Monthly Musings: How to Smell – The Polygonal Approach, April 2017

Allow me to begin with an apology, for excuses are less tenable – I have had little time to draft anything scent related. The weather has changed quite drastically here in Melbourne. It is cold. And I am enjoying the cyclical process of rediscovery.

Rediscovery as a wearer is one of the most rewarding aspects of the perfume experience. For it is like discovering variations of a theme. But for a reviewer, it is considerably concerning, and I shall explain further through an example.

From day one I have always been so focused with Une Fleur de Cassie, looking into it with a reviewer’s intensity. It is, like each and every scent out there, scrutable. And because of this scrutability, this reviewer’s intensity features an equally intense degree of clarity.

But what do I mean by clarity? Firstly – fragrances can be reduced to a complex network of notes and accords arranged in a particular way. This clarifying gaze attempts to identify and analyse each segment atomistically, and also analyse how these segments relate to each other to form a whole unit, to which we call perfume.

And so, if I had previously critiqued a scent and revisit it only to find my opinion has changed, I question if it is because I am viewing the scent with heightened clarity, which, if so, would be a massive fault in objectivity. For I must aim for sustained maximal clarity at all times to retain a high degree of objectivity.

Or, perhaps I am now viewing the scent (the scent itself remains unchanged and constant – that goes without saying) in a new way. If this is so, then I am averting all objective crisis by admitting that I am able to draw out the same perceptions of the scent as it was when I initially reviewed it. What has then changed?

Untitled, Stanley Donwood (for Radiohead’s Kid A)

Back to Une Fleur de Cassie. On the first approach, I had not reached a high degree of clarity and was not comfortable reviewing it. This, in my experience, is how most newly discovered fragrances are explored – in which the fragrance isn’t quite deconstructable or scrutable. What does this experience feel like? It is one part intellectual burn and a larger part drowned hopelessness. Your view of the scent’s network hasn’t totally uncovered itself: it is lacking connections, or more generously, they are emerging. The absolute limit of a fragrance’s boundaries and depths have yet to be discovered. It is like placing a cutout filter riddled with holes over a composition, a rudimentary and rather crude impression is achieved, but it isn’t quite enough.

Reaching a sufficient stage of scrutability can be done in multiple ways, all effective and beneficial in one way or another. It is expected that access to the scent on skin in achievable, but I am keen to assert that it is not a necessity. I have described this polygonal process in lesser detail in past posts. The non-exhaustive list is as follows:

  1. Reading note lists.
  2. Reading other discourse(s) (blog posts, Fragrantica, Basenotes…etc).
  3. Smelling single notes and raw materials to be used as a comparison.
  4. Compare extractions of the same ingredient.
  5. Smelling fragrances by the same perfumer or company.
  6. Smelling stylistically similar fragrances.
  7. Smelling categorically similar scents.
  8. Talking to the perfumer(s) or company.
  9. Smell the world.

 Old Woman Cooking Eggs, Valázquez (1618)

In doing any of these processes, the enigmatic nature of a scent weakens. Une Fleur de Cassie, to the fragrant-uninitiated is a strange and unusual thing. To the Australian it may smell reminiscent of our yellow native flowers. To those familiar with mimosa, that too would ping in the mind straight away. To those familiar with the heady yet full richness of Dior’s Poison, that too would ping after some revisiting and consideration. To those familiar with the texture of Guerlain’s Jicky in parfum concentration, they would recognise Jicky’s flat saturation present in Cassie, and deduce it to be the shared combination of sandalwood, vanilla, and musks. To those with an experience of fish tanks and the murky green scum that builds, Cassie bears the mildest, yet oddly the most pleasant suggestion of that. For those familiar with the fatty richness of Lanvin’s soft floral Arpege, they would find such a suggestion in Cassie. Anyone familiar with Ropion’s rich longform style (Amariage, Ysatis) will find such qualities here. For those who enjoy peanut butter for its quality of being persistent on the palate, oily but never dry, this may be a stretch, but one can find such a quality in Cassie.

Some of these connections are reached more generally and easily than others. Others are indeed a stretch (peanut butter), but they cannot be diminished. After all of this, the full frame of the network is graspable and highly effable. In some instances, a scent is more easily read from the first sniff. Return to the polygonal approach: a well-explored quality draws out connections much more easily with an impressive rapidity. The more you know, the easier it is for you to know. The metaphorical cutout filter has more and more holes and is this more and more revealing at first glance. This hopefully provides some background as to how and why some scents are more immediately grasped than others.

By no means does it follow that you now begin to ‘like’ the scent, or that being polygonal means you are more prone to enjoy it more than you had. This is a possibility if the scent really and truly is something new and actually enjoyable. But, being polygonal reveals banality in a way no other method can, it enables one to smell a good quality essential oil from a bad one, and it highlights more and more nuanced faults. But, by the same token, being polygonal reveals ingenuity and novelty, it lets good ingredients sing and strobe, and it highlights exciting and clever accords (tobacco, myrrh, vetiver, violet in Sycomore; rose, chamomile/immortelle, patchouli in Le Mat). These judgments come down to a reviewer’s good taste. We trust my earlier monthly musings to cover some of those question (here).

Poppy Flowers, Vincent van Gogh (1887)

This means that if computers reached a level of sufficient sophistication to then have high-powered olfactory sensors and a catalogue-like knowledge of all there is to scent, we are building a machine expert in superlatively clear deconstruction.

This is not enough to have this very machine write perfume reviews that would be as adequately thirst quenching as one written by an adept human with an above average sense of smell and a knowledge of the differences between Arpege and No.5, violet to roses, and Bernard Chant to Jacques Cavallier. Or, am I wrong in saying this? I admire adherence to principles, and such a machine can identify these principles in its analysis – it just needs to be given the right standards in its knowledge bank.

What of balance, length, … all of those abstract properties? It would be quite the jump to suggest that they are strictly non-physical properties, and with enough vigour we can explain these using materialistic explanations. So if everything to perfume is entirely physical, what can I do that the machine cannot? This question riddles philosophy. A machine will never enjoy the dizzying splendor and vivacity of Tauer’s Incense Rose in the same way I do, for I experience the scent as something emotional – and emotion has causal consequences. The machine is cold – it says ‘x’ of ‘y’ because it has been programmed to indicate that ‘y’ will link to ‘x’. I say ‘x’ is ‘y’ because of some lived, conscious experience, memory, or emotion does so. And that is what fuels this writing: the balanced combination of hard deconstruction and an emotional experience that is as compelling as it is reasoned.

Note: We have my philosophy course to blame for these thoughts this month. I particularly love the challenge of elucidating what it means to intake something sensuous and to then describe it into digestible fragments of knowledge. It is an area of thought that merges so well with critical thinking. 

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