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Sense of smell

In my line of work, I go to a lot of restaurants, and the company often looks to me to choose something from the wine list. This is a mistake. I can't tell red from white with my eyes closed. But I look on this as a blessing, because I do like a glass of wine with dinner, and I can be satisfied with a $4 bottle.

I mention this because it helps explain why I have been so unfazed by my recent bout of anosmia. My wife made chili for dinner two weeks ago, and I asked her whether she had used a different recipe from the usual one — it seemed less spicy. She said she had not.

A few days later, I read in the paper that people who test positive for COVID-19 often lose their sense of smell, and a light went on. I contracted the virus in mid-March. It was, fortunately, a mild case. I felt fine within a couple of days. But I still can't smell.

It's not like what happens with ordinary flu, when your nose gets stuffed up. I can breathe fine. The virus seems to damage the olfactory receptors in the back of your nose. And they are affected to such an extent that even I have noticed.

Coffee doesn't smell good in the morning. It tastes like weak tea with milk. Bacon doesn't smell either. I know it's bacon because it's salty and crunchy and brown, but when it's on the stove there's no scent in the air.

Spring has come to Washington and we are all quarantined, so that's weird enough. But it also doesn't smell like spring. Viburnum and lilac, geranium and boxwood, cut grass, mulch, even dirt are welcome smells at the end of winter. But this year, nada.

Still, I have been reflecting, it could be worse. If I had to lose one of my senses, I'd pick smell over sight, hearing or touch. It isn't just because I wasn't very good at it even before the virus. I think it's because it has less to do with my relations with other people.

The enjoyment we get from our sense of smell is certainly wonderful. It makes food taste good. It stirs emotions, like the happiness we feel at the arrival of spring. It is intimately bound to autobiographical memory, as Proust famously reminded us. The smell of my parents' lake house transports me to my childhood summers as surely as the madeleines took Proust back to Combray.

But the sense is also peculiarly personal. You can't tell if I'm smelling something unless I tell you I am. In our culture, smell plays almost no role in interpersonal relations.

Sight, hearing and touch are the ways we connect with other people. We write, speak, sign and (before the coronavirus) hug. I could hardly do my job if I lost any of these senses. My relations with family and friends would be significantly impaired. I haven't kissed any of my grandchildren in the past month. It's been one of the most poignant deprivations of our isolation.

Life will surely be more bland if my sense of smell doesn't come back. Some of my memories (I'm not sure how many) will seem to be playing in black and white. I'll probably lose some weight. I don't know if my range of emotions will contract or if I'll just have to depend on other stimuli to stir them.

And maybe it's a sign that my interior life is dull to begin with, like my discernment in wines, but I would prefer suffering those deprivations to being cut off from the people I love and work with.

Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020