The Smell of Paradox and the Disequilibrium of Loss
How the evocative sense of smell and the attentiveness of art can illuminate complex, unknowable, and indescribable facets of experience
One of the reasons I love dance is for its inherent abstraction, or how performance celebrates that sometimes the best way to talk about something isn’t by being literal. The first dance piece I ever made was about smell and our lack of vocabulary for describing it. The concept was fairly simple: to carefully experience a selection of scents, then generate movement as a description of my embodied experience of them. As I was beginning to hone what lay at the heart of my interest in dance and dancemaking, I was delighted by the literal ineffableness of smell because it demonstrated my belief that where words fail to capture complexity, other modes of speaking serve us better.
During that process, I was introduced to the work of Susan Rethorst, whose practice relies on reinstating trust in our bodily knowing. She writes, “Our reliance on words and the status of language overrule our body’s mind.”1 Throughout my process of making dance, I use improvisation as my primary tool to tap into a kind of knowing that my brain doesn’t have a chance to turn into words. The feeling is something like running top speed down a steep, uneven trail: the miracle of your breath, balance, limbs all synchronized to know where and when to step next, all too fast and smart for your conscious brain to keep up.
The article “What Can Covid-19 Teach Us About the Mysteries of Smell?” describes a long history of discounting smell as the least valuable, least interesting of our senses. Among philosophers, scientists, and the general public there has been—and continues to be—a distinct lack of appreciation for the truly miraculous abilities our sense of smell provides. In rare cases humans can even identify complex diseases before other symptoms appear, but any of us can unknowingly smell the immune system of a potential partner, or determine whether our glass of wine has had a fly in it.
Its weakness, from the perspective of Western science, is subjectivity. The scientific method needs things to be measurable and comparable, but smell remains elusively personal. This perspective limits our understanding of so many things, and perhaps more importantly limits what is even counted as understanding. In the backlash against the rise of “fake news” and general anti-science rhetoric, the purported solution is an obsession with “facts”—but I worry about how this leaves out something as amorphous as smell, and reinforces the idea that science is information rather than a process. What are the consequences when we undervalue the kinds of knowing that are too complex to chart on a graph? Too personal to declare a universal truth?
My dad died this winter, at only 53 years old. The unanticipated loss and subsequent grief has easily been the most intense emotional experience of my life. From the very first moment, being confronted with something I can’t possibly comprehend has been a fundamental component of grieving—the attempt to wrap my head around something hopelessly unknowable. To this day I have to pinch myself to remember it’s true; to accept it as reality is hard enough, let alone contemplate a why. This struggle to understand has also reinforced a sort of rawness, or heightened sensitivity in how I perceive. There’s vulnerability in grappling with the limits of my understanding, and that vulnerability has changed the way I experience day-to-day life. I’ve felt a renewed appreciation for the complexity in something as simple as a neighborhood walk, for how much stimulation there is in the world if you’re able to be present for it.
By opening myself to deep sadness, I was also opening to profound appreciation: for the love and community still around me, for simple beauty and the everyday miracle of existing. This combination of feelings was and is confusing, complicated, and hard to process. I read someplace early on that grief is a both/and experience: a messy, wide-ranging mix of emotions that can often feel paradoxical. This has rung true for me far more than the notion of a linear progression or discrete stages. I am reminded of the way the poet Ross Gay talks about “adult joy,” a joy that is rooted in the understanding that we’re all going to die, and that exists not in spite of, but because of, loss as a fundamental feature of our lives. In Gay’s telling, everything in life is more both/and than we’re accustomed to believing, if we could pay close enough attention to notice.
In her performance inging, choreographer Jeanine Durning investigates this kind of intelligence, describing the piece as an experience where “both performer and audience are in perpetual disequilibrium, confronted with the limits of language as a paradigm for communication, knowledge and understanding.” For close to an hour Durning speaks in a continuous stream, bouncing back and forth between noticing and referencing, as the audience observes her desperate, yet futile, struggle to stay in the now. You almost don’t have time to wonder what inging is “about” or question why she is making the choices she is, because through tracking her continuously meandering thoughts, you too are roped into the attempt to stay present—which, of course, is exactly what it’s about.
I define that search for presentness in my own creative process through thinking about attention, and how to cultivate a particular state of attentiveness for myself and the audience. It’s like the way reading Gertrude Stein splits your attention, forces you to settle into an unfamiliar rhythm of consumption through her wild repetition and unpredictable syntax.2
“A sentence is a subterfuge refuge refuse for an admirable record of their being in private admirable refuge for their being in private this in vain their collide.”“Christian Bérard” from Portraits and Prayers by Gertrude Stein
This shift in how to pay attention can disrupt our habitual existence and pull our perception into the present moment. In a way, the heightened sensitivity that has accompanied my grief is another version of this disruption. Indeed, the only way for me to live with the disequilibrium of grief has been to try my best to be present with the whole mess of emotions together without watering them down in isolation. It’s a juggling act my rational mind can’t contain, and is only possible through striving to stay present with a more ambiguous knowing.
Apparently many scientists believe we continue to under-appreciate our sense of smell because it’s so hard to communicate to others. While smell certainly deserves greater recognition, I would argue that the real problem here is how we limit our appreciation to what is easily “understood.” It’s in many ways easier to just avoid too much nuance in daily life, from the way news and politics is talked about, to moral assessments of right and wrong. It’s still hard for me to resist the desire to name my grief as something concrete, explainable, answerable, or to actually know what to say when someone asks, “How are you doing?” Yet, if there is ever a time people seek nuance, it’s when they experience overwhelming emotion. (It’s no coincidence that poetry shows up prominently for weddings and funerals.) And any of my attempts to avoid nuance fail to accurately reflect some of the mess I actually feel.
Because art views inquiry as a product in itself, and is too subjective to be empirical, it is uniquely positioned to leave space for the vastness of human experience. The presence we learn while making and witnessing art offers an opportunity to sit with our fear of complexity, to increase our tolerance for ambiguity. It has the capacity to affirm the actual both/and-ness of the world that binary-loving, left brain-dominated culture avoids.
As the pandemic wears on, I’m thinking of the many people who lost their sense of smell from contracting COVID-19, who are getting the opportunity to pay attention to an amazingly intricate ability they may have taken for granted. I’m also thinking of the many people who are grappling with the loss of a loved one, perhaps feeling more things than they know how to name, or experiencing the terrifying shock of how incomprehensible our world can be. Alongside a long list of things that shouldn’t just return to “normal” post-pandemic, how can we hold on to some of the beauty in our current disorientation? How can we create a practice of learning to live with the complex, contradictory, both/and nature of reality?
I don’t want to glamorize losing someone you love—it has been unimaginably hard. But life requires us to endure what we couldn’t previously imagine, both good and bad, and the more present we can be for all of it, the more resilient and generous we can become. Even though we might think we can get away with ignoring it, in a million ways this year has demonstrated how lost we are without more expansive forms of understanding. In the case of COVID-19, undervaluing our most indescribable sense meant missing a key symptom that could have prevented unknowing disease transmission across the world3. The work of artists is rarely considered essential, even outside of the pandemic, yet I don’t think I’m alone in finding its embrace of complexity necessary in my lowest moments.