“We can smell only what is in the process of wasting away...”
—G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures On Fine Art Vol 1
Smell—this is the sense of weight experiences by someone who casts his nets into the sea of the temps perdu
—Walter Benjamin, “On the Image of Proust”
The odour first hits you at the entrance to The Citizen Betrayed, the Hungarian national exhibit located on the second floor of block 18 at the main camp of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Acrid. Potent. Familiar. You dismiss it without thought. Certainly, it is nothing like the sweet, sickly smell that some visitors swear clings phantasmatically to Crematoria I in the main camp. Nothing like the “unimaginable” and “vile” odour of death, of burning flesh, that survivors remembered decades after their imprisonment in the camps (Weiss). Nothing like the stench that Nazi perpetrators had feared “betrayed the truth about which people round Birkenau had begun to whisper” (Rindisbacher 144) The smell is sweat—rank, but ordinary, no doubt the olfactory residue of another tired tourist.
It is July, after all, and hot. Auschwitz is packed with visitors: summer pilgrims from Israel; Irish teenagers on study tours; camera-bedecked American couples; a smattering of scholars; and occasionally family members of survivors or the dead. These are ordinary people. Well-fed people. People who have traveled by busload from hotels in Krakow that morning. People who sweat. Only later, when you pass by the entrance a second time en route to the far end of the exhibit, and then (if you are honest with yourself), only with certainty the following day when you return and the smell still clings, does it occur to you: the odour is intentional and synthesied. You make the assessment logically. Smell dissipates quickly. A natural smell, a real odour (that is, an odour that emanates from an actual, living person in real-time) could not remain so strong and undiluted thirty minutes after you first notice it, could not still be there the next day. You decide then that it is part of the installation, a somber choral undertone to the glass-projected photograph of a Jewish Hungarian women descending from a boxcar at Birkenau sometime during that horrible spring and summer of 1944.
The installation is multi-sensory, monumental, and moving. The rhythmic recording of a train beats and fades like a pumping heart. Cubes of glass entomb piles of train rocks, plaster-cast clothing, brass shoes. Clear glass pathways cut ice-like across shards of crystal and swerve through light bulb-lit tunnels. Reproductions of historical photographs, like the one at the entrance, are blow up and printed on huge glass screens or projected onto the cement cell walls. The installation makes an implicit critique of the well-known displays of glass-encased objects at Auschwitz—the piles of suitcases, shoes, hair, eye glasses, prostheses—anonymous objects and shorn hair stolen by the Nazis, found by the Soviets when they liberated the camps, then put on display when the memorial was established soon after. The original exhibitions at Auschwitz-Birkenau largely metaphorize the magnitude of the Nazis’ nefarious project, highlighting the obscene number of people killed at the camps. (“Behind clean glass/ the stiff hair lies/ of those suffocated in gas chambers…” [Ròzewicz]) Even today, the sheer quantity of leftover items, each signifying a lost person—many lost people—is difficult to digest. The piles of objects entombed in glass-fronted rooms are mostly anonymous in the display; claims made to ownership of suitcases and paintings by descendents or survivors have spurred lawsuits (Lodkowski).
The Hungarian installation both skirts the issue of particularity and foregrounds it. There are no historical objects included in the exhibit; and the installation’s heavy-use of glass is intentionally metaphorical, signifying the apparent transparency yet impenetrability of the past to the present. László Rajk, Jr., the Hungarian architect and former Member of Parliament who designed the exhibit, describes his vision as an attempt to create “a fragment of the present in the space of the past surrounding it” (186). Rajik, whose own personal and familial history is deeply intertwined with the complexities of twentieth century Hungary, was troubled by ethical questions when constructing his design for the installation. He asks in an essay he wrote for a catalogue that accompanied the opening of the exhibit in 2004, “Can individual objects be displayed without any attempt at personalization? Can a dish, a toothbrush or a shoe be exhibited without our knowing whom they belonged to?” (186).
