Sense of smell

Some quotes on the sense of smell…

One by Benjamin (From “The Image of Proust”):

No one who knows with what great tenacity memories are preserved by the sense of smell, and smells not at all in the memory, will be able to call Proust’s sensitivity to smells accidental. To be sure, most memories that we search for come to us as visual images. Even the free-floating forms of the memoire involontaire are still in large part isolated, though enigmatically present, visual images. For this very reason, anyone who wishes to surrender knowingly to the innermost overtones in this work must place himself in a special stratum — the bottommost — of this involuntary memory, one in which the materials of memory no longer appear singly, as images, but tell us about a whole, amorphously and formlessly, indefinitely and weightily, in the same way as the weight of his net tells a fisherman about his catch. Smell — that is the sense of weight of someone who casts his nets into the sea of the temps perdu [lost time]. And his sentences are the entire muscular activity of the intelligible body; they contain the whole enormous effort to raise this catch.

Two by Nietzsche:

The mediating sense. — The sense of taste has, as the true mediating sense, often persuaded the other senses over to its own view of things and imposed upon them its laws and habits. One can obtain information about the subtlest mysteries of the arts at a meal-table: one has only to notice what tastes good, when it tastes good, what it tastes good after and for how long it tastes good.”

Odour of words. — Every word has its odour: there exists a harmony and disharmony of odours and thus of words.”

Two by Heraclitus:

“In Hades souls perceive by smelling.”

“If all existing things were smoke, it is by smell that we would distinguish them.”


Here is the bit from my Dictionary of Critical Theory that compelled me to read Benjamin:

Benjamin is a fascinating writer, but he is not an easy one, mainly because of his conviction that theory cannot be expounded in isolation… and that factuality is already theory. One-Way Street does not expound any theory, but its constellations of images, aphorisms and juxtapositions are intended to be a form of thinking-in-pictures (Bilddenken) from which understanding emerges without having to be expounded. Benjamin claimed that he had nothing to say, ‘only to show’.


The unifying thrust of all my various interests, both private and professional, is the pursuit of the background philosophies that unconsciously shape our worldviews, and bestow on them unifying and particularizing meaning. It is the background philosophy that projects a sense of relevance on the world and causes us to perceive phenomena around us in some particular self-evident way — and to miss completely alternative ways to perceive. And perceptions are understood in conceptions, and the conceptions affirm and reinforce the perceptions, in a circle. And our responses are formed by our conceptions, both in the ideals that direct the responses as a whole and the strategies and tactics we employ in pursuit of our ideals, and this also moves in a self-affirming, self-reinforcing circle. And finally, how we feel pervades our perceptions, conceptions and responses, animates them, and is the momentum driving the cycles and epicycles of the soul. Our perceptions and conceptions mutually and centripetally attract; our erotic attraction to otherness drives us outward centrifugally, and we whirl out loops and circles and spirals as we move in infinity looking for the comfort of some definite truth, some universal definitions, some definity. Yet, once we have definiteness we immediately yearn for infinity…

And how do we learn about these background philosophies? There is nothing to study directly. We study the forces as they act on particulars. We listen to how the other articulates, defines, connects meanings. We observe behaviors — both bodily behaviors, but also intellectual movements. Our background philosophies draw chalklines around us, and our minds and bodies obey their invisible limits. And we key into the logic of meaning — attune to moral priorities — resonate consonantly for and dissonantly against, nodding, smiling frowning with the other like two women mirroring gestures in a restaurant. Is there a fixed technique? There are techniques for uncovering certain illuminating particulars, but on the whole, the researcher must proceed by instinct — almost by sense of smell.

When I read the authors I love, what I am searching for is this background philosophy. I read, knowing the language by which I understand my authors, is precisely the site of change. How is he using this word? How are these thoughts connected? When I understand this word in this slightly shifted sense, what happens to all my previous understandings, understood by way of the shifted word? And what happens to all the thoughts I ever had, limited by my old use? What does this new definitional possibility open to my thought as a whole? And as I read, pursuing limits outside my own, I expand and change and my world changes. And my world changes because I have allowed the author in. I offer the author my life, and many have taken it. I read philosophy to enlarge that background from which I think.

When my work is good, I am researching people to discover their background philosophies, which reveal the unities and particularities of their worldviews, and where they may desire some clarity, some definition, some definiteness where it is lacking, or some reinforcement of some notion that has become exposed and questionable — or perhaps where a grain of infinity might be welcome… What foreground images, words, ideas, behaviors will serve the background of this person’s being?

And brands — those are also background philosophies. We would love to bring them into the foreground and make them concrete and definite. We want to define them, possess them. But what I love about brands is precisely their defiance of reduction in any foreground terms. Brands generate foregrounds. They manifest, in the proper sense: manifestare, from Latin, ‘make public,’ from manifestus ‘obvious’. But what makes brands fascinating is their ability to work out of the background to produce works of unsystematic coherence, unpredictable inevitability, and unformulaic continuity — in other words, it has the properties of genius.

And of course those who know religion know also that the explicit doctrines, the moral codes, the formal customs — as much as they are the manifestation of religion are not the religion itself.


I’ve talked about background philosophy, but even that is not at the core of being. It isn’t even close, but it is closer than the thoughts we have when we think. Behind the background is more background, and it fades from merely unintelligible to inexperienceable blindness. Metaphysics says existence continues much further. Phenomenology says, “maybe, but so what?”

Whatever it is that stands behind background philosophy, it seems to generate diversity seeking unity, and unity seeking diversity, so it seems to me that seeking a unified background we all can share is equally futile and necessary.

Many words have been used to indicate this background that all of us carry about us that projects out around us an intelligible universe, but as fast as the words are used, they are reduced to definition and drained of their meaning. They take objective form — become entities with defined edges, that our minds can wrap their comprehending fingers around and hold-together. But the background is not definite. It is not finite. It is the infinite penetrating the finite. Because the infinite must penetrate the finite to be infinite.

We need a word that undefines definitions and changes them back into their proper infinite form.

The infinition of soul would be: the world that envelops every point that beholds it.

Some other words that need infinition: religion, tradition, culture, brand, author, human.

When we learn to think in infinitions as well as definitions, then we can discuss atheism.


One more from Nietzsche:

In the writings of a hermit one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. He who has sat day and night, from year’s end to year’s end, alone with his soul in familiar discord and discourse, he who has become a cave-bear, or a treasure-seeker, or a treasure-guardian and dragon in his cave — it may be a labyrinth, but can also be a gold-mine — his ideas themselves eventually acquire a twilight-colour of their own, and an odor, as much of the depth as of the mold, something uncommunicative and repulsive, which blows chilly upon every passerby. The recluse does not believe that a philosopher — supposing that a philosopher has always in the first place been a recluse — ever expressed his actual and ultimate opinions in books: are not books written precisely to hide what is in us? — indeed, he will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss [Abgrund] behind every ground [Grunde], beneath every “foundation” [Begrundung]. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he [the philosopher] came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

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