Monthly Musings: Advice for the Young at Heart, May 2017

This month I will be expounding (in a quick flurry) a number of ideas I’ve had fermenting away in my head these few months.

Appeals to Authority. Is there any good reason to accept the judgments and musings of a brilliant scent-scientist over the everyday bystander who wears a dribble of Paloma Picasso every now and then? What exactly demarcates the expert from the accidental enthusiast? One may say that because the scent-scientist spends his waking hours working tirelessly on all that is olfactic that he or she may have an authority over others. I am particularly dubious towards this claim.

Perfume is tricky, because the experience of a scent is seen as ineffable and internally privileged. I have had strong, patriotic objectors to my view which holds that there is some sort of objective reality that is graspable. These objectors hastily sharpen their long and pointy sticks and urge that the subjective has primacy! Hastily indeed – for I do not think that objectivity necessarily shrouds subjectivity, and vice-versa.

If the raw conscious experience of a scent is internally privileged and its exactness cannot be described, then there is no reason to take a scent-scientist’s view over the bystander’s. Following its natural conclusion, this means that the average piece of marketing fluff is equally meaningful compared to, say, my philosophical-bend for rigorousness or Luca Turin’s biophysical familiarity. How can we then afford to give so-called experts primacy and value of perspective? Who should be given value?

This question demands a realistic framework – one may never escape this subjective experience maze, and so we work based on rigorous assumptions. Hook, line, and sinker – we have my polygonal approach, which is successfully and painfully rigorous without tarnishing any subjective values. The polygonal approach relies on an effective and high-powered level of comparison. Comparison creates systemised and workable categories that allow strong claims to be made – which is exactly what experts do.

Source Unknown

Narrative. Perfume is unavoidably narrative driven. This cannot be denied. Because fragrances are constructed at a point in time and space, and they continue to exist in time and space, context is imposed upon it. And because this context is inseparable from each and every fragrance, there is a meaning that can be teased out.

And so the next time some meaning denier gets in your face, argue for context.

From Good to Better. Guerlain’s vetivers – Vetiver and Vetiver Extreme – bring about this slightly romantic memory. When I created this blog on the 14th of June, 2014, I had worked late into the next morning to then publish my first blog post. It didn’t end there, for I spent a few good hours on the lovely Fragrantica.

This begins the explanation for this post’s title – directed to those who have just sunk their teeth into fragrance smelling, buying, collecting, and/or blogging.

Spending hours on Fragrantica as a newbie cycling through the “People Who Like This Also Like” section on the left-hand side, hovering the mouse over the notes to reveal what it is (ah, so that’s what vetiver looks like…), and the “This perfume reminds me of” section at the bottom was without a doubt one of the most exciting processes I encountered in becoming familiar with scent. Familiarity kills excitement, and I envy the enthusiast who is discovering Fragrantica – making long lists of what fragrances to smell at their next visit to the department stores, and shifting their eyes all over the web page learning about all those pretty bottles! To those new to scent, enjoy the ignorance and the learning. An incomparable energy is produced from a novelty of experience.

Vetiver and Vetiver Extreme come to my mind as Vetiver was placed right at the very top of my list after navigating Fragrantica. That evening I sprayed Vetiver Extreme and was shocked by its intense smoky grassy push. I was literally sickened, rendered dizzy by its intensity. Fragrantica can only tell you so much.

The Seeds of Love, Tears for Fears (1989)

Static / Fuzz. Reflecting on my Vetiver experience, I recall an unfamiliarity with notes and style that I found to be rather inhibitive in experiencing and enjoying the scent in question. The best analogy is of fuzz and static – if the entire intake of a fragrance were a measurable quantity, then a majority of it would be covered in fuzz, clear only with familiar notes and general concepts. Smelling Vetiver, I had no clear conception of its quality of nutmeg, or civet, or coriander seed – but I had a clear(er) conception of the general idea of grassy earthiness, the bright lemon top note (for lemon is ubiquitous), and the hum of tobacco (I was at that point a diehard woody oriental fan).

