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September 1, 2023 Fiction

The Olfacteur

Eric Sacks

The Olfacteur photo

The last time he’d seen his daughter, Darin farted in the car.

“I guess I was trying to be funny since she studies olfacture,” says Darin. “So I said, Hey kid, is that art? It’s like I forgot how to talk to her.”

The museum is quiet. Al, a senior citizen, stretches his neck to see if anyone else is queuing up for the tour. “Did she find your fart joke amusing?”

“Not at all. She opened the window and sat there silent until I dropped her off at her mom's. I don’t know why it’s so hard. I want to relate to her, but instead I insult her.” Darin retucks his t-shirt, NYU Dad, into his khaki shorts. “She’s studying Olfacture. That’s why I’m here. We’re getting dinner tonight and I have to do better this time.”

“Oh, your daughter is an olfacteur?” says the docent with some interest. “Well after this tour it’ll be much easier to be supportive.”

“I need to be more than supportive,” Darin says. “I want us to be able to go to openings when I visit New York. I want to smell her art and to be able to say something intelligent.” He puts his nervous hands in his pockets. “We screamed at each other when she told me her major. I’m 58 years old. Do you think it’s too late to understand art?”

“Oy vey,” Al says. “Another therapy session.”

“Al, you’ve done the same tour with me every week for half a year,” says the docent. “Don’t be a jerk.”

“Sometimes I do the 1pm,” says Al.

“Not today, Al,” says the docent while checking their phone. “So, it looks like it’s just the three of us. Alright, well– major works in the history of olfaction! First follow me through the The Ambient Odor Neutralizing Antechamber, aka these revolving doors.”

Darin goes first. Over the sound of suction, rotation and electrostatics he hears a pre-recorded voice. The Ambient Odor Neutralizing Antechamber was generously donated by the Julius Sämann Foundation. He can’t remember who Julius Sämann is but he enters the first gallery smelling strongly like nothing.

The docent starts. “‘If you can see art, if you can hear art, if you can taste art, if you can feel art, then yes you can smell art.’ In 1744 the Ottoman Salim Turkaldur proclaimed these words, and as the myth goes, the art form of olfacture was born. But while Turkaldur was perhaps the first olfacteur to achieve recognition as an artist, the truth is, perfumers had been pushing the medium of smell in greater experimental directions for at least a hundred years prior.” They walk up to an ancient-looking trestle table with a rug on top of it. A rope connected to a hook on the ceiling is sewn into the rug, such that a volume of air is contained between the table and the rug. It looks like a stiff little circus tent.

“Nearly all early smell chambers had this rudimentary design,'' says the docent. “To encounter the work, one lifts an edge and places their nose in the gap.” They raise the rug slightly and take a nasal inhale in demonstration. “Our first piece is from 1650 by the Spanish perfumer Pedro Cienfuegos. It was commissioned by King Philip IV to honor the death of his wife Elizabeth. Philip was deeply troubled by the smell, saying Cienfuegos had somehow cold-pressed the oil of sadness. Sir, please don’t stick your head under there.”

“Sorry, sorry.” Darin’s eyes emerge itchy and leaking.

The docent unzips their fanny pack and hands Darin a tissue. “These earlier olfactures used traditional solvents that are much stronger and toxic than the synthetic ones used today.”

“Philip was right,” Darin says in a newly nasal voice. “That smell really made me dark.”

“The tour starts here because this was perhaps the first odor designed and recognized to transcend simple issues of beauty, pleasantness and allure. Would you like to smell, Al?”

Al gingerly raises the edge of the rug and takes a tiny whiff. “As sad as ever.”

Darin looks towards the docent earnestly. “So you’re saying that what made this art and not just perfume is that it makes you feel something?” The docent is wearing a dangling earring, and like many young people today, their gender is a mystery to Darin.

“No, that’s not what I said. The difference between an odor and olfacture is subtle but significant. Imagine you walked into a room and the aroma reminded you of your childhood home. You might feel nostalgic, whereas someone without your memory would have no reaction. Compare that to this work. Neither of you ever met Elizabeth, obviously, and yet Cienfuegos made you feel sad. In other words, this olfacture doesn’t remind you of something sad, it is something sad.”

