The Story Turns Out: The Civilization of Smells, by Robert Muchembled

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"Allegory of sight and smell" (detail), by Jan Brueghel the Elder, circa 1618. - Photo credits: © Luisa Ricciarini / Leemage

DOSSIER - Historians try to renew their discipline by focusing on sensations and representations through the centuries.

DOSSIER - Historians try to renew their discipline by focusing on sensations and representations throughout the centuries.

The story of intimacy, especially sensibilities, is now very popular. It corresponds to the crisis of the university history that it hopes to renew, not without difficulty. From the 1970s, the collapse of quantitative history first gave more space to social history, then, with the end of Marxism, to a cultural history whose interests were increasingly wide, not to say eclectic. Historical discipline has shifted away from certain areas that saturate the media, such as economic or political issues (included in the faculties of economics and law), in favor of objects that are more and more individual and particular. If this approach can surprise, on a heuristic level, it arouses a craze among a part of the readership. The bookstore successes of Alain Corbin's books demonstrate this. There is undoubtedly a real appetite for this genre which corresponds well to the hyperindividualism of our time. We are less and less interested in big stories (and this is sometimes very happy given the disasters of certain ideologies) and the curiosities are now about the individual, his impressions, his smells, his feelings, his private life. wider. We want to know how our ancestors lived their feelings.

This type of story is not as revolutionary as one would like to believe. The school of Annals had already launched the main themes as early as the 1930s. The scarcity of sources of intimacy had posed certain obstacles. All these reserves have shattered. We do not hesitate any more to launch from now on the assault of all the domains of the intimate, some achievements being original, even very original, like the fascinating work of Alain Corbin, others more questionable. What about the contribution of a history of orgasm, fart, droppings, etc.?

This historical approach to intimacy is not without raising other more "political" debates. It touches on sometimes very complex issues, such as sex and more broadly of the genre. It also gives certain comfortable and contestable certainties: the risky exploitation of the neurosciences, which reject the idea of ​​an irrationality of sensations, allows some to call into question the work of Norbert Eliasaccording to which civilization would be a long process of repression of emotions. Convenient mutation: in the end, the explosion of our contemporary irrationalities would no longer be the proof of a regression but a simple evolution among others. In a word, everything is going well, Madame la Marquise.

"Henry IV and Louis XIV stank horribly feet"

Robert Muchembled

All these debates are ultimately interesting, but sometimes they end up running in circles. What does this example teach us? Civilization of smells by the historian Robert Muchembled, author of an interesting history of civil society? A lot of anecdotes. "Henry IV and Louis XIV stank horribly," writes our author. Important revelation, no one will deny it, immediately confronted with another affirmation which better summarizes the whole work but which may seem contradictory with the previous idea, since the author recalls that "the smells are always eminently social. (...) Because the perception of a scent by the individual is not innate ". And to add a few lines further: "The French of the Renaissance lived in a horribly stinking environment without showing any repulsion towards their droppings or their urine." Of two things one. Were people of the time sensitive or not to the smells of others? How then to conclude that Henri IV stank under the "lax" criteria of his time?

This approach through the history of fields traditionally associated with literature or philosophy poses a final question. There is undeniably a history of the representation of the body that can even be very instructive. We do not consider with the same veneration the body in the ancient epoch, in the time of Descartes, or today when the eulogy of the body became the corollary of the apology of the subject. But can one, on the other hand, engage in a history of the images of the body, as if the human body were only an image? Is there not a door open to absolute relativism, a form of constructivism, which would suggest that there would be no body outside of culture?

- Photo Credits: The Beautiful Letters

One can finally wonder what all these works can bring us from deeply new. These stories of foot smells, for example, are not part of a preoccupation with micro-history, very popular in the 1970s, but which ends up being a little repetitive, especially after the works ofAlain Corbin on this issue of smell, especially Miasma and Daffodil (even if it covers a little more restricted period)? The process seems in some cases a little worn to the rope. This is the case of the history of sexuality, love, the couple, etc.

Especially since the approach of the intimate can not fail to give a necessarily large part to literary history and the novel. Because many areas of intimacy escape the classical historical discipline. It is interesting to note Alain Corbin's confession, in the interview below, a very instructive admission for the historical community, always obsessed with archives: "I spent forty years in archives, especially departmental. Well, not everything is there. "And this is not a conclusion that is limited to the stories of the intimate. Whoever has worked on issues of state secrets knows that some rogue pacts do not appear in the archives. Must we renounce to ignore them, never to speak of them on the pretext that the historian evokes only what is in the archives? Obviously no. It would be a blind vision of history. For all that, the method of historians of sensitivities remains very narrowly limited and may sometimes seem questionable. Could one, to be understood, imagine writing the history of state secrets with the only novels of James Ellroy?



"The Civilization of Odors" by Robert Muchembled, Les Belles Lettres, 269 pp., 25,50 €.

Source: The Story Turns Out: The Civilization of Smells, by Robert Muchembled

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