Anonymity bothers Rajik. He decides that since, in his view, the past is experienced proximally, though at a distance like a thought on the tip of your tongue, he will design an installation in which the past is present but impossible to touch. Reflecting on his final design, he explains, “The actual surface of the exhibition (an alternating sequence of glass and expanded plates) does not touch the past, the building, at any point. …Everything that is the present (explanations, maps and charts) is there in its physical reality in the space of the present. The past, however, exists only virtually” (188). Rajik’s understanding of the virtual seems Deleuzian, “a kind of groundless ground, real though non-existent,” (Bourassa, Deleuze 44) a virtual that finds its opposition in the actual, not the real (Bourassa, "Literature" 73-74). When he says that the past exists virtually, then, Rajik does not mean that things did not happen, but that the past blurs into the future as a real, but immaterial presence. It is intimate, Rajik’s exhibit, but it asks for a self-reflexive rather than identificatory response. You were not here, it says, there is only so much you can know, but what you will know anew is now.
That day they said, ‘Ladies, freedom is here, the Americans are coming!' At that, we climbed out with great difficulty, and got up. This was 4th May 1945. There was a balustrade there, we stood and watched, you didn't want to believe your eyes. They got out, and came up, but the Americans were already coming, the commanders. It was uncomfortable that whenever you said something to them [the American soldiers], they backed off. It was the first camp these Americans had liberated, they'd never seen women prisoners before, and we looked horrifying without hair, and so thin. It turned out, they were backing off because we stunk so horribly.
They disinfected us; we had to raise our arms, and they sprayed something on our heads, then gave us blankets, in which we could wrap ourselves up well. They said, ‘Put out your right hand, and stand in line.' We held out our shaking hands, because we thought finally, they were going to give us food - we were horribly hungry, the hunger hurt badly. We opened our hands, and then we thought we'd die. They gave us a toothbrush. First some of us had to brush our teeth, so we didn't smell so bad.
— Katarina Loefflerova from Bratislava, Slovakia (Korcok)
Through the subtle infusion of body odour, The Citizen Betrayed installation resists what André Bazin has called the “mummy complex” of the plastic arts (Bruno 6). Body odour is a living scent, constituting neither the odour of decay and decomposition of the corpse, nor the musty, inanimate odour of the mummy. With a delayed immediacy, it conveys to spectators that this is as much a memorial to people who had been living, sweating, moving, who were imperfect beings, to people who were not simply the dead they became.
Of all the virtual components of the installation, the synthesised body odour is the most surprising and confusing. In its figurative sense, we might even say that smell, the source of which is often unclear, suggests the virtual, that which is there and not there. And body odour is literally virtual. It is not caused by bodily excretions themselves, but by the bacteria and fungi that grow in warm, moist environments and feed off human perspiration; the chemical waste that this digestion process produces causes the acrid smell of sweat. Introducing a synthetic stream of odour in a permanent installation requires a second-order technology, one that is still not frequently encountered even in multi-sensory installations. An olfactory artist or architect must produce a chemical imprint that mimics the molecular structure of a recorded or extracted natural odour of the body (someone’s body or several bodies), condense it and then create an instrument to pipe it into the environment (DiCarlo and Tolaas 19).
Brian Massumi argues that “the virtual is a lived paradox where what are normally opposites coexist, coalesce, and connect, where what cannot be experienced cannot but be felt—albeit reduced and contained” (Deleuze, 30). He describes Benjamin Libet’s studies on brain activity in the 1970s, which demonstrated that there is a half second delay between “the onset of brain activity [of a stimulus] and the awareness of the event.” Although thought covers up this time lag, Massumi explains, “awareness is ‘backdated’ so that each thought experiences itself to have been at the precise time the stimulus was applied” (Parables, 195-6) In other words, he writes, “every first-time perception of form is already, virtually, a memory.” In short, Massumi concludes that “something that happens too quickly to have happened, actually, is virtual” (Parables, 197). Within the temporality of the virtual, he argues, the past and future coexist without the mediation of the present.
Ironically, however, Massumi’s book on affect, the virtuality of the senses, and the synesthesiac quality of that virtuality, almost wholly ignores the olfactory. It is not hard to understand why. In Gender and Aesthetics, Carolyn Korsmeyer points out that the so-called inwardly-directed “subjective sensations” (smell, taste, and touch) are most associated with the feminine, animal, and bodily—and have traditionally been disqualified from philosophical interest (94-95). Plato dismissed smells as “half formed,” for example. And Hegel argued that “smell, taste and touch have to do with […] purely sensuous relationships,” and are therefore unavailable to the aesthetic contemplation (qtd. Shiner and Kristovets 275).