“Got it, got it.” Darin takes out his phone and reads aloud the text he is composing to his daughter. At the smell museum. Sadness is intrinsical, separate from any extrinsical personal associations I make with it. proud of you. “Okay sent, what’s next?”

The docent squints at Darin and then hands him the whole pack of tissues. “Are you alright, sir?”

“Maybe, I need a second. I feel like I just huffed a quart of primer.”

“Can I just give him a quick summary, so we can move on to good stuff?” says Al.

“Take it away,” says the docent. “I covered Cienfuegos, so everything else in here is Gonzalez.”

“Right, Ernesto Gonzalez, born in 1655 in Seville, Spain,” Al says, leading Darin towards an exhibit in the corner. “Between you and me,” he whispers, “I feel like they give these old masters too much credit. Is Gonzalez’ Heaven really that ethereal, or are you just a little high on ether?”

“Let’s skip that,” says Darin.

“Exactly,” says Al. “Oh, in case your daughter quizzes you on it, Ernesto died 1703 in a duel with his own son. Can you imagine?”

Darin rocks in his walking shoes. “Hey, Al do you have kids?”

“Yeah, a son. Lives in San Diego with his husband.”

“You still married?”

“She died a while back. You divorced?”

“Yeah, we waited until Rose finished high school.”

“There’s never a good time,” says Al. He makes side eyes across the room but the docent is looking at their phone.

“No there isn’t,” says Darin. “Why do you think it’s so hard, between dads and daughters?”

“There’s a kind of strange energy between divorced dads and their daughters, isn’t there? It’s no one’s fault. But I just always found it a little creepy.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Darin turns his red cheek away from Al. He licks his wrist and smells it, a trick to test his breath he learned from his own dad. “Want a mint?”

“I’d love one, but if the guards smell that peppermint, they're going to have to Febreeze us all over again.”

A uniformed woman makes brief eye contact and then continues patrolling. Darin is impressed by her professionalism, how her nostrils pulse like they’re tuned to a quartz crystal.

The docent returns and ushers Al and Darin into the next gallery.

 “Wait, Tell him about the pickled ginger boxes,” says Al.

“Thank you, Al.” He points to a white box covered in nostril-sized orifices. “Nasal palate cleansers can be found near the exits of each gallery. I recommend using them if you need to get rid of a stubborn aftersmell. Now this room contains several classical olfactures from the 1800’s. As was the style then, the smells are housed in boxes made of poplar. The title of each can be found on the back of the box. I want you to consider how your experience changes whether you read the title before or after you smell.”

Darin lifts the flap on one of the boxes and dips his nose in. He presses his forehead into the wood so that his nose can advance a few millimeters deeper. Magnolia flowers? Yes, he feels like he’s walking beneath a hundred magnolia trees in full bloom, but there’s another presence walking beside him, someone full of grace. Grace? He has no idea what grace means but he’s certain he’s smelling it. He smells and feels magnolia and grace and love. He feels…he feels…the unbounded love of the lord Jesus Christ.

Darin slams the box shut. “What the hell just happened? Am I still Jewish?”

Al stifles his laugh. “My wife was like that too, with paintings.”

“At least he didn’t faint like that guy from Ohio. Remember that, Al?” The docent smiles. “Religious olfacture can be a powerful bouquet.”

“But how did he know what Jesus smelled like? Darin asks. “And how did I know what Jesus smelled like?”

“He didn’t,”' answers Al. “Jesus was already hidden in your head, and Zitoli just helped you sniff him out.”

“You’re mixing metaphors, Al. But Salvatore Zitoli was a devout and brilliant olfacteur. That one is He is Risen. Ironically, Zitoli is most remembered for his The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa which got him excommunicated for olfactophilia.”

“They actually used to have it on the second floor but it’s on loan right now,'' says Al. “Smelled like the bible in an hourly motel. It was gross.”

Darin takes out his phone for a selfie. He sees a funny indent on his face from pressing into the box. He wonders if someday his phone will be able to record and replay smells. Has someone thought of that yet? Snotify goes public, a fresh billionaire is minted. Stop, he thinks. Let’s go back to that good feeling. He’s here for art, for his daughter. If he streamed that Jesus smell at work would it feel the same?

