Patrick Süskind

Start Free Trial

Robert Schwarz (review date autumn 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Schwarz, Robert. Review of Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders, by Patrick Süskind. World Literature Today 59, no. 4 (autumn 1985): 587.

[In the following review, Schwarz summarizes the plot and themes of Das Parfum, comparing the novel to the works of Günter Grass and Marcel Proust.]

In eighteenth-century Paris the illegitimate urchin Grenouille, endowed with a spectacular sense of smell, hires himself to a rich perfume maker [in Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders]. His innate genius at identifying and creating fragrances from memory would make him famous, but he cares nothing for riches or prestige. His is the kind of inborn genius which feeds on itself, not unlike Mozart's music or Rembrandt's painting. His self-contained, misanthropically self-sufficient, and totally introverted personality, devoid of all feelings and morality, always at war with the world, makes Oskar in The Tin Drum seem a normal, gregarious lad by comparison. Grenouille's unique olfactory fantasies and reminiscences would put a Proust to shame. His inexhaustible talent for conceiving ever-new aromatic combinations and concoctions fills out his whole life. Grenouille (i.e., “the frog”) is the perfect idiot savant, bereft of ethical impulses, a wizard of aroma.

After Paris, he moves to the South of France, where he at first spends seven years as a recluse, then reenters the world of human beings, determined to find fulfillment by finding the ultimate, absolute olfactory experience. This he achieves by killing twenty-five girls whose body odors he distills, thus creating a unique fragrance. With this deed he accomplishes his final aim in life, his personal “salvation.”

Sick? Yes, for Grenouille is a monstrous pervert and fetishist, a moral Neanderthal, whose nose, rather than mind or heart, dictates his life. His pathological single-mindedness is frightening. However, this is also a thrilling and formidable novel about an almost wholly unexplored subject: the dynamics of that stepchild among sense organs, the nose. Süskind writes with a cool hand and is always in control. (He also throws in a free course on the chemistry of perfumery.) One can see Grenouille as an object of Freudian interest but also as a Mephistophelian disciple of de Sade. Can one, at the end of the novel (which shall not be revealed in this review), still say with the philosopher, “Nothing human is alien to me”?

Ruth Baumgarten (review date 26 September 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Baumgarten, Ruth. “Sugar and Spice.” New Statesman 112, no. 2896 (26 September 1986): 34.

[In the following review, Baumgarten evaluates the metaphorical use of the sense of smell in Perfume.]

Patrick Süskind's first novel [Perfume] comes here accompanied by the full blast of its publisher's fanfares. These announce it as the new Umberto Eco, a ‘serious’ (continental) historical novel meeting equally with critical rapture and middle-brow mass appeal. In the year since its domestic publication it hasn't budged once from the German bestseller chart.

But where the appeal of Eco's Name of the Rose lay in its complex twisting of detective plot with theological and political debates and history lessons, Süskind's novel looks more like an attempt to flesh a pun out into an allegory. In German, the expression ‘I can't smell x’ is common parlance for disliking somebody. Süskind's novel charts the progress of the fictional, French, 18th-century parfumier Jean Baptiste Grenouille, whose body from birth doesn't give any odour off at all. Nobody can smell him. Not even he can smell himself.

Born into an almost unbelievably smelly Paris, where rotting meat and vegetables blend into the stench of unwashed bodies, chamberpots and a multitude of stinking artisans' yards, Grenouille does indeed stand out. But, as though to compensate for...

(This entire section contains 545 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

his own unsmellability, his sense of smell is magically overdeveloped. Grenouille can smell money through walls, can identify people in an adjacent room and find his way in the blackest night guided by his nose alone. His nose also shows him the way out of a miserable, unloved slum-childhood into an apprenticeship with Paris' most famous parfumier. But only when—by chance—he finds the perfect scent, that of a pubescent girl stoning plums, does he discover his true vocation and the meaning of his life: to find a way to recreate and preserve beauty as an odour.

In order to capture the smell of young girls—which Süskind, with no outstanding originality, elevates to the incarnation of beauty—Grenouille has to kill them first. And this is where Süskind's bewitchingly simple idea comes unstuck. Süskind hasn't thought through how the sense of smell could work as a metaphor not only for the invisible ties which link human beings, and thus make them aware of themselves, but also as a metaphor for any artistic production. The sense of smell under-used and under-rationalised in the business of daily orientation could indeed illuminate how the arts step back from the world and re-engage with it, recreating it entirely with the confines of one single faculty: hearing, vision or speech.

Instead Süskind has opted for a historical fantasy with a hit-or-miss plot which only now and then picks out aspects of its subject matter, relishing rather the plunge into an imaginary past's everyday smells. The novel truly comes to life when it can pretend to be part of this past, describing the crowded, still mediaeval Pont Neuf in Paris with its wealth of trades almost unthinkable in our days of streamlined production.

That this baroque world of sensual thrills yields nothing better than young girls and May mornings as images of beauty is unfortunately in keeping with the novel's love-love-me-do morality, teaching us that babies need cuddling, that power alone won't bring happiness.

Sara Terry (review date 10 December 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Terry, Sara. “Süskind's Novel of Scents and Sensibility.” Christian Science Monitor (10 December 1986): 28, 30.

[In the following review, Terry assesses the style and themes of Perfume, calling the novel a “fascinating exploration of the ‘essence’ of identity.”]

Long before this novel by Patrick Süskind hit bookstores—and best-seller lists—in the United States, word from across the Atlantic was that Perfume was a “major work” by a “brilliant” West German writer.

The superlatives may seem somewhat surprising considering that the object of the praise is a rather erudite historical novel. Its protagonist is a warped young man who is possessed of a phenomenal sense of smell, yet—and this twist, even more surprisingly, is what actually propels the gruesome plot—has no odor himself. Certainly not your average best-seller material.

But Mr. Süskind has woven this unlikely tale into an original and compelling first novel. This is no Stephen King horror story. Süskind writes with a deliberate restraint—dwelling on few graphic details—as he unfolds a deeper message.

Perfume opens in 1738, in a smelly Parisian slum where Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born—and immediately abandoned by his mother. Early on, the baby proves to be unsettling to those around him: He has no odor.

Grenouille, however, has a sense of smell so acute that he recognizes and remembers millions of odors, virtually cataloging his life through scents. His existence is a miserable one, until the day he persuades a master perfumer to take him on as his apprentice. With an opportunity at long last to put his extraordinary sense of smell into action, Grenouille soon creates perfumes that captivate all of Paris.

But Grenouille leaves Paris to escape the odious smell and settles into seclusion in a mountain cave. There his final, maniacal plan to rule the world through the power of scent is triggered when Grenouille accidentally discovers for himself that he has no odor—and therefore, in his mind, no identity. When Grenouille finally pin-points the scent capable of inspiring the mesmeric love he wishes to command—the scent of young girls on the verge of womanhood—he pursues his murderous goal with chilling calculation.

On one level, Perfume is a fascinating exploration of the “essence” of identity. But on a deeper level, this is a story about the fraudulence of defining experience and self through the senses.

It is hardly a coincidence that Süskind has chosen to set his story in the 18th century's Age of Enlightenment, a period marked by the conviction that right reasoning would lead to true knowledge and happiness for humanity. In the course of the novel, Grenouille makes a mockery of the era's “men of science.”

Yet Süskind does not allow Grenouille the last laugh. In the final, unsettling scenes of Perfume, Süskind exposes Grenouille's mastery of sense, laying bare both the deceit and the emptiness of a life lived by sense alone.

Süskind's message is a powerful one. The stunning scene he sets in illustrating the power of Grenouille's perfume over a crowd of thousands is an obvious reference to Hitler. It is also a veiled warning to mankind today and an unspoken urging of the need for humanity to keep searching for a more profound and enduring enlightenment.

Robert Schwarz (review date autumn 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Schwarz, Robert. Review of Die Taube, by Patrick Süskind. World Literature Today 61, no. 4 (autumn 1987): 620.

[In the following review, Schwarz praises Süskind's “wonderful” and “profound” achievement in Die Taube.]

[In Die Taube,] Jonathan Noel, a fifty-year-old recluse, likes the uneventful life, the low profile, the security born of an unchanging daily routine. He abominates “making waves” and feels threatened by the slightest alteration of a self-imposed, dull protocol. Ever since certain youthful disasters sapped his personality juices, he had decided on stability and unswerving loyalty to a monotonous, solitary, diffident existence as his personal summum bonum. Jonathan carries this to such a pitch that, when one day a stray pigeon sits before his door, his whole life comes unhinged. The pigeon becomes a major crisis. To cope with it, he even moves to a hotel. Ironically, he works as a security guard for a Parisian bank. (The locale is again France, as in Süskind's larger novel, Das Parfum; see WLT 59:4, p. 587.)

Various episodes continue to rattle Jonathan. He is driven to an increasing sense of solipsism. Waking up in total darkness in a strange hotel room brings him to the verge of psychic bankruptcy. When he finally recaptures the sensation of the “real” world and the reality of other people, however, his despair fades and he returns to his apartment. The pigeon has been removed by the concierge; the world has not come to an end. Saved from despair and dementia, he resumes his well-regulated life, presumably still a “loner” but at least part of the human race—from Shakespeare's “That way madness lies” to Goethe's “Die Erde hat mich wieder,” so to speak.

What a wonderful, profound story, to be sure! Laying bare the soul of a lonely eccentric, as he did in Das Parfum, Süskind displays his great powers of prose. For those who like their novels rich in meaning and impressive in phraseology (and who would not?), his small novel, thin in size but bountiful in insight and wisdom, may be their personal “book of the year.”

John Sutherland (review date 12 November 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sutherland, John. “French Air.” London Review of Books 9, no. 20 (12 November 1987): 12-13.

[In the following review, Sutherland discusses the examination of scents and smells throughout literature, comparing the themes and styles of Perfume and The Double Bass.]

In his autobiographical papers, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman?, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, describes being piqued by an article in Science about how well bloodhounds can smell. Feynman hates not being best, and so he took time off from inventing the atom bomb (he was working at Los Alamos) to run an experiment. He had his wife handle certain coke bottles in an empty six-pack while he was out of the room for a couple of minutes. Detection proved too easy: ‘As soon as you put the bottle near your face, you could smell it was dampish and warmer.’ So he had Mrs Feynman take down a book and replace it on the shelf:

I came in—and nothing to it! It was easy. You just smell the books. It's hard to explain, because we're not used to saying things about it. You put each book up to your nose and sniff a few times, and you can tell. It's very different. A book that's been standing there a while has a dry, uninteresting kind of smell. But when a hand has touched it, there's a dampness and a smell that's very distinct. We did a few more experiments, and I discovered that while bloodhounds are indeed quite capable, humans are not as incapable as they think they are: it's just that they carry their nose so high off the ground!

Feynman makes two interesting points here. The first is that we lack or have lost a sensitive vocabulary for describing smells. Etymologists bear this out. In an article in Muttersprache (1984) Arthur Kutzelnigg calculates that since the Middle Ages the German lexicon of smell words has shrunk from 158 to 62, of which a large number survive only in dialect or the ‘little languages’ used in adult-child discourse (‘stinky-poo’ words). And those words we retain tend to be blanched. For Shakespeare, ‘sweet’ was primarily a smell word (as in Gertrude's ‘Sweets to the sweet, farewell’). For us, ‘sweet’ is exclusively a taste word. Poor in vocabulary, the commonest articulation of reaction to odour is the non-verbal grunt, grimace, lip-smack or the vague analogy (‘Yuk—rotten eggs’). And it is not just that the words are missing: expertise with the nose is suppressed by social conventions which stigmatise any strong smell as a bad smell. In one of the few investigations of the subject before Corbin's, Adrian Stokes noted that unlike the other four senses, that of scent had not inspired any art, or aesthetic cultivation. (I think Stokes may have overlooked the use of the nose in wine-bibbing.) There is no educational encouragement to improve one's keenness of smell, no professional applications; and its loss, as insurance policies confirm, is regarded as simply the removal of an unvalued sensory appendix. Nevertheless, as Feynman argues (and will happily demonstrate at any party), an animal acuity of smell survives, however we choose to ignore it. And it re-surfaces in the oddest places. When Judge Caulfield eulogised Mrs Archer as ‘fragrant’, newspaper readers' nostrils all over the country must have twitched and immediately intuited the olfactory opposition being made between the sweet-smelling wife Mary and the mephitic whore Monica.

The other point Feynman makes is that unlike the bloodhound, civilised man sticks his nose uselessly in the air. And the more civilised he thinks himself, the higher he sticks it. As Orwell confessed in The Road to Wigan Pier, the superiority that the English middle class secretly claims for itself is that it does not smell and that the lower classes (‘the great unwashed’) do. Bloodhounds know different. In one of the many digressions in his book Alain Corbin suggests that the marked reluctance of the lower classes in 19th-century France to surrender their ostentatious stench, their stubborn adherence to the sweaty armpit, the public fart and garlic-powered halitosis, was political: a fear, that is, of losing their class authenticity in the wash. Hence their determination to get up the nose of their toffee-nosed betters and all nosey parkers (according to Orwell, the most derogatory term in the working-class lexicon), and their contempt for truckling brown-nosers. In the British Army, ‘Your shit smells too’ is an insult that can only be addressed mutinously from other ranks to commissioned officers; it is meaningless in the other direction. Unlike, say, the Spanish tu madre, an insult applicable to any male, irrespective of class.

In the pattern of the mentalités school of history, The Foul and the Fragrant is a ragbag of a book which surrounds and probes the subject of ‘Odour and the French Social Imagination’ from all sorts of different directions. One approach is physiological. It is the peculiarity of the nose to be physically adjacent to the brain, which explains the sub-verbal short-cut Proust takes between the madeleine and the forgotten past, or the rotten apples which Schiller kept in his desk drawer to revive flagging literary inspiration. The nose's pleasures may be wordless, but they are fast. Hence the instant ‘rush’ relished by glue and cocaine-snorters and Bisto kids, and the less savoury gratifications of those whom Freud calls renifleurs—underwear-sniffers, among whom Corbin lists Goethe and Henri III.

Erroneous world-view and bad science have played a main part in the social history of smell. The old regime inherited such vulgar errors as that the ‘bowels of the earth’, and all material objects, secrete and sweat out harmful ‘airs’ by virtue of their continual atomistic fermentations. Floors and walls were particularly suspicious. Thus in 18th-century Paris, ‘new buildings were left to prostitutes, a practice known as “drying out the plaster.”’ Once dried, the human blotting-paper was evicted to make room for respectable owners. Mud was an object of particular terror on account of the dangerous odours brewed within it: hence the intricate mythology of the swamp, marsh, slime and reeking bog. Anything that ‘stood’ was suspect. Air, as an elementary fluid, could have a whole range of tonic and toxic effects, which might be interpreted in quite contradictory ways. As Corbin tells us, until quite recently French school-teachers believed in the rejuvenating effects of being enclosed with children, and went into the stuffy classroom with the same gusto that their English colleagues hurled open windows in the depth of winter to let in the ‘fresh’ air and doubtless hasten the deaths of their charges from exposure. Before Pasteur's identification of the microbial communication of disease, ‘miasma’, or bad air, was conceived as an invisible source of deadly infection. This had all sorts of consequences for the thoughtful person's relations with places, things and people. And it persists into modern culture as a morbid preoccupation with healthy and unhealthy ‘atmospheres’.

Corbin's survey from 1790 to 1880 is one of general progress from a ‘sensualist’ barbarism, rich in tolerated stench, to a modern deodorised civilisation in which to ‘create a stink’ is the height of bad form. The ‘lowering of the threshold of olfactory tolerance’, as Corbin calls society's growing social discipline over smell, was achieved in complex ways. First, by a privatisation of excreta, with everyone, as the 18th-century edict of Villers Cotterêts bluntly put it, expected ‘to look after his own shit’. This stress on individual waste-disposal partnered the rise of capitalism (making your pile), and was assisted by public hygiene and ventilatory measures, aimed at reducing the mephitic. Strong smells for a while held their own in the belief that aromatics or balsamics could actually annihilate harmful putrescence—a doctrine which Corbin traces through the widespread use of musk as an all-purpose fumigant. This ‘pharmaceutical’ use of the overpowering smell (which survives in most large hospitals) eventually gave way in the 19th century to a connoisseurial cultivation of ‘weak’ perfume used delicately to beautify one's ‘private space’. Musk was finally discredited when ‘the use of a powerful perfume cast doubt upon a person's cleanliness’. Ambiguity about what aromatics say about their user re-surfaces in the present-day conflict in the United States between the virtues of the perfumed deodorant and the neutral anti-perspirant. Historically, the final victory of ‘fragrance’ was marked by the emergence of the cosmetic perfume industry with Worth in 1858: true culture entailed the ability to modulate one's repertory of smells as consciously as one controlled dress or voice.

Corbin argues that a meditation on the social place of odour opens a trap-door on the kind of common experience that normally lies below the level of examined historical fact. I believe him. But his book will attract a wide and lay readership for the same reasons that made Lawrence Wright's delightful history of the lavatory, Clean and Decent (1960), a perennial best-seller. And for the reader only mildly interested in French history, Corbin, like Wright, supplies a wealth of fascinating tidbits: for instance, that in the 18th century it was thought that ‘the ambiguous marriage between the woman and the flower she smelled could end in orgasm,’ or that people entirely lost their odours when sad and regained them with double strength when angry.

One of the shrewdest parts of Corbin's study is his teasing-out of the differences between the Anglo-Saxons and the French in their love-hate relationship with odour. Britain's social history is one of spectacular public hygiene—particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, which saw the innovation of mains sewerage, mains water, and massive drainage schemes which effectively abolished standing cesspools, middens, ponds and marshes (and, in the 1950s, smog), thereby creating an environmental ‘clean air’. In England the property right to one's personal odour was over-ridden, a high-handedness which continues in such things as the 1980s abolition of the travelling public's relatively innocent smoking privileges on public transport.

Meanwhile, France stubbornly resisted the authoritarian reforms which were cleaning up its neighbour, insisting that the diffusion of odour, even foul odour, enjoyed the status of a personal civil right and might even be a public service. Hence the quite deliberate obstruction to decent drainage in Paris, the condemnation of toilet training for tots as cruelty, and the preference for rank smoking materials like the anti-social (and patriotically-named) Gauloise, which out-stinks the innocent Woodbine about five to one. While the English created the massive public (but underground) sanitisations of the mains sewer, France promulgated the private (but highly visible) sanitation of the bidet—a proverbial source of bathroom confusion for the English tourist. The closeness of the French to their excrement had an equally confusing linguistic dimension. I can remember the astonishment of seeing my first Brigitte Bardot film in the Fifties, with the French sex-kitten making her entry with an exasperated Merde! The thought of Jean Simmons or Patricia Roc blithely allowing the word ‘shit’ to pass their lips on-screen was as unthinkable as Celia's turds in the Swift poem. French resistance to legislation distancing man from his excrement, dung, smoke, body odour and personal rubbish long confirmed Anglo-Saxons in a spurious sense of national superiority. It was English bourgeois class-lore that the French people smelled for the same reason as did English workers: because they were ‘dirt-ignorant’.

Corbin puts forward a number of subtler explanations for the Gallic ‘loyalty to filth’. In France there was more firmly based adherence to the venerable belief that excrement is highly therapeutic. According to Chauvet, in the late 18th century, the mass depositing of faeces in public streets was a useful preventive against plague. At the same period, another French medical authority, Parent-Duchâtelet, declared that dipping rheumatic limbs in cesspools produced miraculous cures. (A version of this theory persisted into the 1960s in the barrack-room belief that marching blisters can be cured by dunking the feet in urine. It didn't work for me.) The French, as Corbin notes, associated compulsory baths, delousing and ventilation with prison and shunned them accordingly. More touchingly, he notes that, for the poor, ‘dirt could satisfy the canons of beauty, which demanded paleness. It alone was capable of protecting the peasant woman, exposed to the heat of the sun, from sunburn—beautiful complexions are formed under dirt.’ The rich matron of today attests to this truth with her facial mudpack.

Norman Mailer claims that there is not a single smell in Hemingway. The Anglo-Saxon cultural persecution of stink has had a sadly impoverishing effect on creative literature, while the French licence of private odour led, not just to the best perfume industry in the world, but to a masterpiece of olfactory fantasy, Huysman's A Rebours (1884), with its ‘perfume-artist’ hero, Des Esseintes. (Corbin draws attention to Huysman's less well-known eulogy on the female armpit in Le Gousset.) There is no such work as A Rebours in English, for the good reason that such works are inherently un-English. I suspect that one reason why Ulysses remained banned for so long in the English-speaking world (and was finally cleared in the US on the bizarre grounds that it was ‘emetic’) was its incidental references to Bloom's breakfast of grilled mutton kidney, ‘which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine’, and his sitting asquat the cuckstool a few minutes later, ‘calm above his own rising smell’. Similarly, it is probable that Eliot's drafts of The Waste Land were decently ‘lost’ during his lifetime because of their painful reference to the ‘hearty female stench’. In Anglo-Saxon literature, these are uneasy territories. It is, by contrast, quite in the national character that Nineties France should have given the world its first ‘perfume-comedian’—the virtuoso of the concert-room fart, Le Pétomane, and that he should have become a cult figure in Britain only in the 1960s, after Alan Brien's pioneering articles on breaking wind in the New Statesman.

The elimination of odour from English literature, and even from English pornography, in the 19th and 20th centuries argues deep internalised censorships, even within libertine literature. Smell hardly figures in the ‘liberating’ Lady Chatterley's Lover (one coy reference to all men being ‘dogs that trot and sniff and copulate’ is all I can find), despite Lawrence's avowed ‘hygienic’ aim to demolish his countrymen's sexual inhibitions. I seemed to remember that Orwell's 1984 was rich in smell references: but, on checking, I could only discover two in the first chapter (‘the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats,’ Victory Gin ‘gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice spirit’). There are other isolated moments of odour in the narrative, such as Winston's orgasmic whiff of real coffee and Parsons's diarrhoea in the Ministry of Love. But for all Orwell's obsession with bad smells, 1984 is relatively thin on the subject. And most English fiction and poetry might as well have been written by a noseless species.

There have been many recent English and American novels devoted to the visual and aural arts. But the only full-length novel devoted to olfaction originates, like A Rebours, in an alien culture. Patrick Süskind's Perfume was translated from the original German and published in Britain and America in 1986. The novel (originally put out in hardback by Hamish Hamilton) neatly partners Corbin's The Foul and the Fragrant. Set in pre-Revolution France, it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Born in ‘the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom’, in a sweltering July, under a fishmonger's stall, Grenouille inherits misfortune and the single talent of a preternaturally keen sense of smell, which he puts to good use. The first phase of the novel chronicles the hero's apprenticeship to a Paris perfumer; the second his period in the wilderness, where, a hermit for seven years, he makes the extraordinary discovery that every human has an individual smell, different from all others. He travels to Grasse, the scent-laden centre of the perfume industry. There follows a spell of olfactory vampirism in which Grenouille kills maidens so as to distil and enjoy their pure and infinitely distinct fragrances. Caught and condemned to death by breaking on the wheel, he escapes by releasing a pheromone (his smell) on the scaffold. The odour subliminally convinces the townspeople that he cannot be guilty, and they surrender themselves to a mass orgy of scent-induced sexual lust. Released, and now possessed of this latent political power over the masses, Grenouille returns to Paris, just before the Revolution.

Süskind's allegories are rather heavy-handed. But they parallel exactly Corbin's thesis that in the last two hundred years society (particularly French society) has progressed from a communal ‘sensualism’ of natural odour to a world in which—like money or libido—scent is controlled by the property-owning and political individual. But the fascination of the novel is that, unlike the abstract disquisition of the historical treatise, its rhetoric can capture the strange textures and affective nuances of the smell world, as in Süskind's dense (and finely translated) prelude describing malodorous 18th-century Paris:

There reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces.

Süskind's nasal rhapsody was an unexpected but quite logical best-seller with an English readership traditionally denied smell gratification in literature. Encouraged by Perfume's success, the author's English publishers have dug up an earlier novella, The Double Bass, first written in German in 1984. This work does for the ear what Perfume does for the nose. A serio-comic monologue, it probes the instrument's ungainly but necessary supporting role in the orchestral whole. The double bass is like the ‘mother earth’, it is ‘feminine’, it is indispensable, it is discriminated against, it protests and threatens revolution: but finally it conforms and plays its allotted secondary part. The Double Bass is a pleasant and clever piece of writing that will be admired, but not, like Perfume, relished.

Merle Rubin (review date 3 August 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. Review of The Pigeon, by Patrick Süskind. Christian Science Monitor (3 August 1988): 13.

[In the following review, Rubin outlines the plot of The Pigeon, lauding the novella for constructing a classical “aesthetic catharsis.”]

Once again, German writer Patrick Süskind demonstrates his predilection—and his gift—for writing about obsession. His first novel, Perfume, unfurled a shocking tale, set in 18th-century France, of an odorless man obsessed with odor who stops at nothing—including murder—in his quest to create a perfume that no one will be able to resist.

The Pigeon, set in contemporary Paris, details a single day in the life of an unremarkable, middle-aged bank guard. It is, if anything, more of a tour de force than Perfume, because it does not rely on luridly sensational material, but distills its emotional power entirely from the smallest, most ordinary of incidents.

Jonathan Noel's problems begin when he opens the door of his room one August morning and finds a pigeon on the landing, staring back at him, as bold and immovable as death. His normal equanimity somehow shattered, Noel goes about his workday, increasingly off balance. He is tormented by an inconvenient itch, haunted by a sudden fear that things are not what they seem, and terrified of the ocean of uncertainty and insecurity that surrounds the little world he has made for himself. Before the day is over, this stolid man undergoes a barrage of emotions ranging from stark terror through misery, anger, and despair, back up to the heights of relief and joy, all without doing anything that would attract more than the passing glance of a passer-by, yet, at one point, his hate is so “titanic … that he would have liked to reduce the world to rubble and ashes, because he had a hole in his trousers.”

By making this absurdity eminently believable, Süskind reminds us very vividly of the immensities concealed in the most infinitesimal things. By holding up a mirror to some common fears and anxieties that most of us find too silly to confess, yet too disturbing to ignore, this harrowing, gently comic novella exemplifies what Aristotle may have had in mind when describing the phenomenon of aesthetic catharsis.

Ian Brunskill (review date 30 December 1988-5 January 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Brunskill, Ian. “Seeing the Unseeing.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4474 (30 December 1988-5 January 1989): 1448.

[In the following review, Brunskill compares and contrasts The Pigeon with Das Parfum, focusing on the protagonists, themes, and styles.]

In The Parable of the Blind, Gert Hofmann uses the collective voice of the blind beggars in Brueghel's painting of the same title to question man's ability to make sense of the world. The beggars confront the problem in its most literal form. Lacking the comfort of familiar images against which to organize experience, they can know the world only by interrogating each new moment, dependent for their answers on the honesty of their fellow men and the power of their own imaginations. Forced to construct a fantasy of a world they cannot see, they have mythologized even their own history. They go on simply in order not to stop.

The novel follows them through the day on which they are to be painted stumbling helplessly into a ditch. For once they have a purpose; briefly their existence takes on a half-grasped meeting. Yet for the painter who can give their lives this significance they are merely the ultimate embodiment of a greater futility, from which his own activity as an artist is by no means exempt. Unable not to see, he wonders why he continues to look. He wants to portray the screams of the beggars as they fall. He does it “probably to capture something. Something that moves and falls and gets up again and moves onwards and falls again.” Art too is largely a matter of going on. At best, as the beggars realize, it can lend a fragile dignity:

In any case, if he ever gets down to painting us at all, he'll show the poor people (us!) screaming, so that they (we!) can be seen better. So that they (we), who are always being ignored, will finally be seen for once, and people will know what a human being is, what being human is about.

Hofmann presents a bleak and relentless view of existence, though not without a certain grim comedy. The result is moving, unsettling and almost as difficult to forget as the painting which inspired it.

Like Hofmann's painter, Patrick Süskind is concerned with what is usually overlooked. He has a strong sense that normality, the dull routine of countless everyday lives, is precarious. It has to be manufactured, as Grenouille manufactures its essence in Das Parfum, or fought for, carefully constructed as a barrier against the world. In The Pigeon, Jonathan Noel, a bank guard “already past fifty”, has assembled an existence whose obsessive routine amounts almost to ritual. His early life has taught him “that you cannot depend on people, and that you can live in peace only if you keep them at arm's length”. Since then he has lived, with a small and eccentric selection of possessions, in the tiny confines of a meticulously ordered Parisian chambre de bonne. He leaves his sanctuary only to go to work, to act out a different precious routine. His function on the steps in front of the bank is, he knows, almost entirely ceremonial; but it is not without its satisfactions:

He had once calculated that by the time of his retirement he would have spent seventy-five thousand hours standing on these three marble steps. He would then assuredly be the one person in all Paris—perhaps even in all France—who had stood the longest time in just one place.

One morning he discovers a pigeon on the landing outside his room and is thrown into a panic which threatens to destroy his entire world.

Süskind takes this rather slender situation and elaborates it with almost manic enthusiasm. As in Das Parfum, his extravagant verbal fluency enables him to push an unlikely idea to its limits and then beyond; the reader can only follow with horrified fascination, wondering where it will end. The Pigeon is much less ambitious than Das Parfum, indeed it is little more than an entertaining short story; but, on its own terms, it is no less successful. Its seventy-seven pages concentrate the author's exuberance, avoiding the problems of extended narration. (Das Parfum was marred by a structure that was never much more than episodic; here there is essentially only one episode.) The arbitrariness and sheer oddness of the book's premise are not necessarily flaws; they serve to make this slight novel alarming as well as amusing.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Assignment is subtitled On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers. This ought to be enough to deter even the most sympathetic reader. It certainly gives a clear indication of what is in store; anyone who proceeds beyond the hideous dust-jacket will discover a world in which various persons, many designated only by an initial and several armed with photographic equipment, pursue each other through unpleasant locations to no obvious purpose. The novel consists of twenty-four chapters, each a single sentence. Extending a sentence over several pages requires considerable syntactical dexterity, even in German. Thomas Bernhard does it extremely well; Kleist, on a smaller scale, did it even better. Dürrenmatt does it by the simple expedient of using commas where he ought really to have used a full stop. The effect, even in the English version, where the translator has had to resort to the odd colon, is not, as the publishers would have us believe, devastatingly powerful and intense, or relentlessly precise: it is modish, frantic and annoying.

Dürrenmatt has always had a talent for simplifying the ideas of better writers. His plays and his dramatic “theories” do for Brecht what N. F. Simpson might have done for Beckett, or what Ionesco did for Ionesco; The Assignment does a similar disservice to Bernhard, Weiss and Handke. The sincerity of the political beliefs woven clumsily into the text is beyond question. Dürrenmatt is clearly as worried as anyone else about technology, about nuclear war, about the State's control of its citizens. He would have been well advised to express his concern in a series of newspaper articles, or in a broadcast in the interval of a radio concert. Instead, around the unremarkable insight that contemporary man might be defined as “man under observation”, he has constructed a novel that is tedious, arch, confused and pointless.

Judith Ryan (essay date summer-fall 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Ryan, Judith. “The Problem of Pastiche: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum.German Quarterly 63, nos. 3–4 (summer-fall 1990): 396-403.

[In the following essay, Ryan examines the textual significance of allusions in Das Parfum to the Romanticism and Symbolist-Aestethic literary periods in light of postmodern ideas concerning pastiche and parody.]

As critics of postmodernism would have it, the phenomenon consists of “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random allusion.”1 At the end of Patrick Süskind's novel Das Parfum, the protagonist has himself been cannibalized, but not before his author has demonstrated a “cannibalization” of past styles taken to an extreme of flamboyant virtuosity. The extraordinary allusiveness of Das Parfum was recognized by a number of critics upon its first appearance;2 less obvious, however, was the fact that its intertextual references are heavily concentrated on two literary periods, Romanticism and Symbolism/Aestheticism. The novel's focus on these two movements, generally seen by literary historians as related, suggests that more is at stake here than simply a wild appropriation of “all of the styles of the past.” I shall be arguing here that Das Parfum is no mere exercise in postmodernist eclecticism, no mere fashionable patchwork of random literary allusion.

Furthermore, the story it tells is an ironic allegory of the very process by means of which the text has been constructed: the perfumer's desire to imitate all existing scents parallels his author's wide-ranging appropriations of existing texts, and his method of doing so raises the same questions, both aesthetic and ethical, as does the method by which Süskind puts together the novel itself. Indeed, the final cannibalization scene—with its surprise twists, multiple ambiguities and self-deconstructing effects—is the ultimate exemplification of the particular kind of postmodern process that Das Parfum enacts.

Before pursuing this argument, we will need to gain a foothold in the slippery debate on postmodernism that has been carried out mainly in this country but has also, more recently, spread to the German-speaking domain. Many literary historians have been hesitant about adopting the term at all; but there are certain advantages to a cautious usage that would define “postmodernism” and distinguish it, on the one hand, from high modernism and the historical avant-garde, and identify it, on the other, as a particular literary trend within the wider spectrum of contemporary literature as a whole. The standard work on postmodern architecture defines its principal characteristic as a “double coding” that addresses both a cultural elite and the ordinary person,3 although one might perhaps more properly call it a “multiple coding” that speaks on many different levels and to many audiences at once.4 Applied to literary texts, this means that postmodernism manifests a particular kind of irony, sending out contradictory ideological messages, at once conservative and revolutionary.5 Critics have difficulty with postmodern texts in part because the texts appeal to a mass audience whose judgments are generally not taken seriously by literary pundits, while engaging in a multiple allusiveness formerly the proper domain of criticism itself. Parody and pastiche lie at the heart of literary postmodernism, as a number of theorists have observed.6 I would suggest, however, that it is not just the appeal to a double audience but the peculiar status of postmodern texts between parody and pastiche that makes them so difficult to evaluate. Das Parfum is a good example of this problem.

Although pastiche, because it is derivative, is often regarded as an inferior form or at best as a “neutral” or “blank” version of parody,7 it is worth considering whether it might not also, under certain circumstances, function as a “positive strategy with its own comprehensive rationale.”8 To re-evaluate pastiche in this way would be to renegotiate the border between nostalgia and critique that has laid so much postmodern literature open to attack. It would also force a revision of literary values derived from the period around 1800: notions of genius, originality, and universality that continue to dominate our idea of what a literary text is worth.

I will claim here that Patrick Süskind's novel Das Parfum not only manifests these problems, it is itself a contribution to their discussion, a text that itself begins to undertake a rethinking of traditional literary values. It forces us, furthermore, to revise our conceptions of how texts work, both in their relation to other texts and with respect to their own inner mechanisms. Other postmodern novels—notably Eco's The Name of the Rose—perform much the same function,9 but Das Parfum is subtler in the way it goes about its task and hence more difficult to grasp with our customary critical methodologies.

Let us look first at the problem of double or multiple coding. From the outset, Das Parfum appealed to both the mass market public and the literary elite. It rapidly climbed onto the best seller list, first in the German-speaking countries and then, upon translation, in the English-speaking world and in France. Traveling about, one saw it on all the airport bookstands. Yet students of literature immediately identified it with more esoteric traditions, and connoisseurs of style admired its linguistic tours-de-force and its bold play of fantasy. This is not to say that it did not also have its detractors, who emerged equally rapidly in the reviewing organs10 as in private conversations. There was something about this novel that made many feel ill at ease.

Certain features of the double coding were immediately evident, as in the case of The Name of the Rose: some readers enjoyed the quasi-detective story plot and the apparently sensationalist series of murders upon which it turns; others appreciated the literary allusiveness, which made them feel cultivated and somehow “in the know.” But there was also a range of interest in between these two poles: readers who were fascinated by the detailed evocation of eighteenth-century Paris at the opening of the book; readers who responded to the perfume motif as they had to recent, often titillating social histories emphasizing clothing or other aspects of private life; readers who found a macabre delight in the perversities and the violence of the period and the character who represents it; readers who appreciated the language, so redolent of literary tradition; readers who saw in the novel the challenge of an allegorical puzzle; and many more. The possibility of following a single one of these tracks or of weaving several of them together made for a good part of the novel's attraction. It is easy to see that, in this sense, Das Parfum is multiply coded.

One problem that arises with this kind of text, however, is that its greatest strength—its appeal to several different classes of readers—can also work against it. Readers who privileged only one of the novel's various levels were almost bound to be disappointed: if this was a detective story, there was curiously little mystery involved; if this was a historic novel, it fell off markedly once it moved from its Paris setting to the barren mountainside of the hibernation scene. The most disturbing aspect of the book is undoubtedly its appeal to those who failed to perceive its network of literary allusion and who took its apparent high style for the expression of original creativity. Unlike the works of the historic avant-garde, which allow quotations to remain identifiable because they are marked as foreign bodies within an obviously constructed montage, Das Parfum homogenizes the elements from which it has been formed. Those would-be cultivated readers who declared the novel a masterpiece without recognizing its citational structure were surely taken in by Süskind's masterful blending technique. Others, aware of a received poetic language informing the novel's style but still not understanding its complex compositional principles, read the very same features of Das Parfum as signs of a derivative, hence second-rate creativity at work. Unlike The Name of the Rose, where references to semiotics and other recent literary theories alerted readers to the existence of other levels of meaning and other potential audiences, Das Parfum bears no such distinct markers of its multiple encoding. I think that this problem is less severe for the novel's intended readership than for those who read it in translation. After all, a number of the literary allusions are to stock texts of the German literary canon, texts that many of its German-speaking readers would have had to memorize during their school years. These allusions certainly did not go unnoticed; indeed, reviews of the novel characterize it by its seemingly derivative or epigonal character. To the extent that postmodernism can be defined as a kind of elaborate game-playing between text and reader, Das Parfum conducts this relationship through its implicit invitation to the reader to track down as many as possible of its multiple allusions.

On the one hand, those readers who recognize allusions to Eichendorff's “Mondnacht,” Claudius's “Abendlied,” or Goethe's “Willkommen und Abschied”—not to mention the more obvious references to Faust—may feel authorized to regard Süskind as a legitimate descendant of an important poetic tradition. On the other hand, such allusions, coming thick and fast in many sections of the novel, also raise the question of whether there is anything really original about Das Parfum. The Romantic and Goethean models remain relatively close to the surface of the text, as do the poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Rilke as well as other products of the aestheticist movement such as Huysmans's A Rebours.11 Some allusions are less direct; for example, the perfume Grenouille tries to distill from the bodies of young virgins is a grotesquely literal version of Novalis's “Auflösung junger Mädchen” in Heinrich von Ofterdingen. There are many other references for those who enjoy hunting them: the Grimms' fairy tale of the Frog Prince, the Kaspar Hauser myth, Chamisso's Peter Schlehmihl, the Prometheus myth, Shaftesbury's notion of the poet as a “second maker under God,” the dream sequence from the conclusion of Hoffmann's Rat Krespel, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, Goethe's “Zauberlehrling,” and Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, to name only a few.

More problematic for the novel's original readership, however, were not the more or less direct citations but the accomplished imitations of familiar literary styles. Süskind's use of pastiche was in large part responsible for the novel's mixed reception in the German-speaking world. A good deal of Süskind's language derives directly from earlier models, especially his descriptions of perfume-making, where Baudelaire and Huysmans figure even in the choice of vocabulary.12 Is this an extraordinary allusive richness or a shocking literary dependency?

We are familiar with similar problems from the era of high modernism and the historical avant-garde, where montage (in the case of Döblin), pastiche (in the case of Joyce and Proust), and the outright appropriation of other writers' words (in the case of Thomas Mann) have all been the subject of intense critical debate. Informed readers have long since come to terms with these phenomena in modernist writers. In postmodern texts, however, the use of other texts seems to have become particularly problematic. In the case of D. M. Thomas, for example, the charge of plagiarism has been more persistent and harder to put to rest than in the case of Thomas Mann. Although we have come to understand how modernist montage techniques turn what appears to be plagiarism into something that is not plagiarism at all, we continue to feel unsettled by postmodernist appropriations of earlier texts. This may have to do with their peculiar kind of playfulness, which lacks the evident irony of an Alfred Döblin or the high seriousness of a Thomas Mann.

While Süskind can hardly be accused of plagiarism, there is certainly something disturbing about his reinscriptions of familiar formulas, his evocations of past linguistic and iconographic worlds. In a work much praised for its imaginative invention, we find ourselves continually confronted with citations, near-citations, and imitations, blended together into a new and wondrous mixture, not unlike the well-rounded perfumes that testify to the innate genius of our protagonist Grenouille. With his amphibian existence on the border between the human and the natural worlds, the stench-laden underclass and the perfumed nobility, tradition and innovation, Grenouille certainly lives up to his name. Not accidentally, the central dream scene that forms the turning point at the end of Grenouille's hibernation in a mountain cave takes place on a foggy moor where earth and water are scarcely to be separated.

Similarly amphibian is the novel's movement from pastiche to parody. Many readers fault Das Parfum for its melodramatic conclusion, and others dislike the book from the hibernation episode on.13 Whereas the earlier parts of the novel rely largely on subtexts by the French symbolists—poems like Baudelaire's “Le Flacon” or “Parfum exotique”—or German writers from the turn of the century—Rilke's “Der Alchimist” or certain passages from Malte Laurids Brigge come to mind14—the Romantic influence becomes more apparent once Grenouille climbs up to his isolated mountaintop during the Seven Years' War. When German-speaking readers hear that the Great Grenouille “segelte … mit weitausgespannten Flügeln von der goldenen Wolke herab über das nächtliche Land seiner Seele nach Haus in sein Herz” (P [Das Parfum] 163)15 or that his mind “benebelte sich wunderbar” (P 166) or, again, that “angenehme Schauer durchrieselten ihn” (P 166), they find themselves in the familiar topography, not of mountain scenery, but of the German poetry anthology. For the non-German reader the visual imagery of this episode doubtless substitutes for many a lost linguistic allusion. Our admiration for Grenouille's talent, craftsmanship, persistence, and ability to rise above his social origins—all attributes that we still admire today—yield at this point to our modern tendency to find the sublime ridiculous. Far from representing a falling-off in imaginative power, however, this second part of the novel must be understood as a parody of the Romantic tradition; the heavy-handed and often seemingly clumsy insertion of quotations from anthology pieces is a deliberate marker of its parodic status.

The conclusion of the novel is even more distinctively parodic than the scene in the mountains, which constitutes its central turning point. Grenouille's charismatic powers over the crowd, the result of his ingenious imitation of the scent of innocence, his quasi-mythological dismemberment and his cannibalization by the besotted mob seem—in their highly conscious fictionality—dramatically different from the historical narrative with which the novel opened. Yet just as we stand ready to accuse the novel of an unresolved rift in its structure, we begin to wonder whether the text might not be parodic through and through. How seriously were we meant to take the pastiche of Grenouille's early attempts at composing perfumes, how seriously indeed the evocation of eighteenth-century France at the beginning of the novel? Is not the opening paragraph the most consummate imitation of historical narrative—the narrative, paradoxically, of a figure whose particular genius forced him to leave “keine Spuren” “in der Geschichte” (P 5)? Isn't a genius by definition one who leaves a mark on his/her epoch (think of the “Age of Goethe,” for example), and isn't history the story of that which leaves traces? In this sense, Das Parfum leads a strange existence on the border of pastiche and parody, both of them versions of reflection on the past but both also literary rather than historical versions of such reflection.

A distinctive feature of this novel's pastiche and parody is its heavy reliance on Romantic and Symbolic or Aesthetic subtexts. Realist or Naturalist allusions are not lacking, to be sure, especially since Süskind, in refraining from the use of modernist techniques, appears to adhere to nineteenth-century narrative methods. Nonetheless, Goethe is represented by his more Romantic side—the theories of genius and creativity, for example—and even the brief allusion to Matthias Claudius is not incompatible with the Romantic spirit. Grenouille's hibernation in the mountains during the Seven Years' War is Süskind's equivalent of Faust's regenerative sleep at the beginning of the second part of Goethe's drama. Thomas Mann is present as a latter-day continuation of Goethe (via the Faustmotif), and even Job's “sore boils,” when Grenouille is afflicted with them, have a syphilitic aspect more reminiscent of Mann's Faust adaptation. The allusions to a sequence of poets beginning with Baudelaire and ending with Rilke emphasize the “alchemical” powers of the creative artist and the importance of the finest sense-impressions as elements in the creative process. This sustained evocation of the Romantic and neo-Romantic traditions is not accidental.

