THERE ARE LESS scents in our lives now, and fewer opportunities to learn them. As the American philosopher 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 smells were neither the cause. nor the cure for disease. After that, we started to resist strong scents, as if resisting our more primitive animal selves. In increasingly crowded cities, we demand sanitized spaces, scent-free offices, free of any disturbing aroma that could betray our closeness to others, how crowded we are all. We have chosen to live in a cleaner, more empty world.
Yet incense sales increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, even as – or perhaps because – a number of us temporarily lost our sense of smell due to the virus (some did not). not yet found), suddenly making it precious. The desire to perfume the air we breathe may seem like a return to superstition, in the hope of keeping death at bay; but for those in quarantine, confined to the house, incense offered a sort of escape, opening up increasingly claustrophobic spaces and making them, if only for a moment, beautifully unknown.
There are fewer scents in our lives now, and fewer opportunities to learn them.
Incense today bears little resemblance to the New Age props of the 1970s or the perpetual patchouli fog in college dorms. Now the focus is on natural ingredients and Old World craftsmanship sustained over time – as well as proper compensation for it, via fair trade producers, such as with the dark and sturdy sticks of the resin. Breu from the Amazon rainforest, imported by the Brooklyn-based company. Incausa from Brazil, owner’s country of origin, and hand-rolled twisted incense cords in Nepal, sold by Catherine Rising in Rochester, NY The delicate incense sticks from Parisian house Astier de Villatte are made on the Japanese island of Awaji, in the way artisans have made them for generations, from resins, woods and herbs crushed into a paste, kneaded and left to stand until the scent matures, then cut and dried in the westerly winds that sweep the ocean.
Modern incarnations, less linked to history, are explicitly posed as objects of design. Blackbird’s incense cones in Seattle are miniature monoliths – eerily symmetrical and evenly black no matter what their scent (among the selections is the vaguely eye-catching scent of whiskey and cigarettes after a dreary night). Cinnamon Projects in New York packs its lean sticks in black-top bottles and gold leaf-stamped boxes; you’re supposed to prop them up in shiny concave burners or skinny brass blocks designed with nowhere to catch the ashes. The online description is crisp: “Ashes fall where they can. “