Reviews — From the January 2017 issue

Wild Things

The allure of animal nature

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Discussed in this essay:

Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, by Alexandra Horowitz. Scribner. 368 pages. $27.

GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human, by Thomas Thwaites. Princeton Architectural Press. 208 pages. $24.95.

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, by Charles Foster. Metropolitan Books. 256 pages. $28.

Thirty years ago, I lost my sense of smell. I didn’t wake up one morning to find myself transformed into a creature with only four senses. Rather, that part of the sensate world fell away slowly and almost imperceptibly, until at last it was gone. My beak is as prominent as ever, but it is only the shell of its former self, a Potemkin nose.

At first, I found my anosmia, as the few doctors who study this phenomenon call it, disconcerting and terribly sad. Now that I was dumb to flavor, eating became a chore. The tang of desire no longer leaped off my wife’s neck. After a rain, the wet earth stayed mute; without its musk, the garden stood silent. I missed the scent of my friends’ houses, the aroma of asphalt and gasoline rising off a parking lot on a hot summer day, the astringency of snow. I longed for memories kindled by madeleines. I felt diminished; I had shrunk, and with me my world.

Illustration of a manticore, 1658, by Edward Topsell, collected in Charlotte Sleigh’s The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art, which will be published in March by the University of Chicago Press and the British Library

Illustration of a manticore, 1658, by Edward Topsell, collected in Charlotte Sleigh’s The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art, which will be published in March by the University of Chicago Press and the British Library

I consulted a doctor. This being the 1980s, he was sure I had destroyed my olfactory epithelium with cocaine. I explained that I did not like the drug anywhere near enough to abuse my nose with it, but he wanted to see for himself. So he inserted a camera on a flexible tube up a nostril and into the back of my mouth. We followed the camera on the monitor as it passed through my intact nasal passages and into my throat, unimpeded by polyps or any other obstruction that could prevent odor molecules from making their way to my brain (which an MRI, ordered to rule out tumors, revealed to be normal). The doctor reviewed these non-findings, told me that there were no other known causes to look for, and sent me on my way with a shrug.

I didn’t give up right away. I took zinc and other supplements. I shot cortisone up my nose. I let an acupuncturist bewhisker my face with her needles. I even tried, for the first (and last) time in my life, positive thinking, telling myself each morning that I would definitely smell the coffee beans I was about to grind. Nothing worked. To this day I remain largely oblivious to scent, though the loss has receded, as losses will. I recall the absence only at moments: when I need to borrow a working nose to distinguish gasoline from water, say, or when I read yet another foodie manifesto and thank my lucky stars I am immune to that affliction.

Had my misfortune occurred a century earlier, I might have presented myself at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot was chalking up unexplained losses of bodily function to a neurological disorder he was calling hysteria. I’m not sure that a paralyzed nose would have elicited his interest as easily as the paralyzed legs of his patients, or that he would have tried to hypnotize me out of my condition as he did them, but I like to think my complaint would have intrigued one of his students, an Austrian doctor named Sigmund Freud. He was soon to discard Charcot’s neurological explanations of these mysteries in favor of psychological ones, and later, toward the end of his career, to augment those reasons with cultural theories — one of which puts my malady in a new light.

“The diminution of the olfactory stimuli,” Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), “seems . . . to be a consequence of man’s raising himself from the ground, of his assumption of an upright gait.” Chief among those stimuli was the scent of estrus, which, once our snouts were no longer at the level of one another’s nether regions, was no longer adequate (or necessary) to get the reproductive job done. The eyes could go where the nose could not, however. “From that point,” Freud continued,

the chain of events would have proceeded through the devaluation of olfactory stimuli . . . to the time when the visual stimuli were paramount and the genitals became visible, and thence to the continuity of sexual excitation, the founding of the family and so to the threshold of human civilization.

When I first encountered these words, as a college student in possession of all my senses, I was simply excited to hear an august figure uncover the shaky footings of civilization. Now, however, the passage conjures up a different frisson, a glimpse of redemption for my compromised state. After all, if the dulling of olfaction signals the advent of civilization, then what about its wholesale loss? Is the apotheosis of civilization in fact the postolfactory person, invulnerable to skunked dogs, rotting garbage, and all the other stink of the world?

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

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