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13.01.08, Dugan, The Ephemral History of Perfume

13.01.08, Dugan, The Ephemral History of Perfume

The monograph that Holly Dugan dedicates to the phenomenology of olfaction in early modern British culture--The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England--stands out as a laudable attempt at adding to what might be termed the "odiferous turn" in late twentieth-century historical and literary studies. The trend, as Dugan points out, is one aspect of the socio-anthropological work initiated by Michel Foucault, among others, in the 1970s and '80s and counts a number of landmark contributions, notably Alain Corbin's work on the politics of smell in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Dugan presents here the results of her original investigation of the subject in a period and area--early modern England--so far little explored cohesively in these terms. As she puts it, the attempt at furnishing a theoretical frame for her findings aims at establishing "that scents are cultural materials worthy of historical investigation" (2). The wealth of documents included and the range of perspectives are certainly commendable and make quite an engaging reading experience. The only shortcoming, in my opinion, lies in the plausibility of some of her conclusions, particularly those based on or exemplified by visual evidence: an understandable limit given the novelty of the author's perspective and the wide range of material she covers.

Divided into six macro-thematic areas--which in turn correspond to six chapters, six essences, six means of diffusion and six geographical/social places--Dugan's subject encompasses a remarkable range of examples and breadth of fields, ranging from the social to the economic, from the literary to the historical, from the domestic to the public, and so forth. In the manner of an expert pointer, Dugan sniffs out a number of essences (namely, frankincense, rosewater, sassafras, rosemary, ambergris, and jasmine) and pursues each of them through a particular social environment, a symbolic space, an artistic habit, a dramatic exchange. In this way she is able to conjure up rather impressive snapshots of early modern socio-cultural experiences, such as a court revel or funeral procession, whose fullest implications, she argues, are allowed to surface by the variable potency of the smells involved.

Her starting points and guiding threads through the wealth of material she presents are mirrored in her title: the ephemerality and "invisibility" of scents and the undeniable (albeit too often forgotten) links between smelling and knowing. The consequences of these assumptions--that is, the fact that the same smell presumably has different meanings in different periods and environments, and that we often learn and remember through this somewhat neglected and unmoored sense--might discourage any scholar from embarking on a seemingly hopeless search for lost perfumes and the sensations they would inspire. But Dugan's attitude and method are generally supported by attentive references to archival findings and documented practices, thus providing a remarkable panorama on the ways in which "smelling noses" rivaled the preeminence of eyes and mouths as epistemological tools in early modern Britain.

Punctuated by curiosities, similar to a Wunderkammer collection, this study tends to jump huge distances, both geographical and cultural, to "document the complicated nexus between scent and sense" (16). Some of the links Dugan unveils are indeed very suggestive, such as the economic, political, poetic versatility inherent in scented gloves (128) or the fact that "early modern men and women believed that the womb, like the nose, was an organ of olfaction" which could be cured or cleansed via fumigation (116). One of Dugan's most felicitous intuitions suggests that at the critical moment of encounter between Western colonialists and native Americans "native olfactory mappings of local terrain supplemented English visual ones" (84), an intriguing perspective on the limits of the all-encompassing, Big-Brotherish, eye-centered "panoptic" culture with which we ourselves are imbued. The author's insightful reflections on the demise of noses as a means of knowing--a notion, as Dugan reminds us, that Proust famously confuted--is in itself a reason enough to enjoy this book.

Some of her other inferences, though, lack the same poignancy and seem frankly far-fetched. One instance of this is when Dugan links the construction of ideal kingship and nationalism to the perfume of damask roses: "Using rosewater, the absolute essence of the rose itself, as a subtle olfactory reminder of his absolute royal power, the king embodied a new kind of self, one whose identity relied on olfaction" (49). Suggesting that Henry VIII cunningly exploited all the symbolic declensions of roses, including their perfume, as a means of establishing the appeal of his body politic sounds correct, but stating that kingly identity actually "relied" on olfaction seems at least dubious. The benefit of the doubt is also required to accept Dugan's interpretation of a couple of visual representations of native "festive danses" (87, 89) in which she detects what she thinks "strongly resemble" sassafras branches, highly valued in Western markets. No absolute evidence is provided for this association, but Dugan takes it for granted when she proceeds to conclude that "the dancers are frozen in time, and the sassafras no longer represents a smell but a visual symbol of future monetary success" (88). But what if the branches depicted belonged to some other botanical species without a commercially valuable aroma? Can we absolutely exclude this hypothesis? Identifying the branches with sheer exactitude would not be so relevant of course, if the author did not offer these visual representations as evidence supporting her complex reading of the role that sassafras played in the English appropriation of "new strategies of discovery" (18).

Interpretation of images seems, in particular, to have proven rather tricky for the author of The Ephemeral History of Perfume. Greater attention should have been given to the corpus of images included in the volume, which possesses no initial index, consistent references or numbering. This is true, for instance, of her reading of two woodcuts taken from a 1594 gardening manual placed on facing pages (166, 167), but briskly discussed in a single paragraph on page 164 without any indication that the actual figures are available overleaf. In this case, as with most of the images presented in the volume, no mention of iconographic tradition or consideration of any iconological interpretation is offered. Images are simply presented as if they were vignettes proving in visual form what Dugan elaborates from texts or cultural traditions related to olfaction. Moreover, most of her figurative interpretations are feeble if not entirely implausible: despite the fact that, in general, botanical growth is often used to mimic sexual potency/fertility, the embracing couple depicted in the bottom left corner of the woodcut reproduced on page 166 may not necessarily be mirrored in the potted plants depicted in the same place of the woodcut on page 167, since these plants are not intertwined with each other and therefore they can hardly be said to be the amorous couple's "botanical counterparts" (164) unless we elaborate on them thanks to a generous imaginative leap. Concluding that "this analogy suggests that pleasure gardens served as a discrete [sic] location for erotic acts and that odiferous pleasure helped stage it" (164), therefore, sounds at least rushed and debatable. And in a couple of other visual examples the rarity of autochthonous and contemporary artifacts is easily overcome by presenting later or earlier foreign examples, such as the 1330 Avignon-produced golden rose used to "visualize" a "sixteenth- century scent object linked to Henry VIII" (53) or the pomanders from mid-fourteenth-century Italy or mid-seventeenth-century Western Europe (112, 113) provided as visual descriptions of nose relievers used in early modern England. Clearly, visual interpretation is often controversial and my doubts about the advisability of including pictures of objects or acts as literal "depictions" of the texts or thesis offered may well be irrelevant. Nonetheless, greater care in handling the visual artifacts presented would have noticeably improved the overall impact of this study, at least for this reviewer.

What I perceive as a difficulty in managing images is, it seems to me, actual evidence of the necessity of having books like this one written and read. The Ephemeral History of Perfume constitutes tangible proof of the necessity of rethinking our perceptive standards when addressing texts and cultural traditions belonging to a truly different past. Our collective cultural oblivion of sensory knowledge other than the visual--the consequence of the drastically sanitized and deodorized world in which we live--is deeply questioned in Holly Dugan's work on olfaction, even when her argument is made less cogent by her (our) overconfidence in the transparent "legibility" of images. This, in my opinion, demonstrates how important it is to undertake interdisciplinary and multifaceted studies of all the senses, including vision. Memory is often mentioned in Dugan's book as a means both to navigate olfactory "archives" and to restore paths of understanding through distant ages. I believe Dugan's work--like all works even peripherally touching on one of the five parts of ancient rhetoric--is a welcome starting point to let us once again breathe in what the lost Eden of the past must have smelled like.