Smell of History

There is something especially primal about the sense of smell.  The sight of a picture of the old neighborhood or of some long-lost friend can call up a host of images.  But the right whiff from the past can instantly transport us back to virtually relive some moment, complete with sights, sounds, and emotions as well.  The smell of fresh-cut grass, a hint of your mother’s soap, or the scent of a pine tree, can, willy-nilly, return you to the past in all its fullness.  The sheer power that a single sense has over us is a bit stunning.

I suppose it is just another one of life’s little ironies that smell is the most ephemeral, as well.

One could argue, I think, that the one thing that really distinguishes man from other animals has been our ability to overcome time.  The great thing about language, especially written language, is that it has the power to outlast the moment.  The first time that language was used to convey some lesson learned long ago, it overcame the past.  The first time someone repeated a story old Uncle Ug used to tell, Ug outlived his own time.

It has been one of man’s obsessions.  Over the centuries we have written books, painted pictures, embroidered fabrics, made statues, and created dozens of other ways of capturing the past.  The distance between a cave painting of a tribe’s hunt and a video of someone’s wedding is one of technology, not impulse.  And it is hard to distinguish the urge that led a cave artist to spray an outline of paint around his own hand upon the wall from our own impulse for portraiture.  I was alive, we say, look at me.

What we know of ages past is often preserved best in the symbols they created.  In some sense the carved or pressed or inked ciphers allow us to “hear” the voices of those long dead.  We reach across time and try to understand the real people behind the Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Code of Hammurabi, or our own Declaration of Independence.

Then, too, we collect relics.  We build great edifices whose sole purpose is to house the leavings of time.  We spend millions so that we can see a T-Rex fossil, the Black Prince’s armor, or the first steam engine.  We want to read about the past, see its images, and, if possible, reach out and touch the real artifacts.

But our relics aren’t just accidental left-overs.  The Bayeux Tapestry (which is not, of course, a tapestry but an embroidery) is a deliberate project to commemorate the Norman Conquest of England.  More than that, it is a conscious retelling of the Normans’ story skewed to justify their conquest of a foreign kingdom and killing of an anointed king.  In that sense, just like Ramses the Great’s self-glorifying wall carvings, it is a quite deliberate act of propaganda. [One of the problems of history is that what survives is often the victor’s version.]

Still, there is something magical at being able to look at this roll of thousand-year-old fabric and see the ominous 1066 passage of Halley’s Comet (complete with flames being dragged along by visible hawsers) stitched by people who actually saw it.  And it is nor pure Norman propaganda.  For whatever motivation, there is also an effort at objectivity.  It faithfully represents Harold as the crowned king of England just as it shows the reality of his death at the Battle of Hastings.

This, then, is us.  We are filled with as much urge to view the past as we have to capture it in the first place.  We want it as real as possible.  The Egyptians went to as much trouble to have their walls brightly colored as did the needlewomen of the Tapestry or all those painters of the Renaissance.  It is only in the middle of the nineteenth century that an accident of photographic technology made us see the past as black and white.

And we want more.

Despite all the world’s museums and galleries, despite all the paintings and tapestries, despite all the histories and diaries, despite all the movies and plays, we want more.  We want it to be more real.

So we have entire industries to take us to Pompeii or Machu Picchu, to guide us along and tell us, yes, this is where they lived and worked.  Yes, Julius Caesar stood right here where you are standing.  Yes, Thomas à Becket died right on this spot.  We want to experience history as real as it can be.

Of course, in one aspect that has gotten a bit easier.  Today, we can actually hear the voice of Thomas Edison or Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill.  We have even managed to capture the sounds to go along with our pictures of the past.

But, once again, we want more.

How would it be, we think, to actually go back to that hillside in the fall of 1863 and listen to Lincoln speak the Gettysburg Address?  What would it be like to actually feel the sun on your face and the dirt under your feet as you listened to his high-pitched voice?  What would it be like to actually be there?

Or pick your own favorite time and place.  I think it is the dream of everyone who loves any figure, any time, or any special event in history to go back and actually experience the reality of it.  Not just to see it through some dry text or flat, two-dimensional picture, but to experience it all, with all our senses.

Time Travel.  My ultimate history dream.

Or maybe not.

That thought first occurred to me when I read in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August how the “smell of half a million unbathed men…lay for days over every town” long after the troops had marched through.  It became more acute the more I read first person accounts of the smell of rotting corpses that seem to be inevitable in every human catastrophe.

Call me fastidious, but the notion that bathing, a favorite of the Romans, only returned to fashion in the Victorian Age rather takes the bloom off my image of standing next to some of my favorite historical figures.  Then there’s all those lice.  Yuck.

Then, too, there is that sewage problem.

For a lot of history the normal place to get rid of that smelly garbage, that long dead rat, or that overflowing chamber pot was out the window and into the road.  Whatever our romantic thoughts of the days from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance right through the Enlightenment, strolling down the streets of your favorite city would have been an obstacle course for your feet and purgatory to your nostrils.

So we return to the primal nature of the sense of smell.  Much as we might delight in imagining the joys of time travel, I’m struck with the fear that what I would really return with would be vision of a favorite moment permanently suffused with the sheer rankness of the ambience.  I suspect that I might come back agreeing with the verdict many of us reached in the ninth or tenth grades:

History really does stink!

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