Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category

After reading a bit of one book after another, in the last ten days, I am still not able to stick to one book, as my mind is not in one place and I am getting distracted quite easily. Today I took down, from my bookshelf, a book called ‘It Must Be Beautiful : Great Equations of Modern Science’, which is a collection of essays on equations edited by Graham Farmelo. I found the concept behind the book quite interesting – trying to bring out the beauty of powerful equations to the general reader – and the contributors who are leading scientists also seem to be wonderful writers. I finished reading the foreword by Farmelo today evening, and it gave me a lot of pleasure. I didn’t know that scientists could write so well – out of nonfiction writers I remember only John Carey (author of ‘What Good are the Arts?’ and editor of ‘The Faber Book of Science’) and Ed Smith (author of ‘What Sport Tells Us about Life’) writing so well. Graham Farmelo belongs to that select group too, in my heart atleast 🙂 I thought you might like to read some excerpts from Farmelo’s foreword.

Poems and Onions

During a radio interview Philip Larkin gave in May 1974 to promote his High Windows collection, he pointed out that a good poem is like an onion. On the outside both are pleasingly smooth and intriguing, and they become more and more so, as their successive layers of meaning are revealed. His aim was to write the perfect onion.

      The poetry of science is in some sense embodied in its great equations and, as the essays in this book demonstrate, these equations can also be peeled. But their layers represent their attributes and consequences, not their meanings.

Poetic Equations

Now a twentieth-century icon, E = mc2 is one of the few things about science that every TV quiz participant is expected to know.

      In common with all great scientific equations, E = mc2 is in many ways similar to a great poem. Just as a perfect sonnet is spoiled if so much as a word or an item of punctuation is changed, not a single detail of a great equation such as E = mc2 can be altered without rendering it useless. E = 3mc2, for example, has nothing whatever to do with nature.

      Great equations also share with the finest poetry an extraordinary power – poetry is the most concise and highly charged form of language, just as the great equations of science are the most succinct form of understanding of the aspect of physical reality they describe. E = mc2 is itself enormously powerful : its few symbols encapsulate knowledge that can be applied to energy conversion, from ones in every cell of every living thing on Earth, to the most distant cosmic explosion. Better yet, it seems to have held good since the beginning of time.

      In the same way as close study of a great equation gradually enables scientists to see things that they initially missed, so repeated readings of a great poem invariably stir new emotions and associations. The great equations are just as rich a stimulus as poetry to the prepared imagination. Shakespeare could no more have foreseen the multiple meanings readers have perceived in ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ than Einstein could have predicted the myriad consequences of his equations of relativity.

“Beauty, thy name is…”

      Of the hundreds of thousands of research scientists who have ever lived, very few have an important scientific equation to their name. Two scientists who were adept at discovering fundamental equations and especially perceptive about the role of mathematics in science were Albert Einstein and the almost comparably brilliant English theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. Neither was a mathematician per se, but both were remarkable in their ability to write down new equations that were as fecund as the greatest poetry. And both men were captivated by the belief that the fundamental equations of physics must be beautiful.

      This may sound strange. The subjective concept of beauty is unwelcome in polite intellectual circles, and certainly has no place in academic critiques of high art. Yet it’s a word that readily comes to the lips of all of us – even to the most pedantic critics – when we are moved by the sight of a smiling baby, a mountain vista, an exquisitely formed orchid. What does it mean to say that an equation is beautiful? Fundamentally, it means that the equation can evoke the same rapture as other things that many of us ddescribe as beautiful. Much like a great work of art, a beautiful equation has among its attributes much more than mere attractiveness – it will have universality, simplicity, inevitability and an elemental power. Think of masterpieces like Cezanne’s Apples and Pears, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, Judi Dench’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth, Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of ‘Manhattan’. During my first experience of each of them, I soon realized that I was in the presence of something monumental in conception, fundamentally pure, free of excrescence and crafted so carefully that its power would be diminished if anything in it were changed.

