Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Beauty of a Scent

      This past Holy Saturday Dad walked in from a shopping trip with one lily and a bag of groceries. I was disappointed and asked if the lilies were really expensive this year. Dad said yeah, we could only afford one, and I nodded sadly. We were to have the pleasure or smelling only one lily plant this year.
      Then he came in a couple of minutes later with two more! I couldn't believe it!
      It isn't just their pearly white color and soft symmetrical shape that make lilies one of the most beautiful flowers. It is that amazing fantastic smell, that seems to fill your mind with thoughts of peace and tranquillity. A smell that betokens hope and puts a smile on your face.
      One could even argue that the smell of any flower is really more important than the look, at least for the classics. Yes, all flowers are beautiful, but it is the ones that smell that have become famous. In the words of Shakespeare: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." There is something mysterious about the scent of a flower. It seems to come from nowhere, yet it permeates everywhere.
      Scents have long been known to be extremely helpful in creating memories. We can recall a scent from pretty much anywhere. If one has smelt it before he will recognize it, even if he cannot place the memory exactly. Just the other day my Mom came downstairs ready to go out. The smell of her perfume immediately brought me back to my childhood. She has had that same perfume my whole life. It brought me back to dozens of special occasions when she would come out of her room all dressed up, and the scent of her perfume would make me smile and get excited. I love that smell. It means comfort to me. Perhaps if she had never worn it, if I smelled in a store without the background of my memory, I would hate it. Who knows? Smells are embedded in our memories.
       This subject was brought to my mind now, in May, because it is the month of the lilacs. Our property grows literally dozens of bushes, and just yesterday, Mom brought in a big bunch and put them in a vase on the table. The house is filled with their glorious scent. Though there are some people who dislike the scent of a lily, I have never met anyone who sneered at a lilac's smell. It is sweet, but not sickening, aromatic, but not overwhelming, subtle, but not fleeting. The lilac is truly the queen of may-time for us.
       These reflections, as well as a recent stint of conversation with an artist friend of the family, led me to the question: can a scent be called beautiful? Usually men speak of beauty in reference to art, and as existing in a material thing. We normally sense beauty through sight, whether in a piece of art, another human being, or nature, or through pure ideas, like when we say that someone has a beautiful character. In that case, we use powers of communication and reason to decide. But what about smell? Does it fall in one of these categories? I have always stood by the definition that beauty is the harmony of order. And I suppose it is in the order of nature that a flower smells. But the smell itself, the actual sensation of smelling, is that something beautiful? We can see beauty. Can we smell beauty? One could argue that a smell is beautiful because it is in nature's order to come from that thing. But what about artificial smells? Are they then out of the category?
        And then there is the problem of the smell that is distasteful, but still part of nature. Mold for instance, is a perfectly natural thing, especially in something like cheese. But there are few who find it pleasant to smell. Or sweat, to go slightly grosser. Again, it is perfectly natural, but not usually considered a pleasant smell. Notice, we usually refer to smells as pleasant or not, not beautiful.
       So it seems nature can't automatically make a smell beautiful. But some scents do partake in that harmony of order that is universally appealing. Some scents are good, others bad, for most people. On the other hand, like in art, there is something very subjective in perceiving what is a pleasant smell. Memories and past experiences will play a big hand in that.
      Well perhaps more contemplation will unshroud this mystery, but in the meantime, it is an interesting and intriguing question.

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