The Perfume of the Soul

June 28, 2015

The Perfume of the Soul

I have been working on a talk I am scheduled to give in Dijon, France in November and reading with great pleasure and interest Michael Davidson’s On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics. In discussing George Oppen’s poetry, he mentions that “a number of recent books in critical theory have chronicled modernism’s ocularcentrism …. At the same time, social theorists have provided a critique of modernity’s ocularcentrism, pointing out how metaphors of seeing and sight dominate the work of philosophers and theorists from Marx’s theory of ideology as a camera obscura, Heidegger’s “Age of the World Picture,” and Bergson’s duree to Foucault’s emphasis on the panoptical gaze, to Sartre’s “regard” and Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze” (116-117). To limit ocularcentrism to moderism and modernity, however, is to underplay its role in Western philosophy and culture. Sight was the key sense cited by Plato in The Republic, for instance, so this privileging should hardly be limited to a contemporary rendition of “modernity.” Rather, sight’s dominance is the mark of modernity, whether we are thinking of remote modernity or the prosthetic forms that pass themselves off as the post-modern.1

It is my understanding that this emphasis upon sight has a pragmatic basis, for I read somewhere that well over two-thirds of the information our brain receives and works with is directly accessed through sight. That proportion of appetitive perception will probably not alter much in the centuries ahead, but we might be better off if we take the time to cultivate the other senses, too, in the same way that pianist must learn to play with the “weak” hand as well as the hand that ‘s inclined to take the lead. In fact, would both Plato and Heidegger have been better off emphasizing another sense, that of smell. The latter’s quarrel with the former might well have led him to a different understanding of Being if smell had been the sense to which he entrusted the fate of his soul.2

A recent prose poem of a blog entry that points to the possibilities of an epiphany based on smell can be found at: Her entry, “Textures of the Unknown,” is a profound meditation on how the aquifers of the olfactory nourish the perfume of the soul. After reading her entry, I trusted more than ever Heraclitus’s proposition that “if all things turned to smoke, the nose would know all things.”3


1 In particular, the discussion in Book VI of The Republic at one point becomes a eulogy for the interwoven nature of the sun, its light, the eye and the soul.

2 Two recent articles in the Los Angeles Review of Books examine the on-going destabilization of Heidegger’s impact on twentieth century philosophy due to his affiliation with the Nazi Party in Germany.  What to Make of Heidegger in 2015? by Santiago Zabala (June 24th, 2015)   “The King Is Dead: Heidegger’s Black Notebooks” by Gregory Fried.

3 Michael Kincaid. There Are Gods Here Too: Readings of Heraclitus. Dickinson, North Dakota: Buffalo Commons Press, 2008, 53.