I am often surprised by the strong emotions expressed by perfumistas in response to what they take to be unjust criticism. I have seen this in reviews of perfumes, remarks about houses, and—to my great surprise—even the criticism of books of perfume criticism! People are sometimes very touchy about negative criticism, and they seem to take it personally when someone comes along with a decidedly negative opinion about an object of their esteem.
I am struck by the tenor of offense taken above all in the arena of perfume, because I do not see such offense being taken in other, possibly analogous, realms. Take the case of food. I love anchovies, black licorice, eggplant, and okra, but lots of people hate all four, and some people I know hate some but love others of the items in that list. My favorite sparkling mineral water is Gerolsteiner, but a friend of mine hates it for what he regards as its metallic quality. Our difference in opinions in these cases is not a cause for any sort of strife or contention whatsoever, and I don't think that the people whom I happen to know are exceptional in this regard. People seem more often than not to have no difficulty whatsoever in disagreeing about such things.
No one gets all bent out of shape because someone else hates a food item which they love. Yes, there is a problem if someone attempts to force feed such a food to someone who hates it, but how often does that happen in reality? No, instead of inciting riots or waging wars over such matters of taste, people tend to treat the issue in the manner of adults, aware that personal preferences are determined by all sorts of contingent historical and probably biological factors which together make it seem absurd to say that one of the two people who disagree about, say, the value of anchovies, is somehow wrong, deficient, benighted, stupid, or worse: devoid of taste.
Now there are food items which self-styled epicureans or “foodies” (a.k.a. snobs) may shun, and we may secretly harbor negative attitudes toward those who consume Cool Whip, fried pork rinds, Velveeta, Little Debbies, and any number of other low-brow foods which strike us as inedible, if not revolting. But we generally keep these matters to ourselves. Who really cares, in the end, what other people eat?
Okay, it's true: I should perhaps confess that in line at the grocery store I myself do often marvel at the items in other people's carts. As they pile up on the conveyor belt box after box, after can after can, after bottle after bottle of “stuff” which I wouldn't consume if I were paid to do so, I realize, once again, how people really differ quite a lot when it comes to what they are willing and like to ingest. And it's not a matter of price, it seems, either. Some of the items which I see in other people's carts actually cost quite a lot of money, relative to the sorts of foods I typically buy. In the end, whatever the reason may be, we value different things. Our preferences diverge rather radically, but the tally of our grocery bill may end up being pretty much the same.
In the world of perfume, I see the same vast range of preferences, but, for some reason, people bristle at the condemnation of perfumes which they love, and they scoff when they learn of people who love perfumes which they hate. In an incredibly rich discussion of The Question of Niche, a number of savvy perfumista interlocutors weighed in on the nature of niche perfume and whether niche is really better than mass-market perfume, as some seem convinced is true.
While some enlightened perfumistas are able to transcend such categories and labels altogether to assess each perfume as an entity in and of itself, others remain attached the idea that niche is somehow better than non-niche perfume, even in the face of counterexamples of great perfumes available at discount emporia for a fraction of the price of many niche or luxury perfumes. What accounts for the fact that, in the area of food, people are much less easily frazzled about disagreements in evaluation than when it comes to perfume?
To offer another example, I fondly recall having met a fellow in Trinidad (he was driving a tour bus in which I was riding) who told me that his favorite food in the entire world was Spam. He was fully prepared to pay a great deal of money and make an extraordinary effort to buy Spam because he loved it so much. I found this pronouncement somewhat curious—and do not actually recall the context of the conversation in which this topic arose—but I found it rather endearing that this fellow should have a such passion for that foodstuff, despite the fact that I myself find it beneath contempt. To him, it was manna from heaven; to me, just pig parts in a blender. I believe that I even made a negative remark about the product, to which he chuckled in response. No offense taken: he knew that some people hate the stuff, but he had no problem with that. It wasn't that he thought that we Spam haters were somehow wrong. No, he simply did not care. As far as he was concerned, people like me made it the case that there was more Spam left in the universe for him to consume!