Back to the Polygonal Approach, it is through continued experiences of unique raw sensations and intelligent comparison that the fuzz diminishes. This allows identification and deconstruction of notes, styles, and accords to be performed with a relative ease, and links between scents to be made with an impressive rapidity. A general marker of experts.

Logic. More thoughts from my Vetiver experience. There is a school of thought with a unique view of the world: How many entities are in the set {a, b, c}? Not 3, but 7 {a, b, c, ab, ac, bc, abc}, … or 8 if you count a null value {0}.

Knowing that some schools of thought hold that the combination of entities are sufficient enough to be considered as their own entity made me think about notes in perfumery.

My point is this. You may love {a, b, c}, but loathe {abc}. I love vetiver {a}! I love tobacco {b}! I love lemon {c}! Yet I loathe Guerlain’s Vetiver {abc}. Note lists are not always adequate when trying to ‘visualise’ compositions, and so we rely on good writing and the raw experience of smell itself. Also, internal logic is not just each and every note considered individually, but also each and every note considered as a collected whole.

It is not so farfetched to suggest that when notes are arranged and fixed in a certain way, an emergent property arises. It is the combination of notes in Guerlain’s Vetiver that gives me trouble.

Functional Attitude. Because these posts generally have a stream of consciousness feel about them, I am going to elucidate a radical thought I have about notes.

I think there is a permissible degree of abstraction when it comes to notes and categories. Consider me a role functionalist, meaning that if something achieves what it is meant to achieve, and function the way it is functionally intended, then it is acceptable (consider: a chair can be a box, a couch, or a bench). As I have said in an upcoming blog post, if lemon can give me a comparable dark woody purr of ebony wood, then consider lemon a wood note!

This calls for an abstraction of general families and note categories. Chypre, Fougere, Oriental, Floral, Citrus, Animalic… it doesn’t matter what it is or where it comes from, as long as I get what is demanded of it.

Quality. This invites me to argue that sometimes the quality of a raw ingredient is not important under this framework. If a low-grade extraction of lemon essential oil is done in my basement and still gives me what I functionally want, then to hell with Sicilian and Amalfi lemons!

But, reason (always) prevails. If considerably more expensive extracts of the same note give a new degree of functionality, perhaps an expressive radiance or can give the same feeling of naturalistic serenity as listening to Debussy’s Reflets Dans l’Eau, then the note is adequately distinguished and unique from basement lemons.

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873 – Claude Monet

Serious. And finally, a question that has plagued me for a few days now. What does it mean to be serious about scent? I think I’m pretty serious. But what do I do? It doesn’t matter. What I think is this: To be serious about anything, scent included, is to adhere to your position, and defend that position through cogent justification; furthermore, it is to strive for improvement in a way that is applicable and appropriate to your chosen field, producing insight. In that way we have serious oyster eaters (for they always search for the perfect oyster), serious identity theorists about the mind and brain (zealous!), and one serious fragrance blogger – typing away on his ergonomic keyboard and putting his metaphysics paper aside for one more evening, better spent with his readers.

2 thoughts on “Monthly Musings: Advice for the Young at Heart, May 2017

  1. The heart wants what the heart wants – art, wine, food, music, fragrance – there are too many variables in the composition of what makes one choice great for me, and the same choice unremarkable to someone else. As much as I want to “fit in” to the world of fragrance, I know what I like. And as much as I attempt to refine my palette or nose to be seen as worthy of inclusion, I have to wear what I love, not what the “experts” deem to be perfection. After all, if we all wanted the same thing in all areas of beauty, life would become very bland indeed. And really, do we take perfection and beauty too seriously? These are the joys of life and should be enjoyed with a certain amount of tolerance and humour.

  2. I agree with Monica. It’s about personal preference ultimately, but reading what experts such as yourself has to say helps one articulate and better understand that reference, perhaps with a nod in the direction of finding even greater olfactory bliss in the future.

    Your comment “An incomparable energy is produced from a novelty of experience” is more powerful than mere words can describe, and likely emerges from the ideas forming around the metaphysics paper you are dodging! Keep up the good work.

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