Work and Smell: Comparative Perspectives: Abstracts and Biographies

25 April 2024

Panel 1 (10.15-11.35)

Anne M. Mulhall, The Scent of Time: Smells in Contemporary Office Literature

Virtual work, air purification, hyper-cleanliness, the exile of smokers, and patterns of “cleaner” food consumption have attempted to relegate smells to the margins of office life. Despite this flattening of the workplace sensorium, however, recent office literature has begun to place an even greater emphasis on olfactory experiences. Approaching French and Irish office novels of the past fifteen years, this paper will explore how scent has become a primary locus of conflict within the contemporary workplace.

One of my case studies is Delphine de Vigan’s Les Heures souterraines, which describes a workplace bullying scenario in which the protagonist, marketing executive Mathilde, is relocated by her jealous boss from an office adjoining his own to a boxroom next to the men’s toilets, where she must work alongside the noise and stench. Another is Lydie Salvayre’s La vie commune, in which the main protagonist becomes obsessed with the overpowering smell of a nemesis’s Vetiver perfume. As it permeates and infects the office space, she experiences it as a crime whose very nature allows it to escape either recognition or punishment by her workplace superiors. Other cases include the Irish novels of Sally Rooney, Paul Murray and Naoise Dolan, which all include meditations on smells, both threatening and enrapturing, that provide a haze of an intangible yet toxifying or intoxicating office politics.

At the heart of all this is a larger paradox. Why, I will ask, when virtuality and disembodied communication have become the dominant traits of contemporary working life, have scents associated with the materiality of the body become noticeable devices in these office novels? Is literature staging a reaction against the scant consideration given to the body in organizational accounts of the worker? Are these novels calling attention to the material aspects of the worker’s identity that have been de-prioritized within the contemporary knowledge economy? Or is there a larger effect at play, one that evades simple political or theoretical conceptualization in the way that smells evade security cameras? Building on these preliminary questions, I will seek to understand the complex interactive relations between smell and temporality, not just in reference to the clearly historically contingent nature of smells at the workplace, but also in the sense of how time has been experienced and exposed in contemporary working life and literature.

Anne Mulhall. I am a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at St. Louis University Madrid. I recently completed an IRHCSS postdoctoral fellowship at Trinity College Dublin (2020-2023) and have previously held positions at the University of Tyumen, Siberia, and Brown University, USA. My current research project is an interrogation of the radical shift in common perceptions of time in the decade since the financial crisis. This, I suggest, is most evident in contemporary European office literature, especially in Irish, French and German novels of work. My upcoming monograph, Time and the Other Capitalism: The Pasts, Presents and Futures of Work, a comparative interdisciplinary study, investigates the precise nature of this shift, as well as its impact on social and political consciousness. I have previously published articles in Modern and Contemporary France, New Formations, MLN and Irish Studies Review, among other journals.

Manon Raffard, Miasmatic Nature. Industrial Smellscapes and Environmental Pollution in the Poetry of Joris-Karl Huysmans and Emile Verhaeren (1880-1895)

Industrial work directly disturbs the olfactory experience of the natural environment. The presentation will thus show how the industrial development of urban and rural spaces in western Europe deeply affected the literary representation of natural ‘smellscapes’ in late 19th-century French-language poetry. During the second half of the 19th century, the progressive industrialization of western Europe led to the subsequent sensory transformation of natural spaces, in both rural and urban settings. As natural objects (land, vegetation, animal life, bodies of water, etc.) were the first victims of the industrialization process, the sensory experience of the natural environment became tainted by industrial practices, often in the form of noxious fumes or foul gases. Still, while industrial smells threatened the integrity of natural smellscapes, they also allowed for better awareness of natural smells as forms of intangible heritage. As such, poetical writing of the time often uses olfactory descriptions and imagery as potent literary devices to examine the idea of ‘modernity’ itself, its swift and inescapable pace, and how it can endanger vulnerable sensoria, on both aesthetic and political grounds. The presentation will cross close readings of J.-K. Huysmans and E. Verhaeren’s poetical works with medical and historical sources to better demonstrate how collective concerns with industrial smells are not exclusively a matter of workers’ rights and public health. Olfactory pollution and its impact on smellscapes necessarily raise the question of the historicity of our own intangible sensory experiences, as well as their possible conservation through literary means. As the development of industrial work in 19th-century Europe actively participated in the emergence of our current climate crisis, the presentation will highlight how the literary and cultural consideration of ‘working’ smells – whether pleasant or unpleasant – is equally a matter of aïsthésis and politics.