This is primarily a problem of language. While human memory for smell is acute, our ability to identify and name the odours we encounter seems difficult and imprecise (Olsson, Faxbrink, and Jönsson 246-60). In her book, Touch: sensuous theory and multisensory media, Laura Marks writes that smell “is the sense perception that resists idealisation above all others,” because it “asks to be sensed in its particularity, in an engagement between bodies chemical and human” ("Logic", 197). Neuropsychologists who study smell debate whether such a thing as an odour-image exists; most currently agree that the recognition of odour patterns that arise in the olfactory bulb are “unconscious,” by which they mean that these patterns are not conceived of as spatial or visual images. In fact, Marks argues, the singularity of smell, what she calls the “olfactory unconscious,” lies in its mobility and resistance to signification. In both German and English “to smell” (riechen) wavers between action and transience, production and perception (Barbara and Perliss 107). This, Marks writes, makes smell something like a Spinozan affect, an “intensity or excess that suspends the linear progress of narrative” or even a Deleuzian “affection-image,” an “image that connects directly to the body,” a gap between action and reaction, a potentiality that is both volatile and momentary (197). Elsewhere, she likens smell to what Deleuze calls a “fossil image,” an image that “contains a material trace of the past within it” (Marks "Thinking", 114).
Smell, in other words, does not reconcile easily with a concept of the image—even in the Bergsonian sense—as an existence that can be placed halfway between a realist “thing” and idealist “representation,” but something else altogether (Bergson 9). Indeed, whether there exists something like an odour-image, which implies object-recognition, exists in the olfactory is something scientists are still debating (Wilson and Stevenson 190). Can you “picture” a smell? Can you remember it outside of its presence? “Smells shift position and it is often difficult to determine exactly where they begin and end,” writes Mark Graham, who calls smell the “queer sense” (135). It is not by accident that Roland Barthes uses an olfactory metaphor to describe the way that the Marquis de Sade radically dissociates the excrescences of “reality” from the language used to signify them. Words are anosmiac—odourless. Barthes suggests this when he makes his famous pronouncement: “Language has this property of denying, ignoring, dissociating reality: when written, shit does not have an odour” (Sade, 137). By reality, in this case, Barthes means the actual.
Undoubtedly, most people have difficulty precisely describing the odours they detect, but it is not clear whether this is innate language effect or a form of cultural repression. Up through the nineteenth century, in many cultures and many traditions, doctors and healers tracked and diagnosed diseases of the body by smelling patients’ body odour, breath, urine, and excrement” (Connor 212) As odour ceased to be a significant diagnostic clue, it became feminised, animalised, aligned with the emotions rather than language and knowledge. What Alain Courbin calls “the bourgeois control of the sense of smell and the construction of a schema of perception based on the preeminence of sweetness” during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries privileged odourlessness and made olfactory literacy the privilege of a small group of feminised professionals, such as perfumers or sommeliers (141). “Smell is …triply repressed,” concludes Marks. “[It] is so strongly associated with excrement, sexuality, filth, poverty, and other repressed contents of both individual and cultural history, that even innocent smells have a taboo, or at least asocial dimension” ("Logic", 123)
Marks’ choice of the word “innocent” in the above passage is telling. To be innocent is to “do no evil, to be free from moral wrong or sin; to be pure, and unpolluted.” To be odour-free. By using the term “innocent,” Marks alludes to the moral undertones that shape the way that modern olfactory are perceived and read, a morality that is not “natural,” but, as Courbin has shown, is interconnected with social and historical processes and hierarchies associated with modern capitalism and ideologies of the aesthetic. One might expect, therefore, that as the “non-aesthetic” sense, smell would have been intriguing to the historical avant-garde. (Filippo Marinetti did, in fact, hypothesise how to use odour in combination with color and shape to elicit movement and affect [Barbara and Perliss 107]). However, the technological difficulties of producing smells have, until recently, made a representational or abstract olfactory art relatively rare. Indeed, for most of the twentieth century, with the exception of those that were used to develop commercial products associated with sweetness—perfumes and deodorisers—new olfactory technologies have been most often dubbed absurd or dismissed as wasted efforts. For example, Hans Laube’s aromatic movies or “smellies,” introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair, his 1946 follow-up product designed for television, “Scentovision,” and his 1950s’s movie industry competition, “Aroma-Rama,” were all high-profile financial disasters. During the heady dot-com boom of the late 1990s a California start-up named DigiScents introduced the unfortunately named, iSmell, a digital scent device that promised to bring odour to the internet, but which was a commercial failure and ultimately named one of the 10 worst products of the digital age (Merritt). A true “smelly art,” as Larry Shiner and Yulia Kristovets recently dubbed it, only reached a level of sophistication and attention in the late 1990s.
