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The Name, the Nose

Epigraphs in an undecipherable language, half their letters rubbed away by the sand-laden wind: this is what you will be, O parfumeries, for the noseless man of the future. You will still open your doors to us, your carpets will still muffle our footsteps, you will receive us in your jewel-box space, with no jutting corners, the walls of lacquered wood, and shopgirls or patronnes, colorful and soft as artificial flowers, will let their plump arms, wielding atomizers, graze us, or the hem of their skirts, as they stand tip-toe on stools, reaching upwards. But the phials, the ampules, the jars with their spire-like or cut-glass stoppers will weave in vain from shelf to shelf their network of harmonies, assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas: our deaf nostrils will no longer catch the notes of their scale. We will not distinguish musk from verbena: amber and mignonette, bergamot and bitter-almond will remain mute, sealed in the calm slumber of their bottles. When the olfactory alphabet, which made them so many words in a precious lexicon, is forgotten, perfumes will be left speechless, inarticulate, illegible.

How different were the vibrations a great parfumerie could once stir in the spirit of a man of the world, as in the days when my carriage would stop, with a sharp tug at the reins, at a famous sign on the Champs-Elysées, and I would hurriedly get out and enter that mirrored gallery, dropping with one movement my cloak, top hat, cane, and gloves into the hands of the girls who hastened to receive them, while Madame Odile rushed toward me as if she were flying on her frills.

"Monsieur de Saint-Caliste! What a pleasant surprise! What can we offer you? A cologne? An essence of vetivert? A pomade for curling the moustache? Or a lotion to restore the hair's natural ebony hue?"

And she would flicker her lashes, her lips forming a sly smile. "Or do you wish to make an addition to the list of presents that my delivery boys carry each week, discreetly, in your name, to addresses both illustrious and obscure, scattered throughout Paris? Is it a new conquest you are about to confide in your devoted Madame Odile?"

Overcome with agitation as I was, I remained silent, writhing, while the girls already began to concern themselves with me. One slipped the gardenia from my buttonhole so that its fragrance, however faint, would not disturb my perception of the scents; another girl drew my silk handkerchief from my pocket so it would be ready to receive the sample drops from which I was to choose; a third sprinkled my waistcoat with rose water, to neutralize the stench of my cigar; a fourth dabbled odorless lacquer on my moustache, so it would not become impregnated with the various essences, confusing my nostrils.

And Madame went on: "I see! A great passion! Ah! I've been expecting this for some time, Monsieur! You can hide nothing from me! Is she a lady of high degree? A reigning queen of the Comédie? Or the Variétés? Or did you make a carefree excursion into the demi-monde and fall into the trap of sentiment? But, first of all, in which category would you place her: the jasmine family, the fruit blossoms, the piercing scents, or the Oriental? Tell me, mon chou!"

And one of her shopgirls, Martine, was already tickling the tip of my ear with her finger wet with patchouli (pressing the sting of her breast, at the same time, beneath my armpit), and Charlotte was extending her arm, perfumed with orris, for me to sniff (in the same fashion, on other occasions, I had examined a whole sampler, arrayed over her body), and Sidonie blew on my hand, to evaporate the drop of eglantine she had put there (between her parted lips I could glimpse her little teeth, whose bites I knew so well), and another, whom I had never seen, a new girl (whom I merely grazed with an absent pinch, preoccupied as I was), aimed an atomizer at me, pressing its bulb, as if inviting me to an amorous skirmish.

"No, Madame, that's not it, that's not it at all," I managed to say. "What I am looking for is not the perfume suited to a lady I know. It is the lady I must find! A lady of whom I know nothing -- save her perfume!"

At moments like these Madame Odile's methodical genius is at its best: only the sternest mental order allows one to rule a world of impalpable effluvia. "We shall proceed by elimination," she said, turning grave. "Is there a hint of cinnamon? Does it contain musk? Is it violet-like? Or almond?"

But how could I put into words the languid, fierce sensation I had felt the previous night, at a masked ball, when my mysterious partner for the waltz, with a lazy movement, had loosened the gauzy scarf which separated her white shoulder from my moustache, and a streaked, rippling cloud had assailed my nostrils, as if I were breathing in the soul of a tigress?

