One thing that you have to love about Montaigne is how easily and unselfconsciously he jumps from an abstruse essay on subtlety and two types of ignorance that really might just be the same kind of ignorance (he didn’t convince me, but I did like his display of (false?) modesty) to a simple essay, filled with almost child-like glee, on the subject of smells!
“And such as make use of fine exotic perfumes are with good reason to be suspected of some natural imperfection which they endeavor by these odors too conceal. To smell, though well, is to stink.”
“I am nevertheless a great love of good smells, and as much abominate the ill ones which also I scent a greater distance, I think, than other men.”
And the best part of this short essay is his description of how scents “cleave” to him:
“’Tis not to be believed how strangely all sorts of odours cleave to me, and how apt my skin is to imbibe them. He that complains of nature that she has not furnished mankind with a vehicle to convey smells to the nose had no reason; for they will do it themselves, especially to me; my very mustachios, which are full, perform that office; for if I stroke them but with my gloves or handkerchief, the smell will not out a whole day; they manifest where I have been, and the close, luscious, devouring, viscid melting kisses of youthful ardour in my wanton age left a sweetness upon my lips for several hours after.”
Which makes me think of my own recent olfactory observations. You know that good freshly brewed coffee smell? I love it; not much is better. But coffee’s spirit has a dark side–that staleness that clings to you if you’re in a café too long. If you’re not in a café drinking your coffee, it’s fine, only your breath gets stale, and you can easily remedy that with water, mints, or food. But if you spend more than thirty minutes in there it clings and cleaves to you. It invades your every pore and every weave of cloth on your body. You’ll carry it around for another ten hours if you don’t do something about it. And it’s not that beautiful freshly brewed smell; it’s that rotten stink of beans slaughtered and gorged upon for you to attain your caffeinated buzz.
I’ll be the last one to say that it isn’t worth it though. And you know what? The stale smell of coffee beans sacrificed purely to satisfy our pleasure and whim, it may not be innately satisfying as the freshly brewed coffee-scent is, but it is redolent and reminiscent of coffee enjoyed, good conversations had, fine and interesting words read, and (in some cases) slightly-less-fine-and-interesting words shared.