Even what at first appear to be evocations of a characteristic eighteenth-century French rationalism are in fact manifestations of the Romantic. Apparent representatives of enlightenment are not untainted by superstition. Pater Terrier, for example, to whom Grenouille's first wet-nurse returns the child in horror, may be determined to comat “die abergläubischen Vorstellungen des einfachen Volkes” (P 19) but is himself a proto-Faustian figure not unsusceptible to fears of Satanism: “Er hatte nicht nur Theologie studiert, sondern auch die Philosophen gelesen und beschäftigt sich nebenbei mit Botanik und Alchimie” (P 18). This parody of Faust's monologue in his study gives the lie to Pater Terrier's skepticism. Similarly, the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse, author of lengthy articles on the “fluidum letale” in the well reputed “Journal des Scavans” (P 206), may be the very model of an eighteenth-century scientist, but his theories of earthiness and airiness are manifestly pre-Romantic. Even the descriptions of eighteenth-century Paris at the opening of the novel, admired by so many of its readers, owe more to Baudelaire and Rilke and their descriptions of later phases of that city's existence. Classical antiquity, when it is evoked in Das Parfum, bears less resemblance to the classical models of Goethe's Roman Elegies than to the retellings of ancient myths in Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Grenouille's invention of a scent that charms all who smell it recalls the tale of Arion's all-compelling song told by the merchants whom Heinrich meets on his way to Augsburg. The dismemberment of Pentheus, in Euripides an act of revenge for his attempt to discredit Dionysos, is converted in Das Parfum into a quasi-bacchanalian scene in which Grenouille appears—in a thoroughly Romantic manner—to be more sublated than destroyed. The Prometheus myth—in this case, the story of the “große Grenouille” who aspires to wrest olfactory secrets from nature and thus to vie with the divine—is retold in a manner reminiscent of the Sturm und Drang Goethe. The Amor and Psyche motif, which appears on the cover in the form of a section from a picture by the eighteenth-century painter Antoine Watteau, is worked out in the plot of the novel in distinctly Hoffmannesque terms.

Above all, the presentation of the individual human subject in Das Parfum is heavily determined by post-Enlightenment conceptions. The man without a smell is reminiscent of Chamisso's man without a shadow but also of Hofmannsthal's Frau ohne Schatten and even more of Rilke's blind man, who moves through the city of Paris like a crack on a teacup.16 When Grenouille finally creates the perfume that lets him pass for human, “so hätte man geglaubt, es stehe da ein zweiter Mensch” (P 191), we are told that if a normal person had happened to use this perfume, he would have seemed like two people “oder, schlimmer noch, wie ein monströses Doppelwesen, wie eine Gestalt, die man nicht mehr eindeutig fixieren kann, weil sie sich verschwimmend unscharf darstellt wie ein Bild vom Grund eines Sees, auf dem die Wellen zittern” (P 191). It is as if the Romantic Doppelgänger motif were seen through an impressionist lens. Grenouille's attempt to distill the essence of human existence in the form of his extract of virgins is successful; but at the same time, it is countermanded by his own existence as a nonentity in every sense of the word. In this fundamental paradox the Romantic notion of essences and of an essential, if crucially split individuality is put into question by the essence-less protagonist who moves unnoticeably about the human world. The Romantic divided self has been supplanted by an aestheticist disseminated or undefinable self. To infer from this, however, that postmodernism “defines the subject in terms that are rather different … from those of liberal humanist individualism and human essence”17 would be to obliterate distinctions that this novel in fact maintains. It is not accidental that the cannibalistic eating of Grenouille's dismembered body is the last stage through which he passes, a stage that goes decidedly beyond the conceptions of self he has previously embodied. From his early definition as an illegitimate nobody from the eighteenth-century underclass, he passes through a phase of Romantic dualism, then a phase of aestheticist dissolution, and finally he emerges as a postmodern cannibalized self.

In the contradictory signals it sends its readers, the novel exhibits marked postmodernist tendencies. On the one hand, Das Parfum appropriates a large number of previous texts that it seemingly holds up for our admiration as expressions of the quintessential genius of its protagonist. On the other hand, the novel also warns of the dangers attendant upon genius which, by being associated with plagiarized or pastiched language, is presented as strangely close to the second-rate or even the illicit. Furthermore, since the genius perfumer is at the same time a murderer, art is represented as a version of the criminal. This idea is certainly not new,18 and Süskind basically continues in Das Parfum a tradition of art as criminality that rests on a posited divorce of art and social ethics. Thus Grenouille has no understanding of abstract language, especially moral concepts, and he sleeps through the conflicts over European politics fought out in the Seven Years' War. At the same time, he embodies the revolutionary notion that a member of the underclass can rise in life and blend imperceptibly into another social stratum (e.g., his acceptance into society after his air-ventilated transformation at the hands of the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse). His substitution of the Romantic for the rationalist world view during and after his hibernation in the cave parallels the replacement of French by English and Prussian dominion over the European political scene at the close of the Seven Years' War. In his very isolation and sequestration from social and political life, he embodies the new principles that began to take over toward the end of the eighteenth and in the nineteenth centuries. In working out this paradox, Süskind gives a particularly 1980s twist to the art-life polarity. Even the avoidance of political involvement is shown here to be a special, and an especially dangerous kind of political position. And yet the familiar artistic gestures of the Romantic and post-Romantic tradition can be observed throughout the whole trajectory of Grenouille's apprenticeship and wanderings, marking the familiar traces of what is commonly accepted as the beautiful. The final scene, in which Grenouille is torn apart and eaten up by the crowd, enacts the central paradox of the novel, poised as it is on a brink between transcendence and critique. In other words, Süskind extracts for us a kind of essence of art, while at the same time allowing it to evaporate into thin air. Literature is simultaneously “essentialized”19 and placed into a more critical context: that of society for which it functions as both a synthesis and a threat.

Cannibalism through love—this is the curious interpretation with which the narrator invests this conclusion (P 319). It is a far cry from Heinrich von Ofterdingen's transformation into a stone or a resounding tree or even from Josefine the Singer's disappearance and sublimation in the memory of her people. Although the last words of the novel have a reassuring ring (“Sie hatten zum ersten Mal etwas aus Liebe getan” [P 319]), they are also highly unsettling. This final passage moves in two directions at once, positing caring human values already put in doubt by the more openly parodic paragraph that precedes it.20

If we compare the uneasy effects of this conclusion with, on the one hand, Joyce's use of pastiche in Ulysses and, on the other, Pater's use of pastiche in Marius the Epicurean, we can see more readily the particular nature of Süskind's postmodern deployment of this technique. Whereas Joyce's pastiche is distancing, Pater's aims to reveal similarities; in Joyce a gulf opens between a grand literary past and the more ordinary present, in Pater a transhistorical aestheticism shines through from the past into the narrator's own day; in Joyce pastiche is essentially parodic, in Pater it has a heightening and valorizing effect. Süskind's technique is different from either of these extremes. By evoking canonical literature that sees the poet as a quasi-divine figure and his works as autonomous imaginative constructs, Das Parfum shows how close we still are to the values represented by this canon. But by positioning these reminiscences of a still-revered literary past in such a way that they are robbed of their originality, defiled as it were by the impure mixture into which they are incorporated, the novel puts into question our use of these fragments as humanistic touchstones21 in the present day. The pastiche technique of Das Parfum is a deliberate strategy that has important ideological implications, especially in the German-speaking countries where the canon it both resurrects and criticizes has still not been subjected to the kind of searching analysis that has been taking place on this side of the Atlantic.


  1. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 65-66.

  2. Michael Fischer refers to olfactory descriptions in Flaubert, Balzac, and Baudelaire (“Ein Stänkerer gegen die Deo-Zeit,” Der Spiegel 4 March 1985: 237) and sees Süskind as “ein milder Epigone” (240); Joachim Kaiser makes much of Süskind's literary relationship to Thomas Mann (“Viel Flottheit und Phantasie,” Süddeutsche Zeitung 28 March 1985); Marcel Reich-Ranicki remarks that the novel recalls E. T. A. Hoffmann (“Des Mörders betörender Duft,” Frankfurter Allgemeine 2 March 1985); and Gerhard Stadelmaier comments that “Grenouille plündert tote Häute, Süskind tote Dichter” (“Lebens-Riechlauf eines Duftmörders,” Die Zeit 12 March 1985).

  3. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy, 1977). Since much of the debate on postmodern literature originated in the debate on postmodern architecture, Jencks's study has become a staple in the debate on literary postmodernism.

  4. Wolfgang Welsch, Unsere postmoderne Moderne (Weinheim: Acta humaniora, 1988) 20.

  5. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction (New York, London: Routledge, 1988) 129. Hanns-Josef Ortheil attempts a very different definition of literary postmodernism in his article “Das Lesen—ein Spiel. Postmoderne Literatur? Die Literature der Zukunft!” Die Zeit 17 April 1987: Feuilleton 59. His conception, according to which postmodern literature is a special kind of game-playing between author and reader in the cybernetic age, is less complex than that of Linda Hutcheon. Andreas Huyssen is more inclusive than either Hutcheon or Ortheil, regarding as postmodernist a number of texts that, in my view, are simply belated examples of modernism (After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986]). Brian McHale separates modernism from postmodernism by a shift from epistemological to ontological interests (Postmodernist Fiction [New York: Methuen, 1987] 10).

  6. See especially Hutcheon 192 and passim.

  7. Jameson 65. Linda Hutcheon's discussion of pastiche essentially adopts Jameson's definition (A Poetics of Postmodernism 26); in her earlier study, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (London, New York: Methuen, 1985), she describes parody, following Genette, as “transformational,” pastiche as “imitative” (38). Margaret Rose, who gives an excellent systematic account of parody in her book Parody/Meta-Fiction. An Analysis of Parody as a Critical Mirror to the Writing and Reception of Fiction (London: Croom Helm, 1979), has unfortunately little to say about pastiche.

  8. Carolyn Williams, Transfigured World. Walter Pater's Aesthetic Historicism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989) 43.

  9. Hanns-Josef Ortheil accepts The Name of the Rose but rejects Das Parfum as a postmodern novel (59).

  10. See in particular Robert M. Adams, “The Nose Knows,” New York Review of Books 20 November 1986: 24-26.

  11. Another symbolist text, popular during the late nineteenth century but now relatively eclipsed, may also play a role as a subtext here: Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-morte (Paisley, Scotland: Wilfion, 1892), the story of a man obsessed with a woman who resembles his dead wife and whom he murders with a strand of her hair.

  12. The word “Alambic,” referring to the recipient in which perfume is distilled, occurs in Baudelaire's poetry; the use of the now outdated term “Sensationen” for sensory impressions can be traced back to Huysmans and to the philosophers and psychologists of his day.

  13. See Beatrice von Matt (“Das Scheusal als Romanheld,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung 15 March 1985) and Marcel Reich-Ranicki, “Des Mörders betörender Duft” (see n. 2), who believe that the quality of the novel deteriorates in the second half, and John Updike (“Old World Wickedness,” New Yorker 15 December 1986: 124-28), who sees the ending as the “weakest part” of the book (126).

  14. See, for example, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1966), VI: 750-51.

  15. The abbreviation P refers to Patrick Süskind, Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Zurich: Diogenes, 1985); arabic numerals refer to page numbers in this edition.

  16. “Andächtig fast” (P 218) is the cue word with which Süskind makes the connection (cf. “festlich fast,” Rilke, Sämtliche Werke [Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1966], I: 591).

  17. Hutcheon 189.

  18. Cf. Hoffmann's Des Fräulein von Scuderi and Thomas Mann's Felix Krull, among other texts that work out this theme.

  19. I use this term from Matthew Arnold deliberately, since it is precisely the kind of tradition his “touchstones” aimed to identify that is invoked and criticized in this kind of postmodern text.

  20. Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980) xiii.

  21. “Es war ihnen, wenngleich im Magen etwas schwer, im Herzen durchaus leicht zumute. … Und auf ihren Gesichtern lag ein mädchenhafter, zarter Glanz von Glück” (P 319).

Stuart Parkes (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Parkes, Stuart. “The Novels of Patrick Süskind: A Phenomenon of the 1980s.” In Literature on the Threshold: The German Novel in the 1980s, edited by Arthur Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Roland Smith, pp. 309-19. New York: Berg, 1990.

[In the following essay, Parkes provides a thematic overview of Das Parfum, Die Taube, and Der Kontrabaß, contrasting their purpose and style with the general characteristics of the postmodern German novel.]

In his introduction to The Name of the Rose dated 5 January 1980, Umberto Eco compares the intellectual climate of that time with the atmosphere of ten years earlier. He no longer sees ‘a widespread conviction that one should write only out of a commitment to the present, in order to change the world.’ It is now possible for ‘the man of letters (restored to his loftiest dignity) … [to] write out of pure love of writing’.1

It may well be that the work of Patrick Süskind arises from a similar feeling. It certainly contrasts with that of previously dominating figures like Böll, Grass and Walser, who, despite their uneasiness in that role, must ultimately be regarded as writers who, at least at times, have hoped to influence if not change the world. In fact, a considerable proportion of German literature in the 1960s and 1970s must be regarded as ‘committed’ in the sense that Eco uses the term, including the work of Michael Ende, the name that dominated the best-seller lists of the Federal Republic in the early 1980s until the arrival of Patrick Süskind. Ende's Die unendliche Geschichte is certainly far removed from social or critical realism but in its attitude to technical rationality, it can easily be linked with the developing alternative and Green movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the case of the kind of committed writers mentioned above, the critic is often able to refer to articles, interviews or simply signatures under manifestos or resolutions in the attempt to interpret his subject. This is not possible with Süskind. Despite (or because of) his success, he has been unwilling to give interviews or utter an opinion on particular subjects. The biographical details that are generally available are also few. He is the son of the late W(ilhelm) E(manuel) Süskind, the writer and journalist best known for his collection of essays on language Aus dem Wörterbuch des Unmenschen. His penchant for French settings can be explained by his having studied history in Aix-en-Provence. Beside this lack of biographical information, there are few minor publications to refer to. A prose piece ‘Das Vermächtnis des Maitre Mussard’ consists of the first-person death-bed writings of Mussard, a historical figure mentioned in Rousseau's Confessions, who is suffering from the delusion that the world is being taken over by sea shells.2 There is a connection here with the novels, namely the theme of the individual ruled by an obsession, as will be seen later. Otherwise, Süskind has worked as a scriptwriter, particularly on the television series about a Munich gossip columnist Kir Royal, in which Franz Xaver Kroetz played the major role (and incidentally expressed himself happy to be reaching a larger audience than he had ever done as a dramatist). Finally, it is interesting to note that Süskind, on the evidence of an article that appeared in 1986, is unwilling to reveal literary influences. It is entitled ‘Amnesie in litteris,’ by which he means the inability to recall anything he has read. The tone of the piece is ironic and it is, of course, impossible to take the claim of amnesia too seriously. What is more interesting, however, is the scepticism shown towards reading as an enlightening, educative activity. Süskind refers to his ‘Resignation über die Vergeblichkeit allen Strebens nach Erkenntnis’3 and is only willing to concede that literature may affect consciousness ‘auf so unmerklich-osmotische Weise, daß es des Prozesses nicht gewahr wird’.4 This too is clearly far removed from the conventional conception of the committed writer.

One is, therefore, forced to concentrate almost exclusively on Süskind's main works, of which there are three, the two prose works Das Parfum and Die Taube and the play Der Kontrabaß, which preceded them and was a considerable theatrical success in the early 1980s, enjoying a production at the National Theatre. Although it is not strictly relevant to a discussion of the novel in the 1980s it is worthy of a brief mention, as it shares the theme of the isolated individual already referred to. It is in fact a play for a single character, the double bass player of the title. He is unhappy with the instrument he plays: ‘Der Kontrabaß, ist das scheußlichste, plumpeste, uneleganteste Instrument, das je erfunden wurde. Ein Waldschrat von Instrument.’5 Moreover, he finds the security of his existence in the world of subsidized music boring, an interesting contrast to the worrying insecurity that afflicts many artists in Britain. Generally, he comes across as a fairly crude figure—the phrase ‘mir ist das wurscht’ provides a leitmotif within his complaints—and in many respects he seems a kindred spirit of Qualtinger's Herr Karl. Particularly revealing is his attitude towards women. He is convinced of their inferiority: ‘Die Frau spielt ja in der Musik eine untergeordnete Rolle’6 but is still plagued by sexual fantasies. He links his frustrations with the instrument he plays: when entertaining women in his small flat, he is inhibited by its bulky presence. Because of its size it cannot be hidden anywhere. To sum up, Der Kontrabaß, is an amusing, well-sustained piece of theatre which in its concentration on an unhappy individual prefigures the two major prose works.

The first of these, Das Parfum, which appeared in 1985 and quickly established Süskind as a best-selling writer, deals with a very different kind of individual from the frustrated musician. It is, as the subtitle succinctly puts it ‘Die Geschichte eines Mörders’. The plot can be outlined very quickly: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a man who gives off no odour and is distinctly unattractive to his fellow human beings. At the same time, he is blessed with a highly developed sense of smell. Because of this he determines to become a perfumer. The novel largely recounts the foul deeds he commits in pursuit of his ambition to create the perfect perfume, for which he needs to distil the natural scent of beautiful young virgins. These girls are the victims of his murders. When he applies the ultimate perfume to himself, he is initially able to make himself loved but is finally torn limb from limb by a mob of criminals who are overcome by the power of his aroma.

The first thing to say about Das Parfum is that it is in no way a psychological study of crime or obsession in the sense that such a study might concentrate on the role of childhood or other formative influences in the development of a criminal personality. Grenouille is presented as an inhuman monster from birth. That he survives his mother's attempts to get rid of him and that she is executed for this only underlines his inhuman nature and the malign influence he has on all who come into contact with him. Rather than seeking to explain, Süskind expresses Grenouille's wickedness only in literary terms by the image of the ‘Zeck’ (tick), comparing him throughout to such a creature. As a monster who simply commits evil deeds, Grenouille is a product of Süskind's literary imagination just as much as nineteenth-century creations like Frankenstein arose out of the Romantic imagination. Indeed, the idea of a man without an odour is reminiscent of Chamisso's creation of Peter Schlemihl—the man without a shadow. This unreality is underlined by the factor already referred to: that a horrible end is invariably the fate of all those whose path Grenouille crosses, not least of those who seek to exploit his skills. For instance, when he has left the employment of the Parisian perfumer Baldini, whom he has helped to riches, the man's house collapses into the Seine before he can enjoy any of these gains. Such an incident clearly belongs to the world of the fairy-tale or horror story.

By contrast, the second prose work Die Taube has more in common with Der Kontrabaß, where the musician's difficulties are explicable in social and psychological terms. In this work, the isolated individual is the doorman at a Paris bank. He is a totally passive figure who wishes to avoid all the unforeseeable challenges of life by following an unchanging routine both in his tiny flat and at his work. This plan is dashed by the arrival of the pigeon of the title. The bird has somehow got into the block of flats where the porter Jonathan Noel lives and, not least because of the mess it makes, represents to him a chaotic interruption to the pattern of his life. This unexpected event is of course reminiscent of the world of the Novelle, although Süskind does not classify his work as belonging to that genre. Suffice it to say that the pigeon's arrival is enough to make Noel run away in fear. He has an unhappy day at his work, tearing his trousers—another unprecedented event—before seeking refuge in a cheap hotel. There is, however, a kind of happy-end to Die Taube. Noel finally feels able to return to his flat and when he does, there are no traces of the pigeon's visit left.

Die Taube concentrates on the mentality of a person who has decided to opt out of life but is challenged by its threatening manifestations. In addition to the pigeon, there is the disorderly figure of the clochard who shits in public. As with the pigeon, shit is a symbol of the disorder Noel fears. Süskind, however, does not just express Noel's distress through symbols. He concentrates on the feelings of his protagonist in a generally convincing way. He does this at times by using a style comparable to that of Martin Walser, whose novels abound with descriptions of inadequate characters. The following description of Noel is a good example of the effective way Süskind portrays his character: ‘Er kam sich wie verkrüppelt vor, wie die Karikatur eines Wachmanns, wie ein Spottbild seiner selbst. Er verachtete sich. Er haßte sich in diesen Stunden.’7 Here Süskind uses a direct style, very different from the more expansive style of Das Parfum, which will be considered below. What is more, he advances social and psychological reasons for Noel's condition. During the war, he had to flee from the Germans who killed his parents. He was brought up by an uncle, who in turn forced him into military service in Indo-China and then into an unsuccessful marriage. It is these experiences that have led him to the conclusion ‘daß auf die Menschen kein Verlaß sei und daß man nur leben könne, wenn man sie sich vom Leibe hielt’ (p. 8). In an original, if somewhat precious, compound Süskind describes him as a ‘Marionettenmenschmaschine’ (p. 84). These childhood events are recalled later. On the day Noel's mother was taken away, there was a great thunderstorm and a similar storm occurs following his flight from his flat. After it has abated he plucks up the courage to return. It is to be regarded, therefore, as a purifying event that, at least in part, releases him from his trauma. Although the attempt by Süskind to introduce a psychological dimension is beyond dispute, the question of how far such a release is credible remains. A number of critics have raised this point8 and it must be conceded that this aspect of the book seems too brief and simplistic. Its strength lies rather in the portrayal of Noel as an obsessed individual.

Even if it is somewhat unsatisfactory, there is a clear social and political dimension to Die Taube. Whether Das Parfum possesses anything similar is without doubt the major question that has to be asked of the novel, so that it can finally be decided if Süskind is in any sense a committed writer. The relevance of perfumes and smells—Süskind dwells at length on the stench of eighteenth-century Paris—to the present age when unpleasant smells are suppressed by deodorants and other products of the chemical industry was pointed out by reviewers at the time of its first appearance.9 As part of this theme, Süskind makes great play of the two meanings of the phrase ‘jemanden nicht riechen können’ when describing the inhuman monster Grenouille who gives off no odour. It is said that during his childhood other children could never ‘riechen’ him, whilst the final set of murders he commits follow the recognition that he cannot ‘riechen’ himself. At this level, Das Parfum would seem to be little more than ironic poking fun at one of the foibles of the present time. There remains, however, the question of the hideous murders and whether they are meant to recall the hideous murders of history, most particularly recent history.

There is certainly a case for interpreting Das Parfum in this way. It is Grenouille's ambition to become the greatest perfumer of all time, an aim that echoes the characterization of Hitler as the greatest leader of all time. One of the major scenes in the novel invokes the phenomenon of mass hysteria, which has been such a feature of modern totalitarian societies. When Grenouille is finally captured and about to be executed for his crimes, he covers himself with his ultimate perfume, the product he has distilled from the bodies of his victims. The result is that the assembled crowds not only enter upon an unbridled orgy, but also that they begin to feel love for the person whose blood they were shouting for a few moments earlier. If this is reminiscent of the world of mass rallies and the like, then the descriptions of Grenouille's motives recall the personalities of modern-day dictators. He holds his fellow human beings in contempt, not least in the moment of his greatest triumph. Thus it is said of him at the planned execution: ‘Grenouille stand und lächelte … Aber es war kein Lächeln, sondern ein häßliches zynisches Grinsen, das auf seinen Lippen lag und das seinen ganzen Triumph und seine ganze Verachtung widerspiegelte.’10 What is more, Grenouille is an ascetic, who in his obsession has no time for the normal pleasures of the world.

Another interesting point is that Süskind frequently expresses Grenouille's obsession in aesthetic terms. It is said to be the search for an aesthetic principle, whilst the process of distilling the victims' odour is found particularly satisfying by Grenouille because it represents ‘eine künstlerische Technik’ (p. 273). Is Süskind then writing allegorically about politics and art? Again one might think of the case of Hitler, the failed painter turned politician. However, in the final analysis, it is difficult to take any political dimension too seriously. Reviewing the novel for Neue Deutsche Hefte, Jürgen P. Wallmann says that Das Parfum might find two types of reader, those who just want entertainment and those who see a political allegory. He concludes: ‘Auf ihre Kosten kommen sie beide.’11 Against this, it could be argued that a political or any other kind of statement in a work of art should not be quite so arbitrary or gratuitous, should go beyond a series of vague allusions. Comparing Das Parfum to Die Blechtrommel, as a number of critics do, Joachim Kaiser rightly notes a lack of what he calls ‘Menschliches’ and ‘Verbindliches’.12

If critics have been at odds about the content of Das Parfum, there has been general agreement about its stylistic qualities. What is immediately remarkable is the way the story is told by an omniscient narrator. There is no trace of the phenomenon of the unreliable or inadequate narrator that became a feature of so many works of the 1960s, for instance, Johnson's Das dritte Buch über Achim or Grass's Hundejahre.Das Parfum begins in accordance with the techniques of the traditional story-teller: ‘Im achtzehnten Jahrhundert lebte in Frankreich ein Mann …’. This sovereign style continues throughout, with Süskind displaying total control of his material. Given the all-knowing, somewhat aloof narrative viewpoint, it is not surprising that with the exception of one interpolated dialogue there is little direct speech, although it must be pointed out that this is understandable in the light of Grenouille's uncommunicative character. Instead, the novel is marked by a series of virtuoso linguistic tours de force, one example of which is the use of adjectives in this passage describing a perfume created by Grenouille: ‘Es war keine Spur ordinär. Absolut klassisch, rund und harmonisch war es. Und trotzdem faszinierend neu. Es war frisch aber nicht reißerisch. Es war blumig, ohne schmalzig zu sein. Es besaß Tiefe, eine herrliche, haftende, schwelgerische, dunkelbraune Tiefe—und war doch kein bißchen überladen oder schwülstig’ (p. 79). This passage consists essentially of a series of antitheses, marked by the use of assonance (frisch, reißerisch: blumig, schmalzig) and alliteration (herrlich, haftende). There is a whole series of different ways of expressing contrast ‘trotzdem’, ‘aber nicht’, ‘ohne zu’, ‘doch’. Twice adjectives come in threes—the classic number.

At the same time, there is an ironic dimension to this passage in the way it deliberately seems to recall the language of advertising. Several of the adjectives, for instance ‘frisch’, ‘blumig’ and ‘herrlich’, obviously belong to the vocabulary of advertising, although only in the phrase ‘faszinierend neu’ does the overall tone lapse into the banality of the typical advertisement. Otherwise, Süskind is playfully modifying and enhancing a specific type of linguistic register.

The overall sense of the author's control can be seen in the following passage, which describes the commercial skills of Grenouille's employer in the town of Grasse—a widow: ‘Mit bewegenden Worten schilderte sie den Herren ihre Situation als alleinstehende Frau, ließ sich Angebote machen, verglich die Preise, seufzte und verkaufte endlich—oder verkaufte nicht. Parfümierte Pomade, kühl gelagert, hielt sich lange’ (p. 223). The change of direction provided by ‘verkaufte nicht’ at one level is a surprise for the reader but with hindsight, it can be seen as the confirmation of the business acumen implied before. The terse final sentence underscores everything. Such a passage is again marked by ironic distance, something that, along with verbal humour, is a major characteristic of Süskind's style. A good example of this humour is the following short passage, marked by different usages of the verb ‘haben’, characterizing Grenouille's situation as he begins his final quest for the perfect perfume: ‘Er hatte einen Geruch, er hatte Geld, er hatte Selbstvertrauen und er hatte es eilig’ (p. 209).

These examples will serve to show something of Süskind's stylistic talent. What is more, the stylistic control is complemented by a clear structuring of the novel with the more hectic first and third parts centring on Grenouille's career as a perfumer and the second providing a kind of quiet intermezzo, as it describes the period when he retreats from society and lives as a hermit. A short fourth part describes his death. It is these aesthetic factors that substantiate the claim that Süskind is no mere writer of trivia but someone to be taken seriously.

It is also necessary to ask whether his success is based solely on his talents as a stylist, coupled with the imaginative ability to create a good story or, one might say particularly with reference to Das Parfum, a good yarn. These are skills that will no doubt always be in demand, but it is also useful to look at Süskind's work in relation to a phenomenon that is much discussed at the moment—namely postmodernism. An exact definition of this term is generally acknowledged to be difficult, especially in the case of literature. It is, however, accepted by most critics that Eco's Name of the Rose is the postmodern novel par excellence. In it the hero and his companion, deliberately a kind of medieval Holmes and Watson duo, try to interpret clues and signs in their investigations of a series of murders. Their world though is not that of Conan Doyle, whose hero is capable of solving all mysteries and restoring order in every sense of the word. Eco's hero, significantly named William Baskerville, concludes at the end of the novel that ‘there is no order in the universe’,13 whilst the narrator, appropriately the Watson figure, does not know if what he has written ‘contains some hidden meaning, or more than one, or many, or none at all’.14 This might be said of Das Parfum and, to a lesser extent, of Die Taube. As already shown, they are anything but clear statements.

Another factor that is held to be typical of literary postmodernism is a tendency to incorporate echoes of other writing. Thus Frank Lucht entitles an essay on postmodernism: ‘Erkennen Sie die Melodie?’ and there are certainly melodies to be recognized in the case of Süskind. The overall conception of Die Taube with a doorman as the main character is reminiscent of Kafka, albeit with a very non-Kafkaesque kind of happy ending. On the stylistic level, as already seen in the example of the use of the language of advertising, echoes abound. The start of Das Parfum seems to recall that of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, whilst the description of Grenouille's imagined feelings of greatness during his period of isolation from society is based on the feelings of God the creator in Genesis: ‘Und als er sah, daß es gut war und daß das ganze Land von seinem göttlichen Grenouillesamen durchtränkt war, da ließ der Große Grenouille einen Weingeistregen herniedergehen’ (p. 161). Elsewhere there are different kinds of echo. It is said of Grenouille at one stage: ‘Jetzt sei seine Langmut zuende’ (p. 115), a sentiment expressed more directly by Hitler. It is in fact a kind of eclecticism that characterizes Das Parfum. In a narrative supposedly set in the eighteenth century, there are such words as ‘Chuzpe’, ‘Arbeitsteilung’, ‘Rationalisierung’ and even ‘Berufsverbot’, whereas elsewhere the style seems to be deliberately archaic, as in the following comparison which is made when Grenouille reaches his place of retreat: ‘So wie ein Schiffbrüchiger nach wochenlanger Irrfahrt die erste von Menschen bewohnte Insel ekstatisch begrüßt, feierte Grenouille seine Ankunft auf dem Berg der Einsamkeit’ (p. 154). Such a passage may well come close to what Lucht sees as a further characteristic of postmodern writing, namely ‘inszenierte Naivität im Bewußtsein, daß man heute so eigentlich nicht mehr schreiben kann’.15

If it is correct to connect Süskind with the current literary expression of postmodernism, this would explain part of his success. However, there is another, probably related factor, especially in the case of Das Parfum, namely the narrator's cosy relationship with his readers. Thus the second paragraph of the novel begins by contrasting the eighteenth century with the present: ‘Zu der Zeit, von der wir reden, herrschte in den Städten ein für uns moderne Menschen kaum vorstellbarer Gestank’ (p. 5). Later there is a similar reference to ‘Uns heutigen Menschen, die wir physikalisch ausgebildet sind’ (p. 129), as opposed to the ignoramuses of earlier years. Although there may be a touch of irony here—there are many present-day ignoramuses as far as physics is concerned—it is still fair to maintain that Süskind does not seek to challenge the reader with his account of the past in Das Parfum, as most serious historical novelists do. The reader is taken into the narrator's confidence and is not asked serious questions about, for instance, mass murder. This relates to the postmodern aspect of Süskind's writing in the sense that by incorporating and intermingling various historical ages and kinds of writing, he is also failing to differentiate between them. In this, he appeals to readers at a time when, unlike the 1960s, radical questioning does not seem to be fashionable. One also wonders about the appeal of Das Parfum with its murders of women to those who do not react favourably to the phenomenon of female emancipation.

The implication of the above is that Süskind belongs in the realm of trivial or, as one critic puts it, ‘middle-brow’ literature.16 That he has made the top hundred in the list of British paper-back bestsellers, albeit well below the Jeffrey Archers of this world, might seem to confirm this, quite irrespective of the fact that it is a translation from the German. It would, however, be wrong to overlook the world-wide success of Das Parfum or to accept without further ado the comforting axiom that anything that sells in large quantities must be inferior writing. It is therefore necessary to consider possible reasons why Süskind's novel has achieved such phenomenal international success among a whole range of readers.

The major reason is quite simply that Süskind tells a good story well and in a manner that appeals to contemporary readers with their interest in history or at least a delight in celebrating historical anniversaries such as three hundred years of the Glorious Revolution or two hundred years of the French Revolution. In an article published in early 1988, Hauke Braunhorst contrasts the present neo-conservative ideological climate with the Utopian ideals of philosophers from Kant to Adorno. He says of contemporary thinkers: ‘Sie propagieren die allgemeine Abschaffung des Allgemeinen, arbeiten theoretisch am Verfall von Theorie und denken das Denkverbot.’17 If one accepts the contention that this is an age of paradoxes where distinctions are blurred and nearly everything is arbitrary, a claim made elsewhere in this volume under the phrase ‘anything goes’ (see p. 32 above and p. 345 below), then Das Parfum fits in very well with such an ethos. It provides through its author's varied knowledge and use of allusion intellectual stimulation without the requirement to consider fundamental questions. Süskind writes about murders in such a way that it is not necessary to feel moral revulsion in relation to the perpetrator or pity in relation to the victim. There is scant need to differentiate or examine in detail either characters or events. It is a relief to be confronted with horrors that, unlike Auschwitz, genocide in Kampuchea or massacres in China, provide solely a source of diverting entertainment.


  1. U. Eco, The Name of the Rose, London, 1984, p. 5.

  2. P. Süskind, ‘Das Vermächtnis des Maitre Mussard’, Neue Deutsche Hefte, no. 149, 1976, pp. 62-79.

  3. P. Süskind, ‘Amnesie in litteris’, L80, no. 37, March 1986, p. 32.

  4. Ibid., p. 34.

  5. P. Süskind, Der Kontrabaß, Zurich, 1984, p. 49.

  6. Ibid., p. 43.

  7. P. Süskind, Die Taube, Zurich, 1987, p. 75. Page references in the text are to this edition.

  8. See R. Krämaer-Badoni, ‘Gewitter des Unheils, Gewitternder Heilung’, Die Welt, 28 March 1987.

  9. See M. Fischer, ‘Ein Stänkerer gegen die Deo-Zeit’, Der Spiegel, 4 March 1985. It is also interesting to note that a history of smell was published by the French historian Alain Corbin a few years before Das Parfum: A. Corbin, Le Miasme et la jonquille. L'odorat et l'imaginaire social, 18e-20e siècles, Aubier-Montagne, 1982 (English-language edition: The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination, trans. by Miriam Kochan, Leamington Spa, 1986).

  10. P. Süskind, Das Parfum, Zurich, 1985, p. 304.

  11. J. P. Wallmann, ‘Patrick Süskind, Das Parfum’, Neue Deutsche Hefte, no. 186, 1985, p. 384.

  12. J. Kaiser, ‘Von Flottheit und Phantasie’, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28 March 1985.

  13. Eco, The Name of the Rose, p. 492.

  14. Ibid., p. 501.

  15. F. Lucht, ‘Erkennen Sie die Melodie?’ in Volker Hage (ed.), Deutsche Literatur 1986: Jahresüberblick, Stuttgart, 1987, p. 304.

  16. B. von Matt, ‘“Midcult”’, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9 April 1987.

  17. H. Braunhorst, ‘Die Unverzichtbarkeit der Utopie’, Frankfurter Rundschau, 23 January 1988.

Manfred R. Jacobson (essay date spring 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Jacobson, Manfred R. “Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum: A Postmodern Künstlerroman.German Quarterly 65, no. 2 (spring 1992): 201-11.

[In the following essay, Jacobson explicates Das Parfum in terms of the traditions of Küstlerliteratur and literary postmodernism.]

Its immense popularity notwithstanding, the critical reception of Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum has been quite mixed, as well as fraught with contradictions and disagreements. It this novel a “brilliant fable”1 or “a ridiculously improbable piece of verbose claptrap”?2 Is it an “allegory of the Third Reich”3 or a treatment of the totalitarian personality?4 Is one of its most significant themes that “hell is other people?”5 Is it a “Künstlerroman?”6 Is Süskind's narrative technique conventional7 and he an epigone,8 or do “we close the book with the presumably postmodern feeling of having been twitted”?9 These are just a few of the many opinions found in reviews of Das Parfum. Interestingly, the novel seems to allow, even encourage, all of them, and many others besides.

In his review, John Updike correctly speaks of the novel's many subtexts,10 and these do seem to have caused much of the confusion experienced by readers and reviewers alike. Nonetheless, among its many themes one seems to be central and dominant: the portrait of an artist. That even this aspect of the novel has led to uncertainty and confusion is the result of the unusual and playful way it is treated, i.e. Süskind's postmodern orientation. While, with very few exceptions, Parfum's reviewers have been at pains to underscore how traditional, even dated, Süskind's style and narrative technique are, no one has rejected the suggestion that this is not true, and that this novel is fundamentally a postmodern work, as scathingly as the novelist Hanns-Josef Ortheil:

Im “Merkur” hat ein jugendlicher Witzbold Postmodernes in … man darf raten … in Süskinds Parfum entdeckt. Süskind! Ausgerechnet. Ich verliere kein Wort darüber.11

Ironically, and this should appeal to the postmodern sensibility, in the same generally very perceptive article Ortheil supplies a definition of Postmodernism that provides the basis for my own reading of Parfum as a postmodern novel:

Die postmoderne Antwort auf die Moderne besteht in der Einsicht und Anerkennung, daß die Vergangenheit, nachdem sie nun einmal nicht zerstört werden kann, da ihre Zerstörung zum Schweigen führt, auf neue Weise ins Auge gefaßt werden muß, mit Ironie, ohne Unschuld.12

As one reviewer put it: “Die Methode des Duft-Mörders Grenouille, sich den odor feminae zu destillieren, ist auch ein wenig die Methode des Erzählers Süskind. Grenouille plündert tote Häute, Süskind tote Dichter.”13 It is true that Süskind “plunders dead poets,” but, one must continue, with the purpose of taking a fresh look at them, without naivete, and with considerable irony. What has not yet been pointed out is that he is particularly interested in plundering the tradition of the Künstlerroman, bursting its traditional limits by revealing that earlier portrayals of artists have been timid. Süskind's conventional style is elegant and measured, thus on one level “dated,” but this, too, is part of the game, providing a splendid counterpoint to, and thus heightening the effect of, the absurdity and exaggeration of his own story.

Süskind makes it clear from the outset that the subject of his novel is the life of a man who is a creative genius, as well as a monster. He compares Grenouille to de Sade, Saint-Just, Fouché, and Bonaparte, with the distinction that Grenouille as a distiller of perfumes has left no trace for posterity. Grenouille's unusual specialty lays the foundation for most of the novel's strategies. First, it provides a basis for the pretense that Grenouille is actually a historical figure, since the evanescence of perfume makes it impossible for the reader to demand evidence of his existence outside the pages of the novel. That Süskind wishes to tease the reader with Grenouille's possible historical existence is suggested by the fact that he gratuitously provides us with precise dates for his birth and death, July 17, 1738—June 25, 1767. At the very least, one is, or at least this reader was, tempted to research these dates in the hope of discovering whether they apply to any particular historical figure. Second, it gives the novel its most original dimension in introducing a character who is most probably the only olfactory genius in literature. Third, placing Grenouille's genius in the domain of smell provides the novel with the basis for most of its metaphors, puns, ploys, and inventiveness. The most important, or central, of these is the phrase, “jemanden nicht riechen können,” in both its literal and figurative meaning. While this phrase has some resonance in the first part of the novel, it comes to dominate the second.

While the novel is clearly and overwhelmingly concerned with odors and perfumes, thus Grenouille's creative genius on the literal level, the metaphorical implications of all this are not unambiguous. Comparing Grenouille to so varied a group as the historical figures mentioned above intentionally blurs the nature of his genius. Is it political or social?14 Should the perfumes he creates be compared to symphonies (as the narrator eventually does), paintings, novels, or are they to be understood and valued more as a kind of rhetoric for their impact on people, as is in fact the case at the end of the novel, where Grenouille uses perfume to exert complete control over a large crowd? Does the evanescence of perfumes indicate that the portrait of this particular artist, at least, if not of artistic genius per se, is also to be understood as evanescent? Süskind discourages absolute certainty for any one of these interpretations at the same time that he encourages the reader to entertain all of them, and this vagueness, or blurring, is basic and essential to the novel's rich allusiveness and engaging playfulness.

Das Parfum, in that it is about an artist who is a murderer, fuses the genres of Künstlerroman and Krimi. In this respect, its one conspicuous antecedent is E. T. A. Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi.15 The large number of striking similarities between these two works makes inescapable the likelihood that Süskind had Hoffmann's novella in mind when he created Grenouille.16 Although it does not make use of the features of the Krimi, Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger also makes much of the notion of the artist as criminal.17 That these novellas, among the many other works that Süskind “plundered,” are not straightforward influences, but are played with in a postmodern fashion, becomes evident. Tonio Kröger and Das Fräulein von Scuderi are only two of the many works, events and conceits having to do with genius or the artist that Süskind engages in a kind of parodic dialogue, but the connections between them and Parfum are much more compelling than those between any other work and Parfum. One reason for Süskind's particular interest in these two works may well be that these small masterpieces contain some of the most radically jaundiced characterizations of the artist in German literature. By going them one better, Süskind exceeds all previous limits. My main concern in this essay is to give some examples of where and how Süskind engages them in his parodic dialogue. Another is to show something of the contours of the new portrait of the artist that emerges from the ashes of the tradition of Künstlerliteratur.

The early portions of Das Parfum, particularly those dealing with Grenouille's birth and childhood, offer a wealth of observations on the nature of creative genius, its genetics, sociology and psychology, or psycho-pathology. Some of these are astute and insightful. Others are parodies or simply intended to twit the reader. All of them, however, are part of an elaborate game that, in addition to engaging us in various ways, should result in a new, more playful, perception of an attitude toward the creative genius. Grenouille is delivered by his mother under her gutting table, among the fish offal and the stench, and left to die.18 It is suggested that this trauma is what shapes his artistic gift and calling. There would seem to be a plausible connection, but it is not borne out or developed elsewhere in the novel. We should therefore conclude that the connection is actually specious. The episode calls to mind the one in Das Fräulein von Scuderi in which Cardillac's mother, who is pregnant with him at the time, finds herself locked in the embrace of a dead man to whose bejeweled chain she had been irresistibly drawn. In Das Fräulein von Scuderi, however, this episode does establish a relationship between prenatal trauma and Cardillac's artistic as well as criminal makeup. What Hoffmann presents is intended as a credible psychological explanation of an artist/killer for an early 19th-century audience:

Weise Männer sprechen viel von den seltsamen Eindrücken, deren Frauen in guter Hoffnung fähig sind, von dem wunderbaren Einfluß solch lebhaften, willen-losen Eindrucks von außen her auf das Kind.19

Contemporary readers are likely to see the intent of the episode as naive, and thus Süskind has an easy time parodying it with his own version. The ultimate object of Süskind's parody, however, is the contemporary notion, our notion, that there is a demonstrable connection between formative experiences and creative genius.

Another significant feature of Grenouille's birth is that, although he is born in the midst of horrid stench, and grows up in a city renowned for its varied and vile smells, he is unique among living creatures in that he has absolutely no odor of his own. Ironically, this quality makes him highly offensive to other people. It figures prominently in his life, and he will later devote all of his energies, skill and genius to creating a superhuman odor for himself. Much is made throughout the novel that the absolutely odorless Grenouille is at the same time the absolute master of odors. Even while he is still an infant, the significance of this apparent contradiction is underscored. Soon after his discovery under the gutting table, a monk from a local monastery turns him over to a wet nurse, who soon thereafter insists on returning him to the monastery. She complains that he sucks her dry, but it turns out that her real objection to him is his odorlessness, which leads her to believe that he is possessed by the devil.20 The monk vigorously rejects this suggestion, but then the infant wakes up:

Das geruchlose Kind roch ihn schamlos ab, so war es! Es witterte ihn aus! Und er kam sich mit einemmal als stinkend vor, nach Schweiß und Essig, nach Sauerkraut und ungewaschenen Kleidern. Er kam sich nackt und häßlich vor, wie begafft von jemandem, der seinerseits nichts von sich preisgab. Selbst durch seine Haut schien es hindurchzuriechen, in sein Innerstes hinein. Die zartesten Gefühle, die schmutzigsten Gedanken lagen bloß vor dieser gierigen kleinen Nase, die noch gar keine rechte Nase war, sondern nur ein Stups, ein sich ständig kräuselndes und blähendes und bäbendes winziges löchriges Organ. Terrier schauderte.21

Odor here seems to imply humanity. The infant's total lack of humanity apparently is what enables him to penetrate to the depth of the monk's soul, cutting through all defenses, pretenses and illusions, to the darkest regions of his being, explaining Terrier's extreme discomfiture. The monk, in spite of his calling and the odor of sanctity associated with it, is revealed as very human, while Grenouille “nichts von sich preisgab.” This ability to see through people (comparable to “die Macht der Erkenntnis” in Tonio Kröger) seems somehow to be a basic and integral part of Grenouille's creative genius, even though Süskind never attempts to establish a connection between it and the creation of new odors on the literal level.

