Would Byatt be happy with my choice?
How We Lost Our Sense of Smell
The Guardian Unlimited
Imagine a modern room. Its magic window is open on another world where once the hearth used to be, with its wood smoke, or its smell of hot coal with a ghost of tar. The artificial paradises succeed each other. Sunny glades in dappled woodland, inviting tunnels of greenery like the shadowed rides in Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, where
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs
But in embalmed darkness guess each sweet...
Keats lists the guessed-at flowers and grasses:
White hawthorn and the pastoral eglantine,
Fast fading violets covered up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine
The murmurs haunt of flies on summer eves.
The television screen shows branches and violets. It shows pine forests and sheets of falling white water ending in curls of clean, shining spray. It shows meadows full of buttercups and pine forests full of mystery and crisp needles. It is telling you - enticing you - to recreate these atmospheres in your own home with air fresheners, with aerosol sprays of scented furniture polish, with jigging and extravagant canisters of flowery and fruity powder which will "freshen" your stale carpets, with droplets or waxy cones which drink up the odours of tobacco smoke and shaggy dogs and damp wool and replace them with tangy fruit and flower bouquets. Think how many such smells contend for supremacy in the room with the television. The lavender polish (with its sharp aerosol undertow), the rich, peachy freshener hanging in the window, the orris and attar of roses and orange peel in the carpet, the Glade, the Lavender Antiquax, the appley Pledge.
Move out into the kitchen, where the floors have been washed with sugary hyacinth disinfectant, where the dishwasher is scented with lemon and honey, where there is a kind of mixed artificial flower scent in the washing machine, and perfumed paper strips making the contents of the dryer smell of essence of concentrated plums and overwhelming extract of cloves, or vanilla, or potpourri, or all at once. You have seen ecstatic dancing women on your TV screen pressing their noses into heaps of enhanced-white towels, which do not smell of damp cotton but of lightness and freshness, you are told. Does pressing your nose into your own towels induce ecstasy?
You have a deodorising block in your refrigerator which does not smell of nothing, but of ersatz orange or lemon or lime. Your steam iron emits aromatherapeutic steam, valerian for headaches and stomach cramps, nutmeg for digestion, neroli oil as an anti-depressant and aphrodisiac.
Go out into the lavatory and your floor will smell of spring forest, your lavatory cleaner of "pine forest" or "aqua", which is not a smell of mussel shells and seaweed, or of froggy ponds and marsh marigolds, but another swoon-sweet mixed floral bouquet. The water-softening block in your loo tank will have its own strong, sweet odour, as will the little block you hang from the rim to odorise the water in the bowl, to make it smell "clean". There will be air fresheners in canisters to spray high into the air, from where they drop and drip in wisps of rosy or spicy or peardroppy vapour. In France, even your lavatory paper will be printed with rosebuds or fleurs-de-lys and be " délicatement parfumé ". ...
.... If these were sounds they would be a cacophony. As with sounds, you are inured to it and turn up the volume. ....
.... Scent also comes from the French, sentir, a word which means both to smell and to feel, acknowledging the primitive nature of the scenting sense. Scent is to do with our sense of our own identity, with our recognition of other people's identities and their emotions, with sex, with infant-mother bonding. It is also to do with finding things and places, with tracking prey and locating food, from mushrooms to honey. It is not an easy thing to describe at this level. ...