How Language Limits Our Ability to Describe Smells
This Week from the Lit Century Podcast
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, writer, actor, and performance artist M. Leona Godin joins host Catherine Nichols to discuss Helen Keller’s 1908 book The World I Live In. Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an American author, lecturer, vaudeville performer, and political activist. At nineteen months, she suffered an illness that left her deaf and blind; The World I Live In offers Keller’s remarkable insight of the world as perceived through three senses.
M. Leona Godin, is a performance artist, actor and writer with a PhD in literature. She has written a play, The Star of Happiness, about Helen Keller’s vaudeville years, and another on the invention of Braille. Godin’s first book, There Plant Eyes, is a personal and cultural history of blindness. She is also, among many other things, the founding editor of Aromatica Poetica, an online magazine exploring the arts and sciences of smell and taste.
From the episode:
M. Leona Godin: [Keller’s] chapter on smell is something that has influenced me incredibly. It’s kind of the animating force behind my magazine Aromatica Poetica, and I find her descriptions of smell and what she gets from smell to be absolutely fascinating. I think she comes up against our limitations in language. We have hardly paid any attention to smell whatsoever intellectually that we don’t have the language to describe smells, and so we think that therefore, you know, smell is kind of a lesser sense.
It’s something that I feel very strongly about because so much, say, in literature and in novels is dedicated to describing things that have already been described in literature, and sometimes I think because it’s something that we do all the time, i.e. seeing, i.e. writing about seeing and things that are seen, that it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that because we write about it all the time, then that means it’s the most important sense and the one most lending itself to language when it’s simply convention. That’s what we have put the most attention on in terms of our literature, and so I love that chapter in her book. You smell because her descriptions of smell and how she smells is so beautiful, and it’s something that is just so untapped in our Western literature.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel and The Seattle Review, among others. She lives in Boston.