Academic journal article American Journal of Italian Studies

"What Should a Woman Smell like? Body and Language in Capuana's Profumo"

Academic journal article American Journal of Italian Studies

"What Should a Woman Smell like? Body and Language in Capuana's Profumo"

Article excerpt

"This baby makes my flesh creep because it doesn't smell the way children ought to smell."

"... But now be so kind as to tell me: what does a baby smell like when he smells the way you think he ought to smell? Well?" (Patrick Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer 10.11).

And what does a woman smell like, may we ask paraphrasing Suskind, when she smells the way she ought to smell? This is the question that the characters of Luigi Capuana's Profumo (1892) repeatedly ask themselves, explicitly or implicitly, in the course of the novel, thus displacing the apparent narrative center from a taboo subject--the mother-son incest--to a prurient and rather kitschy one--the orange-blossom smell emanating from the protagonist. For the oedipal subtext in this book is never openly spoken although obvious, and the answer to the initial question of woman's scents (inextricably related, through the representation of hysteria, to the darker question of woman's sense) is only apparently given by the novel's facile and not-too credible happy ending. A more satisfactory explanation has to be sought instead by unraveling some of the (medical-historical and pathological as well as narrative and mythological) tensions of the protagonists' never-overtly defined triangular relationship.

Profumo is the story of a newly-married couple, Patrizio and Eugenia Moro-Lanza, whose life in a Sicilian converted monastery is made unbearable by the possessive love of Patrizio's mother, Geltrude, a widow of many years who lives with the couple and repeatedly violates their privacy. Eugenia is aware of her mother-in-law's hatred (though for a long time not of its cause), and Patrizio's constant tiding with his mother as well as his increasing "coldness" towards his wife (signifying frigidity and impotence) lead Eugenia to develop a full-fledged hysteria--the most obvious symptom of which, in addition to a series of nervous attacks, is an acute smell of orange blossoms exuding from her skin. (1) The family doctor, dottor Mola, interprets the smell as a signifier of Eugenia's otherwise unexpressed sexuality, which speaks both through the "natural" sexual function of smell and through the "cultural" sexual symbolism of orange blossoms--signifiers of the wedding feast and, in a euphemistic metonymy, of the de -flowering taking place in the marriage bed.

Towards the middle of the story Geltrude is struck by a minutely-described paralyzing apoplexy (which, as in a Dantesque contrapasso, strikes dumb a character formerly remarkable for the venomous nature of her words), and dies within days. For the economy of the novel, this is a necessary death, as the oedipal drama was about to come unveiled. But Geltrude's death, instead of bringing about a return of conjugal bliss, shatters Patrizio, who, increasingly haunted by his mother, visits her at the cemetery every night as his affective and sexual "coldness" towards Eugenia increases. At this point, Eugenia's hysteria becomes a derivative one that will disappear only once Patrizio's own impotence has been cured. With a peculiarly fin-desiecle psychological insight Eugenia believes her cure to rely precisely on Patrizio's returned potency: her only therapy is sexual satisfaction. But as, in a euphemistic metonymy, she asks Patrizio, "Baciami! Voglio guarir subito!" he frigidly answers, "Coi baci non si guarisce" ( 79)--dissenting from the diagnostic and clinical stance of the novel itself and from the Viennese gynaecology professor Rudolf Chrobak who one day told Freud that "the sole prescription for such a malady," referring to hysteria, is "normal penis, repeated doses" (quoted in Heath 43).

Upon learning of Patrizio's total rejection of physical contact (and although sexual impotence is never explicitly diagnosed, it is clearly implied), dottor Mola realizes that Patrizio is just as sick as his wife, that they are victims of a "hysterie a deux." The final peripeteia takes place when Ruggiero, the eighteen-year-old mayor's son, becomes infatuated with Eugenia, who is anything but insensitive to his courtship. …

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