“Long Island or New Jersey?” interrupts Al. He lowers his nose into an ornately plastered smell chamber that looks like a model baroque mausoleum.

“Long Island. What’s that one?

Al speaks between nose pulls. “A Bernadetti. I love this room. All these great Italians.”

“What’s it smell like?” says Darin.

“It’s supposed to be about Odyssesus’ homecoming,” says Al with a shrug and an exhale. “I don’t know nothing about the Greeks but let me tell you this smell could make a newborn nostalgic. Give it a try.”

“Oh, no I don’t like nostalgia.” Darin looks up and discovers the tessellation of ceiling vents. He feels the pressure gradient on the thin hairs of his crown.

“I find it more of a sweetness than a longing. So what else you got going on in your life, besides your daughter?”

“A few things. I just paid off the mortgage on my house. I’m dating a nice woman I met on the internet. I’m going to start going to synagogue again. I just thought of that now. Did I tell you I file taxes for a living? Most of my clients are people just like me. I wish I’d stayed in touch with more people from my past. We’re really going to destroy the planet aren’t we? Sorry, this art stuff can really make your head spin.”

“I know what you mean,” says Al. “There's a box in here I swear has the exact same fug as an old OTB. My dad used to play the horses. It’s like time travel.”

The docent regains the men’s attention. “If you’re wondering how smells got so connected to memory, just go mining for gold.” The docent slowly moves their finger along the side of their nose until it hits their brow. “Fun fact, the tip of a picker’s finger can get within millimeters of their amygdala.”

“Fun fact,” Al whispers to Darin, “boogers are actually chunks of your brain.”

Darin laughs. “How long have you two been working on this routine?”

“Yeah, Al, when did you start bugging us at the museum?” says the docent.

“Four months and eight days ago,” says Al, with certainty. 

“That long? We need some new material. Okay, follow me through another neutralizing chamber.”

Freshly deodorized, the docent continues. “This room is about the theory of odor temporality. That is, how an experience of a smell evolves in time.”

“What actually is a smell?” Darin interrupts.

“Do you want to take this one, deputy docent Al?”

“Alright. A smell is our brain's response to chemicals wandering up our noses and linking up with neurons. Then the brain does a calculation using our memory and our knowledge about what we might be smelling and makes up a smell.”

The docent gives Al a thumbs up. There are silver rings on all the docent’s fingers. Darin doesn’t remember if he’s seen a thumb ring before.

“I’m not done,” Al says. “So for example, imagine the docent and I are standing near some cut grass. For me it’ll be a springtime delight. But maybe the docent’s grandpa hit them with a John Deere one time and so for them the smells not so good.”

The docent approaches a display table covered in bottles of different colors arranged in lines. “Like he said, a smell is the brain’s subjective response to the interaction between molecules in the air and the millions of olfactory receptor neurons in our noses. Because these molecules must physically float into our nose, the strength and experience of a smell is characterized by the volatility of its constituent ingredients.”

Darin raises his hand. “What’s –”

“Volatility,”' says the docent, “is the tendency of a substance to give off molecules into the air, or in other words, to vaporize.”

“Is that why acetone smells so bad?” Darin asks.

“No, acetone’s volatility is the reason its bad smell comes on strong and fast. The smell itself is basically our brain telling us it’s toxic. Interestingly enough, some people like the smell of acetone. Perhaps it's from a positive association with early memories.”

“Like people who huff solvents as a kid,” adds Al.

The docent grins. “Yes, the fact that the olfactory sense is tied to both subjectivity and objectivity makes it the perfect canvas for art. Anyway, traditional perfume theory imagined that smells fell into three categories based on their volatility. Top notes were those that hit first because they evaporate quickest. Heart notes linger longer. And base notes are even slower.”

Darin uncorks a yellow bottle then a blue one. The fragrances remind him of his ex-wife, who liked french toast and bath bombs. “Cinnamon and Lavender?”

“Yes, lavender is a classic top note and cinnamon is a heart note. Now smell the red one next to it.”

“That’s disgusting, what is that?”

“That one is musk. Now smell the purple one, which combines all three.”