"It's a different perfume, quite different, Madame Odile, unlike any of those you mention!"

The girls were already climbing to the highest shelves, carefully handing one another fragile jars, removing the stoppers for barely a second, as if afraid the air might contaminate the essences in them.

"This heliotrope," Madam Odile told me, "is used by only four women in all Paris : the Duchesse de Clignancourt, the Marquise de Menilmontant, the wife of Coulommiers the cheese-manufacturer, and his mistress. . . . They send me this rosewood every month especially for the wife of the Tsar's Ambassador. . . . Here is a potpourri I prepare for only two customers: the Princess of Baden-Holstein and Carole, the courtesan. . . . This artemisia? I remember the names of all the ladies who have bought it once, but never a second time. It apparently has a depressant effect on men."

What I required of Madame Odile's specific experience was precisely this: to give a name to an olfactory sensation I could neither forget nor hold in my memory without its slowly fading. I had to expect as much: even the perfumes of memory evaporate: each new scent I was made to sniff, as it imposed its diversity, its own powerful presence, made still vaguer the recollection of that absent perfume, reduced it to a shadow.

"No, it was sharper . . . I mean fresher . . . heavier. . . ." In this seesawing of the scale of odors, was lost, I could no longer discern the direction of the memory I should follow: I knew only that at one point of the spectrum, there was a gap, a secret fold where there lurked that perfume which, for me, was a complete woman.

And wasn't it, after all, the same thing in the savannah, the forest, the swamp, when they were a network of smells, and we ran along, heads down, never losing contact with the ground, using hands and noses to help us find the trail? We understood whatever there was to understand through our noses rather than through our eyes: the mammoth, the porcupine, onion, drought, rain are first smells which become distinct from other smells; food, non-food; our cave, the enemy's cave; danger -- everything is first perceived by the nose, everything is within the nose, the world is the nose. In our herd, our nose tells us who belongs to the herd and who doesn't; the herd's females have a smell that is the herd's smell, but each female also has an odor that distinguishes her from the other females. Between us and them, at first sight, there isn't much difference: we're all made the same way, and besides, what's the point of standing there staring? Odor, that's what each of us has that's different from the others. The odor tells you immediately and certainly what you need to know. There are no words, there is no information more precise than what the nose receives. With my nose I learned that in the herd there is a female not like the others, not like the others for me, for my nose; and I ran, following her trail in the grass, my nose exploring all the females running in front of me, of my nose, in the herd; and there I found her, it was she who had summoned me with her odor in the midst of all those odors; there, I breathed through my nose all of her and her love-summons. The herd moves, keeps running, trotting, and if you stop, in the herd's stampede, they are all on top of you, trampling you, confusing your nose with their smells; and now I'm on top of her, and they are pushing us, overturning us; they all climb on her, on me; all the females sniff me; all the males and females become tangled with us, and all their smells, which have nothing to do with that smell I smelled before and now smell no longer. It is waiting for me to hunt for it. I hunt for her spoor in the dusty, trampled grass. I sniff. I sniff all the females. I no longer recognize her. I force my way desperately through the herd, hunting for her with my nose.

