Imaginative Aromas: The Smell of Polish Literature
#language & literature
full-width, From the set of the film 'Tatarak' directed by Andrzej Wajda, 2010, photo: Akson Studio/EN, tatarak_en.jpg
Sense of smell, treated as primal and animalistic, is often ignored by writers and poets. If it happens to appear in a text it’s usually as a supplement to descriptions of nature or an urban landscape. There are some literary works, however, which scents intoxicate, jar, or are silent protagonists. How does Polish literature smell?
Smell of personality
For Wacław Potocki, a baroque author, smell was a woman of dual nature. In his poem Rozkosz Światowa (Worldly Pleasure) he portrayed Cielesna Panna Woń (Miss Sensual Smell), who had largish nose and strong odour; and her sister, a delicate and graceful Duchowa Panna Zapach (Miss Spiritual Scent). The first one brought about, thanks to her horticultural skills, olfactory effects while the latter was olfaction herself. With this allegory the poet contrasted earthly fleetingness with divine eternity, with biblical scenes involving elaborate imagery of incense burning in the background. One has to make a choice between evanescent beauty and a promise of the everlasting.
Franciszek Mirandola’s reflections had also this spiritual side to them. The poet, of Young Poland period, took inspiration from ancient philosophical-religious Indian texts [hence the title Z Upanishad (From Upanishad)] and used the concept of nirvana, known from Buddhism and Hinduism. In the poem happiness is identified with a woman who smells of irises: ‘Irysy pachną. Nie! to nie są kwiaty! / To pięknych kobiet błąkają się dusze’ (‘Irises smell. No! They are not flowers! / They are beautiful women’s wandering souls’). Poetry of Young Poland period very often uses floral motifs and fusion of exotic and domestic cultural patterns to affect emotions.
In poetry, flower is the most commonly used woman’s attribute. Its sweet fragrance note combined with human pheromones can create a suffocating, narcotic composition. It was what Julian Tuwim gladly used to create intimate lyrical setting: subtlety on the one hand, and eroctic, even destructive feature on the other. For the Skamander poet smell is redolent of a beloved person; it also creates atmosphere, becomes an instrument for irony and composes melody of the verses. In one of his poems, Tuwim directly addresses Maria Pawlikowska: ‘Na łąkę wychodzisz nocą po kwitnące słowa, / Tajne czynisz praktyki, aby pachniały ambrą i lawendą’ (‘In the meadow you go out at night for flowering words, / Performing secret practises to make them smell of ambergris and lavender’); while the poem The Dream of A Little Girl with Golden Hair is imbued with seductive scent of tuberose (significantly, Stefan Żeromski, in his novel Ludzie Bezdomni (Homeless People), compared one of the characters, Karbowski, to the flower as a symbol of useless beauty).
It’s a digressional poem Kwiaty Polskie (Polish Flowers), however, where the greatest number of scent can be found. It inspired Mieczysław Weinberg to write a symphony. In the poem Tuwim ponders about e.g. linguistic powerlessness to name fragrances, coming to a conclusion that resede smells of resede and mint – of mint (not a toothpaste or a powder).
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Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński presents an extraordinary picture of love in one of his poems beginning with words: ‘Gdy za powietrza zasłoną…’ (When behind a curtain of air…’). The world of emotions is presented in a vivid and contrastive way. The oneiric world pictures paradise, where ‘"«Kochany» – szumi piosenka i głowę owija mu, dzwoni / jak włosów miękkich smuga, lilie z niej pachną tak mocno" (‘"«Sweetheart» - rustles the song and wraps his head, and tinkles / like soft trail of hair, smelling of lilies intensely’); and is contrasted with the war reality and a figure of child red from blood. The intense fragrance of lilies makes the author-protagonist alive, but only for a short time. Baczyński wrote the poem on 13th July 1944, and on 4th August, being only 23-years-old, he died in the Warsaw Uprising.
