Pheromones are the lineal ancestors of hormones as EO Wilson says. These chemical signals have several outstanding advantages. Small amounts can produce a signal that lasts for hours. They are energetically cheap to manufacture and can be broadcast quite readily. At one extreme they can cover barely a few millimetres. At the other extreme they can generate an active space of several square kilometres. And as to function, in algae, for example, they can be used by female gametes to attract male gametes much as they do in fungi. In Arthropoda they’re female sex attractants. In insects,male sex attractants and aphrodisiacs exist. In vertebrates, pheromones acts as dominance odours, and territorial & home-range markers. But do pheromones have any role in primates and in particular in human beings?
There is no strong evidence for pheromones in humans. The vomeronasal signal transduction systems are at the very most vestigial in humans. Nonetheless there’s some evidence of pheromone effects during the menstrual cycle where it may be that they act as primers, and in the maternal recognition of a newborn where they probably act as signals and in mood displays as modulators.
Well, that’s the science. It seems that with the development of colour vision in male primates and the visible sign of female oestrus, there was less need for chemical signals and hence the markedly reduced reliance on pheromones, or so it is argued. But, I’m not so sure that pheromones are that vestigial.
I can recall that long trip from Lagos out to the country. We were squeezed close together against the door in the backseat of an old Peugeot 304. And it was not long before the closeness of our bodies, the softness of her thighs against mine, and our breathing called to the deep well of desire and I for one was stirred. But, yet the awakened desire had to be muffled, battened down as we were travelling with other companions and it was not night but broad daylight.
That was when I first noticed the aroma of desire. I have no idea whether other people too know of this odour, this effluence that is at once personal and public. It had a cloying substance to it of musk, of sweat mixed with dampness and dusk. It was revelatory.
Many years before I had witnessed a fight, I had caught just the rarest glimpse of a knife flash in the sunlight, and then as if the bare skin was pulled tight and then sliced, glistening red blood welled up along the slice, beads on a string. But it was the smell of fear, something much like the sea, saline rinsed in sea weed. I have associated this rare smell with fear since then and I can smell it, an effluent from a grown man’s armpits. Sometimes it is rancid and sharp and sometimes sour but with a tang to it.
Well it was much the same, the aroma of desire wafted in the atmosphere, technically speaking, in an active space, but to my surprise the other occupants of the vehicle did not seem to have caught any whiff of how the aroused vitals secreted their inner mysteries, their secrets, broadcasting ardour and lust.
This talk of the past has brought back to mind memories that were until just now deeply buried. I can remember visiting my great grandmother in Isale Eko, within her agbole ile just off Eti Osa. We would park the car and then cross the road away from the canoes bobbing by the lagoon side, where the women had their crayfish stalls and fried crabs were sold. To get to her quarter you crossed over an uncovered gutter. Inside the quarter the residences were built along three sides of the courtyard. My great grandmother must have occupied a single room in this courtyard. I stayed with the Ss once, overnight. It was a single room with the parents’ bed separated off from the living space by a curtain that barely reached to the ground. We, the children slept on the floor together and the parents slept on the double bed of wrought iron. Sometime in the middle of the night, I was woken by the older boy who whispered that we look through a discretely torn hole in the curtain to look at the parents locked in an embrace that alternated between wrestling and rapid breathing and ugly and harsh noises. It was a mystery that only became clear many years later. Did the parents not realise that we were watching in tense silence?
Down the courtyard from my great grandmother’s was my mother’s aunt, aunty Mrs Johnson, or more precisely “anti”. She lived on her own, a frail light skinned woman. Her skin was yellowish and wrinkled, but not exactly. The skin seemed loose and too large for the underlying flesh. But it was her smell that I am always reminded of when I think of her. It is really an indescribable smell of dryness, of dandruff, of something ancient like parchment or the hollowed out earth where the drinking water pitcher was kept. She was my mother’s “anti” in the way that all older women were our aunties and older men were uncles. In the sense that all men, who were older in conversation were referred to as “my father” or “my mother” if female.
The correct use of language has bled my rich and profuse relationships of their vitality and vigour. Where I had innumerable brothers I now have one and my countless sisters and cousins are stripped to manageable single numbers rather than dozens. It is how the European norm of nuclear familyhood has eroded the entanglements of extended and luxurious fecundity, of the Niger Delta turning into the arid spittle like stream of a dried riverbed.