For that matter, now that I wake up in the smell of grass and turn my hand to make a zlwan zlwan zlwan with the brush on the drum, echoing Patrick's tlann tlann on his four strings, because I think I'm still playing She knows and I know, but actually there was just Lenny knocking himself out, sweating like a horse, with his twelve strings, and one of those birds from Hampstead kneeling there and doing some things to him, while I was playing ding bong dang yang, and all the others including me were off. I was lying flat, the drums had fallen and I hadn't even noticed, I reach out to pull the drums to safety or else they'll kick them in, those round things I see, white in the darkness, I reach out and I touch flesh, by its smell it seems warm girl's flesh, I hunt for the drums which have rolled on the floor in the darkness with the beer cans, with all the others who have rolled on the floor naked, in the upset ashtrays, a nice warm ass in the air, and saying it's not so hot you can sleep naked on the floor, of course there are a lot of us shut up in here for God knows how long, but somebody has to put more shillings in the gas stove that's gone out and is making nothing but a stink, and, out as I was, I woke up in a cold sweat all the fault of the lousy shit they gave us to smoke, the ones who brought us to this stinking place down by the docks with the excuse that here we could make all the racket we liked all night long without having the fuzz on our tails like always, and we had to go someplace anyway after they threw us out of that dump in Portobello Road, but it was because they wanted to make these new birds that came after us from Hampstead and we didn't even have time to see who they were or what they looked like, because we always have a whole swarm of groupies after us when we play somewhere, and specially when Robin breaks into Have mercy, have mercy on me, those birds turn on and want to do things right away, and so all the others begin while we're still up there sweating and playing and I'm hitting those drums ba-zoom ba-zoom ba-zoom, and they're at it, Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, ma'am, and so tonight, just like the other times, we didn't do anything with these groupies even if they do follow our bunch so logically we ought to make it with them, not those others.

So now I get up to hunt for this lousy gas stove to put some shillings in it and make it go, I walk with the soles of my feet on hair asses butts beer cans tits glasses of whisky spilled on the carpet, somebody must have thrown up on it too, I better go on all fours, at least I can see where I'm going, and besides I can't stand up straight, so I recognize people by the smell, our bunch with all that sweat sticking to us is easy to recognize, I can tell us from the others who stink only of their lousy grass and their dirty hair, and the girls too who don't take many baths, but their smells mix with the others a little and are a little different from the others as well, and every now and then you run into some special smells on these girls and it's worth lingering a minute and sniffing, their hair for example, when it doesn't absorb too much smoke, and in other places too, logically, and so I am crossing the room, smelling some of these smells of sleeping girls until at one point I stop.

As I say, it's hard really to smell one girl's skin, especially when you're all in a big tangle of bodies, but there beneath me I'm surely smelling a girl's white skin, a white smell with that special force white has, a slightly mottled skin smell probably dotted with faint or even invisible freckles, a skin that breathes the way a leaf's pores breathe the meadows, and all the stink in the room keeps its distance from this skin, maybe two inches, maybe two fractions of an inch, because meanwhile I start inhaling this skin everywhere while she sleeps with her face hidden in her arms, her long maybe red hair over her shoulders down her back, her long legs outstretched, cool in the pockets behind the knees, now I really am breathing and smelling nothing but her, who must have felt, still sleeping, that I am smelling her and must not mind, because she rises on her elbows, her face still held down, and from her armpit I move and smell what her breast is like, the tip, and since I'm kind of astride, logically it seems the right moment to push in the direction that makes me happy and I feel she's happy too, so, half-sleeping, we find a way of lying and agree on how I should lie and how she should now beautifully lie.

Meanwhile the cold we haven't been feeling we feel afterwards and I remember I was on my way to put shillings in the stove, and I get up, I break away from the island of her smell, I go on crossing among unknown bodies, among smells that are incompatible, or rather repulsive, I hunt in the others' things to see if I can find some shillings, following the gas-stink I hunt for the stove and I make it work, gasping and stinking more than ever, following its loo stink I hunt for the loo and I piss there, shivering in the gray light of morning that trickles from the little window, I go back into the darkness, the stagnation, the exhalation of the bodies, now I have to cross them again to find that girl I know only by her smell, it's hard to hunt in the dark but even if I saw her how can I tell it's her when all I know is her smell, so I go on smelling the bodies lying on the floor and one guy says fuck off and punches me, this place is laid out in a funny way, like a lot of rooms with people lying on the floor in all of them, and I've lost my sense of direction or else I never had one, these girls have different smells, some might even be her only the smell isn't the same any more, meanwhile Howard's waked up and he's already got his bass and he's picking up Don't tell me I'm through, I think I've already covered the whole place, so where has she gone, in the midst of these girls you can begin to see now the light's coming in, but what I want to smell I can't smell, I'm roaming around like a jerk and I can't find her, Have mercy, have mercy on me, I go from one skin to another hunting for that lost skin that isn't like any other skin.