Perhaps uncomfortably, synthesised odours bring to the fore the artificial nature of so-called neutral, odour-free modernist landscapes, which privileged a kind of placeless and bodiless olfactory International Style. “In its material dryness and dehydration, Modernism achieved an ideal that was at times aseptic, a clinical and medical aesthetic devoid of emotion and corporeality,” write Anna Barbara and Anthony Perliss. “But in a place without odour the body is lost, its loses one of its fundamental compasses and is left feeling vulnerable. The urgency of smelling the odour of the air becomes not only a means for judging its quality, but also a way of determining the setting in which one finds oneself” (178). Paradoxically, perhaps, the introduction of body odour in the Hungarian installation dislocates viewers who have become accustomed to odourless spectatorship, inadvertently, but not nostalgically, extricating them from the cold machinic ideal that served as an aesthetic ground for Fascism. The smell jolts viewers into the present, reminding them of the constructed nature of the exhibition and, at the same time, distancing them from a past to which they have no material access.
The body odour is pungent, but not overwhelming, not disgusting. Still, it brings the category of disgust to the fore in a way that is specific to odour. “Seeing, touching and smelling all grasp the materiality of objects, which is where the central categories of the disgusting reside,” write Carolyn Korsmeyer and Barry Smith in their introduction to Aurél Kolnai’s On Disgust. Of these, they agree, “the primary sense of disgust is smell” (27-28). And where there is disgust, there is always the spectre of death. The prototypical object of disgust, Kolnai argues, is the putrifying corpse (53). To introduce body odour into the exhibit ushers in the spectral presence of historical odours in Auschwitz, and therefore to viscerally induce in spectors an affective, not fully conscious awareness of death, decay, and disgust. In short, the smell incites the most proximal of affective responses in visitors, even as the intentional virtuality of the exhibition tells them to hold themselves apart.
The Jews have a peculiar smell, which originated as follows: Once a plague carried off all the men, leaving only the women alive. They went to the prophet to ask what they were to do. He ordered them to lie one night by the side of a corpse. They did so, and their off-spring have ever since had a corpse-like smell.
—Egyptian folktale from Cairo, as narrated by the
Rev. Professor A.H. Sayce, M.A., 1900
In his meta-autobiography, usually referred to as Barthes by Barthes, Roland Barthes captions a photo of Bayonne, the town in which he grew up: “history-as-odour” (6). While this is a clear reference to Proust and his aromatic mémoire involuntaire, Barthes is also using the figure of odour to redefine the way that history and not just memory may be thought. “Just as we compose the odour of violets or the taste of tea, each so particular, so inimitable, so ineffable, into several elements whose subtle combination produces the entire identity of the substance,” writes Barthes, “so he realised that the identity of each friend, which made that friend lovable, was based upon a delicately proportioned and henceforth absolutely original combination of tiny characteristics organised in fugutive scenes, from day to day” (6).
When we say in English (or in French) that something “smells” in a figurative sense, we mean that we feel it emotionally rather than empirically know it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the figurative meaning of a smell as a “trace, suggestion, or tinge of something,” “that quality by which anything is felt or suspected to be near at hand.” Geographer J. Douglas Porteous argues that because smells “yield experiences that are inherently discontinuous, fragmentary, and episodic (i.e., time based),” they allow for an apprehension figured through “intensity, complexity and affect” rather than “perspective, scale or distance” (qtd Drobnick 32-33). When Barthes describes history-as-odour, in other words, he posits an intimate, non-empirical, proximal, particularised and combinative encounter with the past: An undifferentiated history-memory as “tinge.” This does not mean that history-as-odour lacks any grounding in what has happened, in the “event,” but that history and memory are not easily divided, even if the former is situated within the kingdom of language and the latter without.
