Smell, Sense of

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Throughout his writings, Sigmund Freud made explicit reference to the role of the sense of smell in mental sexuality. "Olfactory substances...are disintegrated products of the sexual metabolism. . . . At time of menstruation and of other sexual processes the body produces an increased number of these substances and therefore of these stimuli," he wrote to Wilhelm Fliess on January 1, 1896. Later, in his "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905d), he added that the repression of a coprophilic olfactory pleasure governs fetish choice: "Both the feet and the hair are objects with a strong smell which have been exalted into fetishes after the olfactory sensation has become unpleasurable and has been abandoned" (p. 155, note 3).

This inhibition of the sense of smell in humans, under the sign of the repression of the pleasure that it can bring, can play a major role in the development of certain neuroses; this is what Freud maintained in the case of the "Rat Man," recorded in "Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis" (1909d). "The 'organic' repression of smell is also a factor in civilization," he told his students at the Psychoanalytic Society of Vienna in a lecture delivered on November 17, 1909. Soon thereafter, in "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love" (1912d), he posited this as a consequence of the fact that the human sensory organ had been raised up off the ground with the appearance of the upright stance. The coprophilic instinctual components then became incompatible with the esthetic demands of human civilization. He further elaborated this line of thought in "Civilization and Its Discontents" (1930a), where he speculated that the role of the olfactory sensations "was taken over by visual excitations, which, in contrast to the intermittent olfactory stimuli, were able to maintain a permanent effect. The taboo on menstruation is derived from this 'organic repression', as a defence against a phase of development that has been surmounted" (p. 99, note 1).

Dominique J. Arnoux

See also: Coprophilia.


Freud, Sigmund (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

. (1912d). On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love. SE, 11: 177-190.

. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

. (1950a). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

. (1950c [1895]). The origins of psychoanalysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes: 1887-1902. (Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris, Eds.; Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey, Trans.) New York: Basic Books, 1954.

Nunberg, Hermann, and Federn, Ernst. (1962-1975). Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. New York: International Universities Press.