On the Nose

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I recently underwent a COVID test. As the technician inserted the rather ominous cotton-tipped probe into my nostril, she told me that it was going to feel as if she were tickling my brain. Indeed… This experience, shared by many during the past three years, and likely multiple times, prompted me to think about my nose. Not since cocaine reentered American mainstream culture in the 1970s and ’80s—and found its way into countless movies that reflect the trend—has the nose been so central to a certain state of public life. It’s difficult to find a film dealing with American culture from that period and beyond, from Scarface to The Wolf of Wall Street, in which there is not a scene depicting characters snorting the obligatory line or spoon of cocaine. Yes, snorting, sniffing, sneezing, ingesting the line through the nose and finishing leftover dust by collecting it with a moist finger, rubbing it lovingly against the front gum of the mouth. Freud’s “Über Coca” looms ominously in the background, the work of a phase in Freud’s professional career complicated by his obscure relationships with Parke-Davis (now a subsidiary of Pfizer) and Merck, pharmaceutical companies that supplied him with early samples to tickle his nose (Freud; Merkel). The Sacklers of the moment. In our day, Pfizer wants to transform our noses into defenses against the virus rather than conduits toward mind-altering dreams. In the wake of the Freud and William Halsted cocaine addictions chronicled by Howard Merkel, the irony of the contemporary link between Pfizer and the nose is patent.

The nose: that orifice through which the virus creeps, the first stage in breathing, the first filter for air-borne pollutants. Recently, important immunological analyses of COVID have focused on the question of viral load, how much virus is necessary to overcome the nose’s filtering function and reach the deeper airways leading to the lungs. The processes triggered by any of the major vaccines prepare antibody blueprints and actual antibodies that can be dispatched to the linings of the nose to counter the virus as soon as the body detects its presence. The Delta, Omicron, and subsequent variants remind us that the virus has mechanisms to challenge this response, namely, increased viral load that intensifies transmissibility and the potential to overwhelm antibodies. It seems, however, that so-called breakthrough infections are still well controlled by the body’s vaccinated immune system. Hysteria about the dangers of such incursions is partially a product of biased and often incorrect or incomplete media coverage of the COVID vaccine, which has terrified the vaccinated and fueled the skepticism of the unvaccinated.

The virus tries to overpower and confuse the filtering nose in another way, more immediately apparent to our conscious selves. As many as eighty-five percent of COVID infections result in the loss of smell, generally recovered in about two to three weeks in sickened people who overcome the infection. About five percent of COVID victims, however, have not recovered their sense of smell six months or more after they have shed the virus.1Loss of smell can accompany other more established respiratory viruses—colds, flu, and so forth—as well as allergies to air-borne particles like seasonal pollen or industrial pollutants. Data about how many COVID-infected people have ongoing olfactory problems is fluid since the long-term effect of COVID is a new field. What might it mean to lose one’s sense of smell? In our vision-oriented culture, both sound (the ear) and smell (the nose) have been less recognized as primary defense mechanisms than in other cultures. When one hears a sound, the first reaction is to prepare for a threat, before the sonic source is seen or understood. Orientation in the world, knowing from which direction the sound emanates, is key to preparing the body for an encounter with an unknown phenomenon: “To sound (an alarm) means to warn. Isn’t any emerging sound understood as a warning? Any unexpected sonic occurrence is seen as an indication of something that is to come and that must be clarified rapidly” (Deshays 34). By the same token, to sample surroundings by sniffing what is in the air signals whether one should inhale or somehow try to hold one’s breath in search of cleaner, more palatable air. Without olfaction, we are at potentially heightened risk of asphyxiation. We are more likely to misjudge the gravity or pleasure of what an environment presents to us. This goes for social settings as well, where pheromones subtly prompt our behaviors.

To simplify things, the neurological structure of olfaction begins in receptors at the top of the nasal cavity, which detect molecules in the air and transmit signals to the olfactory bulb on the bottom of the cerebral hemispheres. Processing these signals, the olfactory bulb then transmits signals to the olfactory cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain. Unlike the case of other senses, however, the olfactory bulb also has connections to the amygdala and through it to the hippocampus, limbic brain structures closely involved in emotion and memory. Proust’s madeleine… Damage to olfaction occasioned by COVID underscores the deep significance of the nose and its sensing activities—brought to the fore by the effects of the virus attack. To lose the sense of smell is to lose a complex dimension of experience, as victims of this COVID syndrome have attested in poignant descriptions of their incapacity to smell or taste. The nose is a filter, but also an originator of emotion and reminiscences: the virus impoverishes our attempts to situate ourselves in the world.