“I’m beginning to understand, says the golden mouth, why we reject, forget, put off [the] specific abilities [of the senses],” writes Michel Serres in The Five Senses, “why I can say with such confidence that the given only gives itself in and through language: one mouth kills the other” (152). He conceives of a sensory taste-smell, an undifferentiated leftover that lingers like a stain on the table of the sacred and platonic. The book is Serres’ poetic rant against words, against names. “If the given only gives itself through language, tell me what your anthologies smell like?” he asks, then concludes, “we don’t need the senses, we need only to name them” (191-2). At the limit of life and death, of “seat” and “shroud,” Serres writes, smell is “where definition is born” (164). Sagacious originally meant “he who knows how to smell.”
In his effort to theorise a non-Cartesian empiricism, one that might account for the senses, for affect, for non-analytical ways of knowing, for paying them their due, Serres, like Freud, turns to parable and myth. Serres writes,
And what if fairy tales, seven-league boots, beast become beauty, donkey skin, vair slipper, little mermaid with her lower body numb from cold and sheathed in blue-green scales, ogres smelling live flesh and what if fêtes galantes, masked balls, Harlequin theatre, visions and sabbaths were simply brightly coloured representations of the lost, forgotten, disintegrated ruins of the sensible, whose qualities our culture of language and religion of the word will no longer allow us to apprehend? (232-3)
Admittedly, there is nothing simple about the ruin that constitutes fairytales and myth. If fairytales rely on the tinge rather than the word, it is most often the tinge of disgust: an unspoken feeling of recognition, then revulsion, before difference is spoken. Odour, according to Jim Drobnick and others, is a key constituent (and marker) of difference (15). While the smell of foods, spices, and dirt all play a role in social differentiation, it is the smell of the body—of sweat in particular—that has been the primary means of differentiating the Other (often signified by the Jew) from the emergent European bourgeoisie.
“Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum! I smell emberszag/human flesh!” cries the ogre in Hungarian folklore, a story that finds its duplicate in many traditions and languages. In Hungarian, emberszag is the non-human’s announcement that he has encountered the Other. It is also the title, translated imprecisely into English as The Smell of Humans, of a memoir by the Hungarian poet, Ernö Szép, which describes the forced deportation of Szép and other old Jewish men from Budapest to a brick factory and labour camp in October 1944. “It was fairy tale stuff,” Szép writes, characteristically wry in describing what he calls the Nazi’s “aerial visitations,” the bombs that exploded over the city before the German Occupation that March. “The kitties not only walked about undeterred during the bombing raids, but actually frolicked” (15-16).
Drawing on fairytale does not recuperate, in other words, it merely extends. The leap from perceptual acuteness to what is called truth is mediated by power, by the dominion of those who smell over those who are smelled, and by the naming of that relation. Sander Gilman has argued that the classical and medieval construction of Foetor Judaicus, so-called Jewish stench (likened to rotting flesh or later garlic), remained prominent in fin-de-siècle and early twentieth century European depictions of Jews (90). In his book, On Freud’s Jewish Body, Jay Geller describes an intertwining genealogy of corporeal philosophies and anxieties about “Jewish smell,” that include, in Schopenhauer, the “binding” of Jewishness to “the primitive [even animalistic] sense of smell in word and deed” and which, in others, forges a connection between fallenness/degeneration and smell, and the “intimate association between the nose and genitals” (Havelock Ellis explains, for instance, that both the nose and genitals have “erectile tissue”). “To speak of a particular Jewish odour was to evoke the primitive, the sexual, the feminine,” argues Geller, since odour di feminina was the primary concern of researchers, such as Ellis, who like many of his contemporaries observed at one point that “during menstruation girls and young women frequently give off an odour… which may smell of chloroform” (75).
