In 1989 Sarah van Lamsweerde came to Amsterdam to pursue an education in dance. The academy at the time was a dramatic cluster of merging, adapting, and dissolving schools of dance and theatre. Against this backdrop she met Jan Hessels. As a dance teacher he left an indelible impression on Van Lamsweerde, his moves and particularly his exciting scent. Four years later, Jan Hessels died of an AIDS-related illness at the age of thirty-one. In the archives of the former Theatre Institute she searched for remnants of his life. She found few, perhaps because of his young death. In an attempt to recreate his scent she tried to verbalize it in a conversation with perfumer Liza Witte. These whimsical, imprecise exchanges are captured in Sightless Seeing #5: Jan Hessels 1989, a scented booklet honoring Jan Hessels, his scent, and the scent of Van Lamsweerde’s entrance into the Amsterdam dance scene of the nineties.

It is common knowledge that smell is linked to memory. Scents can evoke lengthy anecdotes about precious or unsavory moments, detailed descriptions of past experiences. Yet it seems to be extremely hard to describe a smell itself. Kant scribbled in the margins of one of his manuscripts “Smell does not allow itself to be described,” and Hans Henning, psychologist and author of Der Geruch (1916), explained that “olfactory abstraction is impossible.”1

Its complex relation to language is perhaps a result of the bond between speech and smell, traveling through air, inextricably linked, ungraspable, and pervasive at the same time. It is suggested that the direct pathway of smell into the brain causes both the lack of words for odors and the forcefulness of the memories that are sparked by them. However, these ideas about the human incapacity for describing olfactory sensations are contradicted by vocabularies of smell across space and time. The lexicon of the nomadic Maniq, living in the south of Thailand, is rich and full of abstract terms for smell,2 and the world of the Ongee living on the Andaman Islands is constituted by smell. “How is your nose?” is how the Ongee greet friends, and if an Ongee says “me” she points to her nose.3 In earlier times, German philosophical mystic Jacob Böhme (1575–1624) used sensual terms like tastes and smells to describe a higher reality.4 Although the hierarchy of the senses with vision at the top seems self-evident, these examples suggest that it is not.

In western culture, smell is the mysterious sense, and often poorly understood and underestimated. In recent studies it is found that the human nose is not inferior to the noses of dogs. Humans can perceive one trillion different smells.5 The validity of this claim has been challenged, but what is certain is that the human sense of smell sometimes outperforms the olfactory abilities of so-called macrosmatic animals such as dogs, monkeys, and mice. That humans have a weak sense of smell is now considered a nineteenth-century myth.6 Humans can effortlessly track the scent of chocolate across an open field7 and are able to smell negative and positive emotions in other people.8 Smell is stark but unstable, including in how it is perceived. A smell that arouses negative emotions in a person can at another time arouse positive emotions in that same person. And yet our response to smells is often strong, immediate, and free from doubt. It’s all so confusing.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing takes us in her book on a journey to “the end of the world,” where the matsutake, a smelly and extremely valuable wild mushroom, thrives in human-disturbed forests in Asia, Europe, and North America.9 She describes how “the smell of matsutake transformed her in a physical way,” how she at first had to throw her own cooked matsutake meal in the trash, because the overwhelming smell of the mushrooms repelled her, and how, over time, the smell progressively began to delight her, until the moment when a whiff of matsutake made her happy. Tsing also notices the elusive and pervasive nature of smell. She defines smell as “a sign of the presence of another, to which we are already responding.” This instant response, this encounter that is already inside our body, ushers a transformation that is certain and unpredictable at the same time. Smell transforms us, without wavering, in an indeterminate way.

The thought that “smell is the presence of another in ourselves” is maybe fundamental to Van Lamsweerde’s longing to reconstruct the smell of Jan Hessels. “Jan was a breath of fresh air,” she says in the booklet. His odor, which “lingered in space when he moved around,” infiltrated her body and breathed freshness into her. Tsing discusses the changes provoked by encounters with the matsutake mushroom, but also in the matsutake mushroom itself. The shape, taste, and smell of the mushroom are produced by a complex web of interactions. Encounters with industrial pines, oaks, humans, rock, disturbed landscapes, knives, and butter all form the mushroom in unexpected ways. A messed-up, eroded landscape is good for matsutake, while the touch of metal and butter ruins the taste.

The recreated scent of Jan Hessels is both an encounter and a translation of an absent encounter. His translated odor, coming from the booklet lying on my desk, is an encounter with Sarah van Lamsweerde’s memory of him that has become a scent in itself, an elusive scent of a memory that transforms me indeterminately in the here and now.
1. Ewelina Wnuk and Asifa Majid, “Olfaction in a Hunter-Gatherer Society: Insights from Language and Culture,” in Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society, 2012), 1155–60.
2. Wnuk and Majid, “Olfaction in a Hunter-Gatherer Society,” 1155.
3. Constance Classen, Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and across Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1993), 1.
4. Jacob Böhme, Werke: Morgenröte / De signatura rerum (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 2009 [1634]).
5. Caroline Bushdid et al., “Humans Can Discriminate More than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli,” Science 343, no. 6177 (March 2014): 1370–2.
6. John P. McGann, “Poor Human Olfaction Is a 19th-Century Myth,” Science 356, no. 6338 (May 2017): eaam 7263, DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7263.
7. Greg Miller, “Human Scent Tracking Nothing to Sniff At,” AAAS Science, December 18, 2006,
8. Jasper H. B. de Groot et al, “A Sniff of Happiness.” Psychological Science 26, no. 6 (April 2015): 684–700.
9. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015).

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