Thursday, February 28, 2013

the possibility of knowing

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Last week I finally got around to reading July's People by world-treasure Nadine Gordimer. I loved this bit, where Maureen discovers aspects of her husband Bamford's smell that she's never before had to consider:  
Bam tore off a length from one of the toilet rolls she had not forgotten to provide, and went out into the bush. He left the smell of his sweaty sleep behind him; she had not known, back there, what his smell was (the sweat of love-making is different, and mutual). Showers and baths kept away, for both of them, the possibility of knowing in this kind of way. She had not known herself; the odours that could be secreted by her own body. There were no windows in the mud walls to open wide and let out the sour smell of this man. The flesh she had caressed with her tongue so many times in bed —all the time it had been a substance that produced this. She made a cooking-fire outside and the smoke was sweet, a thorny, perfumed wood cracking to release it. The others—Martha—were wise to keep the little hearth-fire alive always in the middle of the huts. Only those still thinking as if they were living with bathrooms en suite would have decided, civilizedly, the custom was unhygienic and too hot.
The passage calls to mind Ayla Peggy Adler's wish to wind up in the right cave, and her beautiful evocation of how scent informs compatibility and desire. Do you know the smell of your cave-mate (to borrow Ayla's term)? Do you need to find yourself in an actual cave (or hut, as Maureen does in July's People) to know their smell, stripped of deodorants and birth control pills and climate control systems? I ask people again and again, What do you smell like? Do any of us know?