Le miasme et la jonquille: L’odorat et l’imaginaire social, XVIIIe-XIXe siècles by Alain Corbin.


Alain Corbin nobly wants to rescue the sense of smell from its ignored position as a baser and less important sense, and put it in its rightful place in the narrative of modern French history. In his masterful work, Le miasme et la jonquille, he weaves layers of meanings into a study of French medicine, hygiene, social structure and industry from 1750 to 1880. All these threads come together in the perception of odour. From the rising sensitivity to foul smells and the early modern belief in the existence of miasma (putrid, noxious matter that was airborne, detectable by smell, and could be lethal), to the concerted efforts at mass deodorization and the growing class perceptions between the filthy, odiferous poor and the clean, sweet-smelling bourgeois class, Corbin traces the role of odour and smell as it affects, and it affected by, changes in French science and society.

Corbin takes the reader on a twisted route through science, medicine, public legislation, literature, and even architecture and city planning as he tracks down the elusive constructs of odour. In doing so, he creates a fascinating a picture of social change and effectively argues that significant shifts in the meaning of odour occurred in the mid-18th century and throughout the 19th century, ending with the adoption of Pasteurian theories.

    Corbin argues that by the mid-18th century, air was regarded as an “elementary fluid” that maintained equilibrium of pressure within organisms, but was also loaded with “emanations from the earth and with the perspirations of vegetable and animal substances.” In essence, air was a scary combination of vapors and exhalations that had the power to kill. In fact, Corbin begins by telling a story about a cesspool cleaner suffering from asphyxiation, falls into the cesspool, and is pulled out, mortally ill. Another man then accidentally inhales the breath of the stricken worker, and is he then struck ill: losing consciousness, foaming at the mouth, and going into convulsion. While he recovers, he still suffers from aftereffects for a long time after. Starting around 1760, the detection of odour was increasingly linked the detection of the noxiousness and lethal-quality of certain air. Scientists, for example, began collecting “airs” and tested their affects on organisms, slowing and haphazardly isolating different gases and creating classifications.

Of primary concern, however, was the ability of air to infect. Living beings were constantly in conflict with the power of decomposition and by inhaling foul odours, or putrid miasmas, from diseased or decomposing bodies; one’s own health was put severely in jeopardy. Not surprisingly, as odour became seen to be a way of infectious transmission, anxiety about odour increased. While some odours were considered healthy and normal (for instance, semen was considered the essence of life, and the aura seminalis was linked to health and vitality) many were considered dangerous (including smells around standing water, marshes, and menstruating women).

    The initial reaction to this anxiety over putrid odour, however, did not at first result in a movement toward personal hygiene. Rather, frequent bathing was seen to weaken to body, remove a natural barrier to the infiltration of bad air, and to even cause infertility. Instead, one of the best safety methods was first believed to be the use of heavy therapeutic perfumes; in creating one’s own salubrious scent one was protected from harmful odours. Indeed, certain aromatics were seen as antiseptics, and along with fumigation were believed to be the best defense against disease. The use of masking scents, however, soon fell out of favor. After about 1750, heady odours gave way to more natural odours; heavy scents came to be seen as dangerously indulgent and the elite began to favor more subtle floral scents. This new preference was accompanied by a new fascination with airiness. Open spaces and springtime meadows were idealized. Animal scents were now seen to belong to the masses, and higher society experienced a lowering of the threshold for the tolerance of stench. In reaction, the elite spent more time at their toilette and in gardens. Here, Corbin notes the rise of narcissism. As the elite found sanctuary and pleasure in gardens, smell was linked to the inner, passionate experiences of self and to the triggering of memory. According to Corbin, a new aesthetic movement linked the olfactory sense with “great movements of the soul.”

    Perhaps the strongest and most consistent thread of Corbin’s story is that of the process of deodorization. Corbin traces the implementation of deodorizing air through its various stages and techniques. Starting with the initial use of fumigation and the masking/combating scents, Corbin then notes that by the end of the 18th century more concerted and more permanent efforts at public sanitation and deodorization were taking place. In an effort to suppress reminders and causes of death (excrement, corpses, and decay), cities began pursuing wide-scale pavement projects, drainage systems and systems for containing refuse and sewage. Even more important, however, was the new emphasis on ventilation. Just as moving water was seen to be cleansing, so too was moving air believed to diffuse miasma. New building designs emphasized space and wide corridors, and increasingly separated rooms for various functions, including cooking and bodily excretion. Accompanying this trend was a new emphasis on personal space, a privatization of sleeping arrangements, and even demand for individual tombs. By the early 19th century, scientists had shown that stench did not necessarily denote unsanitary air, though the concern of putrid miasma remained, and the deodorization of public spaces remained a priority.

The 1820’s saw a chloride revolution as scientists discovered the effectiveness of lime chloride in eliminating odour. Little by little, public and then private spaces were effectively deodorized (and Corbin notes that much of the driving force behind this move was economic as opposed to an obsession with unhealthiness). The proletariat, however, often resisted deodorizing efforts, and measures of personal hygiene were out of their reach. The bourgeoisie reacted by limiting contact, and felt justified in doing so, while officials enthusiastically linked sanitation with moralizing efforts and launched inspections of dwellings, schools and barracks. In an interesting reversal, as urban spaces became cleaner, and wealthier, perception of the countryside changed; it now became a symbol of “poverty and putrid excrement.” By the 1880s, however, the public and private spheres had undergone remarkable olfactory changes, and science had adopted the new discoveries of Louis Pasteur, abandoning the false fears of miasma and poison. From then on, scientists focused on the microbial germ; stench was no longer a “morbific” agent.

    While Corbin’s work is fascinating and provocative, it often lacks organization and fails to describe and explain many of the scientific and medical theories it references. Corbin’s varied approach also sometimes allows him to lose sight of the thread of his argument; especially toward the end of the work. While he successfully uses some running case examples, like those of ships and hospitals, which were often the first to use the new techniques of deodorization, Corbin also uses more haphazard references. For instance, he introduces England from time-to-time as a foil to France’s reluctance to use sewers and to engage in more rigorous and wide-spread personal hygiene, but does not adequately explain the reasons for difference. Corbin also could stand to flesh out certain themes.

He has the beginnings of a subtext of gender; however, he tantalizes the reader with brief excerpts without truly plumbing their depths. He also occasionally brings up economic motivations, but a more thorough look into the industries that benefited from the deodorization efforts seems appropriate. Overall, however, Corbin has created a work of great detail and insight and has made his point well; never again should scent and odour be underestimated.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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