      An additional quality of a good scientific equation is that it has utilitarian beauty. It must tally with the results of every relevant experiment and, even better, make predictions that no one has made before. This aspect of an equation’s effectiveness is akin to the beauty of a finely engineered machine of the kind we hear about in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, when marine recruit Gomer Pyle starts talking to his rifle (‘Beautiful’, he whispers to it). The besotted Pyle praises its meticulous construction, delighting in the qualities that make it supremely fit for its lethal purpose. It would not be nearly so beautiful if it didn’t work.

“Enjoy the Onions”

      Among my own collection of poetry, on the shelf above my desk, sits a dustless copy of High Windows. I first read it when I was a greenhorn student of subatomic physics, strugling to understand its fundamental equations and to appreciate their beauty. The collection was given to me by a Larkin-loving friend, a student of English literature, just a few days after the collection was published. Her message to me was the same as mine is now to you. ‘Enjoy the onions’.

So beautifully written, isn’t it? 🙂

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A beautiful passage from ‘At Home : A Short History of Private Life’ by Bill Bryson, that I am reading now. This passage is about the great exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and about the American participation in it.

The United States section almost didn’t get filled at all. Congress, in a mood of parsimony, refused to extend funds, so the money had to be raised privately. Unfortunately when the American products arrived in London it was discovered that the organizers had paid only enough to get the goods to the docks and not onward to Hyde Park. Nor evidently had any money been set aside to erect the displays and man them for five months. Fortunately, the American philanthropist George Peabody, living in London, stepped in and provided $15,000 in emergency funding, rescuing the American delegation from its self-generated crisis. All this reinforced the more or less universal conviction that Americans were little more than amiable backwoodsmen not yet ready for unsupervised outings on the world stage.
      So it came as something of a surprise when the displays were erected to discover that the American section was an outpost of wizardry and wonder. Nearly all the American machines did things that the world earnestly wished machines to do – stamp out nails, cut stone, mould candles – but with a neatness, dispatch and tireless reliability that left other nations blinking. Elias Howe’s sewing machine dazzled the ladies and held out the impossible promise that one of the great drudge pastimes of domestic life could actually be made exciting and fun. Cyrus McCormick displayed a reaper that could do the work of forty men – a claim so improbably bold that almost no one believed it until the reaper was taken out to a farm in the Home Counties and shown to do all that it promised it could. Most exciting of all was Samuel Colt’s repeat-action revolver, which was not only marvellously lethal but made from inter-changeable parts, a method of manufacture so distinctive that it became known as ‘the American system’….For many Europeans this was the first unsettling hint that those tobacco-chewing rustics across the water were quietly creating the next industrial colossus – a transformation so improbable that most wouldn’t believe it even as it was happening.

The affectionate descriptions ‘amiable backwoodsmen’ and ‘tobacco-chewing rustics’ made me smile 🙂 What an underestimation!

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I am reading a book called ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ by David Sedaris. The book is making me laugh, like I haven’t laughed in a long while. Here is one of the passages which made me laugh and I am still not able to stop laughing, while I am typing it 🙂

      I tried to creep by unnoticed, but he stopped me, claiming that I was just the fellow he’d been looking for. “Do you have any idea how many grains of sand there are in the world?” he asked. It was a question that had never occured to me. Unlike guessing the number of picked eggs in a jar or the amount of human brains it might take to equal the weight of a portable television set, this equation was bound to involve the hateful word googolplex, a term I’d heard him use once or twice before. It was an idea of a number and was, therefore, of no use whatsoever.
      I’d heard once in school that if a single bird were to transport all the sand, grain by grain, from the eastern seaboard to the west coast of Africa, it would take…I didn’t catch the number of years, preferring to concentrate on the single bird chosen to perform this thankless task. It hardly seemed fair, because, unlike a horse or a Seeing Eye dog, the whole glory of being a bird is that nobody would ever put you to work. Birds search for grubs and build their nests, but their leisure time is theirs to spend as they see fit. I pictured this bird looking down from the branches to say, “You want me to do what?” before flying off, laughing at the foolish story he now had to tell his friends. How many grains of sand are there in the world? A lot. Case closed.