Grenouille's odorlessness, its probable implication as a mark of inhumanity, and what Grenouille does about it, are paralleled in Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger. We may recall that it is Tonio who, in his conversation with Lisaweta Iwanowna, argues that there is a relationship between the artistic and criminality; that there is something about the artist which is as conspicuous and as alienating as the mark of Cain:

Aber da hilft kein Zivil, Lisaweta! Verkleiden Sie sich, vermummen Sie sich, ziehen Sie sich an wie ein Attaché oder ein Gardeleutnant in Urlaub: Sie werden kaum die Augen aufzuschlagen und ein Wort zu sprechen brauchen, und jedermann wird wissen, daß sie kein Mensch sind, sondern irgend etwas Fremdes, Befremdendes, anderes …22

He defends his conservative way of dressing as an attempt to disguise the adventurer in himself, and that he sees in all artists: “Man ist als Künstler immer Abenteurer genug. Äußerlich soll man sich gut anziehen, zum Teufel, und sich benehmen wie ein anständiger Mensch …”23 It is also Tonio who maintains again and again that one must kill off one's heart, and suppress all ordinary human feelings, in order to produce genuine art:

Es ist nötig, daß man irgend etwas Außermenschliches und Unmenschliches sei, daß man zum Menschlichen in einem seltsam fernen und unbeteiligten Verhältnis stehe, um imstande und überhaupt versucht zu sein, es zu spielen, damit zu spielen, es wirksam und geschmackvoll darzustellen.24

In all these respects, Grenouille reflects Tonio's notion of the artist, taken to grotesque extremes. His odorlessness is his mark of Cain. Much later in the novel, he will create a human odor for himself, one of whose ingredients is cat feces, that serves much like Tonio's conservative dress to make him less conspicuous among ordinary human beings. The dead heart which Tonio must struggle to achieve in order to produce genuine art is Grenouille's natural, inescapable and permanent condition. Keeping in mind that Mann presents Tonio and his views with irony, one might point out that Süskind, unlike when parodying the naive or ridiculous in Hoffmann's straight scene, is parodying sophisticated irony, thus achieving an irony beyond irony.

Yet another aspect of Grenouille's birth requires comment. In this instance, it concerns a quality which places him in diametric opposition to Tonio Kröger. After Grenouille's mother leaves him to die among the fish offal, she faints. Passersby come to her aid, and the infant cries out loudly and is discovered. Upon being questioned, his mother confesses that on several previous occasions she has given birth and left the babies to die. Consequently, she is tried, convicted and executed. Later, the narrator comments on the cry that saved Grenouille's life and cost his mother hers:

Es war ein wohlerwogener, fast möchte man sagen ein reiflich erwogener Schrei gewesen, mit dem sich das Neugeborene gegen die Liebe und dennoch für das Leben entschieden hatte.25

Grenouille's incapacity to love or win love while, nonetheless, tenaciously clinging to life, is one of the novel's many leitmotifs. Associated with this penchant is the repeated comparison of Grenouille to a tick, patiently lying dormant, until a host appears and it can begin to thrive.26 Throughout the story, Grenouille's seemingly limitless patience and tenacity are stressed. He seems able to endure any hardship, no matter how long its duration, as long as there is a prospect of creating new perfumes sometime in the future: “Jetzt wurde ihm klar, weshalb er so zäh und verbissen am Leben hing: er mußte ein Schöpfer von Düften sein. Und nicht nur irgendeiner. Sondern der größte Parfumeur aller Zeiten.”27 Süskind successfully embeds the idea of Grenouille's tenacity and parasitism in the very structure of the novel. Grenouille is shown in a succession of relationships with people who seem to exploit him, and usually do: Madame Guillard, Grimal, Giuseppe Baldini, Taillade-Espinasse, Dominique Druot. In each relationship, however, Grenouille has either been sustained in some way or has taken away some knowledge that is crucial to his development as a perfumer or artist. However, while Grenouille learns, develops and moves on, each of these individuals meets with an unnatural death.28 Keeping these incidents in mind, we realize that Grenouille the tick always comes away full of fresh blood, leaving behind a dead host who has been sucked dry. Grenouille accepts, even glories in, what he is: “‘Ich danke dir,’ sagte er leise, ‘ich danke dir, Jean Baptiste Grenouille, daß du so bist, wie du bist!’”29 By the age of six, Grenouille's olfactory genius has mastered his aromatic environment completely, and he has learned the names of all the objects that exude an odor. But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it is another matter altogether:

So lernte er sprechen. Mit Wörtern, die keinen riechenden Gegenstand bezeichneten, mit abstrakten Begriffen also, vor allem ethischer und moralischer Natur, hatte er die größten Schwierigkeiten. Er konnte sie nicht behalten, verwechselte sie, verwendete sie noch als Erwachsener ungern und oft falsch: Recht, Gewissen, Gott, Freude, Verantwortung, Demut, Dankbarkeit, und so weiter—was damit ausgedrückt sein sollte, war und blieb ihm schleierhaft.30

Grenouille not only does not know these words, but completely lacks any understanding or capacity for the ideas, emotions and feelings they represent. He is deficient, even retarded, in all faculties except those few that constitute his extraordinary talent. The novel urges us to conclude that his prodigious olfactory genius is a result of, and is only possible because, all other faculties and sensibilities have remained undeveloped or been pinched off as in the deadheading of a rose.

While Tonio attributes something of the qualities of tenacity and perseverance to artists generally and, in his conversation with Lisaweta Iwanowna, characterizes the artist as morally, socially, and psychologically defective, he thinks of them in far more favorable terms and, in his case, as part of a profound tension. In contrast to Grenouille, he is not only dissatisfied with himself, but maintains that the wellspring of his creativity is his love for ordinary life and people, which he makes the subject of his writing although he knows that this love will remain unrequited:

Denn wenn irgend etwas imstande ist, aus einem Literaten einen Dichter zu machen, so ist es diese meine Bürgerliebe zum Menschlichen, lebendigem und gewöhnlichem. Alle Wärme, alle Güte, aller Humor kommt aus ihr, und fast will mir scheinen, als sei sie jene Liebe selbst, von der geschrieben steht, daß einer mit Menschen- und Engelszungen reden könne und ohne sie doch nur ein tönendes Erz und eine klingende Schelle sei.31

Grenouille has neither a capacity, nor a yearning, for love and life, which to him means only to be alive and compulsively work his will and his art. The emphatic gegen and für (see above) represent the dramatic decoupling of what was joined for Tonio Kröger, and stand on its head Tonio's view that life and love are inextricably intertwined.

In many respects Süskind's characterization of Grenouille reminds one of W. A. Mozart as depicted in the film Amadeus—a magnificently gifted Wunderkind who is a misfit as a human being. It is therefore noteworthy that the narrator stresses that Grenouille's creativity is perhaps most aptly compared to that of a musical genius:

Am ehesten war seine Begabung vielleicht der eines musikalischen Wunderkindes vergleichbar, das den Melodien und Harmonien das Alphabet der einzelnen Töne abgelauscht hatte und nun selbst vollkommen neue Melodien und Harmonien komponierte—mit dem Unterschied freilich, daß das Alphabet der Gerüche ungleich größer und differenzierter war als das der Töne, und mit dem Unterschied ferner, daß sich die schöpferische Tätigkeit des Wunderkindes Grenouille allein in seinem Innern abspielte und von niemandem wahrgenommen werden konnte als nur von ihm selbst.32

Süskind has much to say about these inherent and unobjectionable ingredients of Grenouille's genius. At issue are qualities with which he is born, consisting primarily of a highly specialized, but perfect, memory, and his ability to conjure odors up at will and to combine and recombine them in his imagination as completely new, and as yet unexperienced aromas:

Zehntausend, hunderttausend spezifische Eigengerüche hatte er gesammelt und hielt sie zu seiner Verfügung, so deutlich, so beliebig, daß er sich nicht nur ihrer erinnerte, wenn er sie wiederroch, sondern daß er sie tatsächlich roch, wenn er sich ihrer wiedererinnerte.—Ja, mehr noch, daß er sie sogar in seiner bloßen Phantasie untereinander neu zu kombinieren verstand und dergestalt in sich Gerüche erschuf, die es in der wirklichen Welt garnicht gab. Es war, als besäße er ein riesiges selbsterlerntes Vokabular von Gerüchen, das ihn befähigte, eine schier beliebig große Menge neuer Geruchsätze zu bilden—und dies in einem Alter, da andere Kinder mit den ihnen mühsam eingetrichterten Wörtern die ersten, zur Beschreibung der Welt höchst unzulänglichen konventionellen Sätze stammelten.33

This passage, as well as similar observations scattered throughout Parfum, strike us as particularly true and astute descriptions of creative genius and the creative process. The faculties described are believable as the essential ingredients of creative genius, but what are the other elements that help produce the creations we admire? What is new in Süskind's novel is the portrayal of a radical disjunction between the faculties described above and all the other qualities of a human being that we perceive as virtues. The case of Grenouille suggests that not only are normally admirable human qualities not necessary for the creation of great art, but that their absence may be characteristic of artists and further their creativity.

Although Grenouille is born with the essential ingredients of his genius as well as with the psychological makeup that will see him through to monumental achievements, having only to acquire the techniques to give expression to what already seems fully formed in his imagination, there is one experience, we are told, that gives his artistic calling its shape and direction. Without it, Grenouille could never have attained true greatness. The incident in question is smelling the aroma of a beautiful pubescent virgin, an aroma that is said irresistibly to draw love to her. This experience results in an epiphany which will determine the course of his life as an artist:34

Ihm war, als würde er zum zweiten Mal geboren, nein, nicht zum zweiten, zum ersten Mal, denn bisher hatte er bloß animalisch existiert, in höchst nebulöser Kenntnis seiner selbst. Mit dem heutigen Tag aber schien ihm, als wisse er endlich, wer er wirklich sei: nämlich nichts anderes als ein Genie.—und daß sein Leben Sinn und Zweck und Ziel und höhere Bestimmung habe: nämlich keine geringere, als die Welt der Düfte zu revolutionieren.—und daß er allein auf der Welt dazu alle Mittel besitze: nämlich seine exquisite Nase, sein phänomenales Gedächtnis und, als Wichtigstes von allem, den prägenden Duft dieses Mädchens aus der Rue des Marais, in welchem zauberformelhaft enthalten war, was einen großen Duft, was ein Parfum ausmachte: Zartheit, Kraft, Dauer, Vielfalt und erschreckende, unwiderstehliche Schönheit. Er hatte den Kompaß für sein künftiges Leben gefunden.35

During his trip to Denmark, Tonio Kröger also experiences an epiphany that leads him to understand and will shape his artistic calling. He comes to accept the tension between Künstlertum and Bürgertum, that has left him in turmoil in the past, as the source of his artistic drive as well as the impulse that will lead him to far greater achievements in the future. He also comes better to understand his intense love for ordinary people and their lives. While as a youth he attempted to convert those he particularly loved to his world, he now understands that this is not only fruitless but wrong. The ordinary should be left alone and treasured, not corrupted. It is, he proclaims, the ordinary that will, more than ever, be the subject of his writing, as well as his reason for writing.36 Grenouille's epiphany is comparable to Tonio's, but again stands it on its head, thus undermining or parodying Tonio Kröger's claims. Grenouille's interest is not in the ordinary, but in the exceptional, or even exotic. Further, he is not at all interested in young virgins as people, nor in any aspect of their being save their scent. In order to absorb this aroma, he must therefore go beyond enlisting their approval—he must murder them. Nor is his interest or are his murders in any way to be understood as an act of love, but rather, as is made clear near the end of the novel, it is the love that these girls irresistibly attract that Grenouille wishes to capture for himself.37

The epiphany and thrill induced by the beautiful young virgin's aroma also prove evanescent, for the aroma was quickly used up and could not be preserved and used save in Grenouille's memory and imagination. The key to collecting and preserving such aromas was distillation, but this technology was not as far advanced in Paris as in the city of Grasse, where Grenouille must and ultimately does go to fulfill his artistic destiny, after earning his journeyman's papers. The second part of the novel has generally been reviewed much less favorably than the first.38 As eventful as this part of the novel is, it nonetheless no longer sustains our interest with the same intensity as the part set in Paris. Grenouille's fantasies in the cave seem to go on interminably. The episode with Taillade-Espinasse is superfluous, or at least also seems to drag on. And Grenouille's time in service with Madame Arnulfi and Dominique Druot is in many ways a repetition of his apprenticeship with Baldini. Regardless of whether or not the reader fully enjoys and finds necessary all the episodes and details of this second part, its dominant theme is Grenouille's quest for an identity, and only this abortive quest is central to the novel and truly necessary for Süskind's portrait of an artist. In Grenouille's case, the quest revolves around a pun on the verb riechen.

Grenouille is relieved to be free of the odors of Paris, especially human odors which have come to revolt him. Ultimately, he winds up in the Plomb du Cantal, described as the most remote area in France. There he spends seven years in quasi-hibernation, sleeping and day-dreaming fetus-like in a small cave, only occasionally emerging to feed on insects and roots. During these years of isolation, he lives entirely in his imagination, his fantasies losing all restraint, until he comes to think of himself as God the Creator:

Und als er sah, daß es gut war und daß das ganze Land von seinem göttlichen Grenouillesamen durchtränkt war, da ließ der Große Grenouille einen Weingeistregen herniedergehen, sanft und stetig, und es begann allüberall zu keimen und zu sprießen, und die Saat trieb aus, daß es das Herz erfreute.39

Grenouille, it seems, would have spent his entire life indulging in his aromatic fantasies, in which he figures as creator and avenger (executing “das Doppelamt des Rächers und Welterzeugers”40), were it not for what the narrator terms a catastrophe. By accident, Grenouille discovers that he has no odor:

Und nun war das Entsetzliche, daß Grenouille, obwohl er wußte, daß dieser Geruch sein Geruch war, ihn nicht riechen konnte. Er konnte sich, vollständig in sich selbst ertrinkend, um alles in der Welt nicht riechen!41

This catastrophe is the turning point that compels Grenouille to leave his “Magic Mountain” after seven years in residence. One gets the feeling that Süskind has been waiting impatiently to spring this pun on riechen.Riechen is, of course, the key verb for the perfumer's art, but one must also, perhaps primarily, look to its figurative meaning, not being able to stand someone (here, oneself), for an explanation of Grenouille's drastic reaction and departure. A different variation on the pun actually already appeared in the first part of the novel. There we are informed that the children in Madame Gaillard's care repeatedly band together and attempt to suffocate the infant Grenouille. Later they give up their attempts as futile and simply avoid him as much as possible. The narrator explains their attitude:

Sie haßten ihn nicht. Sie waren auch nicht eifersüchtig oder futterneidisch auf ihn. Für solche Gefühle hätte es im Hause Gaillard nicht den geringsten Anlaß gegeben. Es störte sie ganz einfach, daß er da war. Sie konnten ihn nicht riechen. Sie hatten Angst vor ihm.42

The lack of an odor inspires fear, not hatred. There is something about him which alienates, but we never learn precisely what this is. Is it a lack of common humanity, as is suggested at various points in the story? Or is it something more radical, reflected in the limp Grenouille develops and which, as the narrator makes explicit, connects him with the devil?43 The discovery that Grenouille makes about himself in the cave is that he is absolutely and conspicuously unlovable. When this becomes clear to him, he immediately leaves the Plomb de Cantal and goes south.

Not long after his departure, he is discovered by the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse, who for reasons of his own has him cleaned up and dressed to look like an ordinary person. While looking at himself in the mirror, Grenouille decides that if it were not for his total lack of odor he would be indistinguishable from any ordinary man. It is then that he decides to create a human smell for himself: “Er wollte sich, und wenn es vorläufig auch nur ein schlechtes Surrogat war, den Geruch des Menschen aneignen, den er selber nicht besaß.”44 Grenouille tests his creation in public and quickly establishes that it deceives people into believing that he is no different from them. Now, because of this discovery, his attitude changes from hatred to contempt:

—brach in Grenouille ein anderer Jubel los, ein schwarzer Jubel, ein böses Triumpfgefühl, das ihn zittern machte und berauschte wie ein Anfall von Geilheit, und er hatte Mühe, es nicht wie Gift und Galle über all diese Menschen herspritzen zu lassen und ihnen jubelnd ins Gesicht zu schreien: daß er keine Angst vor ihnen habe.—ja, kaum noch sie hasse.—sondern daß er sie mit ganzer Inbrunst verachte, weil sie stinkend dumm waren.—weil sie sich von ihm belügen und betrügen ließen.—weil sie nichts waren und er war alles.45

Although expressed much more gently, Tonio Kröger's argument is much the same. On several occasions, Tonio calls the Bürger stupid, because he lacks the intellect and insight to see clearly through the artist's charlatanism—because the artist succeeds in deceiving him into believing that the artist is noble, decent and superior because of the art he creates, while Tonio knows that the opposite is more likely the truth:

‘Dergleichen ist Gabe,’ sagen demütig die braven Leute, die unter der Wirkung eines Künstlers stehen, und weil heitere und erhabene Wirkungen nach ihrer gutmütigen Meinung ganz unbedingt auch heitere und erhabene Ursprünge haben müssen, so argwöhnt niemand, daß es sich hier vielleicht um eine äußerst schlimm bedingte, äußerst fragwürdige ‘Gabe’ handelt …46

Grenouille exemplifies the artist as charlatan, the artist who deceives through his art. His success leads him to crave even greater success, and he now sets out to create the ultimate aroma, a superhuman aroma:

Er würde einen Duft kreieren können, der nicht nur menschlich, sondern übermenschlich war. Einen Engelsduft, so unbeschreiblich gut und lebenskräftig, daß, wer ihn roch, bezaubert war, und ihn, Grenouille, den Träger dieses Dufts, vom ganzen Herzen lieben mußte.47

Grenouille not only wants to be loved but he realizes that he wants completely and utterly to control others, and asks himself why. He concludes: “Ersagte sich, daß er es wolle, weil er durch und durch böse sei. Und er lächelte dabei und war sehr zufrieden.”48 His arrogance and egotism continue to mount, transcending that of the poets of the Sturm und Drang who strove to equal God as creators. Grenouille expresses outright contempt for God: “Gott war ein kleiner, armer Stinker: er war betrogen, dieser Gott, oder er war selbst ein Betrüger, nicht anders als Grenouille—nur ein umsoviel schlechterer!”49

Not long after he has come to these conclusions, he leaves the Marquis and seeks employment with a distiller. As he masters this technique, he begins the series of murders of beautiful young virgins in order to distill their essence which will form ingredients in his masterpiece, the perfume that will make him irresistibly lovable, allowing him to dominate all those who smell him. The key ingredient in this perfume will be the aroma of the yet ripening young daughter of one the wealthiest and most prominent citizens of Grasse. Only after Grenouille completes his masterpiece is he apprehended and charged with the murders of twenty-four young girls. Grenouille confesses readily, and the entire city of Grasse turns out for his execution. A kind of carnival atmosphere prevails. Grenouille appears wearing a few drops of his superperfume, whose effect is so overwhelming that not only is the hatred for him immediately turned into passionate love, but the entire city of Grasse indulges in an utterly unrestrained nightlong orgy. This event is experienced by Grenouille as his greatest triumph: “Ja, er war der Große Grenouille! Jetzt trat's zu Tage, er war's, wie einst in seinen selbstverliebten Phantasien, so jetzt in Wirklichkeit. Er erlebte in diesem Augenblick den größten Triumph seines Lebens, und er wurde ihm fürchterlich.”50 This moment, as we see, is ephemeral. As it reaches its climax, it turns into its opposite, and produces a new insight:

Was er sich immer ersehnt hatte, daß nämlich die anderen Menschen ihn liebten, wurde ihn im Augenblick seines Erfolges unerträglich, denn er liebte sie nicht, er haßte sie. Und plötzlich wußte er, daß er nie in der Liebe, sondern immer nur im Haß Befriedigung fände, im Hassen und Gehaßtwerden.51

Grenouille now leaves Grasse and returns to Paris where this insight is refined further. He ponders the awesome power of his love-inducing perfume. He understands that it is a means not only of winning love, but of winning anything his heart desires, save one thing:

Nur eines konnte die Macht nicht: sie konnte ihn nicht selber vor sich riechen machen. Und mochte er auch vor der Welt durch sein Parfum erscheinen als ein Gott—wenn er sich selbst nicht riechen konnte, und deshalb niemals wüßte, wer er sei, so pfiff er drauf, auf die Welt, auf sich selbst, auf sein Parfum.52

While Tonio Kröger, in his search for himself, does find himself and essentially resolves or comes to terms with all his tensions, Grenouille's quest ends in absolute failure. After gaining this insight, he douses himself with his perfume and mixes with the Parisian rabble—murderers, pimps, prostitutes. Even they are not impervious to its effects, and express their love by literally devouring him.

Both the orgy in Grasse and the cannibalism in Paris are parodies of the artist's relationship to his audience. One must think of “artists” in the broadest possible sense in considering these two scenes, since it is specifically they that have led reviewers to the conclusion that Parfum is a parable of the Third Reich or a statement on totalitarianism. For me, however, the most vivid connections are to Mann's Mario und der Zauberer, as well as to rock concerts and other mass events, including religious revivals. Tonio Kröger makes a comment that gets to the nub of such artist/audience relationships: “Ich habe Künstler von Frauen und Jünglingen umschwärmt und umjubelt gesehen, während ich über sie wußte …,”53 i.e., Tonio is aware that one cannot infer the artist's character from his work. In Parfum, Süskind portrays this relationship in such extreme and grotesque terms that it is taken to the absolute negative limit. The result is twofold: We come to see the worldview presented in Tonio Kröger as rather innocent, naive and timid; but since the scenes are also very funny, Süskind concurrently undermines his own image of the artist. This is a strategy that we have seen at work throughout the entire novel, giving us insights, making us wonder, engaging our Spieltrieb, but leaving us utterly divested of a focused and coherent portrait of the artist. If we must have such a portrait, we will have to construct it from the debris Süskind's novel leaves behind. Parfum indulges in an elaborate game that, however, raises the same question asked by Tonio Kröger, and ultimately confirms his view that the artist is and remains an enigma: “Aber was ist der Künstler? Vor keiner Frage hat die Bequemlichkeit und Erkenntnisträgheit der Menschheit sich zäher erwiesen als vor dieser.”54


  1. John Updike, “Old World Wickedness,” Rev. of Das Parfum,The New Yorker, 15 Dec. 1986: 124.

  2. Robert M. Adams, “The Nose Knows,” Rev. of Das Parfum,New York Review of Books, 20 Nov. 1986: 26.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Beatrice von Matt, “Das Scheusal als Romanheld,” Rev. of Das Parfum,Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 15 March 1985.

  5. Updike, “Old World Wickedness” 124.

  6. Joachim Kaiser, “Viel Flottheit und Phantasie,” Rev. of Das Parfum,Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28 March 1985.

  7. Wolfram Knorr, “Aus Zwerg Nase wird ein Frankenstein der Düfte,” Rev. of Das Parfum,Weltwoche [Zurich], 21 March 1985.

  8. Michael Fischer, “Ein Stänkerer gegen die Deo-Zeit,” Rev. of Das Parfum,Spiegel, 4 March 1985.

  9. John Updike, “Old World Wickedness” 125.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Hanns-Josef Ortheil, “Das Lesen—Ein Spiel,” Rev. of Das Parfum,Die Zeit, 24 April 1987: Feuilleton 17.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Gerhard Stadelmaier, “Lebens-Riechlauf eines Duftmörders,” Rev. of Das Parfum,Frank-furter Rundschau, Easter 1985.

  14. Many reviewers maintain that Parfum is primarily or exclusively a parable of the Third Reich, or of some other political phenomenon. They adduce Grenouille's compulsion and ability to dominate crowds as depicted in some of the final passages of the book in support of this interpretation (v. Adams [note 2], von Matt [note 4], Kaiser [note 6]).

  15. E. T. A. Hoffmann, Das Fräulein von Scuderi (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 1970).

  16. Both are set in a Paris described as decadent; each has a protagonist who is the greatest artist of his time as well as a serial murderer; both men commit murders for the sake of their art; both men work in media that are somewhat marginal to what is usually considered the domain of art.

  17. Thomas Mann, Gesammelte Werke (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Bücherei, 1967) Vol. 1.

  18. Patrick Süskind, Das Parfum (Zurich: Diogenes, 1985) 7ff.

  19. E. T. A. Hoffmann, Das Fräulein von Scuderi 55.

  20. The theme of Grenouille's possession by the devil, or as devil himself, as evil incarnate, is developed through the entire novel. Just one aspect of this, that he walks with a limp and what this implies, is eventually made explicit.

  21. Süskind, Das Parfum 23.

  22. Mann, Tonio Kröger 225.

  23. Ibid., 223.

  24. Ibid., 223-24.

  25. Süskind, Das Parfum 28.

  26. Grenouille's surname, which means “frog” in French, does not characterize him in any way, but rather is intended to serve as a red herring, leading the reader to entertaining but fruitless speculations, as do the previously mentioned precise dates of his birth and death. These intentionally placed false clues, in the Dorothy Sayer's tradition, are characteristic of mysteries, and also of the novel's pervasive inclination toward game playing.

  27. Süskind, Das Parfum 58.

  28. Madame Guillard's death at first glance seems to be an exception, since she lives to a ripe old age. We should keep in mind, however, that in an unexpected and extremely lengthy digression, the narrator explains that due to an injury she was completely incapable of any emotions, feelings, fears, or desires, save one: to avoid dying in a public hospital (38-40). Ironically, it was her longevity which, depleting her resources, made dying there inevitable. In this way, she is like all the others, whose fondest hopes are disappointed.

  29. Süskind, Das Parfum 278.

  30. Ibid., 33.

  31. Mann, Tonio Kröger 255-56.

  32. Süskind, Das Parfum 35.

  33. Ibid., 34.

  34. Grenouille will experience several other epiphanies during the remainder of the novel. Each time this happens, one feels that this must be the last, and is annoyed when another occurs. This is not a defect, however, but again part of the novel's pervasive playfulness.

  35. Süskind, Das Parfum 57.

  36. Mann, Tonio Kröger 254-56.

  37. Süskind, Das Parfum 242.

  38. Cf. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, “Des Mörders betörender Duft,” Rev. of Das Parfum,Die Zeit, 12 March 1985; Updike (v. note 1); Adams (v. note 2) 26, who writes: “But at this point the story gets so preposterous that your reviewer is ashamed to summarize the rest of it.”

  39. Süskind, Das Parfum 161-62.

  40. Ibid., 163.

  41. Ibid., 169-70.

  42. Ibid., 30.

  43. Ibid., 285.

  44. Ibid., 190.

  45. Ibid., 197.

  46. Mann, Tonio Kröger 225.

  47. Süskind, Das Parfum 198.

  48. Ibid., 199.

  49. Ibid., 199-200.

  50. Ibid., 305.

  51. Ibid., 305-6.

  52. Ibid., 316.

  53. Mann, Tonio Kröger 226.

  54. Ibid., 225.

Neil H. Donahue (essay date summer 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Donahue, Neil H. “Scents and Insensibility: Patrick Süskind's New Historical Critique of ‘Die Neue Sensibilität’ in Das Parfum (1985).” Modern Language Studies 22, no. 3 (summer 1992): 36-43.

[In the following essay, Donahue speculates on the relationship between the formal pastiche of Das Parfum and parallel developments in New Historicism, demonstrating how the novel's parody of Peter Handke's Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975) informs its satirical critique of the 1970s “Die Neue Sensibilität” movement in German literature.]

Patrick Süskind's sensational novel Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders (1985) resonates with echoes of German literary traditions. Despite its high profile as a popular bestseller, Das Parfum constitutes a dense montage of allusions to German narrative traditions of the grotesque, of existential Angst, of vitalism and the Übermensch, of folkloric myth as a critique of reason, of Romantic fascination with criminality, and of the psychology of aesthetic decadence and obsession.1 Süskind's overt historicism in his use of literary and cinematic models invites speculation on the novel's relation to postmodernism2 and whether his formal pastiche is a dissolution of history in a blend of “styles” or rather an attempt to reintroduce into German fiction literary and socio-historical facticity, parallel to developments in the scholarly movement of New Historicism.3 The novel's setting in eighteenth-century France and its relations to post-Braudelian historiography reveal the novel as a satiric critique of the “Neue Sensibilität” in German literature of the Seventies.4 In particular, Süskind's Das Parfum focuses criticism on Peter Handke's Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975), which it negates by parody. These two novels mark a dramatic shift in the orientation of a genre between two decades.

The novel opens with a precise historical framework, and a fairy-tale tone that centers upon one of the “genialsten und abscheulichsten Gestalten dieser an genialen und abscheulichen Gestalten nicht armen Epoche …” (5). The fairy-tale narrative of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is embedded in socio-historical circumstance; the apparent contradiction of a “historical Märchen” finds immediate resolution in the author's explanation of why in particular this genial monster of refined sensibility and gross inhumanity has escaped lasting notoriety: “weil sich sein Genie und sein einziger Ehrgeiz auf ein Gebiet beschränkte, welches in der Geschichte keine Spuren hinterläßt: auf das flüchtige Reich der Gerüche” (5). History appears at once as a principal concern of the novel. For Süskind, historiography betrays a shortcoming that he takes advantage of in order to meld historical research to mythic invention. The fictional narrative of Grenouille serves as an invented anecdote, the core to Süskind's “thick description”5 of smell in the eighteenth century. Das Parfum is mythic in structure, but naturalistic in its annotation of historical milieu,6 and its description of process, which includes the training of Grenouille's faculty of smell as well as the technical procedures of distillation, and the economic perils of perfume production and eventually Grenouille's murderous application of his training.

Divided into four parts, the first and longest section of the novel describes Paris as the “epicenter of stench” (Corbin) in 18th-century France and narrates Grenouille's birth and his haphazard upbringing. Through a long passage of rhetorical amplifications and an anaphoric catalogue of putrescent odors, Süskind evokes and circumscribes the historical materiality of smells before locating Grenouille's entrance into the world “am allerstinkendensten Ort des gesamten Königreichs” (7). His birth offers few prospects of survival. His mother hurriedly carries out “die eklige Geburt” (7) beneath the chopping table where she cleans fish; she merely expects to deliver her fifth stillborn child and abandons the newborn “unter einem Schwarm von Fliegen und zwischen Gekröse und abgeschlagenen Fischköpfen …” (9). Against all expectation, the baby survives and its scream indicts the guilty mother, who is arrested and executed several weeks later.

Baby Grenouille's scream (28), however, is not itself innocent, but rather signals the newborn's resentment and protest against the world he is born into, as well as his defiance of that world and his tenacious will to live and succeed. The child's mature consciousness at birth, his defiant vitality, his rejection of sentiment and cynical, calculating perception of his own self-interest as well as, of course, his ability to scream, all recall the character of Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass's Die Blechtrommel (1959). In both cases, opening descriptions of historical milieu culminate in the narration of a birth that introduces as protagonist a fully-developed child prodigy of malicious egotism: Grenouille, for one, “war von Beginn an ein Scheusal. Er entschied sich für das Leben aus reinem Trotz und aus reiner Boshaftigkeit” (28). Yet before the revelation of his gift of smell, this child-monster appears as a sub-human, a creature, “Ein Zeck. … in sich selbst verkapselt” (29), whose only sign of life is its mute unwillingness to die and its persistent survival and subsistence in adversity.

The extended comparison (29) to a tick refers not only to Grenouille's indomitable organism, but also to the text itself. The parasitic tick waits and waits until it can attach itself to a warm-blooded carrier that will provide sustenance and mobility. Similarly, each station of Grenouille's life is marked in the text by the figure he has chosen to exploit, who unwittingly serves to advance him in his designs. Süskind's text, likewise, for each episode, attaches itself through obvious allusion to one or more texts. In effect, the recurring image of the tick comes to represent the relationship in Parfum between Süskind's use of the supernatural and his use of literary and social history. The parasitic “tick” of the supernatural is carried along and sustained by the warm body of historicism.

The bifurcation in the novel between the mythical, supernatural narrative, on the one hand, and naturalistic descriptions, on the other, appears as a breach between the newborn protagonist and his Parisian environment: he himself emits no odor. Like Gregor Samsa's insect body,7 Grenouille's odorlessness and his hyperacute sense of smell constitute the novel's fantastic premise, whose subsequent development follows a logic of circumstantial complication which carries it further and further into the world. The “tick” of the supernatural burrows more and more deeply into its host of historical allusions.

In subsequent episodes with his nursemaid, with the monk Pater Terrier, and with Madame Gaillard, the bifurcation in the text between naturalism and supernaturalism widens, but the more Grenouille is at odds with his environment, the more he is able to exploit the difference. He reacts to adversity with a more intense concentration of his artistic inner life. But unlike Thomas Mann's “Wunderkind,” Grenouille never displays his talents for public approbation. Rather, his ability to discriminate smells and his compositional virtuosity mature in secret, unrecognized by the world he plunders for its odors with growing rapacity, even as his outer circumstances become increasingly severe.

In a hostile world, Grenouille manages to survive and gain for himself a measure of independence while preserving his secret talent, which he now begins to refine as an analyst and collector of scents:

Grenouille aber roch alles wie zum ersten Mal. Und er roch nicht nur die Gesamtheit dieses Duftmenges, sondern er spaltete es analytisch auf in seine kleinsten und entferntesten Teile und Teilchen. Seine feine Nase entwirrte das Knäuel aus Dunst und Gestank zu einzelnen Fäden von Grundgerüchen, die nicht mehr weiter zerlegbar waren.


He loses himself in the superabundance of Parisian odors.

Wählerisch ging er nicht vor. … Er war gierig. Das Zeil seiner Jagden bestand darin, schlichtweg alles zu besitzen, was die Welt an Gerüchen zu bieten hatte, und die einzige Bedingung war, daß die Gerüche neuseien. … Alles, alles fraß er, saugte er in sich hinein. Und auch in der synthesierenden Gerüchsküche seiner Phantasie, in der er ständig neue Duftkombinationen zusammenstellte, herrschte noch kein ästhetisches Prinzip. Es waren Bizarrerien, die er schuf und alsbald wieder zerstörte wie ein Kind, das mit Bauklötzen spielt, erfindungsreich und destruktiv, ohne erkennbares schöpferisches Prinzip.


His new freedom allows the emergence of his imperial ambitions to extend the hegemony of his nose and to dominate the world of smells. The omnivorous parasite, the “tick,” preys upon the world. With strong echoes, indeed a virtual paraphrase, of Hofmannsthal's Chandos (Ein Brief, 1902) before his “Sprachkrise,” Süskind describes Grenouille's obsessive and tyrannical monosensuality, the monomania of his aesthetic perception, which subjugates all matter to its design and sacrifices the world to the necessities of art.

Unfortunately, as yet no design governs his primal urges of creation and destruction, and his facile “Duftkombinationen” remain only ephemeral “Bizarrerien” without lasting stature in a hierarchy of value. Soon, however, Grenouille discovers, like Chandos in a moment of epiphany, the aesthetic principle, “das apotheotische Parfum” (55), that will give order to his olfactory impressions and a goal to his ambitions: “Dieser eine [Duft] war das höhere Prinzip, nach dessen Vorbild sich die andern ordnen mußten. Er war die reine Schönheit” (55). But the completion of aesthetic order succeeds for Grenouille only with human sacrifice, when the necessities of art transcend humanity. Grenouille kills for the sake of his art. The artist, as a parasite “tic,” literally lives off the blood of others: Grenouille has murdered a young girl in order to rape her of her odor, which fills him, not with remorse, but only with a felicitous awareness of his aesthetic mission.8

Here, the expansion of his self-consciousness coincides with his greatest predation upon the outside world. The intersection of narrative strands in the novel, the collision of supernaturalism with naturalism, occurs in the domain of absolute art, which here, literally, does violence to the world. Up to this juncture in the narrative, Grenouille has accommodated himself to his situation; now he begins to direct his actions toward the fulfillment of his megalomaniacal ambitions. He proceeds systematically to catalogue his storehouse of remembered smells, to identify them by name and acquire the technical knowledge he'll need to further pursue his search for novelty through his own concoctions. Art follows the categorical imperialism of his nose.

Once Grenouille's ambitions have become clear, the two strands of the narrative, the supernatural and the naturalistic, merge in the parodic Lebenslauf of an artistic genius (think of Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkühn), trying to pursue the high dictates of his art:

Dazu aber, das wußte er, bedurfte es zweier unabdingbarer Voraussetzungen: Die eine war der Mantel einer bürgerlichen Existenz; mindestens des Gesellentums, in dessen Schutz er seinen eigentlichen Leidenschaften frönen und seine eigentlichen Ziele ungestört verfolgen konnte. Die andre war die Kenntnis jener handwerklichen Verfahren, nach denen man Duftstoffe herstellte, isolierte, konzentrierte, konservierte und somit für eine höhere Verwendung überhaupt erst verfügbar machte. Denn Grenouille besaß zwar in der Tat die beste Nase der Welt, sowohl analytisch als auch visionär, aber er besaß noch nicht die Fähigkeit, sich der Gerüche dinglich zu bemächtigen.


His circumscribed outer existence is only the inverse reflection of his rich and unbounded inner life. Grenouille begins to work for the Parisian perfumeur Baldini in order to learn the “geheimnisvolle [] Kunst des Destillierens” (128), which gives him the ability “den Dingen ihre duftende Seele zu entreißen” (125), a technique he later applies to the young girls he murders. Grenouille's creation of “radikal neue Düfte” gives him the practical opportunity to devote himself to his inner life.

Süskind has developed two lines of narration, one supernatural and fabulous, the other naturalistic and densely descriptive, which converge and cross in the work's central parody of an artistic genius, whose aesthetics of absolute art murderously subsumes the world to its own prerogatives. Here, by linking absolute art directly to criminal violence, Süskind's protagonist not only apes the pathos-filled grandeur and sublime artistry of Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkühn, whose systematic development as an artist into isolation and insanity reflects indirectly the rise of fascism in Germany, but Süskind also subverts, more immediately and more pointedly, the protagonist of Peter Handke's Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975), whose dream of a murder reflects the breakdown of his normal system of perceptions and the superficial fiction of his personal identity as a press attaché for the Austrian embassy in Paris.

Handke's novel represents the tendency toward “Neue Subjektivität” or “Neue Sensibilität” in German language literatures in the Seventies, in its renunciation of historical perspective and conventional plot, and its concentration upon the inner life of an alienated, disoriented individual as reflected in discontinuous moments of perception. Handke's protagonist, Gregor Keuschnig, exclaims to himself, echoing a generation, “Ich muß alle Gefühle neu entdecken!” (62). The disconnected psychological vignettes narrate vagaries of consciousness and sensual perception after his experience of estrangement and loss of identity.9 Unable to give order or meaning to his perceptions, everything has become equally “ungültig” (9), yet nonetheless he struggles to find new meaning while maintaining the now hollow fiction of his daily routine: “Er versuchte sich zu verändern … doch um nicht entdeckt zu werden, mußte er genauso weiterleben wie bisher und vor allem so bleiben wie er war” (8). The hypothetical condition of his existence appears in the work's opening rhetorical question, “Wer hat schon einmal geträumt, ein Mörder geworden zu sein, und sein gewohntes Leben nur der Form nach weiterzuführen?” (7).

Süskind's novel answers that question with a parodic inversion of Handke's text; rather than exposing the fictional unreality of existence through the inner disintegration of a personal identity, precipitated by the dream of a murder, Süskind proposes the fictional reality of a murderer, whose integral reality as fiction is anchored to a system of self-conscious referentiality by allusions based on literary citation and sociohistorical research. Handke also makes use of literary citation, but as a means of emptying the citations of original content and reducing them to artefacts of style, empty forms that mark, like so many changes of clothing, the discontinuity of Keuschnig's provisional existence without a stable identity.10 Similarly, Grenouille strips his victims of their odor. Whereas Handke laments the fictionality of existence and the inauthenticity of fiction, Süskind uses citation both to heighten the fictionality of his work and invest it with historical substance, that is, to beg the question of historical contextuality.

That historical substance lies in the alignment of Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung with Süskind's principal historical source, Alain Corbin's study The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (1982), which describes in the eighteenth century “the emergence of a new sensitivity” (28), characterized by “metaphysical anxiety” (85) at increasing urban filth and the parallel “rise of narcissism” (85) based on an “aesthetics of smell” (85). Süskind brings into alignment the “new sensitivity” depicted in the fiction of Handke and described in the study of Corbin, and draws on Corbin's historical details to create his own character who brings to life an historical epoch.11 Through its socio-historical setting, “thick descriptions” of smell as historical material, literary-historical resonances, and third-person point-of-view, Süskind establishes the objective narrative context from which his mythic protagonist can critique through satiric exaggeration the narcissism of Handke's protagonist and the literary tendency of “Neue Sensibilität” in the previous decade.

Once estranged from his normal identity, Gregor Keuschnig tries to maintain a posture of refusal in a world of “Als ob” constituted by fictions; his life is experimental, inhabiting negations “dieses Weder-Noch in seinem Kopf” (15), and sustained by the longing for “diese selbstlosen, und doch ausgefüllten Momente” (58), epiphanic moments in which he intimates a transcendental form of authentic existence beyond subjectivity. Handke's novel is an existential fairy tale of negation centered upon the absence, rather than the presence, of an “unheard-of incident.” Handke's Keuschnig waits for fictional redemption: “Ein unbekanntes Parfum wehte ihm zu aus der Dämmerung. … Hier könnte sie passieren, die einmalige, noch nie erzählte Begebenheit!” (162-3). An unknown perfume sharpens Keuschnig's desire for transcendence into an unselfconscious fiction; Süskind provides that missing “unheard-of incident” for Gregor in the figure of Grenouille who likewise seeks transcendence in the aesthetic autonomy of an unheard-of odor. In effect, Grenouille is the fictional re-creation of Gregor Keuschnig in historical guise, which satirizes that figure and sets a new course for the contemporary novel in Germany.


  1. The sources and allusions are numerous and, aside from those mentioned in my discussion, range from Jeremias Gotthelf's “Die Schwarze Spinne” to Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Rilke's Die Aufzeichnungen von Malte Laurids Brigge, Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg, Fritz Lang's film M, and many others. Those I discuss in the article will have to represent those I cannot discuss; a close examination of Süskind's sources, with documentation, will require a book-length study. As yet no secondary literature, beyond book reviews, has appeared. In her brief discussion of the book, Hoesterey also compares Süskind's practice as writer to Grenouille's and adds, referring to reviews of the novel: “Die Blechtrommel-Paraphrase am Anfang des Buches und die Zauberberg-Travestie gegen Ende sind schlicht unüberlesbar. Als weitere Zulieferer werden Fontane, Keller, Lenz, Böll, Hebel, Musil, Grimmelshausen genannt” (173).

  2. See Hoesterey, Verschlungene Schriftzeichen: Intertextualität von Literatur und Kunst in der Moderne/Postmoderne.

  3. See Aram Veeser's useful collection of essays on the New Historicism, along with his own introduction.

  4. Helmut Kreutzer provides a panoramic overview of the literature of the Seventies which focuses on the shift from the politically engaged “Authentizitätsanspruch des Dokumentarismus” to an existential “Rückbezug auf das eigene Ich …” (79). As general characteristics of this “New Subjectivity” Kreutzer finds in the literature of the Seventies the psychological motifs of: isolation, restlessness, boredom, fear and guilt; the formal traits of: first-person narration, concentration upon a single moment, random photographic detail, renunciation of an historical perspective, and simple but often rhythmical language; and the themes of: the alienated, egocentric self, personal relations or love (often failed) and intimacy, the difficulty of speaking and writing, sickness and death, birth and childhood, the concern for personal happiness. He discusses Handke's Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung as a representative text of the Seventies. Christoph Bartmann provides a more differentiated view of Handke's relation to the “New Subjectivity.”

  5. See Clifford Geertz's use of the term in his essay “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” collected in The Interpretation of Cultures. There he states: “The aim is to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics” (28). In the case of Süskind, the “large conclusions” constitute his fiction of Grenouille.

  6. Süskind's debt here is less to German traditions than to two works of French Realism and Naturalism: Balzac's Histoire da la Grandeur et de la Décadence de César Birotteau, Marchand Parfumeur (1837) and Zola's Le Ventre de Paris (1873). Balzac's figure is a negative model for Grenouille, whose refined sensitivity and knowledge he lacks entirely: “Mais le petit commerçant ignore d'où viennent et où croissent les produits sur lesquels ils opère. Birotteau parfumeur ne savait pas un iôta d'histoire naturelle ni de chimie … Ainsi un homme pusillanime, médiocre, sans instruction, sans idées, sans connaissances, sans caractère, et qui ne devait point réussir sur la place la plus glissante du monde, arriva, par son esprit du conduite, … à passer pur un homme remarkable, courageux et plein de résolution.” His interests are not aesthetic but rather commercial and allow him to establish a thriving business; Birotteau might in fact be the positive model for Grenouille's boss in Paris, the failed perfumeur Baldini, who is saved by Grenouille's talents. Zola's work provides a reeking and teeming inventory, in great detail, of the Halles market, and especially its perfumes and odors (both words recur continually).