Mrs Johnson’s son, my mother’s cousin worked for the Lagos Municipal Transport Service as a bus inspector. He was always well dressed, when he visited at Xmas, in a suit with a white shirt and tie. He brought my mother two books on consecutive Christmases- both by Alan Paton- Cry The Beloved Country & Too Late the Phalarope– describing the impossible and intolerable situation of Africans in South Africa and one year he brought Albert Luthuli’s Let My People Go. He must have been well educated and I mean in the sense of somebody who read widely and knew what to think when few people were aware of anything outside of the Nigerian situation. We lost contact with him when the houses, the land along the lagoon were requisitioned by the government for the development of the second Lagos bridge. The families were moved to brand new flats in Surulere without the courtyard design of their former homes. For the first time the families acquired indoor lavatories instead of having to use potties, etc.
In the same courtyard, across on the far side a young couple with a young daughter moved in. The daughter was reputed to have told her parents as soon as she could talk that she was not their daughter but that she had recently died and that her parents lived in Abeokuta. Apparently she named her presumed parents and their address and when inquiries were made it turned out to be true that such a family existed and her account was corroborated. How strange after all these years to recall this.
Much of my early memories are tied to real places that still exist except for the courtyard just across from Eti Osa. I think perhaps because the real places no longer exist there is a strange feeling of uncertainty about these memories, as if I have just woken up from a dream and that these places are somewhere in my imagination except that memories of smells persist.
Aside from Mr Johnson’s odour, to get to Eti Osa you had to go across Carter Bridge from Ebute Meta to Lagos island. You turned left at the statue to the unknown soldiers, Soja Idumota. Here the characteristic smell of old Lagos clung to the nostril. This was where the night soil men dumped their ware after midnight or before dawn. The stench was of faeces mixed with the sea like marinaded compost. This smell was nicknamed “Sasarabia”.
To return to that trip. It was the first time that a thigh acquired a new value simply for being female. Even now at my age I am still mystified by the ability of a body part to acquire a heightened value and to provoke interest and desire for being female. But the aroma of desire has long ceased to be something that I consciously detect. Maybe age atrophies this sense just as it does hearing and sight. Maybe too, pheromones act at subtle levels of discrimination directing and limiting, ensnaring and sometimes provoking. Or, it might just be that I am past that age where nature cares much for my desires.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
The temperature was dropping in time with the darkening, approaching dusk. I walked across from Hotel Raspail, crossing the Blvd Raspail, through rue Hygens where clutches of youngsters sat on the doorsteps to the Ecole Bert and Gymnasium Huygens. They huddled ever closer together as if some secret conclave was in session, passing whispered messages from one person to another, like ants passing their scents on. I noticed that there was a couple in the group where the man grasped the woman’s shoulder close, not merely to signal their intimacy but perhaps also to lay claim to a possession, to exclude others and a like a vice to entrap the woman in his clasp.
I was back in Paris after 24 months away. I had caught the Eurostar from St Pancras to Gare du Nord. And, then to my surprise had found that I could travel, free, on the Metro to Vavin. Apparently there was smog in Paris and Parisians were being lured away from their cars with free travel on the Metro.
I went in to the Montparnasse Cemetery through the main entrance, picked up a map and guide to the main graves. It was a job orienting myself to the actual site of the varying divisions and then locating the tombs. I managed only a handful.
De Beauvoir and Sartre, then Beckett. Vallejo’s grave was difficult to find. I concluded that it was probably this simple, cracked concrete slab. If the map was right, this stretch and particular place was where it ought to be – even in death Vallejo was as much a pauper as he was in life, dying in penury in Paris, far away from his native Peru. Yet his poetry continued to speak across time and space to a particular kind of bleakness, of loneliness and internal anguish, of an absence of colour and gaiety, of greyness rather than black.
Marguerite Duras’ tomb was also not immediately apparent. Where I should have found her, there was merely this grey-pink marble, simple and again like Vallejo’s unmarked. I first heard of Duras when she won the Prix Goncourt in 1984 for The Lover– an extraordinarily powerful book despite its simplicity and economy. I then read more by her and found in her writing, crispness and a clarity that was dazzling. There was also a purity of purpose. If this unmarked tomb was her resting place it was worthy of her and in tune with her style and character.
