Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography
Three years ago, in high hay-fever season, I lost my sense of smell. It has never returned and I’m told it never will. Of all the five senses one can expect to part with en route to sans everything, smell is the most dispensable.
And if the Freudians (and Jonathan Swift) are right that civilization is the distance Homo sapiens (‘Yahoos’) puts between his nose and his excrement, I am a more civilized person for living in my organically neutralized world. The 94 per cent of British adult women and 87 per cent of British men who use deodorants daily would perhaps agree. (These figures, taken from the Internet, seem high to those I’ve spoken to with the power of smell. Particularly on homeward journeys on the London Tube.)
About the same period that my nasal membranes wilted I had embarked on a reread of Orwell, in the spirit of Janeites who revisit Austen’s six novels every year, just to relax into the comfort of old literary places. The writings I had known for half a century were, I found, interestingly different. Not quite as comforting. Imagine, for example, a person born with no sense of smell. Would Animal Farm ‘read’ the same way as for someone with functioning nostrils and long familiarity with the richly mixed but detectably different aromas (cow shit, chicken shit, horse shit, pig shit) in a farmyard? And then, at the end, Napoleon walking past on two legs with – what else? – an aromatic cigar.
According to Norman Mailer, a fellow connoisseur, with Orwell, of life’s olfactions (or, as Mailer would call them, ‘olfactoids’), there ‘ain’t but three smells’ in the whole Hemingway oeuvre. Papa’s fish, to adopt the working-class insult, don’t smell. Mailer’s count, thrown out, as I recall, on the Dick Cavett talk show, was not the result of careful textual examination but nonetheless rings true.
Compare the first three richly scene-setting aromas in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The story opens with Winston Smith escaping the April cold through the glass doors of Victory Mansions. Instant nasal attack: ‘The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.’ Having slogged up to his apartment on the seventh floor (the lift, of course, is broken), Winston pours himself a reviving swig of Victory Gin. ‘It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit.’ He smokes a Victory cigarette (no need to describe that acrid smell), and is called to the Parsons’ flat next door. Can he unplug the sink? begs the harassed mother:
There was the usual boiled-cabbage smell, common to the whole building, but it was shot through by a sharper reek of sweat, which – one knew this at the first sniff, though it was hard to say how – was the sweat of some person not present at the moment.
You need a nose that a bloodhound would envy to track the perspiratory reek of someone who has been out of the house for hours. Later, in the grim waiting room for the dreaded Room 101 trip, Winston is obliged to smell, at close range, Parsons’s shit while it is still warm and at its most odoriferous. Horrible as it is, it is preferable to the smell that awaits Winston in Room 101.
There are many threads in Orwell’s fiction. But it is interesting to compile their ‘smell narratives’. I append one for A Clergyman’s Daughter, along with the most smell-referential of his non-fiction books, The Road to Wigan Pier. The latter contains the four words that have hung like an albatross around Orwell’s neck: ‘The working classes smell.’ The qualifications with which he surrounded the allegation are rarely quoted.
Smell narratives would be as terse as a 140-character tweet with some authors. I asked Deirdre Le Faye, the doyenne of Jane Austen studies and editor of her surviving letters, what smells there were in the six novels. Deirdre’s reply was interesting and perplexed:
Smell I think is only specifically mentioned in Mansfield Park, with the bad air and bad smells of the Portsmouth house. This does strike me as slightly odd, because by our standards at least, the past must have been a fairly smelly place.
The ‘lady’ who wrote Sense and Sensibility was, apparently, short of one sense.
What would the ambient smell of Jane Austen’s outside world have actually been? Easily answered. Inside the house, the communal toilet sand box. Outside, horse droppings, predominantly – whether in rural Hampshire or urban Bath. The Regency world moved on four legs. Horses deposit between 7 and 14 kg (15 and 30 lb) of excrement and 9 litres (2 gallons) of urine per day where they will. There is no such beast as a house-trained horse.
Orwell, who claimed he would have preferred to have lived two hundred years ago, with his fellow ‘Tory-anarchist’ Jonathan Swift, might have found that equine-excremental world more bearable, attractive even, than the world he was born in. He loathed twentieth-century mechanical smells – although paraffin (his commonest source of home heating and lighting, when in the country) he found oddly ‘sweet’ to his nostrils, probably because of its association with warmth and light. More than most twentieth-century authors, he did a lot of reading and writing by tilly lamp, the odoriferous heater meanwhile throwing its mottled pattern onto the ceiling.
One of Orwell’s perceptive observations in his 1946 essay ‘Politics vs. Literature’, on his most admired author, Swift, is that in Gulliver’s Travels the morbidly naso-sensitive hero finally accepts as his ideal the horse, ‘an animal whose excrement is not offensive’. It is a ‘diseased’ choice on Swift’s part, Orwell grants. But Gulliver’s first experience when he arrives in Houyhnhnmland is to be spattered with human shit. Of the two varieties, which would one prefer? Orwell was, whenever the opportunity came up, a smallholding farmer: horse shit he valued (there are diary entries recording him examining minutely the quality of recent droppings) as fertilizer. Pig shit (he hated the omnivorous pig) was useless for that purpose.
Human excrement, like that of other carnivores, is offensive. Herbivores and graminivores, like the horse and goose (an animal Orwell loved and kept, whenever he could), have inoffensive excrement (when walking in Regent’s Park I have to prevent my dog from eating that variety of animal dropping. Dog shit does not attract her).
Not that it’s relevant, but I’ve often wondered where vegan droppings would stand on the Orwellian offensiveness scale. But Orwell despised ‘sandal-wearers’ and ‘fruit-juice drinkers’ as cranks, and they would not have attracted his nasal interest. He despised, as he told his working-class friend the aptly named Jack Common, ‘eunuch types with a vegetarian smell’.1
The reasons Orwell, ruinously for his health, spent the best years of his adult life in Burma, are hard to disentangle. But one was surely the call of the nostalgic curries, and the fading but still pungently mingled scents of sandalwood, rattan and teak (the most long-lastingly odoriferous of woods) in the Anglo-Indian house he was brought up in. He could not, joked his friend the critic Cyril Connolly, ‘blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry’. Or sniff, one suspects, his mother’s vindaloos and chutneys, without wondering about the subcontinent and the ethics of colonialism.
There were indeed intoxicating aromas to be found in Burma for a young man. And if Orwell’s description of his hero, John Flory’s, lovemaking in Burmese Days is to be trusted, erotic nasal stimulus was a major part of the oriental package. Flory, as he embraces his house concubine, Ma Hla May, is aroused: ‘A mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic, coconut oil and the jasmine in her hair floated from her. It was a scent that always made his teeth tingle.’ Tingling teeth is a fine detail. And it is not metaphorical. The trigeminal nerves connect nasal and dental sensation. The English working class (as Orwell would have overheard many times) glorify the ‘knee trembler’ (sex, faute de mieux, standing up, in an alley – Orwell describes it in The Road to Wigan Pier). Tooth tinglers are less common with the cold wind whipping round your bare ankles – damned uncomfortable, but relatively smell-less.
Compare aromatic Burmese copulation with the whiffiness of the whore Winston Smith recalls using in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
He seemed to breathe again the warm stuffy odour of the basement kitchen, an odour compounded of bugs and dirty clothes and villainous cheap scent, but nevertheless alluring, because no woman of the Party ever used scent, or could be imagined as doing so. Only the proles used scent. In his mind the smell of it was inextricably mixed up with fornication.
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