More aromas are hidden in Olga Tokarczuk’s Szafa (‘Wardrobe’). A hotel maid is the protagonist of one of the three short stories. The Capital Hotel, where she works, appears to her as a labyrinth of olfactory experiences. Here smell is personality. Guest leave behind themselves fragrances of male Armani or Lagerfeld, cigarettes, powder, anti-wrinkle cream, crocodile skin. Other rooms are full of smells such as: bitter smell of burning, rush, mess, closed circle and hopelessness. The heroine wonder about lives of their owners, and to experience them she needs to get rid of her own colours and safe smell (donning an apron). In this explosion of aromas, it’s the description of children that is the most touching: ‘Ich skóra sama z siebie nie wydziela żadnych woni, łapie tylko i zatrzymuje zapachy z zewnątrz: powietrza, wiatru, trawy rozgniecionej łokciem i cudowny, słony zapach słońca’ (‘Their skin doesn’t have its own smell, it only catches and keeps smells from outside: those of air, wind, grass crushed by an elbow, and wonderful salty smell of sun’). As time goes by the maid’s uniform gets saturated with ‘tiredness, sweat, life’ – and she leaves a note of this fragrance in the room no. 228.
Although human sweat is hardly a pleasant smell, in Anna Świrszczyńska’s poem I Wash the Shirt it has a special meaning – it’s the smell of the poet’s late father. She breathes it in for the very last time: ‘Washing this shirt / I destroy it / forever. / Now / only paintings survive him / which smell of oils’.
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Breath of death
The most famous olfactory murderer in the world didn’t have his own smell. He was created by Patrick Süskind, and everybody who has read Parfume will admit that in this story every single word smells. Katarzyna Bonda also made use of the idea of using smell in almost perfect crime in her novel Pochłaniacz (Absorber). Although this attribute – ‘jedyny i niepowtarzalny dla każdego człowieka, jak linie papilarne’ (‘unique and inimitable for everyone, like fingerprints’) – holds the key to solve the mystery, unfortunately it appears rarely and mechanically. Nevertheless, the author had carried out a detailed research which should be appreciated. She gained an insight into osmology and had, on her request, a criminalistic show done: simulation of olfactory tests, with specially trained dogs participating, for each suspects from the novel. It’s a pity, though, that all of those olfactory effects have been entirely swallowed up by the complicated plot.
The smell of death creates a frame for Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s short story Calamus. The plant in the title combines two aromas: a gentle one of ‘wierzbami ocienionej wody’ (‘water shaded by willows’), as Słowacki put it; and a harsh one of ‘błotnistego iłu, gnijących rybich łusek, po prostu błota’ (‘muddy loam, putrid fish scales, simply mud’). The latter is expressly identified with rapid end of life. Both aromas are detected not only by the sense of smell, but there are other senses activated as well: touch, sight, and even taste. Smell of sweet rush (or calamus) appears a few times in the story, and also in the autor’s other works: Młyn Nad Utratą, (The Mill on the River Utrata), Młyn Nad Kamionną (The Mill on the River Kamionna), Stracona Noc (The Lost Night); always with negative connotations. Iwaszkiewicz, as well as Tuwim, is one of the most sensitive to smells authors of Polish literature.
Descriptions of death are usually accompanied by pejoratively marked vocabulary: odour, corpse’s stink, stuffiness, smell of burning; or alternatively neutral smoke of incense. How quaint, then, is the nice smell of a martyr’s body in Cyprian Kamil Norwid’s poem Amen. It doesn’t have a specific fragrance, but becomes a source of joy, a symbol of new life. Sensual experience is interconnected with metaphysical one.
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Smell has memory. It was proven by Marcel Proust in his In Search of Lost Time where smell and taste of tea dipped madeleine evoked vivid memories of childhood. This ‘Proust effect’ can be found also in domestic literary works, e.g. in Andrzej Bobkowski’s Szkice Piórkiem (Feather Penned Drafts): ‘Nie wiem dlaczego, ale ten zapach suchych liści i wilgotnej ziemi działa na mnie podobnie jak mgła: budzi wspomnienia dzieciństwa: wspomnienia lasów koło Lidy i Nowogródka, kontury zamku Gedymina’ (‘I don’t know why but this smell of dry leaves and wet soil affects me in the same way as fog: it awakes memories of childhood: memories of forests near Lida and Navahrudak, outlines of the Giediminas’ castle’). Exile literature is full of such ethereal reminiscences. There are lush scents that cross borders of time and space, with their intensity shading breath of the present; as Józef Wittlin wrote in his Mój Lwów (My Lviv): ‘Doprawdy nie wiem, czy to już starość, że straciłem węch na uchodźczą woń kwiatów i drzew, czy rzeczywiście tutaj nic nie pachnie? A przecież lwowskie parki przywędrowały tu ze mną z wszystkimi drzewami, kwietnikami i rabatami. I lwowskie apteki, szynki i owocarnie przepłynęły ocean i po tylu latach trwają jeszcze we mnie, wciąż żywe i błogie’ (I don’t really know whether it’s already old age that I’ve lost the sense of smell for foreign fragrances of flowers, or maybe nothing really smells here? But parks of Lviv with all their trees and flowerbeds have rolled up here with me. And Lviv’s pharmacies, saloons and fruit shops have crossed the ocean and, after so many years, they’re still alive in me, vivid and serene’).