Manon Raffard is a PhD Fellow in French Studies at the University of Burgundy (Dijon, France). Her doctoral dissertation (to be defended on July 2nd, 2024) focuses on the interactions between olfactory culture and the production of knowledge in late 19th-century French literature and culture. Her most recent work has been featured in Alabastron (dir. Nuri McBride and Saskia Wilson-Brown) and the Odeuropa Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage (dir. William Tullett). She is the editor-in-chief of the DOAJ-indexed academic journal Eclats (, which will publish a full issue on sensory culture in December 2024.

Panel 2 (11.45-13.05)

Minu Susan Koshy, ‘Othered’ Odours of Culinary Work in Indian Narratives: Decoding Cultural Representations of the ‘Stench’ of Dried Fish in India

Smells have, for long, been markers of social identity, with the very classification of the olfactory element as ‘fragrance’ or ‘stench’ being dependent on the status of the speaking and ‘spoken-about’ subject in the social hierarchy. Olfactory silences as well as presences have been used as potent tools for the exaltation or abjectification of people and groups. Subaltern subjects are abjectified by depicting them as ‘smelly’, with the ‘smell’ often being an imagined presence emerging by virtue of their location in the lower rungs of the social ladder in terms of class, caste, gender or belonging. The attribution of unpleasant smells (real or imagined) facilitates and reinforces the abjectification of subaltern groups. This is very conspicuous in the dried fish industry where a large number of lower class, lower caste subjects, especially women, are involved.

In many parts of India, dried fish serves as a substitute for fresh fish and meat, especially for those who cannot afford the latter. It is a source of nutrients and a reliable food item during the lean months. It is especially significant for the lower castes and lower classes, who still do not have access to other food items owing to poverty and socio-cultural restrictions. As such, connotations of inferiority have been attributed to those associated with dried fish, either as producers or as consumers. The pungent smell of the fish makes it all the more repellant to the ‘mainstream’, making its consumption ‘shameful’ for the rich and the upper-caste subjects. The smell of dried fish is today equated with social inferiority, leading to abjectification and dehumanization of subjects associated with it. The smell emanating from households becomes the source of complaints from neighbours, not necessarily because the smell is bad, but because of the notion of inferiority linked with its preparation and consumption.

Indian literary and cultural narratives, especially those from the coastal areas, such as the Malabar and Konkan coasts and the eastern coastal plains, as well as the Northeast states where dried fish is a staple dish, often feature its smell as an olfactory motif. The odour becomes the means through which the class-caste status of subjects, as well as their degree of ‘belonging’ to the community, is revealed. In several representations, fresh fish is reserved for men in the family, and women are expected to ‘make do’ with ‘pungent-smelling’ dried fish, revealing the modes in which gendered politics operates through olfactory presences.  My paper examines the ‘stench’ of dried fish as an olfactory motif in Indian narratives, serving to locate subjects at the intersections of the various axes of identity, with focus on the processing and cooking of dried fish.

Minu Susan Koshy is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Mar Thoma College for Women, and an approved Research Guide of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. Having obtained her doctoral degree from The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, she has published extensively in national and international journals and has served as the resource person at conferences. She is a reviewer for The Journal of Global South Studies of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and a member of the editorial board of Education, Society and Human Studies, Los Angeles. She has also reviewed for the Quarterly Journal of Film and Video (Taylor and Francis). Her books include Narrating Childhood Trauma (DC Books-Expressions India, 2015), a translation of the Malayalam anthology Tattoo (Authorspress India, 2015), an edited collection of poems by Elizabeth Kuriakose, titled Gossamer Reveries (Authorspress India, 2019), Mapping the Postcolonial Domestic in the Works of Vargas Llosa and Mukundan: Tales of the Threshold (Cambridge Scholars Publishing United Kingdom, 2020) and When Objects Write Back: Reconceptualizing Material Culture in the Tricontinent (Cambridge Scholars Publishing United Kingdom, 2023).

Himanshu Kumar, Marriage, Motherhood, and Malodor in Amrita Pritam’s “Stench of Kerosene”