For each woman a perfume exists which enhances the perfume of her own skin, the note in the scale which is at once color and flavor and aroma and tenderness, and thus the pleasure in moving from one skin to another can be endless. When the chandeliers in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré's drawing rooms illuminated my entrance into the gala balls, I was overwhelmed by the pungent cloud of perfumes from the pearl-edged décolletés, the delicate Bulgarian-pink ground giving off jabs of camphor which amber made cling to the silk dresses, and I bowed to kiss the Duchesse du Havre-Caumartin's hand, inhaling the jasmine that hovered over her slightly anemic skin, and I offered my arm to the Comtesse de Barbès-Rochechouart, who ensnared me in the wave of sandalwood that seemed to engulf her firm, dark complexion, and I helped the Baronne de Mouton-Duvernet free her alabaster shoulder from her otter coat as a gust of fuchsia struck me. My papillae could easily assign faces to those perfumes Madame Odile now had me review, removing the stoppers from her opalescent vials. I had devoted myself to the same process the night before at the masked ball of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre; there was no lady whose name I could not guess beneath the embroidered domino. But then she appeared, with a little satin mask over her face, a veil around her shoulders and bosom, Andalusian style; and in vain I wondered who she was, and in vain, holding her closer than was proper as we danced, I compared my memories with that perfume never imagined until then, which enclosed the perfume of her body as an oyster encloses its pearl. I knew nothing of her, but I felt I knew all in that perfume; and I would have desired a world without names, where that perfume alone would have sufficed as name and as all the words she could speak to me: that perfume I knew was lost now in Madame Odile's liquid labyrinth, evaporated in my memory, so that I could not summon it back even by remembering her when she followed me into the conservatory with the hydrangeas. As I caressed her, she seemed at times docile, then at times violent, clawing. She allowed me to uncover hidden areas, explore the privacy of her perfume, provided I did not raise the mask from her face.

"Why this mystery, after all?" I cried, exasperated. "Tell me where and when I can see you once more. Or rather, see you for the first time!"

"Do not think of such a thing, Monsieur," she answered. "A terrible threat hangs over my life. But hush -- there he is!"

A shadow, hooded, in a violet domino, had appeared in the Empire mirror.

"I must follow that person," the woman said. "Forget me. Someone holds unspeakable power over me."

And before I could say to her, "My sword is at your service. Have faith in it!", she had already gone off, preceding the violet domino, which left a wake of Oriental tobacco in the crowd of maskers. I do not know through which door they succeeded in slipping away. I followed them in vain, and in vain I plagued with questions all those familiar with le tout Paris. I know I shall have no peace until I have found the trail of that hostile odor and that beloved perfume, until one has put me on the trail of the other, until the duel in which I shall kill my enemy has given me the right to tear away the mask concealing that face.

There is a hostile odor that strikes my nose every time I think I've caught the odor of the female I am hunting for in the trail of the herd, a hostile odor also mixed with her odor, and I bare my incisors, canines, premolars, and I am already filled with rage, I gather stones, I tear off knotty branches, if I cannot find with my nose that smell of hers I would like to have at least the satisfaction of finding out the owner of this hostile odor that makes me angry. The herd has sudden shifts of direction when the whole stream turns on you, and suddenly I feel my jaws slammed to the ground by a club's blow on my skull, a kick jabs into my neck, and with my nose I recognize the hostile male who has recognized on me his female's odor, and he tries to finish me off by flinging me against the rock, and I recognize her smell on him and I am filled with fury, I jump up, I swing my club with all my strength until I smell the odor of blood, I leap on him with my full weight, I batter his skull with flints, shards, elkjaws, bones, daggers, horn harpoons, while all the females form a circle around us, waiting to see who will win. Obviously, I win, I stand up and grope among the females, but I cannot find the one I am looking for; caked with blood and dust, I cannot smell odors very clearly any more, so I might as well stand on my hind legs and walk erect for a while.

