Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Nietzsche's Sense of Smell

May I be allowed to hazard a suggestion concerning one last trait in my character, which in my intercourse with other men has led me into some difficulties? I am gifted with a sense of cleanliness the keenness of which is phenomenal; so much so, that I can ascertain physiologically—that is to say, smell—the proximity, nay, the inmost core, the "entrails" of every human soul.... This sensitiveness of mine is furnished with psychological antennæ, wherewith I feel and grasp every secret: the quality of concealed filth lying at the base of many a human character which may be the inevitable outcome of base blood, and which education may have veneered, is revealed to me at the first glance. (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Why I Am So Wise 7, tr. Anthony Ludovici)

But we learn––might we say pungently?––that smell can be deceiving from the scene in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov in which the corpse of the devout Father Zosima is not, to the surprise of many who knew the holy man, miraculously spared from rotting and consequently stinking up the space around his coffin. Things are not always what they seem, as the saying goes...nor what they smell. 

Dostoevsky was, for Nietzsche, "the only psychologist . . . from whom I had something to learn" (Twilight of the Idols, Raids of an Untimely Man 45, tr. Richard Polt), but one wonders just how much he was willing to learn from someone who "goes against my deepest instincts" (Letter to Georg Brandes, November 20, 1888, in Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, tr. Christopher Middleton, Hackett 1996, p. 327). Whatever the case, no one seems to know whether Nietzsche read The Brothers Karamazov.

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