Although I have always been of a rather skeptical bent, I am a relativist about neither morality nor reality more generally. I do not deny and indeed appear to believe that there are facts in the world and that some actions really are reprehensible and wrong. Torture and the execution of suspects without trial are two examples of actions which seem to me to be obviously wrong. I also happen to find those actions to be generally ill-advised when directed toward practical purposes such as extracting potentially useful information from people or diminishing rather than fomenting future potential threats.
Setting the question of inanity to one side, and focusing solely on morality, I would go so far as to say that such actions are wrong even when they are inflicted upon guilty parties. The fundamental problem with such practices, as seems pretty clear from the long, ugly, thuggish history of tyranny, is that the willingness to torture or execute without trial a suspect is the willingness to do the same to an innocent person, since suspects are, by definition, suspected of guilt.
Now, I may of course be wrong in my moral condemnation of such practices. Perhaps there is nothing whatsoever wrong with tyranny because nothing at all is absolutely wrong, morally speaking. Perhaps morality is but a vain and chimerical notion, as Immanuel Kant worried it would be in a world devoid of God (whose existence, by the way, for the record, I neither deny nor affirm). Perhaps the torture and execution of suspects without trial are merely stupid in the way in which friendly fire is stupid. Or a war which depletes a country's coffers and sacrifices soldiers while making its people less not more secure.
Because in many if not most cases it is not clear how to adjudicate rival intuitions about a given matter, I feel that permitting John Stuart Mill's “marketplace of ideas” to flourish is, generally speaking, the best way to proceed: let people articulate their views, and through a healthy process of discourse and debate, the good ones will survive while the bad ones will fall to the wayside.
Of course one rather epistemologically humble reason for supporting the free marketplace of ideas is that we might just discover that some of our very own beliefs really are muddleheaded. Surely some of the many things which each of us believes to be true are really false. How have racism and sexism survived for so long? Probably because lots of people refuse to examine their own beliefs. As paradoxical as it may at first glance seem, this is precisely why I believe that even people who hold views which to me are wholly untenable and obviously false, and even obnoxious, should be permitted to air their views nonetheless.
Yes, I am of the considered opinion that even people who hold very offensive views should be permitted to articulate them. Such views are easy to expose for the nonsense they are, and it's much better practically speaking to know who the culprits holding such views are than to let them ferment and stew inside the person's head like a pressure cooker until one day, to everyone's surprise, they go postal and blow everyone in their office building or neighborhood away, convinced all along, as they are, of the veracity of their intuitions and what they seem to imply within the fermented folds of their mind.
When faced with counterexamples provided by others, people do sometimes modify their views. When left alone to brew, in contrast, they become more and more committed to their belief that their bilious fantasies are true.
But what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with perfume? In fact, quite a lot, it will emerge very soon.
Why Read Perfume Reviews?
I value various forms of tolerance, including freedom of speech, so it might seem that I appreciate reading other people's perfume reviews for the same reason that I enjoy listening to what they have to say—whether or not I happen to agree. It certainly is fascinating to find out what other people think, and all the more when it emerges that their way of looking at things is very different from mine.
This does not mean that I believe that every possible perspective on any possible thing is equally valid. No, some perspectives are self-contradictory and therefore incoherent and cannot describe reality as it is. When I read some perfume reviews I am immediately struck by how wrongheaded they seem. A person claims to smell aldehydes in a perfume entirely devoid of the same. Another person compares Britney Spears Circus Fantasy to Chanel no. 5. Because such people seem so obviously to be just plain wrong, one might upon reading such comments simply take note of the author's name and bear in mind that what they say must be taken with a grain of salt. Should they be forbidden from articulating their views? No, of course not.
I think that a natural response to reviews which appear to be replete with preposterous falsehoods is to conclude that the author really does not know very much about perfume. However, certain nagging cases may make it difficult to accept that the persons involved were in fact wrong in any objective sense. Those cases involve, perhaps unsurprisingly, me: my very own radical revision of a formerly stable opinion about a perfume—or so it seemed.