The brew starts floral and ends sweet, and yet Darin can’t find the cinnamon or the lavender in the mix. It reminds him of his morning tea – red zinger, four sugars. The doctor who told him to stop drinking coffee doesn’t know about the four sugars. “I had no idea perfume was so complicated.”

“The skill of the perfumer is combining these three notes at different ratios to create the desired fragrance. But why stop at three? By using his background as a chemist, Contra developed the first carrying oils that created a continuously evolving smell with as many layers as an olfacteur could imagine.”

“So you’re saying he could make a smell that changed from banana to orange and then back to banana?” Darin asks. “Why aren’t they using this in candy?”

“Chemical instability. Food-safety.”

“Okay, but let me ask you something else. What makes this art? I mean, what would a whipsawing smell make you feel besides, I don’t know, impressed?”

“Art isn’t just about feelings, sir. Contra wasn’t interested in beautiful smells, he was interested in understanding what olfacture was capable of. At the time, critics considered it a gimmick. It took decades for the art world to appreciate Contra’s investigations into the temporal architecture of smells.”

“Oh okay, so he was playing bridge while everyone else was playing spades.” Darin says, satisfied. Then he remembers something he said on another car ride. So what, physics and chemistry and the internship at Brookhaven I paid for were all for nothing? Why hadn’t Rose just told him about Contra?

“Not sure what bridge is,” says the docent, “but to be honest, at this point, Infinite Note Theory is more of a historical curiosity than anything. It’s like how musicians know you can take the frets off their guitar but they don’t because that extra degree of freedom is irrelevant to their larger musical project.”

“I used to play guitar.” Darin draws his phone again from his khaki chino shorts. “Do you mind if I steal that metaphor?”

The docent waves his hand to signal they have a few minutes to explore the gallery.

Darin walks from box to box sampling Contra’s creations. Some of them are quite pleasant and dynamic, like taking a random walk in a field of wildflowers. Others are overwhelming, closer to this morning’s battle through Penn Station.

“I don’t really like these,” Darin says, as he closes a box for a work called The Calendar. “Hey, Al. Why’d you start coming here four months and eight days ago?”

“It was a day after I became a widower.”

“And you went to a smell museum?”

“I get too sad going to the other museums. For decades, we went to the Met and the MOMA and everywhere else, hundreds of times. She was a big fan of art, and I was a big fan of her, so museums were our thing. But my wife had Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, MCS, you know, so we couldn’t come here. I still talk to her sometimes, describe the smells to her.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Al.”

“Or maybe, I’m just doing it for myself. I mean, art you can smell, what’s not to love? But with our tradition and Marie’s condition, sneaking off here felt like infidelity.” Al makes a sighing hmm noise.

“My ex-wife had this line, our daughter was the last Rose you ever gave me. I had a hundred thousand chances to stop at the flower shop driving home from work, but I just listened to sports radio. What I’m trying to say is, I wish my ex-wife only cheated on me with a museum.” Darin’s face is hot.

Al slaps him on the back. “That was a good bit, Darin.”

“What’s that table over there? Darin says, loud so the docent can hear. On the other side of the room is a long white table with several sleek stethoscope-looking devices on top. “Kind of looks like the Apple store.”

“Another of Contra’s innovations was in stereo smells,” says the docent. “Contra was the first to intuit that just like with ears, the brain can deduce spatial information from the difference between the two nostrils measurements. Funnily enough, he created these nosebuds decades before earbuds were invented.”

Darin remembers some of the ornate smell chambers Rose made in her AP Olfacture class. The boxes that impressed him so much more than the smells, though he never would say that. “So olfacteurs are really kind of like engineers.” He picks up a pair of nosebuds, slides on the sanitary covers, and pops them in. “Whoa. I feel like I have two noses.”

“Honestly, that’s probably just placebo,” says the docent. “The stereo smell effect is so subtle that many critics at the time thought it was, well, stupid.”

“Oh,” says Darin.“So inventors of useless things are also called artists?”

“I hope you don’t call your daughter an inventor of useless things,” says Al.

“Never,” says Darin, abashed. “I’m sure Rose’s work is more like the last room. Useless technical details are much more up my alley.”

