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Posts Tagged ‘Diane Ackerman’

10 APRIL, 2014

The Science of Smell: How the Most Direct of Our Senses Works

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Why the 23,040 breaths we take each day are the most powerful yet perplexing route to our emotional memory.

“Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes,” Anna Quindlen advised in her indispensable Short Guide to a Happy Life. Susan Sontag listed “linen” and “the smell of newly mown grass” among her favorite things. “A man may have lived all of his life in the gray,” John Steinbeck wrote in his beautiful meditation on the meaning of life, “and then — the glory — so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose.” Why is it that smell lends itself to such poetic metaphors, sings to us so sweetly, captures us so powerfully?

That’s precisely what science historian Diane Ackerman explores in A Natural History of the Senses (public library), her 1990 prequel to the equally fantastic A Natural History of Love. Ackerman, who also happens to be a spectacular poet and the author of the gorgeous cosmic verses that Carl Sagan mailed to Timothy Leary in prison, paints the backdrop of this perplexing and unique sensory experience:

Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it… We see only where there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough to hear. But we smell always and with every breath. Cover your eyes and you will stop seeing, cover your ears and you will stop hearing, but if you cover your nose and stop smelling, you will die.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.' Click image for more.

In fact, every breath we take in order to live is saturated with an extraordinary amount of olfactory information — a fact largely a matter of scale:

Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems. Inhaling and exhaling, we smell odors. Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are…

The charm of language is that, though it is human-made, it can on rare occasions capture emotions and sensations that aren’t. But the physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.

Indeed, that route is a greater shortcut to our cognition and psychoemotional circuitry than any of our other senses can offer. Ackerman outlines the singular qualities of our smell-sensation that set it apart from all other bodily functions:

Smell is the most direct of all our senses. When I hold a violet to my nose and inhale, odor molecules float back into the nasal cavity behind the bridge of the nose, where they are absorbed by the mucosa containing receptor cells bearing microscopic hairs called cilia. Five million of these cells fire impulses to the brain’s olfactory bulb or smell center. Such cells are unique to the nose. If you destroy a neuron in the brain, it’s finished forever; it won’t regrow. If you damage neurons in your eyes or ears, both organs will be irreparably damaged. But the neurons in the nose are replaced about every thirty days and, unlike any other neurons in the body, they stick right out and wave in the air current like anemones on a coral reef.

Illustration by Tomi Ungerer from 'The Cat-Hater's Handbook.' Click image for more.

That’s also what makes perfumes so powerful — if you’ve ever walked into a crowded room and instantly experienced a pang of emotion as you thought you smelled your ex, or your mother, or your third-grade teacher, you’ve had a first-hand testimony to the potency of smell as a trigger of emotional memory. Ackerman explains:

A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them… When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory. Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”

What’s perhaps most extraordinary is that scent lodges itself largely in the long-term memory system of the brain. And yet, we remain inept at mapping those links and associative chains when it comes to describing smells and their emotional echoes. To shed light on how perfumery plays into this paradox, Ackerman offers a taxonomy of the basic types of natural smells and how they became synthetically replicated, unleashing an intimate dance of art, science, and commerce:

All smells fall into a few basic categories, almost like primary colors: minty (peppermint), floral (roses), ethereal (pears), musky (musk), resinous (camphor), foul (rotten eggs), and acrid (vinegar). This is why perfume manufacturers have had such success in concocting floral bouquets or just the right threshold of muskiness or fruitiness. Natural substances are no longer required; perfumes can be made on the molecular level in laboratories. One of the first perfumes based on a completely synthetic smell (an aldehyde) was Chanel No. 5, which was created in 1922 and has remained a classic of sensual femininity. It has led to classic comments, too. When Marilyn Monroe was asked by a reporter what she wore to bed, she answered coyly, “Chanel No. 5.” Its top note — the one you smell first — is the aldehyde, then your nose detects the middle note of jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, orris, and ylang-ylang, and finally the base note, which carries the perfume and makes it linger: vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, civet, and musk. Base notes are almost always of animal origin, ancient emissaries of smell that transport us across woodlands and savannas.