This paper will delve into the intricate interplay of societal expectations, gender roles, and olfactory symbolism in Amrita Pritam’s poignant short story “Stench of Kerosene” (translated from Punjabi by Khushwant Singh). Focused on the nexus of marriage and motherhood, the narrative weaves a tapestry of emotions and cultural nuances, unravelling the complexities faced by its female protagonist, Guleri. The story navigates through the cultural landscape that shapes Guleri’s identity emphasising the societal pressure to conform to traditional roles. Marriage, a revered institution, becomes a crucible for Guleri as she grapples with the expectations placed upon her as a wife to bear a child who would carry on the family name. Pritam’s narrative skillfully dissects the dichotomy between personal desires and societal mandates, unravelling the intricate layers of Guleri’s struggle for autonomy. Central to the exploration is the metaphor of malodor embodied in the “Stench of Kerosene”. This olfactory motif becomes a powerful literary device, symbolising the suffocating societal norms that surround Guleri. The pervasive aroma serves as a visceral reminder of the constraints imposed upon her, encapsulating the fragility of personal agency in the face of cultural expectations. The paper will engage with feminist literary theory to underscore the broader implications of Guleri’s predicament, examining how her narrative reflects larger societal paradigms. Through a close reading of Pritam’s prose, it will unpack the nuances of Guleri’s choices and the repercussions of societal expectations on her sense of self. It will offer a nuanced exploration of gender dynamics and cultural constraints within the framework of a powerful literary work. By dissecting the symbolism of malodor, the paper will contribute to a broader discourse on women’s agency, cultural expectations, and the multifaceted dimensions of identity in the realm of South Asian literature.

Himanshu Kumar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Hansraj College (University of Delhi), and has been teaching students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels for more than a decade. He has rendered his services to the Non-Collegiate Women’s Education Board (NCWEB), School of Open Learning (SOL), and Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). His main research interests are Indian Classical Literature, Children’s Literature, and Translation Studies. He has presented his research papers at both national and international levels, which includes countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, and Turkey. His research articles have been published in reputed national and international journals. He is also a bilingual poet and translator.

Plenary Lecture 1 (14.00-14.55)

Janice Carlisle, Smelling Like a Rose: Victorian Work in Word and Image

What kinds of sensations might a Victorian exhibition-goer have had when looking at a painting of a rose?  Or when reading a description in a novel of a bouquet of roses?  Obviously, visual sensations, printed words being as much visual phenomena as paints on canvas.  From our twenty-first century perspective, that answer, under usual conditions, would be the only one needed.  Yet for many Victorian viewers and readers, apprehending a representation of a rose, depicted in either paint or print, would have meant registering, if less intensely, the aroma of its material, real-world counterpart.  That belief, bolstered by scientific works both popular and academic, seems all the more striking in the context of the characteristically Victorian hesitancy of artists in word and image to confront their audiences with direct references to the often rank and fetid realities of Victorian life.  Such direct references were limited to pleasing odors, like the aroma of “sweet roses,” odors capable of evoking the “remembered sensations” of previous olfactory experience.

To explore the relation of manual labor to this mid-century proposition – that to see was to smell, in garden or museum or book – I treat two texts, one visual, one verbal, both of which were being created in 1852:  Ford Madox Brown’s Work and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.  Brown’s painting has become an icon of Victorian culture, appearing again and again on the covers of books about mid-nineteenth-century subjects.  In Work, which took Brown thirteen years to complete, he presents a crowded, even claustrophobic, panorama of the everyday activities taking place on a street in Hampstead under a “hot July sun.”  Dickens’s novel, published first serially and then as a whole in 1853, is even more expansively panoramic than Work is, offering its readers scenes of Victorian life from the drawing room of a baronet and his elegant, haughty lady to the streets inhabited by the impoverished crossing sweeper Jo, the boy who “don’t know nothink,” as he says repeatedly.  Examining these texts reveals the richness, subtlety, and variety of Victorian “odor images,” as they were called, but they also raise a number of questions about the effects of such sensations.  What forms of work were the largely middle-class audiences of Bleak House and Work directly invited to smell?  What forms of work might they have been encouraged to imagine?  Could olfactory images of manual labor upset traditional relations between classes?  And what, finally, does a rose have to do with work?

Janice Carlisle, Professor Emeritus of English at Yale University, has published books and articles on a range of Victorian subjects from fiction and autobiography to art and politics.  Much of her writing has dealt with working-class perspectives on those subjects, such as her introduction to Factory Lives (Broadview 2007), a collection of working-class autobiographies.  She has also examined illustrated journalism and so-called high art as they visualized debates over Victorian reform bills in Picturing Reform (Cambridge UP, 2012).  Most relevant to this conference is Common Scents:  Comparative Encounters in High-Victorian Fiction (Oxford UP, 2004), which explores how representations of olfaction constituted a Victorian osmology that could determine or dissolve distinctions between classes and genders.  She is currently writing about details in Ford Madox Brown’s epic painting Work  – a dog, a shirt, a flower – to show how they provide new perspectives on Victorian material culture, politics, art, and economics.