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I am continuing to read ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery. I am still reading it slowly and there are beautiful lines and passages in every page or every alternate page.  

There are ‘hard’ passages like this, which have a lot of insights and make us think :

      “Indeed what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing – or trying not to slide down – the tribe’s hierarchical ladder, and fornicating in every manner imaginable – even merely phantasms – as much for the pleasure of it as for the promised offspring. Thus we use up a considerable amount of our energy in intimidation and seduction, and these two strategies alone ensure the quest for territory, hierarchy and sex that gives life to our conatus. But none of this tuoches our consciousness. We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilization, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice big warm dog.

      There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required to support our primitive requirements, we wonder bewildered, where Art fits in. All our frenzied nudging and posturing suddenly becomes utterly insignificant; our cozy little nest is reduced to some futile barbarian custom, and our position in society, hard-won and eternally precarious, is but a crude vanity. As for our progeny, we view them now with new eyes, and we are horrified, because without the cloak of altruism, the reproductive act seems extraordinarily out of place. All that is left is sexual pleasure, but if it is relegated to a mere manifestation of primal abjection, it will fail in proportion, because a loveless session of gymnastics is not what we have struggled so hard to master.

      Eternity eludes us.

      At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. Exeunt rich and poor, thinkers, researchers, decision-makers, slaves, the good and the evil, the creative and the conscientious, trade unionists and individualists, progressives and conservatives; all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing, mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this : hold your rank, or die.

      At times like this you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny, so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world.”

And there are ‘soft’ passages like this which are lyrical and poetic and give us a lot of joy and pleasure :

      “I am particularly fond of this scene, first of all because it takes place in Pokrovskoye, in the Russian countryside. Ah, the Russian countryside…there is a very special charm about such a place – it is wild and yet still bound to mankind through the land, mother to us all…The most beautiful scene in Anna Karenina is set at Pokrovskoye. Levin, dark and melancholy, is trying to forget Kitty. It is springtime, he goes off with the peasants to mow the fields. In the beginning the task seems to arduous for him. He is about to give up when the old peasant leading the row calls for a rest. Then they begin again with their scythes. Once again Levin is about to collapse from exhaustion, once again the old man raises his scythe. Rest. And then the row moves forward again, forty hands scything swaths and moving steadily toward the river as the sun rises. It is getting hotter and hotter, Levin’s arms and shoulders are soaked in sweat, but with each successive pause and start, his awkward, painful gestures become more fluid. A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.

      This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this – ridiculous journal of an aging concierge – if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences, that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.

      In this way, in the full proof and texture of my self, I accede to a self-forgetfulness that borders on ecstasy, to savor the blissful calm of my watching consciousness.”

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I must be the last person to read ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery. But I am not to blame for that. I have been trying to get this book for the past six months, and the bookstore, where I placed the order, has been giving me one reason or another on why the book hasn’t arrived yet. I had tried ordering it from three bookstores (of the same chain) and each of them had different reasons to give me! But finally, one of them had the book, and I dropped all the work I was doing, to get it 🙂 I started reading it yesterday and I have to say that every page of the book is a pleasure to read. It is too early for me to have an overall opinion on the book, but I will say that I am reading it very slowly, like I haven’t done in a very long time, and each page has gems in it. Here is one of my favourite passages that I read today from the book :

