Before I invested in a car one of the most harrowing experiences I had to submit to daily was the rush-hour bus or metro. It wasn’t the waiting in line, the hideous crush of humanity, the standing for what seemed like hours that particularly distressed me, it was the smell. There is nothing quite so devastating as the stench of coagulating deodorants. People smelled like rancid chocolate. I especially remember the cumulative shock wave of Old Spice which made my nostrils crumple like newspaper. But that was only the men. The women were in another olfactory dimension entirely. The odor of wilted gardenia was omnipresent. I would stand beside pretty young women who stank like urinal pucks of rosewater, sandalwood and antiseptic. Others smelled like perambulating lemons, acrid, with a hint of Windex lingering about their persons. It was worse in the early mornings when people reeked like corpses doused with the failed discretion of embalming fluid. Now and then there would rise in the air a suspicion of fart fledged with the ethereal plumage of Chanel or Fabergé. That was how I knew these slumped unmoving forms were still alive.
I wonder what it is we are ashamed of. Is Old Spice the child of the New Testament? Is Lady Speed Stick the lineal descendant of Pauline theology? Do all these gels and applications confess to a secret contempt for the flesh as being somehow too primitive, too pagan, too animal, too unruly, too present? We enjoy our bodies too much to give them up. A passionate fling, a pneumatic eiderdown, coffee and oranges in a sunny chair (to quote Wallace Stevens), the long, easy, meditative, peristaltic flex of the bowels—who can deny such experiences are inherently pleasurable? Yet hundreds of years of Presbyterianism are not flung aside with a Belmondo shrug. When everything has been factored out by historical analysis, there remains the guilt. The old resentment of the body continues to rankle and fester but the intransigent love of the body persists with countervailing strength. From this tension, this conflict, the cosmetics industry has always profited.
Today we need no longer splash perfumes about indiscriminately to make up for the lack of sanitary facilities. Everybody in the civilized world can enjoy at least a simple ablution at almost any moment of the day or night. One might think if there ever were a time in which deodorants should appeal to nobody but perverts, it would be right now. Yet the opposite is the case. Could the reason be that as the manifold delights of the flesh become more and more available, the endocrinology of guilt abides with us even more tenaciously. Thus the deodorant explosion. We have bodies but we don’t have bodies. We become our own fragrant Gardens of Eden. We are the resurrected flesh promised by the Book of Revelation and the Koran.