Adam Mickiewicz had no doubts what the smell of homeland is, however his poetry is rather scentless. Meanwhile it’s a marvellous smell of bigos puffing from the pots, especially strong after the bear hunt, that reigns in Pan Tadeusz; and nearly equally strong aroma of coffee that’s ‘fragrant as mocha, and thick as honey’. Those notes of fragrances used by Mickiewicz complete the picture of the country perceived as the most beautiful in the world. Adam Zagajewski in his poem Gorączka (Fever) opposes this idyll, the romantic myth. In the poem, written during the time of martial law, the poet looks at enslaved Poland hard-headedly, and everyday life, described in a sensual way (aroma of moist lime trees, taste of the first strawberry) transforms into tender intellectual irony with concluding warning against a severe smell of spring. Zagajewski, one of the poets from Nowa Fala (New Wave) poetic movement, judges the martyr-like attitude of his compatriots and their inaction bitterly; he calls for defiance and independence, the artistic one as well.
Different smells create atmosphere of girlish worlds of Wioletta Grzegorzewska and Weronika Gogola, becoming parts of rural and much missed but not idealised past. In Guguły there are a mellow smell of cocoa, sweet rush, soil smelling of sludge and cardamom, August stuffiness of rotting straw and starch, jasmine and caramel scents of May. On the other hand, Gogola’s Po Trochu (Little by Little) provides more gustatory than olfactory experiences. One, though, is pretty expressive – it’s something about a person captured in a smell: ‘Babcia Klimcia przynosiła ser co tydzień. Pachniał jak każdy taki ser: trochę jej domem, a trochę babcią Klimcią’ (Granny Klimcia would bring cheese every week. It smelt like any other of such cheese: partly of her house, partly of granny Klimcia herself’). Other fragrances of little homelands are spicy aroma of cake being baked [Uśmiech Dzieciństwa (The Smile of childhood) by Maria Dąbrowska] and vanilla milk and roasted coffee [Zapach Szczęścia (The Smell of Happiness) by Julian Tuwim].
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I am from a city…
In his book Dukla, Andrzej Stasiuk persuaded that ‘miejsca i miasta wydzielają zapachy jak zwierzęta, trzeba tylko uparcie je tropić (‘places and cities have their own smells, they just must be wilfully hunted for’). People are able to distinguish up to a dozen or so thousand smells (for comparison: a dog distinguishes more than 500,000), but by contrast to other creatures, they can arrange them. It was a street that became one of the greatest inspirations for perfumers: flowery ‘London’ by Burberry, and ‘Soir de Paris’ by Bourjois, spicy-smoky ‘Santo Domingo’ by Oscar de la Renta, oriental ‘Roma’ by Laura Biagotti, and even ‘Warsaw’ that smells of architecture, Chopin’s music and elegant, strong women (the perfume was created by Evond Wos in cooperation with Antoine Lie). How would Polish authors make it on the perfume market?
Witold Gombrowicz’s village of Małoszyce smells of bunch of herbs, water, stones, and bark [Dziennik (Diary)]. Ryszard Kapuściński contrasts the smell of Pińsk – the smell of winter preserves, plum, apricot and apple trees – with the scent of the tropics described in The Shadow of The Sun – the scent of sun-warmed body and drying fish, rotting meat and roasted cassava, fresh flowers and turning sour seaweed. While Joanna Bator, lost in Tokyo, finds her way following the smell of curry [Japoński Wachlarz (The Japanese Fan)]. In Bruno Schulz’s The Streets of Crocodiles a reader can smell the scent of a faraway country combined with the smell of paint, sealing wax and frankincense. Fragrances are part of identity of a place and people.
