Universiteit Leiden

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Jan van Dijkhuizen always has his nose in a book.
Elif Kırankaya

NWO grant to research scent language in seventeenth-century literature: 'God is like a scent'

When it comes to literature, people mostly talk about what characters see or hear. Rarely is it about what they smell. That’s a shame, thinks university lecturer Jan van Dijkhuizen. He has been awarded an Open Competition grant from NWO to expand academic knowledge about scent in literature, and to bring the subject back into the teaching of literature at secondary schools.

'There is something fleeing and elusive about scent,' Van Dijkhuizen begins. 'When you look at an object, you know exactly where it begins and ends in space. With a scent sensation, you can't pinpoint the contours of what you perceive, but you can be strongly affected by it.'

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, poets and playwrights were fascinated by this elusiveness. 'Nowadays we consider our sight especially important, but early modern people considered themselves much more “sniffing subjects”,' Van Dijkhuizen explains. 'For example, smell was seen as a way of describing and experiencing the divine. It is precisely the intangible and indefinable nature of that sense that makes it very suitable for explaining what it was like to have a spiritual experience.'

Lured by the scent of distant lands

Spiritual experiences were not the only thing for which scent proved a useful metaphor. Another phenomenon often described by smell was the colonialism that emerged during this period. Van Dijkhuizen: ‘Poets imagined the colonies as a world full of enticing smells, by which they were literally attracted. An example of this can be found with the poet Joost van den Vondel, who writes in 1638 about the visit of Maria de Medici, Queen Mother of France, to Amsterdam. At the East India House, she is served a kind of Indian rice table :

She tastes with great relish fragrant sticks of cinnamon,
The invigorating dish that Eastern fields give birth to.
She smells the fertility of the world's other regions.
The frankincense, balsam, myrrh, like sacred offerings,
Each in its place.

'Vondel is a tremendously fragrant author,' says Van Dijkhuizen. 'Here, for example, you see that by referring to frankincense and myrrh, he confers a religious aura on what was really a ruthless form of colonial exploitation. In his poem, smelling new, exotic scents becomes an almost divine experience. This is very interesting, because from examples like these you can reconstruct something of how early moderns related to colonialism.'

Computer model generates the examples

To generate those examples, Van Dijkhuizen is working with his colleague Lauren Fonteyn, a linguist at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL). 'Lauren has developed a model that is able to automatically identify mentions of smell (or other things) in a text and determine, for example, how they function in a sentence. For example, is smell the subject or the direct object? Is smell being used metaphorically? This method enables us to discover semantic patterns in early modern smell vocabulary (for example, particular metaphorical uses of smell) that are much more difficult to detect with more traditional methods.’ This should make it possible to map the different roles that scent played in early modern literary texts, Van Dijkhuizen expects. His project also builds on the Horizon 2020 Odeuropa project, led by Inger Leemans, which investigates scent as a form of heritage.

Reading with your nose

At the same time, Van Dijkhuizen wants to use the project to build a bridge to the teaching of contemporary literature in secondary schools. 'Together with teachers, poets, spoken word artists and scent artists, we are going to create a lesson series for secondary schools in which we unlock Dutch literature through scent,' he tells us, clearly enthusiastic about this plan.

 'Our aim is to make literary texts speak to students by examining how they engage with a bodily sensation that we all know. This approach in fact lends itself very well to delving more deeply into the texts, because it is not always easy to see how smell language in poem, novel or play works.' In addition, Van Dijkhuizen wants to use scent to trace strands in literary history. ‘For example, we link Vondel's poem to “Part-time fathers” by Mahat Arab, a spoken word artist who is also participating in the project. That poem is partly about how Mahat's father, who emigrated from Ethiopia, told him about the smell of death:

Once, a long time ago, a very, very long time ago
he told me about the smell of death.
And that that smell doesn't hang around here in Holland,
that here it is merely packed in refrigerators and in boxes and in letters from acquaintances,
that the smell of death, especially when in multiples, creeps up on your body,
that it does preparatory work, but that that's actually not unpleasant.

Van Dijkhuizen: ‘This poem is so strong; I’m concinved it will elicit some interesting reactions from secondary school students.’

The title of Van Dijkhuizen's project is ‘The Poetics of Olfaction in Early Modernity’ (POEM). The project focuses specifically on English and Dutch literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inger Leemans collaborata as academic adviser. Together with Lauren Fonteyn and Van Dijkhuizen,  she herself also supervises the PhD project that is an important part of POEM. This sub-project will be conducted by Lucy McGourty, who has just graduated from the Arts, Literature and Media research master's programme.

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