“your nose is becoming a problem”


photo by jenny downing via flickr

Yes, that’s what my husband said to me this morning, and I could only agree. I’ve noticed it myself, especially of late, my sense of smell having intensified, so much so that at times it overwhelms.

Apparently this could be due to many things, among them that I am a vampire, a dog, pregnant, or have recently lost another sense, none of which I am or have, although at times I do feel a bit vampirey. Women are known to have a stronger sense of smell than men, and there are many studies that tie smell sensitivity to fluctuations in hormones as well as migraines (both of which plague me now and then).

Oh how this nose of mine has enhanced my life! Placed as it is so centered, so symmetric, the interpreter of scents which has brought me such ineffable sensual pleasures… yet at the same time I cannot forget how it has also been the source of agonies and tortures. My nose, you see, has always been an organ of exquisite sensitivity, my bliss as well as my own private hell.

Imagine, if you will, what it is like for the average person to sniff a blossom of jasmine, a flower known for its heady perfume, its intense fragrance. Now imagine that you are rolling in a room filled so tightly with jasmine blossoms that you cannot see, snow-blind to their whiteness and dizzied by their perfume. Imagine how my knees buckle when I stand over a richly prepared stew, cumin dancing with coriander, lemon tickling my nose as a hint of cinnamon teases my palate. There is nothing more ephemeral and exquisite than the sweetness of the crevasses in a baby’s soft skin, of newborn breath.

This is the lovely part. The bliss. But there is a downside to having such a lively sense of smell. Garbage. Death. Feces. Rotten Fish. Certain body odors. As intensely as I experience the pleasant fragrances I suffer with those not so pleasant, and as I struggle with them often I must mask my emotions out of politeness, out of social grace.

But he’s right…indeed, my nose is a problem, at times.


The book “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind was released about the time I was rolling in the fields of France inhaling the scent of chocolate with ecstatic passion (a memorable night I may have mentioned here, when I camped out in a glade near a chocolate factory). Süskind’s is an incredible story, exquisitely written, and oh my!…how I could relate to the main character, Monsieur Grenouille. This not because I am a murderer, nor because I possess no scent of my own (I do, of course) but for his hyperosmia (yes, that is the term for it, apparently), or acutely sensitive sense of smell. He discovers perfection in his beloved “plum girl,” whose scent is that of water lilies, sea breezes and the blossoms of the apricot tree. I will not spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say he becomes slave to his visceral need to find this perfection, to capture it, to make it his own.

These were times of ripe scents, both pleasurable and not so:

“In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat drippings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. 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 other night as I crawled into bed I smelled an overwhelming scent of roses, yet none were around. When I googled it in the morning I read that this usually means soon you will die, or someone near you will, which creeped me out a bit… More than likely, though, it was just a molecule or two which lost their way, wafted through the air to my ever receptive nostrils where, once settled, it vibrated in simple bliss.


10 thoughts on ““your nose is becoming a problem”

  1. I think I have this! I had no idea there was a name for it. Wow. Yes, and I do get migraines at the slightest wiff of chemicals of tar or car exhaust. Love the smell of lemons and roses and vanilla and coffee. Anyhoo….this was really interesting and I love the way you approached the subject, then talked about the book, ending with the passage…..lovely.

  2. I love the way you address the pleasures and pain of hyperosmia. (Yippee…a new word) Perfume sounds like something I would enjoy reading. The description is so vivid and appalling that I can almost smell those city streets and courtyards. Wonderful post!

  3. I also have the migraines that are associated with increased sensitivity to scent. But that’s the only time I suffer with it. Interesting review of the book. I found it both difficult to read and impossible to put down.

      1. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. I had to throw that book across the room a couple of times I was so angry at a couple of the characters in it.

        If you like sci fi, the Rifters series by Peter Watts (free on Feedbooks courtesy of the author – set in a dystopian future). First book is called Starfish, I believe.

      2. Oh great, thank you! I recently read a bit of “A Widow’s Story,” and that was intensely uncomfortable yet, yes, I did keep reading… I will look for these. Not much of a sci-fi fan, but open to good reading of all sorts.

  4. I got here because of hyperosmia*, I’ll return because of your writing.

    I’ve heard about Perfume — a friend thought I’d like the film. Perhaps I’ll read the book instead.

    *someone just commented on my blog that she thinks I have hypersomia and I Googled it and found your exquisite bit of prose.

    1. Oh you are so sweet…and glad you found me!

      As for “Perfume,” I liked the movie, but I LOVED the book. Definitely read the book first. And good luck with that hyperosmia, just today I was suffering from a smell which was intolerable to me and surely no one else would even have noticed it. A blessing and curse indeed.

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