  7. The reference to Kafka's figure is not accidental. The opening scene of Handke's Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung, and the name (Gregor Keuschnig) of the protagonist, echo Kafka's Die Verwandlung: “In einer solchen Nacht Ende Juli hatte Gregor Keuschnig einen langen Traum, der damit anfing, daß er jemanden getötet hatte.” With the name Grenouille, Süskind alludes to both. The metaphor of the “tick” (Zecke) reinforces the double allusion over Handke back to Kafka's insect.

  8. Hoesterey calls Grenouille “eine Art vergeistigter Vampir” (172) which then applies as well to Süskind's notion of the writer: “Der Schriftsteller, suggeriert Süskinds Roman, muß sich zwar obsessiv in der Literatur umtun, letztlich sich jedoch ohne Rücksicht von der nährenden Quelle lösen, also morden, um das eigene Phantasiegebilde erbringen zu können” (174).

  9. David Roberts remarks that “Keuschnigs Erlebnisse offenbaren etwas, was man eine paranoische Empfindsamkeit nennen könnte, nämlich die verschärften Wahrnehmungen eines pathologischen Beziehungswahns” (88). This pathological element to Handke's figure is the link to Süskind's satire in Grenouille.

  10. See Bartmann, Suche nach Zusammenhang: Chapter III, section 3, “Die Funktion des Zitats” (pp. 120-135).

  11. When read together, Corbin's work of scholarship almost reads like annotation to the novel. Compare, for example, the following passage: “It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the flower of the field, with its shy, natural, capricious perfume, a free gift, an infinitesimal ripple that taught the true value of the first stirring of the heart. Revealing unfathomable desires, it was the model on which the image of the young girl was structured” (84). Where Corbin waxes poetic, however, Süskind's morbid Grenouille literally waxes his victims (all young girls) to take their scent.

Works Cited

Bartmann, Christoph. Suche nach Zusammenhang: Handkes Werk als Prozeß. Wien: Wilhelm Braun, 1984.

Corbin, Alain. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Originally published as Le miasme et la jonquille, 1982.

Durzak, Manfred, ed. Deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur—Ausgangspositionen und aktuelle Entwicklungen. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Handke, Peter. Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung. Frankfurt, A.M.: Suhrkamp, 1975. Suhrkamp taschenbuch #452.

Hoesterey, Ingeborg. Verschlungene Schriftzeichen: Intertextualität von Literatur und Kunst in der Moderne/Postmoderne. Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1988.

Jurgensen, Manfred, ed. Handke: Ansätze—Analysen—Anmerkungen. Bern: Francke Verlag, 1979.

Kreutzer, Helmut. “Neue Subjektivität. Zur Literatur der siebziger Jahre in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland.” In Durzak, Manfred, ed. Deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur.

Roberts, David. “Peter Handke: Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung.” In: Handke: Ansätze—Analysen—Anmerkungen, Jurgensen, ed.

Süskind, Patrick. Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders. Zürich: Diogenes, 1985.

Veeser, Aram H. The New Historicism. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Philip Brady (review date 16 October 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Brady, Philip. “Child-Minded.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4672 (16 October 1992): 24.

[In the following review, Brady assesses the plot, style, and themes of The Story of Mr. Sommer.]

Patrick Süskind, rarely out of Germany's bestseller lists in recent years, cannot be accused of always trawling the same rich waters. His tragi-comic, minutely observed monodrama The Double Bass (1984) prepared no one for his record-breaking novel Perfume (1985), exotic, gruesome, part history, part crime-fiction and far from comic. The Story of Mr. Sommer springs another surprise. It is a novella told—or, more precisely, ramblingly recollected—by a narrator who is inside his own childhood thought-patterns and yet well beyond them.

The ramblings are crucial—Süskind's narrator admits to “a certain mental fogginess, an inability to concentrate”—and one of the delights of the story is its unpredictability, passing from the thrill of tree-climbing to Galileo on the acceleration of falling bodies, from the allure of the inaccessible schoolgirl, Carolina Kückelmann (her strong point the downy fluff on the back of her neck) to the piano-teacher, Miss Marie-Luise Funkel, “hunchbacked and wizened, with a little black moustache and no bosom whatsoever”.

Persons change, slip in and out, loosely held together in a child's non-sequiturs. Perspectives change as the adult finds words for his younger self (Michael Hofmann's translation impeccably traces the shifting tones of voice). And the moods change: when Miss Funkel, termagant at the best of times, throws a huge tantrum, the effect is unsettling; when her long-suffering pupil contemplates suicide, wondering why one needs a xeroaxial conductor to electrocute oneself, the effect is closer to farce.

Flitting across the disconnected mini-dramas in this young boy's life, but never actively involved in them, is the enigmatic Mr Sommer. He is a memorable creation, not least because his flitting is made visible in the vivid drawings by Sempé. Mr Sommer, unfrightening to a child's eye, is more pathetic than sinister. He is an eternally restless wanderer, never speaking, except to mumble, never stopping, driven ever on, “eating up the ground with enormous strides”, a frightened man “on the run from death”. His origins are as unknown as his motives, and he is in the end forgotten.

Not, however, by the little boy, who half understands the enigma, sensing the suffering and finally watching Mr Sommer stride out of sight into a watery grave in the local lake. He has haunted the scene without dominating it and without undermining either Süskind's richly comic text or the quieter comedy of Sempé's drawings.

Edith Borchardt (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Borchardt, Edith. “Caricature, Parody, Satire: Narrative Masks as Subversion of the Picaro in Patrick Süskind's Perfume.” In State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, edited by Nicholas Ruddick, pp. 97-103. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Borchardt examines the function and subversion of picaresque novel conventions in Perfume, equating the authorial narrator of the picaresque novel with Perfume's hyperbolic protagonist.]

Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume (1985) is a picaresque narrative1 that foregrounds the fantastic fictional biography of a pathological individual gifted with an extraordinary sense of smell against the background of a historically verifiable locale and context: eighteenth-century Paris and the beginnings of olfactory science in pre-Revolutionary France.2 With his cleverly crafted story and eloquent account of his picaro's non-verbal experience of the world as a perfumer, Süskind expertly employs but simultaneously subverts the traditional form of the picaresque novel. Instead of deconstructing the picaro's narration by calling into question the veracity of the biographical account through a second narrator or an omniscient implied author,3 Süskind establishes his premise for the fictional life story as an exaggeration through the hyperbolic distortion of the personality, which (because of its incredibility) serves as a distancing device like authorial voice-over in the traditional form.4

The hypersensitivity of Perfume's central character establishes the protagonist as a caricature5 and his talents and activities as pure fantasy. From the outset of the novel, Grenouille is described as a gifted abomination, arrogant, misanthropic, immoral, and wicked (3). His own lack of smell from babyhood points to his lack of humanity, inspiring fear and the suspicion of evil. The baby appears capable of “seeing” with his nostrils, that “like the cups of that small meat-eating plant that was kept in the royal botanical gardens … seemed to create an eerie suction” (17). To Father Terrier, temporarily caring for the infant at the cloister of Saint-Merri, it seems as if the child were “smelling right through his skin, into his innards. His most tender emotions, his filthiest thoughts lay exposed to that greedy little nose, which wasn't even a proper nose, but only a pug of a nose, a tiny perforated organ, forever crinkling and puffing and quivering” (17). His foster mother, Madame Gaillard, believes he has second sight because of his ability to see the future, predicting the arrival of visitors long before their arrival, or the occurrence of a thunderstorm when there is not a cloud in the sky. He has the ability to see right through paper, cloth, wood, brick walls, and locked doors. He can tell if there is a worm in the cauliflower before the head is split open, and when Madame misplaces her money, he knows exactly where it is. His hypersensitive nose catches the smell of the people, the rain, the worm, the money.

Considered feebleminded by representatives of conventional educational institutions because of his poor verbal ability, Grenouille nevertheless grows into a genius of perception, an autodidact with “a huge vocabulary of odors that enabled him to form at will great numbers of smelled sentences” (26) for which ordinary language is insufficient. To him, the smell of milk varies according to its temperature or how much cream there is in it, which cow it came from, and even what the cow had been eating. Smoke consists of “hundreds of odors mixed iridescently into ever new and changing unities” (25). He develops a tremendous analytic capacity, unraveling vapors and stench “into single strands of unitary odors that could not be unthreaded further” (34). His sense of smell conjures up visions of the essence of the object perceived, and in the current of the wind he can smell faraway places: the meadows around Neuilly, the forests between Saint-Germain and Versailles, far-off cities like Rouen and Caen, and even the sea. Waking and dreaming, he arranges his recollected odors into an elaborate system, “ever more refined … ever more comprehensive and differentiated” (44), and transforms smells he has gathered into new combinations in his imagination.

The guiding light and muse of his endeavors is the fragrance of the redhead girl in the Rue de Marais whom he killed at the age of thirteen. Her smell—internalized atavistically by a rape with his nose—becomes his standard for beauty, an inspiration toward perfection and a striving for the sublime. As a perfumer's apprentice, he invents new basic odors, first deriving oils from plants like nettles, cress seeds, elderberry bark, and yew sprigs, then trying to derive them from substances like glass, brass, porcelain, leather, grain and gravel, and then from dirt, blood, wood, fresh fish, hair, and water from the Seine—even though the distillation process is pointless for substances lacking essential oils. Finally he progresses to the extraction of essences from animals and human beings, particularly nubile young women, in order to create an essence absolue that captures their beauty in the invisible form of their fragrance.

As an osphretic idealist and creator of scents, Grenouille is an artist who employs the process of maceration and enfleurage, eliminating the physical body or form of flowers in order to create beauty that is non-visual and more ephemeral than the beauty expressed in image or word, and perceptible only to the sense of smell that “Kant wouldn't admit … into his aesthetics” (Adams 24). The product of his art not only represents but is the essence of things, the elusive and evanescent quality gained by the destruction of form. Misapplying this aesthetic to the human realm, Grenouille resorts to murder to obtain the perfume he will use to attract the love of other human beings. He begins to imagine himself to be like an omnipotent God in his ability to control people, a fantasy that reaches megalomaniacal proportions in his seclusion in the cave of the volcano Plomb du Cantal in the Massif Central of Auvergne.

Ironically, his dreams are realized only on the scaffold where, at his execution, a few drops from his vial of precious essence suffice to turn his death scene into a bacchanal in which he comes to embody the ultimate desire of each of the spectators. Nuns see in him Christ personified, devil worshipers perceive the Lord of Darkness, subscribers to Enlightenment ideals see him as the Highest Being, young women imagine him to be their Prince Charming, and men the mirror image of themselves. He touches all at their erotic center, overpowering them with his charisma and turning the execution into an orgy: “It was as if the man had ten thousand invisible hands and had laid a hand on the genitals of the ten thousand people surrounding him and fondled them in just the way that each of them, whether man or woman, desired in his or her most secret fantasies” (238).

With an antirational epistemology based on smell and represented by the figure of Grenouille, Süskind parodies Kantian theories of the origins and nature of knowledge by exploring the idea that the highest aesthetic abstraction can be achieved through the most primitive of the senses. At the same time, his novel serves as a critique of this grotesquerie, an inversion of the eighteenth-century notion of kalokagathia, and a travesty of Platonic thought. The picaro by definition is a social deviant, and the artist in this novel is neither good nor moral, but a criminal genius who lacks integration on both the social and psychological level and who is motivated not by eros (the union of phenomena and spirit) but by thanatos (the separation of body and soul).

Grenouille's art derives from primitive sense perception (through the nose) rather than from reason and the perception of abstract form (through the eye and ear), the latter privileged by Kant, whose rational epistemology has dominated Western thought. Instead of integrating form with idea in Platonic reminiscence of eidos as a function of consciousness in the act of artistic creation, the essence absolue is gained at the expense of form. The artist in Perfume resorts to murder to attain the ultimate reality that theoretically lies in a realm that transcends phenomena, rather than trying to reach this knowledge through reason and reflection. The Kantian process of coming to consciousness is reversed; analysis is applied in the place of synthesis, critical methods replace creativity.

Grenouille's art does not serve a spiritual goal, since his idealism is nothing but a solipsistic narcissism that is completely self-serving in its instrumentalization of his genius for the sake of power and the control of the masses. It is not used to reveal truth, but to deceive the public by a substitution of Self for divinity in a delusional spectacle that results not in revelation but in hallucination. Because of the misuse of his genius, Grenouille is identified with evil and self-destructs at the end as a result of his own success, applying the essence absolue at the moment of his annihilation. By undermining the credibility of his picaro by positing him as a caricature and destroying him at the end, Süskind negates the world view implied by the demented vision of the criminal artist and restores the moral and aesthetic status quo.

The caricature of the individual personality as presented in this fictional biography of the protagonist functions like a political cartoon6 in that it makes mocking reference to the historical and social context within and against which the picaro operates. As a type, the picaro is a criminal or rogue but not necessarily a villain (Chandler 2; Parker 3-6) who wanders from place to place, “travers[ing] various social milieux” and encountering people who represent “a cross section of contemporary manners, morals and idiosyncrasies” (Bjornson 9). Their interrelationship in the picaresque convention is “frequently based upon caricatural distortion, polemic effect, or imaginative projection into fantastic realms” (Bjornson 14). History, geography, and social milieux serve as the realistic backdrop to the picaro's adventures. Their juxtaposition creates the illusion of relationship between the picaro and his society and produces the impression of three-dimensionality. While the society in which he lives completes and explains his psychological profile, his one-dimensionality as an idiot savant (ein weiser Narr) brings into focus societal traits that become the object of criticism and satire (Schöll 305).

Through the figure of Baldini, the master perfumer and representative of the Enlightenment, Süskind satirizes conservative notions about politics, economics, and science at a time of radical change, when the Encyclopédistes were stirring revolutionary sentiments. Grenouille, who cannot reason politically, is a revolutionary on the aesthetic plane. Together with Baldini's rival Pélissier, who represents the commercialization of art, Grenouille serves as a counterpoint to Baldini, the craftsman who is the product of a long tradition of learning going back to the Middle Ages, but whose creativity—limited by empiricism and analysis—has exhausted itself. In the interplay between the intuitive and the rational approach to artistic creation, Grenouille becomes the bearer of aesthetic ideas that are at the opposite pole to traditional notions of art at the time of the Enlightenment. Born into a feudal society that is about to undergo tremendous transformation, Grenouille—though a child of the Enlightenment era—nevertheless represents its dialectical opposite: the repressed dark and daemonic forces, held in abeyance by the Age of Reason, now emerging from the unconscious with destructive power.

For profit and fame, Baldini allies himself in Faustian fashion with the principle of evil embodied in Grenouille, and together they achieve success at a global level. Observing his apprentice at work, and copying the recipes for the perfumes Grenouille creates, Baldini develops a “curious after-the-fact method” (91) to ensure for himself the ability to imitate these original creations. In a reversal of roles, he becomes the sorcerer's apprentice for material gain, while Grenouille learns from the master not his art but his craft. In true picaresque fashion he adapts himself to Baldini's mania for rules and measurements, for analysis and formulae, in order to assure his existence in the bourgeois world. Under the guise of middle-class respectability, in possession of the knowledge of his craft, he aims to create the scents that he carries within him and to make his fantasies real.

By fictionalizing French social history and the beginnings of olfactory science in pre-Revolutionary Paris through the fantastic biography of a picaro, Süskind satirizes both the theories of the time about the nature of art and of the artist, and attitudes toward progress through education and scientific investigation deriving from the classical Humanitätsideal. Upon his return to the world after his Romantic sojourn in the Massif Central during the Seven Years War, Grenouille encounters the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse, whose most significant contribution to science was his theory of the fluidum letale, expressed in a treatise on the relationship between proximity to the earth and vital energy. “His thesis was that life could develop only at a certain distance from the earth, since the earth itself constantly emits a corrupting gas, a so-called fluidum letale, which lames vital energies and sooner or later totally extinguishes them” (139-40). Grenouille, who had neither washed, nor shaved, nor cut his hair, nails, or beard during his seven years of sepulchral seclusion in the cave, and survived on a diet of salamanders, ring snakes, lichen, grass, and mossberries, becomes a subject of scientific investigation for the marquis and other academics. At the University of Montpellier, he is presented as the scientific sensation of the year: living proof of the correctness of the marquis's theory. By using a ventilation machine and giving him foods originating in creatures far removed from the earth—dove bouillon, lark pie, ragout of wild duck—the Marquis submits Grenouille to a vital therapy to counteract the fluidum letale, and to “humanize” the Hermit/King/God/Beast. For the first time, Grenouille sees himself in a mirror, looking “unbelievably normal” (144), though he still lacks human smell. The reflection in the mirror negates the humanity of the image by flaring its nostrils “surreptitiously” (145).

In order to pass for a human being, Grenouille develops masks of human scent for himself in Runel's laboratory in Montpellier. He produces “the scent of humanness” (148) in order to deceive others by passing off this imitation body odor as his own so that they will regard him as one of them. Refining this basic perfume into smells for all occasions in Madame Arnulfi's shop, he creates a number of personal odors: one for inconspicuousness when mingling with people, another more sweaty and coarse to receive fast attention when doing business, a third for arousing sympathy like a little boy, and one with a nauseating quality for occasions when he wants to be avoided. He wears these odors, changing them “like clothes as the situation demanded” (184), in order to hide his true nature from others while pursuing his secret passion of perfecting human scent. With his genius and artistry, he compensates for his lack of humanity.

The use of masks and role playing permits the picaro, who is by birth a social outcast, to adapt himself to external circumstances to “secure his own survival and psychological well-being” (Bjornson 6). Grenouille's efforts at social conformity through the invention of masks of scent in order to seem human only mask his consuming desire to develop the ultimate fragrance that will elevate him above humanity. With the sublime essence he procures through mass murder, he raises himself to superhuman status, at the same time willing his own destruction. This occurs in a cannibalistic rite reminiscent of the dismemberment of Dionysus or an inversion of the transubstantial ritual of Holy Communion. His seemingly total annihilation, however, symbolically implies the threat of his eternal return among the participants, a marginal group in society that literally internalise the principle of evil.

With the allusion to modern genocide, Süskind reveals the connection between the fictional fantasy and historical truth. With the aid of a picaresque form that allows for ironic distance and the freedom of aesthetic play, Süskind both constructs and deconstructs this fictional precursor of a misguided idealism who—by the misapplication of abstract concepts to the living world—destroys human beings for the sake of an idea. In the novel, the evil genius parading in the mask of humanity is annihilated and his desire destroyed, but history (presented here in the guise of fantasy) suggests that Grenouille's dangerous idealism cannot be so easily expunged.


  1. The literature on the picaro is voluminous. For the construction of a paradigm of the picaresque novel and its use in post-war German literature, see Schöll 302-21.

  2. Consult Corbin for a historical treatment of the development of olfactory science (11-85) and hygiene (89-135) in France.

  3. Friedman speaks of an “interplay between narrator and implied author” in which the picaro's discursive strategies backfire and “incriminate rather than defend the speaker”; the implied author “negates the authority of the outsider” by providing a voice-over to his story, a counterpart or alternative reading (Antiheroine's xiii).

  4. See Friedman, “Picaresque” (120) on this double narrative structure.

  5. Modern caricature, focussing on the face, originated in seventeenth-century Italy and was practised by such famed artists as Carracci and Bernini.

  6. The cartoon, primarily a nineteenth-century para-artistic form, mocks social and political figures and events by exaggerated presentation or ludicrous juxtaposition.

Works Cited

Adams, Robert M. “The Nose Knows.” New York Review of Books 20 November 1986, pp. 24-26.

Bjornson, Richard. The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1977.

Chandler, Frank Wadleigh. The Literature of Roguery. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, 1907.

Corbin, Alain. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. Trans. of Le Miasme et la jonquille, 1986.

Friedman, Edward H. The Antiheroine's Voice: Narrative Discourse and Transformations of the Picaresque. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987.

———. “The Picaresque as Autobiography: Story and History.” In Autobiography in Early Modern Spain, 119-27. Eds. Nicholas Spaddacini and Jenaro Talens. Minneapolis: Prisma, 1988.

Parker, Alexander A. Literature and the Delinquent: The Picaresque Novel in Spain and Europe, 1599-1753. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1967.

Schöll, Norbert. “Der pikarische Held: Wiederaufleben einer literarischen Tradition seit 1945.” In Tendenzen der deutschen Literatur seit 1945, 302-21. Ed. Thomas Koebner. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1971.

Süskind, Patrick. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Knopf, 1986. Trans. of Das Parfum, 1985.

R. G. Whitinger and M. Herzog (essay date spring 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Whitinger, R. G., and M. Herzog. “Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi and Süskind's Das Parfum: Elements of Homage in a Postmodernist Parody of a Romantic Artist Story.” German Quarterly 67, no. 2 (spring 1994): 222-34.

[In the following essay, Whitinger and Herzog explore the elements of “postmodernist parody” found in E. T. A. Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi and Süskind's Das Parfum.]

Simply by portraying a gifted artist on the loose as a serial killer in bygone France, Patrick Süskind's novel Das Parfum (1985) recalls E. T. A. Hoffmann's story Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1818). Yet critics have noted similarities without analyzing them in detail (cf. von Matt; Reich-Ranicki; Pokern; Ryan; Jacobson). Closer investigation of the ties between the two works contributes to the understanding of each and defends both authors against misconceptions that have emerged in the critical discourse on Süskind's work.

Many critics have charged that Süskind has merely cobbled together a derivative pastiche without any rationale behind his evocation of earlier works and styles, much less any constructive parodic relationship (cf. Höpfner; Fischer; Schütte; Hage; Lucht; Adams; Nutt; Ortheil). They consign it to a negative category of “diffuse” and “modish” postmodernism (cf. Welsch 2) that indulges “without principle” in “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past” (Jameson 65-66).1 Against these positions, we shall argue that Süskind's parodic interaction with Hoffmann's romanticism involves a good measure of that homage which critics have attached to the idea of parody as a “productive-creative approach to tradition” (Siegmund-Schultze 73) that “intends no disrespect, while it does signal ironic difference” (Hutcheon, “Modern Parody and Bakhtin” 91), that goes beyond the “mockery” traditionally associated with parody to echo the past with a combination of “deference” and “irony” (Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism 34-35; cf. Portoghesi 28; Ryan 396-97). It will support recent defenses of the “positive strategy” in Süskind's use of other texts (Ryan 396-97; cf. Hoesterey 172-76; Jacobson 201; Gray 490) by showing how the echoes of Das Fräulein von Scuderi in his novel expand constructively on the ironic—and by no means innocent—perspective on past poetry already evident in Hoffmann's text.2

Other commentaries have suggested that Süskind's “parodic dialogue” with Das Fräulein von Scuderi (Jacobson 202) involves simply his rejection of a naive Romantic's portrayal of a murderous artist. Accordingly, Süskind has “an easy time” parodying “the naive or ridiculous” in Hoffmann's presentation (Jacobson 204). Against this notion, one must credit Hoffmann for developing a parodic and self-conscious view of the potentials and limits of art that Süskind acknowledges from early on in his work and then carries to postmodern extremes.

Süskind combines one striking allusion with a compelling list of similarities to make Das Fräulein von Scuderi foremost among his many intertexts.3 After his opening sentence all but quotes an important phrase from Hoffmann's story, the rest of his narrative evokes essentials of Hoffmann's setting, plot, and theme to make that novella a recurring point of comparison and contrast with the text at hand.

The first sentence of Das Parfum alludes to the phrase that introduces René Cardillac. Its promise of “eine der genialsten und abscheulichsten Gestalten” (P [Das Parfum] 5)4 of the mid-18th century is clearly a variation on the description of Hoffmann's Cardillac as “einer der kunstreichsten und zugleich sonderbarsten Menschen” of the late 17th century (S [Das Fräulein von Scuderi] 22/17f.).5 Of course, this description of Cardillac is itself an allusion on Hoffmann's part to yet another well-known German Kriminalgeschichte. It evokes Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas (1808), whose first sentence describes its title figure as “einer der rechtschaffensten zugleich und furchtbarsten Männer” of the 16th century (Kleist 9; cf. Rindisbacher 301-02).

While basics of Süskind's narrative soon favor further comparisons between Grenouille and Cardillac, its double allusion in this first sentence forecasts the full scope and complexity of its postmodernist “double” or “multiple” code (cf. Jencks 97; Portoghesi 5; Eco 81; Huyssen 187; Welsch 16-17; Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism 30; Hoesterey 175; Ryan). With Grenouille, it offers a figure akin to Dracula, Jack the Ripper, or Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in his popular appeal to a general audience. Yet with its opening sentence, it also addresses a reader acquainted with other well-known texts to which the novel alludes. Above all, it signals even here how the novel draws attention to its relationship to works that are like it, not only in basic theme, but also in their tendency to allusion and self-conscious reflection on the potentials and limits of poetry.

First, Süskind's opening sentence phrases its combination of “genius” and “monster” as an allusion to a Hoffmann passage that itself alludes to Kleist. This invites the knowing reader to ponder the novel's kinship with Das Fräulein von Scuderi not simply as a romantic tale involving a monstrous artist, but also as a work typifying Hoffmann's tendency to signal and reflect on the relationship of his work to specific romantic forerunners. It recalls a Scuderi that follows Hoffmann's Goldner Topf (1814/15)—and, incidentally, anticipates Das Parfum—by evoking and qualifying the idealistic vision of the artist's mission in Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen (cf. Heine; Nygaard). Das Fräulein von Scuderi does this, for example, with a title heroine whose actions, while recalling the achievements of Eros and Fabel in Klingsohr's “Märchen” (Novalis 290-315; cf. Post), play that fairy tale's ideal of a world saved by poetry against a strikingly unredeemed historical reality (cf. Hoesterey 173-74; Ryan 398).

Second, by evoking specifically Scuderi and Kohlhaas, Süskind's opening offers the reader a still more detailed context in which to read the links of the Grenouille tale to the Romanticism of Hoffmann's day. Above all, it invites reflections on how the unfolding narrative, more than simply refuting the idealism and aestheticism of these two works, is responding constructively to their views on history and art.

By evoking Kohlhaas and Cardillac here, Süskind's novel programs the reader to receive Grenouille as one in a sequence of increasingly monstrous misfits whose terrors merely presage the upheavals and horrors of more modern times. By intimating this context at the outset, the narrative offers Grenouille's story not so much as a radical new perspective on history and the gifted individual, but rather as another link in a chain of similar works reaching back to Hoffmann and Kleist. By adding its 18th-century monster to Kleist's 16th-century “hero” and to Hoffmann's 17th-century murderer, it drives home the historical and poetological commentary already implicit in Das Fräulein von Scuderi: namely, that there is something less than permanent about the triumph of poetry over the chaos of reality.

Analogously, the presence of Kohlhaas and Scuderi also invites the knowing reader to see Süskind's narrative as one in a tradition of works that reflect critically on how texts, artworks, and poets portray those recurring horrors. Das Parfum proceeds toward an ending that drastically subverts attempts to find positive meaning in what has happened. Doing so, it remains conscious of its relationship to two romantic texts that also acknowledge ironically how only the hand of the poet can conjure up signs of love or salvation to weigh against the chaos of history. It evokes from the outset, and then intensifies, the self-conscious poetic irony of its two predecessors. Kleist's Kohlhaas achieves such irony with the extension of the text and contract motif to the narrative itself, and, above all, with the self-conscious metamorphosis of its chronicling narrator into the poetic creator of a fairy-tale finish (cf. Mehigan; Hoverland; Koelb). In Hoffmann's Scuderi, the irony is evident when the heroine's triumph and the “fairy-tale” good fortune of Olivier are subverted by the context of their heroic performances and by their relationship to Cardillac. Süskind keeps the positions of Kleist and Hoffmann present from start to finish and ends with a still greater gap between the “reassuring ring” of his last sentence and the “parodic” background of its context (Ryan 401).

Following this opening allusion, Süskind's narrative develops a variety of similarities to Hoffmann's story that keep Scuderi in the forefront of its interaction with romantic texts. Some already noted by critics, others proposed here for the first time, the further evocations of Hoffmann verify, and enlarge upon, the implications born of the opening allusion. They consistently take up and intensify Hoffmann's critical perspective on romantic trends of his day.

Even the settings illustrate this relationship. Both works play in a prerevolutionary yet strife-ridden France. Their events unfold amidst crises that predate the still more memorable horrors of the French Revolution and the emergence of Romanticism. Both stories depict artist figures whose relationships to that greater stage of events invite critical reflection on a romantic tradition in art and poetry that turned, in the face of still greater upheavals and monstrosities, away from historical and social reality to the more pleasant pursuit of pretty aromas, verses, or ideals. Yet even Süskind's choice of time frame indicates, rather than an effort merely to refute Hoffmann, a constructive process of parody that echoes aspects of the earlier text in order to reinforce warnings and ironies lost on previous readers.

Hoffmann presents a Cardillac whose obsession with preserving ideal beauties and unities makes him part of the anarchy of 1680. He also presents a Scuderi who only gradually emerges from her retreat into a realm of verses and gilt-edged books so alien to the needs of her society and “family” (cf. Post). He is offering a distant mirror to poets of his own generation so obsessed with the flight into the intoxicating visions of their private Atlantis worlds that they ignore and abet the crises born of a reign of terror much closer than that of 1680. By portraying Paris in 1680 as a virtual reign of terror, with the blood of the guilty and innocent flowing in the streets (S 13/9f.), Hoffmann reminds readers in 1820 that Scuderi's felicitous rescue of her young family was at best an insular and fleeting victory. She labored mightily to save something from a reign of terror ultimately dwarfed by upheavals that no idealistic poet could cure. Thus, as Hoffmann places the triumph of rhetoric and poetry in the foreground, he evokes a dark background of historical reality that subverts his apparently happy ending.

Süskind places his still more dangerous artist in a time frame that underlines what Hoffmann implies about historical developments. He makes Grenouille the isolated and hostile artist in one. He offers no mitigating, positive artist figure. Grenouille cultivates his world-making capacities in remotest seclusion from his countrymen and then returns to society to carry out his own “egocentric reign of terror” (Gray 493). Then, along with Süskind's many allusions to Romanticism and Neo-Romanticism (cf. Hoesterey; Ryan), the time frame that he chooses for this echo of the Scuderi/Cardillac combination takes up and emphasizes Hoffmann's misgivings about how Romanticism responded to the complexities of modern reality. After evoking the Scuderi story with his first clause, he invents a Grenouille who fits between the chaos of Cardillac's day and the chain of terrors that Hoffmann saw plaguing his homeland from the 1790s and on to the anarchy and witch-hunt that he witnessed as writer and jurist when he wrote his story (Weiss). This emphasizes the implications of Hoffmann's text about the tenuous, or even illusory, capacities of art and poetry to heal and save. It shows Scuderi's solution coming apart in sensational fashion even before the Saint-Justs, Fouchés and Bonapartes (P 5) work terrors that give both Hoffmann and Süskind doubts about the high expectations of an earlier Romanticism. Had Süskind wanted merely to belittle Hoffmann's idealistic notion of poetic triumph in 1680 as laughably naive, he could have chosen from several major horrors of recent times. Yet by setting his story between Scuderi and Hoffmann, he takes Hoffmann's side, embellishing the message already present in his predecessor's text. Thus, even with his temporal setting, Süskind echoes and exaggerates Das Fräulein von Scuderi in a way suggesting respect for Hoffmann. His relationship to Hoffmann tends to a category of parody that, rather than ridiculing the past work, instead satirizes “contemporary customs and practices” (Hutcheon, “Modern Parody and Bakhtin” 92, 97; cf. Markiewicz 1265) or aims its criticism “at readers naive enough to mistake fiction for fact and romanticism for realism” (Morson 72). It ridicules, if anything, the obtuse readers of Hoffmann who remain naively unaware of the ironic context in which he places his idealistic vision of the poetic mission.

Even without Süskind's allusion to Hoffmann in the first sentence, the other basic similarities of plot and theme are striking. Yet they, too, involve differences significant for grasping the exact nature of the parody involved. Not simply do both stories portray an eccentric and gifted artist who becomes a murderer with devilish attributes. In both cases, the artist/murderers struggle to preserve unities and beauties from the intercourse of everyday life. They both become obsessed with virginal women; they both break with the conventional use of their talents for commercial purposes and create secretly, even criminally, for themselves. In both cases as well, the narrators supply information about the birth and childhood of these artists that appears to have some bearing on their adult behavior. In both cases, finally, that information concerns mothers who, implied to be promiscuous and greedy to a lethal degree, thrust their infant sons into a childhood of traumatic squalor. Yet one point causes difficulty. Süskind merely recounts the facts of Grenouille's infancy and leaves the reader to consider their contribution to his artistic and murderous ways. On the other hand, Hoffmann—with the episode about Cardillac's prenatal trauma (S 55)—appears to offer his early 19th-century readers a “credible psychological explanation of an artist/killer” that Süskind's parody then exposes as naive (Jacobson 203).

Yet far from differing so markedly on this question of formative influences, the stories again prove similar in a way suggesting Süskind's constructive parody of his ironic predecessor. By including the episode about Cardillac's mother, Hoffmann does not attempt to appeal to readers willing to believe popular notions about the effects of prenatal trauma—or fateful destiny—on individual development (contrast Weiss; Jacobson). More like Süskind (cf. Jacobson 203), Hoffmann is playing ironically with the readiness of a reading public to embrace wondrous explanations of complex problems. Also, he is presenting the relationship of this artist to reality as a grotesquely extreme expression of essentially the same questionable romanticism that Süskind then thrusts, embodied by Grenouille, into the foreground of his narrative.

This episode enters Hoffmann's narrative enshrouded in layers of suspect narrative. It is a story based on stories, related within a story within the story. Not Hoffmann or his narrator, but Cardillac himself offers this prenatal episode to explain his behavior (cf. Ellis; Schneider; Werner; contrast Weiss; Jacobson). Not Hoffmann or his narrator, but Cardillac himself claims that wise men have much to say about the wondrous influences that prenatal incidents can have upon a child (S 55/4ff.; contrast Jacobson 203). By remaining silent on the topic of prenatal trauma, the narrator allows the biased source of this adventurous explanation—the murderer himself (cf. Werner)—together with his portrayal of wise men throughout the story as poisonous scientists and irresponsible court poets, to speak more for critical distance than for agreement. By commenting neither on the veracity of Cardillac's tale nor on the events surrounding his birth and childhood, Hoffmann's narrator leaves the reader to assume one of two things. Either Cardillac has taken up and retold stories about an event involving his mother when she was pregnant with him. Or Cardillac has simply invented the entire sequence of bejeweled cavalier, pregnant mother, seduction, and mysterious death. In the former case, Cardillac may have suffered trauma as a child upon hearing that his mother, when he was one with her or in her, became involved in a promiscuous act motivated by greed and lust, and resulting in the death of the intruder. In the latter case, Cardillac may be projecting another childhood trauma involving his mother's sexual activity—an episode of parental coitus, perhaps (cf. Schneider; Werner)—back into a time that renders him the helpless victim of a cruel fate and an evil world.

In either case, the tale points to circumstances of Cardillac's birth and childhood in which the reader can—as with Grenouille—see the seeds of his later activity as a murderous artist. Whether Cardillac is passing on stories he has heard, or inventing the whole episode, the content of his tale suggests that, at an early age and in traumatic fashion, he experienced that the real world was not all that a child might hope it to be. Whether through rumors about his pregnant mother, or through some childhood experience, or, perhaps, simply by encountering the moral stench of Parisian society—its misuse of beautiful art and women for gratification—he came to see all that he thought to be pure and originally one with himself caught up in a sordid struggle to satisfy need and lust. Like the facts of Grenouille's case, fundamentals of Cardillac's prenatal tale suggest that he experienced birth and childhood as a traumatic expulsion from safety and unity with his origins into the odious squalor of human and social reality. Like Grenouille, he turns to an artistic activity that caricatures the aesthetic idealism of the romantic tradition, embodying in grotesquely extreme form its negative response to unpleasant realities. Like the early German Romantic poets responding to the chaos and materialism of their day, both Cardillac and Grenouille take flight into an aesthetic activity that aggressively rejects material and sensual exploitation of art. While conventional goldsmiths and perfumers fill orders for customers inclined to purchase beauty, and to use it to adorn and seduce, these two depart from the commercial use of their talents (cf. Werner). They strive instead to preserve absolutely, and even at the cost of life, essences and ideals that reality threatens and misuses (cf. Gray 503f.).

In either case as well, Cardillac's telling of this story further characterizes him as an artist akin to Grenouille in his tendency to distill from the raw materials of life—here, his own—some artfully preserved, sweet-smelling essence. Whether he is merely passing on stories once heard, or inventing the whole episode, the goldsmith Cardillac becomes here a storyteller bent upon fashioning his actions into a fiction that dresses up the ugly facts in trappings of pathos and mission. He kills to uphold ideals of a unity and chastity that are at odds with reality. He attempts to restore the perfect unity of artist and artwork, and to enforce feminine virtue—and prevent men from misusing Schmuck—in a world where intercourse is the order of the day in both areas. He becomes a murderer trying to guard forbidden fruits, and to serve various “holy” virgins in a city where most swear to a saint named Dionysius. It is hardly out of place that both Miossens and the king (twice!) swear by St. Dionys (S 18/23, 67/34, 74/30f.). St. Dionys was an early pope (AD 260-268) and patron saint of Paris. yet recurring amidst so many references to heavenly and holy virgins, the name underlines the contrast between Cardillac's obsessions and the tenor of the times.

As a storyteller, Cardillac does violence to the complex truth to fashion a fancifully idealized version of himself. He romanticizes his actions and obscures the moral questionability of his behavior by offering himself as the object of a great struggle involving metaphysical forces. On the one hand, he is the victim of a fateful “evil star” (S 56/5f., 58/6) or of Satan (S 58/35); on the other hand, he associates himself with divine powers represented by exalted virgins. His artistic activity leads, like Grenouille's, to a dead-end tunnel and many corpses. Yet his version of events adorns his murderous response to those who sully or misuse his treasures in a fiction that makes him appear, on the one hand, as a helpless victim of “wondrous influences” (S 55/5), and, on the other, as the avenging angel of virtue in a moral morass that defiles beauty.

Another major point of comparison between the two stories arises here. Both relate their artist/murderers to a greater context of artistic or poetic activity. Both Cardillac and Grenouille are involved in the development and productivity of other artists—and the resulting network of comparisons and contrasts that emerge among the various artists has a significant bearing on the intertextuality at issue here.

One striking difference: While Cardillac is one of several artist figures in Hoffmann's story, Grenouille stands alone, a singular artist figure in Süskind's novel. Hoffmann reflects on possibilities and dangers of artistic activity not solely through his artist/murderer, but also through other poets, craftsmen, and storytellers. Süskind narrows the focus to two artists: Grenouille and himself. By developing parallels between Grenouille's artistic activity and the “process by means of which the text itself has been constructed” (Ryan 396), he reflects self-consciously on Grenouille as a disturbing mirror of his own artistry (cf. Stadelmaier; Jacobson).

By all appearances, Hoffmann's view of the artist retains, even foregrounds, positive possibilities that Süskind omits. While both stories depict a gifted artist as murderer, Hoffmann appears to keep Cardillac at a distance. He reduces him to the evil element in a greater picture that shows the healing potentials of poetry prevailing. Cardillac yields center stage to artists rising up against evil. Mlle. de Scuderi is not only the title figure but also the indisputable central figure of his story (cf. Post; Pikulik; contrast Schneider). The narrative focuses on her response to the dangers that Cardillac embodies. It highlights her emergence from her illusory verses to use her rhetorical and narrative talents to rescue something from the moral swamp. Olivier Brusson also plays a decisive role in this positive development. He breaks free of his apprenticeship to Cardillac to narrate in a way that prevails against Cardillac's evil. He intrudes into Scuderi's isolated world of poetry, telling her of Cardillac's problems and rousing her out of her recurring Ohnmacht. Then, his daring refusal not to tell all of the facts helps to steer things to an apparently happy ending. Accordingly, Hoffmann counters the critical view of art embodied by Cardillac with a positive poetic development in which some interpretations have even seen echoes of Novalis's idealistic view of the poetic mission (cf. Post). By contrast, Süskind has stripped away the idealism of that foreground and placed his monster front and center, not countering him with visions of the healing potential of art or poetry.

Yet on this point, too, a closer look shows how Süskind's echoes of Hoffmann, rather than simply refuting the earlier work for its naive faith in art, take up and intensify elements already present in Hoffmann's story. Hoffmann's story itself undermines the one saliently romantic feature that Süskind's novel, after alluding to Hoffmann with its opening sentence, and evoking his story throughout, provocatively drops. Far from offering an idealism that stands in contrast to Süskind's view, it ironically subverts the ideal that Süskind then renders conspicuously absent. In doing so, it also anticipates the self-conscious parallel between its own creative process and the artistry of its artist/murderer—a parallel that in Süskind's novel so radically undermines the closing intimations of the capacity of the artist to call forth miracles and love.

Hoffmann's story places its account of Scuderi's positive development and final triumph in a doubly ironic light. It establishes a critical perspective on poetic activity that attempts to hide problematic realities behind some aromatic form of verse, drama, or narrative. As the narrative then proceeds toward its apparent happy ending, this skepticism strikes not only the two surviving artist figures but also the narrative itself. In Hoffmann's story, the final triumph of Scuderi and Olivier appears in a context that raises doubts about how the old poetess and her “son” relate to Cardillac. Hoffmann treats their positive turn with an irony—often overlooked by critics (cf. Post)—that Süskind's novel takes up and emphasizes.

The Olivier who seems so heroic when he keeps his silence is also concealing the truth behind a self-serving bit of performance and storytelling. The frequent references to his behavior here as “heldenmütig” (S 63/25, 64/19, 64/30) invite suspicion and critical reflection, not to mention the absurdity of his story about shielding poor Madelon from the allegedly lethal truth about her father. These reflections cannot but note that Olivier is doing here what he had already done for too long when Cardillac was still alive. As before, he is concealing his shared guilt while retaining both Madelon and his heroic appearance. This he does with a piece of narrative that ranks him with Cardillac and even the narrator of the novella as yet another storyteller who leaves the unpleasant truth in the background while making much of how he acts in some great spiritual battle to serve a “heavenly” virgin. The gamble works for Olivier. Without having to be mourned as the “unschuldig Gefallener” (S 63/3), he appears heroic and wins Madelon. Yet his exile from Paris associates him with those scientists and artists who imported so much trouble in the first place. Fittingly, Süskind works elements reminiscent of Olivier's dubious heroism in still more extreme form into his portrayal of Grenouille. This is evident when Grenouille deliberates killing his first victim in Grasse—he strikes heroically selfless poses while in fact toying with a young girl's life (P 244)—or when he escapes execution by sprinkling himself with the aroma of beautiful virgins.

Similarly, the Scuderi who intercedes to help the young lovers is also offering yet another “carefully calculated performance” (Weiss 185) of illusory rhetoric and poetic fireworks. As with Olivier's “heroism,” the description of her poetic “victory” is of an extravagance that raises doubts. Appearances show her orchestrating a fairy-tale ending with herself in the role of “fürsorgende Mutter, die über den Jüngling schützend ihre Hand hält” (Pikulik 169)—or even as a “heilige Jungfrau” (S 61/12) giving life to a “son.” Yet the larger context reveals a continuing pattern that detracts from this triumph and shows the surviving players continuing with behavior that evokes aspects of Cardillac—or, for that matter, even of Grenouille.

More than once already, Scuderi has marshaled her poetic talents to earn the king's favor—yet misguide the Cardillac case. Early on, her little French verse had enchanted the king by adorning the street violence with a “ritterlicher Geist” (S 18/21). This moved the king to act willfully in the Cardillac case and—“Beim heiligen Dionys” (S 18/23)—let legal and criminal forces go their anarchic way. Later, she had suppressed “alle Schauer unheimlicher Ahnung” (S 29/19f.) regarding Cardillac to charm the king with witty poetry about her status as the “dreiundsiebzigjährige Goldschmiedsbraut” (S 29/20f.). The king praises this poem as “das Witzigste …, das je geschrieben” (S 29/25), and Scuderi puts the worrisome “Brautschmuck” out of sight and mind while events run their ugly course. Responding months later to another frightening intrusion by her desperate—but, revealingly, unrecognized—“son” (S 29f.), she flees the confusion and reaches for her perfume bottle (S 30/18). Her brief resolve to extricate herself (S 30f.) soon fades, and she succumbs to the allure of courtly “Verse, Schauspiele, Anekdoten” (S 31/18f.) while Cardillac and Olivier go on to face Miossens.

Her last triumph is not a convincing exception to this pattern. Scuderi plays Cardillac's bride once again, gaining the king's ear as much with her grand theatrical entrance in the notorious “Brautschmuck” (S 70/15f.) as with the power of her poetry (contrast Pikulik 169). Also, like her earlier chivalric verse (S 18) and witty poem (S 29), her narrative here distorts or suppresses some alarming truths. She takes care to omit any admission of wrong-doing by Olivier or herself; she celestializes liberally where Olivier's fate and Madelon's beauty are concerned (S 70f.). Like her previous performances, too, these “glowing words” (S 70/36) give rise both to more fulsome praise from the king and to more questionable justice. In this context, the fact that Scuderi's speech strikes King Louis with the “Gewalt des lebendigsten Lebens” (S 70/35f.) speaks as much for his ignorance as it does for her poetry (contrast Pikulik 169). Although he claims to have found Scuderi's eloquence—again “beim heiligen Dionys” (S 74/30f.)—irresistible, it is in fact Madelon's “angelic” beauty that saves the day. Madelon reminds the king of a former mistress since turned nun. For all Scuderi's efforts, Olivier's fate depends more on whether Louis will be guided by tender memories of that past love or by bitterness about her retreat to the nunnery (S 72).