The docent yawns. “Sorry – yes it’s true that Contra was more conceptual than most of his contemporaries. But the line between artist and scientist was historically quite blurred. Both invented things that were useless until they weren't. Now we will talk about the Redolents. Want to explain, Al?”

“Sure.” He approaches a placard on the wall. “The Redolents were a group of olfacteurs who trained at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London in the late 1800s. Studying under Zitoli and Barnes and building off the methods of Contra, they discovered how sequences of smells could unlock latent emotions and memories or create entirely new experiences. Wait, they forgot the part about redolence. The Redolents comes from the word redolence which means both aromatic and reminiscent. I cede the floor.”

“Exactly, thank you. In their controversial manifesto, the Redolents declared their intention to play the hippocampus like a piano.”

“Did it work?” asks Darin.“Try this one first.” The docent points to a dutch oven with a nebulizer-like mask attached to it. “They made this one while still students so the chamber is rather wonky.”

Darin sniffs. “Why do I keep getting Penn station?”

The docent points to a fancy smell chamber that looks like a four-spouted samovar. “Now try that one.”

As Darin inhales, he begins to taste the buttery fat in the center of his favorite Ruth’s Chris porterhouse. He retracts his face and gulps. “This is making me hungry.”

“Just keep sniffing,” instructs the docent.

The filet mignon, the new york strip, the $22 a la carte creamed spinach, all of it starts to dissipate. No, why are they taking the food away he wonders. Why are they taking all the food away? Now Darin feels like he’s starving. Like he’ll never taste anything delicious again.

“That’s enough,” the docent says firmly. “Pull your nose away before you vomit,”

“That was – what was that?”

“Several things. Many of the Redolents were politically minded and this was a statement on the hoarding of food by the bourgeoisie. Secondly, the Redolents took advantage of new science that showed that most of our sense of taste actually comes from smell. That’s why if you hold your nose when you eat a chocolate bar, all you’ll taste is the sweetness of sugar and the bitterness of theobromine.”

Darin keeps licking his lips, searching for steak. “Political smells. I had no idea.”

“The Redolents also rejected the individual genius of the olfacteur. All their work is credited to the Redolents, and while some of them revealed themselves later in life, scholars are still trying to uncover most of their identities.”

“Must have been rich kids,” says Al. “A lot harder to make money staying anonymous.”

“I didn’t even think about that,” says Darin, remembering his daughter’s chosen vocation and tuition bill. “Hey docent, how do olfacteurs support themselves? How can you tell if a smell is worth anything?”

“The Redolents were Marxists and would hate this question. They would also hate knowing their work was worth millions and housed in a museum funded by oil tycoons. Anyway, like all art, the value of an olfacture is dictated by taste, luck and historical significance. And then there are celebrity olfacteurs like The Canadian whose olfactures regularly sell for millions of dollars at Christies. His works focus on nasal realism, and who would have guessed the smell of a hundred different cups of coffee is the ideal piece of art for an office building.”

“So if I made a smell that made you feel like you were on vacation, that could be a valuable piece of art?”

“Vacation as an abstract concept or a specific vacation?” replies the docent.

“How about a specific vacation. Like maybe the time me and Rose stayed at the Atlantis Hotel while her mother visited her sister.”

Al’s right eye twitches.

“Sure,” says the docent, “if you could induce a random smeller to feel like they were on vacation with you and your daughter in the Bahamas, you’d be an olfacteur of unrivaled talent making millions. If you want to make someone feel like they are at the beach, just open a bottle of sunscreen. If you want your daughter to remember your vacation, it would probably be easier to show her a picture.”

“It was just an example,” Darin says. He wonders if his ex-wife still has those pictures. His physician had prescribed him Klonopin, so there’s a lot from the move he can’t account for.

“Okay, let’s move on to the next gallery.” The docent gestures to them to follow into a room labeled Modernism.

“This 1917 work by Luna Davis is perhaps the most controversial piece of art in all of olfacture. Many consider this the piece that inaugurated Modernism.”

“It’s in that white porcelain thing over there?” asks Darin. He looks at Al, but Al avoids eye contact.

“Yes, that vitreous china bowl was created by Davis for this exhibit. You just lift the lid and stick your head in. Want to show him, Al?”