I mistook Thierry Ravel’s grave for Maurice Ravel’s. The kind of error that shows up the cognitive systems’ manner of classifying the world- dominant themes that command the vista and obscure the background. This is the problem of figure-ground discrimination as it manifests itself with advancing age.
Samuel Beckett’s grave was grey granite, simple yet weighty like the man himself. I was reminded of an anecdote told us by C&P who had lived in the same block as SB. One day SB’s letter was erroneously delivered to C&P. They already knew that SB eschewed eye contact and familiarity, that he avoided small talk. C took the letter up to BS’ flat. She pressed the bell and SB opened the door. C said “this letter is for M. Beckett” and SB said “I’ll let him have it when he arrives back”. C&P loved telling this story that revealed SB’s character and his wish for anonymity. SB wouldn’t have survived well in celebrity culture.
Sartre and de Beauvoir’s tombstone was made of a light coloured stone that stood out amongst the grey and dark granite graves around it. Like Plath’s in Heptonstall, it was an obvious site of veneration and of pilgrimage. Pots of African violets, two single roses, a biro, pebbles, a bunch (bouquet) of flowers, sprigs of heather were the offerings made to these two gods. These offerings symbolized our sense of helplessness, the impotence we feel when we confront death. The fresh flowers destined to fade and then wither and die, the pots of African violets which too will expire once the soil is exhausted. As Derrida put it “only humans die, the other animals merely perish”. We are conscious of our mortality and this is the origin of tragedy- life that is lived under the shadow of death.
My visit to Montparnasse Cemetery, in the cold and as dusk fell was itself a symbol, a token of my desire to pay homage to these deceased writers, to say to myself that even in death they had achieved a modicum of immortality. Every night the ancient Egyptians, anxious about the possibility that the Sun might not rise next morning, prayed for the re-enactment of the endless cycle of life. But, here in the cemetery, my hands were growing cold, the trees had lost all their leaves, and endless multitudes of stone artefacts, erected to signal the future were silent and static. So many are grand and ornate, so many are even more dead and mute than those around them. There is nothing joyful or celebratory here. There is just sorrow and even more sorrow, which I suppose was better than indifference. Of all the writers buried here, it is Vallejo who would have understood most properly this cemetery for what was. He understood that life was a vertiginous abyss with pitiful and faint lighting, that poetry just about responded to the brief streaks of light but that in the end, the words too missed the point, the words soaked into the darkness and void of the abyss. Nonetheless, living was in the trying to escape this fate.
I went from the City of Death, from its unearthly, deathly silence of marble and granite tombstones to the Temple of Joy and Lust, the paradisal sanctum of eroticism, the Lido. Everything there was spectacle, spectacular. The stage was a focal point for Beauty to parade itself in the myriad forms of nude women- long legs, linsome limbs that were slender and inviting. Elegant swan-like necks and fine heads balanced like delicate eggs on stalks. Then the breasts- pert, full and pouting like Angelina Jolie’s lips. All the dancers, the men and women, were white, pale white, as if they had seen no sunlight whatsoever except for one African man.
The dancing was all in good taste, innocent in the way that Ella Fitzgerald’s voice was virginal and incorruptible. The thing is to think how much energy it took for Ella’s voice to transmit that etiquette of purity given the manner in which her ethnicity and identity were traduced in American society.
I drank my glass of Champagne slowly, I bit into the cheese slices, the pungent aromatics of corrupted milk breezing into my nostrils. French vinaigrette on the salad, tart and sharp woke up my senses. There was an increasing risk that even here, at the Lido, the immaculate women, for all their joie de vivre, the flesh and corpus, the dance and jingle- could do nothing to revive what the cemetery had induced in me, ice and gloom in the centre of my being.
But, it was more than that- when jazz is uprooted from the dark and smoky intimacy of a bar in downtown New Orleans and transported to the pristine and sanitized stage at the Barbican, it loses something vital; it goes cold and mechanical. It dies slowly.
Here too, at the Lido, these naked bodies prancing about, divorced sex and sensuality from eroticism and lust. The loss was of the primordial and primeval, the will to mate. This aboriginal fundamental instinct was replaced with a gaze that was empty, that did not long after, that did not desire but rather merely watched a spectacle.
At the end of the evening I returned to Hotel Raspail by the Metro. The stations at past midnight had started to fill with the homeless settling in for the night. An underground city of the dispossessed.
Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode