The Talmud provides the first written account of the animal-based fragrance, this reference dating from about the fifth century. Both Chinese potentates and Arab traders were eager to use musk, both because of its ability to create perfumes and its supposed qualities as an aphrodisiac. Like its geographic journey, the entomological history of “musk” has been emblematic.
Traveling Northward from its original Indian origin, musk was then adapted into Persian (musk), Late Greek (moschos), Late Latin (muske), Middle French (musc), and Middle English (muske). Ironically, our current version of the term doesn’t differ too drastically from the original.
Given the Western world’s obsession with scent, it is unsurprising to find a few famous literary noses spread throughout history.
Ovid is often portrayed as having a healthily pronounced schnoz. Though no contemporary portrayals of the Roman poet exist, artists have tended to speculate in their representations. One of the greatest Roman men of letters was not named with a simple “Ovid,” but rather with a baroque “Publius Ovidius Naso.” It is the final two syllable that provide the visual cues.
Cyrano de Birgerac gave Edmond Rostand cause to fuss. The Jew of Malta, while now viewed as a slight on the Bard’s résumé, has for centuries given costumers a welcome chance to practice their prosthetic skills.
Smell is interesting because of exactly how its phenomenon relates to reading.
I’ve come to think of reading as a collaborative effort. The ideas of the text’s creator are mixed with those of its reader to create a new experience, asssuming both parties are open and of decent intelligence. Smell, on the other hand, is far more invasive. It is the only sense that actually requires a violation of the body in order to function properly. With perfumes, body odors, and smogs, a small part of the offending material must be taken into the body in order for it to be smelt.
In a characteristic flourish, Freud etiologizes the phenomenon of nasal disgust as “coming into being when, with the adoption of upright stance and the greater distance from the earth, the sense of smell, which attracted the male to the menstruating female, fell victim to organic repression.”
Whether or not this ambitious intuition holds true is debatable, but it throws into relief the fascinating reality that smell is a very-much repressed sense. Especially the phenomenon of human smell, about which we have a smattering of confused opinions. The smell of the body is both the cause for attraction, an almost shameful, animal lust, and at the same time reviled to the point where there have been several major industries constructed around its artful concealment. If not by his hair, then the hippy is to be identified by his scent.
I would track this whole thing back to reading in its ability to provide intense, intimate discomfort, a sensation somewhere between pleasure and revulsion. Both smell and written words must be sorted out in the brain as to their quality, import, and cause for alarm. This gives some credence to Freud’s theory. The “good” or “bad” character of a smell is much more a conditioned value judgment than it is an innate sensation. Smells and words both invade our mental space because they project the “other” into our immediate sphere of self.
It is fitting that the original term for “musk” would be a synonym for “scrotum.” Smell is a sexual sense. It heralds the abandon of self to something outside of the body—the body itself is literally mixed with outside constituents, both in smelling and sex. And it is in this province that our capabilities for description become similarly confused. Even in our current usage it’s not clear whether “musky” connotes a sexual atmosphere or an unpleasant stagnation. Is the “scrotum” an object of desire, or a revolting inconvenience?
We’ve confused the subject, and I think that makes it much more interesting.