And so we get to the actual science of smell — what actually makes us have an olfactory experience, and why we often confuse those with taste:

We need only eight molecules of a substance to trigger an impulse in a nerve ending, but forty nerve endings must be aroused before we smell something. Not everything has a smell: only substances volatile enough to spray microscopic particles into the air. Many things we encounter each day — including stone, glass, steel, and ivory — don’t evaporate when they stand at room temperature, so we don’t smell them. If you heat cabbage, it becomes more volatile (some of its particles evaporate into the air) and it suddenly smells stronger. Weightlessness makes astronauts lose taste and smell in space. In the absence of gravity, molecules cannot be volatile, so few of them get into our noses deeply enough to register as odors. This is a problem for nutritionists designing space food. Much of the taste of food depends on its smell; some chemists have gone so far as to claim that wine is simply a tasteless liquid that is deeply fragrant. Drink wine with a head cold, and you’ll taste water, they say. Before something can be tasted, it has to be dissolved in liquid (for example hard candy has to melt in saliva); and before something can be smelled, it has to be airborne. We taste only four flavors: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. That means that everything else we call “flavor” is really “odor.” And many of the foods we think we can smell we can only taste. Sugar isn’t volatile, so we don’t smell it, even though we taste it intensely. If we have a mouthful of something delicious, which we want to savor and contemplate, we exhale; this drives the air in our mouths across our olfactory receptors, so we can smell it better.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.' Click image for more.

The rest of A Natural History of the Senses is just as fascinating a read, diving deeper into the mysteries and miracles of smell and our other sensory faculties. Complement it with Ackerman’s A Natural History of Love and her impossibly wonderful love letter to the Solar System, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2013

Famous Authors’ Hand-Drawn Self-Portraits and Reflections on the Divide Between the Private Person and the Writerly Persona

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“Only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.”

“It is to my other self, to Borges, that things happen… I live, I agree to go on living, so that Borges may fashion his literature,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his famous essay “Borges and I,” eloquently exploring our shared human tendency to disintegrate into multiple personas as our public and private selves slip in and out of different worlds. In 1996, Daniel Halpern asked 56 of our era’s most celebrated writers to reflect on Borges’s memorable meditation and contribute their own thoughts on the relationship between the person writing and the fictional persona of the writer. The resulting short essays, alongside hand-drawn self-portraits from each author — a recurring theme today — are gathered in Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library), a priceless addition to this omnibus of famous writers’ timeless wisdom on the craft.

Edward Albee

Cynthia Ozick

Diane Ackerman

Poet Diane Ackerman, whose timelessly beautiful cosmic poems never cease to stir, speaks to our multiple coexisting inner selves and the fluidity of human personality:

Selves will accumulate when one isn’t looking, and they don’t always act wisely or well.

True to her essay’s title, “Diane Ackerman and I,” she playfully turns to the third person to further explore how this notion played out in her own life, while touching on a great many human universalities:

It was only in her middle years that she began to notice how her selves had been forming layer upon layer, translucent like skin; and, like skin, they were evolving a certain identifiable “fingerprint” — a weather system of highs and lows, loops and whirls.

[…]

Older, what she craved was to be ten or twelve selves, each passionately committed to a different field — a dancer, a carpenter, a composer, an astronaut, a miner, etc. Some would be male, some female, and all of their sensations would feed back to one central source. Surely then she would begin to understand the huge spill of life, if she could perceive it from different view points, through simultaneous lives.

[…]

She thinks a lot about the pageant of being human — what it senses, loves, suffers, thrills like — while working silently in a small room, filling blank sheets of paper. It is a solitary mania. But there are times when, all alone, she could be arrested for unlawful assembly.

Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin echoes the same sentiment:

When the Queen of England speaks in the first person plural, it sounds marvelously schizoid, and probably is for her a deep embarrassment. When an American politician has gone around the bend, he begins to refer to himself in the third person. All people feel that they are more than one. Even an Eskimo who returns from the ice to sit in the shadows inside an igloo must sometimes ask himself what the hunt has done to him, must wonder why his tenderness with his children takes so long to flood back after his sinews have been bent and frozen hard in the chase. It happens to everyone and to all of us, and only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.

