Thursday, October 24, 2013

Body Odor and Personal Identity

The Spirituality of Smell, part 5
Our modern world is pervaded with a materialism that denies all non-physical realities. Yet it is a great paradox of modern life that, despite this materialism, we are also constantly pressured to detach ourselves from our material bodies, as if our bodies are a prison.

This irony was articulated by Kurt Schnaubelt in his 1999 book Medical Aromatherapy: Healing With Essential Oils.
“Our age is materialistic, yet ironically it begets spiritualist teachings that describe the human body as a burden with no intrinsic value, as if our bodies have no relationship to who we really are.”
We see this anti-material impulse in the pervasive assumption that we need not be bound by the fixities of our material bodies and physical processes. Our physical appearance, aging processes and even our gender need not be constrained by the limits of our physicality, or so we are told in a myriad of different ways.

The same applies to how modern industrialized societies have come to regard the sense of smell. In pre-industrial societies, a person’s unique odor profile was central to personal identify, and researchers have even found that indigenous peoples are able to identify men and women solely by their scent. (Schnaubelt, p. 25) Subsequent research has shown that “individuals have a distinct, specific odor – a chemical signature.” (Schnaubelt, p. 26)

Smell is one of the first means of bonding
between mother and child
In modern Western society, on the other hand, even the term ‘odor’ is a pejorative. Although smell is one of the first means of bonding between mother and child (Schnaubelt, p. 27), our society pressures us to eradicate all vestiges of our natural scent. Our God-given odor is then replaced with synthetic scents that push us into a homogeneous mass. As Schnaubelt again observes, 

“The loss of individuality in mass-market society has evolved conspicuously parallel to the sense of smell becoming almost irrelevant.”
“The eradication of natural odor plays an enormous role in transforming a large number of individuals into a homogeneous mass of people with identical preferences, behavior, and feelings.” (Schnaubelt, p. 21)
Given the negative connotations of body odor, it is not realistic for individuals to stop wearing deodorants. Yet perfumes made of essential oils are a way to connect to the earth in a way that chemical fragrances do not. Essential oils unite us with the smells of the earth while chemical fragrances move us away from nature into a homogeneous mold.

Asserting that connection with the earth is a way to accept that we are, as Vigen Guroian calls us, earthmen and earthwoman. “In our urban and suburban worlds, we are losing consciousness of this deep, primal connection with the earth” he writes (Vigen Guroian, p. 41) and he quotes Wendell Berry who said “We come from the earth and return to it….While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth joined inextricably both to soil and to the bodies of other living creatures” (Wndell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.)

Why feelings? What is the relationship between odor and feelings? That will be the subject of a subsequent post.

Further Reading

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