“Then when the New Zealand players began their haka, I got it. In their midst was this very tall Maori player, really young. I’d had my eye on him right from the start, probably because of his height to begin with but then because of the way he was moving. A really odd sort of movement, very fluid but above all very focused, I mean very focused within himself. Most people, when they move, well they just move depending on whatever’s around them. At this very moment, as I am writing, Constitution the cat is going by with her tummy dragging close to the door. This cat has absolutely nothing constructive to do in life and still she is heading toward something, probably an armchair. And you can tell from the way she’s moving : she is headed toward. Maman just went by in the direction of the front door, she’s going out shopping and in fact she already is out, her movement anticipating itself. I don’t really know how to explain it, but when we move, we are in a way de-structured by our movement toward something : we are both here and at the same time not here because we’re already in the process of going elsewhere, if you see what I mean. To stop de-structuring yourself, you have to stop moving altogether. Either you move and you’re no longer whole, or you’re whole and you can’t move. But that player, when I saw him go out onto the field, I could tell there was something different about him. I got the impression that he was moving, yes, but by staying in one place. Crazy, no? When the haka began, I concentrated on him. It was obvious he wasn’t like the others. Moreover, Cassoulet Number 1 said, “And Somu, the formidable New Zealand fullback – what an impressive player, with a colossal build : six foot eight, and two hundred and sixty pounds, runs a hundred meters in eleven seconds, a fine specimen indeed, ladies!” Everyone was enthralled by him but no one seemed to know why. Yet it became obvious in the haka : he was moving and making the same gestures as the other players (slapping the palms of his hands on his thighs, rhythmically drumming his feet on the ground, touching his elbows, and all the while looking the adversary in the eyes like a mad warrior) but while the others’ gestures went toward their adversaries and the entire stadium who were watching, this player’s gestures stayed inside him, stayed focused upon him, and that gave him an unbelievable presence and intensity. And so the haka, which is a warrior chant, gained all its strength from him. What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy by sending him a whole lot of signals, it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself, by staying centered. That Maori player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance – everyone could feel it. And yet you also got the impression that the great oak could fly, that it would be as quick as the wind, despite, or perhaps because of, its deep roots.”

 – From ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery

(Comment : The player described in the above passage looks suspiciously like the legendary Jonah Lomu, the Rugby great from New Zealand. Also, I didn’t know that they played rugby in France!)

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One more beautiful passage from Zadie Smith’s collection of essays ‘Changing My Mind‘. This one is from the essay ‘Speaking in Tongues’.

“The voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place – this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port. Maybe this fact is only what it seems to be – a case of bald social climbing – but at the time, I genuinely thought this was the voice of lettered people, and that if I didn’t have the voice of lettered people I would never truly be lettered. A braver person, perhaps, would have stood firm, teaching her peers a useful lesson by example : not all lettered people need be of the same class, nor speak identically. I went the other way. Partly out of cowardice and a constitutional eagerness to please, but also because I didn’t quite see it as a straight swap, of this voice for that. My own childhood had been the story of this and that combined, of the synthesis of disparate things. It never occurred to me that I was leaving Willesden for Cambridge. I thought I was adding Cambridge to Willesden, this new way of talking to that old way. Adding a new kind of knowledge to a different kind I already had. And for a while, that’s how it was : at home, during the holidays, I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to feel and speak things that I couldn’t express in college, and vice versa. I felt a sort of wonder at the flexibility of the thing. Like being alive twice.

But flexibility is something that requires work if it is to be maintained. Recently my double voice deserted me for a single one, reflecting the smaller world into which my work has led me. Willesden was a big, colourful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle. This voice I picked up along the way is no longer an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose – now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not. I regret it; I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth.”

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I am reading a book called ‘Changing My Mind’ by Zadie Smith. It is a collection of essays. Zadie Smith’s prose is so beautiful that I am reading it slowly and enjoying every page 🙂 Here is one of the interesting passages that I encountered in the book (from the essay ‘Rereading Barthes and Nabokov’).

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It’s a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times. When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping through the kitchen (Pnin a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita), or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard (or a series of squirrels, depending on their methodology). Even the architect’s claim on his creation seems secondary to your wonderful way of living in it.