What I've observed in the case of perfume, in contrast, is that people tend to get very emotional about differences in opinion. Negative reviews are often scathing, and in some cases I'd say they verge on puerility, with the reviewer fuming in the manner of a toddler whose toy has been taken away. Some people act as though the very existence of a perfume which they abhor is some sort of crime against humanity. On the other hand, when someone condemns in the most excoriating of terms perfumes which they love, people may become equally worked up. They react as though they have been personally attacked when they read the insults bellowed out by those who hate their beloved perfumes.
Now, one reason for the distinction in the realm of perfume versus the realm of food could simply be that perfume is capable of occupying a public space and thus inflicting itself upon all those who happen to be situated in the environs of the wearer. Like second-hand smoke, unwanted perfume may well induce discomfort and anger in those who have been subjected to it against their will. Indeed, the entire story of the anti-perfume backlash of the 1990s can be explained as a reaction to this public aspect of perfume, with the self-appointed perfume police stepping in with interventionist measures designed to tutor wearers of Poison and other notorious—or legendary, as you like—perfumes to cease and desist from their anti-social behavior patterns.
I do not believe that this is only a perceived public health issue, however. My distinct impression is that people think that there is a truth about perfumes such that being wrong about them is a failure on the part of the perfumista who likes what “some say” no one should like, or who hates what “some say” is worthy of praise.
On reflection, I have often wondered whether in many of these cases we are not simply talking about different things altogether, and this is where the idea of the Tower of Babel arises in the world of perfume, it seems to me. I honestly suspect that in many cases we may simply be talking past each other when we discuss perfumes, because either the words we are using mean completely different things, or else the objects to which our words appear to refer are really quite different.
All of this sounds quite abstract, I realize, so let me offer as Exhibit A: État Libre d'Orange Sécrétions Magnifiques. My first and only experience of this perfume was during a mystery vial trial, where some evil perfumista had slipped Sécrétions Magnifiques in among the selections which I was to weigh in on without knowledge of any of the perfumes' identities, provenance, or cost. I am sorry to have to report that my sniffing of Sécrétions Magnifiques actually made me so sick that I developed a Pavlovian aversion to mystery vials and found myself unable to finish the rest of the trial.
To this day, I think of the composition of Sécrétions Magnifiques as a facsimile of a serial killer's crime scene. Clearly there is at least some sort of correspondence between my experience of this perfume and the creators' intention, judging from the image which they chose to adorn the bottle. They obviously created it explicitly to have a semen-like aspect to it, which some among us find quite repulsive, to put it mildly.
Others, of course, have raved ad nauseam about how brilliant and masterful this creation is. Turin and Sanchez rank Sécrétions Magnifiques among the top 100 “classic” perfumes. They apparently acknowledge in their recently published slim compilation of their 96 five-star reviews from Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (of which twelve have apparently been “updated”) that their list does not really pick out the 100 best perfumes of all time, but only the best which they happened to have sniffed.
In any case, my question is simply this: if we read Turin's review of Sécrétions Magnifiques and the positive reviews of others who praise this perfume, are they describing what they smell as a “serial killer's crime scene”? The answer, as far as I have seen, is: No.
In other words, the Tower of Babel problem in this case is not that some people are reviewing perfumes as artworks and others are assessing their wearability (It seems to me that, in their first book, Turin and Sanchez cannot make up their mind which they are trying to do, but that's another story). It's not the case that the people who hate Sécrétions Magnifiques are concerned with the homely hoi polloi criterion of wearability, whereas those who hail it as a masterpiece are judging it in the hoity-toity terms of lofty art criticism.