Despite its positive appearances, this poetic last stand retains some of the alarming undertones so evident in Scuderi's encounter with Olivier preceding Cardillac's death (S 29-31). Like her reaction then, her performance here might have at its center a moral resolve bespeaking a mother's devotion to her son (compare S 30/30f.). Yet it, too, starts and ends with flights into “perfumery” (S 30/18) and dabbling in the petty aestheticism and jealousies of the royal court (S 31/15-26) that leave a dark side of both the society and the poetess unaltered. Freeing Olivier, Scuderi fosters one more instance of capricious justice in a chain of such events. The Cardillac case is willfully closed and forgotten, along with all it reveals about dangerous extremes of art. While honoring her own talents, Scuderi also reveals her dubious status as “mother” and “bride.” Her performance admits her dark betrothal to Cardillac and undermines her “motherhood.” She remains behind and alone in Cardillac's jewelry and black bridal costume. Olivier and Madelon depart, leaving her childless once again to tend to her verses and books as the world goes its way.

With this ending, Hoffmann parodies Novalis's “Klingsohr” tale, rather than merely echoing it. He counters that allegorically expressed ideal of a world saved by poetry with this insular and ambiguous triumph of Scuderi. And fittingly again, Süskind defiles and destroys the ideal that Hoffmann treats ironically. It is a small step from the way Hoffmann's figures elevate themselves to celestial roles in some great cosmic struggle to the way Grenouille sends up a silent prayer to himself for being the way he is (P 278f.). It is a smaller step still from the poetry with which Scuderi douses herself and Olivier to the perfume that Grenouille pours upon himself. Anointed with the artfully concocted essences of virginal purity, they capture the all-swallowing pleasure of an unregenerate mob.

Hoffmann's ending draws not only Scuderi and Olivier but also the narrative itself into the shadow of irony that its artist/murderer casts upon art. Even with Olivier, the narrative includes a self-ironic mirror of how its own story of a dangerous artist turns into a self-serving glorification of artists. One important detail: Olivier's account of the goldsmith's death echoes the narrator's introduction of Cardillac. Its description of him as the “verruchtester und zugleich unglücklichster aller Menschen” (S 53/28f.) recalls the narrator's phrase, “einer der kunstreichsten und zugleich sonderbarsten Menschen seiner Zeit” (S 22/17f.). Olivier then goes on to downplay what Cardillac's case implies about questionable and guilty artists, while self-servingly embellishing his role as a servant of transcendent forces and an innocent, heroic victim (S 62f.). He claims here that an “eternal power” (S 62/32f.) has concealed the truth about Cardillac's “hellish deeds” (S 63/5), while in fact he and Cardillac have done the concealing. He professes here his readiness to be mourned by Madelon as an “unschuldig Gefallener” (S 63/3), while elsewhere he has admitted his guilt, claiming himself innocent only of “Blutschuld” (S 62/27-31).

While this inscribed narrative invites reflection on how its host text portrays guilty and heroic artists, the portrayal of Scuderi's triumph recalls Cardillac's fictions in a way that gives the coup de grâce to any simplistic reading of the title figure's development as a non-ironic paean to the power of poetry. The narrative foregrounds the virgin poetess as the savior of art's healing powers. It tries to guarantee through her the worth and sense of its own activity. Yet the same narrative has already shown Cardillac doing essentially the same thing in a very questionable manner. It has shown Cardillac turning to fictions involving exalted virgins in an effort to give his activity a more appealing appearance. He takes pains to link his fate with such pure and exalted women as the virgin of St. Eustache or Henriette of England—or Scuderi. Thus, long before the story itself embraces Scuderi as a savior of poetry, it has already presented Cardillac as a grotesque exponent of similarly illusory and self-serving idealism. His desire to make Scuderi his idol anticipates—and thus prequalifies—the narrative's attempt to deal with the pathological extremes of art while having them triumphed over by a poetess who recalls the Eros and Fabel figures in Novalis's Ofterdingen. The obvious gap between the diseased truth of Cardillac's behavior and his fictional explanations invites a skeptical look at the triumph of heroism and poetry that the narrative's ending places in the foreground. It encourages reflection on how the ending of the story resembles Cardillac's self-centered treatment of his artworks. That is, much as Cardillac “gives away,” but then steals back, his masterpieces, the story appears to give its readers in Scuderi a hopeful perspective on the positive potential of art, yet simultaneously repossesses it, making it another instance of the artist glorifying artistic activity that does violence to reality.

This element, too, Süskind takes up and emphasizes. The relationship of his ending to Hoffmann's goes beyond the fact that he exiles the likes of Olivier and Scuderi from his narrative. Instead, its ironic and parodic elements amplify the self-conscious criticism evident in the earlier work. Süskind's closing sequence evokes once more the authors alluded to in the first sentence of the novel. Then it goes on to intensify the irony with which they had embedded closing intimations of sense or hope in contexts that invited skeptical reflections on the validity of such texts and interpretations. And like Hoffmann's narrative in particular, Süskind's uses its similarity to the artistic activity of its artist/murderer to undermine its intimations of sense or closure.

As the events of 25 July 1767 approach, Süskind's narrative calls attention to how any attempt to read a redeeming sense into Grenouille's action imitates Grenouille's own self-glorifying misuse of stolen and artistically enhanced aromas. The portrayal of Antoine Richis warns against readings of Grenouille that self-indulgently poeticize or idealize his actions, while recalling the ironic perspective of Hoffmann's story on Scuderi's poetic activity. Thus, while Süskind's novel pointedly lacks a figure corresponding to Scuderi as the triumphant poetess, it presents in Richis essentially the same self-glorifying idealism that Hoffmann had portrayed critically in his heroine. As it does so, it drives home how such flights into poetically beautified versions of reality entail kinship or complicity with the monstrous artist (cf. Gray 501).

Richis's interpretation of the serial killer recalls Scuderi's early poetic response to Cardillac's murders. Like Scuderi's little French verse, his deductions give events an idealistic appearance of sense and mission while allowing him to bask in the glory of his own sensibility and talent. He reveres the murderer for his eloquent logic and “ideelles Motiv,” and even more so himself as the author of those insights (P 260). Richis's subsequent actions also recall the questionable aspects of Romantic idealism that Hoffmann had woven into Scuderi's development. His efforts to save first his daughter and then his “son” echo the progress of Scuderi's responses to the evil around her. Each sequence emphasizes the Hoffmann story's intimations of how idealistic flights of fancy involve either a selfish neglect or a self-glorifying beautification of reality.

When evil intrusions first threaten Scuderi's virgin world, she retreats into her poetic pursuits or falls “in Ohnmacht,” only to become the unwitting accomplice to further evil. Likewise Richis: sure of his superiority to the murderer, he flees with his virgin daughter, only to become an unwitting accomplice in her death. Caught up in his image of intellectual hero, he styles himself as the gifted savior of virginal beauty, while in fact his actions threaten the life of a beautiful virgin. He poses, preens, and sleeps soundly while Grenouille does his work (P 279).

Drawn at last into action, Scuderi had leaped to the defense of her “son” Olivier. She achieved a solution that the full context renders suspect as yet another poetic performance concealing complex truths behind well-played impressions of heroism and salvation. Richis's last acts echo that sequence and bring the dark background of Scuderi's relationship to Olivier pointedly to the fore. More blatantly than Scuderi, Richis ends as adoring savior of a guilty man lionized as hero. Failed once as a parent, he rescues Grenouille from the chaos and embraces him as his “son.” These actions recall and transcend those of Scuderi and Olivier in their attempt to force an idealized, self-serving ending on gruesome events. Scuderi and Olivier had directed attention away from Cardillac and foregrounded assuring images of other artists triumphing over such evil. Richis elevates and imitates the artist/murderer; he promotes Grenouille and himself from their status as murderer and accomplice to guardians of perfection and ideals.

After taking up and emphasizing the irony of Hoffmann's view of idealistic poetry with Richis's episodes, Süskind's novel ends with a pointed reminder of its own kinship to those other suspect artists. Its closing episode blatantly imitates the “perfuming” technique of Grenouille. It borrows and mixes pleasing aromas—or episodes, or phrases—to give self-centered activities the aura of nobility or beauty. Then, with its last sentence, it pointedly identifies itself with a final, glaringly illusory, attempt at such beautification.

The account of Grenouille's death recalls the two authors alluded to in the opening sentence of the novel. It also intensifies the irony with which their works offer idealistic intimations of sense and triumph in what has happened. Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas is evoked again, for example, when one horrible execution is averted through the workings of what seem wondrous powers, only to be followed by another execution linking the victim to the folk, and involving a strange act of devouring. The two-sided effect of such devouring on Süskind's mob—“Es war ihnen, wenngleich im Magen etwas schwer, im Herzen durchaus leicht zumute” (P 320)—recalls the two Bible passages (Ezekiel 2:9-3:3 and Revelations 10:8-10:10) evoked by Kleist's last episode, with their references to the pleasant and unpleasant results of swallowing (cf. Dietrick 171; Koelb 1103). Other works by Kleist are recalled as well: his drama Penthesilea, for example, where a hero is devoured, allegedly out of love (Kleist 796); or Die Marquise von O …, where a scoundrel is forgiven and embraced so that self-serving fictions might be upheld (cf. Swales; Furst). Hoffmann's story is present again as well. With Scuderi conspicuously absent, with Richis's imitation of her a delusion, the mob itself offers up an echo of her struggle to rescue signs of love and hope from the chaos. Yet while Süskind's ending echoes specific motifs and details from those earlier endings, it subjects their ironically offered assurances of hope or sense to still more blatant subversion. It poses even those qualified signs against a radically disillusioning context that shows the figures adorning events in pleasing, ennobling phrases. By ending with the voracious mob's attempt to put a smiling face of pride and love on what has happened (P 320), it identifies itself with such efforts. It refuses to rise righteously above them, or to pump out further, more pleasant aromas orideals that might rescue a closing glimpse of the healing capacity of its poetry. Instead, by falling silent with the mob's illusory imitation of the idealism of an earlier age, Süskind's narrative invites readers to remain forever disinclined to “swallow” poetic intimations that would beautify the truth (cf. Ryan 402).

Thus, Süskind's text, more than simply including Das Fräulein von Scuderi in its large roster of works recalled, evokes Hoffmann's story throughout, alluding to it in the first sentence and echoing it with essentials of setting, plot, theme, and ending. The postmodernist's parody of that predecessor might appear simply to counter and refute the earlier work's struggle to save some saving power for poetry and art in chaotic times. Süskind's narrative deprives the artist/murderer of any excuse for his actions; it eliminates elements that might seem to explain or justify. Also, it provocatively drops that idealistic promise to which Hoffmann appears to have given titular significance: the poetess as savior. Yet while Süskind's changes are significant testimony to his postmodernist thrust, this closer look at his echoes of Hoffmann's story reveals more homage and constructiveness in his response to this one romantic text so prominent in his entire pastiche. It shows Süskind underlining critical perspectives on the artist that Hoffmann makes with subtle irony. It also shows Süskind evoking Hoffmann's works, not in order simply to ridicule the illusory ideals of an earlier era, but rather to echo Hoffmann's misgivings in exaggerated form, while paying tribute to the open-ended, lastingly provocative self-irony of his prescient forerunner. As Süskind contributes to a “new portrait of the artist that emerges from the ashes of the tradition of Künstlerliteratur” (Jacobson 203), he also leaves little doubt that Hoffmann's story contains promising embryos of that phoenix's rebirth.


  1. For a defense of postmodernist intertextuality, see especially Huyssen, Welsch, Hoesterey, and Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism.

  2. Hoesterey leads this defense of Das Parfum (esp. 175), arguing that it fulfills Eco's definition of the ideal postmodern novel, whose answer to modernism consists in its acknowledgment of a past “die auf neue Weise ins Auge gefaßt werden muß: mit Ironie und ohne Unschuld” (Eco 78). Jacobson pursues a similar defense, attributing the “Ironie/Unschuld” dictum to Ortheil (Jacobson 201; Ortheil 17).

  3. Regarding the term “allusion” used here, see Ben-Porat and Perri. For a survey of works, styles, genres to which Das Parfum refers or alludes, see Hoesterey (172-75), Hallet, Ryan, Jacobson, Rindisbacher, and Gray.

  4. References to Süskind's novel are indicated in the text in parentheses by P + page number(s).

  5. References to Hoffmann's story are indicated in the text in parentheses by S + page/line number(s).

Works Cited

Adams, Robert M. “The Nose Knows.” Review of Perfume, by Patrick Süskind. The New York Review of Books 20 November 1986: 24-26.

Ben-Porat, Ziva. “The Poetics of Literary Allusion.” PTL: A Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature 1 (1976): 106-28.

Dietrick, Linda. Prisons and Idylls: Studies in Heinrich von Kleist's Fictional World. Frankfurt/Bern/New York: Lang, 1985.

Eco, Umberto. Nachschrift zum “Namen der Rose.” Trans. Burkhart Kroeber. Munich: Hanser, 1984.

Ellis, John. “E. T. A. Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi.Modern Language Review 64 (1969): 340-50.

Fischer, Michael. “Ein Stänkerer gegen die Deo-Zeit.” Review of Das Parfum, by Patrick Süskind. Der Spiegel 4 March 1985: 237-40.

Furst, Lilian. “Double-Dealing: Irony in Kleist's Die Marquise von O—.Echoes and Influences of Romanticism: Essays in Honour of Hans Eichner. Ed. Michael S. Batts, Anthony W. Riley, and Heinz Wetzel. New York/Bern/Frankfurt: Lang, 1987, 85-95.

Gray, Richard T. “The Dialectic of ‘Enscentment’: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum as Critical History of Enlightenment Culture.” PMLA 108 (1993): 489-505.

Hage, Volker. “Zur deutschen Literatur 1985.” Deutsche Literatur 1985: Jahresüberblick. Ed. Volker Hage. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1986. 7-47.

Hallet, Wolfgang. “Das Genie als Mörder: Über Patrick Süskinds Das Parfum.Literatur für Leser 1989: 275-88.

Heine, Roland. Transzendentalpoesie: Studien zu Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis und E. T. A. Hoffmann. Bonn: Bouvier, 1974.

Hoesterey, Ingeborg. Verschlungene Schriftzeichen: Intertextualität von Literatur und Kunst in der Moderne/Postmoderne. Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1988.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. Das Fräulein von Scuderi: Erzählung aus dem Zeitalter Ludwig des Vierzehnten. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1969.

Höpfner, Niels. “Grenouille—Das Nasenmonster: Irdische, himmlische und höllische Düfte.” Review of Das Parfum, by Patrick Süskind. Die Presse 6-8 April 1985: vii.

Hoverland, Lilian. Heinrich von Kleist: Das Prinzip der Gestaltung. Königstein: Scriptor, 1978.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985.

———. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York/London: Routledge, 1988.

———. “Modern Parody and Bakhtin.” Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges. Ed. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1989. 87-103.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Jacobson, Manfred R. “Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum: A Postmodern Künstlerroman.The German Quarterly 65 (1992): 201-11.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 65-66.

Jencks, Charles. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. London: Academy, 1977.

Kleist, Heinrich von. Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. Zweiter Band. Ed. Helmut Sembdner. Munich: Hanser, 1961.

Koelb, Clayton. “Incorporating the Text: Kleist's ‘Michael Kohlhaas.’” PMLA 105 (1990): 1098-108.

Lucht, Frank. “‘Erkennen Sie die Melodie?’: Postmoderne Romane.” Merkur 40 (1986): 892-97.

Markiewicz, Henryk. “On the Definition of Literary Parody.” To Honour Roman Jakobson on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday. Vol. II. The Hague: Mouton, 1967. 1264-72.

Von Matt, Beatrice. “Das Scheusal als Roman-held.” Review of Das Parfum, by Patrick Süskind. Neue Zürcher Zeitung 15 March 1985.

Morson, Gary Saul. “Parody, History, and Metaparody.” Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges. Ed. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1989. 63-86.

Mehigan, Timothy. Text as Contract: The Nature and Function of Narrative Discourse in the Erzählungen of Heinrich von Kleist. Frankfurt, Bern, New York: Lang, 1988.

Novalis [Friedrich von Hardenberg]. Schriften. Erster Band: Das dichterische Werk. Ed. Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel, in collaboration with Heinz Ritter and Gerhard Schulz. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960.

Nutt, Harry. “Kürzelkritik und Kritik des Kürzels.” Deutsche Literatur 1986: Jahresüberblick. Ed. Volker Hage. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1987. 313-22.

Nygaard, L. C. “Anselmus as Amanuensis: The Motif of Copying in Hoffmann's Der goldne Topf.Seminar 19 (1983): 79-104.

Ortheil, Hanns Josef. “Das Lesen—ein Spiel: Postmoderne Literatur? Die Literatur der Zukunft!” Die Zeit 17 April 1987: Feuilleton 59.

Perri, Carmela. “On Alluding.” Poetics 7 (1978): 289-307.

Pikulik, Lothar. E. T. A. Hoffmann als Erzähler: Ein Kommentar zu den ‘Serapions-Brüdern.’ Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1987.

Pokern, Ulrich. “Der Kritiker als Zirku(lation)sagent: Literaturkritik am Beispiel von Patrick Süskinds Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders.Text + Kritik 100 (1988): 70-76.

Portoghesi, Paolo. After Modern Architecture. Trans. Meg Shore. New York: Rizzoli, 1982.

Post, Klaus D. “Kriminalgeschichte als Heilsgeschichte: Zu E. T. A. Hoffmanns Erzählung Das Fräulein von Scuderi,Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 95 (1976), Sonderheft: 132-56.

Reich-Ranicki, Marcel. “Des Mörders betörender Duft.” Review of Das Parfum, by Patrick Süskind. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2 March 1985.

Rindisbacher, Hans J. The Smell of Books: A Cultural-Historical Study of Olfactory Perception in Literature. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.

Ryan, Judith. “The Problem of Pastiche: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum.The German Quarterly 63 (1990): 396-403.

Schneider, Peter: “Verbrechen, Künstlertum und Wahnsinn: Untersuchungen zur Figur des Cardillac in E. T. A. Hoffmanns Das Fräulein von Scuderi.Mitteilungen der E. T. A. Hoffmann Gesellschaft 26 (1980): 34-50.

Schütte, Wolfram. “Parabel und Gedankenspiel.” Review of Das Parfum, by Patrick Süskind. Frankfurter Rundschau 5 April 1985: Beilage 4.

Siegmund-Schultze, Walter. “Das Zitat im zeitgenössischen Musikschaffen: eine produktivschöpferische Traditionslinie?” Musik und Gesellschaft 27.2 (1977): 73-78.

Stadelmaier, Gerhard. “Lebens-Riechlauf eines Duftmörders.” Review of Das Parfum, by Patrick Süskind. Frankfurter Rundschau Easter 1985.

Süskind, Patrick. Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders. Zurich: Diogenes, 1985.

Swales, Erika. “The Beleaguered Citadel: A Study of Kleist's Die Marquise von O—.Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 51 (1977): 129-47.

Weiss, Hermann F. “‘The Labyrinth of Crime’: A Re-Interpretation of E. T. A. Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi.Germanic Review 51 (1976): 181-89.

Welsch, Wolfgang. Unsere postmoderne Moderne. Weinheim: Acta humaniora, 1988.

Werner, Johannes. “Was treibt Cardillac? Ein Goldschmied auf Abwegen.” Wirkendes Wort 40 (1990): 32-38.

Bradley Butterfield (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Butterfield, Bradley. “Enlightenment's Other in Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum: Adorno and the Ineffable Utopia of Modern Art.” Comparative Literature Studies 32, no. 3 (1995): 401-18.

[In the following essay, Butterfield examines Das Parfum in terms of the positive values of the text's negativity as postulated by Theodor Adorno's concept of “determinate negation” which concerns the consciousness of contradiction which denies resolution.]

(T)here is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better.

Theodor Adorno1

The legacy of nineteenth-century detective fiction includes an ever growing body of criticism—a poetics of detection, if you will—as well as a number of variations on the detective theme, including what William Spanos has termed “the anti-detective story.”2 Peter Brooks finds in the detective plot a paradigm for the way that desire functions in narrative, while critics such as D. A. Miller and Franco Moretti see the detective-plot structure as reinforcing normative values, masking material relations, and promoting capitalist ideology. According to their view, the detective is the embodiment of Western ratio, the scientific ideal of a predictable, manageable, well ordered society. Carlo Ginsburg, on the other hand, sees the detective, as well as the proclivity to narrate, as part of a much older tradition dating back to primitive hunting societies. The detective, like the hunter, is one who collects seemingly insignificant data—physical traces left by the hunted—in order to reconstruct a narrative, “which could be expressed most simply as ‘someone passed this way.’”3 In Ginsburg's assessment, the hunter and the detective (via Conan-Doyle) are linked with Freud and the nineteenth-century art critic Morelli as representing a “presumptive” or “semiotic” paradigm reemerging in the human sciences towards the end of the nineteenth century. The detective does not represent the scientific ideal—the Galilean paradigm—but rather something more basic and akin to the instincts. One might therefore be inclined to call his methods primitive, but as Levi-Strauss has shown in The Savage Mind, such “primitivism” has its own “science of the concrete,” which he terms “bricolage.”4 Holmes's ability to detect a specific brand of tobacco by the smell of its ash, for example, relies on a taxonomic study of seemingly insignificant everyday objects—cigarettes—and the ability to use one's nose, the most “primitive” of senses.

Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum, an anomaly in the detective genre, draws on elements of detective fiction as well as “antidetective” fiction—for Spanos the paradigmatic postmodern form—and characterizes the opposition between reason and instinct by way of an apt metaphor: the opposition of sight and smell. A bestseller in Germany and translated into twenty-five languages, Das Parfum utilizes the detective motif of crime and punishment and reads like a trendy suspense thriller. Its plot is structured around the life of the criminal, leading from birth to death, a “detour leading back to the goal of quiescence.”5 Unlike the classic detective novel, however, suspense in Das Parfum does not hinge on the detective bringing to light information which the reader does not already possess—as in Conan-Doyle, for instance, where the reader is situated between Holmes and Watson in terms of “intelligence.” The story is told omnisciently with narrative focus on the criminal himself (Grenouille), so that the reader always has the jump on the detective figures (the wealthy merchant Richis and the community in general). The detective function is, in fact, confounded by the text, such that the criminal wins and loses at the same time—rather than suffering his just deserts in time honored fashion.

To explain, a brief plot summary is perhaps in order. Rejected at birth by his mother and raised in social institutions reminiscent of Dickens, Grenouille comes to realize that he has an abnormally acute sense of smell, and later that he himself actually possesses no scent, no personal odor. In an effort to compensate for this horrifying deficiency, he utilizes his gift for perfumes—which he originally cultivated to combat the stench of the world—in order to devise a perfume which will give him a real, human-like odor. Dissatisfied with smelling like an average human, however, he hatches a plot to concoct a perfume for himself made from the distilled essences of the most beautiful virgins in the country. The merchant Richis, who realizes that his own daughter will inevitably fall victim to Grenouille, becomes the detective of the scientific ideal (ratio), but fails to stop Grenouille because of his reliance on the sense of sight (rationality) rather than smell (instinct). Grenouille is finally captured by sheer accident, yet saves himself on the scaffold by putting on his virgin-made perfume, which turns the angry mob into a mass orgy in his honor. Having achieved his greatest wish—to be loved by the human race he detests—Grenouille is filled only with disgust and contempt. Realizing that his victory is complete and yet wholly dissatisfying, he commits suicide by covering himself with his perfume and walking out into a crowd of people, who tear him to shreds with the insatiable love inspired by his perfume.

Such an ironic victory for the forces of evil, as well as its apparent fascination with moral depravity, may render Süskind's narrative politically suspect for some readers—a recent seminar discussion at my university revolved around this very issue. Does not Süskind, it was asked, by creating an identification with his monster Grenouille, actually contribute to the destructive, or negative tendency of enlightenment aesthetics which his book implicitly outlines? While the responsibility artists take on in terms of the influence of their work is an issue which leads quickly to moralizing, a more theoretical approach may still pose the question of the reader's identification with the text, along with the political function of art in general. Reader response theories as well as others have taken this route,6 though one might argue, along with Adorno, that “praxis is not the impact works have; it is the hidden potential of their truth content.”7 It is this so called “truth content” of Das Parfum which I attempt to bring to light here, hoping to demonstrate what I would call the positive value of the text's negativity. For truth content in Adorno is above all a matter of a work's negativity, not in the sense of the “positive” or “negative” feelings or values it inspires—which could easily play into the hands of politically committed art, which Adorno opposed—but rather in the dialectical sense of “determinate negation,” the consciousness of contradiction which denies resolution.

In a recent article, Richard Gray has offered a succinct summary of Das Parfum's critical history, which has “given rise to the imputation that Süskind's success stems from his status as a literary epigone …, and this, in turn, has prompted a critique of Das Parfum that cites the novel's intertextual pastiche as representative of a postmodernist fiction that eschews critical depth, in favor of the pure play of textual surfaces.”8 Rather than focus on the issue of Das Parfum's stylistic attributes in relation to theories of the postmodern, I, like Gray, have engaged the book—on a thematic level—as the staging of enlightenment's dialectical pathology, as a contribution to the critical theory begun by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. I then conclude with an analysis of Das Parfum in light of Adorno's aesthetics of modernism and the aesthetics of fascism thematized in the book. In addition to Horkheimer and Adorno, however, I also include Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies as a related study. What a juxtaposition with Theweleit helps bring to light is the direct link between enlightenment culture and fascism in terms of a specific form of ego pathology. Unlike typical detective fiction, Süskind's villain is not simply evil by nature. Süskind is careful to outline the material conditions of the society which gives birth to Grenouille, as well as the psychological components of Grenouille's upbringing. What my brief comparison with Theweleit adds to Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis of fascism is simply the more psychological component of the fascist's ego formation in light of enlightenment culture. The antihero Grenouille, then, with his heightened sense of smell and lack of personal odor, can be read as a composite of symptoms for a disease afflicting enlightenment culture.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, “enlightenment” derives from the survival instinct and renders external nature manageable at the expense of internal nature. The modern ego is therefore seen as the result of a process of adaptation, domination, and the suppression of instinctual drives. The subject, driven by the instinct for self-preservation, separates from nature in order to control nature. Thus “de-naturalized,” the subject shrinks to the faculty of reason (e.g., Descartes: “I think therefore I am”), and yet reason, embedded as it is in the drive for self-preservation, retains the latter's violence as its fundamental tendency. Whereas Freud diagnosed neurotic symptoms as a return of the repressed, Horkheimer and Adorno diagnose the fascist mentality as “the revolt of nature.”9 Frustrated inner nature is recruited in the violent suppression of outer nature, just as unhappy German masses were recruited into the Nazi party. That which enlightenment constructs as its other—namely nature itself, together with the unenlightened terror of nature which takes the form of myth—comes back to haunt enlightenment as the very same process of blind domination it sought to overcome. In casting Grenouille as enlightenment's other, I wish to highlight the notion of otherness as a mirror reflection of the same, the identical, the neurotic compulsion of reason to eliminate alterity and to reduce the irreducible.

As enlightenment's other, then, it is not surprising that Grenouille is characterized by the sense of smell. Horkheimer and Adorno:

The multifarious nuances of the sense of smell embody the archetypal longing for the lower forms of existence, for direct unification with circumambient nature, with the earth and mud. Of all the senses, that of smell … bears clearest witness to the urge to lose oneself in and become the “other.” … When we see we remain what we are; but when we smell we are taken over by otherness. Hence the sense of smell is considered a disgrace in civilization, the sign of lower social strata, lesser races and base animals.10

Just as body odor is considered uncivilized, so too the sense of smell is associated with the most primitive, animal instincts.11

The urge to “lose oneself in and to become the other” concerns what Horkheimer and Adorno call the mimetic impulse. Akin to the Freudian “death instinct,” the mimetic impulse seeks the dissolution of ego boundaries and a reunion with nature. Repressed by the rational subject, however, mimesis evokes contempt when it is encountered in others. For various reasons, the Jew is said to evoke this dread of mimesis in the anti-Semite (one of the many “elements of anti-Semitism”), and yet “there is no anti-Semite who does not basically want to imitate his mental image of a Jew” (DE 184). In an ironic dialectical twist, fascism is described here as “the mimesis of mimesis.” In its primary form, mimesis expresses the desire for “circumambient nature” of the already alienated subject; at once coupled with this desire, however, is the mythic fear, even the hatred of nature. As a collective ritual, mimesis originates in the primitive enactments of episodes from the lives of the gods, who are both loved and feared, and who stand for the forces of nature—the first abstraction of enlightenment thinking. And yet it is mimesis itself that enlightenment then forbids in the “ban on graven images,” only to return in the sublated forms of instrumental reason and the internalization of authority. The concept of mimesis must therefore be thought dialectically, as the desire for and fear of the other, and in the “Elements of Anti-Semitism” chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, the fascist's other is diagnosed as a false projection of the self.

When Grenouille first learns to speak, he is described as following the mimetic impulse:

Grenouille sat on the logs, his legs outstretched and his back leaned against the wall of the shed. He had closed his eyes and did not stir. He saw nothing, he heard nothing, he felt nothing. He only smelled the aroma of the wood rising up around him to be captured under the bonnet of the eaves. He drank in the aroma, he drowned in it, impregnating himself through his innermost pores, until he became wood himself; he lay on the cord of wood like a wooden puppet, like Pinocchio, as if dead, until after a long while, perhaps a half hour or more, he gagged up the word ‘wood.’12

Speech, as a mimetic activity, is the most basic instrument of enlightenment, and it is seen here as arising from the most benign aspect of mimesis as abandonment in the other. The dialectical nature of the mimetic impulse is there in the beginning of Grenouille's ego formation. Moreover, Grenouille's capacity to lose himself in an object reflects what John Keats termed “negative capability,” the most essential attribute of the artist.13 That Grenouille is an artist is gathered not only from this “negative capability” and his talent with perfumes, but also from the assessment of Richis, his pursuer:

Richis had seen several of the girls murdered during August and September. The sight had horrified him, and at the same time, he had to admit, fascinated him, for they all, each in her own special way, had been of dazzling beauty. He never would have thought that there was so much unrecognized beauty in Grasse. The murderer had opened his eyes. The murderer possessed exquisite taste. And he had a system. … In any case, it seemed to him, as absurd as it sounded, that the murderer was not a destructive personality, but rather a careful collector. For if one imagined—and so Richis imagined—all the victims not as single individuals, but as parts of some higher principle and thought of each one's characteristics as merged in some idealistic fashion into a unifying whole, then the picture assembled out of such mosaic pieces would be the picture of absolute beauty. …


In Grenouille, mimesis is perfected as art, though art nevertheless retains the mark of domination. “This is art's original sin” (AT [Aesthetic Theory] 74), according to Adorno. Art is immanently complicit with the dialectic of enlightenment; domination, reification, and identity are reduplicated in its forms. Adorno:

Art's own posture, Nietzsche says, is one of cruelty. In all artistic forms, imagination cruelly excises something from a living whole, be it the body of language, of sound or of visual perceptions.

(AT 74)

Grenouille cruelly excises the maidens of Grasse from their living environments, extracts their scents, and mixes them together, then magically, mimetically, transforms them into a single scent, a work of art, a concept: beauty. Grenouille's is an aesthetics of enlightenment. In Nietzsche's terms, Western art gives Apolonian form to Dionysian content: beauty is nature contained, the particular reduced to the universal, the identity principle. Grenouille's perfume is not merely representational, however; it is literal. It contains what it represents, an exaggerated model of the way all artworks produced under capitalism retain the stigma of the commodity form. And yet, in its formal negativity, Grenouille's art is a retaliation against the social whole. Though it is literally made from murder, his perfume is a protest against inequity and a “promesse de bonheur,” Stendall's definition of art.14 In terms of its literal content, however, Grenouille's perfume represents not only the false promise of Horkheimer and Adorno's “culture industry”—“happiness is yours for only $9.95!”—but also the more deadly components of a fascist aesthetic. Only when viewed in the larger context of Das Parfum itself does the characterization of Grenouille's art bring Süskind's own close to what the prophets of enlightenment revised as the credo of modern art: “The secret of aesthetic sublimination is its representation of fulfillment as a broken promise” (DE 140). Grenouille's perfume fails to make even himself happy. In it he finds not the distinction he sought, nor his own self-identity, but rather only death by literal identification with the masses he hates, who devour him with the murderous violence of pure desire.

Unlike the criminal of the classic detective story, Grenouille is historically located and accounted for. As Süskind's first chapter illustrates, he lived in a time when disease and corruption were the general state of things, poor people lived short lives, and everybody stank. Rather than mask material relations with the “scientific ideal” of a well ordered universe—Moretti's argument against detective fiction—Süskind lays bare the social injustices that are involved in the creation of his monster. The enormous discrepancy between the rising bourgeois class (Richis) and workers like Grenouille's mother determines Grenouille's social origins. Due to the poverty of her situation, Grenouille's mother does not even understand the meaning of childbirth. Grenouille is cast away at birth into a heap of fish innards, his mother intent on continuing her (manual) labor. Süskind ascribes Grenouille's survival to a purely vegetative will to live, “as a bean when once tossed aside must decide if it ought to germinate or had better let things be” (21). Having been deprived of warmth and love from the moment of his birth, Grenouille's libidinal impulses must be completely overridden by his will to live. His lack of personal odor is a literal representation of this total inner repression and its effects on the formation of Grenouille's ego. For as any dog will confirm, scent is what characterizes, most essentially, any individual as him or her self. Horkheimer and Adorno: “… the nose—the physiognomic principium individuationis, symbol of the specific character of an individual, described between the lines of his countenance” (DE 184); and as the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse remarks when Grenouille returns wearing his newly invented body-odor perfume: “one might almost say that he had gained something very like a personality” (156).

Theweleit's study of the Freikorps—“an elite group of soldiers who, after World War I, became Germany's crusaders against the proletariat and eventually supplied the SA and the SS with their most practiced executioners”15—bears a close resemblance to Süskind's portrait of Grenouille in terms of the formation of identity: where the father's authority becomes that of the state and the mother's love is either absent or smothering, the ego—as the projection of the body's outer limits—is ill-formed. A well-formed ego would be one that would regulate libidinal energy and external stimulation across the boundaries of inner and outer. Whereas neurosis—for Freud the hallmark of modern culture—was said to result from Oedipus, in Theweleit the fascist mentality is diagnosed as a pre-Oedipal condition, what he terms “not-yet-fully-born.”16 Without mother/love and father/prohibition, the ego receives no object cathexis, no deflection of desire, and finds no object for identification. Fragile body egos, in Theweleit's soldier-men, are reinforced by official military “armor”—uniforms, drills, regulations, etc.—but the fascist retains images of floods (excretion, mud, filth), caused by the unregulated flow of unpleasurable sensations during his first years of life. These images threaten him with dissolution. Due to his vulnerable ego boundaries and violently repressed sexual drives, Theweleit's fascist warrior associates femininity and sexuality with formless, life threatening forces. His morbid fascination with the external world of flows and floods, however, causes him to create violent fantasies of dam/rupture scenarios where he is ultimately in control. In short, the fascist artificially recreates the ego boundaries that he lacks. It is not surprising then that fascist aesthetics tended towards monumentalism and against the fragmentation of modernist art.

Süskind's “story of a murderer” dramatizes the basic problems of Theweleit's pre-Oedipal men. The Oedipal triangle is replaced for Grenouille by the cold, institutional discipline of Madame Gaillard, whose own damaged sense organ is another literal representation of rejection by the parent of the opposite sex. Growing up in a desolate orphanage, Grenouille learns to annihilate his libidinal instincts as a means of emotional survival. Like a tick gestating in a branch, “he lived encapsulated in himself and waited for better times” (22). When Grenouille at last earns his freedom from society, he seeks a cave as far away from the smell of humanity as possible, and begins to awaken the inner world which had laid dormant his entire life. It is a world composed completely of memories of scents and their sources. The description of Grenouille's reveries in this inner world of smells reads like a passage from one of Theweleit's soldier's diaries:

To enhance the mood, he first conjured up those [stored odors] that were earliest and most remote: the hostile, steaming vapors of Madame Gaillard's bedroom … the homicidal odor of his mother. And he wallowed in disgust and loathing, and his hair stood on end at the delicious horror. … And then all at once, the pent-up hate would erupt with orgasmic force—that was, after all, the point of the exercise. Like a thunder-storm he rolled across these odors that had dared offend his patrician nose. … He scattered the rabble and drowned them in a grand purifying deluge of distilled water. … It imparted to him the wonderful sense of righteous exhaustion that comes after only truly grand heroic deeds.


The dam/flood motif, the sadistic, libidinal discharge, the delusions of heroism—all are appropriate to the fascist warrior, enlightenment's other.

Grenouille's self-realization, during his sojourn in the cave, is not only that he is composed entirely of odors from the outer world, that there is no boundary between himself and these odors, but that he himself has no odor of his own. The horrible, uncanny sensation of such a realization is beyond the power of words. It can only be conveyed as the impression of a dream:

Soon Grenouille was completely wrapped in fog, saturated with fog, and it seemed he could not get his breath for the foggy vapor. If he did not want to suffocate, he would have to breathe the fog in. And the fog was, as noted an odor. And Grenouille knew what kind of odor. The fog was his own odor. His, Grenouille's, own body odor was the fog.

And the awful thing was that Grenouille, although he knew that his odor was his odor, could not smell it. Virtually drowning in himself, he could not for the life of him smell himself!


Freud's notion of “the uncanny” is an essential characteristic of horror: often the hero realizes, too late, that one thought to be familiar is actually a stranger or an automaton. For Grenouille, the stranger is the inhabitant of his own being.

And so Grenouille's murder spree can be explained as compensatory. He kills beautiful girls to appropriate their scents. The scent is a metonym for the beautiful girl, and the beautiful girl is a metaphor for love, Eros, all that is violently repressed in Grenouille's universe: “what he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love. These were his victims” (188). Grenouille's intentions succumb, however, to the ironies of dialectical logic which thwart every intentionality in the book. Just as his cave represents both his freedom and his captivity, so the moment of his triumph is the moment of his failure, the book's peripeteia and anagnorisis: “what he had always longed for, that other people should love him—became at the moment of its achievement unbelievable, because he did not love them himself, he hated them” (241). As the mob at his execution turns into a wild fornicating mass in his honor—due to the intoxicating perfume he has concocted from his victims—he is filled with disgust and the desire to annihilate all of them, “just as he had once exterminated alien odors from the world of his raven black soul” (291).

Enlightenment's unwitting complicity with fascism is of course the premise of Dialectic of Enlightenment, and is illustrated by Süskind in the figure of Monsieur Richis, Grenouille's “civilized” counterpart. Richis is characterized, opposite Grenouille, by the sense of sight, the ocular metaphor for enlightenment. His respect for Grenouille for having “opened his eyes” to all the beauty in Grasse is actually due, as we know, to Grenouille's having opened his nose. Grenouille, in effect, teaches Richis a lesson about his enlightenment, a lesson concerning its debt to that which it negates. This debt is also signaled by Grenouille's unbusinesslike production of his perfume strictly for his own use, while Richis, the middleman, owns a perfume factory and knows nothing of perfumes. A cut-throat businessman, the civilized bourgeois interior of Richis' world, like the totalitarian state it mirrors, is founded on the remorseless elimination of his competitors. Even his own daughter (whom he loves) figures, nevertheless, into his plans for wealth and patrilineal power. After being “enlightened” by Grenouille, Richis must in fact confront his own repressed desires for his daughter with the patriarchal prohibition for which he stands. As polar opposites, Richis and Grenouille produce and reflect one another dialectically. One stands by day, the other by night, but both revolve around the same sun.

To detect Grenouille, Richis assumes he must be able to identify with Grenouille. Richis feels himself superior and is confident of detecting the murderer with his analytical powers. But detection is thwarted in Das Parfum because Richis fails to use his nose, which would have told him that something was amiss about Grenouille, whom he mistakes as harmless. When Grenouille is finally discovered by chance, it is too late for Richis, and the day of execution reveals Richis as Grenouille's mirror image instead of his opposite:

It all disgusted him. … The people themselves, every one of them, disgusted him. … He was also disgusted by the murderer. He did not want to regard him as a human being, but only as a victim to be slaughtered. He did not want to see him until the execution, when he would be laid on the cross and the twelve blows crashed down upon him—then he would want to see him, want to see him from up close. … He wanted to climb up onto the bloody scaffold and crouch next to him, keeping watch, by night, by day, for however long he had to, and look into the eyes of this man, the murderer of his daughter, and drop by drop to trickle the disgust within him into those eyes, to pour out his disgust like burning acid over the man in his death agonies—until the beast perished. …


Just as Richis' own feelings of disgust echo those of Grenouille's, the brutal public spectacle of the promised execution, and the voyeuristic anticipation of pleasure by the masses, indicate a remote kinship between the murderer and his judges.

If there are conclusions to be drawn, one is that Carlo Ginsburg's model of the detective as hunter, in tune with the lower instincts and the science of interpretive reason, is perhaps superior to the detective as pure ratio, at least as a corrective for enlightenment. As for the question of how Theweleit's theory of ego-fascism figures into the dialectic of enlightenment, the important connection is that both Adorno and Theweleit see the enlightened bourgeois citizen and the fascist not as opposites but rather as differing only in extremes. Theweleit:

My suspicion is that only a handful of men in Wilhelmine Germany had the good fortune to be in some sense fully born—and not very many more in the rest of Europe. This seems to be borne out by the numerous parallels I have been able to trace between the behavior of the soldier males and that of the ‘average man’. What I am suggesting, in other words, is that a psychic type whose basic structure was more or less ‘psychotic’ may have been the norm in Germany (at the very time when Freud was writing), and that this type was far more ‘normal’ and more common than Oedipus, for example. Oedipus seems likely to have been a highly unusual specimen: a fictional nonfascist citizen modeled on Freud himself (whose belief in himself was unshakeable).

(Vol. II, 213)

That (bourgeois) Richis bears a resemblance to (fascist) Grenouille is explained by Theweleit in terms of a pre-Oedipal society, whereas in Adorno, bourgeois American capitalism is related to German fascism by way of its own internal logic.

As for how Das Parfum itself figures in the aesthetics of enlightenment, a brief summary will help to clarify. Aesthetic practice is shown by Süskind to participate in enlightenment's destructive dialectic, as the literal fulfillment of its principles leads to death. Its very attempt to preserve life by capturing and distilling its essence participates in that logic which negates life—the identity principle, the reduction of the part to the whole. Whereas Grenouille gains his own personality, his identity, by reducing different individuals to a single formula, his success results in his self-annihilation by reabsorption into the whole, the mob from which he had tried to distinguish himself. What Süskind illustrates through Grenouille, just as the Nazi's illustrated through Auschwitz, is that, as Terry Eagleton says, “the philosopheme of pure identity is death,”17 and as Walter Benjamin said, “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.”18

Towards an understanding of Das Parfum as enlightenment aesthetics, Richard Gray has cited a passage from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory concerning the negativity of the work of art: “Works of art are a priori negative because of their adherence to the law of objectification; they kill what they objectify by tearing it from the immediacy of its existence” (503). Süskind, according to Gray,

points out the parallel between modernist aesthetic practices and the principles of instrumental rationality; indeed, he exposes the destructive impulse inherent in Enlightenment metaphysics by examining its operation in the domain of aesthetics.

Gray is correct, I believe, in pointing out the complicity of art in the dialectic of enlightenment. What he does not make clear, however, is the difference between fascist aesthetic practices represented by Grenouille, and the modernist aesthetic practices that I believe are exemplified by Süskind himself in Das Parfum. Hitler's political program, it must be recalled, was based on a theory of the aestheticization of the state. The monumentalism of fascist art is described by Theweleit as compensation for the fascist's fragile body ego.19 Likewise, the fascist aesthetic contained a built-in aversion to the fragmented forms of modernist art. The paintings of Picasso or the narratives of Virginia Woolf, for instance, depict a truth about the modern subject which seems to have been too close to home for the already paranoid fascist mentality. Protofascist writers like Ernst Jünger, on the other hand, constructed a notion of the subject reinforced by the mass movement of war and identification with the totalitarian state. Just as Hitler united the masses and made them identical in the monumental art forms of his rallies and parades, so Grenouille—Süskind's fascistic artist—unites the beauties of Grasse in a single, harmonious whole, his perfume. But just as Hitler's aesthetic state was also based on exclusion and the death of over six million Jews, so Grenouille's perfume is concocted of death itself. Through Grenouille, Süskind theorizes the aesthetics of fascism, while in his own writing he demonstrates what, following Adorno, one might call an aesthetics of modernism. The truly successful works of modern art, Becket's Endgame, for example, were for Adorno ones that, while succumbing to the logic of identity, could somehow testify for nonidentity. The aesthetics of modernism must be distinguished from the aesthetics of fascism in that what fascism negates by way of exclusion (the other), modernism includes by way of negation. By reproducing the violence done to the subject by society in their forms, successful modern works are able to negate the social totality with the dialectically opposite vision of utopia which lies buried in their content.