Panel 3 (14.55-16.15)

Sergej Rickenbacher, The Smell and Stench of Industrial Coal in GDR Literature (Eduard Claudius, Wolfgang Hilbig)

In European literature, industrialisation and with it the proletarians as representatives of the working class generally stink, which is closely associated with both poverty and questionable morals. However, this value system is inverted in the prose texts of the early GDR. As my contribution will show in a first step, prose texts such as Eduard Claudius’ Salz der Erde (1948) and Menschen an unserer Seite (1951) transform the olfactory signature of industrial conurbations into a positively connoted homeland scent with cohesive force. Coal, and with it the smell of coal, permeates both factory halls and homes in a particular way, as it fulfilled multiple purposes in many industrial complexes and the associated workers’ housing estates: it was mined, burned to produce electricity and heat, but also used as a material for carbochemistry. In Eduard Claudius’ early industrial novel Menschen an unserer Seite, it is the ubiquitous smell of coal that is used to formulate the main socialist programme points: Firstly, the smell creates a sense of home; secondly, it is international – from the Ruhrpott to East Berlin – and thirdly, it ignores class boundaries. In this respect, Claudius uses literary means to create a socialist ‘stable odour’.

This positive connotation is contrasted with a contrary development in the second part of my article. The depiction of coal, the GDR’s most important source of energy and the raw material of carbochemistry, also inevitably points to the propagandistic content of these literary texts, which stage industrial production as a blast furnace of socialist social formation and conceal the ecological and health consequences of coal extraction and combustion. In Wolfgang Hilbig’s short stories Die Arbeiter. Ein Essai (1982), Der Heizer (1982), Die Arbeit an den Öfen (1982) and Der Geruch der Bücher (1994), a marginalised stoker character reports on the exploitation and environmental damage caused by burning coal. Here the smell of coal neither creates community nor does it testify to man’s Promethean abilities. Rather, it proves to be divisive and connoted with death and decay. In the short story Die alte Abdeckerei (1990), the stench not only refers to the health and ecological damage caused by the coal industry but also to an often ignored continuity in economic history: An important component of the National Socialist policy of autarky was the carbochemical industry, in which coal was converted into both a petrol substitute such as Leuna petrol and combat gases. If the first-person narrator of Die Alte Abdeckerei (1990) is overwhelmed by the stench from the moors, not only by the economic and ecological disasters of the past but also by the Holocaust.

Sergej Rickenbacher is Akademischer Rat at the Institut für Germanistische und Allgemeine Literaturwissenschaft, RWTH Aachen. He earned his doctorate from Zurich University with a study on Robert Musil. Recent publications on olfactory matters include: ‘Parfum’, in: Joela Jacobs/Isabel Kranz (eds): Pflanzen. Kulturwissenschaftliches Handbuch, Stuttgart: Metzler, at press; ‘Mediologische Stinkbomben. Zu Mynonas grotesken Medien der Olfaktion’, in: Expressionismus 18/2023; ‘Literary Halitosis. Bad Breath and Odol in German Literature around 1900’, in: Katharina Herold/Frank Krause: Smell and Social Life. Aspects of English, French, and German Literature (1880-1939), Munich: iudicium, 2021; ‘L’invention de l’orgue à senteurs. Sur l’interdépendance de la littérature et de l’objet technique’, in: Alexandre Perras/Érika Wicky: Mediality and Olfaction. La medialité et l’olfaction, Bern et al.: Peter Lang, 2021.

Jayanthan Sriram and Neslihan Sriram-UzundalEphemeralizing Difference – German Guestworkers between Atmo-Racism and Olfactory Perseverance

Drawing from contemporary ‘Gastarbeiter’ literature, this paper will examine processes of olfactory borderization and instances of olfactory integration as perseverance of Turkish guestworkers in Germany. Rendering the experience of othering in the necropolitical framework of ‘solar’ and ‘nocturnal’ bodies, we want to showcase moments where differences and power relations between ‘guest’ and ‘host’ ephemeralize. Specifically, in the attestations of ‘smelly cuisine’ morphing into body odors and, by extension, assessments of insurmountable cultural and structural differences. Achille Mbembe’s notion of a “dark enlightenment” as the “bemoaning of an excess of democracy” in foreign policy and the acceptance of the olfactory Other turns racism atmospheric. This atmo-racism perpetrates the denial of life in labor – the compartmentalization of guest workers into their own sections in factories or lunch halls, simultaneously extending connotations of difference through culinary practices and ingredients. The trope of the “Kuemmeltuerke”, however, harnesses more than being the target of a diffuse rage that would turn violent in the historic riots of Hoyerswerda or Rostock. The ability of the olfactory to transgress and disregard borders opens towards stories of olfactory perseverance – the host culture ‘taking a whiff’ and a liking toward the foreign. Smelly lunches of chargrilled breads and meats gain value in exchange for better shifts in the microscopic realm of the factory and become monetary means of advancement for guest worker families pushed out of wage labor contracts. Moral ideologies in the ocularcentric hypocrisy of a German “Leitkultur” creating divisions of belonging ephemeralize through the olfactory. Complicating and enhancing contemporary contentions on migration and the access to the labor market, the necropolitical sovereignty of deciding ‘who lives and dies’ can be posed in the olfactory, asking about the smells of profit and progress in unmarked olfactory cultures and which people necessarily become destined to smell.

