Book essay: Perfume – Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

Already in the beginning of the novel Perfume: Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind, the reader learns that albeit of equal relevance, the forthcoming story remained unrecorded as it deals with the fleeting realm of scent, which supposedly leaves no trace in history (Süskind 3). A critical perspective towards available historical data is introduced here and continues to stir the reader’s inquisition throughout the course of the narrative. The text continues with a detailed description of the stench in eighteenth-century France in a distinctly parallelistic style, which invites the reader into the scent-focused sphere of the book, emphasizes the malodorous experience of the time, and, as Christian Klein suggests, yields disgust not only as an dominating sensation within the fictional world of the novel but also as the overarching experience of the reader (54).
‘The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat…The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces.The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter’ (Süskind 3-4).
In order to understand the significance of constructing a novel around the historically often disregarded sense of smell, I will provide a brief excursion into the cultural and philosophical history of odors. A detailed description would reach beyond the scope of this paper; thus only a few important facts shall be highlighted to provide a framework for the following analysis.
Historically, the role of scent has been discredited mainly on two levels: it has been considered epistemologically unimportant and aesthetically insufficient. In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud aligns the rise of civilization with a reduced significance of olfactory stimuli that initiated when human beings assumed an upright posture. The previously concealed genitals were now revealed and had to be protected, he argues, through which the phases of the woman’s menstrual cycle could no longer be the main source of sexual attraction and were replaced by more consistent visual stimuli (Freud 54). While the change in posture can be interpreted as the first step that differentiated humanity from the other mammals on the planet, thinkers of the European enlightenment were preoccupied with finding additional justifications. In Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Immanuel Kant famously explains his theory that defines a hierarchy between the five human sense organs. He argues that the senses of touch, hearing, and sight are of a higher order than taste and smell as they have objective validity and lead to cognition.

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