At this point, some definitions are still in order. The term “truth content” (“Wahrheitsgehalt”) is used by Adorno in as indeterminate a fashion as other of his key concepts, including “mimesis” and “art.” Adorno was not fond of the one-shot definition, for obvious reasons, but a general sense of the term seems to be the artistic embodiment of the individual's relation to the social whole (in its essence) coupled with the unspoken, unspeakable utopia that the former implies by way of its negativity. In shorter terms, “truth content” is the dialectical relation of subject and object in a work, together with the dialectical relation of the work itself with its own negation.

As for the concept of “negativity,” another indeterminate term in Adorno, it often contains all of its connotations in a single usage. This is in keeping with Hegel's use of the term, and a short passage from his Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit may help to illuminate the matter at hand:

[T]he life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. … Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being.20

The essence of the term seems to lie in its overdetermination: as something contradictory or contrary, something marked by death and devastation, and something like a mechanism implicit in the forward movement of thought. In all of its connotations, negativity is a productive force, without which the possibility of critique would not be possible. In the words of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: “In order to know life, one must have recourse to death.” Modern art attains critical knowledge of society only in its negative moment, “from the standpoint of redemption.” Adorno:

Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror image of its opposite.

(MM [Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life] 247)

Utopia, Adorno's standpoint of redemption, is posited negatively through the work of art. The concrete particulars of the concept of utopia, the promesse de bonheur, were, for Adorno, ineffable after Auschwitz, for simply to speak of happiness was both to reify it and to turn one's back on the dead. In constructing utopia as the broken promise of modern society, modern works afford a critique of society and a reverential glance at a world that ought to be. In Das Parfum, that world is one free from domination and from the social forces which produce murderers.

Whereas Grenouille's art affirms only death in its moment of harmony, successful modern art, Süskind's included, amounts to life in the moment of its disharmony. The reason Adorno championed modern art (rather than viewing it as the epitome of enlightenment's destructive logic), was because of its critical power, its truth content, its relation to what is and what could be:

A successful work … is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.21

The fact that Süskind does not illustrate a positive solution to enlightenment but only its negative conclusions, that his book does not resolve the issue of enlightenment's complicity with death, is what separates his own art from that of Grenouille's, which turns enlightenment into death with the false promise of identity. Works which represent the world as it should be, as if it were the world as it is, are the property of the culture industry—for Adorno the American equivalent of fascism. Whereas successful modern works represent the world as it is, in its essence, with the implicit admission that “things ought not be this way.” Das Parfum is a horror story, which gives it its mass appeal as a product of the culture industry. But it is only through the homeopathic ingestion of that horror (which is after all more modern than ancien), that it is able to establish its negative ground, its truth content, a view of society from the perspective of redemption, in sum: the ineffable utopia that art keeps alive through its negativity.


  1. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974) 25.

  2. William Spanos, Repetitions: The Post-Modern Occasion in Literature and Culture (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987) 24. Spanos characterizes the antidetective story as “the disorienting mystery, the ominous and threatening uncanniness of being that resists naming, … the formal purpose of which is to evoke the impulse to ‘detect’ or to psycho-analyze … in order to violently frustrate this impulse by refusing to solve the crime (or find the cause of the neurosis).” Though one may detect a cause for Grenouille's neurosis in Das Parfum, the detective impulse embodied by the detective figure is frustrated, if not annihilated, by the text.

  3. Carlo Ginsburg, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989) 103.

  4. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, trans. George Weidenfeld (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966) 16-22.

  5. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Vintage, 1984) 103. According to Brooks, the return to quiescence is the motivation of “plotting” in general and is exemplified best in the structure of the detective story, which seeks closure by resolving the crime.

  6. For instance, D. A. Miller's The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: U of California P, 1988) esp. vii-xii, and Franco Moretti's “Clues,” in Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (London: Verso, 1983) 130-56.

  7. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc., 1984) 350.

  8. Richard T. Gray, “The Dialectic of ‘Enscentment’: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum as Critical History of Enlightenment Culture,” PMLA 108 (1993): 490.

  9. This is generally outlined in Dialectic of Enlightenment, but for a more specific account see the chapter entitled “The Revolt of Nature” in Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason (New York: Continuum, 1992) 92-129.

  10. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972) 184.

  11. Freud too remarks on this in a famous footnote from Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1961) 51: “The organic periodicity of the sexual process has persisted, it is true, but its effect on psychical sexual excitation has rather been reversed. This change seems most likely to be connected with the diminution of the olfactory stimuli by means of which the menstrual process produced an effect on the male psyche. Their role was taken over by visual excitations. …” Freud goes on to relate the beginnings of civilization to man's assuming an upward posture, making the genitals visible and odor taboo. Personal hygiene is associated with civilization in proportion to the sublimation of the sense of smell.

  12. Patrick Süskind, Perfume, trans. John E. Woods (New York: A Knopf, 1986) 24.

  13. Adorno too supposes a primal link between art and abandonment: “Art is the refuge for mimetic behavior” (Aesthetic Theory 29), and yet the negativity of art also entails mimesis as a mode of domination, as evidenced by Grenouille's artistic production.

  14. See Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 1990) 146-47.

  15. Kenneth S. Calhoon, Fatherland: Novalis, Freud, and the Discipline of Romance (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992) 158.

  16. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 2, trans. Erica Carter and Chris Turner (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989) 212.

  17. Terry Eagleton has maintained the same in The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990) 344.

  18. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969) 241.

  19. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 1, trans. Stephan Conway (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) 218.

  20. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977) 19. I am indebted to the editors of this journal for bringing this passage to my attention.

  21. Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT P, 1990) 34.

Gabriel Josipovici (review date 22 November 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Josipovici, Gabriel. “Deep Books.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4886 (22 November 1996): 24.

[In the following review, Josipovici discusses Süskind's prose and criticism in Three Stories and a Reflection, expressing disappointment with the overall collection.]

The vogue for small books, so long a delightful feature of Continental publishing, is at last growing in Britain. Of course, small does not necessarily mean satisfying, and there are times when a small volume feels distinctly insubstantial. This is a case in point. Patrick Süskind has always been a clever writer, which means he is often just clever-clever. Of the four items in this collection, [Three Stories and a Reflection,] three, alas, fall into that category.

The first story is an account of a young artist who retreats from the world and finally kills herself, because the critics have said she lacks depth: “She went into a bookshop and demanded that the salesman bring her the deepest book that he had in stock; she was given a work by a certain Mr. Wittgenstein. She couldn't get into it.” That “a certain Mr.” rings terribly false. It is meant to keep the tone light, precisely without depth; and it is presumably meant to suggest that she has never heard of Wittgenstein. Is that likely? The tone, like the rest of the story, strikes one simply as arch.

The third, rather longer piece is one of those cool accounts of an obsession. Jean-Jacques Mussard, friend of Diderot and Rousseau, describes in the first person his growing conviction that petrification is overtaking our planet, and he himself, an addendum by another hand tells us, died of some kind of paralysis and had to be buried in a right-angled coffin in a right-angled hole in the earth. The trouble is we are never convinced by the man or his obsession, as we are in Poe's more feverish tales, so that the story seems to strain for horror without ever achieving it.

The fourth item in this collection is a reflection on books. In a rather heavy-handed manner, Süskind makes the point that even books which once moved him deeply he seems now to have quite forgotten. All he can recall of Dostoevsky's The Devils, for example, is that somewhere in the second volume somebody shoots himself. What is the point of books, then, he asks, if even those who have been moved by them forget them so quickly? Once again, the effect he seems to be straining for is that of an ironic coolness, a puzzled look at what others take so seriously in order to impress us with the notion that it is he who is really seeing how things are. But is that how things are? Do we really forget so much of the books we loved? And even if we do, why should that alter the importance of the effect of that first reading?

Only the second story really works for me. Two men are playing chess in the Luxembourg Gardens, a dashing young stranger and the old player who has seen off every single member of the crowd that gathers to watch, as well as every stray visitor. But this time it is different. The young stranger looks so handsome and seems so sure of himself that the feeling spreads that at last the old man is going to meet his Waterloo. Even the old man himself, as he ponders an apparently wild and reckless move by his opponent, can't help feeling that he is simply not seeing what the other is really up to. For it surely cannot be that he would sacrifice two pawns and a queen without very good reason. In retrospect, we can see that the stranger is simply a rash beginner, completely out of his depth. But that was not how it seemed when the game was in progress, and the shock and disappointment which the banal truth brings with it make the onlookers slink away in silence and persuade the old man to give up chess for good. This story, so simply told, manages to be about much more than chess. The other pieces never succeed in transcending their subjects in this way. It may not be in the Kafka, or even the Malamud class, but it is a real work of art.

Bloomsbury have lavished a great deal of care on the production of this book. What a pity then that it should prove so disappointing, that the translations should lapse at times, and that several printing errors have been allowed to creep in.

Jeffrey Adams (essay date fall 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Adams, Jeffrey. “Narcissism and Creativity in the Postmodern Era: The Case of Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum.Germanic Review 75, no. 4 (fall 2000): 259-79.

[In the following essay, Adams explores the relation between Süskind's personal identity and literary persona as projected in the themes and characters of Das Parfum, demonstrating how the text undermines the conventional opinion that a literary text exclusively belongs to its author.]


One of the most celebrated younger writers in contemporary German literature, Patrick Süskind owes his fame mainly to his literary debut, the monodrama Der Kontrabaß, an overnight success and the darling of the German stage in the 1980s, and to the novel Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders, an international best seller that quickly became one of the most read German novels since Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks and Erich Maria Remarque's Nichts Neues im Westen. Süskind's literary fame stands in sharp contrast to his secretive personal life. An ascetic recluse who rejects public recognition for his success, Süskind does not grant interviews and almost never comments on his work. When he does, as in a rare self-reflexive essay entitled “Amnesie in litteris,” he remains evasive about his identity, especially his literary persona. Addressing the question of literary influences, Süskind claims to be a blissfully ignorant epigone whose memory is so poor that he barely remembers what he has read, much less who wrote it, which, it seems to him, is a fortunate handicap for a creative writer since it frees him from the anxiety of influence and creates an uncomplicated relation to plagiarism, without which, he paradoxically insists, nothing original can be written.

In what has become a definitive example of German literary postmodernism, Süskind projects his concern with personal identity and literary persona onto the themes and characters of Das Parfum. Set in eighteenth-century France, Das Parfum tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a physically and emotionally abused orphan whose supernatural sense of smell guides him in a perverse search for the lost origin of his identity. A genius of odors, Grenouille himself lacks a personal odor, signifying an absence of individual identity. As he discovers his olfactory virtuousity, Grenouille becomes increasingly obsessed with inventing new fragrances, particularly his own, which he attempts to create artificially by extracting and blending the corporeal scents of young virginal women he murders. Grenouille's great hope is to create an ideal perfume that will give him the magical essence of identity, “den göttlichen Funken, den andre Menschen mir nichts, dir nichts in die Wiege gelegt bekommen und der ihm als einzigem vorenthalten worden war” (304). Despite his hatred of fellow humans, the mad perfumer is driven by a desire for the attention and affection of others, who are compelled under the spell of his ideal perfume to love him unconditionally. At the moment of his crowning achievement, however, Grenouille realizes that the aura of identity created by his magic perfume is an illusion and that it has been hate rather than love that drove him to become a genius of perfuming. After this epiphany, Grenouille returns to the place of his origin in a Parisian slum and ends his own story by drenching himself with the ultimate perfume and surrendering to a maenadic mob of murderers and thieves. Crazed by his seductive perfume, they dismember and devour him, piecemeal.

The novel has been read variously as an indictment of Enlightenment rationality, as an allegory of the fascist mind, or simply as a cynical postmodern pastiche that serves the reader titillating but derivative kitsch. Whatever their view of the novel's thematic intentions, all critics agree that Das Parfum's rich intertextuality invites a search for the novel's literary sources. Despite its immense popularity among an international readership, the response to Das Parfum in Germany was initially ambivalent. Predictably, the very issue of creative identity that Süskind's tongue-in-cheek essay on literary amnesia playfully mocks became a main focus of the critical discussion of Das Parfum. The novel's blatantly derivative style and its free-ranging appropriation of canonical texts were criticized by some as the product of a literary parasite who invades and feeds on anterior texts. Gerhard Stadelmaier's comment is typical: “Die Methode des Duft-Mörders Grenouille, sich den odor feminae zu destillieren, ist auch ein wenig die Methode des Erzählers Süskind. Grenouille plündert tote Häute, Süskind tote Dichter” (Stadelmaier, Die Zeit). This perception prompted reviewers to trace the novelist's influences along a literary-historical time line from the Enlightenment into the present.1 Some readers saw Süskind's parasitic perfumer as a self-reflexive metaphor for the postmodernist's epigonal guilt and so failed to perceive the ironic (and more accurately postmodern) implication that all writing is an assimilation of previous writing, just as all identity is an assimilation of previous models of subjectivity. By foregrounding the plagiarism that Süskind thinks is essential to creativity, Das Parfum undermines the traditional assumption that the literary text is the exclusive personal property of its author. In so doing, Süskind suggests that the humanist notion of the autonomous self, idealized since the Enlightenment, has caused a fundamental misunderstanding, if not a perversion, of the creative process.

Given the tyrannical insistence of traditional literary aesthetics that the author be identified as the voice of a singular and unified subject, it was predictable that the shell game with authorial identity played out in the ostentatious borrowings of Das Parfum would be considered a Germanic version of the deconstructive écriture that Roland Barthes had defined decades ago as a “neutral, composite, oblique space” where conventional notions of human subjectivity slip away and identity is lost (Barthes 142). Barthes's reduction of the author's identity to an effect of literary discourse found little resonance among German intellectuals, especially in the years immediately preceding Das Parfum's publication in 1985. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the counter-Enlightenment impulses that fed deconstructive theory were considered suspect and their influence was limited, in particular by the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas, who called for a completion of the unfinished project of modernity grounded in the Enlightenment ideal of individual autonomy. To dismiss the author as an effect of literary discourse, especially for postwar German intellectuals, is to subvert the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous selfhood needed to construct and maintain liberating social institutions. Certainly, the Germans have good historical reasons for fearing a counter-Enlightenment that, in its philosophical attacks on the “myth” of the autonomous subject, encourages dangerous backsliding into the Romantic irrationalism often cited as the precursor of the amorphous collective identity of fascism. After Hitler's exploitation and contamination of the German cultural tradition, vast portions of its intellectual heritage, especially those relating to Romanticism, were disavowed, leaving Germany (already geographically and politically divided) with an impoverished group identity. Presumably, the implication that the writing subject of a novel like Das Parfum has been swallowed by the black hole of postmodern écriture, only to re-emerge as an irrationally destructive and cynical parasite, is too frightening to contemplate in a culture clinging to the shreds of an uncohesive collective identity.

Less anxious critics, most notably the American Germanist Judith Ryan, have argued that the novel's pastiche implies a critical strategy that forces an overdue reassessment of established literary values, especially of conventional notions of creativity. As such, the pastiche citationality of Das Parfum challenges the notion of artistic autonomy that had emerged in the Enlightenment aesthetics of Kant and Schiller and was elaborated by certain Romantics and their modernist successors. Indeed, by this late date it ought to be clear that our perception of creativity has changed substantially. Increasingly, we witness the emergence of writers who construct their texts as hybrid reproductions of prior texts assimilated into a synthetic pastiche. Moreover, not all such writing can be dismissed as meaningless epigonal play across the textual surfaces of anteriority. Even though the parodic qualities of a novel like Das Parfum tend to obscure its critical function, its pastiche still effectively exposes illusions of creative mastery and textual ownership encoded in the precursor texts that it seems to exploit. More than a parasitic parody that feeds on dead poets, Das Parfum can be productively interpreted as an enactment of literary anamnesia that contributes to a working through of complex psychic and social issues.

In this respect, several critics have usefully explicated the novel's allegorical critique of the epistemic mechanisms of the Enlightenment. Following early Foucault and the proto-deconstructive thought of Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialektik der Aufklärung, these analyses treat the novel as a cautionary fable revealing how the Enlightenment ideal of individual autonomy is all-too-easily subverted by instrumental reason to produce the ego pathology that increasingly infects modern society (Butterfield; Grey). Grenouille's coldly rational plundering of the human body to create an ideal perfume is undeniably an allegory of the “murder” that instrumental reason commits on the objects of its reifying analysis and thus also a parable of the perversion of reason that led Germany into the horrors of the Holocaust. At the same time, Süskind's alleged plundering of what is to a large extent a Romantic canon suggests that the narcissistic ego spawned by Enlightenment reason infected the aesthetic imagination as well, extending the perverse myth of autonomy to the artistic realm and producing the aberration of “original genius.” A principal aim of this essay will be to trace Süskind's recourse to certain Romantic and neo-Romantic precursor texts that present the artistic genius as an aesthetic avatar of the Enlightenment's pathological tendencies and to elucidate them as case studies of ego pathology in allegorical disguise, rather than, as is often thought, depraved glorifications of aesthetic narcissism. As such, these precursors provide constructive models for a redefinition and restitution of a disavowed Romantic tradition without which, Süskind seems to say, the contemporary creative mind is incapable of self-comprehension and therefore also of useful self-criticism.

To formulate the terms for such a redefinition of creativity it is instructive to revisit the psychopoetics of Harold Bloom, whose theory of intertextuality has altered our conceptions of the literary imagination in important ways. Because he has argued against the notion of an autonomous creative imagination, saying that “there are no texts, only relationships between texts” (Map of Misreading 3), Bloom is often associated with the deconstructive aesthetics of literary postmodernism. Yet, while Bloom concedes the primacy of textuality in the formation of the writing subject, he still struggles to rescue the human(ist) subject from complete absorption into the vortex of écriture. Agreeing with the deconstructive idea that all creative writing is an instance of Freudian Nachträglichkeit or retroactive meaningfulness, by which an “afterpoet” creates identity from the traces of prior poetry, Bloom also insists that the creative writer in the modern tradition can still achieve the illusion of originality by repressing influential precursors, even if there can never be an absolute autonomy of poetic meaning. Bloom envisions the literary text not as a mere “gathering of signs on the page” that marks the vicissitudes of écriture, but as a “psychic battlefield upon which authentic forces struggle for the only victory worth winning, the divinating triumph over oblivion” (Poetry and Repression 2). Incorrectly identified as a deconstructive critic, Bloom has always sought to reassert the essential validity of Romantic conceptions of original genius, even if what actually survives the agon of creativity is a skeletal post-Freudian subject, rivaling, as one critic remarks, “a Giacometti figure in severity of diminishment” (Leitch 132). Nevertheless, against the “serene linguistic nihilism” of deconstruction Bloom declares poetry to be “an art that will not abandon the self to language” (“The Breaking of Form” 37).

In the wake of the Enlightenment's demand for self-legislating subjectivity, so Bloom argues, the Romantic poet could no longer unquestioningly imitate previous models to develop a literary identity. Thus Bloom casts the Romantic poet as a version of the oedipal son who contests the father's priority, not in direct conflict, but by a defensive repression of the precursor's voice. To achieve authentic identity, the artistic imagination must define itself by rejecting anterior discourse and narcissistically seeking its own voice, constituting an ego by love of its own figurations. Unlike the Freudian oedipal son, however, who resolves his conflict by incorporating paternal authority as superego, the Bloomian epigone dare not identify fully with the ancestral poet. Instead, the paternal element, the parent-poem, must be drained of its authority. Freud considered the oedipal reconciliation a crucial step in the ego's progression toward the goal of psychic individuation and wholeness; the resolution of the son's incestuous fixation on the mother must be enforced by the paternal threat of castration. But the Romantic poet, thinks Bloom, cannot complete such a development and remain a poet since “a poet's stance, his Word, his imaginative identity, his whole being, must be unique to him, and remain unique, or he will perish, as a poet” (Anxiety of Influence 71). Instead of a progressive model of identification, culminating in the formation of a superego, Bloom posits the necessity of creative regression: “Freud humanely saw the Oedipus complex as only a phase in the development of character, to be superceded by the überich (superego) as mock-rational censor. Yet no poet-as-poet completes such a development and still remains a poet. In the imagination, the Oedipal phase develops backwards, to enrich and make yet more inchoate the id” (Anxiety 109-110). In Bloom's scheme, then, the authentic or “strong” poet must return to an “antecedent stage of psychic organization” where it is possible to limit the precursor's presence and clear imaginative space for a new creative identity. What Bloom describes is, in psychoanalytic terms, the illusory self-cathexis of primary narcissism, in which the infant has not yet emerged from a maternal symbiosis to begin the process of individuation. For the Bloomian poet the literary equivalent of this narcissistic symbiosis is an initial affiliation with a central precursor: “the strong poet's love of his poetry, as itself, must exclude the reality of all other poetry, except what cannot be excluded, the initial identification with the poetry of the precursor.” Thus, “the mystery of poetic style” is reduced to the “mystery of narcissism” (Anxiety 146-147).

The result of this imaginative narcissism is a creative melancholia that promotes a literary amnesia. Because originality becomes the post-Enlightenment law of creativity, Bloom argues that writers in the Romantic tradition (which he interprets broadly to include most canonical literature since the late eighteenth century) must refuse to mourn the loss of the idealized precursor by a process of self-defensive repression. “Poets,” Bloom contends, “do not exist to accept griefs” (Yeats 5). Inevitably, such repression leads to an enormous diminishment of the creative ego, making Romantic poetry “the result of a more prodigious sublimation of imagination than Western poetry from Homer through Milton had to undergo” (Anxiety 125). As Freud cautioned in his essay “Trauer und Melancholie,” a refusal to mourn causes a depressive melancholia, which can only be cured by a process of grieving called Trauerarbeit. What the melancholic must work through and overcome is the narcissistic fantasy of omnipotent mastery over the lost object. Absorbed into the unconscious, the unmourned object of love poisons the ego, whose reproaches against the lost object become self-reproaches and create symptoms of dejection, an inability to construct new idealizations, and above all a diminishment of self-esteem.

In the ongoing assessment of postmodern creativity, Freud's distinction between mourning and melancholia has been largely overlooked. Based on Romantic aesthetics and a canon of modernist literature that opposes the implied agenda of postmodern art, Bloom's widely acknowledged theory of intertextuality constructs the writing subject as a melancholy narcissist. Postmodernism, on the other hand, redefines creativity as a variant of the therapeutic Trauerarbeit advocated by Freud. By means of a desublimated reincorporation of parodied precursors, postmodern texts such as Das Parfum create an intertextual transference in which the self-destructive Romantic dream of creative omnipotence is subverted. Undoing melancholic repression, citational play creates a discourse of mourning that undergirds and sustains both the philosophical and aesthetic practices of a postmodern culture confronted with the disintegration of Enlightenment master codes of unity and totalization. Shifting the focus from Bloom's repressive melancholia to a mode of commemorative grieving, I hope to show that the postmodern work of mourning has important antecedents in Romantic literature. Subverting notions of mastery, purity, and originality associated with the Enlightenment genius, Romantic ironists who favored hybrid texts, shared authorship, and plagiaristic play contributed heavily to an aesthetic philosophy that is revived by contemporary writers like Süskind.2 As openly acknowledged and thus mourned antecedents, Romantic stories of genius can be incorporated or ingested by the creative writing subject to reformulate identity, strengthening the ego, rather than as Freud and Bloom think, poisoning it.

In this sense Süskind can be included in a larger constellation of postmodern artists whose creative projects seek to recuperate aspects of Romantic discourse as a part of a contemporary revision of German cultural identity. German visual artists have addressed this issue most directly, possibly because, as Andreas Huyssen notes, “Nazi culture had most effectively occupied, exploited, and abused the power of the visual” (Huyssen 217). A notable example is the German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who contends that post war German intellectuals used rationalism to repress the Romantic tradition, blaming modern fascism on the Romantic glorification of the irrational.3 Some critics remain skeptical of efforts to reclaim German Romanticism because, as they insist, the grieving in much neo-Romantic art is merely melancholic nostalgia which compulsively repeats regressive fantasies rather than genuinely working through the psychological and social wounds that created the fantasies (Brockmann; Kaes 66-72; Santner 147). To cite Romanticism as the source, rather than a symptom, has thus far been the error of such criticism, which (like Bloom's) defines Romantic creativity as a pathological melancholia and neglects its attempts to mourn and to reinterpret the image of original genius as a symptom of psychic illness in Enlightenment culture.


Das Parfum's popular success owes much to its wicked protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a compelling character designed to exploit a deeply embedded cultural fascination with the criminal genius extending back to the Romantic period. Certainly, Grenouille's appeal derives from the similarity of this homicidal predator of eighteenth-century France with present-day serial killers, real and fictional, who continue to attract both artistic and public interest. Indeed, one of the novel's most notable but least analyzed achievements is its expansion of the mad genius topos of Romanticism into a literary case study of the psychopathic mind. As a serial killer, Grenouille conforms to a profile established by current clinical research linking the narcissistic borderline personality with homicidal psychopaths. Citing early childhood traumas of abandonment and abuse as significant factors in criminal pathology, recent studies postulate that such traumatic events prevent the formation of stable self-structure, leading to the fusion of idealized objects with an unmodified grandiose self. In adult life the earlier developmental failure to differentiate the primitive grandiose self from idealized objects results in a repeated failure to identify with social norms, especially moral codes, which leads to antisocial acts expressing unconscious abandonment rage. These characteristics correspond precisely with Grenouille's pathological personality: Severe emotional traumas in early life have blocked the healthy internalizations needed to build a stable core self. Lacking coherent self-structure as the basis for internalizing authority, he has no superego. Guilt is not an aspect of his consciousness; he murders merely to acquire the materials necessary for his art (Meloy 39-59).4

Many of the novel's numerous citational allusions, particularly the one that emerges in the very first sentence, signal Süskind's incorporation of Romantics who authored allegories linking artistic genius with the criminal mind. When Grenouille, a child of the Enlightenment, is profiled as “ein Mann, der zu den genialsten und abscheulichsten Gestalten dieser an genialen und abscheulichen Gestalten nicht armen Epoche gehörte” (5), the schooled reader hears echoes of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, described as “einer der rechtschaffensten zugleich und furchtbarsten Männer” of the sixteenth century (Kleist 9). The wording of Grenouille's initial profile is also very close to the description of René Cardillac, the mad genius of E. T. A. Hoffmann's tale Das Fräulein von Scuderi, who is characterized as “einer der kunstreichsten und zugleich sonderbarsten Menschen seiner Zeit” (Hoffmann 179). Like Grenouille, Kohlhaas and Cardillac are Promethean individuals, geniuses of their respective eras, but also criminals whose excessive and transgressive acts are the by-products of a disintegrating and defensive ego. Since Kleist's Kohlhaas has already been identified as an allegory of antisocial aggression resulting from a weakened self-structure (Kohut 531; Dettmering), I will focus on Hoffmann's Cardillac, whose strange acts of aesthetic terror offer a useful point of entry into a discussion of narcissism and creativity.

Like Kleist, but also Tieck and Jean Paul, Hoffmann's predilection for depictions of abnormal psychology addresses psychic conflicts with an allegorical technique that prefigures contemporary texts like Das Parfum. Furthermore, Hoffmann's satirical critique of Enlightenment ideals and his predilection for parodic citationality also suggest him as a precursor of literary postmodernism. Citing postmodern parody as a productive and transformative return to precursor texts, critics have interpreted Süskind's global allusion to Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi as a homage that subsumes and heightens themes and effects of its model with ironic deference (Whitinger and Herzog). Indeed, this parodic stance, along with Hoffmann's precocious intuition of art's relation to psychopathology may best explain Süskind's attraction to the story.

Of particular interest is the prefiguration of modern theories of art suggested by the homicidal jeweler, René Cardillac. In a brief digression at the heart of Das Fräulein von Scuderi we learn that Cardillac's artistic talent and criminal tendencies are both linked to a prenatal trauma. According to Cardillac himself, during the first month of his mother's pregnancy with him she encountered a former suitor whose previous amorous advances had been denied. This time, obsessively attracted to a bejewelled chain around his neck, the cavalier seems to represent to Mme. Cardillac “ein Wesen höherer Art, der Inbegriff aller Schönheit” (211) and she allows him to seduce her. As she grasps for the jewels in the moment of her desire, the suitor dies of unknown causes, throwing Cardillac's mother into a disabling hysteria which is then mysteriously communicated to the in utero fetus. The implication is that the mother's erotically charged desire for the sublime beauty represented by the gems is transmitted to her son, whose resulting prodigious talent for the artistic creation of jewelry elevates him to the “der erste Meister” of this art form (212). As a result of this trauma, Cardillac comes into the world with a congenital compulsion to steal gold and jewels, an antisocial tendency that later alienates him from his father, who must subject him to cruel punishments to suppress this instinct.

The prenatal trauma and the resulting conflicts with the father and his societal agency, the law, are tantalizing clues to the mystery of Cardillac's violent acts, suggesting that the mother's infidelity breached not only her relationship with her husband but also, and in a far less mediated way, the emotional attachment with her unborn child. According to this logic, the intervention of a rival for maternal affection at such an archaic juncture preconditions Cardillac to act out an unconscious oedipal conflict with his male clients. Compelled to repossess the masterpieces of jewelry he creates for handsome suitors, Cardillac's homicides can be construed as revenge on a paternal order and as reappropriations of precious self-representations invested with incestuous libidinal energy.5 The unmediated loss of the maternal symbiosis, exaggerated by the in utero trauma, triggers the formation of a creative imagination obsessed with fetishized works of art whose violent retrieval compensates a primal narcissistic wound. Such an allegory implies a vision of creativity that exceeds Freud's sense of art as a sublimation of drives, bringing it closer to Bloom's image of the artist as oedipal murderer. The crucial element in Hoffmann's portrait of the artist is a compensatory mechanism: Cardillac creates works of art precisely so that he can take them back. His artistry is thus a perpetual recreation of a lost narcissistic unity for which there is no liberating Trauerarbeit. The regressive nature of Cardillac's art fetish makes him a textbook example of Bloom's Romantic genius: To satisfy his infantile urge to be merged with the maternal element and possess it exclusively, the mad goldsmith must develop backwards toward an antecedent stage of psychic organization. Cardillac identifies himself with his jeweled masterpieces, which simulate the gems that his mother had idealized. He cannot accept an ego ideal because the idealized maternal object is still fused with a primitive grandiose self.

The account of Grenouille's birth and the genesis of his creative genius in Das Parfum reiterates both the physical circumstances and the emotional logic of Cardillac's trauma, but with certain important modifications that heighten the significance of loss and compensation for the creative process. Although the novel's opening scene seems to situate Grenouille's abandonment trauma at the moment of his birth, when his mother discards his newborn body on a pile of rotting fish, the narrative subsequently informs us that he has been prenatally conditioned for this rejection by an intrauterine hostility that was emotionally just as traumatic as his appalling rejection at birth. In a later chapter, suffused with images of regression to prenatal existence, Grenouille, curled up like a fetus in the womb-like depths of a mountain cave, claims that he has never felt so secure, “schon gar nicht im Bauch seiner Mutter” (156). Following Hoffmann, who implies that the mother's fixation on the idealized gems contributes to the formation of Cardillac's superhuman talents, Süskind invokes an idealized feminine scent, the “master scent” of Grenouille's first murder victim, to trigger his grandiose self-perception as revolutionary genius: “Mit dem heutigen Tag aber schien ihm, als wisse er endlich, wer er wirklich sei: nämlich nichts anderes als ein Genie; und daß sein Leben Sinn und Zweck und höhere Bestimmung habe: nämlich keine geringere, als die Welt der Düfte zu revolutionieren” (57).

In Hoffmann's tale the psychic catastrophe caused by the mother's erotic desire transcribes her optical fixation onto the fetus, resulting in Cardillac's obsession with glittering gems. While Süskind changes the sensory modality, investing his wunderkind with a superhuman sense of smell, the primal cause of the artist's “genius” remains the same: Grenouille's instinctive olfactory talent is linked to the site of his traumatic wounding, the profoundly odiferous environment of eighteenth-century Paris. By stressing the predominance of olfactory over visual sensation in Grenouille's perinatal environment, Süskind deepens Hoffmann's allegory of creative genius, bringing it closer to the primal significance attached to smell by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialektik der Aufklärung, who write: “Von allen Sinnen zeugt der Akt des Riechens, das angezogen wird, ohne zu vergegenständlichen, am sinnlichsten von dem Drang, ans andere sich zu verlieren und gleich zu werden. […] Im Sehen bleibt man, wer man ist, im Riechen geht man auf” (165). According to such a psychological definition of sense perception, smell is best able to capture and preserve in memory the narcissistic merging that takes place in the prenatal intrauterine state, which, as Freud points out, is the archaic source of the human need for the transcendental unity that the German Romantics called Alleinheit. Adopting Romain Rolland's term, Freud called it “das ozeanische Gefühl”—that sense of merging with the infinite that creates in the infant an illusion of omnipotence and in the adult a religious urge for unio mystica. Lou Andreas-Salomé, student of Freud, saw clearly the significance of Romantic Alleinheit for narcissism theory. Pointing to the semantic dialectic of Alleinheit, which can mean “all-in-one” as well as “isolation,” Andreas-Salomé stressed the dual disposition of primary narcissism as both the radical self-assertion of infantile grandiosity and the primitive subject's passive absorption into an undifferentiated narcissistic merger. Emphasizing the importance of narcissistic states for the creative imagination, Andreas-Salomé argued that the artist is predisposed to narcissistic regressions in which subject and object are not separated and where primitive identifications are relived. Such narcissistic duality is depicted in Süskind's tale of the disturbed genius. On one hand, Grenouille is a subhuman creature who, shamed and degraded, effaces himself and, with his olfactory powers, merges with both natural and human objects. On the other hand, he grandiosely proclaims himself a genius and exploits rational knowledge to reify his ego and to master and dominate others.

The essence of Süskind's primal scene of the artist is of course already embedded in Hoffmann's story: the intruding male rival who upsets Cardillac's prenatal environment causes a catastrophic separation from the mother, sensed by the in utero embryo as a rupture of fetal symbiosis. Enlarging Hoffmann's interlude to epic proportions, Süskind builds his entire novel around a detailed narration of Grenouille's postnatal ego development, which is played out in a repetitive series of abandonments and betrayals by primary caretakers that reinforce the traumatic consequences of primal wounding. As the events of Das Parfum make clear, Grenouille's genial fixation results from a defect of primary identity caused by a traumatic separation from the maternal matrix, a loss repeated and underscored by the grossly unempathic treatment he receives from all subsequent caregivers. Not only is Grenouille unable to bond with his biological mother, but all his surrogate parents are themselves narcissists incapable of emotional bonding. Mme. Gaillard, the mistress of the orphanage, is a particularly obvious example. As a child her father had struck her across the forehead with a poker, thus robbing her not only of all sense of smell but also of all human warmth and passion. More than mere physical harm, that traumatic blow leaves its recipient emotionally disabled, without empathy and without the ability to mourn. Her numbness and olfactory deficiency are a metaphorical mirror-opposite of Grenouille's powers. Parodying the Enlightenment conception of Bildung as a progression toward an autonomous ego, Grenouille's formative relationships promote only regressions to primitive ego states in which compensatory fantasies of infantile omnipotence replace the mature resolution of dependency issues.

Though it is less obviously worked out in Hoffmann's tale, the compensatory aspect is apparent in both stories: The artist creates as a result of a deeply rooted need to restore structural deficits in the core self. On this point Süskind's text is unambiguous: To tame and structure his incoherent internal universe, Grenouille must assimilate an idealized feminine scent. His most urgent need is to reinscribe a feeling of symbiotic unity into his disintegrating self-structure: “Er wollte wie mit einem Prägestempel das apotheotische Parfum ins Kuddelmuddel seiner schwarzen Seele pressen” (55). In this way he can erect “planvoll[e] Geruchgebäuden” in his psyche, “eine täglich sich erweiternde, täglich sich verschönende und perfekter gefügte innere Festung der herrlichsten Duftkompositionen” (58). Unable to mourn the loss of the maternal symbiosis, Grenouille remains trapped in a state of melancholic depression, which produces an idealizing fixation on the maternal. Like Cardillac, whose mother perceives the cavalier as the embodiment of ideal beauty and transmits this idealization to her son, Grenouille seeks the ultimate scent, which he first discovers in the pure, unviolated body of the girl in the rue des Marais. This one scent, thinks Grenouille, “dieser eine war das höhere Prinzip, nach dessen Vorbild sich die andern ordnen mußten. Es war die reine Schönheit” (55).

In such an allegory of creativity, regression to an antecedent stage emerges as a psychopoetic metaphor consistent with the Bloomian notion of the creative genius who unconsciously reactivates a primal affiliation with a central precursor and imaginatively regresses to a state of primary narcissism. Although Bloom seems unaware of it, his idea finds support in the aesthetics of object relations theory, which shifts the conception of creativity from classical Freudian sublimation to a compensatory idealization of the self. In post-Freudian psychoanalysis it has long been the consensus that artists work to restore a lost beauty and perfection that was once their own. By inventing an idealized object onto which primitive fantasies of omnipotence are projected, artists enact a mourning of the lost omnipotence of the primitive grandiose self (Layton and Schapiro 23-36). Especially artists who exhibit an exaggerated concern with wholeness and ideal beauty are unconsciously attempting to restore the blissful perfection of archaic narcissism associated with the idealized selfobject. Süskind and Hoffmann, however, who depict the psychic abnormalities that often underlie aesthetic idealism, parody the artistic fetishism of Romantic idealism. Rather than disavowing the pain of a primal wound by regressing to the imaginary perfection of primary narcissism, their fantasies recreate sites of emotional injury in search of psychic insight and reparation.

According to Julia Kristeva, whose view of art as an imaginative conquest of melancholia provides a useful complement to Bloom's more orthodox Freudian psychopoetics, the depressive symptoms of narcissistic self-disorders result from the failure of a primary identification in the pre-oedipal stage. Revising Freud, Kristeva argues that the bedrock of personal identity develops when the emotional matrix of child and primary caretaker is triangulated by a mediating ideal (usually personified as a paternal metaphor).6 If the matrix is broken without the assistance of a nurturing, rather than castrating, parental agent, the core self fails to develop sufficiently, resulting in a “borderline” personality prone to psychic fragmentation. Without such pre-oedipal triangulation, the child remains suspended in a regressed state of primary narcissism. In Das Parfum the image used to convey this emotional stunting is the tick, a parasite that withdraws into itself and survives on a single drop of blood for years. Like the tick, Grenouille requires only a minimum of nutriments, especially in the psychological sense: “Fürseine Seele brauchte er nichts. Geborgenheit, Zuwendung, Zärtlichkeit, Liebe—oder wie die ganzen Dinge hießen, deren ein Kind angeblich bedurfte—waren dem Kinde Grenouille völlig entbehrlich” (28). In the total absence of empathy and love, the narcissistically wounded child becomes, according to Kristeva, “an amphibian being of boundaries,” a liminal creature bereft of “sexual, subjective, or moral identity” (Moi 207). In this metaphorical description of the regressive borderline personality the psychoanalytic significance of Grenouille's name emerges: Grenouille (French for frog) is Süskind's metaphor for the liminality and failure of identification that characterize the narcissistic condition.

Unlike Freud, whose patients suffered neurotic symptoms thought to result from unresolved oedipal guilt (like the hysterical reaction of Cardillac's mother to the intruder), contemporary psychoanalysts typically confront a depression signifying wounds to a primitive ego preceding the Oedipus. According to Kristeva, this profound sadness, the melancholia of the borderline personality, is perceived by its sufferer, as a “fundamental lack,” or “congenital deficiency” (“On the Melancholy Imaginery” 107; my italics). In both Das Parfum and its Romantic antecedent, the key moment in the formation of genius is just such a congenital deficiency. As psychopoetic allegory, Süskind's parodic recreation of Hoffmann's Cardillac generates an implicit critique of Bloom's theory of Romantic repression and originality. When Bloom claims that the original and therefore authentic poet must return, via repression, to a state of primary narcissism, he is in effect saying that the illusion of creative priority is purchased by an imaginative regression to pre-oedipal melancholy, a phase in which the ego is not yet formed because it has not successfully mourned the loss of narcissistic Alleinheit by entering the paternal order of a cultural tradition. Bloom's version of the Romantic genius, so Süskind seems to imply, is based on a narcissistic urge for perfection that has dire consequences in the social as well as the artistic sphere. Thus, a progressive view of creativity, one that uncomplicates the artist's relation to precursors and allows for the reformation of creative and cultural identity, is an implicit agenda of Süskind's allegorical novel. By means of an openly citational reincorporation of Romantic precursors, Das Parfum sets up an intertextual anamnesia that not only deconstructs the Romantic fantasy of creative omnipotence, but also assists a working-through of complex sociocultural issues.


As the organizing allegory of a postmodern Künstlerroman, the metaphor of perfume is particularly well chosen, for what would be a more appropriate trope for the self-deconstructing text than a composite mixture distilled from canonical essences, a parodic blend of the tradition's master codes and most seductive stylistic voices? Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi, itself a synthesis of artist's story, crime narrative, and psychoanalytic case history, is only one of numerous intertextual constituents that Das Parfum comprises. Indeed, given the seemingly innumerable citational traces in the novel, it is tempting to imagine that Das Parfum is nothing but a complex construction of parodied codes and citations by means of which the author is able to write himself out of the text, an aesthetic ploy that is consistent with Süskind's public (and presumably philosophical) self-effacement. To analyze such acts of creative self-abnegation Harold Bloom proposes the concept of kenosis, which in Bloom's gloss means the belated poet's attempt to empty himself of his own “imaginative godhood,” so that the precursor, whom the belated poet has introjected to achieve creative identity, is also emptied of his creative divinity (or originality) (Anxiety 77-92). By so de-idealizing the precursor who inhabits the belated poet's imagination, the later poet can overpower the precursor and establish the illusion of creative priority. In postmodern writing this ebbing of the creative ego undergoes a crucial revision. As the blatant citationality of Das Parfum shows, in postmodern kenosis the creative psyche is diminished not to clear space for a narcissistic genius who represses fetishized precursor texts but to dissolve the fantasy of omnipotence and redefine imaginative subjectivity as the fluid space of écriture where singular authorial identity disappears and its repressed other, the citation, emerges in a hybrid intertextual construct. Troping multiple precursors, Süskind's pastiche foregrounds the creative process as an evacuation of literary identity and its reconstitution as a plurality of voices.

Such postmodern kenosis also offers the reader an opportunity to reconsider, perhaps redefine, previously fixed identities. As Freud theorized, an effective mourning of ideals and the ensuing self-reconstitution must take place in an intersubjective context—there must be a public acknowledgement of pain and loss. In the psychoanalytic session, the emotionally secure environment created by the therapist's empathic response serves this function, but in literary transactions such a confrontation and resolution of trauma is enabled by the distance created by parodic pastiche, which allows the reader to decathect fetishized cultural artifacts and reappropriate them as part of a Trauerspiel, a playful enactment of bereavement.7 Portraying Grenouille as a psychopathic genius capable of mesmerizing the masses and whipping them into a depraved frenzy, for instance, evokes in contemporary readers the image of Hitler as the collective ego ideal of a society deluded by narcissistic dreams of purity and mastery, allegorically uncensoring the psychopathology of National Socialism and inviting a recognition of its lingering traces in various cultural practices of the present. In this sense Das Parfum can be said to elaborate the allegorical technique of Günter Grass's novel Die Blechtrommel. The fairy-tale image of Grenouille as a regressive life-form (tick or frog) is a self-conscious variation of Oskar Matzerath, the stunted child of Grass's popular novel, whose refusal to grow up parodies the political retardation of postwar Germans who repressed all memory of the fascist period (cf. Hoesterey 173; Donahue 37).

In a German novel such as Das Parfum such Trauerspiel represents an aesthetic elaboration of the social Trauerarbeit called for by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, whose 1967 study Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern examined postwar Germans' refusal to remember and mourn the National Socialist period. The Mitscherlichs' central idea is that the Germans experienced the fascist period not as politically oppressive, but rather as a phase of intense societal narcissism. The grandiosely staged public spectacles and the idealization of the Führer, so obviously parodied in the final chapters of Das Parfum (cf. Adams; von Matt), were the sociopolitical symptoms of what the Mitscherlichs termed a “German way of loving.” A euphemism for the narcissistic self-disorder, this way of loving features the same diminishment of empathy and intensified need for confirmation of self-esteem that Freud found in cases of melancholia. To overcome this pathological narcissism the Mitscherlichs advocated an active remembering and reassessment of the repressed past. Instead of denying memories of the fascist period and fixating on the material reconstruction of their society, Germans were urged to acknowledge and mourn the dangerous ideals embodied by the Führer. Only in this way could the wounds to the collective postwar psyche be healed and German identity be reconstructed.

