I once accompanied a nature photographer on a hike through the southwestern foothills of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. He was observant and sparing with words, and made an excellent walking companion. We spent half an hour on our bellies next to a swamp so he could shoot a scarlet tanager. As we moved through a dense grove of pines, both of us noticed a sweetish smell, something like roast beef and red wine, in the warm air. The olfactory is the most primitive of the senses. Like dogs, we raised our snouts and sniffed. Compared to other species we hardly have a sense of smell, and yet scents move us profoundly, triggering memories and the flow of saliva. As we drew closer to its source, the smell thickened and grew oppressively less pleasant. In a clearing, lying on its side, was the hollowed-out carcass of a cow. The entrails and other organs were gone, and the animal’s abdomen was a cave of ribs and rotting flesh. Both of us gagged at the smell that a few moments earlier had been mildly pleasing. In Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in an entry dated Jan. 4, 1823, the poet observes:
“Omne ignotum pro magnifico. A dunghill at a distance sometimes smells like musk, and a dead dog like elder-flowers.”
The evidence of our senses is not always reliable. Walking the halls of an apartment building, where each unit contributes its own smells of cooking, and trying to identify their origins, can be treacherous. Is that cabbage? Fried fish? Pumpkin pie? A precise sensory analogy is reading Finnegans Wake. If we assume the text is English, we stumble at every syllable.
Coleridge’s Latin tag can be translated “everything unknown [is taken] as grand” or “everything unknown appears magnificent.” The source is Tacitus, Book 1 of Agricola. I prefer the translation by Alfred Church and William Brodribb in the Modern Library edition (edited by Moses Hadas): “the unknown always passes for the marvellous.” Boswell endorses the happy delusion and Johnson does not – a difference that neatly illustrates a defining division among men. Forty years before Coleridge, in a passage dated April 18, 1783, Boswell reports this exchange:
“JOHNSON. `Were I a country gentleman, I should not be very hospitable, I should not have crowds in my house.’ BOSWELL. `Sir Alexander Dick tells me, that he remembers having a thousand people in a year to dine at his house: that is, reckoning each person as one, each time that he dined there.’ JOHNSON. `That, Sir, is about three a day.' BOSWELL. `'How your statement lessens the idea.’ JOHNSON. `That, Sir, is the good of counting. It brings every thing to a certainty, which before floated in the mind indefinitely.’ BOSWELL. `But Omne ignotum pro magnifico est: one is sorry to have this diminished.’ JOHNSON. `'Sir, you should not allow yourself to be delighted with errour.’ BOSWELL. `Three a day seem but few.’ JOHNSON. `Nay, Sir, he who entertains three a day, does very liberally. And if there is a large family, the poor entertain those three, for they eat what the poor would get: there must be superfluous meat; it must be given to the poor, or thrown out.’”