Some of us have got into the habit of walking like this, never putting hands on the ground, and some can even move fast. It makes my head swim a little, and I raise my hands to cling to boughs as I used to when I lived in trees all the time, but now I notice that I can keep my balance even up there, my foot flattens against the ground, and my legs move forward even if I don't bend my knees. Of course, by keeping my nose suspended up here in the air, I lose a lot of things: information you get by sniffing the earth with all the spoors of animals that move over it, sniffing the others in the herd, specially the females. But you get other things instead: your nose is drier, so you can pick up distant smells carried by the wind, and you find fruit on the trees, birds' eggs in their nests. And your eyes help your nose, they grasp things in space -- the sycamore's leaves, the river, the blue stripe of the forest, the clouds.

In the end, I go out to breathe in the morning, the street, the fog, all you can see in dustbins: fish scales, cans, nylon stockings; at the corner a Pakistani who sells pineapples has opened his shop; I reach a wall of fog and it's the Thames. From the railing, if you look hard, you can see the shadows of the same old tugs, you can smell the same mud and oil, and farther on the lights and smoke of Southwark begin. And I bang my head against the fog like I was accompanying that guitar chord of In the morning I'll be dead, and I can't get it out of my mind.

With a splitting headache, I leave the parfumerie; I would like to rush immediately to the Passy address I wrested from Madame Odile after many obscure hints and conjectures, but instead I shout to my driver: "The Bois, Auguste! At once! A brisk trot!"

And as soon as the phaeton moves, I breathe deeply to free myself of all the scents that have mingled in my brain, I savor the leather smell of the upholstery and the trappings, the stink of the horse and his steaming dung and urine, I smell again the thousand odors, stately or plebeian, which fly in the air of Paris, and it is only when the sycamores of the Bois de Boulogne have plunged me into the lymph of their foliage, when the gardeners' water stirs an earthy smell from the clover, that I order Auguste to turn toward Passy.

The door of the house is half-open. There are people going in, men in top hats, veiled ladies. Already in the hall I am struck by a heavy smell of flowers, as of rotting vegetation; I enter, among the glowing beeswax tapers, the chrysanthemum wreaths, the cushions of violets, the asphodel garlands. In the open, satin-lined coffin, the face is unrecognizable, covered by a veil and swathed in bandages, as if in the decomposition of her features her beauty continues to reject death; but I recognize the base, the echo of that perfume that resembles no other, merged with the odor of death now as if they had always been inseparable.

I would like to question someone, but all these people are strangers, perhaps foreigners. I pause beside an elderly man who looks the most foreign of all: an olive-skinned gentleman with a red fez and a black frock coat, standing in meditation beside the bier. "To think that at midnight she was dancing, and was the loveliest woman at the ball. . . ."

The man with the fez does not turn, but answers in a low voice: "What do you mean, sir? At midnight she was dead."

Standing erect, with my nose in the wind, I perceive less precise signs, but of vaster meaning, signs that bring with them suspicion, alarm, horror, signs that when you have your nose to the ground you refuse perhaps to accept, you turn away from them, as I turn from this odor which comes from the rocks of the chasm where we in our herd fling animals we've disemboweled, the rotting organs, the bones, where the vultures hover and circle. And that odor I was following was lost down there, and, depending on how the wind blows, it rises with the stink of the clawed cadavers, the breath of the jackals that tear them apart still warm in the blood that is drying on the rocks in the sun.

And when I go back upstairs to hunt for the others because my head feels a little clearer and maybe now I could find her again and figure out who she is, instead there was nobody up there, God knows when they went away, while I was down on the Embankment, all the rooms are empty except for the beer cans and my drums, and the stove's stink has become unbearable, and I move around all the rooms and there is one with the door locked, the very room with the stove you can smell gasping through the cracks in the door, so strong it's nauseating, and I begin to slam my shoulder against the door until it gives way, and inside the place is all full of thick, black, disgusting gas from floor to ceiling, and on the floor the thing I see before I writhe in a fit of vomiting is the long, white, outstretched form, face hidden by the hair, and as I pull her out by her stiffened legs I smell her odor within the asphyxiating odor, her odor that I try to follow and distinguish in the ambulance, in the first-aid room, among the odors of disinfectant and slime that drips from the marble slabs in the morgue, and the air is impregnated with it, especially when outside the weather is damp.

January, 1972 Paris