The restitutive effects of the novel's pastiche technique also apply to the dilemma confronting the contemporary German-speaking writer who must reconcile the avoidance of a politically contaminated tradition with the need to preserve connections with viable cultural antecedents. If, as Kristeva maintains, genuine mourning is achieved by a process of triangulation, which in the contemporary literary imagination implies an identification with the patriarchal canon, how is this possible in what Alexander Mitscherlich has called the “fatherless society” of post-Nazi Germany? The answer, implied by the citationality of Das Parfum, is neither a regressively nostalgic idealization nor a repressive denial of the national heritage, but an ironic rewriting of ancestral literary discourse. Rejecting the aesthetics of repression, postmodern writers eliminate the one-on-one oedipal struggle that Bloom describes by invoking multiple fathers whose return they openly and ludically announce, merging their identities in a process of intertextual bonding. Thus, although a citational pastiche such as Das Parfum may look like an oedipal attack on the canon, it operates more to allow the return and mourning of the dead. In Bloomian misprision the parent text is consumed by a cunning epigone, like Hoffmann's Cardillac, who reinhabits the precursor's evacuated style.8 In postmodern pastiche, on the other hand, the myth of singular voice fostered by the Enlightenment ideal of individual autonomy is abandoned and the dead ancestors return in citational clusters.

This bonding of multiple precursor-texts to create a hybrid authorial identity has its analogy in the special alchemical process Grenouille requires to produce perfumes. According to the premodern science of alchemy, natural materials can be distilled to their essence and combined to create a synthetic substance, transmuting lower materials into higher ones, lead into gold for instance. Psychologically, Grenouille's fascination with capturing the “soul” of corporeal matter by distilling its olfactory essence signals his unconscious desire to create a human essence or core identity. Intertextually, the transmutation of pre-existing materials to create a new substance mirrors the citational process of the novel itself, which, distilled from myriad canonical essences, produces the literary equivalent of a perfume. In Das Parfum this alchemy of decomposed citations is initiated in the novel's opening sentence, which describes Grenouille as one of the “most gifted” yet “most abominable” men of his era. As previously discussed, this is a double citation of Das Fräulein von Scuderi and Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. Significantly, Hoffmann's phrase is already a self-conscious citation of Kleist, marking Hoffmann's appropriation as an example of postmodernism avant la lettre. By reduplicating Hoffmann's citation of Kleist, Süskind shows that ironic citation of pre-existing literary materials is hardly a new phenomenon. Even in the Romantic era, when according to Bloom the demand for creative authenticity was pervasive, parodic citation was common practice among Romantic ironists. Like the vampiric Grenouille, Hoffmann grafted himself onto precursors.9 Moreover, by double-voicing the citation, Süskind avoids an exclusive identification with either precursor and so preempts the oedipal conflict.

In a similar fashion, the novel's concluding image of self-extinction mirrors the postmodern kenosis of subjectivity. After achieving his highest ambition of being loved unconditionally and then realizing that this love is only a manufactured illusion, Grenouille commits suicide by drenching himself with his ideal perfume and throwing himself to a crowd of riffraff, who tear him to pieces and consume his body in an act of “love.” The corporeal sacrifice and redemptive reincorporation suggested by this cannibalization is amplified by a cluster of allusions including, most obviously, the Christian crucifixion, as well as the Euripidean dismemberment of Pentheus by the Dionysian maenads, the latter representing the defeat of the rational ego in both the classical text and its postmodern adaptation. Additionally, the image resonates with Kleist's Penthesilea, which also ends with the devouring of a wounded hero (Achilles) in an orally sadistic Liebestod. Reinhabiting ancient and sacred myths, these images of ingestion, communion, and redemption converge with the psychic necessity of introjective Trauerarbeit as a cure for wounded cultural identity. Grenouille's Christian name, Jean-Baptiste, further reinforces the interpretation: John the Baptist preached the gospel of redemption achieved by an identificatory communion performed in the name of the Father.

In the middle chapters of the novel the image of John the Baptist resonates in another, especially dense, citational cluster. After a seven-year hibernation in a mountain cave, Grenouille emerges looking like a fantastic mixture of man and bear:

Er sah fürchterlich aus. Die Haare reichten ihm bis zu den Kniekehlen, der dünne Bart bis zum Nabel. Seine Nägel waren wie Vogelkrallen, und an Armen und Beinen, wo die Lumpen nicht mehr hinreichten, den Körper zu bedecken, fiel ihm die Haut in Fetzen ab.


Not only does his wild appearance suggest descriptions of the biblical John, who lived the crude existence of a penitent in the desert, it is also reminiscent of the Bärenhäuter of Grimms' folktales, whose story resembles Grenouille's in important particulars. Like Grenouille, Bearskin is rejected by his family and wanders as a social outcast. A Faustian figure, Bearskin wagers with the devil for his soul and (like the titular figure of Chamisso's tale Peter Schlemihl Wundersame Geschichte) must forfeit his shadow (a token for his soul or personal identity). In the end (like the fairytale frog-prince and Faust) Bearkskin is redeemed by the empathic mercy of a maternal figure. Without love and therefore without soul or identity, these fairytale creatures are, to borrow Musil's phrase, “men without qualities,” liminal beings who wander the borders of society. What binds these figures together, generating the resonance that holds them in the constellation of pastiche, is precisely the liminality of their identity, a result of the traumatic abandonment that each of their stories records. Largely derived from the folktales favored by the Romantics, these figures of narcissistic loss and failed identity coalesce here to extend the lengthy cultural history of the borderline personality.

The literary history of the narcissist can be said to reach one of its high points in the Symbolist aesthete, whose characteristic fantasies of self-origination provide the literary-historical context for understanding the hibernation chapters of Das Parfum. In a remote cave at the uninhabited peak of the highest mountain in France, “Grenouille der Große,” as he calls himself, withdraws into a radically autistic dream world, a paradis artificiel of the imagination, over which he reigns with god-like omnipotence. In fantasies of perverse grandiosity he conjures a race of slaves whom he dominates tyrannically and destroys with infantile rage. In his “purple castle” he indulges himself in drunken debaucheries by flooding his imagination with scented recollections of personal experience recalled from the storehouse of his vast olfactory memory. He refers to these regressive reveries as vintage wines, which he addictively imbibes to fortify himself against the painful emptiness of his depleted psyche. Sometimes these scented memories are called “books,” which his servants retrieve from a “great library,” implying that he, the aesthete, intoxicates himself with an excessive consumption of literary art. Ironically, despite this retreat from reality into the inner sanctum of his imagination, he is unable to defend himself against external influences, least of all from painful memories of rejection and abuse, which return in the scented memoirs he obsessively peruses. Similarly, the return of repressed Romantic and Symbolist texts is so pervasive in these chapters that many passages seem to consist of almost nothing but blatant plagiarizations (Ryan 399). Thus the aesthete's narcissistic fantasy of a self-enclosing realm is defeated by an underlying web of citations, commenting parodically on the perverse impossibility of self-origination.

Although scholarly assessments of Das Parfum have mentioned Baudelaire only in passing, the significance of his poetics for an understanding of Süskind's citational technique is of more than passing interest. Here a reference to Kristeva's psychoanalysis of Baudelairean metaphor is useful. According to Kristeva, Baudelaire's intoxicating lyricism, achieved in his hallmark metaphorical synesthesia, is the poet's attempt to merge disparate representations into a constellation of correspondences. In the context of the present analysis, synesthesia's destabilization and remixture of conventional signifiers represents a poetic regression to the symbiosis of primary narcissism. For this reason, perfume is Baudelaire's premier trope, representing as it does the dissolution and blending of metaphor in the poet's imagination. In Kristeva's analysis, synesthesia is the infrastructure of Baudelaire's conception of lyric style, producing a liminal semiosis of language that evokes the fluid subjectivity of primary narcissism rather than the fixed meanings of a symbolic discourse produced by the inflexible rational ego. Kristeva suggests that the fundamental significance of perfume in a discussion of narcissism and creativity is its psychosomatic connection to the maternal body: Perfume has “fusional connotations that condense the intoxicated memory of the maternal body” (Tales of Love 329). Smell is the sensory apparatus that best mediates the recollection of primary merger with the mother's body that precedes the acquisition of other symbolic codes. As smell's artificial or aesthetic representative, perfume is a metaphor for the earliest recognition of the (m)other and thus, according to Kristeva, “the most powerful metaphor for that archaic universe” (Tales of Love 334).

In view of Kristeva's analysis, Grenouille's olfactory genius and his obsession with creating an ultimate perfume from the distilled fragrances of idealized women emerges as a potent allegory for the pathological narcissism of the borderline personality. Presenting Grenouille as a parody of the aesthete deepens this allegory, for as Kristeva theorizes, such bizarre expressions of individuality manifest the dandy's exaggerated need for autonomy. The aesthete asserts himself in such strident style precisely to defend his fragile ego against the loss of identity constantly threatened by a regressive merger with the maternal. Beyond that, however, the conception of perfume as a metaphor for a synaesthetic writing also applies to Süskind's style. Translating Kristeva's thinking into intertextual terms, one can say that, like Baudelaire's alchemical play with metaphor, Süskind's citational play promotes a dissolution and reformulation of authorial identity. Like the decompositional process of synesthesia that displaces figural elements from one domain to another, mixing and fusing them to create new imaginative structures, the bonding of citational composites in Das Parfum suggests the possibility of restructuring the writing subject. To avoid the self-fetishizing tendency of the melancholy creative ego (personified by atavistic geniuses like Grenouille and his precursor Cardillac), the postmodern writer must revisit the canon of narcissistic literature and, supported by the ironic mediation of parody, reinvent such discourse as an alternative identificatory object. In this sense, Süskind assimulates Baudelaire's practice of alchemical writing, and, amplifying its psychological connotations, applies it to his version of postmodern pastiche. By so inhabiting the literary other's imagination, the belated writing subject dissolves fixed authorial identity while regenerating a Romantic conception of psychopoetological writing.

The analogy of transmutation is also suggested by recent advances in psychotherapeutic treatment of the borderline personality. In the clinical theories of Heinz Kohut, for example, the narcissistic personality is restored to healthy functioning by a psychic transmutation in which the analyst becomes the patient's transitional ego ideal, sustaining the weakened identity-structure of the patient who undergoes a healing change of personality during the therapeutic process. Expanding his theory into aesthetics, Kohut argues that creativity cannot be the affair of a radically isolated imagination, but is sparked by the affirming presence of an ego ideal. Identifications with mentors, in a so-called transference of creativity, provide cohesion for the “fluid” subjectivity common to creative persons (“Creativeness, Charisma, Group Psychology”). This transitory attachment to ego ideals assists the artist's retrieval of the lost omnipotence of primary narcissism, recreating a liminal psychic condition in which identity and creative impulses are thought to originate. The narcissistic wound is best healed at the irrational level of affect, where substantive changes in psychic structure are possible. It is perhaps in this sense that we must understand the plea by German artists such as Syberberg for a return to Romantic irrationalism as a way of restoring identity to a culture without a Heimat (cf. Kaes 68).

Situated in a discussion of intertextual creativity, such concepts can clarify the difference between the perceived plagiarism of postmodern art and a new psychology of creativity. Taken in aggregate, the global pastiche of a novel like Das Parfum provides a “facilitating environment” where creative identity can be reformed (Winnicott). Rereading Bloom through Kristeva and Kohut supports the hypothesis that, much like the restoration of depleted ego structure in psychotherapy, authorial identity, though dependent on primary identifications with precursors, can be modified by the incorporation of clustered citations. In the artificially induced regression and fluid kenosis of the citational imagination, a transmuting internalization of precursor texts can contribute to a reconstruction of authorial identity, which may also suggest to the reader an alternative social subjectivity. This revision of the creative imagination implies a reassessment of certain Romantic and Symbolist texts as explorations, and not merely nostalgic glorifications, of the narcissistic condition, and thus as models for a critical rehabilitation of Romantic discourse rather than as compulsive repetitions of the pathological state that Harold Bloom describes. Such a revision is at odds with a conception of the Romantic poet as a melancholy genius who refuses to mourn the separation from tradition resulting from Enlightenment aesthetics and fixates on the grandiose illusion of self-divination. Rather than repressing the ancestral voice blocking the epigone's access to some imagined Ursprache of poetic language, the postmodern imagination liberates itself from the narcissistic delusion of originality, converting creative anxiety into intertextual productivity. Thus, the postmodern writer, no longer the mythic, self-aggrandizing genius, is restored to the status of virtuoso, a term that in the premodern era signified a collector of art and highly skilled player. This is, in a productive sense, what the writing subject appears to become in the intertextual artistry that distinguishes Das Parfum as an allegory of postmodern creativity.


  1. Joachim Kaiser compares Das Parfum with Thomas Mann; Marcel Reich-Ranicki reads Das Parfum in relation to E. T. A. Hoffmann's writings; Michael Fischer comments on the influence of Balzac, Baudelaire, and Flaubert.

  2. As Kathleen M. Wheeler notes: “Contrary to received opinion about romantic poets, authors were not seen as essentially discrete individuals originating new and individual works of art; individuality was seen as ‘portions of one great poem’ (to use Shelley's words).” “Like Derrida,” Wheeler adds, “the ironists were reminding their readers that influence and tradition permeate even the most apparently original texts” 31. For a discussion of German Romantic irony in relation to deconstructive thought see 26-49.

  3. Syberberg asserts that without irrationalism Germany is “nothing but dangerous, sick, without identity, explosive—a wretched shadow of its possibilities.” Quoted from Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat, 68.

  4. The homicidal psychopath is, however, only the most extreme form of a sociopathic type now considered by many to be pervasive. See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner Books, 1979). Also interesting in this context is the fact that Kurt Cobain, grunge rock icon and spokesman for the alienated youth culture of the 90s (who committed suicide for apparently the same reasons as Grenouille), had read and idealized Das Parfum. He wrote a song alluding to the novel entitled “Scentless Apprentice” for the album In Utero.

  5. Cf. Peter Schneider, “Verbrechen, Künstlertum und Wahnsinn. Untersuchungen zur Figur des Cardillac in E. T. A. Hoffmanns Das Fräulein von Scuderi,Mitteilungen der E. T. A. Hoffmann-Gesellschaft 26 (1980): 34-50.

  6. Following Freud, Kristeva calls this agent the “father of individual prehistory.” Tales of Love, 33-34.

  7. The reference here is to Walter Benjamin's Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, a work in which Benjamin analyses the “melancholy gaze” as an allegorical vision that empties the object of artistic representation of its meaning, making it available as a vessel for transmitting renewed meaning.

  8. Harold Bloom calls this apophrades, a Greek word meaning “dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead return to reinhabit the houses in which they had lived.” The Anxiety of Influence, 15. The final chapter of The Anxiety of Influence treats this concept (138-155).

  9. Kater Murr is a particularly good example of Hoffmann's playful citationality. See Kropf, 201-210. Hoffmann's story “Die Räuber” is a prose remake of Schiller's famous play of the same title, and story “Das Gelübde” feeds off Kleist's Die Marquise von O. There are numerous other examples.

Works Cited

Adams, Robert M. “The Nose Knows.” The New York Review of Books 20 Nov. 1986: 24-26.

Andreas-Salomé, Lou. “The Dual Orientation of Narcissism,” Trans. S. Leavy. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 31 (1962): 3-30.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image-Music-Text, Trans. S. Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Benjamin, Walter. “Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels.Gesammelte Schriften 1.1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

———. “The Breaking of Form.” Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

———. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

———. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

———. Yeats. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Brockmann, Stephen. “Syberberg's Germany.” The German Quarterly 69.1 (Winter 1996): 48-62.

Butterfield, Bradley. “Enlightenment's Other in Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum: Adorno and the Ineffable Utopia of Modern Art.” Comparative Literature Studies 32.3 (1995): 401-418.

Dettmering, Peter. Heinrich von Kleist. Zur Psychodynamik seiner Dichtung. Munich, 1975.

Donahue, Neil H. “Scents and Insensibility: Patrick Süskind's New Historical Critique of ‘Die Neue Sensibität’ in Das Parfum (1985).” Modern Language Studies 22.3 (1992): 36-43.

Fischer, Michael. “Ein Stänkerer gegen die Deo-Zeit.” Der Spiegel 4 March 1985.

Freud, Sigmund. “Trauer und Melancholie.” Gesammelte Werke 10. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1968.

Grey, Richard T. “The Dialectics of ‘Enscentment’: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum as Critical History of Enlightenment Culture.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 108 (1993): 489-505.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity versus Postmodernity.” New German Critique 22 (1981): 3-14.

Hoesterey, Ingeborg. Verschlungene Schriftzeichen.Intertextualität von Literatur und Kunst in der Moderne/Postmoderne. Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1988.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. “Das Fräulein von Scuderi.” Poetische Werke 7. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1957.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1984.

Huyssen, Andreas. Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

Kaes, Anton. From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Kaiser, Joachim. “Viel Flottheit und Phantasie.” Süddeutsche Zeitung 28 March 1985.

Kleist, Heinrich von. Sämtliche Werke und Briefe. 2, Helmut Sembdner, ed. Munich: Hanser, 1961.

Kohut, Heinz. The Search for the Self. Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. 2. Paul H. Ornstein, ed. New York: International Universities Press, 1978.

———. “Creativeness, Charisma, Group Psychology.” Search for the Self, 2, 793-843.

Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Foudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.

———. “On the Melancholy Imaginery.” Discourse in Psychoanalysis and Literature, Sholmith Rimmon-Kenan. London and New York: Methuen, 1987.

Kropf, David Glenn. Authorship as Alchemy. Subversive Writing in Pushkin. Scott. Hoffmann. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.

Leitch, Vincent. Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Meloy, J. R. The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1988.

Mitscherlich, Alexander and Margarete. Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, translated as The Inability to Mourn. Principles of Collective Behavior by Beverly R. Placzek. New York: Grove Press, 1975.

Mitscherlich, Alexander, Auf dem Weg zur vaterlosen Gesellschaft. Munich and Zurich: Piper, 1963.

Moi, Tori, ed. The Kristeva Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Reich-Ranicki, Marcel. “Des Mörders betörender Duft.” Frankfurter Allgemeine 2 March 1985.

Ryan, Judith. “The Problem of Pastiche: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum.The German Quarterly 63.3/4 (1990): 396-403.

Santner, Eric L. Stranded Objects, Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Schneider, Peter. “Verbrechen, Künstlertum und Wahnsinn. Untersuchungen zur Figur des Cardillac in E. T. A. Hoffmanns Das Fräulein von Scuderi.Mitteilungen der E. T. A. Hoffmann-Gesellschaft 26 (1980): 34-50.

Stadelmaier, Gerhard. “Lebens-Riechlauf eines Duftmörders.” Frankfurter Rundschau Easter 1985.

Süskind, Patrick. Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders. Zürich: Diogenes, 1985.

———. “Amnesie in litteris.” L80 37 (1986): 30-35.

Von Matt, Beatrice. “Das Scheusal als Romanheld.” Neue Züricher Zeitung 15 March 1985.

Wheeler, Kathleen M. Romanticism, Pragmatism, and Deconstruction. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993.

Whitinger, R. G. and M. Herzog. “Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi and Süskind's Das Parfum: Elements of Homage in a Postmodernist Parody of a Romantic Artist Story.” The German Quarterly 67.2 (1994): 222-234.

Winnicott, D. W. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press, 1965.

Dieter Stolz (essay date 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Stolz, Dieter. “Patrick Süskind's Parfum: ‘No One Knows How Well Made It Is.’” In German-Language Literature Today: International and Popular?, edited by Arthur Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Julian Preece, pp. 19-30. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Stolz discusses Das Parfum within the context of “new” countercultural European narrative techniques.]

Mein Genie ist in meinen Nüstern …

(Nietzsche: Ecce Homo)


Also das gibt es immer noch oder schon wieder: einen deutschen Schriftsteller, der des Deutschen mächtig ist; einen zeitgenössischen Erzähler, der dennoch erzählen kann; einen Romancier, der uns nicht mit dem Spiegelbild seines Bauchnabels belästigt; einen jungen Autor, der trotzdem kein Langweiler ist.

(Marcel Reich-Ranicki)

Not to him, R.-R., the preening media star of latter days, but to him, the publicity-shy creator of the Perfume that lingers unforgettably on, be thanks! Without his piece of artistic magic an international colloquium on contemporary German literature which examines the topic under the aspects of the popular and the international is scarcely conceivable. Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders was published in 1985 by the Diogenes Verlag after several publishing houses in Germany had turned down the manuscript that ran so quintessentially counter to the Zeitgeist of the day.1 The responsible editors will presumably still be kicking themselves, at least when nobody is watching them, over this glaring miscalculation, because, with his first novel, Patrick Süskind became the first author of the post-war generation to achieve success at home and abroad that has remained unparalleled until today. With more that ten million copies sold so far Das Parfum has even put the sales figures for Die Blechtrommel into the shade. Moreover, it is most warmly recommended as Europe's captivating answer to the magic realism of Latin American origin, exceptionally even in the USA, where publishers could be said to have fought each other for the lucrative rights.

It is small wonder that other writers, inspired by the desire for popular texts and extremely promising market surveys, followed the example of our successful author, with, it goes without saying, greater or lesser aversion towards the literary market place and the culture industry—and, of course, with the most varied of talents. Subsequently the supposedly entirely ‘new’ narrative art from European lands has undeniably achieved increasing popularity and has been enjoying an international boom for several years. This welcome development, which at times admittedly brings forth strange fruits—as is well known, the Spiegel-terms for it are ‘Das Fräuleinwunder’ (cf. Hage 1999a, 245) or, to bring the other sex into play as well, ‘Grass's grandsons are coming’ (cf. Hage 1999b)2—will have to be considered in critical discourses on the media-friendly change of paradigm. I, however, will quickly return to Das Parfum, the work which paved the way for the continuing current development and which remains a fascinating long seller for masses of readers. It starts with the birth of an altogether single-faceted genius (‘das Denken war nicht seine Stärke’ (317)) and ends with the very significant extinguishing of this insult to nature: ‘Mancher der vortrefflichsten Romane ist ein Kompendium, eine Enzyklopädie des ganzen geistigen Lebens eines genialischen Individuums […] Auch enthält jeder Mensch, der gebildet ist, und sich bildet, in seinem Innern einen Roman. Daß er ihn aber äußre und schreibe, ist nicht nötig’ (Schlegel 1956, 15). This is because this task can also sometimes, as the history of literature shows, be taken over by congenial authors: ‘Wieviele Autoren gibts wohl unter den Schriftstellern? Autor heißt Urheber’ (Schlegel 1956, 14).

Although Süskind's success surprised aesthetic puritans, its secret is obvious to the less narrow-minded. This novel, which only at first sight (which, for similarly obvious reasons, for countless reviewers and readers may also be the last sight) trips along so lightly but is in fact highly complex, offers something for every taste. It is, as it were, superficial down to its deepest refinements of style, an example of the most subtle popular elite art. Insatiable bookworms, spurred on by the ‘horrific’ subtitle and the (un)ambiguous cover, enjoy looking forward to a repast spiced with eros and thanatos, amor and psyche, suppressed lust and murderous violence. This is what the despicable carnival of life brings and in this criminal case things go beyond what the police allow. Incorrigible Germanists, on the other hand, are enthused by the prospect of such ‘exciting’ working titles as ‘Das Parfum as a detective story’, ‘Das Parfum as a Bildungsroman’, ‘Das Parfum as a picaresque novel’ or even ‘Post-modern narrative discourse as a deconstruction of traditional structural models with regard to current religious, philosophical, psychological and macro-societal questions’. You know what I am talking about: dialogue with outstanding canonical books that in the best cases is well thought out and, perhaps, at times, even conducted systematically using such terms as style mimicry, multiple coding, intertextuality. Of course all that and much more besides is already available in the secondary literature on Süskind3 and in the internet seminar:, an abstract research laboratory on the sensuous laboratory novel. Enjoy your surfing through the extensive systems of links:

Kritik und Wissenschaft haben unter anderem auf folgende Bezüge verwiesen: Claudius, Goethe, Kleist, Novalis, Chamisso, Hauff, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Eichendorff, Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Huysmans, Fontane, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, Grass, Roald Dahl; außerdem das Märchen vom Froschkönig, Kasper Hauser und den Prometheusmythos.

(Förster 1999, 178 n.18)4

In brief, it is clear that readers who approach the text with the most varied expectations and bring to it the most varied knowledge and competence are not disappointed in the enjoyment they experience with the biography of the French eighteenth-century murderer of maidens. Even the Federal Republic's critics enthused in rare unanimity about this anachronistic stroke of luck for German literature. Here at last was a book that once again gave aesthetic pleasure in the best sense of the term: a realistic fairy tale full of wit, esprit and imagination, endowed with a sparkling narrative and combining a wealth of imagery with gentle irony. Here was a literary work of art written in the most refined and artful prose, distilled from selected historical experiences, an ordered game in demythologized times situated beyond good and evil: ‘Initiiert wird ein Spiel mit Formen und Inhalten, ein Spiel mit Realität und Fiktion, ein Spiel mit dem Leser’ (Förster 1999, 148).


Then let us too, whilst fully aware of the multifarious complexities of this universal poetic project, deploy the tools of the ‘gay literary science trade’ and play along with the little game for a little while. For this is the way for us to understand a little more closely what it is in this seemingly extremely simple story of an unscrupulous serial killer that grips even proven connoisseurs of world literature. How is it that even diehard lovers of the aesthetic heights are enchanted by a quite conventionally laid out labyrinth of signs? Why do even the most demanding philologists swoon before this gruesome story with its use of trivial patterns of representation, at a horror scenario which appears more to address physical desire than to evoke illuminating intellectual debates. This game of interpretation is facilitated because I can assume that everyone knows the plot. Thus I am going to leave aside any banal reference to the content and start by problematizing a hitherto overlooked sequence from the final part of this subtle textual mise en scène.

Niemand weiß, wie gut dies Parfum wirklich ist, dachte er. Niemand weiß, wie gut es gemacht ist. Die andern sind nur seiner Wirkung untertan, ja, sie wissen nicht einmal, daß es ein Parfum ist, das auf sie wirkt und sie bezaubert. Der einzige, der es jemals in seiner wirklichen Schönheit erkannt hat, bin ich, weil ich es selbst geschaffen habe. Und zugleich bin ich der einzige, den es nicht bezaubern kann. Ich bin der einzige, für den es sinnlos ist.

(316-317; original emphasis)

Who is speaking? If we ‘moderne Menschen’ (5) are not entirely deceived, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the main figure, is expressing his thoughts in this interior monologue. The olfactory artist who pursues his gargantuan ambitions along a path littered with corpses even seems to be reflecting, which is amazing enough, because it was already hinted that his intelligence was anything but awesome (31). What is more, his subject is himself and his greatest work, which will be discussed later. Grenouille himself, ‘der solitäre Zeck […] der Unmensch’ (242) is introduced as a being without smell and godless, who actually should not exist. From his very first breath ‘das geduckte Häuflein Nichts’ (106) fits the cliché of the divinely gifted monster with a marked desire for self-assertion: ‘Er entschied sich für das Leben aus reinem Trotz und reiner Boshaftigkeit’ (28). Once cast into the world this best nose of France has clearly no other choice but to renounce love in all its forms, because wherever he sniffs, everything stinks. Instead he concentrates all his powers on the goal which promises him salvation from the infernal stench around him, namely the creation of the absolute perfume: ‘Ein Parfum würde er machen nach allen Regeln der Kunst’ (246).

This fundamental decision finds concentrated expression in Grenouille's linguistic development: ‘Mit Wörtern, die keinen riechenden Gegenstand bezeichneten, mit abstrakten Begriffen also, vor allem ethischer oder moralischer Natur, hatte er die größten Schwierigkeiten […] Recht, Gewissen, Gott, Freude, Verantwortung, Demut, Dankbarkeit usw.—was damit ausgedrückt sein sollte, war und blieb ihm schleierhaft’ (33). Accordingly his vocabulary hardly justifies the term; what is more, he doubts the sense of language altogether. His paranormal experience of the world is based on exponentially growing fascination with combinations from the internalized ‘Alphabet der Gerüchte’ (35). Even when the deformed child, still without a recognizable creative principle, initially begins his imaginative yet destructive life's work by creating syntheses in the olfactory laboratory of his imagination, ‘eher grob und plump, mehr zusammengepanscht als komponiert’ (48), it is clear that the solipsistic revolutionary will ultimately achieve messianic greatness in the area of aromatic aesthetics: ‘Hunderttausend Düfte schienen nichts mehr wert vor diesem einen Duft. Dieser eine war das höhere Prinzip, nach dessen Vorbild sich alle andern ordnen mußten. Er war die reine Schönheit’ (55). Terrifying and irresistible.

There can be no doubt that what we are dealing with is a totally synthetic fictional character, a happily invented ‘Wunderkind’ (35), who becomes the ‘größte Parfumeur aller Zeiten’ (58) after a most speedily absolved apprenticeship and disappears apparently without leaving any detectable trace in history. In analogy to the aforementioned system of the ‘apotheotische Parfum’ (55), the unsuccessfully baptized ‘Ding’ (8) was distilled from countless fantastic and realistic predecessors within the universe of poetic projections and only gains his own unique features in the course of the narrative process. This distillation, which reveals a deep understanding of art, derives its convincing unity from the way that all the quoted models tell of the progressive discrediting of the idea of genius. This applies to both European intellectual history and to world politics: firstly from the Prometheus myth by way of dubious artist figures à la Cardillac or Klein Zaches and Wagner's Rheingold-‘Kröte’ up to Oskar Matzerath, who puts infantile adults under his spell with his art as a drummer-up of the past and for hard cash acts out for them, for a short time, the role of the post-war-Messiah; secondly, from the pathos of Sturm und Drang by way of Nietzsche's unmasking psychology up to the deluded chief ideologists of the Third Reich; thirdly, from the popes and emperors with their powers over life and death by way of Napoleon Bonaparte and Bismarck up to hypocritical princes of darkness such as Hitler and Stalin, who very quickly showed themselves to be the greatest criminals of their century. The divine right of kings, the genius cliché, the leadership principle and the Messiah imitator merge in this multi-layered context. The fateful consequences of the superstitions of fanatical camp-followers, which they continue to hold regardless of any catastrophe and which clearly can never be banished from the world, are well-known—and not only from the German past:

Wenn es die Männer sind, die Geschichte machen, wenn große historische Entwicklungen von Einzelpersönlichkeiten eingeleitet und geformt werden, dann ist das Rätsel auch unserer Zeit nur aus der Begnadung des genialen Menschen zu erklären […] Wir erleben das größte Wunder, das es in der Geschichte gibt. Ein Genie baut eine neue Welt!5

Indeed, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, this artistic creation equipped with all the attributes of the depraved original genius has, by pursuing his artifices to the point of perfection, in the end made possible the dreamed of miracle weapon. He has successfully created the super sexy, ultra-wicked, mega-strong perfume of all perfumes, a divine substance, which is to make the whole urge-driven species of homo sapiens totally compliant in a great showdown: ‘Es gibt eine Überzeugungskraft des Duftes, die stärker ist, als Worte, Augenschein, Gefühl und Wille’ (107). And so it turns out: Whether they want it or not, the devilishly good elixir made by the megalomanic misanthropist intoxicates all his contemporaries. Anybody who comes into context with this magical extract inevitably loses rational control. The anointed immoralist throws his followers into an ecstatic delusion in which all inhibitions are lost, the spectacle of superstition takes its course. The salvation seekers pray to the perfumed void, because this kind of love makes them blind. There are no limits to the glorification of the anointed ‘Nichts’ (138) by the mass of uncouth stinkers, who are touched at their erotic nerve centre. The children of God, abandoned by all their guardian angels, no longer know what they are doing. However, Grenouille, at least within the framework of the fiction, seems to be fully aware of what is happening. There comes to pass therefore what, according to his final will, was to be. The gifted monster wants the greatest finale possible. This is because he was forced to realize that his attempt to create his own authentic smell other than by means of artificial aroma surrogates was doomed to failure from the beginning: ‘Nur eines konnte diese Macht nicht: sie konnte ihn nicht vor sich selber riechen lassen. Und mochte er auch vor der Welt durch sein Parfum erscheinen als ein Gott—wenn er sich selbst nicht riechen konnte und deshalb niemals wüßte, wer er sei, so pfiff er drauf, auf die Welt, auf sich selbst, auf sein Parfum’ (316).

With the best good will in the world, Grenouille's power is limited to the realm of dazzlingly beautiful simulation; there is no hope anywhere of a human personality. The identity-less genius cocks a snook at the world, the omnipotent God of aromas longs for the end of all smells. In the final part of the novel things then really do reach this conclusion in scenes that are skillfully prepared in motivational terms and executed in wonderful detail. Animal-like ‘Geschrei, Gegrunze, Gestöhn’ (304), rituals of coupling and sacrifice, Dionysos cult, Holy Night, communion and last supper intermingle in a bacchanalian orgy of sex and crime with regressive features and metafictional dimensions. The despicable solitary genius whom nobody could stand at the beginning is now so loved that everybody could eat him up—in the most literal sense of the word. The idolized dwarf disappears completely, his will is done: redemption-hungry human animals ‘hatten etwas zum ersten Mal aus Liebe getan’ (320). So much for cannibalistic love within the framework of this absolutely artificial dystopia—or of the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris. The narrative circle, which also began there, ‘am allerstinkendsten Ort des gesamten Königreiches’ (7), has closed, and this piece of prose, which has to be read not least at the level of political allegory, ends with the sentence just quoted (320)—which leads me as if by chance back to my original question. Who is speaking?


Of course everything that we know about the vertically challenged grand perfumier comes from an omniscient, yet unreliable narrator, a not entirely penetrable figure who enjoys the distance created by stylization. At the same time, the narrator figure assures aesthetic unity, leaving hardly anything to chance. As a man of letters, this exceedingly well-read citizen of the twentieth century, in contrast to Grenouille, who throughout his life was no friend of language, relies on the magic of grammar. In terms of both form and content he appears to have everything firmly in control. He determines the narrative frame. He comments on and evaluates events. In spite of all the narrative experiments of modernism he manages to narrate largely chronologically and in the past tense throughout, thus guaranteeing coherence, creating connections and constructing links—or rather faking all this exactly as he likes it. Let us imagine, against this background, what would have happened if, with a wink of the eye, the long-nosed narrator had put into the mouth of the witless genius the passage about himself and his diligently created perfume of the angels quoted at the head of this essay. The sub-text of this consummately calculated fable would take on a totally different meaning. For the sake of memory:

Niemand, weiß, wie gut dies Parfum wirklich ist, dachte er. Niemand weiß, wie gut es gemacht ist. Die andern sind nur seiner Wirkung untertan, ja, sie wissen nicht einmal, daß es ein Parfum ist, das auf sie wirkt und sie bezaubert. Der einzige, der es jemals in seiner wirklichen Schönheit erkannt hat, bin ich, weil ich es selbst geschaffen habe. Und zugleich bin ich der einzige, den es nicht bezaubern kann. Ich bin der einzige, für den es sinnlos ist.


From this perspective (the internal poetological self-reflection of writing), suddenly nothing has anything to do any longer with Grenouille and his evanescent ‘fabrications’, everything has to do with the epic construct by the name of Das Parfum which is being discussed here. The reflection of the reflection cannot be overlooked, and not just in this context. On the one hand, the congenial confidence trickster is put under the spotlight and himself shown to be a necessarily dissatisfied creator of an intoxicating verbal work of art—the corpses of secondary figures litter his path as well. On the other hand, the arbitrary, omnipotent figure of the narrator appears to have dropped a subtly enlightening, yet heavy hint to his vulnerable (or rather long since seduced) readers. This is because the apparent omniscience of the narrator only exists on the surface; in reality he has led by the nose all those who admire his story without reflection or just consume it naively. One further piece of proof of many: Grenouille's first master, Guiseppi Baldini, according to the suspect narrator, was not an original inventor:

Er war ein sorgfältiger Verfertiger von bewährten Gerüchen, wie ein Koch war er, der mit Routine und guten Rezepten eine große Küche macht und doch nie ein eigenes Gericht erfunden hat. Den ganzen Hokuspokus mit Labor und Experimentieren und Inspiration und Geheimnistuerei führte er nur auf, weil das zum ständischen Berufs bild eines Maître Parfumeur et Gantier gehörte. Ein Parfumeur, das war ein halber Alchemist, der Wunder schuf, so wollten es die Leute—gut so! Daß seine Kunst ein Handwerk war wie jedes andere auch, das wußte nur er selbst, und das war sein Stolz.


Who is speaking? Even if the signals can hardly be missed by professional textual analysts, it will not be clear to all potential gullible consumers that the seasoned playmaker is concerned, within the framework of his seductive scheme, with his comfortably obvious array of narrative tricks and subtle irony, to push them back to the hard facts of reality. The practised liar, however, makes every effort to claim ‘analytische Arbeit’ (82): the creation of legends and transparent false scents abound; there are endless hints of cleverly blended counterfeits and plagiarized magic formulae in profusion:

Wir werden's riechen. So wie ein scharfes Beil den Holzklotz in die kleinsten Scheite teilt, wird unsre Nase sein Parfum in jede Einzelheit zerspalten. Dann wird sich zeigen, daß dieser angebliche Zauberduft auf sehr normalem, wohlbelkanntem Weg entstanden ist. Wir, Baldini, Parfumeur, werden dem Essigmischer Pélissier auf die Schliche kommen. Wir werden ihm die Maske von der Fratze reißen und dem Neuerer beweisen, wozu das alte Handwerk in der Lage ist. Haargenau wird es ihm nachgemischt, sein modisches Parfum […] An die Arbeit jetzt, Baldini! Die Nase geschärft und gerochen ohne Sentimentalität! Den Duft zerlegt nach den Regeln der Kunst!


By pulling the threads with this kind of indirect address the illusionist narrator repeatedly invites the reader to maintain a safe distance from opulently staged charades, the insubstantial ephemera of fashion, and idealistic exegeses of every kind. This includes revoltingly good propaganda speeches, sensationalistic scientific mumbo-jumbo and virtuoso literary works of art like Das Parfum. For this purpose he uses a poetic process of unmasking, which recalls to the reader's mind the proven devastating effects of ‘scapegoat theories’, of skillfully provoked mass hysteria and of pseudo-systems as promoted by various media. The aim is to put a spoke in the wheels of demagogues in their various guises and with all their false trappings of genius whenever the situation arises. Consequently claims of authenticity and truth are consistently taken ad absurdum.

By now all interested participants will know a little more about how well made it is, this experiment between Pop Art and avant-garde out of the writer's laboratory, this most seductive of honey traps for readers in the age of global inveiglement through aestheticized design: ‘In der Tradition der Künstlererzählung und des dekadenten Romans angesiedelt, demaskiert er die Genieideologie und gestaltet eine Allegorie auf die Hohlheit des modernen Kulturgebarens und die Verführbarkeit des apokalyptisch disponierten Menschen’ (Frizen 1994, 757).


It is perhaps even possible to extend an interpretative approach which has been pursued under changing headings by adding to the question ‘Who is speaking?’ another about the executive director: who is pulling the strings behind the stage or rather between the lines? It may then be that the roles in this never concealed display of artifice are not so clearly allocated. It is worth imagining, as an experiment, that it is not Das Parfum's teller of tall stories, prone as he is now and again to crude moralizing, but rather the one who invented him in his professional capacity who calls the shots as a second creator. This wily old devil would thus have much greater freedom of manoeuvre. He would, for instance, have the chance of capping the occasional ironical moments of his loosely controlled narrative medium through the illuminating arrangement of quotations or the seminal technique of the Romantics: ironizing irony. He would be in a position to rise on the wings of poetic reflection above both the clod-hopping ideas of his main figure and also above the limited horizons of his ‘modern’ narrator. Perhaps this all-powerful puppet master within the universal realm of fiction, in contrast to the anonymous narrator of the genre-transcending story, could take his perfection so far as to re-create in the light of his meticulously researched novel the efficacy graph of a progressive universal aroma capable of enticing all people equally: ‘Das Parfum lebt in der Zeit; es hat seine Jugend, seine Reife und sein Alter. Und nur wenn es in allen drei verschiedenen Lebensaltern auf gleich angenehme Weise Duft verströmt, ist es als gelungen zu bezeichnen’ (80). Accordingly it could be imagined that, in relation to the powerful effects of this Perfume, that there might be a pyramid-like line of reception, which is repeated with slight variations in every act of reading, a kind of pre-programmed arc of experience as a constant that gives rise to worry, or at least provides food for thought. This could hardly be fought against, because they, both Grenouille's unenlightened contemporaries and today's enlightened readers, were ‘stinkend dumm […]; weil sie sich von ihm belügen und betrügen ließen’ (197).

Consequently things would look as follows. Exposition: at Grenouille's place of birth it stinks to high heaven. Through the conscious use of language a revoltingly indiscriminate array of odours is evoked before our eyes. The anti-image, which is necessary to establish the counter-position to the world of perfume, is constructed. In addition, in keeping with a clearly planned strategy, far too much of a nauseating stench is presented in the exaggeratedly manneristic prologue. There is a pungent smell in the nose, an external sign that it is still impossible to speak of any symbiosis with readers' experiences. However, slowly but surely, there follows the olfactory effect and later the development of the unmistakable bouquet of a virtuoso aromatic work of art, which inspires enthusiasm through synaesthesia. Once applied, every perfume, even the best, needs its time. Finally, in the middle of the book, we briefly face the true all-enveloping climax or rather the magic mountain of the story: ‘Heil Grenouille!’ As we read, we experience the staging of an ‘internal Reichsparteitag’ by the great, glorious and unique Narcissus as a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk without metaphysical roots: ‘Mit beginnendem Schlaf versenkte er sich tiefer und tiefer in sich hinein und hielt triumphalen Einzug in seiner inneren Festung, auf der er sich ein geruchliches Siegesfest erträumte, eine gigantische Orgie mit Weihrauchqualm und Myrrendampf, zu Ehren seiner selbst’ (114).

The almighty Grenouille creates his own realm, and he ‘sah, daß es gut war, sehr, sehr gut’ (162). But then (how could it be otherwise?) the intensity of the perfectly timed, scintillating aromatic firework display accompanied by religious jingles diminishes. The intoxication of the literary ball recedes. We are approaching, with a slight hangover, the inevitable catastrophe. Nobody speaks, if it can be put that way, a redeeming word. From now on things go downhill in the truest sense of the word. There is a proliferation of repetition, the composition loses its tautness, devices from the detective story trade delay the resolution of the long-solved case and finally, logically, on this operatic world stage, as its splendour dims, all is dissipated into thin air in a final resounding pop. The symphonic aroma has melted away, because in this exactly calculated presentation of absolute artificiality, right from the beginning everything has centred around the evanescent realm of smells. The conclusion is: it is all to do with the effectiveness graph of an absolutely artificial perfume as a poetological model at the height of this ‘maroden, verlotterten Zeit’ (106). Accordingly the choice of book title could be seen as an act of pure genius.

It can be admitted that the interpretative approach presented here has its limits. Counter arguments relating to the rules governing the whole composition, as they have been developed here, are certainly within the realm of the imagination. Perhaps the ‘Zauberlehrling’ (117) or ‘Hexenmeister’ (118) was himself surprised by his successful recipe, perhaps the loss of suggestive force and power to convince is not at all a conscious calculation, but an aesthetic weakness.6 Nevertheless (and this is a point which, as I approach my conclusion, is to be stressed despite possible counter claims), the heuristic structural model leads to the poetological core of the text. It is a text which reveals itself to be a seductive literary work of art with the intention of enlightenment, as a novel about the timeless art of manipulation which invites the reader to cast off his self-inflicted state of disenfranchisement: ‘Er hatte sein Bestes gegeben. Er hatte all seine Kunstfertigkeit aufgebracht. Kein Fehler war ihm unterlaufen. Das Werk war einzigartig. Es würde von Erfolg gekrönt sein …’ (277)


Thus spake the man of interpretations who was seduced to make preposterous associations by the narrative strategies mentioned above: ‘Eine Formel ist das A und O jeden Parfums’ (98). Or could it be that this text, which initially seems so unambitious, was really thought out or made in such an intricate way? Who knows? There is possibly only one person who knows more about the ‘Duftdiagramm’ (273) of this artificial work of art, but the ‘sweet child’ sagely veils himself in silence far from any media-led marketing of his person, a silence which may further intensify the aura of exclusivity. What remains is a sufficiently difficult and yet, despite that, amusing narrative experiment, a novel of enlightenment about the evanescent which is entertaining and strongly self-reflective at the same time. Moreover, this tragicomic masterpiece (unfortunately a solitary jewel in the literary oeuvre of the inventive eclectic) fortunately speaks for itself, without of course being able to turn ‘die Welt in einen duftenden Garten Eden’ (127).