Jayanthan Sriram is a member of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and is currently enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD Program at Concordia. He serves as the coordinator of the Exploration in Sensory Design research team and assistant to the editor of the journal The Senses and Society. His research focus (and mission) is to promote olfactory aisthesis as as aistethics through the exploration of functional scenting and perfumery. His PhD project “The Life of the Ephemeral – Building Olfactory Aistethics” (WT) will offer a critique of the general neglect of corporeal and olfactory values and the disqualification of the aesthetics of smells in everyday life. By engaging the perspective of the creators and curators of such expressions as “aesthetic labor”, the socio-political tinging of our sensory experience should appear on the forefront of aesthetics.

Neslihan Sriram-Uzundal is currently enrolled in the Education PhD Program at Concordia. She is a research assistant of the Exploration in Sensory Design research team. Her own research focuses on the lives of women who were not able to enjoy an educational path standardized by Western societies. She conducts oral history interviews with women from rural areas of Turkey to highlight issues such as epistemic injustice and gender inequality.

Panel 4 (16.30-17.50)

Cheryl Krueger, Blood Sausage and Violet Perfume: Food Work, Domestic Service, and the Production of a Fragrant Grotesque

When À Rebour’s reclusive protagonist Des Esseintes replaces traditional dining with carefully blended foods ingested via enema, he hopes to eliminate “the tiresome and vulgar drudgery (corvée) of meals.” He seems unaware, however, that this attempt to emancipate himself from the lowly need to eat creates work for his servant. The unnamed domestique must prepare the liquid concoctions, set the table with the “magisterial instrument” of their delivery and, presumably, administer the lavement just as he had earlier given his employer friction baths. Des Esseintes designs his liquid menus according to how their color, taste, and smell will appeal to the “faux gourmet” who will see, smell, feel and absorb these concoctions, but never taste them. In his perfume-infused world, the relegation of food and its accompanying odors to a therapeutic procedure marks the ultimate embrace of decadent artifice: “Finally! What a decisive insult hurled in the face of old nature!” Yet the most outrageous of Des Esseintes’s experiments is inextricably bound to the quotidien habits of meal preparation and biological need for nutrition. At the same time, they render him increasingly dependent on the kitchen labour of others. In this paper, I argue that this dynamic of extreme artifice rooted in the most banal, yet intimate, of daily routines is essential to the disquieting nature of the episode, from both a sensorial and a social perspective. This and other moments in nineteenth-century French literature feature queasy odor blends of food and cosmetic perfume, which produce what I call a fragrant grotesque. Tracing representative passages in novels by Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Goncourt, Zola, and Rachilde, I examine how food odors and the work they represent, clash with perfumes, to create an unsettling smellscape redolent of unresolved tensions between human need and human desire.

Cheryl Krueger is Associate Professor of French at the University of Virginia (USA). Her book publications include: Perfume on the Page in Nineteenth-Century France (University of Toronto, 2023), Perspectives on Teaching Language and Content (Yale University Press, 2020), Approaches to Teaching Baudelaire’s Prose Poems (Modern Language Association, 2017), and The Art of Procrastination: Baudelaire’s Poetry in Prose (University of Delaware, 2007). She has published articles and presented papers in France, the UK, and the US, focusing in recent years on the intertwining cultures of literature and perfume in nineteenth-century France.

