Anosmia: My Newly Discovered Disability * Nonfiction * Ernest Gilman

“ Par ma foi !” cries Molière’s would-be bourgeois gentleman M. Jourdain: “For more than forty years I have been speaking prose while knowing nothing of it”! I had my own Molière moment just recently when I learned that there was actually a name—and a scientific name at that—for my inability to smell: “anosmia.” I myself might otherwise have come up with a name like “olfactory deprivation,” or perhaps “smell blindness” (I know this is controversial), but I wanted to imply a connection between my anosmia and my “face blindness,” the condition known to neurologists as “prosopagnosia.”

There appears to be no single cause of anosmia, and no cure. It has been known to arise as the lingering after effect of COVID, as the result of a sinus infection, head trauma or exposure to noxious chemicals like pesticides. It may also be symptom of cancerous nasal polyps. A 2014 study done in the UK “exposed high rates of depression (43%) and anxiety (45%) among the anosmic population, as well as problems with eating (92%), isolation (57%), and relationship difficulties (54%),” as reported by The Conversation. Eating problems, to be sure, but relationship difficulties? And who knew that there was an “anosmic population”? Full disclosure: my anosmia is likely the result of decades of smoking Marlboros.

In comparison with anosmia my inability to read faces has always been far more disabling. At least I am in good company, for what that’s worth. The late Oliver Sacks had it, not to mention Brad Pitt and the artist Chuck Close (famous for his portraits of faces). As it makes it hard for me to interact “normally” with other people, my chronic “face blindness” has not infrequently been a source of embarrassment and occasionally of mortification. Here’s where the “relationship difficulties” kick in. Unlike Dr. Sacks’ patient I am not likely to mistake my wife’s face for a hat, but I might well fail to recognize you if we should happen to run into each other on the street. Disguising my anxiety, I will snatch at any hint as to your identity, any kind of contextual clue, while pretending to know who you are, all the while hoping that you might say something that will ring a bell. Hairstyle helps with women, but if my interlocutor, say a student has put up her hair in a pony tail since I last saw her in class with flowing locks. I am utterly helpless. But that’s another story. The link between my anosmia and my prosopagnosia, however, is that in both cases I compensate by faking it.

The UK study cited above concludes that “anosmic people face major challenges in everyday life.” Although I have utterly lost the capacity to smell anything (some fellow members of the anosmic “population” are apparently “blind” to only one distinct odor), I confess that I had never yet thought of my inability to wake up and smell the roses as a major challenge in life. Indeed, among the other forms of sensory deficit, I would venture to say that people would choose anosmia every time. It does, however, come with its inconveniences, some less serious than others. My wife asks me whether an herb she has found in the garden smells like mint or oregano. I fake it by making a sheer guess about the identity of the leaf, and half the time I am right. If we are invited to someone’s house for dinner, I already know I’m supposed to say “that smells delicious!” when we walk in the door. I enjoy cooking, and even though I can’t smell the garlic sizzling in the pan (I can hear it), I usually succeed in cobbling together an acceptable dish because I know how much garlic the recipe calls for, and I know what it’s supposed to look like when it exudes the fragrant aroma I can’t smell.

More annoying on the scale of life challenges is the knowledge (so I have been told) that I cannot fully enjoy the pleasures of the table because flavor resides in the nose as much as, or perhaps even more than, it does on the tongue, which after all can only supply the minimal information that something is salty or sweet. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (not that I’ve ever tried it) and Two-Buck Chuck would likely taste the same to me because I cannot detect the delicate “notes” of peach or chocolate or whatever I am supposed to inhale by performing the ritual of sniffing the glass. I recall having once been invited to an exclusive wine tasting in Florence, the point of which was to appreciate the flavor of a rare and brilliant (and outrageously expensive) Sangiovese. I still regard my feigned rapture after the first sip as one of my more convincing dramatic performances. I have been warned that the week-old hamburger meat I was about to plop on the grill was rotten. I have been told that sweat socks and used towels are supposed to smell bad and need to go in the wash, but you can’t prove it by me. If you ever come for a visit you should be prepared. Like most people I also use a deodorant, but as far as the nose goes I might as well be slathering myself with library paste.

Most annoying, even fraught with peril, is my inability to detect the smell of gas if the burner is on the stove hasn’t caught fire, or to realize that the roasting chicken is incinerating itself in the oven. Nor would I know if an exhaust leak in my ancient Toyota was actually pumping fumes into the car while I was at the wheel. Nor, if I am in the bedroom can my nose alert me that the kitchen is on fire. Thank god for the piercing sound of the smoke detector. The history of natural selection instructs us that in non-human mammals the “smell brain” evolved first as the foundation of all the “higher” sensory faculties, one of its jobs being to sound the warning (as it were) of any lurking danger and to locate the next meal. Although for us ears and eyes have overtaken smell as our portals to the world, anosmia disables both of these still relevant albeit “primitive” functions. It also robs you of the smell of the sea, of the grass, of blood or pizza, of the evening “smell of steaks in passageways” and the “faint stale smells of beer” and “early coffee-stands” by which the morning “comes to consciousness” in T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes.” My anosmia forecloses any hope of fully experiencing the olfactory dimension of the world, and here, in particular, of Eliot’s verse—a problem, I must admit, more vexing for an English professor than for people in other lines of work.

I end with a New York anecdote, still fresh in mind even though the event occurred several years ago. The scene is a nearly empty subway car, with me seated at one end and at the other, an obviously homeless man sleeping asleep and using his shopping bag of worldly possessions as a pillow. I don’t take notice of him at first. Then people come in when the doors open. They take one sniff, they crinkle their noses. They share a look of sheer disgust with the people near them, and then they step off or move to another car. This happens again and again until I realize that this man’s foul odor (there is no more delicate way to put it) must so pungent and pervasive as to fill the whole subway car and to drive away every person within fifty feet of him. To them this must be the most offensive odor be encountered in everyday life–and yet for better or worse in this moment I smell absolutely nothing, and I see no reason to follow the herd. The moment drives home for me the realization that every person in that car has a powerful sensory ability, however unwelcome to them at that moment, of which I am utterly deprived. Then, on reflection, I realize that my being unable to smell the man makes it possible in another sense for me to see him as a fellow human rather than as a reeking creature.

 

–About Professor Ernest Gilman—

It’s been my very good fortune never to leave school.  After I got my PhD from Columbia I spent six years in the English department at UVa in Charlottesville  (the place now famous for having “good  people” on all sides).  I found myself less charmed than I had hoped by the fabled southern ambiance of Mr. Jefferson’s university, although with the assistance of several alcoholic colleagues I developed a taste for good bourbon.  In 1981 I was fortunate enough to escape to New York, where I have been a professor of English at NYU for the past 40 years. My scholarly interests include 17th-century English literature, literature and the visual arts, and the literary history of medicine and disease.