In other words Patrick Süskind's Parfum, which has already made literary history, shows once again that the path from early Romanticism to post-modern late modernity is not as long as fashionable masters in the art of creating concepts constantly claim. However, before you tear me limb from limb because you think my hypotheses stink, I should like to begin my de-scent, quite discreetly, from the heights of this system of signs and do so with a ground-breaking quotation from the somewhat different history of creation contained in this anti-Bible for the fetishists of the olfactory, which itself, as my last quotation shows, should in no way be taken for an unbroken apotheosis of poetry:

Der Große Grenouille aber war etwas müde geworden und gähnte und sprach: ‘Siehe, ich habe ein großes Werk getan, und es gefällt mir sehr gut. Aber wie alles Vollendete beginnt es mich zu langweilen. Ich will mich zurückziehen und mir zum Abschluß dieses arbeitsreichen Tages in den Kammern meines Herzens noch eine kleine Beglückung gönnen.’


Who is speaking?

Je ne sais pas!

P.S. Thanks be to the author!


  1. All page references to quotations without further attribution are taken from this edition of Das Parfum.

  2. cf. also the cover title of the same edition of Der Spiegel (41/1999): ‘Die Enkel von Grass & Co. Die neuen deutschen Dichter’.

  3. The present analysis is based principally on the research of Werner Frizen, firstly on his 1994 essay and secondly on the introduction to the text with notes for teachers (Frizen/Spanken 1996). The latter contains a useful list of secondary literature.

  4. cf. also in this context the list of the novel's precursors in Frizen/Spanken 1996, 125-127. Förster significantly calls the first chapter (devoted exclusively to Das Parfum) of his stimulating dissertation ‘Vom Plündern toter Dichter. Roman der Künstlichkeit’. His sub-titles ‘Geschichte als Gedankenspiel’, ‘Inszenierung des Erzählens’, ‘Masken des Authentischen’ and ‘Abstraktion und Entfremdung’ already imply the path taken by my interpretation, albeit with different emphases.

  5. Joseph Goebbels: radio speech of 19 April 1941 to mark Hitler's birthday (cit. Frizen 1994, 784).

  6. cf. Reich-Ranicki 1985: ‘Daß man viel Energie benötigt, um einen Roman zu schreiben, daß irgendwo in der zweiten Hälfte der Autor der Sache satt ist und schon etwas ganz anders machen möchte—Thomas Mann hat mehrfach darüber geklagt. Auch dem Anfänger Süskind blieb diese Erfahrung offensichtlich nicht erspart: Immer neue und häufig an den Haaren herbeigezogene Motive sollten ihm aus der Not helfen.’

Translation by Stuart Parkes.

Primary Text

Süskind, Patrick 1985: Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders. Zurich: Diogenes.

———, 1986: Perfume. The Story of a Murderer. Trans. John E. Woods. London: Hamish Hamilton (also Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987).

Secondary Literature

Förster, Nikolaus 1999: Die Wiederkehr des Erzählens. Deutschsprachige Prosa der 80er und 90er Jahre. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Frizen, Werner 1994: ‘Das gute Buch für jedermann oder Verus Prometheus. Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum’, Deutsche Vieteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 68/4, 757-786.

———, and Marilies Spanken (eds) 1996: Einführung: Patrick Süskind, Das Parfum. Munich: Oldenbourg.

Hage, Volker 1999a: ‘Ganz schön abgedreht’, Der Spiegel, 22 March 1999, 244-246.

———, 1999b: ‘Die Enkel kommen’, Der Spiegel, 11 October 1999, 244-254.

Reich-Ranicki, Marcel 1985: ‘Des Mörders besonderer Duft’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 2 March 1985, Literaturbeilage, n.p.

Schlegel, Friedrich 1956: Kritische Schriften. Ed. Wolfdietrich Rasch. Munich: Hanser.

Ed Moffatt (essay date July 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Moffatt, Ed. “Grenouille: A Modern Schizophrenic in the Enlightening World of Das Parfum.Forum for Modern Language Studies 37, no. 3 (July 2001): 298-313.

[In the following essay, Moffatt diagnoses Grenouille, the protagonist in Das Parfum, with acute schizophrenia, exploring the critical implications of the relationship between Grenouille and his cultural milieu and showing how the text subverts received notions of socio-cultural development and human progress.]

To maintain that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a modern, schizophrenic anti-hero, more advanced and psychologically complex than his Enlightenment context, is to fly in the face both of critical orthodoxy and of the obvious immediate reading of Patrick Süskind's novel Das Parfum.1 Rather, it is perhaps easier to equate his blatant, bestial inhumanity (as evidenced by his murder of twenty-five female virgins in order to rob them of their scent) with social and biological primitivity. In such a reading, Grenouille's apparent madness (most spectacularly expressed in his use of his uncannily acute sense of smell to create the ultimate perfume, a perfume which will enable him to control the hearts and minds of all humanity) is an aspect of that primitivity, the motive force behind his chilling actions. However, to allow a monolithic notion of Grenouille's madness to remain uninterrogated is to leave undisturbed an important element of this intricately woven narrative. In fact, Grenouille can be shown to be suffering from acute schizophrenia, a form of psychiatric illness intimately and inextricably intertwined with the culture of Modernity. Having outlined the reasons for this specific diagnosis of Grenouille's mental condition, the article will proceed to explore the critical implications of the relationship between the protagonist and his cultural milieu, demonstrating that the text is in effect mounting an attack on received notions of socio-cultural development and human progress. Süskind's novel, often regarded primarily as an example of ludic Postmodernism,2 therefore also functions as a critique of modern occidental culture's self-serving pride in its own meta-narrative of progress. It also ironically exploits the contemporary obsession with patterns of behaviour that involve extreme, erotic violence, most obviously incarnated in the figure of the sexually predatory serial killer.

In order to analyse whether Grenouille is schizophrenic or not it is clearly essential to define schizophrenia and to enumerate the characteristics a sufferer might be likely to display. According to R. D. Laing, a schizophrenic's fundamental experience of life is one of being divided in two ways: from him or herself and from the world.3 Schizophrenics are unable to experience collectively with others, but feel essentially alone in their sensations and cut off from the people around them. Equally, they have no access to the psychological reassurance of feeling like a whole and complete person but rather have the sensation of being split in various ways, for example as being two or more selves or as experiencing their mind as all but separated from their body. The primary consequence is that the individual undergoes a loss of reality testing and a weakening of ego boundaries, both of which lead to a propensity to fragmentation and conflict. Louis Sass also provides a list of other characteristics common to schizophrenics:4 “the asocial turning inward, the lack of spontaneity, the detachment from emotion, the hyperabstractness, the anxious deliberation and cognitive slippage, and the exquisitely vulnerable sense of self-esteem” (p. 370). He also mentions hyper-reflexivity (“acute self-consciousness and self-reference, alienation from action and experience” [p. 8]), withdrawal, introspection, which in themselves constitute the defensive process and reinforcement of the schizophrenia, with the sufferer adopting mechanistic behaviour to block delusional outbursts.5 Language tends to display extremes of concreteness and abstraction. The subject is ultimately constructed as a universal centre of knowledge, the single validating system for reality, which engenders in the self an attitude of utter centrality in relation to the universal context.6

There is no doubt that Grenouille demonstrates the two basic divisions that characterise schizophrenics. Laing's description of how mental and somatic selves are experienced as fundamentally dislocated seems to summarise Grenouille's condition:

[Schizophrenics] do not seem to have a sense of that basic unity which can abide through the most intense conflicts with oneself, but seem rather to have come to experience themselves as primarily split into a mind and a body. Usually they feel most closely identified with the “mind”.

(p. 65)

Grenouille's already ugly and deformed physiology survives the sort of punishment only ever meted out to a cartoon character; he should, after all, have died at least three times before he even gets within reach of Baldini's perfumery and his first chance of freedom:

Im Verlauf seiner Kindheit überlebte er die Masern, die Ruhr, die Windpocken, die Cholera, einen Sechsmetersturz in einen Brunnen und die Verbrühung der Brust mit kochendem Wasser. Zwar trug er Narben davon und Schrunde und Grind und einen leicht verkrüppelten Fuß, der ihn hatschen machte, aber er lebte.

(p. 27)

For Foucault,7 such durability and mental detachment from somatic experience is an aspect of the animality of madness, and this emphasises the importance of the repeated bestial imagery that so informs the construction of Grenouille's personality:

Animality, in fact, protected the lunatic from whatever might be fragile, precarious or sickly in man. The animal solidity of madness, and that density it borrows from the blind world of beasts, inured the madman to hunger, heat, cold, pain […]. Madness, insofar as it partook of animal ferocity, preserved man from the dangers of disease; it afforded him an invulnerability, similar to that which nature, in its foresight, had provided for animals.

(pp. 74-5)

As an animal Grenouille is a chillingly simple organism, apparently a throwback to the most primitive stages of evolution: “Er war zäh wie ein resistentes Bakterium und genügsam wie ein Zeck, der still auf einem Baum sitzt und von einem winzigen Blutströpfchen lebt, das er vor Jahren erbeutet hat” (p. 27). The tick has a single purpose and only one means of attaining it: “Der einsame Zeck, der in sich versammelt auf seinem Baume hockt, blind, taub und stumm, und nur wittert, jahrelang wittert, meilenweit, das Blut vorüberwandernder Tiere” (p. 29). Yet for all this physical simplicity, Grenouille's mind always remains in control, using illness (with Baldini) and fits (Taillade) that he induces in his body to improve his mental situation. While his mind is in control, his body is inviolate and indestructible. The ultimate destruction of his body at the conclusion of the narrative is indicative of the destruction of the mind, and occurs only at the mind's instigation. Grenouille's body may be primitive but his mind is a separate, and far more complex, issue.

Equally, Grenouille fails to experience life collectively but rather feels cut off from, distinct from, the people who make up his social context. As will become clear, the characteristics of this distinctiveness and his drive for solitude alter very considerably part way through the narrative. From the moment of his birth into the poverty and putrefaction of the Paris streets, he is on the receiving end of rejection after rejection at the hands of those who should be caring for him (his mother, the Church, his wet nurse). His early dislocation from his context is initially portrayed through his muteness and apparently acquiescent passivity, and he consistently chooses to absent himself from society whenever possible. The first purpose of this submissiveness is to ensure his own survival; later it is to gain his journeyman's papers, which bring with them the right to be free of being in bondage to others. The process is accelerated as he travels on his own through France, the journey acting as a reinforcing mechanism for his condition, until he is ultimately free of every avoidable sight, sound and, most importantly, smell of irksome humanity. It is not a journey towards a place but a quest away from humanity in all its forms. In the end he finds himself in the geographical representation of asociality:

Er lag im einsamsten Berg Frankreichs fünfzig Meter tief unter der Erde wie in seinem eigenen Grab. Noch nie im Leben hatte er sich so sicher gefühlt—schon gar nicht im Bauch seiner Mutter. Es mochte draußen die Welt verbrennen, hier würde er nichts davon merken.

(p. 156)

Perfect life is explicitly not to be found in a return to the closest and most dependent relationship ever experienced but in the utter absence of relationships, in a form of death.

The fundamental change in Grenouille's distinctiveness from the rest of humanity occurs when in the second half of the narrative he finds himself compelled to re-enter society. His earlier basic amorality has been transformed by an increase in his self-awareness and by his realisation that he cannot survive without the validation of other people recognising his existence. Amorality evolves into socially-predicated immorality. No longer able to be independent of society, he hates the hold it has over him, and he has to change his agenda. From this stage on, he is clearly aware of the harm he is doing to others and the pain that his actions cause. This desire to injure and to control is a different sort of separation from his social context than his initial desire for solitude. He has become evil and contemptuous of humanity, essentially hypocritical and fiendishly cunning. Once again he is strongly goal-driven; to be loved, blindly and unreservedly by the people he so despises. For this reason he murders so meticulously, to create a perfume which can convert humanity's incontrovertible hatred for him into abject adoration.

Once it is established that the basic divisions characteristic of schizophrenia are clearly present in Grenouille's psychological construction, it is necessary to assess whether the expected primary consequences of those divisions are also evident. From the perspective of those with whom he comes into contact, Grenouille does indeed appear to suffer from a breakdown in reality testing. He claims to perceive odours beyond the accepted possibilities of perception, privileging one specific set of external sensory stimuli over all others. This is exemplified by his first encounter with the master perfumer Baldini, which pits science, procedure and learned knowledge against Grenouille's claimed innate ability to interpret a complex odour:

Er griff nach dem Leuchter auf dem Tisch, als Grenouilles gepreßte Stimme von der Tür her schnarrte: “Ich weiß nicht, was eine Formel ist, Maître, das weiß ich nicht, sonst weiß ich alles!”

“Eine Formel ist das A und O jeden Parfums”, erwiderte Baldini streng, denn er wollte dem Gespräch nun ein Ende machen. “Sie ist die akribische Anweisung, in welchem Verhältnis die einzelnen Ingredienzen zu mischen sind, damit der eine gewünschte, unverwechselbare Duft entstehe.”

(pp. 97-8)

For Baldini, with all his years of experience behind him, Grenouille is asserting that he is able to do the impossible, to turn upside down the reality with which Baldini has grown comfortable. As the narratorial voice shifts and slides, he observes that Grenouille's reality might be irredeemably alien to his own:

Ja, wie ein Kind, dachte Baldini […]. Ich habe ihn für älter gehalten, als er ist, und jetzt kommt er mir jünger vor; wie drei oder vier kommt er mir vor; wie diese unzugänglichen, unbegreiflichen, eigensinnigen kleinen Vormenschen, die, angeblich unschuldig, nur an sich selber denken, die alles auf der Welt sich despotisch unterordnen wollen und es wohl auch tun würden, wenn man sie in ihrem Größenwahn gewähren ließe und nicht durch strengste erzieherische Maßnahmen nach und nach disziplinierte und an die selbstbeherrschte Existenz des Vollmenschen heranführte.

(pp. 105-6)

The fact that Grenouille then proves himself correct, even according to Baldini who acts as the arbiter of empirical reality, and changes the definition of that reality in the process, does not alter the fact that what eventually is shown to be uncanny genius, appears at first to be irrational misperception of the boundaries of reality. This scenario is repeated with Taillade later in the narrative: the “rational” theory of fluidum letale is clearly parodic, and indeed manifestly pre-Romantic, according to Ryan.8 Grenouille's irrationality and primitive nature prove themselves experientially superior, but nevertheless remain outside the contemporary definition of reality.

If Grenouille's reality testing can be understood to be suspect (with the caveat that in fact he shows himself to be a more accurate, if uncannily so, arbiter of reality than his rational contemporaries), it should be noted that initially his ego boundaries are far from weak. His existence is goal-driven (most immediately his own survival, then acquiring his journeyman's papers so that he might utterly separate himself from society), and all his efforts are bent to that long-term end. However, the situation changes fundamentally after the crisis in the Plomb du Cantal, which acts as the narrative's fulcrum. Having achieved his goal of total separation from the rest of humanity and existed in that undisturbed state for some considerable time, Grenouille undergoes a massive ontological crisis at least in part because he is left without a driving, all-consuming, purpose. Inevitably, without focus to his existence, the fragile skeleton construction of the subject dissolves. This is presented in terms of the discovery by the protagonist of a piece of information already known to the reader: that the possessor of the finest-ever sense of smell in the history of humanity has no personal odour. For somebody whose entire metaphysical outlook is based on his sense of smell this calls into question his own reality (since if something does not smell, it does not exist). This realisation is utterly overwhelming:

Bald war Grenouille vollkommen umhüllt von Nebel, durchtränkt von Nebel, und zwischen den Nebelschwaden war kein bißchen freie Luft mehr. Er mußte, wenn er nicht ersticken wollte, diesen Nebel einatmen. […] Als ihm das klargeworden war, schrie er so fürchterlich laut, als würde er bei lebendigem Leibe verbrannt. Der Schrei zerschlug die Wände des Purpursalons, die Mauern des Schlosses, er fuhr aus dem Herzen über die Gräben und Sümpfe und Wüsten hinweg, raste über die nächtliche Landschaft seiner Seele wie ein Feuersturm, gellte aus seinem Mund hervor, durch den gewundenen Stollen, hinaus in die Welt, weithin über die Hochebene von Saint-Flour.

(pp. 170-1)

His sense of self is in crisis, and so he seeks to use his knowledge of perfumery to create an artificial scent to make himself smell human. The underlying reason for this is that if he smells for others, he must exist for them, and if he exists for others in their reality, then he must be able to exist for himself. Clearly, a sense of self that is constructed in such a convoluted fashion is very debilitated and unstable.

The processes of fragmentation and conflict engendered by a loss of reality testing and weakening ego boundaries become increasingly acute as the narrative progresses after Grenouille's time in the Plomb du Cantal. Newly self-aware, Grenouille begins to consider to a far greater extent how other people perceive him. Unexpectedly, given the dominance of his sense of smell, his first perception of this is visual in nature. Standing before Taillade's mirror, he regards himself manufactured into a new man:

Er ging zum Spiegel und sah hinein. Bis dato hatte er auch noch nie in einen Spiegel gesehen. Er sah einen Herrn in feinem blauem Gewand vor sich, mit weißem Hemd und Seidenstrümpfen, und er duckte sich ganz instinktiv, wie er sich immer vor solch feinen Herren geduckt hatte. Der feine Herr aber duckte sich auch, und indem Grenouille sich wieder aufrichtete, tat der feine Herr dasselbe, und dann erstarrten beide und fixierten sich.

(pp. 184-5)

This is a significant moment in Grenouille's psychological development, symbolically marking the mirror stage of the Lacanian psychoanalytical model. Possibly more interesting, however, is the olfactory second skin that Grenouille concocts in order to smell like an ordinary human being:

Es war ein seltsames Parfum, das Grenouille an diesem Tag kreierte. Ein seltsameres hatte es bis dahin auf der Welt noch nicht gegeben. Es roch nicht wie ein Duft, sondern wie ein Mensch, der duftet. Wenn man dieses Parfum in einem dunklen Raum gerochen hätte, so hätte man geglaubt, es stehe da ein zweiter Mensch. Und wenn ein Mensch, der selber wie ein Mensch roch, es verwendet hätte, so wäre dieser uns geruchlich vorgekommen wie zwei Menschen oder, schlimmer noch, wie ein monströses Doppelwesen.

(p. 191)

In both visual and olfactory paradigms, Grenouille is therefore repeatedly represented as not being a single, unitary individual but a multiple, or fragmented, personality. This is unsurprising for two distinct reasons. On the one hand, the figure of the double, or doppelgänger, has a considerable literary provenance from Romanticism to Postmodernism. Psychoanalytic critics from Otto Rank onwards have seen the double as the product and projection of ego fragmentation and Grenouille's doubling would seem to support that interpretation in this context.9 On the other, one of the most common resonances of the term “schizophrenia” for the contemporary lay readership of Das Parfum is that of “split” or “multiple” personalities, however imperfectly the concept may be understood. The use of the double allows links to be made to readily recognisable, pre-existing clinical, psychoanalytical and literary discourses, and fixes Grenouille's complex identity as one of the most important areas developed during the course of the narrative.

One intriguing element of the doubling motif is to be found in the representation of Antoine Richis, the father of Grenouille's final victim. Parallels are drawn between Grenouille and Richis in the imagery used to describe them, and most strikingly of all, in their fashion of thought, which in both cases is highly calculating, logical and goal-directed. Of all the characters in the text who could lay claim to being inheritors of the Enlightenment, Richis is the one who is furthest down the road. To others his obsession with the safety of his daughter, Laure, would seem like paternal paranoia, but Richis recognises that he and the unknown murderer think in very similar fashions, as a parenthetical narratorial comment emphasises:

(Wie wir sehen, war Richis ein aufgeklärt denkender Mensch, der auch vor blasphemischen Schlußfolgerungen nicht zurückschreckte, und wenn er nicht in geruchlichen, sondern in optischen Kategorien dachte, so kam er doch der Wahrheit sehr nahe.)

(p. 259)

Indeed, once Richis has worked out what is going on, guarding his daughter becomes a battle of wits fought out in the rational arena of hunter, protector and hunted rather than the troubled nightmares of unnamed fear:

Richis, während er diese entsetzliche Folgerung zog, saß im Nachtgewand auf seinem Bett und wunderte sich darüber, wie ruhig er geworden war […]. Zwar blieb unklar, welchen materiellen Zweck die Morde haben sollten und ob sie einen solchen überhaupt besaßen. Aber das Wesentliche, nämlich des Mörders systematische Methode und sein ideelles Motiv, hatte Richis durchschaut. Und je länger er darüber nachdachte, desto besser gefielen ihm beide und desto größer wurde seine Hochachtung vor dem Mörder—eine Hochachtung freilich, die sogleich wie aus einem blanken Spiegel auf ihn selbst zurückstrahlte, denn immerhin war er, Richis, es ja gewesen, der mit seinem feinen analytischen Verstand dem Gegner auf die Schliche gekommen war.

(pp. 259-60)

Indeed, while Richis is mainly playing the role of protecting angel for his daughter, and is thus an opposite to Grenouille, the image of him leaning over Laure, filled with incestuous lust (p. 255), is an anticipation of Grenouille on the night of her murder (p. 274). In this way the narrative strategies of the text reinforce the personality traits displayed by the protagonist.

Neither is doubling the only textual device that serves to emphasise the fragmentary character of Grenouille's subjectivity. At the three separate moments at which he suffers a personal crisis, images of fragmentation, both interior and exterior to him, are indicators of the final cataclysmic movement. The first, in the cave in the Plomb du Cantal, has already been considered. Subsequently, in Grasse, he feels he is about to explode:

Da wurde es ihm von innen her weiß vor Augen, und die äußere Welt wurde rabenschwarz. Die gefangenen Nebel gerannen zu einer tobenden Flüssigkeit wie kochende, schäumende Milch. Sie überfluteten ihn, preßten mit unerträglichem Druck gegen die innere Schalenwand seines Körpers, ohne Auslaß zu finden. Er wollte fliehen, um Himmels willen fliehen, aber wohin … Er wollte zerplatzen, explodieren wollte er, um nicht an sich selbst zu ersticken. Endlich sank er nieder und verlor das Bewußtsein.

(p. 308)

Finally, at his self-intentioned death, his external body fragments as the image of the dissolution of the internal mind:

Sie hatten einen Kreis um ihn gebildet, zwanzig, dreißig Personen und zogen diesen Kreis nun enger und enger. Bald faßte der Kreis sie nicht mehr alle, sie begannen zu drücken, zu schieben und zu drängeln, jeder wollte dem Zentrum am nächsten sein.

Und dann brach mit einem Schlag die letzte Hemmung in ihnen, der Kreis in sich zusammen […]. Sie rissen ihm die Kleider, die Haare, die Haut vom Leibe, in sein Fleisch, wie die Hyänen fielen sie über ihn her.

(p. 319)

There are two things to note here. Firstly, the text collaborates with the internal construction and deconstruction of the self by repeating the image in the exterior world of physical action. Secondly, before each final dynamic of fragmentation, there is an initial movement of implosion. In the first two incidences in the Plomb du Cantal and Grasse, it is the fog that presses down, suffocates, drowns, breathes in. In the third the people take over that function too as they close in on their willing prey. For Laing, this experience is typical of the schizophrenic condition:

Implosion—This is the strongest word I can find for the extreme form of what Winnicott terms the impingement of reality. Impingement does not convey, however, the full terror of the experience of the world as liable at any moment to crash in and obliterate all identity as a gas will rush in and obliterate a vacuum. The individual feels that, like the vacuum, he is empty. But this emptiness is him. Although in other ways he longs for this emptiness to be filled, he dreads the possibility of this happening because he has come to feel that all he can be is the awful nothingness of just this very vacuum. Any “contact” with reality is then in itself experienced as a dreadful threat.

(pp. 45-6)

In this way, the schizophrenic's experience of himself and of his context is seemingly dynamic and paradoxical, moving alternately towards and away from contact with others according to the strongest source of perceived threat at any given moment in time. In his delusional crises it is clear that Grenouille experiences this fundamental dynamic as conflicting pressures from without and from within, explosion (fragmentation) and implosion.

Since Grenouille does indeed appear to display the fundamental divisions intrinsic to the schizophrenic personality, and to suffer, in a qualified sense, the primary ramifications of a breakdown in reality testing and weakened ego boundaries, it is also reasonable to suppose that he should enact some of the behavioural characteristics common to schizophrenics. According to Sass, much of what is considered odd about schizophrenics comes from hyperabstractness and cognitive slippage, both of which have to do with how schizophrenics order and view their context:

They tend to classify in a rather stimulus bound and automatic fashion and on the basis of relatively concrete features, [including] the perceptual appearances of these objects, their practical uses, and the situations where they had previously been encountered.

(p. 124)

From a normal perspective Grenouille's ordering principles for language acquisition are highly abstract, for example the first words he speaks as a child:

Sein erstes Wort sprach er mit vier, es war das Wort “Fische”, das in einem Moment plötzlicher Erregung aus ihm hervorbrach wie ein Echo, als von ferne ein Fischverkäufer die Rue de Charonne heraufkam und seine Ware ausschrei. Die nächsten Wörter, derer er sich entäußerte, waren “Pelargonie”, “Ziegenstall”, “Wirsing” und “Jacqueslorreur”, letzteres der Name eines Gärtnergehilfen des nahegelegenen Stifts der Filles de la Croix, der bei Madame Gaillard gelegentlich gröbere und gröbste Arbeiten verrichtete und sich dadurch auszeichnete, daß er sich im Leben noch kein einziges Mal gewaschen hatte. Mit den Zeitwörtern, den Adjektiven und Füllwörtern hatte er es weniger. Bis auf “ja” und “nein”—die er übrigens sehr spät zum ersten Mal aussprach—gab er nur Hauptwörter, ja eigentlich nur Eigennamen von konkreten Dingen, Pflanzen, Tieren und Menschen von sich, und auch nur dann, wenn ihn diese Dinge, Pflanzen, Tiere oder Menschen unversehens geruchlich überwältigten.

(p. 31)

It is plain that from the point of view of articulatory development it would be impossible for a child to pronounce these complicated polysyllabic words before producing simpler formulations. The words themselves seem phonetically unconnected and instead require the correct semantic key: the sense of smell. Grenouille's thinking is also very concrete, characterised by the avoidance of abstract thought: “Dann dachte er nichts mehr, denn das Denken war nicht seine Stärke” (p. 317). From Baldini he learns to think of smells in an abstract fashion, the formulae and the scientific methodology being the signifying system that he needs in order to control his context for his own ends, but this is far from an aspect of his innate character.

Neither is Grenouille anything approaching spontaneous. His hallmark is careful, long-term planning to achieve a specific objective, just as Richis surmises. As previously mentioned, in the first half of the narrative, Grenouille's aim is survival, followed by separation from society. The first murder he commits is spontaneous, but even such a momentous and pleasurable experience has no chance of deflecting him from his desire for solitude. When solitude eventually fails to provide him with the security he requires, even though he could not possibly have found it more completely, his objective has to change, and again he works for a period of years in order to attain it. Once more he succeeds, and in success finds failure. Only twice does he alter his course of action, and in both cases he does so in the face of overwhelming opposition from within himself. His third aim, self-destruction, he achieves in irreversible fashion, and thus must be adjudged to be a success.

Outwardly at least, Grenouille is the epitome of emotional control, and this forms part of his separation from the world. However, there is a clear development in the strength and complexity of the emotion that he feels behind the subservient, acquiescent mask. These emotions are stirred in private by the provocation of his sense of smell. Pleasure, fear, excitement, contempt and desire to control are all present but hidden. Grenouille displays extremes of emotion and frigidity especially after his reintroduction into society, but even then they remain out of sight:

So stand Grenouille wohl eine Viertelstunde im Schoß der Menge, ein fremdes Kind gegen die scheinheilige Brust gedrückt. Und während die Hochzeitsgesellschaft vorbeizog, begleitet vom dröhnenden Glockengeläut und vom Jubel der Menschen, über die ein Regen von Münzen herabprasselte, brach in Grenouille ein anderer Jubel los, ein schwarzer Jubel, ein böses Triumphgefühl, das ihn zittern machte und berauschte wie ein Anfall von Geilheit, und er hatte Mühe, es nicht wie Gift und Galle über all diese Menschen herspritzen zu lassen und ihnen jubelnd ins Gesicht zu schreien: daß er keine Angst vor ihnen habe; ja kaum noch sie hasse; sondern daß er sie mit ganzer Inbrunst verachte, weil sie stinkend dumm waren; weil sie sich von ihm belügen und betrügen ließen; weil sie nichts waren, und er war alles!

(p. 197)

Where the “wilful child” Grenouille had earlier snarled angrily at Baldini during their altercation concerning how to make a perfume, in this case Grenouille holds his rage and pride in check. He has learned the complex, adult, self-aware art of hypocrisy, using it as a valve to control his ever more powerful emotions.

Another aspect of Grenouille's character that changes markedly is his sense of self-esteem. It is scarcely worthy of consideration during the first half of the narrative, when his distaste for humanity is only slowly being fuelled by his own self-awareness. He is only aware of himself in relation to the fulfilment of the objective of being away from humanity and its reeking environment. This is turned on its head after his crisis in the wilderness, from which point, since he can no longer validate his own existence, he has to rely on others to do so.

In fact the alteration in Grenouille's sense of self-esteem lies close to the heart of precisely what happened back in the cave in the Plomb du Cantal. Before this episode, Grenouille is aware of himself, but is not self-conscious as it is habitually understood—as the object of somebody else's stare. During the early period of his life he tries to move unnoticed through society. This apparently self-effacing attitude constitutes part of a cyclical pattern of behaviour typical of schizophrenics. The relation between subject and context oscillates repeatedly between two extremes. When subject reality seems false, due to basic ontological insecurity, being the object in another's stable reality ensures existence, and therefore the schizophrenic has to engage with his social context. However, engagement with, and visibility to, others is dangerous and unpleasant; so to protect the subject it makes itself invisible.10 Grenouille starts by trying to be invisible, and he pursues this objective to the extent of hiding out in the Plomb du Cantal. Once he succeeds, having projected from his memory everything that makes up his socially constituted self, he suffers the potentially fatal delusion of drowning in the fog that wells up from inside him. In existential terms, this is the ultimate threat of the total non-existence of the subject, expressed most acutely in the fact that he has no personal odour. His reaction is to make himself more visible, an overt object open to the gaze of those around him. To be more precise, he sets out to control his status as object as necessity dictates, which is why he develops a series of designer perfumes for everyday wear. Of course, being the object of the other's gaze is only a part of the construction. The gaze is mostly transmuted to the olfactory plane, and because he now smells like an ordinary human being he can successfully take part in normal social interaction. Ironically, however, in the end it is the gaze that identifies Grenouille as the most wanted criminal in Grasse, the man who has murdered so many beautiful young women. He is given away by the excruciatingly marginal trait that, like the murderer, he walks with a limp (p. 286). The subsequent build-up to his intended execution for murder is richly visual, but ultimately sight/gaze is demonstrated to be inferior to smell/sniff. Grenouille has completed his distillation of the ultimate perfume, with which he hopes to control the hearts and minds of all men and women, and he wears it when he is being led out to die. In spite of his proven guilt, all rationality is swept aside, even in the personification of enlightened, modern thinking, Antoine Richis:

Er wird mich töten, dachte Grenouille. Er ist der einzige, der sich nicht von meiner Maske täuschen läßt. Er kann sich nicht täuschen lassen […] Doch dann lag mit einem Mal Richis an seiner Brust, kein rächender Engel, sondern ein erschütterter, kläglich schluchzender Richis, und umfing ihn mit den Armen, krallte sich regelrecht fest an ihm, als fände er sonst keinen Halt in einem Meer von Glückseligkeit. Kein befreiender Dolchstoß, kein Stich ins Herz, nicht einmal ein Fluch oder nur ein Schrei des Hasses. Statt dessen Richis' tränennasse Wange an der seinen klebend und ein zitternder Mund, der ihm zuwinselte: “Vergib mir, mein Sohn, mein lieber Sohn, vergib mir!”

(pp. 307-8)

Grenouille knows at this point that he has succeeded in his Machiavellian purpose. He has become pivotal and essential to everybody else's existence.

In setting out to become the universal object, what Grenouille is in fact doing is attempting to usurp the role of God, demonstrating utter certitude in his ability to be the centre of knowledge. Again the text can here be shown to be collaboratively reinforcing aspects of Grenouille's condition. Throughout the narrative, Grenouille's personal history is cast in a Messianic light: he is of humble birth; he is a prophet unrecognised in his own country and time; he carries the name of Jean-Baptiste; he spends his time on his own in the wilderness and emerges as a changed person; he is set to die (apparently innocent) at the hands of a disbelieving society. While lying in his wasteland cave, Grenouille constructs inside his head an alter ego, Grenouille the Great, a creator and destroyer of worlds, who bestrides the land in total control over his dominions (161-3). As the new God, divine and all-powerful, Grenouille unites in himself subject and object, providing himself with stable subjectivity and therefore security. For Grenouille, the only way to exist is for him to replace God in the hearts of all mankind:

Er wollte der omnipotente Gott des Duftes sein, so wie er es in seinen Phantasien gewesen war, aber nun in der wirklichen Welt und über wirkliche Menschen. Und er wußte, daß dies in seiner Macht stand. Denn die Menschen konnten die Augen zumachen vor der Größe, vor dem Schrecklichen, vor der Schönheit und Ohren verschließen vor Melodien oder betörenden Worten. Aber sie konnten sich nicht dem Duft entziehen. Denn der Duft war ein Bruder des Atems. Mit ihm ging er in die Menschen ein, sie konnten sich seiner nicht erwehren, wenn sie leben wollten. Und mitten in sie hinein ging der Duft, direkt ans Herz, und unterschied dort kategorisch über Zuneigung und Verachtung, Ekel und Lust, Liebe und Haß. Wer die Gerüche beherrschte, der beherrschte die Herzen der Menschen.


By recreating himself as God, Grenouille imposes a new reality, the dominance of the sense of smell, and a new epistemological key to his context.

Grenouille's plan has been brought to fruition with astounding effectiveness, and yet it is at the symbolic moment of crowning glory when, in spite of everything he knows, Richis falls at Grenouille's feet to beg forgiveness, that Grenouille suffers the second of his existence-threatening ontological crises. As in the Plomb du Cantal, the delusional crisis occurs with Grenouille having successfully achieved a near-impossible long-term objective. It would seem that neither utter separation from humanity, nor total acceptance at its very heart (the two extremes of Laing's cyclical pattern), has proved capable of providing Grenouille with a stable subjectivity. In this second case he can find no reason to rely on his own subjective existence when it is constituted in the reality of others who can be so utterly and totally deceived by him.

Convinced that there is now no possible way of permanently escaping the perpetual anticipation of experiencing agonised non-existence, Grenouille decides that all he can do is to remove himself from the arena of experience altogether. His act of suicide, consumed by ravenous men and women incited to the depths of maddened cannibalism by the desire to possess a part of the ultimate object in their world (Grenouille clothed in his divine perfume), is an ironic and disturbing conclusion.

Grenouille's “diagnosis” having been developed as fully as circumstances allow, it would appear that Grenouille does indeed suffer from an extensive schizophrenic condition. This leads him in an ultimately unsuccessful search for ontological security whatever the consequences for the world around him. However, it is arguably in the relation between Grenouille and his context that this analysis has a more wide-ranging impact. In order that this may be explored most fruitfully, it is necessary to understand the general cultural implications of the fact that Grenouille suffers specifically from schizophrenia as opposed to any other mental condition.

Cultural historians of madness, including Foucault and Sass, have noted that the Enlightenment marks a boundary between distinct periods of attitudes towards, and treatment of, madness. While Foucault concentrates his analysis on changing regimes of control, Sass sets out to substantiate the notion that the cultural expression of madness undergoes a general shift between pre-Enlightenment collective hysteria and post-Enlightenment schizophrenia. Clearly, this can only be thought of as a broad trend, since there are a number of examples to the contrary; for example, the impact of hysteria on women towards the end of the nineteenth century that so influenced the inception of Freudian psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, the essence of the argument is that the diagnosis and definition of madness are intimately wedded to their cultural context:

This is not to say that psychotic illnesses in general are rare in tradition-directed, preindustrial, nonurbanized cultures. Significantly, schizophrenia's rarity in many such cultures seems to be counterbalanced by a higher prevalence of other forms of severe mental disorder that present a different symptomatic picture—especially what are known as the transient, atypical, hysterical, or acute delirious psychoses.

(p. 363)

Sass does not claim to discover a cause and effect relationship between schizophrenia and advancing social complexity, but he does observe the closeness of their positions on the ontology of the subject, and that as the latter develops the incidences of the former increase:

European culture over the last three centuries or so has been increasingly dominated by individualism and subjectivism, by rationalism and relativism and a new character type has come into dominance in the twentieth century: “psychological man”, who is “intent upon the conquest of his inner life” and embraces the ideal of “salvation through self-contemplative manipulation.” […] If schizoids and schizophrenics, like other human beings, are subject to the influences of their social milieu, it is not hard to see how a number of their core traits […] might be exaggerations of tendencies fostered by this civilization.

(p. 370)

The obvious implication of this link between schizophrenia and post-Enlightenment culture is that the schizophrenic Grenouille, instead of being essentially regressive, a throwback to an under-developed and primitive mindset, becomes an incarnation of what the Enlightenment will increasingly bring about as it progresses into the Modern age. Grenouille, the psychotic mass-murderer and serial killer, is a projection of times to come.

There is further evidence that Grenouille is an anticipatory projection of a future, more advanced, socio-cultural context. In particular, his drive for solitude throughout the first half of the narrative fits uncomfortably with the values of his time, when exile was perhaps the worst fate that could befall an individual. Grenouille does from desire what even the socially-alienated figure of the outlaw will not do to save his life:

Selbst der weithin gesuchte auvergnatische Bandit Lebrun hatte es vorgezogen, sich in die Cevennen durchzuschlagen und dort ergreifen und vierteilen zu lassen, als sich am Plomb du Cantal zu verstecken, wo ihn zwar sicher niemand gesucht und gefunden hätte, wo er aber ebenso sicher den ihm schlimmer erscheinenden Tod der lebenslangen Einsamkeit gestorben wäre.

(pp. 152-3)

Although to bury oneself like a hibernating animal might on one level be viewed as a particularly primitive act, as Mott points out, the active desire to be alone corresponds to a post-Enlightenment mentality:

The solitary is a figure of great interest to eighteenth-century writers and philosophers, the exception to a social age, when even the hermits chose to live on show. But if there were solitaries by cruel fate, marooned sailors for example, the prisoner who deserved a fate far worse than death by torture—the monstrosity of choosing solitude was almost beyond the grasp of the savants […]. The age of privacy, of “the great solitaries”, of egotistic dandies and self-enjoyers, had not begun.11

In the context of Grenouille's schizophrenia, his desire for solitude can be seen to correspond more closely to a late nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century paradigm than it does to pre-Enlightenment culture.

It might be argued that Grenouille's search for solitude is not a particularly significant element of the narrative, and that in any case it is laid aside after the events in the Plomb du Cantal. The importance of Grenouille's sense of smell, however, is incontestable. From an Enlightenment perspective, of course, smell was the basest of the human senses, the one most strongly connected to humanity's primitive past and the one from which the rational mind must release itself. While Kant lauded the “objective” senses of sight and sound (the carriers of knowledge, and the senses most intimately related to written and spoken language), taste and, above all, smell were regarded as of little use to Enlightenment man: “Welcher Organsinn ist der undankbarste und scheint auch der entbehrlichste zu sein? Der des Geruchs.”12 However, the fact that Grenouille relies so totally on his sense of smell, and indeed forces the whole of his context to do so as well, does not necessarily indicate that he is a regressive influence. Cultural historians of smell have been quick to point out that in the era of Modernism and Postmodernism, the Kantian sensory hierarchy has been inverted so that particularly in Postmodern culture, smell has enjoyed a degree of primacy over the other senses:

The surfacing of smells in postmodernism or better, the sustained interest in them since modernism, is not accidental. We established the olfactory as the sense of the modern, but it is postmodernism that brings out fully its potentials. [In the latter mind-set] it is playful deliberateness, a game, precisely, on the former strictures of manifestation. Smells are eclectic, random, individual. They are historical only on a strictly personal level, thus anecdotal. Beyond that, they dip immediately into the anthropological abyss, skipping history at large, so that their account can always only be given obliquely, through investigations other than olfactory ones.13

As has already been noted, Das Parfum has often been critically regarded as a Postmodern narrative.14 There has been a range of valid reasons for this: its multiple allusions to other texts,15 its shifting narratorial positions, its stark emphasis on the inadequacy of linguistic communication, its adoption of a historical narrative that is local, individual and lies outside official history. To all these must be added one more: in Grenouille, Modernism/Postmodernism's emblematic sense is intimately linked to its own emblematic mental condition, schizophrenia.

In reaction to this irritant from a putative future reality, contemporary society, even including Richis, who is an enlightened thinker with possible schizoid tendencies, responds with hysteria, a mental reaction far more appropriate to a less complex social organisation. The carnival atmosphere of the execution, both in anticipation and as it turns out, is an aspect of an hysterical, irrational, pre-modern society. It is in the aftermath of this orgy of collective primitive madness that Grenouille decides to withdraw, and society re-establishes control by drawing a veil of forgetfulness over its episode of alternative history. However, the schizophrenic flaw has been placed at its heart, remembered only by those considered insane and locked away in an enlightened institution (p. 314), and ready to blossom into the radical individual dislocation of the subject in the modern era.


  1. Patrick Süskind, Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Zurich: Diogenes Verlag AG, 1985).

  2. For example, see the following studies: Neil Donahue, “Scents and Insensibility: Patrick Süskind's New Historical Critique of ‘Die Neue Sensibilität’ in Das Parfum (1985)”, Modern Language Studies Vol. 22, No. 3 (1992), 36-43; Douglas Fowler, “Millhauser, Süskind and the Postmodern Promise”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts Vol. 1, No. 4 (1988), 77-86; Manfred Jacobson, “Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum: A Postmodern Künstlerroman”, The German Quarterly 65 (1992), 201-11; Judith Ryan, “The Problem of Pastiche. Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum”. The German Quarterly 63 (1990), 396-403; R. G. Whitinger & M. Herzog, “Hoffmann's Das Fräulein von Scuderi and Süskind's Das Parfum: Elements of Homage in a Postmodernist Parody of a Romantic Artist Story”, The German Quarterly 67 (1994), 222-33.

  3. R. D. Laing, The Divided Self (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 17.

  4. Louis Sass, Madness and Modernism (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1992.

  5. See Laing, p. 78, where he is at pains to point out that introspection is also part of “normal”, behaviour, especially when the subject is under great stress. See also Sass, pp. 386-7, who is quite unequivocal about the possible ongoing and deleterious consequences of the defensive, mechanistic behaviour provoked by such periods of intense introspection.

  6. See Sass, p. 294, and Laing, p. 38.

  7. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, trans. R. Howard (London: Tavistock, 1967), first publ. as Histoire de la Folie (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1961).

  8. Ryan, p. 400.

  9. Otto Rank, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, trans. & ed. Harry Tucker (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971), first publ. as Der Doppelgänger: Eine Psychoanalytische Studie (Leipzig, Vienna & Zürich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1925).

  10. Laing, pp. 108-9.

  11. Michael Mott, “Review of Perfume, Essence Absolue of the Eighteenth Century”, Eighteenth-Century Life Vol. 11, No. 3 (1987), 90-4 (p. 92).

  12. Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht, ed. Karl Vorländer (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1988), p. 53.

  13. H. Rindisbacher, The Smell of Books (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), p. 346.

  14. In the spirit of Rindisbacher's inclusive approach, when considering Das Parfum and its engagement with broad cultural movements, it is helpful to adopt the critical position that Postmodernism is part of an evolving continuum founded in Modernism, rather than an entirely discreet discourse. Bruce Fleming's “The Smell of Success: A Reassessment of Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum” (South Atlantic Review Vol. 56, No. 4 [1991], 71-86) argues that “it is only romantic paradigms that can give us any explanation at all for the largest patterns of the plot”; paradigms which relate most closely to “those disaffected romantics, the modernists” (p. 74). Indeed, Fleming's insightful approach, which considers the text as a representation of a clash between elements of different cultural movements, need not be seen in opposition to studies considering the text's engagement with Postmodernism, but as one of the plurality of interpretations provoked by a polyvalent text. Other studies encompassing a discussion of Das Parfum and specifically Modernist aesthetics include Richard Gray's “The Dialectic of ‘Enscentment’: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum as Critical History of Enlightenment Culture” (PMLA Vol. 108, No. 3 [1993], 489-505), and Bradley Butterfield's “Enlightenment's Other in Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum: Adorno and the Ineffable Utopia of Modern Art” (Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 32, No. 3 [1995], 401-18).

  15. See Ryan, p. 398. Many critical approaches take up this allusive chase: see, for example, the studies by Whitinger and Donahue.


Principal Works


Further Reading