Sebastian A. Kukavica, The Reek of Decadence: Smell and Work in Ellis’ American Psycho and Palahniuk’s Pygmy

As a type of social satire, wrapped up in a purposely chosen aesthetics of excess and exaggeration, the decadent novel is built upon, firstly, the decadent subject, as the centre of individualistic and emotivistic aestheticisation of existence against the grain of nature and modern society, and, secondly, upon the decadent political imagination, a standardised imagery of decadence as a stage of moral and historical decay of an organically enfeebled culture reaching the terminal state of its inherent nihilism. Both Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy can be taken as perfect examples of the decadent novel. The two novels, alongside works such as Patrick Süskind’s Perfume or Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, prove that the decadent novel continues to develop as a specific genre as long as there is a literary necessity to properly represent and address the problem of decadence of the West. In my presentation I would like to offer a reading of the two texts by analysing how smell plays a crucial role in imagining the decadence of the West. In Pygmy, the protagonist’s first impression of America is a horrifying reek of moral and organic decay of his host family: “Butter fat stench. Chemical hair soap stink. Such filthy reek American cash money”. In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman discerns decomposition of the society and historical epoch surrounding him by sensing that “the air is full of decay” and that “history is sinking and only a very few seem dimly aware that things are getting bad”. It is the smell of roses “masking something revolting” that catalyses Bateman’s vision of a civilisation “colossal and jagged”. Although decadent political imagination, stimulated by the reek of decay, perceives all constitutive myths of modernity as devoid of any meaning and function, it nonetheless conserves the state of scented decadence in which modernity finds itself. As the sole observer, perfumer and interpreter of “the sinking of history”, the decadent subject retains its meaning as long as there is decadence. Hence, Pygmy and Bateman ultimately appear to be the agents of the order of all-encompassing decadence. The work of the decadent subjects consists of conserving the state of utter decadence of the West. In an interlocked spiral of transgression and order, the work of the decadent subjects – their actions undertaken against the dissolving and putrefying order of modernity – reinvigorates modernity and reanimate the modern machinery of governance over desires. In order to survive, as Pygmy realises, the decadent subject needs to “preserve enemy. Or, successful resolve lifetime vocation this agent”.

Sebastian A. Kukavica is a third-year PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Zagreb (Croatia). The topic of his dissertation is: “Decadent Novel and Conservative Antimodernism”. His research interests include the decadent novel, decadent political imagination, theories of conservatism, as well as nihilism and cultural pessimism.

Plenary Lecture 2 (17.50-18.45)

Hans J. Rindisbacher, From Avantgarde to Specialization: A Sensory Trajectory

In this address I want to sketch out the scholarly, scientific, and creative work in the still expanding empire of olfactory perception that has emerged over the past four decades. This thrilling intellectual as well as applied and practical universe now includes citizens from many academic disciplines, each at a potential entry point into the field of sensory and olfactory studies. Having pushed open an early door myself with my 1992 book, The Smell of Books, I’ll start my exploration along this literary path, being aware of – and making occasional reference to – the many other doors, from anthropology and history to physiology and neuroscience, to chemistry and perfumery and on to urban design, artistic creation, and even national identity and archival and museum sciences. My remarks are historical in nature and will address the diverse and numerous Erkenntnisinteressen, the cognitive interests, that have shaped the broad olfactory trajectory. Within the academic realm this means discussing the many “turns” that have shaped literary (cultural) inquiries over time, allowing me to locate the changing readings of ‘smelly literature’ from a socio-historical source to indexical signifier to aesthetic product and on to decolonizing agent and AI. The wild interdisciplinarity and scholarly intersectionality is what originally attracted me to the field of olfactory perception; but its unfolding breadth and diversity is now far beyond the scope of a quick systemic representation. While my remarks will trace a few established lines of inquiry, I’m making my points largely in exemplary fashion and have scant predictions for the future.

Hans J. Rindisbacher has an MA in English and German from the University of Bern and a PhD from Stanford University in 1989, in German Studies. He teaches at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, USA. His research focuses on the intersection of perception, notably the sense of smell, and of sensory experience/embodiment and its textual encodings.  In 1992 he published The Smell of Books: A Cultural-Historical Study of Olfactory Perception in Literature, a pathbreaking study of literary olfactory representations, and subsequent articles on the roles of perfumery and cosmetics in the Nazi era, a study of a neglected source for Patrick Süskind’s 1985 bestseller Perfume, and writings on fashion and photography. Rindisbacher is also active in Swiss literary studies in the USA and has published on narrative in Max Frisch, masculinity in Hermann Burger, and politics and theater in Friedrich Dürrenmatt. In 2019 he co-edited, with Peter C. Meilaender, Writing Switzerland: Culture, History, and Politics in the Work of Peter von Matt.

26 April 2024

Panel 5 (10.15-11.35)

Érika Wicky, Turpentine and Tobacco: The Perfume of the Painter’s Studio in Nineteenth-Century France

In the second half of the nineteenth century, in line with the success of Murger’s La Bohème, many French writers, who were often also art critics, described the life and intimacy of painters by narrating visits to their studios, thus underlining their personal relationship with the artists. This talk will focus on the olfactory aspects of these texts in order to outline the role of smells and their significance in these literary evocations of painters’ work. Indeed, the nineteenth-century painter’s studio was a sensorially saturated environment, and the odours that lingered in the studio were very often described, providing valuable information about the materiality of the smell of success, misery or inspiration.

