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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival by Gabrielle Glaser

“The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment.”
— Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

PopMatters‘ books editor Valerie MacEwan sent me this little book while I was recovering from bilateral turbinate resection septoplasty, a peculiarly painful surgery that is supposed to clear the sinuses. A sadistic, foul trick, you say? That’s what I thought, but how wrong I was.

Ok, so let’s get the negative comments out of the way first. While there are some illustrations, a detailed anatomical atlas of the nose would be useful. Just where and what are these turbinate things? An index would be handy, too.

That said, Gabrielle Glaser, a journalist without much experience in science, has produced a sweet and useful review of this, our most neglected of sense organs. Her thesis is that the nose is the central event in our lives, the thing that makes sense of the world around us and finally defines who we are. I’m not entirely convinced, but the journey she takes us on is certainly interesting and quite broad in its scope.

Throughout history, as the author points out, we have had to wallow in viciously, ugly odors. The world has stunk. Consequently, we’ve reserved sweet and pleasant smells for the gods. And, oh yes, for the upper classes. In fact, ability to acquire freedom from heinous odors has defined the privileged classes. Americans, classless, work-oriented, and democratic, have been slow to indulge in the pleasures of pleasant odors. The perfume industry caught on only slowly in the USA because indulging in fragrance seemed peculiarly decadent, positively French, until the industry went to work on our Puritan scruples with deliberate purpose. Now we’ve a multi-billion dollar industry, not just in perfume, but in scattering and removing scents from all over our lived environment.

Now we have a different problem. Just as we have overworked our ears to the point that we are nearly deaf and subjected our eyes to all sorts of visual clutter, we have overworked our noses to the point that our noses hardly know what to tell us. The purpose of the nose was to warn us of danger and to tell us about mating opportunities. Hence, dead things and feces smelled bad and we stayed away. If our jobs have required us to deal with odors warning of danger, our noses grow accustomed as if to say, ‘There, I’ve warned you, and now I’ll warn you no more.’

And our nose is more than a little tied up in our sexual lives. Liquor may be quick and candy may be dandy, but a few sweet-smelling flowers never hurt a courtship while a pleasant female scent or a strongly masculine odor is downright suggestive and seductive. Odor helps us find and remember our mates, our children and our parents. My father has been dead for more than a decade but I will still find his scent around the house and that provokes a sense of nostalgia no photograph or sound can.

Researchers are even starting to think again about pheromones and humans. Pheromones are odorless odors within a species that signal some very strange things like the genetic structure of potential mates. Humans still have the pheromone receptor in the nose but our pheromones were thought to be obsolete. Then an undergraduate student at Wellesley demonstrated that women living together tend to synchronize their periods, and scientists concluded that, oh my, this whole thing about human pheromones needs rethinking.

There’s so much that can go wrong with the nose! We may not like ours. It is too big or too little, too turned up or too turned down, too bulbous or crooked. A surgeon can take care of that in no time, but we’re learning to do the cosmetic thing with some caution. The nose defines so much of who we are. In changing it, we can create a lot of mischief for our self-identity. Or, we can be born without a sense of smell. More likely, we lose our sense of smell, and when this happens, there is again serious mental upheaval that the rest of us fail to appreciate. But we probably will. Old age alienation and lethargy may well be provoked by a fading sense of smell.

Then there are those of us, one in every seven Americans, who suffer chronic and serious sinus dysfunction, chronic sinusitis. At one point and not that long ago, psychologists blamed a stuffy nose and sinus headaches on messed-up sexual attitudes. The nose was a penis substitute emitting fluids that — well, never mind. While that bit of witchcraft was still going on, radium treatment became the rage. The idea was to stick about 900 times the lifetime exposure to radiation up the nose and that would shrink swollen sinuses. You bet it would. In the long run, it did some other things as well.

Next, chronic sinusitis was treated with a variety of operations that proved to be bogus. ENT specialists across the land panicked. What was the point in all that education and training if its application was spurious? Turns out it wasn’t such a sham after all. Messed-up sinuses still need surgical correction and that correction has become more sophisticated and less intrusive and violent with technological improvements. That doesn’t mean it is particularly pleasant as I can testify. But it is increasingly recognized that the surgery doesn’t get at the problem unless it is coupled with the magic performed by those who can frustrate allergies and stymie fungal infestations. Heck, the real problem for those with chronic sinusitis is we’ve got mushrooms growing in our noses, an observation that for the first time gets a firm scientific grip on the nose.