Is Language Inadequate to Describe the Wonders of the World?

He was less concerned with verbs, adjectives, and expletives. Except for “yes” and “no”–which, by the way, he used for the first time quite late–he used only nouns, and essentially only nouns for concrete objects, plants, animals, human beings–and only then if the objects, plants, animals, or human beings would subdue him with a sudden attack of odour.
One day as he sat on a cord of beechwood …logs snapping and cracking in the March sun, he first uttered the word “wood.” He had seen wood a hundred times before, had heard the word a hundred times before. He understood it, too, for he had often been sent to fetch wood in winter. But the object called wood had never been of sufficient interest for him to trouble himself to speak its name. It happened first on that March day as he sat on the cord of wood, The cord was stacked beneath overhanging eaves and formed a kind of bench along the south side of Madam Gaillard’s shed. The top logs gave off a sweet burnt smell, and up from the depths of the cord came a mossy aroma and in the warm sun, bits of resin odour crumbled from the pinewood planking of the shed.

Grenouille sat on the logs, his legs outstretched and his back leaned against the wall of the shed. He had closed his eyes and did not stir. He saw nothing, he heard nothing, he felt nothing. He only smelled the aroma of the wood rising up around him to be captured under the bonnet of the eaves. He drank in the aroma, he drowned in it, impregnating himself through his innermost pores, until he became wood himself; he lay on the cord of wood like a wooden puppet, like Pinocchio, as if dead, until after a long while, perhaps a half hour or more, he gagged up the word “wood.” He vomited the word up, as if he were filled with wood to his ears, as if buried in wood to his neck, as if his stomach, his gorge, his nose were spilling over with wood. And that brought him to himself, rescued him only moments before the overpowering presence of the wood, its aroma, was about to suffocate him. He shook himself, slid down off the logs, and tottered away as if on wooden legs. Days later he was still completely fuddled by the intense olfactory experience, and whenever the memory of it rose up too powerfully within him he would mutter imploringly, over and over, “wood, wood.”

And so he learned to speak. With words designating non-smelling objects, with abstract ideas and the like, especially those of an ethical or moral nature, he had the greatest difficulty. He could not retain them, confused them with one another, and even as an adult used them unwillingly and often incorrectly: justice, conscience, God, joy, responsibility, humility, gratitude, etc.–what these were meant to express remained a mystery to him.

On the other hand, everyday language soon would prove inadequate for designating all the olfactory notions that he had accumulated within himself. Soon he was no longer smelling mere wood, but kinds of wood: maple wood, oak wood, pinewood, elm wood, pearwood, old, young, rotting, mouldering, mossy wood, down to single logs, chips, and splinters–and could clearly differentiate them as objects in a way that other people could not have done by sight. It was the same with other things. For instance, the white drink that Madame Gaillard served her wards each day, why should it be designated uniformly as milk, when to Grenouilie’s senses it smelled and tasted completely different every morning depending on how warm it was, which cow it had come from, what that cow had been eating, how much cream had been left in it and so on… Or why should smoke possess only the name “smoke,” when from minute to minute, second to second, the amalgam of hundreds of odours mixed iridescently into ever new and changing unities as the smoke rose from the fire… or why should earth, landscape, air–each filled at every step and every breath with yet another odour and thus animated with another identity–still be designated by just those three coarse words.

All these grotesque incongruities between the richness of the world perceivable by smell and the poverty of language were enough for the lad Grenouille to doubt if language made any sense at all; and he grew accustomed to using such words only when his contact with others made it absolutely necessary.

At age six he had completely grasped his surroundings olfactorily. There was not an object in Madame Gaillard’s house, no place along the northern reaches of the rue de Charonne, no person, no stone, tree, bush, or picket fence, no spot be it ever so small, that he did not know by smell, could not recognise again by holding its uniqueness firmly in his memory. He had gathered tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of specific smells and kept them so clearly, so, randomly, at his disposal, that he could not only recall them when he smelled them again, but could also actually smell them simply upon recollection. And what was more, he even knew how by sheer imagination to arrange new combinations of them, to the point where he created odours that did not exist in the real world. It was as if he were an autodidact possessed of a huge vocabulary of odours that enabled him to form at will great numbers of smelled sentences–and at an age when other children stammer words, so painfully drummed into them, to formulate their first very inadequate sentences describing the world. Perhaps the closest analogy to his talent is the musical wunderkind, who has heard his way inside melodies and harmonies to the alphabet of individual tones and now composes completely new melodies and harmonies all on his own. With the one difference, however, that the alphabet of odours is incomparably larger and more nuanced than that of tones; and with the additional difference that the creative activity of Grenouille the wunderkind took place only inside him and could be perceived by no one other than himself.
~ Patrick Suskind; Perfume.

 


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