Érika Wicky holds the Chair of junior professor “Olfactions” at the University of Grenoble Alpes (ARSH / LARHA). She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Montreal in 2011 and continued her research on the history of the senses in Canada, Belgium, France, and Italy. As part of the French habilitation requirements, she is presently working on a book entitled Intoxicated by Turpentine: An Olfactory History of Painting (18th-20th Century).  Her research on the history of olfaction has been published in academic journals such as Women’s StudiesFrench Cultural StudiesOud HollandRomantisme, etc.

Fabio Ramasso, Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: Fragrance Industry as a Social Liberation for the Outcast

Patrick Süskind’s famous novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, translated by John E. Woods, tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who, from birth, has an above-average olfactory capacity. The story records the downward parabola of his life: rejection by society, inability to love, murders, obsession with the scent of his victims, up to the death penalty, avoided thanks to the intrinsic capacity of perfume, which the man knows and uses as a weapon to defend himself against a society that oppresses, judges and persecutes him. When analyzed as a whole, the narrative plot conveys a miserable image lacking any glimmer of hope and regeneration. Yet, on closer inspection, the novel also tells of a redemption, albeit a brief one. My presentation intends to focus on Grenouille’s apprenticeship with Giuseppe Baldini who teaches the young man the art of perfumery, distillation techniques and thus introduces him to society. The image of work on perfume, described by Süskind, is not that of a demotivating and suffocating activity. The idea of work is that of a passion, overflowing, which finds its way by constituting itself as cultural application in society for technical and theoretical competence. Grenouille’s apprenticeship, which not surprisingly recalls that of Goethe’s Meister, is intended to be a path of redemption leading, through dedication and commitment, to personal fulfilment.  Goethe’s idea of the daimon (δαίμων) takes its place.

Grenouille’s apprenticeship is thus confirmed as a training path, through various psychological and natural obstacles that should lead him to self-realisation. The problem, ontological and philosophical, is the inversion of the Goethian precept: by following the daimon, the young man finds, within himself, the demon and the destruction of the Otherness. The work on the perfume thus leads from an apparent professional ethos to the devastation of human nature.

Fabio Ramasso is Research Fellow for German Literature at the University of Turin and Lecturer at the Sport Department for German Language and English Language. His main research deals with Rainer Maria Rilke and the religious myth in his work. He is also interested in the elaboration of political facts through mythological processes in literary fiction, i.e. Reiner Kunze and Lion Feuchtwanger. He is currently writing a monograph on Rainer Maria Rilke and his relationship with theatre.

Panel 6 (11.45-13.05)

Katherine MacKee, Smell as Work in Dante’s Terrace of the Gluttons

Of the three canticles of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the second, Purgatory, is the canticle of work. While the shades in Inferno are banished to live there eternally, and the souls in Heaven exist in perfect peace, the souls of Purgatory are at work, moving up towards salvation. The construction of Mount Purgatory was an invention of the medieval author himself. For Dante, mapping the physical process of purgation meant creating a liminal world between Earth and Heaven in the form of a mountain: an imperfect soul’s ascent to Heaven means getting to work and purging terrestrial sin on the terraces of Mount Purgatory.

What does it mean to smell in this eschatological workplace? We find the coalescence of smell and work on the sixth terrace, where Dante places the gluttons. Here, souls smell a sweet mixture of apples and water that triggers hunger and emaciates their aerial bodies. To ascend the next terrace, the souls must experience hunger via tantalizing smell until they have completed the amount of punishment equivalent to their wrongdoings. Purgation is not only a personal means to an end but also as a renunciation of past wrongs with potentially wide effects, forcing souls to work towards social harmony through self-improvement.

Smell here raises esoteric questions surrounding Dante’s conception of the aerial body, broader questions on the moralistic binary of smells, and philosophical questions on the interpretive process of olfaction. I will explore how Dante’s employment of smelling as work in pursuit of salvation calls upon medieval culture and natural philosophy to construct a believable, relevant punishment for souls in the newly-imagined, tangibly-built Mount Purgatory. This will include analysis of passages from the sixth terrace of Purgatory in dialogue with Aristotelian and Thomistic texts on olfaction and modern anthropological and neuroscientific studies on smell.

Katherine McKee is a doctoral student in Italian at the University of Oxford. Her dissertation, funded by the AHRC-All Souls Scholarship and the Clarendon Fund, investigates smells and smelling in medieval Italian literature, with an emphasis on the works of Dante and Boccaccio.