Constance Classen notes that the racist politics of the Nazis exploited this historical connection. “Without the means to keep themselves clean, prisoners lived in a state of perpetual filth. A group of female internees is thus described, in the words of one of them. As a ‘herd of dirty, evil-smelling women.’ The Malodour of the prisoners confirmed their identification of to their guards (and, at times, to themselves) as ‘stinking Jews’ and ‘human filth’” (173). Classen quotes survivor Olga Lengyel’s description of the notorious SS guard, Irma Griese, whose “immodest use of perfume was perhaps the supreme refinement of her cruelty.” Lengyel adds that when Griese “left us and the stale, sickening odour of human flesh, which covered the camp like a blanket, crept over us again, the atmosphere became even more unbearable” (174-5).
In short, introducing synthetic body odour into an installation aimed at memorialising the half million Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust is not a neutral decision. But to create an odour-free atmosphere is, while less noticeable, a decision without significance as well. Smelling and not smelling, being smelled, detecting a smell, in Auschwitz any mode of the olfactory was marked. For prisoners, after all, an unawareness of one’s own odour may have been a relief, but it was also a horrific marker of the enforced depersonalisation of camp life and the object-like detachment from the body it induced. In the same portion of her memoir in which she describes bathing in a muddy stream after months of not washing, then pulling off her stockings to find her toenails ripped painlessly from her feet, Charlotte Delbo comments,
What amazes me, now that I think of it, is that the air was light, clear, but that one didn’t smell anything. It must have been quite far from the crematoria. Or perhaps the wind was blowing in the opposite direction on that day. At any rate, we no longer smelled the odour of the crematoria. Yes, and what also amazes me is that there wasn’t the slightest smell of spring in the air. Yet there were buds, grass, water, and all this must have had a smell. No, no memory of any odour. It’s true that I can’t recall my own smell when I lifted my dress. Which proves that our nostrils were besmirched with our own stink and could no longer smell anything. (149-50)
waste and effort
Email from Laszlo Rajk to Jani Scandura, November 10, 2009, 2:17 PM:
Thank you for your kind and interesting letter concerning my design in Auschwitz.
Truly to say, I was quite impressed that you had detected this "hidden" element of the design. Let me tell you, that this "smell" was the only element of the exhibition which was not consciously designed - with the entrance my only purpose was "aging.” As you enter the barrack, one can realise that the wall of the corridor is not the original of the house, as we needed some covering for the electrical cables. But the special plaster-wall we applied, received an artificial aging used by film industry, but with a very odd technique and materials. For example, for aging the walls we used linseed oil based paints mixed with some bitumen. So the smell you "realised" is rather a perception of the past through these invisible ingredients than result of a real extraction. (I use this technique quite often, as am working not only as an architect but as a production designer as well.)
Concerning Erno Szep and his novel Emberszag - you are quite right about the multiple meaning of the title. In Hungarian tales usually non-human creators used to tell "I smell "emberszag,” which means there is an alien among us. By the way, Erno Szep after returning from the KZ camp, always introduced himself as "I used to be Erno Szep ..."
I hope, this short comment helps... Good luck.
Laszlo Rajk, M.Arch, RIBA
In every experiment, Christoph Hoffman explains, there are unintended effects. Waste, he writes, is a “by-product of every productive process that necessarily appears even though no one is interested in its appearance” (241). What Hoffman describes as the “scent of filth,” marks “an experience of sheer inconsistency,” it is not an anomaly, nor “part of the normal,” its effects cannot be accounted for within a given experimental frame (248). It shatters not just preconceived ideas—but whole approaches to experiment. How can I make sense of this mistake? Is it a waste? I do not know. Nor does Rajk. There was an odour at the entrance to the Hungarian installation that July. Of this I am sure. But was it sweat? A chemical leftover? Poor air circulation? A series of pungent tourists who successively preceded me through the door? Did I imagine it? Did I too readily glob onto something I thought the exhibition should include?
It would not have been the first time that synthesised body odour has been put on display. Sissel Tolaas, perhaps the primary olfactory artist working today, has been reproducing body odour for years. So have scientists at smell laboratories world-wide. In 2008, Tolaas exhibited synthesised body odours of twelve men for an exhibit called, “the FEAR of smell – the smell of FEAR,” at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Visual Arts Center. “Smells from real life are my material,” she writes. “I collect, simulate, reproduce and bring them back to that same reality. Then I ask for reactions” (19).
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