The Armpit – J.-K. Huysmans translated by Dennis Goodwin

for Guy de Maupassant


There are certain smells that are suspicious, highly ambiguous, like being shouted at in a dark alley. They waft over from those gaggles of women one encounters in working class sections of Paris. Hygienically neglectful, arms heavy from oppressive toil, they sizzle billy goat fumes from the cruxes of their sleeves.

Even more powerful and harsh, I followed such a scent trail to the countryside, to a haywain of cornfed women broiling under the sun. It was excessive and terrible, pricking my nostrils like an open bottle of ammonia– or else it was like the onset of a seizure, irritating my mucus membranes like the brackish musk of wild duck festering in olives and shallots. All in all, this emanation was not repugnant nor vile; it blended as expected with the awesome odor of the scenery. It was a pure note, that of the human animal baying in heat.

But forget about that. Anyway, I don’t want to concern myself with the smelly pits, the bestiality, of the common folk, of those country girls— never caring for their ablutions, their beauty sleep. No, I simply want to talk about the exquisite, divine perfume prepared for us by the fine women of our cities, where they constantly find themselves sweltering, no matter at a winter ball or on a summer street.

Just as a handkerchief soaked in perfume gently diffuses its secrets, these women putrefy in their sweat as it wicks the fabrics that veil their delicacies. Yet cruder truths are divulged from more unadulterated elixirs: the rivulets that snake down their bare arms, or into the abyss of their heaving breasts, or pool in the vents of their exposed axillae. There, this aroma is sometimes brutally accentuated by whiffs of chlorinated urine, cyanide, and a faint breeze of spoiled peaches, sighing through a gauze of flower extracts and fine powders.

But the moment I find Parisian women most charming is under a leaden sun, when a storm threatens and they positively suffocate, maundering under their umbrellas, sweating like hogs, eyes jaundiced by the heat, clammy, languid, weary, until their scent radiates from their macerated clothing— deliciously bold! Timidly subtle!

Never have women been more desirable than in those moments when a wet dress molds them from head to toe, like glittering armor, in sticky imprisonment. Women would do well to understand that such betrayed modesty elicits more theroid thoughts in man than the relative nudity of their ballgowns. It’s less insolent and cynical. Men like to pretend.

The scent of the armpit is as diverse as the colors of hair, as undulating as the curls that conceal it; it can be split like a rainbow into infinity. No aroma has more nuances. It is a scale that plays up and down the entire keyboard of the nose, from the highly intoxicating sweetness of orange blossoms, or elderflowers, to the lowly salty tang of fingers licked after smoking a cigarette.

It’s audacious yet tiring in brunettes, sharp and fierce in redheads, buoyant and heady in blondes, like a sweet wine. One could almost say that the scent of their armpits is in complete accordance with the style of their kisses: for brunettes, more assertive and passionate; for blondes, more fervent, more personal, perhaps.

But whether the color of this fleece is golden, or garnet, or onyx; whether it undulates like a mustache, or curls like thin shavings of mahogany or rosewood, it must be admitted that nature is as nurturing as she is foresighted, for she has distributed spice boxes such as these to season and exalt the amorous stew that habit has often rendered indigestible and insipid, so that even those who have renounced everything, those for whom a relative peace and a judicious diet are paramount— they must submit.