THERE ARE FEWER scents in our lives now, and fewer opportunities to learn them. As the American philosophy scholar Larry Shiner writes in “Art Scents: Exploring the Aesthetics of Smell and the Olfactory Arts” (2020), advances in science in the 1860s and 1870s revealed that odors were neither the cause nor cure of sickness. After that, we began to resist powerful scents, as if resisting our more primitive, animal selves. In increasingly crowded cities, we demanded sanitized spaces, offices that banned perfume, free of any troubling aroma that might betray our proximity to others, how closely we’re all packed in. We chose to live in a cleaner, emptier world.
Yet sales of incense rose during the Covid-19 pandemic, even as — or perhaps because — a number of us temporarily lost our sense of smell to the virus (with some having yet to regain it), making it abruptly precious. The desire to perfume the air we breathe might seem like a return to superstition, hoping to keep death at bay; but for those in quarantine, confined at home, incense offered a kind of escape, opening up increasingly claustrophobic spaces and rendering them, if only for a moment, beautifully unfamiliar.
There are fewer scents in our lives now, and fewer opportunities to learn them.
The incense of today bears little resemblance to the New Age accessories of the 1970s or the perpetual fog of patchouli in college dorms. Now there’s an emphasis on natural ingredients and Old World craftsmanship sustained over time — as well as proper compensation for it, via fair-trade producers, as with the dark, rugged sticks of Breu resin from the Amazon rainforest, imported by the Brooklyn-based Incausa from the owner’s home country of Brazil, and twisty ropes of incense rolled by hand in Nepal, sold by Catherine Rising in Rochester, N.Y. The delicate incense sticks of the Parisian house Astier de Villatte are made on the Japanese island of Awaji, in the way that artisans there have made them for generations, from resins, woods and herbs crushed into paste, kneaded and left to rest until the scent ripens, then cut and dried in the western winds that sweep off the ocean.
Modern incarnations, less bound to history, are explicitly posed as design objects. The incense cones of Blackbird in Seattle are monoliths in miniature — eerily symmetrical and uniformly black, whatever their fragrance (among the selections is the vaguely hung-over scent of whiskey and cigarettes after a bleary night). Cinnamon Projects in New York packs its skinny sticks in black-corked vials and boxes stamped with gold foil; you’re meant to prop them up in lustrous concave burners or lean blocks of brass designed with nowhere to catch the ash. The online description is crisp: “The ash falls where it may.”