What happens to olfaction thus mirrors elements of the broader COVID experience. Isolation and quarantine narrow the scope of life experiences and the memories that might be created by them. The spectrum of emotions is stunted by confinement. If indeed the viral attack on the nose and its olfactory function breaks the connection between scent and emotion/memory, one might say that the necessary imposition of social distancing breaks social connections and impoverishes emotional life. The strategy of social distancing may serve to allay the effects of the pandemic, but then we must live in the absence of close contact with our fellow humans in a manner that produces effects mimicking what the virus does when it disconnects the nose from brain functions and causes us to lose the scent of the world.

And I have said nothing of taste. Smell and taste are intimately linked, so much so that when Aristotle wrote about the senses in his classic texts on the subject, De Sensu and De Anima, he wrestled with the persistent difficulty of distinguishing one from the other. Attempting valiantly to define differences between the sense mechanisms that process odor and flavor, he frames his solution within his broader theory of the senses: stimuli transiting through a medium to reach a part of the body attuned to them (Johansen). Smell would be air-borne and processed by the nose, while taste transits through a liquid medium that puts a stimulus in contact with the tongue. The problem is ongoing, however, and Aristotle’s distinction ultimately falls short, because we know that smell is crucial to taste—it is at the origin of the highly varied nuances of taste. Air does not reach the olfactory receptors solely through sniffing and inhaling, but also through the retronasal passage of air from the mouth back into the nose. What we eat is sampled by the olfactory sensors at the top of the nasal cavity. The dismantling of olfaction caused by the virus implicates taste just as fundamentally, and those sickened become unable to taste and thus to appreciate the food they ingest. The virus undoes much of the pleasure of eating, and by extension, the social pleasure of sitting around a dinner table with friends and family. Another form of disconnection provoked by the severing of the link between the nose and the brain centers for emotion and pleasure.

Nikolai Gogol certainly had no inkling of the appropriateness of the conceit at the center of his 1836 short story, The Nose, for our present dilemma. The narrative chronicles the detachment of Collegiate Assessor Kovalev’s nose, perhaps sliced off by his barber, and Kovalyov’s subsequent attempts to find it. The nose takes on a life and identity of its own, disconnected from its master, finally to be rejoined to Kovalev at the end of the narrative. The pretext for the story has always seemed surreal to me, a fanciful take that allows Gogol to write, for instance, a devastating critique of social hierarchy in the Russia of his time. The detaching of the nose from the body, its striking and uncanny disconnectedness, suddenly became visceral, however, when I reread the story recently. One could imagine that Gogol was proposing a commentary on the displacement of the olfactory by the visual, which is central to nineteenth-century cultural history. This broad comment is too glib, however, and would require me to muster substantial archival evidence that I cannot deploy here. Nonetheless the disconnectedness of the nose described in the story goes to the heart of the olfactory devastation caused by the virus in our own time. The lack of a vital situatedness in the world of surrounding scents begs a question about Gogol’s nose: where is the sense of smell actually located in the story? With the nose that traipses around under an assumed identity or still with a nose-less Kovalev himself? Until the two instances are conjoined, there is no olfaction.

Gogol’s story also subtly resonates avant la lettre with Freud’s much later experience with cocaine. An ironic scene (among so many others in the story!) describes Kovalev’s visit to a newspaper office where he intends to buy an advertisement seeking help from anonymous readers to find his nose. The conversation with the office clerk is a narrative showpiece and leads to this mocking offer of a pinch of snuff:

“I’m truly sorry that such an odd thing has happened to you. Would you care for a pinch? It dispels headaches and melancholy states of mind; it’s even good with regard to hemorrhoids.” So saying, the clerk held the snuffbox out to Kovalev, quite deftly flipping back the lid with the portrait of some lady in a hat.

