The world without a sense

The senses are a matter destined to produce meaning

David Le Breton

In the beginning, I could not smell anything at all. I thought I was part of the 40% of covid ills that lose their sense of smell for just a few days. One, two, three months after I still could not differentiate whether I had used deodorant or not that day. In the fourth month, it seemed to be coming back in the shape of the weirdest and random smell on things; sitting at my home office desk I felt like the air was about to burn: it smelled like gasoline. Washing my hands in the bathroom I perceived that the soap left me a smell of goo that I could not even describe well. At the sixth month, it evolved to what it is now: A washy sense to which I resign myself. Losing the smell, as you knew it, can reshape your whole existence.

I know, it sounds over the top. In the movie Perfect Sense, a global pandemic strips people of their senses, starting with the smell. After losing it, people say, repeatedly, life goes on. Like someone who says that everything is fine, that it is manageable. After all, what Shruti Swamy says in her essay Losing Smell is true: “I think of smell, and its sister, taste, as the artists of the senses. They’re the ones that seem to exist most obviously for pleasure.” For pleasure, not for productivity and we well know that in this world the latter prevails over the former. In the film, people still worked and went about their lives easily after losing those two senses. And, of course, I have continued with my life in the same way, it is not as if I had lost my sight, which is the sense that we give most relevance to in the Western world. However, I had not realized how important smell was to me, that sense that I always took for granted until I lost it. After all, smelling is also a way of seeing the world, of experiencing it.

During the first few months, the food was tasteless. My relationship with it changed completely, I used to eat only because I had to and I didn’t really enjoy what I chewed and swallowed. Eating became very boring during those days, the nose and tongue were useless organs that robbed me of delight. Anosmia seemed transitory and somehow easier to live with; the absence of odor is much easier to explain than the distortion of odor. If someone asked do you sense the smell of the chicken I just cooked? or do you feel that fresh aroma in the outside-the-city park air? I could just say No, I had covid and my sense of smell has not come back yet. But how does one explain that the air smells like gasoline and that meat tastes the same?

The smell of gasoline and goo and other random smells began to appear in my daily life tricking me to think that the sense was returning. I thought that my nose and brain were learning to sense the world through smell again and that I just had to be patient. Until I googled. Clean the inside of your nose. If your sense of smell or taste does not go back to normal within a few weeks, it is worth seeking medical advice from your specialist. I did it. I went to the Otorhinolaryngologist, and he prescribed mometasone furoate nasal drops that after a week of use made my nose bleed. Later he sent me to do a CT scan, which came up normal, leading to the most useless medical advice: be patient, it will be back, try smelling strong things, have a nice day, and close the door, please.

I had a cup of grain coffee on my desk to place it under my nose from time to time. I also bought an essential oils diffuser and lavender, eucalyptus, sweet orange, ylang-ylang, lemongrass, cedar, and peppermint drops to keep on in my bedroom, which I still use. Now, exactly one year after losing my sense of smell, my favorite passion fruit juice has a metallic taste, sometimes lighter than others, and my perfume smells salty. I can’t enjoy a soup with coriander nor the cucumber in salads, their taste is awful. I find it sad that the idea of looking for the smell of the one I like in the armpits of strangers on the bus seems impossible now. My brain does not record smell as before, it is as if I’m out of olfactory neurons to preserve it. How can I search for something unknown, something of which I have no trace?

The world made no sense when I could not smell the aroma of just-trimmed grass. Now I can sense it, but not as before and that’s a thing words don’t allow me to explain. I often find myself trying to put into words the distortion that my nose is placing me to live in and I mostly fail. The above makes sense; David Le Breton already said in his book Sensing the World that “describing an odor to someone who does not smell it or is unfamiliar with it is a challenge” because “odors are a basic form of the unspeakable”. We almost always use other words or a value judgment to describe a smell: It smells bad or good, it smells like damp earth, sweat, onion, banana. So, I end up circling around descriptions that I don’t quite understand and my interlocutor trying to move on from that boring part of the conversation. This experience has been like feeling expelled from the world of others as if there were a world that only exists for me and a parallel one for the people around me.

How do you call the nostalgia that is felt when something lost is returned but has changed, has a scratch over, is discolored? The smell builds your memory, allows you to get acquainted with the space, joints the things in life you cannot describe with words, even if you want to badly. Some of us love through smell. Writing down what having the sense of smell distorted has meant to me is a way of putting into words something that is still indescribable to me, a way of dealing with the possibility that my nose may never smell as it used to and that different smells that I don’t know what to name anymore keep appearing in things that I thought I knew what they smelled like. When Swamy says that smells “give our experience of the world its color,” I believe her.

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