Though I like reading a book sequentially, I sometimes turn randomly to a page and read a paragraph. This is one of the interesting paragraphs that I encountered during my random browsing (from the essay ‘Speaking in Tongues’). I couldn’t stop smiling at Cary Grant’s comment 🙂

To occupy a dream, to exist in a dreamed space (conjured by both father and mother), is surely a quite different thing from simply inheriting a dream. It’s more interesting. What did Pauline Kael call Cary Grant? “The Man from Dream City”. When Bristolian Archibald Leach became suave Cary Grant, the transformation happened to his voice, which he subjected to a strange, indefinable manipulation, resulting in that heavenly sui generis accent, neither west country nor posh, American nor English. It came from nowhere, he came from nowhere. Grant seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times, as it sometimes feels voters have dreamed up Obama in hard times. Both men have a strange reflective quality, typical of the self-created man – we see in them whatever we want to see. ‘Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,’ said Cary Grant. ‘Even I want to be Cary Grant’. It’s not hard to imagine Obama having the same thought, backstage at Grant Park, hearing his own name chanted by the hopeful multitude. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama. Even I want to be Barack Obama.

I don’t know whether Obama would say this today – with him being immersed in so many issues and problems and challenges which don’t look like going away anytime soon – but I loved Cary Grant’s line 🙂

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I read this beautiful passage in the book I am reading now.

On Christmas Eve, Dad took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one. I had a blanket wrapped around me, and when it was my turn, I offered to share it with Dad, but he said no thanks. The cold never bothered him. I was five that year and I sat next to Dad and we looked up at the sky. Dad loved to talk about the stars. He explained to us how they rotated through the night sky as the earth turned. He taught us to identify the constellations and how to navigate by the North Star. Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he’d say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn’t even see the stars. We’d have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.

“Pick out your favorite star,” Dad said that night. He told me I could have it for keeps. He said it was my Christmas present.

“You can’t give me a star!” I said. “No one owns the stars.”

“That’s right,” Dad said. “No one else owns them. You just have to claim it before anyone else does, like that dago fellow Columbus claimed America for Queen Isabella. Claiming a star as your own has every bit as much logic to it.”

I thought about it and realized Dad was right. He was always figuring out things like that.

I could have any star I wanted, Dad said, except Betelgeuse and Rigel, because Lori and Brian had already laid claim to them.

I looked up to the stars and tried to figure out which was the best one. You could see hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions, twinkling in the clear desert sky. The longer you looked and the more your eyes adjusted to the dark, the more stars you’d see, layer after layer of them gradually becoming visible. There was one in particular, in the west above the mountains but low in the sky, that shone more brightly than all the rest.

“I want that one,” I said.

Dad grinned. “That’s Venus,” he said. Venus was only a planet, he went on, and pretty dinky compared to real stars. She looked bigger and brighter because she was much closer than the stars. Poor old Venus didn’t even make her own light, Dad said. She shone only from reflected light. He explained to me that planets glowed because reflected light was constant, and stars twinkled because their light pulsed.

“I like it anyway,” I said. I had admired Venus even before that Christmas. You could see it in the early evening, glowing on the western horizon, and if you got up early, you could still see it in the morning, after all the stars had disappeared.

“What the hell,” Dad said. “It’s Christmas. You can have a planet if you want.”

And he gave me Venus.

That evening over Christmas dinner, we all discussed outer space. Dad explained light-years and black holes and quasars and told us about the special qualities of Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Venus.

Betelgeuse was a red star in the shoulder of the constellation Orion. It was one of the largest stars you could see in the sky, hundreds of times bigger than the sun. It had burned brightly for millions of years and would soon become a supernova and burn out. I got upset that Lori had chosen a clunker of a star, but Dad explained that “soon” meant hundreds of thousands of years when you were talking about stars.

Rigel was a blue star, smaller than Betelgeuse, Dad said, but even brighter. It was also in Orion – it was his left foot, which seemed appropriate, because Brian was an extra-fast runner.

Venus didn’t have any moons or satellites or even a magnetic field, but it did have an atmosphere sort of similar to Earth’s, except it was super-hot – about five hundred degrees or more. “So,” Dad said, “when the sun starts to burn out and Earth turns cold, everyone here might want to move to Venus to get warm. And they’ll have to get permission from your descendants first.”

We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. “Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Dad said, “you’ll still have your stars.”

