this regard compared to humans. Grenouille is an animal, like all humans, but he is more animal thanks in part to his superhuman olfaction. He grows up caring for nothing but the acquisition of new smells. Never receiving love, his only love is for smell and he experiences odors without judgement or reflection. Part 1 of the book is devoted to the body. But Grenouille also exemplifies the separable mind. He has a memory palace of smells that he can call up and experience, quite separately from his body, at any time. In fact he has the ability to live almost completely in his mind, at one time spending seven years shutting out all bodily interruptions and living only on the memory of past odors. Part 2 of the book is devoted to the mind.

But in the end a mind without a body proves unsatisfying, and he embarks on the third phase of his life (and part 3 of the book) by engaging in a desire to not just experience and remember the world, but to manipulate it. After all, humanity is more than just a collection of individual humans - our interactions also define us. He sets out to prove that he can be loved by erasing the mind-body duality of others. Using perfume generated from stolen virginal innocence, he taps into the unconscious and inseparable connection between smell and emotion to make people uncontrollably change their loathing and hatred of him into both lust and love for him. But while Grenouille could make others love him, he still could not make himself love them back, which then leads Grenouille to the fourth and final part of the book. In the shocking final scene Grenouille undergoes a baptism of the perfect perfume and those around him are compelled to engage in the most animalistic behavior out of a sense of pure human love.

Of course, many philosophers today reject Cartesian dualism as an ineffectual attempt to justify a belief in the soul. Even still, Descartes towers over Western philosophy and much of what came after can be considered a response to his ideas. Suskind has given us his response, but there is still that tricky question: what does it mean to be human? What brings meaning to our lives? I think Suskind gives his answer to these questions as well: Grenouille is not human because he lacks the ability to love.

Chris Mack is a writer in Austin, Texas.

Copyright 2018, Chris Mack.

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