Author and professor Hsuan L. Hsu on a yellow background.
Author and professor Hsuan L. Hsu. Courtesy Hsuan L. Hsu

In Literature and Art, Smell Is a Powerful Means to Convey Risk

In a new book, Hsuan L. Hsu investigates how writers, artists, and activists use scent in their work to create a sense of uncertainty or danger.
By Tom Morris
December 12, 2020
2 minute read

Covering everything from a detective story by Edgar Allan Poe to the role that scent plays in racism, the new book The Smell of Risk: Olfactory Aesthetics and Atmospheric Disparities (NYU Press) investigates how, over the past 200 years, writers, artists, and activists have used smell in their work to convey uncertainty or danger. Author Hsuan L. Hsu, an English professor at Concordia University in Montreal, where he’s on the faculty of the Centre for Sensory Studies, goes nose-deep into his subject, and explains the implications of his findings here.

“The idea for the book came from my interest in 19th-century American literature, where smell took a very prominent role. Naturalism was very interested in the humanist animal and in the tropes of degeneration.

There are multiple instances of writers using smell [to convey risk] in their work. There’s the metaphor of the detective of the stench from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In [author Arthur Conan Doyle’s] Sherlock Holmes, it becomes quite literal—[the central character] borrows a dog to sniff out different clues.

There are also examples of this in environmental-justice fiction: Writer Helena María Viramontes revisits naturalist conventions around smell to think about the scent of pesticides or freeway construction and auto exhaust [and its connection to] Latinx populations. Race studies have changed from being about bodily, biological, and visual terms to include atmospheric factors. This happened a lot with the Chinese in the 19th century, when dystopian modern smells, such overcrowded apartments or factories, were projected onto Asian immigrants. They were seen as deviants, [both] bodily and in terms of the air.

There’s no smell without breathing—and you don’t have much choice over that. Smell is also tied to emotion and memory, especially involuntary memory, so the smeller cannot remain distanced from it or maintain an individual rationality to what they’re taking in. Smell is a threat to our autonomy because it’s a chemical motive perception that has to enter the body in order to work at all.”