– From ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls

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More beautiful passages from ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind 🙂 I am loving Süskind’s prose!

The Smell of the Sea

The sea smelled like a sail whose billows had caught up water, salt and a cold sun. It had a simple smell, the sea, but at the same time it smelled immense and unique, so much so that Grenouille hesitated to dissect the odours into fishy, salty, watery, seaweedy, fresh-airy, and so on. He preferred to leave the smell of the sea blended together, preserving it as a unit in his memory, relishing it whole. The smell of the sea pleased him so much that he wanted one day to take it in, pure and unadulterated, in such quantities that he could get drunk on it. And later, when he learned from stories how large the sea is and that you can sail upon it in ships for days on end without ever seeing land, nothing pleased him more than the image of himself sitting high up in the crow’s nest of the foremost mast on such a ship, gliding on through the endless smell of the sea – which really was no smell, but a breath, an exhalation of breath, the end of all smells – dissolving with pleasure in that breath.

The Mysterious Scent

…the wind brought him something, a tiny, hardly noticeable something, a crumb, an atom of scent; no, even less than that : it was more the premonition of a scent than the scent itself – and at the same time it was definitely a premonition of something he had never smelled before. He backed up against the wall, closed his eyes and flared his nostrils. The scent was so exceptionally delicate and fine that he could not hold on to it; it continually eluded his perception, was masked by the powder-smoke of the petards, blocked by the exudations of the crowd, fragmented and crushed by the thousands of other city odours. But then, suddenly, it was there again, a mere shred, the whiff of a magnificent premonition for only a second…and it vanished at once. Grenoiulle suffered agonies. For the first time, it was not just that his greedy nature was offended, but his very heart ached. He had the prescience of something extraordinary – this scent was the key for ordering all odours, one could understand nothing about odours if one did not understand this one scent…

…He tried to recall something comparable, but had to discard all comparisons. This scent had a freshness, but not the freshness of limes or pomegranates, nor the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or birch or camphor or pine needles, nor that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water…and at the same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress or musk has, or jasmine or narcissi, not as rosewood has or iris…This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering silk…and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk – and try as he would he couldn’t fit those two together : milk and silk! This scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not be categorized in any way – it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was as plain and splendid as day. Grenouille followed it, his fearful heart pounding, for he suspected that it was not he who followed the scent, but the scent that had captured him and was drawing him irresistibly to it.

…Strangely enough, the scent was not much stronger. It was only purer, and in its augmented purity, it took on an even greater power of attraction.

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I found this nice passage in a book I am reading now.

‘…now be so kind as to tell me : what does a baby smell like when he smells the way you think he ought to smell?


‘He smells good,’ said the wet nurse.

‘What do you mean, “good”?’ Terrier bellowed at her. ‘Lots of things smell good. A bouquet of lavender smells good. Stewed meat smells good. The gardens of Arabia smell good. But what does a baby smell like, is what I want to know?’

The we nurse hesitated. She knew very well how babies smell, she knew precisely – after all she had fed, tended, cradled and kissed dozens of them…She could find them at night with her nose. Why, right at that moment she bore that baby smell clearly in her nose. But never until now had she described it in words.

‘Well?’ barked Terrier, clicking his fingernails impatiently.

‘Well it’s – ‘ the wet nurse began, ‘it’s not all that easy to say, because…because they don’t smell the same all over, although they smell good all over, Father, you know what I mean? Their feet for instance, they smell like a smooth warm stone – or no, more like curds…or like butter, like fresh butter, that’s it exactly. They smell like fresh butter. And their bodies smell like…like a pancake that’s been soaked in milk. And their heads, up on top, at the back of the head, where the hair makes a cowlick…there, right there, is where they smell best of all. It smells like caramel, it smells so sweet, so wonderful, Father, you have no idea! Once you’ve smelled from there, you love them whether they’re your own or somebody else’s. And that’s how little children have to smell – and no other way.’

– From ‘Perfume : The Story of a Murderer‘ by Patrick Süskind

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