“I’m nursing a headache right now. You go ahead, Darin.”

Darin walks up to the chamber. It’s low on the floor so he has to get onto his knees. He lifts the lid and takes a big breath through his nose. Immediately he’s coughing.

“Oh my god that smells like shit! Like real shit! Why would you make me smell this?”

The docent tries to hide their smile behind their hand. 

“This is the same question critics had to wrestle with in 1917. For years critics had been talking about her art, but Davis wanted them to know her art could talk back. Modernists like Davis were criticizing olfacture through olfacture. In the most vulgar terms, she was posing the question ‘who decides what’s art, you or me?’”

Darin is kind of dumbfounded. “So basically… she was a troll?”

“In a sense,” answers the docent.

“And you think she wanted to get a bunch of serious people in a room and make them smell shit and then try to explain why it was something much more than that.”

“Generally, that’s how the piece is interpreted.”

Darin laughs. “Incredible. You artists get to spend your whole life indulging your most serious and stupid notions and then watch other people work to explain why it matters.”

The docent stutters.  “Who’s you – me? My work is – forget it. How about we take a few minutes to ourselves to appreciate the rest of the modernist gallery.” They smile with a closed mouth and shuffle away from the men.

“Maybe,” continues Darin. “Or maybe everyone thought this Luna person was a genius with all these big ideas, but it actually all started with her passing gas and someone saying hey, is that art too? And then Luna said, you know what, it depends who's farting. Maybe that’s why my joke in the car wasn’t funny, because I was the one who tooted.”

“You belittled her vocation,” says Al. “You farted in a confined space.”

“Or maybe Rose hasn’t learned about Luna Davis yet.” Darin takes out his phone.

“Don’t text her again.”

“I remember I thought it would be the greatest life ever to be a musician when I was a teenager, but I wasn’t talented enough for anyone to hear it and explain why it mattered. But NYU thinks my Rose has that talent.”

“That was my wife’s alma mater,” says Al.

“I haven’t thought or felt this much about anything in years.” Darin lifts the phone.

“Darin, don’t text her.”

“I wasn’t! I’m taking some notes. I just want her to know I’m proud of her. We fought so much when she said this was going to be her major.”

“Children don’t need you to be proud. They just need to know you respect what they do,” says Al.

“I do now. I really do.”

“Well what’s her art like?”

“It’s good,” Darin says. “I haven’t actually smelled much, but at her senior show in high school, she had this one piece her teachers were obsessed with. The smell chamber she made looked just like our house. It’s probably what got her into college.”

“What was the smell?”

“The smell was– it was weird. Actually, the whole night was weird. I remember I gave her a hug and told her it smelled amazing and she started crying.”

“It was a beautiful house with a bad smell in it?”

“I got all these good description words now from you guys so let me think.” In his head, he presses his nose into the adorable nose holes Rose made in the chimney on the replica of the house they used to live in together. It’s a facade. Inside the house, it smells like anger and fights and bullshit. Everything they thought they’d hidden. “Oh shit. It smelled bad because it was about me and her mother.” His phone vibrates in his pocket

“She sounds really talented,” Al says.

There’s a text from Rose. Got out of class early and walked over. I’m by the ticket ppl.

“Oh my god. Rose is in the museum now. I have to go meet her.”

“That’s great, you have a lot to talk about.”

“Wait, do you want to come with us? Darin says. The sudden realization that it’ll be just him and Rose makes his heart pound.

Al smiles with a closed mouth, just like the docent. “Darin, this was nice but go.”

“You’re right.”

“And watch out for that creepy energy I was talking about.”

“Right. Well, nice smelling all this art with you Al.”

Darin marches towards the Neutralizing Antechamber musty with love and its failure. Even if he could bottle it, the strangeness of being a divorced single dad with a daughter, unprotected by the unity of marriage, a smell that flickers from warmth and safety and familiarity to precarity, unguaranteed, to being any other man who could disappoint or damage at any time, because he already has – yeah it would be art, but the stink wouldn’t go away. Then he sees her, waving at him with a car air freshener from the gift shop, laughing. So he waves back, and laughs back, and wonders what scent she picked, and why.