I saw this tweet yesterday:
Information like this always reminds me of one fact that awakened me to the behind-the-scenes role that the natural universe plays in our cultural lives. The organic compounds called indole and skatole are what give human poop its unique and uniquely disgusting smell – an odour that our brains have evolved to be repelled by so that humans, by whatever accident of fate, don’t consume the damned thing.
However, indole and skatole are also what make jasmine flowers smell so wonderful. This happens because the two compounds are present in higher concentrations in faecal matter and in lower concentrations in jasmine. This is essentially Lovecraftian horror at its best: like in the tale of Arthur Jermyn and his family, our horrors are not horrific inasmuch as they inhabit us. They don’t harm or pollute us in any sense. It is the interpretation of that information, after realising it, that can be so utterly devastating.
It is a story of the familiar becoming unfamiliar, triggering a sense of our biological identity having deluded our cultural one. In the case of Arthur Jermyn, the man sets himself on fire after realising that one of his paternal ancestors mated with a great ape. In the case of indole and skatole, many are likely to be thrown off their affinity for jasmine flowers. But I prefer thinking about it backwards: I like jasmine all the more for what it is because it redeems the two compounds, freeing them from the poopiness for which only evolution is to blame, not themselves.
Aside 1: I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing with an Arthur-Jermyn-like discovery, however: it is vastly more innate and visceral, and as inescapable for it.
Aside 2: This is the sort of horror I also find in the work of H.R. Giger.
In the same vein, the caste system (the Hindu version of which I am most familiar with) taints its followers with pseudoscience simply because it supersedes the biochemical composition of faecal matter with the inexplicable, immoral and dehumanising pall of untouchability. A person can be a great particle physicist, for example, but the moment he believes there is an untouchable caste whose members are deigned to clean drains, he also disbelieves the cleansing and deodourising potential of antibiotic solutions and chemical disinfectants. He, in effect, has elevated poop into a socio-cultural kryptonite up from the mass of organic compounds that it actually is, and becomes both a scientist and a pseudoscientist at once. There are many such people in India, and they demonstrate what they believe science to be: a separate entity isolated from the rest of society.
To quote Anton Chekhov,
To a chemist nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist, he must lay aside his personal subjective standpoint and must understand that muck heaps play a very respectable part in a landscape, and that the evil passions are as inherent in life as the good ones.
(Thanks to Madhusudhan Raman for pointing this one out to me.)
This must not be construed as an attempt to trivialise the importance of culture, however, as the backward-case of jasmine should demonstrate. It is simply an example to illustrate the weird and fascinating fact that while scientific knowledge that underlies a human phenomenon can inhabit a continuum of possibilities – such as the increasing or decreasing concentrations of indole and skatole – it is entirely possible for the overlying cultural substrate to undergo more drastic, and analog, transformations – such as from desirable to detestable.
Don’t read beyond this point if you’re yet to watch Love, Death & Robots.
Episode 7 of the Netflix series Love, Death & Robots – entitled ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’ – captures this transformation very well, albeit in a very material way. When a waylaid spacefarer wakes up after many months in a repair station lightyears away from his original destination, he begins to suspect that something about his ‘reality’ is amiss. He realises that he is in a simulation being fed to his brain by a superior entity and demands that he be allowed to see what his actual surroundings look like.
He suddenly wakes up in a dilapidated place covered entirely in webbing, with no apparent signs of life nearby. Then, the alien presence that was maintaining him in suspended animation shows itself thus:
The episode’s directors (Léon Bérelle, Dominique Boidin, Rémi Kozyra and Maxime Luère) and animators (Unit Image) did very well to depict this transformation thus. The transition from lady to alien is scarred on my neural circuits, and if I look at it backwards, it only becomes more terrifying, as if it seems to ask: Will glimpses of the familiar suffice anymore?