Rudyard Kipling wrote these well known olfactory lines:
Smells are surer than sounds or sightsThey are the opening stanza of the poem Lichtenberg. Set in South Africa during the Boer War, it’s about an Australian trooper who smells the blossoms of a tree called Golden Wattle and is reminded of his home in New South Wales.
To make your heart-strings crack—
They start those awful voices o’nights
That whisper, “Old man, come back!”
The lines are often used to defend the notion that smell is a predominantly emotional sense. (A notion that has been tremendously overplayed in my view. In What the Nose Knows I point out the major role that cognition—thinking, remembering, comparing, evaluating—plays in the psychology of smell.) Reading beyond the first lines, however, it is clear that Kipling’s theme was that smell creates a sense of place and thus becomes a trigger for memory and home sickness.
Kipling traveled widely and wrote about many places and cultures. So we are not surprised when he is cited as the author of this popular quotation:
The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.This aphorism is attributed to him in about a thousand places on the Web. Of course, repetition of a meme is no evidence of accurate citation. The fact that it shows up in carefully researched and edited books is more reassuring. The line is a popular epigraph to chapters in scholarly books. Tahir Shah uses it in Chapter 2 of In search of King Solomon’s mines (Arcade Publishing, 2003), as does James Mak in Chapter 6 of Tourism and the economy (University of Hawaii Press, 2004). Both authors cite Kipling as the source. Even more reassuring is Rosemarie Jarski, who attributes the line to Kipling in her reference compilation Words from the Wise: Over 6,000 of the Smartest Things Ever Said (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007, p. 447).
Yet something about this quote has always made the needle on my Bogosity Meter twitch a bit. It sounds too didactic and abstract for Kipling. Did he really write it? If so, where?
After a few hours of obsessive toil on the Internet, it becomes clear that no one quoting the line cites a specific poem, story, or novel by Kipling. The Bogosity Meter is showing levels not seen since the “happiness is a perfume” episode. I spend another hour in Google Books and then—paydirt! A lead worth tracking down in the real world.
Hunched over microfilm reader, deep in the bowels of the local campus library, I fast forward through a spool of Harper’s Magazine from 1942. I pause a moment to let the motion sickness pass, then advance slowly through the June issue to page 156. And there I find it, buried in a stuffy, convoluted, almost impenetrable essay titled “In praise of Kipling’s verse,” written by none other than T.S. Eliot.
For the masochists among you, here’s the line in context:
It should be said at this point, before passing on, that Kipling is not a doctrinaire or a man with a program. His opinions are not to be considered as the antithesis of those of Mr. H. G. Wells. Mr. Wells’s imagination is one thing and his political opinions another; the latter change but do not mature. But Kipling did not, in the sense in which that activity can be ascribed to Mr. Wells, think; his aim, and his gift, is to make people see (for the first condition of right thought is right sensation, the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it, as you smell India in Kim.) If you have seen and felt truly, then if God has given you the power you may be able to think rightly.So let’s see if I have this straight: Kipling’s gift is to make people see, which is why one must first smell a foreign country to understand it. Mixed metaphors, anyone? Is it just me, or is T.S. Eliot the most over-rated windbag of his time?
OK. Case closed. Time to put the Bogosity Meter back in its box and go have a brewsky.