In his novel Perfume, Patrick Suskind exposes the almost total inadequacy of language in evoking the senses, and in particular, evoking scent. Scent is a domain symbolically ‘quarantined’ from all other senses. How so? Think about the use of symbolic language in the evocation of the senses, and how, for the most part, you can find direct and fundamental examples of the senses demonstrating a convolution of the symbolic order (surface language) and the real or the hidden kernel object (das ding). With the sense of hearing, this can be most overtly seen for example with onomatopoeia whereby audible sound merges with language. Touch does something similar – words like ‘smooth’ and ‘rough’ express a sense of the objective merged with language, and so still we have that crucial tether between the two which goes beyond the symbolic veneer. With touch in language sound often acts as a byway; sound becomes the way by which a texture and so the sense of touch becomes manifest. These real-symbolic evocations of the senses are cross cultural, as what we’re talking about is obviously on a deeper level than the words themselves, more structural and yet not linguistically so.
More abstractedly though nevertheless still crucially entwined with objectivised language is the sense of taste: we use words like sharp, or bitter – coming from the Germanic word bite, or tang, which comes from an old word for the blade of a knife. These words for the sense of taste – much like the words for touch which use audible sounds – are using object textures, that is, by way of the sense of touch, thereby again demonstrating a tether between symbolic language and real object. It is important to emphasise then – and this is most evident with the sense of smell and taste – that whilst 2 senses can be inherently tied in their biological, sensory function, they are not in any way linked in their symbolic function. I’m aware such isolated examples may seem insufficient, but actually what is vital is the mere existence of any single example of Symbolic words being in any way tethered to the Real.
However, there are no words in the field of scent, which can not possibly demonstrate a tether between symbolic and real. This is the same for sight, which, being what we might locate as the ‘foundational’ sense in the creation of language, is inherently and crucially detached from the real – in fact it’s primary function is exactly that, to shield the real in a reality-encompassing veneer. So whilst with touch and hearing and taste we have this kind of tiered, cross-fertilisation of the various senses in order to evoke the real object, this is distinctly absent from the remaining 2 senses: sight and smell. Why is this important? This unique dislocation of symbolic and real in the realm of scent is, I believe, key to pinpointing why it is that only with the sense of smell, can we form associations with much more abstract concepts such as memories. The reason being that smell has no possible direct tether to the symbolic universe. If smells were symbolically registered, then we would be incapable of associating certain smells with certain memories as we now do. This also explains why Freud situated scent in such a pivotal role in the designation of the neuroses.