Last night, as I continued to make my way through N. K. Jemisin’s fascinating and inventive novel The Killing Moon, I came across this sentence:
“General Niyes’s home was in the spice district, where the evening breezes smelled of cinnamon and inim-teh seed.”
Nice description: the tactile appeal of cool evening breezes, the wafting cinnamon, the… inim-teh seed? I was in bed, sans internet, and so I flipped to the novel’s excellent glossary (see my previous post on glossaries in speculative fiction) to learn that inim-teh is “a plant grown in the Blood river valley. The seeds are harvested and ground to make a pungent spice useful in pickling and flavoring.” The wonderfully named seed is (as far as Google will tell me) Jemisin’s own invention, and so the glossary and usage are all we have to go by in determining its nature, and here we run into an interesting problem, a problem both writerly and philosophical: there is no way to know what inim-teh smells like.
The fact that it is “pungent” doesn’t tell us much, nor does the fact that it is “useful in pickling and flavoring.” All manner of herbs and spices can go into pickling: peppercorn, chili, dill…
Although inim-teh is included as a sensory detail, it carries no sensory content. Not only that, it cannot, given the very nature of language, carry sensory content. Consider: the only way we know what cinnamon smells (or tastes) like is that we have smelled (or tasted) cinnamon. It’s true, of course, that approximations and comparisons are possible, hence the litany of exotic foods that “taste like chicken.” Only, they do not taste like chicken, not exactly.
Likewise, compound tastes (like compound sounds) can be described, hence the sententious pronouncements of wine snobs: “The pinot is drinking beautifully. On the nose you’ll notice thyme, raspberries, and a whiff of feral cat. The palate blends chocolate and shoe leather with just a hint of rotten plum,” but such descriptions require a) our familiarity with the individual elements and b) our acceptance that they’re not just bullshit, that if you actually cooked up your shoe leather with some chocolate and a rotten plumb, you’d get something that tasted like your wine. I doubt it.
Either way, the argument for compound flavors is irrelevant in the case of inim-teh seed, because Jemisin does not provide the secret recipe. I’d argue that she’s smart to refuse. Inim-teh seed would suddenly become a lot less bewitching and exotic if we were to learn it smells like a corn dog topped with vanilla ice cream.
David Hume, the brilliant Scottish philosopher, attacked this problem at the root. Hume divided perceptions (mental content of which we are conscious) into two categories: impressions (a perception experienced directly, in-the-moment, first-hand, from the senses) and ideas (the recollection and recombination of impressions, with no in-the-moment experience necessary). In Hume’s terms, as we chomp down on the chicken, we have an impression of chicken; when we recollect the meal later, we have only the idea of chicken.
Hume goes on to claim that “every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression.” In other words, if you’ve smelled cinnamon, a novel can evoke the smell of cinnamon. If you haven’t, then it can’t. (There is, by the way, a fascinating objection, raised by Hume himself, to this claim – “the missing shade of blue” – but I don’t have time for it here).
So we’re back to Jemisin’s inim-teh seed. The question, from a writer’s perspective, is whether or not to include it.
Pros: Its presence is exotic. It reminds us that we are in a foreign land, a strange and exciting place where the rules we know no longer apply, where people can walk through dreams. The inim-teh seed is almost necessary, in fact. After all, if everything in this world could be described with our own words, we’d be dangerously close to our own world, dangerously close to losing the mystery and the magic.
Cons: It doesn’t mean anything. The description might as well read, “…the evening breezes smelled of cinnamon and some other shit,” or, “the evening breezes smelled of cinnamon and something that you’ll never smell,” or, “the evening breezes smelled of cinnamon and xxxxxxxxxxx.”
In my opinion, Jemisin makes it work. How? She pairs the empty word with two details that we will recognize: evening breezes and cinnamon. Those data points frame the sensation, and we know that inim-teh fits somewhere in the frame. We know, for instance, that the mysterious seed probably doesn’t smell like urine, or steak, or rotting trash. She manages to circumscribe the possibilities for this unknown sensation while leaving some scope to the imagination of the reader.
That said, I think it’s possible to overdo this sort of thing. There are dangers in tossing around words the true meaning of which no one can ever know. I’m curious to hear from others where the balance lies – how much is too much?