And what does a city smell of in the works of futurists, caressively called ‘fetorists’ by Przyboś and Nowaczyński? In his manifesto Do Narodu Polskiego (To The Polish Nation), Bruno Jasieński ‘kicha od mdłych zapachów’ (‘sneezes because of bland smells’) and persuades that a modern man needs ‘ostrych, syntetycznych wrażeń’ (‘sharp, synthetic stimuli’). Such can be provided for instance by Adam Ważyk’s melodious town submersed in the pipes’ smoke [Hiacynt (Hyacinth)].
Futurist olfaction heralds a new sensitivity, warns of an approaching danger; and moving away from intellectual recognition, it gets close to intuition. Aleksander Wat collects fragrances of the homeless and notices sinister smells of steel cities [‘Ja z jednej strony i ja z drugiej strny mego mopsożelaznego piecyka’ (‘It’s me on the one side and it’s me on the other side of my pug iron stove’), Anatol Stern smells intoxicating orange tipples under the sky (Pissuary), whereas space of a café described by Tytus Czyżewski is filled with smells of fried cutlets and nicely stinking silence [Drzemka w Kawiarni (A Doze In A Café)]. Well, not every town smells of jasmine, and its residents – of cherry tree, bird cherry and plum tree, as in the movie of Jan Jakub Kolski.
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Musty stuffiness of townhouses and backyards is unwelcome in Stefan Źeromski’s The Spring To Come, hence Seweryn Baryka’s dream of glass houses fragrant with cleanness – the herald of a new civilisation. It happens that the intense fragrance of lilac leads to a car accident and a fight (Kwiaty Polskie, Julian Tuwim). In his Opowieść Zbiega (The Fugitive’s Tale) Sławomir Mrożek warns that even a cistern of foreign parfumes will not eliminate the odour of a dead dragon.
However, it’s Stanisław Lem who decisively is the unsurpassed master of fantasy. He expresses his concern about humanity in the short story Ratujmy Kosmos (Let Us Save The Universe); its main character, after leaving the Earth, decides to visit favourite places in the Galaxy. And for example ‘sawanny Belurii tęczują od różnobarwnego kwiecia, wśród którego wyróżnia się cudownej piękności i woni pąsowa róża’ (‘savannahs of Beluria rainbow with colourful blossom, among which a crimson rose of wonderful beauty and fragrance stands out’). The rose turn out to be an outgrowth on the wędłowiec’s tail. An unaware tourist trying to smell the flower may be attacked by the predator. While fetorówka obrzydlnica uses its smell to defend against cameras pointed at it; and its ‘szczególnie energiczne okazy potrafią wytwarzać do pięciu tysięcy cuchów (jednostka odorowa) na sekundę’ (‘particularly energetic representatives can emit up to five thousand stinks (the odour unit) per second’). ‘Co się zaś tyczy spostrzeżenia, że fetorówka w ostatnich latach zwielokrotniła swój zasięg i produkuje do ośmiu megacuchów na hektar, należy wyjaśnić, że spowodowane to zostało masowym stosowaniem teleobiektywów’ (‘When it comes to remark that fetorówka has multiplied its extend in recent years and now produces up to eight magastinks per hectare, it should be explained that it’s because of the massive use of telescopic lenses’).
Smell crosses not only physical borders but also those of imagination which not always turns out for the good of protagonists; but for the reader – quite contrary.
contemporary polish literature
Sources: Marian Bugajski, Jak pachnie rezeda? Lingwistyczne studium zapachów; Wrocław 2004; Beata Cieszyńska, Okna duszy. Pięć zmysłów w literaturze barokowej; Bydgoszcz 2006; Magdalena Kokoszka, Przestrzeń n-wymiarowa i węch. Uwagi o futuryzmie; In Białostockie Studia Literaturoznawcze no. 5/2014; Elżbieta Rybicka, Sensoryczna geografia literacka; In E. Konończuk, E. Sidoruk (Eds.), Przestrzenie geo(bio)graficzne w literaturze; Białystok 2015; Marek S. Szczepański, Weronika Ślęzak-Tazbir, Miejskie pachnidło; In Studia Regionalne i Lokalne no. 2/2008.
Originally written in Polish, April 2018; translated by AK, June 2018