In a letter to a friend, Claude Debussy criticized works of music that “smell of the lamp, not of the sun.”1 To say that sound smells like sources of light is synesthetic and, well, weird, but I find something wonderful about that description, not least because my own desk lamp, I am afraid to admit, emits a particular smell when I turn it on. Lockdown forces us to notice these things.
And lockdown has forced much of our own work to “smell of the lamp.” How can someone who feeds on the energy of place and travel for their inspiration and livelihood avoid their work smelling of the lamp in a time when it cannot possibly smell of the sun? Are memories and dreams enough to infuse our work with a sense of warmth, life, and vigor in an otherwise lifeless time? Or is our work flat, overly wrought, and analytical—a type of work impregnated with too much thought; a type of work that could be done from a distance?
Debussy’s expression, that something “smells of the lamp,” is hundreds of years old, if not thousands,2 but it is still lovely because music, like all art, needs feeling. And what is art without communication and interaction?
Later in that letter, Debussy wrote, “There’s no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen.”
That the spring is here makes matters a bit more difficult. The sun and birds call, and my friends on Instagram have been posting photos of crocuses and daffodils spotted on their daily walks. It is a hopeful sign, surely, that we will soon be free to feed off of the sun again.
Attributed to Pytheas by Plutarch. ↩︎