Prologue: Isolation in Two Senses
On these two senses: there’s the self-imposed social-distancing I am practicing, as a member of this global community, and a sort of mental isolation. On the latter: a retreat into perfume – a real treat it is to be able to take the time to turn into oneself. And perfume furnishes this opportunity: for us to calibrate our senses, to become aware of our limitations, and to return us to a state of inward-lookingness. I cannot stress this enough, for the past few years since my departure from this medium – moving away from the frenetic mass of people, insouciant consumerism, and blind unthinking, I have limited myself to, on one hand, the task of curatorship at my workplace, which provides me with the opportunity to think for myself, exercise my tastes and then project them towards an audience of people. It is ultimately tastemaking, I admit, but because I have spent the time developing a foundation for my tastes, I do not actively feel like I am projecting anything other than an authentic vision of what good and varied perfume may be, despite it being limited in various respects (here is not the space for such a discussion).
And on the other hand, returning to an inwardness – a period of silence perhaps – has let me develop my skills. I have spent essentially two years formulating a theory of taste and aesthetic experience that, although its object of analysis is wine, applies seamlessly to perfume. I say many things – but I never tell you how to experience your pleasure. I merely tell you what sorts of pleasures you can expect. Does this project, and the completion of this project, make me even more valuable as a writer-thinker? We trust biologists to inform us about nature, we trust geometers to inform us about the spatial, … and perfume? We trust the organic chemist to inform us about perfumes, for sure, but do we turn to chemists to tell us how we are feeling our pleasures? Not strictly. That’s for you alone, but we can trust a philosopher to set down the conditions as to what makes such pleasure possible. I no doubt mimic the Kantian critical project. And this is me. I make no excuses for an excursus of this sort – it is idiosyncratically my style to do such a thing.
Olfactics is not dead – I just hit the boundaries of my thought, and in that position, I had two options. I peered over the edge, and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. In the distant and forbidden zone of the boundary I brushed up against the unanswerable question of how to justify a judgement of taste, and experienced that which cannot be captured in language – the ineffable realm of pure feeling: that which marks an exceptional experience of perfume so strongly. I could not account for these, and so I turned around and gazed at what existed from inside the boundary – and what was inside – by and large – was experience: purely descriptive. And so, I took the time to become comfortable with these limitations. Even if you search through some of my older Monthly Musings posts, from as early as 2016, you’ll notice that I had my sights set to crossing that boundary line. And because of this realisation-qua-affirmation, I have left myself alone with my thoughts. But – if I may emphasise one thing – I was onto something: categories are essential to the way we both experience, and thus judge/evaluate perfume.
And so, I hope that in writing about perfume – these snippets – it is apparent that the result of all this thinking has coalesced and is apparent in my writing.
Spice Must Flow – Etat Libre d’Orange.
Two reviewing techniques: I can speak of concepts and ideas: Frank Herbert’s Dune where the fragrance gets its name, but it’s clear that this fragrance satisfies that from first sniff – and that doesn’t make for fun reading. So, I bracket this and turn to the scent in itself, a perfume coloured a dull, dusty red, saturated with the warming hum of cinnamon, in delightful tension with cardamon, the cool upwards-moving and dynamic green spice that is evident at once. There’s the metallic pulse of saffron that offsets the composition ever so slightly, as pepper with its bodily evocations returns us to the centre. But – this is all at the behest of a powerful Turkish Rose note – its spicy, delicate, bewitching qualities rubbed with a pure and clarifying note of incense that rules over these spices. Dry, unsweetened leather makes itself apparent in the drydown. This is simple yet effective perfumery – vertically top and bottom with a pretty exchange of notes at base, reminding me of dusty, earthy ground. This is spice in wonderful paradigmatic conformity. I’ve seen this before, many times, but that’s ok.
500 Years – Etat Libre d’Orange.
I retain my stance, and in doing so I am able to prove a point: if you strip away as much concept and narrative as you can (are these contingent features? Perhaps, but I don’t want to commit to this view), you’re surprisingly left with a naked perfume. I inhale. What does this fragrance say in the absence of being spoken for already? It’s one of those feeling perfumes to me – fresh rose tumbles amongst the full and earthy-sweet note of bittersweet cocoa, enlivened with amber and saffron. This rests on a bold base of beguiling oud, fortifying the composition. I enjoy the oud here, it feels minimal, sandpapered back, simulating purity with a cool single-dimensioned simplicity: almost chemical, very alchemical, and rather sensual. Engineered as opposed to harvested, but that line is blurry anyway. That whole natural-unnatural facet is no doubt underscored with this funky fizzy, almost electric note at the very top: somewhere between pomegranate and caramel apple; a fruity apple tea perhaps – the same delectable top as L’Artisan Parfumer’s superb Traversee du Bosphore with a base like Hermessence’s antiseptic-washed Agar Ebene or Gucci Absolute Pour Homme’s pure gasoline sizzle. Perhaps it’s something violet like – and in saying that – I draw the same natural-unnatural connection to Frederic Malle’s Dans Tes Bras and Dior’s Fahrenheit. This whole effect escapes me – I always reference other perfumes when the feature escapes my grasp. Nonetheless, I enjoy this complex, and the exchange between something that should at once disgust me (its pongy aspects) but also enchant me (its mature fruity sweetness and sensual addition of cocoa) makes for a work in tense contrast. What an enjoyable mess that somehow works in combination.
Experimentum Crucis – Etat Libre d’Orange.
I embrace the narrative. This chypre fragrance is precisely cut like glass. Its champion note is a technicolour rose, in rainbows: spiced, fleshy, honied, fruity, musky, as if the rose itself were shot through a prism, dispersing and scattering the rose into its many singular qualities. Up top, there’s a tart and sour note of green apple, infused with the exotic fruity character of lychee to impart a sense of realism (it makes the apple more apple-like). Cumin is a big thing here, a massive thing, really, and pairs nicely against the fruit notes. And then there’s this watercolour feature in the middle, somehow watery yet full; dense yet translucent. I am pointed towards ‘Akigalawood’, a fusion of patchouli bolstered with pepper and oud facets. I enjoy what this fragrance does. I enjoy how officious the cumin is, and how it merges seamlessly into the overall Chypric structure of the scent – perhaps the fruity Chypre of Yvresse (in its modern iteration) is invoked here? That is, a power it can barely contain. Big stuff. Modern Chypre works are always great things to study, for in a Chypre, it’s about texture and arrangement as much as it is about the individual notes.