And yet he has mastered that private integration that keeps his own multiple selves together:

However many of me there are, I have managed to fuse them into one. I cannot tell myself apart any more than the heavily breathing fox hiding under branches or in brush perceives in the mirror of his wide and alert eye a new dainty self or a different sad self or an admirably reflective self.

Margaret Atwood

In an essay titled “Me, She, and It,” Margaret Atwood — a woman of strong opinions about the problems of literature and its how-to’s — pokes at the common, flawed trope of the writerly persona as a separate, superior entity to the writer’s person:

Why do authors wish to pretend they don’t exist? It’s a way of skinning out, of avoiding truth and consequences. They’d like to deny the crime, although their fingerprints are allover the martini glasses, not to mention the hacksaw blade and the victim’s neck. Amnesia, they plead. Epilepsy. Sugar overdose. Demonic possession. How convenient to have an authorial twin, living in your body, looking out through your eyes, pushing pen down on paper or key down on keyboard, while you do what? File your nails?

Noting her own embodiment of this dichotomy, she admonishes:

A projection, a mass hallucination, a neurological disorder — call her what you will, but don’t confuse her with me.

Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles shares a similar sentiment in his essay titled “Bowles and It”:

What is this curious assumption, widely shared … that while writing, a writer can identify himself as one who is writing? The consciousness of oneself as oneself causes a short circuit, and the light goes out.

If I am writing fiction, I am being invented. I cannot retain any awareness of identity. The two states of being are antithetical. The author is not at a steering wheel: “I am driving this car. I command its movements. I can make it go wherever I please.” This assertion of identity is fatal; the writing at that point becomes meaningless.

Frank Bidart

Frank Bidart bleeds into the existential:

We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.

He considers fiction as the mechanism of this perpetuum mobile of self-transformation:

Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.

Paula Fox

In a short essay titled “Path,” Paula Fox rebels against this meta-awareness of the writer’s writing:

I cannot write of writing. To be at work, to write, must exclude thoughts about writing or about myself as a writer. To consider writing, to look at myself as a writer, holds for one sober moment, then plunges me into a tangle of misery that Cesare Pavese describes in his diary: “This terrible feeling that what you do is all wrong, so is what you think, what you are!”

It all suggests to me Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which states that you can either know where a thing is or how fast it is moving — but not both simultaneously. The warring self disappears into the self-less concentration of work. Imagination is conjunctive and unifying; the sour, habitual wars of the self are disjunctive and separating.

When I begin a story at my desk, the window to my back, the path is not there. As I start to walk, I make the path.

Ward Just

Exploring his own inner duality, Ward Just indulges a play on his name:

The Just and the unJust inhabiting the same body, so close you can’t pry us apart, but we are not friends. He speaks, I edit. He plays, I work. He is famously convivial, I am a recluse. And at the end of the evening, when I’m exhausted and yearning for bed, knowing there’s an assignment to complete, he stays on, anything to keep me in the closet a little longer. And when the inevitable question comes, he answers it with aplomb, holding his glass —

Don’t mind if I do.

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus, in an essay titled “The Fertile ‘We’ of One Chaste ‘I,’” considers the “inward, unsure, tender, professional empathizer” of the writer’s private self, in such stark contrast with his carefully constructed public persona:

What interests me about my own work and character is not the solid, admirable, good-nurse, self-motivated persona that I simulate toward Frans Hals warmth in scholarly talks, in photographs taken during charity banquets. That guy is about as real as his tweed jacket’s suede elbow patches and about that necessary. It’s Lint Man I’m a slave for. Poor dweeb hasn’t had a date since 1965; and hasn’t regretted that since January 1972.

He, the true writer, is the department store dummy at the very center of the whole establishment, the one left alone on display all night, a price tag stapled to every piece of clothing they’ve yanked onto him, binoculars and frog flippers included. He is the neutral, generic human form, the gray center who must always assume disguises — in order to be seen and, therefore, to feel himself.

And yet it’s “Lint Man” Gurganus relishes:

How lavish and how Godlike is Lint Man’s open-endedness. Lint Man’s specificity.

He ends on a somewhat solemn note:

The chances of achieving literary performance are, to the decimal point, the odds against becoming fully human.

That means one hundred and fifty million to one.

Which means one hundred and fifty million in one.

Ed Koren

Children’s book author and New Yorker cover artist Ed Koren offers his contribution in the medium of his forte:

Francine Prose

Francine Prose, who has taught us how to read like a writer, considers how to write like a writer in a meditation titled “She and I … and Someone Else”:

She never seems happier than when she is writing, when the work takes over, and the book (as she puts it, so unoriginally) seems to write itself. The characters are saying and doing things she hadn’t planned at all. What pleases her is that she isn’t there, she no longer feels herself present, and I…

Someone else is writing, and both she and I have vanished.

John Hawkes

John Hawkes writes:

Some time ago I discovered that I could no longer speak aloud or read aloud from a stage, even for the sake of hearing the effect that my writer’s voice produced on listeners. Now, curiously, the more I merely try to live, the more reclusive I become, the vainer I am. At last I am as vain as the one who instantly voices his silence inside me.

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller considers the disconnect between the writer-person and the byline-persona:

I know Arthur Miller, but not “Arthur Miller” or Arthur Miller or “Miller.” About twenty-five years ago the Romanian government banned all “Miller” plays as pornographic. Privately I was very pleased, having admired Henry Miller’s work for a long time. Two theaters were in the midst of producing plays of mine and were forced to cancel them. Did this make me — slightly — Henry Miller? Or him — slightly — Arthur Miller?

He adds:

A book, a poem, a play — they start as fantasms but they end up as things, like a box of crackers or an automobile tire.

Edna O'Brien

Edna O’Brien offers a refreshing, poetic take on the old artist-muse relationship:

The other me, who did not mean to drown herself, went under the sea and remained there for a long time. Eventually she surfaced near Japan and people gave her gifts but she had been so long under the sea she did not recognize what they were. She is a sly one. Mostly at night we commune. Night. Harbinger of dream and nightmare and bearer of omens which defy the music of words. In the morning the fear of her going is very real and very alarming. It can make one tremble. Not that she cares. She is the muse. I am the messenger.

John Updike

John Updike, writing a decade before his death — a subject whose relationship with writing he once explored with such poignancy — considers the dissociation between the constructed Writer and the living person a sort of useful psychological buffer:

I created Updike out of the sticks and mud of my Pennsylvania boyhood, so I can scarcely resent it when people, mistaking me for him, stop me on the street and ask me for his autograph. I am always surprised that I resemble him so closely that we can be confused.

[…]

The distance between us is so great that the bad reviews he receives do not touch me, though I treasure his few prizes and mount them on the walls and shelves of my house, where they instantly yellow and tarnish.

[…]

Suppose, some day, he fails to show up? I would attempt to do his work, but no one would be fooled.

Max Apple

Elmore Leonard

Alice Hoffman

Frank Conroy

Henry Roth

Though Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits is, regrettably, out of print, used copies can — and should — be tracked down for guaranteed enjoyment. Complement it with an entirely different kind of self-portrait.

Thanks, Kaye!

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19 FEBRUARY, 2013

Cosmic Pastoral: Diane Ackerman’s Poems for the Planets, Which Carl Sagan Sent Timothy Leary in Prison

By:

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

On February 19, 1974, shortly before visiting Timothy Leary in prison, Carl Sagan sent the psychedelic pioneer a letter discussing evolution, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the details of the upcoming visit. The postscript read:

P.S. The enclosed poem, ‘The Other Night’ by Dianne Ackermann [sic] of Cornell, is something I think we both resonate to. It’s unfinished so it shouldn’t yet be quoted publically.

But the poem was eventually finished and, along with fourteen others, included in Diane Ackerman’s 1976 poetry anthology The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (public library) — a whimsical and wonderful ode to the universe, celebrating its phenomena and featuring a poem for each planet in the Solar System, as well as one specifically dedicated to Carl Sagan.

From “Venus”:

Low-keyed and perpetual,
a whirling sylph
whose white robe stripes
around her; taffeta
wimpled like a nun’s headcloth;
a buxom floozy with a pink boa;
mummy, whose black
sediment desiccates within; wasp-star
to Mayan Galileos;
an outpatient
wrapped in post-operative gauze;
Cleopatra in high August–
her flesh curling
in a heat mirage
lightyears
from Alexandria;
tacky white pulp
spigoted
through the belly of a larva;
the perfect courtesan:
obliging, thick-skinned,
and pleated with riddles,

Venus quietly mutates
in her ivory tower.