No, the reality is that the people who praise Sécrétions Magnifiques appear to be the very same people who perceive it as a floral aquatic perfume, along with perhaps some metallic qualities. They do not “get” the blood, the semen, and the murder implement aspects of this composition at all. It seems quite likely, then, that those of us who hate Sécrétions Magnifiques actually smell something entirely different from those who do not. In other words, the radical difference in opinion stems from the fact that some people who sniff this perfume are anosmic or hyposmic to precisely those components of the composition which make others among us sick.
This case raises the question, then, whether those who laud Sécrétions Magnifiques or those who loathe it are right or wrong. In thinking about this question, it occurred to me that there are possible analogies in other realms. People who are incapable of perceiving color do not make good art critics, and people who are hard of hearing do not make good music critics. What about perfume critics? Should they smell everything or only an average amount of everything?
Olfactory acuteness for each and every component of perfume would seem, as is every other trait of human beings, to be distributed over a bell curve. Are those of us who smell what those who praise Sécrétions Magnifiques as a masterpiece do not smell situated at the extreme tail of the bell curve? Are we the ones, then, who should recuse ourselves from reviewing perfumes in which those components figure?
Are some of us simply too sensitive, and so are we wrong in thinking that the perfume is repulsive—similar to the manner in which people who think that they “hear voices” are wrong? Sure, such people may be more sensitive—hypersensitive, in fact—to environmental stimuli, but in reality they are not the people to whom we turn in deciding what exists and what does not. Are we who dislike Sécrétions Magnifiques intensely, then, somehow “sick” for smelling too much? Should we figure out a way to “dial down” our olfactory acuteness?
It seems to me that it doesn't make a lot of sense, in the end, to say that one or the other group is right and the other is wrong. The fact is that we are different. Just as the factors which conspire to give individual people their unique scent affect how perfume will smell on their skin (see The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth, for more on this...), so, too, do variable factors determine to some extent what we smell.
The best perfume critics may not be those who are hyperosmic, even if it is true that they detect more than the average person does. On the other hand, those who are hyposmic, too, will have their own unique take on a perfume such as Sécrétions Magnifiques. In the end, a reviewer's opinions reveal one and one thing alone: what that particular person perceives in smelling a given perfume. Nothing follows from that evaluation for any other person because they may or may not be relevantly similar to the reviewer.
I should perhaps opine here that, in the case of Sécrétions Magnifiques, I strongly suspect that the composition itself, sniffed alone in a blind testing, without knowledge of the bottle design, its provenance, and the fact that it was launched by a “daring” niche house, would nary garner the attention that this perfume has. Let's face it: the whole production has a vaguely adolescent facet to it. An ejaculating penis? Ooooh!!! Wow!! Cool!!! I can imagine teenagers flush with hormones exclaiming with glee. To be perfectly frank (quoi d'autre?), I would be very, very surprised, if the folks at ELdO were not snickering all the way to the bank at the success of this heist.
Am I merely picking on Turin and Sanchez (again?! groan the groupies, whose duct tape is magically dissolved by this site...)? No. I base this conjecture on the content of the non-negative reviews of Sécrétions Magnifiques. Read the reviews closely, and you will discover that the people who do not hate this composition describe it in innocuous terms. Since when was a masterpiece of perfumery so banal? I ask most sincerely. It seems equally obvious that some of the people who praise this perfume are simply parroting the self-appointed prophets of perfume. If “the experts” say that something is a masterpiece, then we should agree, should we not?
The Tower of Babel arises in comparing perfume reviews in the first instance because different people appear truly to be smelling different things. Despite the fact that a perfume may have been drawn from the very same vat, some sniffers will find different components of the perfume salient than will others. The upshot of all of this is that the most which we can learn from reading other reviewers' assessments is that there exist people who perceive it in that way. They are neither right nor wrong, and their opinions should be taken into consideration when it seems that a perfume which we are considering wearing actually makes other people physically ill. But within the privacy of our own homes, anything goes, so go right ahead, it's all the same to me: eat Twinkies, drink Koolaid, and wear Sécrétions Magnifiques!