Incensed, Kovalev reacts:

This unintentional act brought Kovalev’s patience to an end. “I do not understand how you find it possible to joke,” he said in passion. “Can you not see that I precisely lack what’s needed for a pinch of snuff? Devil take your snuff! I cannot stand the sight of it now, not only your vile Berezinsky, but even if you were to offer me rappee itself.”

Clearly an aficionado of snuff, Kovalev finds the clerk’s jesting in quite bad taste, not only because it mocks his condition, but also because Kovalev is an excellent judge of the poor quality of the powder offered to him by the clerk.

This comical exchange brings us back to the gesture of sniffing at the center of Freud’s cocaine experiments: before cocaine, there was snuff.2Snuff is a leitmotiv of Gogol’s story, present from the beginning when the barber is described as regularly taking a pinch of snuff before shaving Kovalev. Both excitants impress our sniffing apparatus into service as a delivery mechanism for a drug. But let’s reflect for a moment on sniffing itself. We sample the air around us in two ways: by sniffing (consciously inhaling) or by moving through space, counting on such movement to circulate air into our nose. Sniffing is a body movement that is simultaneously intensely mimetic, learned by observation and copied, and yet intensely personal and unique. At first, this may seem quite paradoxical. Don’t we all sniff in the same way? Yes, but we also have our own unique ways of sniffing: “The physical characteristics of a sniff are smell dependent. Confronted with a weak scent, we take larger and longer sniffs, and more of them. We take smaller, shorter, and fewer sniffs to a strong odor” (Gilbert 78). To this first principle, however, Gilbert adds a second, revealed by Australian psychologist David Laing, one of the first to analyze sniffing patterns in a study examining the behavior of a series of experimental subjects: “Sniff patterns were so stable and individually distinctive that Laing found he could identify a person by airflow data alone. He went so far as to liken sniff patterns to fingerprints” (78-79).3On the relation between mimetic repetition and creative uniqueness, see, for example, Ingold, pp. 349

We remarked earlier that olfaction has connections to various parts of the brain in ways that are not completely parallel with the other senses. An additional connection is at work here: the verb “to sniff” refers both to sampling the scent of the air around us and to the mechanical process of drawing in air, a particular type of inhalation. Olfaction, then, is also connected to the cerebellum, which regulates the movement mechanics of the act of sniffing, based on the strength of a given odor or the immediate interests of the sniffer. In other words, what goes on in olfaction is a complex regulatory feedback loop that adjusts the movement mechanics of inhalation to the saturation or type of odor and to the body’s situation while exploring it. Sniffing is a gesture modulated by parts of the brain that control movement and parts that decipher odors. How those elements interact is learned behavior—but with a unique personal stamp. Researchers would no longer go so far as to equate sniffing patterns to fingerprints, but the characteristics of the gesture do bear a stamp of uniqueness.4For a description of how contemporary researchers study sniffing gestures in different classes of mammals and graph their timing and force, see Wachowiak. Conversely, an individual lacking olfaction loses the inimitability of the bodily gesture required to sniff effectively: “People with no sense of smell fail to adjust [to surrounding conditions]; they keep inhaling as if the air were unscented” (Gilbert 82).

Robbed of olfaction by the virus, COVID victims are removed from the scent of the world, but they also lose the uniqueness of their own sniffing gesture. Inhaling reverts to the fundamental level of sustaining existence, drawing in air to continue living. Yes, this was always the baseline for inhalation, but to it were added the pleasure, the emotion of olfaction and of taste, and the distinctive way each of us sniffs the world around us. We can only hope that long COVID does not leave too many of our fellow humans sniff-less, part of their identity excised, like Gogol’s hero, and part of their pleasure undone.

Works Cited

  • Deshays, Daniel. “Machinations of the Senses.” SubStance, vol. 49, no. 2, issue 152, 2020, pp. 30–43.
  • Freud, Sigmund. Über Coca. Verlag von Moritz Perles, 1885.
  • Gilbert, Avery. What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. Synesthetics, Inc., 2014.
  • Gogol, Nikolai. The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Voloknonsky, Vintage Books, 1998.
  • Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Rout-ledge, 2000.
  • Johansen, Thomas K. “Aristotle on the Sense of Smell.” Phronesis, vol. 41, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1-19.
  • Markel, Howard. An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug, Cocaine. Vintage, 2012.
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