Hook, Line, and Stinker

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 13, 2021

One of my favorite parts of one of my favorite movies is the scene in Citizen Kane in which Susan Alexander, Charles Foster Kane’s “discovery,” is making her debut as a singer in the grand opera house he has built for her in Chicago. (Incidentally, I always wondered just what that opera is, and learned only recently that it’s not a “real” opera at all, but was created specially for the film.) 

As this woman sings, the camera moves slowly upward, far above the stage, to where we see two workmen on a scaffold, leaning over to listen, and as they do so, and the song continues, one turns to the other to express a sentiment which they obviously both share. He is holding his nose.

The idea that things which are bad, smell bad is deeply engrained in our culture, and it is also closely associated with decay, because things which are dead and decomposing usually have what to us is a foul odor (probably the opposite to vultures and other critters which feed on carrion). In Hamlet, we have Marcellus, one of the castle guards, after seeing the old dead king reappear, saying that “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark.” And later Hamlet himself, questioned about the location of Polonius, whom he has killed, says “you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.”

And need I remind you of Benjamin Franklin’s contribution to the culture of hospitality with his observation (in “Poor Richard’s Almanac”) that “Fish and visitors begin to smell in three days.” (Modern refrigeration has prolonged the preservation of fish – but I am not sure about visitors.)

Unfortunately, our language does not seem to have as many associations with good smells. Flowers often have pleasant aromas (though of course this is not for our benefit, but to help them attract the insects which are necessary to perpetuate their species). Roses are particularly esteemed, for both their physical and aromatic beauty. Hence, we have much romantic poetry likening the beloved to a rose. To me, the most over-the-top example of this florid kind of praise is the second stanza of Ben Jonson’s poem, “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” (which is also well known as a song):

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honoring thee
As giving it a hope, that there
It might not withered be.
But thou didst only breathe thereon,
And sent’st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

Now surely, a poet could hardly be more enamored than that!

We do have other words connoting sweet-smelling, such as nectar and ambrosia. But in the unlikely event that you are looking for things with notoriously bad smells, there are two which I can recommend (happily not from personal experience). One is a chemical called ethyl mercaptan, whose noxious aroma actually has its uses, e.g. by giving a warning smell to otherwise odorless but potentially harmful substances such as natural gas.

The other stinker is a species of flowering plant, the Titan Arum, which gives off an odor likened to rotting flesh. (It’s sometimes called the “Corpse Flower.”) But this is no evolutionary accident. These plants depend for pollination on attracting insects which feed on putrid matter.

Of course, it is well known that, although we are at the top of the food chain, our species is far from being up there as far as “scentsitivity” is concerned. Incredible as it seems, even our canine best friends have a sense of smell up to 100,000 times more acute than ours.

But, getting back to what we consider good smells, apparently natural objects like flowers – and even the appetizing odors of our favorite foods – are not enough to satisfy the human craving for attractive aromas. Hence has arisen a huge perfume industry – and it amazes me how much some people are willing to pay for a few drops in a fancy bottle. But even more amazing are some of the sources from which those drops are derived. In particular, there is the startling fact that a most sought-after ingredient of some of the best perfumes is a substance called Ambergris, which is literally the vomit of sick whales. This surprisingly valuable commodity is occasionally found in large lumps, either washed ashore, or still afloat, over wide ocean ranges. For some reason, only Sperm Whales have the capacity to bestow this gift upon mankind.


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