Magdalena Krzyżanowska, Sign or Stigma? About the Smell of the Factory in Polish Prose of the Second half of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

The main ambition of the presentation is to examine the significance of the connection between smell and the work in Polish prose texts from the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries – the period corresponding with the Polish realism and Polish decadence movements. The analysis of literary material from this era drew to my attention the issue of a factory as a specific environment that is both a workplace and a space of smell. Polish writers noticed this issue and made it an essential thread in their works.

I will discuss selected examples from the outputs of Maria Konopnicka, Władysław Stanisław Reymont, Stefan Żeromski, Artur Gruszecki, and Wacław Berent – who all employed descriptions of the smell of the factory and its workers. My analyses will identify the role played by these descriptions in the creation of literary characters and their relationships with other elements of the fictional worlds they inhabit, which in turn offers new insights into alternative modalities of world-building and story development. I will also reflect on the approach to smell taken by the above-mentioned authors. They regarded it as a sign of modernity or decay and equated it with the stigma of illness or death. These writers often describe the smell as a distinguishing trait – literally, when it characterises factory workers, or metaphorically, when it features spaces of decay. In the first case, smell can also become a human identity – it is so closely linked to human existence that the two cannot be separated.

Having identified the main similarities in the chosen writers’ approach to the theme of smell as well as the broader changes in the literary landscape of the era, the study will proffer critical insights into the olfactory potential of Polish literature from the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Magdalena Krzyżanowska. Doctor of Polish Literature and Master of Philosophy, Assistant professor at the Institute of Polish Literature at the Faculty of Polish Studies of the University of Warsaw; specialises in the study of the senses (especially hearing) in Polish literature (second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries) and the relationship between literature, philosophy, and anthropology of this period; author of the comprehensive monograph “In the World of Sound. Listeners in Polish Prose from 1864 to 1918” (2023) and numerous articles, including: “How Does Passing Time Sound? Reymont’s Concept of a Relationship Between Time and Sound”, “Between the Eye and the Ear. About Szpital żydowski w Warszawie [Jewish Hospital in Warsaw] by Maria Konopnicka”, “What can be peeped and eavesdropped in Wigilia [Christmas Eve] by Bolesław Prus?”, “In Search of a Cure for Melancholia: The Attitude of a Listener in the Short Story Wśród lasu [Among the Forest] by Adam Asnyk.”

Panel 7 (14.00-14.40)

Brian Martin, The Smell of Lumber: Masculine Labor and Olfactory Vitality in the North American Woods

Like cowboys, loggers and lumbermen are iconographic figures of masculine labor and frontier manhood. Celebrated in Francophone cultures as brawny bûcherons and parodied by Anglophones as bumbling lumberjacks, loggers are mythic legends of North American masculinity. From Québec to the Pacific Coast, the logging life was arduous, as men performed punishing work, in dangerous conditions, and isolated locations. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century loggers traveled to remote lumber camps in the fall, labored in brutal conditions felling timber all winter, and floated lumber down treacherous riverways during the spring. Despite such hardships, lumber lore is filled with accounts of the muscular and olfactory vitality of men in the forest. Many lumbermen speak of pungent conditions in logging camp bunkhouses, where the powerful odor of men was at its strongest when loggers returned after a long day of work. Such ripe conditions resulted in both revulsion and infection, but also inspired masculine solidarity and shared intimacy. Stinking lumber camp bunkhouses were also the space of welcome odors, satisfying meals, folktales, and music. As sweaty men stripped down and hung their clothes to dry, the odor of masculine bodies mingled with the smells of satisfying suppers, tobacco, and pine-mattress beds. Well-fed and relaxed, loggers may have unconsciously associated the odors of their bodies with those of baked bread and roast pork, as their clothing dried over the very stoves that provided them warm beds and suppers. As aching muscles gave way to filled bellies, and bed-bug discomforts gave way to sleep, these men may have also reconciled foul odors with pleasant smells, and communal hardships with shared intimacy. Through readings of historical and literary texts from nineteenth- and twentieth-century North America, this paper will trace a history of lumber labor and the masculine odors of life among men in the woods.

Brian Martin is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Williams College, in the Berkshire Mountains of New England. He is the author of the book Napoleonic Friendship: Military Fraternity, Intimacy, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century France (2011), a history of queer soldiers in the French military, from Napoleon to the First World War. Nominated for a Lambda Literary Prize in 2012, Napoleonic Friendship was awarded the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies in 2013. Martin’s work focuses broadly on gender and sexuality in France, and on Nordic masculinities from Scandinavia to Québec.


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