Monday, December 19, 2011

Perfumes, Persons, and Poems: A Triangular Investigation


While reflecting upon reformulation and my futile attempts to come to terms with some recent disappointments, I eventually wound up concluding that, although some of our favorite perfumes will continue to disappear due to forces entirely beyond our control, we can rest assured that new ones will be born. In reasoning thus, I appear to have been trying (vainly) to derive solace from the oft-invoked refrain of folk wisdom according to which sometimes the best course of action is to “let bygones be bygones,” to simply pick up the pieces and move on. Suddenly it dawned on me: I was thinking of perfumes as persons, in two distinct ways!

(2) Several years ago, when asked to give an oral presentation in a French Poetry class, I offered up a little theory of sorts, “Un parfum est un poème,” which probably left some people in the room wondering whether I might have a screw loose. But the more I have reflected upon this thesis, the more I have come to believe in it. The similarities which I presented to my classmates and professor were largely structural, but the deeper one delves into the nature of poems and the nature of perfumes, the more overlaps one discovers...

Is it possible to reconcile these two apparently preposterous and seemingly incompatible beliefs, that perfumes are persons, and that perfumes are poems? I am sure that every intellectually curious reader—and, above all, those of Parmenidean persuasion—will readily aver that is high time that someone in this universe undertook to investigate the tripartite ontology of Perfumes, Persons, and Poems. Fortunately, sherapop has arrived on the scene to get the ball rolling...

Proof of (Perfumes = Poems)
Looking back at my rather modest and very inchoate “theory” of perfumic and poetic identity, I must say that today (a decade later—gasp!) I find it rather quaint (a word which I hesitate to use in the wake of Alberto Gonzales's notorious dismissal of the Geneva conventions through the use of the same, but it really is the best choice in this case, as the reader will shortly see). The subtitle of my presentation, “A perfume is a poem” was “What we can learn about poetry from perfumery?

Although I had initially planned to post my little “theory” directly translated and unedited, I decided instead simply to concede without protest that what I really came up with was a list of platitudes. This frank admission is obviously intended to preempt criticisms to the effect that “This is not a theory!” so I'll just go right ahead and admit that too! Hopefully, as a felicitous consequence of this selfless expression of abject humility, we'll be able to move swiftly to more substantive and edifying discussions rather than squandering our precious time quibbling over the proper use of the word 'theory'.

In what follows, I offer two sets of platitudes: one about perfumes; the other about poems. Bear in mind that the basic idea here is that the word 'poem' can be read in the place of the word 'perfume', and vice versa, throughout the text (mutatis mutandis)—thus establishing the identity of the two!

Ten Platitudes about Perfumes

1. Perfumes can be bad in many different ways and for a variety of different reasons.
—Everything must be just right for a perfume to be great.
—Even a small flaw can prevent a perfume from being good and can even make it bad.

2. Perfumes can be complex or simple.

3. Complex perfumes have distinct parts (stages).

4. Each part of a complex perfume can be simple or complex.

5. Great perfumes have structural coherence (although that is not sufficient—see #7).

6. The form of a perfume (simple or complex) does not determine its quality.

—Some simple perfumes are very good; some complex perfumes are very bad.
—Some simple perfumes are very bad; some complex perfumes are very good.

7. Great perfumes comprise quality components (although that is not sufficient—see #5). —Some brilliantly composed perfumes are disasters because of poor-quality components. —Incoherently composed perfumes are disasters even if they cost a fortune to produce because of their high-quality and sometimes rare components.

8. A huge amount of knowledge must be acquired before even having a chance at creating a good perfume. But knowledge alone is not sufficient.

9. It would probably be impossible to produce a great perfume as a first trial.

—Great perfumes must be edited and re-edited, revisited and tweaked over a period which may span a number of years.

10. Perfumes can be over-edited (reformulated) to the point where the beauty of the original is completely destroyed.

Ten Platitudes about Poems (continuing the sequence of numbers, to avoid confusion)

11. Great poems are not composed by committee (counterexamples are most welcome!!!)

—Committees create marketing jingles, not poems deserving of our critical attention.

12. All poems are multiply interpretable.

13. Even seasoned critics can disagree vehemently about the meaning of a poem.

14. Critics may also disagree with the author about the meaning of a poem.

—Socrates once observed that if you want to understand the meaning of a poem, don't ask the poet to explain it to you.
—To commit the “Intentional Fallacy” is to erroneously constrain or determine the interpretation of a text by appeal to the author's professed (or inferred) intentions.

15. Although anyone is at liberty to call a text a “poem”, critics tend to focus on a small subset of the many texts claimed to be poems, the ones rich enough to be susceptible of complex and subtle interpretation.

16. Interpretations of poems can be good (insightful) or bad (shallow).

—“This sucks” is not a fruitful interpretation of a poem—which is not to deny, however, that it might be true.
—“This sucks” is no more and no less than a negative emotive response which conveys only the reader's disapproval, with no indication of why.

17. Some people hate all poems and even the very idea of poetry.

—They obviously are not good critics of the genre and tend to avoid poetry altogether.

18. The fact that millions of people may have incorporated a “poetic” text (often rhyming) into their psyche through massive exposure (AM radio, etc.) does not mean that the text is good.

19. The beauty of a poem may lie in the mind of a reader, but that does not mean that there is no such thing as doggerel!

20. Great poems are not composed by computer program.

—Even the best vocabulary, and complete knowledge of every innovation of the entire history of poetry would not suffice to produce a great poem.
—The missing ingredient in such as a case would always be:


****************end of proof****************


Now, if it is true, as I maintain, that perfumes are poems, then all of the above platitudes about poems should apply equally well to perfumes, and all of the above platitudes about perfumes should apply equally well to poems (mutatis mutandis). In other words, according to me, I have now presented Twenty Platitudes about Perfumes and Poems. Are all of these statements true of both poems and perfumes? If not, where are the disparities between the two cases? To refute any of my claims, it will suffice to produce a single counterexample. I anxiously await your contributions to this debate, which has lain fallow for far too long in a quasi-solipsistic state, O fellow fragrance travelers!

Above, I boldly asserted the identity of perfumes and poems, offering twenty platitudes which I claimed to be true of both perfumes and poems. I was thinking along the lines of Leibniz' Law, according to which, in this case, if everything true about poems is true of perfumes, and everything true about perfumes is true of poems, then this should establish their identity! I invited counterexamples to my “platitudes” (which were premises in the “argument” I advanced), and discovered that the most contentious claim I had made was #11:

Great poems are not composed by committee.

However, astute fellow fragrance travelers stepped forward to reject not only the claim that great perfumes cannot be composed by committee, but also that great poems cannot be composed by committee. It appeared, therefore, that I was still on safe ground, and my proof remained unscathed. All that I really needed to do was to delete that “platitude,” which had turned out to be so far from being platitudinous that it was actually false of both poems and perfumes!

A less humble (or epistemologically exigent...) soul might at this point smugly proclaim victory in demonstrating once and for all that, in fact, perfumes really are poems, with all that that implies. Alas, over the course of the past month, the wheels have been whirring ever faster, and the more I think about this question, the more dubious the identity is seeming to me. Sure, there were nineteen identity platitudes, but that was only a tiny fraction of the infinitely many other possible statements yet to be examined!

In what follows, I offer a list of ten Counter-conjectures, which I am not supposing are true but certainly suspecting might be:

Ten Counter-conjectures about Perfumes and Poems

CC1: Perfumes are ingestible and therefore exhaustible. Poems are neither. TRUE or FALSE?

CC2: Poems are archivable, even across hundreds or thousands of years. Perfumes, in contrast, are not archivable, and they are relatively ephemeral, at least compared to the poet's art. TRUE or FALSE?

CC3: Most poets are unknown, but if they become renowned even posthumously, they may achieve immortality. (Emily Dickinson is one example.) Most perfumers, even those today who are world famous, will never achieve immortality because of the ephemeral and nonarchivable nature of their work, which makes it impossible for their creations to perdure and to be appreciated by more than a few generations. TRUE or FALSE?

CC4: Everyone is potentially a poet, even if only a mediocre one (poetaster), because everyone uses language. Not everyone is a perfumer. TRUE or FALSE?

CC5: Most perfumers earn their livelihood from creating perfumes. Most poets do not. TRUE or FALSE?

CC6: Perfumers often become perfumers by family lineage (Creed, Guerlain, et al.). Poets are not usually the children of poets. TRUE or FALSE?

CC7: Most perfumers work for other people/companies and therefore are constrained by their values (or the company's “guidelines”). When a perfumer begins to create solely for the promise of wealth, then he has become a hack. Most poets do not work for other people, but there is no real analogue to an industry hack in the case of poetry. TRUE or FALSE?

CC8: Reviews of poems nearly never make explicit reference to details of the reader's historical circumstances (though interpretations are certainly influenced by them....). Reviews of perfumes often make explicit references to the wearer's subjective experience and associations. TRUE or FALSE?

CC9: Faced with an unpleasant poem, one can simply close the book. Faced with an unpleasant perfume, one must either leave the room, take a bath, or ask the offending party (if nonidentical to the offended party...) to leave the room. TRUE or FALSE?

CC10: Poetry criticism is a form of art criticism. Because we physical ingest perfumes (through our cells), perfume criticism is closer to food and wine criticism. TRUE or FALSE?

Now it is left to you, O Fellow Fragrance Travelers, to set me straight once again: Are these conjectures in fact true? Or are they merely the conjurings of an overcaffeinated mind? Have I myself “succeeded” in undermining my very own quest to prove the equivalence of poems and perfumes by unraveling all of the progress I made to this point in proving my identity claim? Any light which you may be able to shed on these never-more pressing questions will be met with abundant gratitude!!!

(written in October and November 2011)

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