Deep within that
libidinous albedo
temperatures are hot enough
to boil lead,
pressures
90 times more unyielding
than Earth’s.
And though layered cloud-decks
and haze strata
seem to breathe
like a giant bellows,
heaving and sighing
every 4 days,
the Venerean cocoon
is no cheery chrysalis
brewing a damselfly
or coaxing life
into a reticent grub,
but a sniffling atmosphere
40 miles thick
of sulphuric, hydrochloric,
and hydrofluoric acids
all sweating
like a global terrarium,
cutthroat, tart, and self-absorbed.
No sphagnum moss
or polypody fern here,
where blistering vapors
and rosy bile
hint at the arson
with which the Universe began.

Hubble Space Telescope photograph taken within minutes of Mars' closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, on Aug. 27, 2003. Click images for more

From “Mars”:

The quickest route
from Candor to Chaos
follows Coprates
(the much-travelled
Shit River), through
da Vinci and Galileo
bypassing Bliss,
many moons from Tranquility.
But, Romantics, take heart:
you can breakfast
in Syria, lunch in Sinai,
track the Nile
to its source (Nilokeras)
before dinner, and there,
making ablutions to Osiris,
win a boon to Eden,
where all four rivers
of Paradise converge,
then spend the night
in Pandora, or with Ulysses,
Proteus, or even Noah,
in the Land of Gold (Chryse)
or by the Leek-green Sea.

From “The Other Night (Comet Kohoutek)”:

Last night, while
cabbage stuffed with
brown sugar, meat and
raisins was baking in the
oven, and my potted holly,
dying leafmeal from red-spider,
basked in its antidote malathion,
I stepped outside to watch Kohoutek
passing its dromedary core through the
eye of a galaxy. But only found a white
blur cat-napping under Venus: gauzy, dis-
solute, and bobtailed as a Manx.

Pent-up in that endless coliseum of stars,
the moon was fuller than any Protestant
had a right to be. And I said: Moon,
if you’ve got any pull up there, bring me
a sun-grazing comet, its long hair swept
back by the solar wind, in its mouth a dollop
of primordial sputum. A dozing iceberg,
in whose coma ur-elements collide. Bring me
a mojo that’s both relict and reliquary.
Give me a thrill from that petrified seed.

Mars was a stoplight in the north sky,
the only real meat on the night’s black
bones. And I said: Mars, why be parsimonious?
You’ve got a million tricks stashed
in your orbital backhills: chicory suns
bobbing in viridian lagoons; quasars dwindling
near the speed of light; pinwheel, dumbbell,
and impacted galaxies; epileptic nuclei
a mile long; vampiric moons; dicotyledon suns;
whorling dustbowls of umbilical snow; milky ways
that, on the slant, look like freshly fed pythons.

From “Diffraction (for Carl Sagan)”:

When Carl tells me it’s Rayleigh scattering
that makes blue light, canting off molecular

grit, go slowgait through the airy jell, subdued,
and outlying mountains look swarthy, or wheat

blaze tawny-rose in the 8:00 sun, how I envy
his light touch on Earth’s magnetic bridle.

Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken
by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain

everythingness of everything, in cahoots
with the everythingness of everything else.

Echoing Richard Feynman’s views on science and mystery, Ackerman writes of her poetry:

I’ve always been baffled by people who write about nature only in terms of, say, junipers and cornfields, eschewing all things so-called ‘scientific,’ as if science were, per se, the spoil-sport of feeling. So wonderless a view of nature really doesn’t appeal to me; I don’t see the Universe divided up that way, into ‘The Junipers’ on the one hand and ‘The Amino Acids’ on the other.

So how did Sagan know of Ackerman? Most likely, through his second wife — the author photograph on the back of The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral was taken by artist and writer Linda Salzman Sagan, whom Carl married in 1968. The two divorced in 1981, after Sir Sagan fell in love with Annie Druyan in the course of creating the Voyager Golden Record, which Linda co-produced. Cosmic love, it seems, is always a little more complicated than the poets might wish us to believe.

Complement with the first poem published in a scientific journal, which actually turned out not to be the first.

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