Lemma 1: The case of the old vial
The first time I reviewed Robert Piguet Baghari, I waxed rhapsodically about what a thick sledgehammer amber perfume it was. “It” actually became my reference amber, to which I alluded in a number of other reviews.
Later, upon receiving a fresh sample directly from the house, I discovered that Robert Piguet Baghari bore very little resemblance to the perfume which I had earlier described. How could I have missed the aldehydes in this aldehyde-rich perfume? Or all of those layers of complexity—the near antithesis of a sledgehammer amber perfume?
The answer, I deduced, was that my earlier sample, obtained from an online discount emporium, must have been quite old. The aldehydes had obviously, I inferred, evaporated away by the time I got my nose on the sample, just as vintage lovers are known to aver that the top notes “burn off” of their vintage treasures, though they love them all the same.
The Question of Vintage is of course a topic of abiding interest to me, but in this context, I am interested rather in this particular phenomenon: that the more volatile components of a perfume will evaporate faster than the denser ones, leaving behind a skewed picture of what the perfume once was. Exhibit A: my reading of Robert Piguet Baghari as a monolithic amber perfume!
Should I delete my review? But why? When I wrote it, it was true...
Lemma 2: The case of the erroneous vial
I was confounded to discover upon initially reviewing Christiane Celle Calypso Rose that, in fact, it was not a rose perfume at all! There is certainly no dearth of ridiculously misnamed perfumes, and those which claim to be amber perfumes but really are not may be the most obvious cases here to adduce. What does Nez à Nez Ambre à Sade have to do with either amber or Sade? In a word, at least to my nose: Nothing.
Why perfumers persist in naming perfumes in ways which lead directly to their condemnation as liars is a mystery to me, but they do. In fact, when it comes to oud perfumes, I no longer even expect to smell oud, having concluded on the basis of a relatively lengthy inductive series that most so-called oud perfumes are really about any- and everything but oud!
So, given this context, a perfume world where names are often very misleading to begin with, I was not astounded by my apparent discovery that Calypso Rose was not a rose perfume, and wrote it off to the perfumer's poetic license. A rose is a rose, except when it is not, and in this case, it smelled an awful lot like mimosa. But mimosa would smell as yellow and fluffy by any other name, would it not?
It turns out that my decanted vial labeled Calypso Rose actually contained Calypso Mimosa! I only came to this realization about a year later, having acquired a bottle of Calypso Rose and discovered that, lo and behold: it really was a rose perfume! In the meantime, of course, my review announcing to all that Calypso Rose was not really a rose perfume sat there, being read by people, who either believed me or thought that I was clearly mistaken. Could a person actually be so ignorant and/or olfactorily challenged as to mistake the scent of rose for that of mimosa? some no doubt wondered to themselves upon reading my review.
Should I delete my review? But why? When I wrote it, it was true...
Lemma 3: The case of the reformulated perfume
My review of Guerlain Mitsouko offers an enthusiastic endorsement of that perfume along with a proclamation that it is a genuine masterpiece. Since emptying the last divine drops of the bottle of the perfume upon which that review was based, I have discovered in three separate cases, that Mitsouko is not Mitsouko anymore. This multiply confirmed discovery would seem to invalidate my former review altogether.
If, based upon reviews such as my own, people are purchasing new bottles of Mitsouko now, after it has undergone massive reconstructive surgery akin to that to which Michael Jackson (may he rest in peace) subjected himself, then I can only say: I am sorry. I did not lie when I wrote those words, but the sad truth is that Mitsouko's rhinoplasty went way beyond the pale, too.
Should I delete my review? But why? When I wrote it, it was true...
Lemma 4: The case of the variable batch
When I first reviewed the perfumes of the house of Banana Republic, I was very pleasantly surprised by what I found. I had ordered a complete set of minis of all of their available perfumes and sniffed my way through them, penning reviews along the way. When I later acquired bottles of a couple of those perfumes, Malachite and Jade, I discovered that they smelled very, very different from the minis of the same names. What in the world had happened?
Since I bought the minis directly from the company's website, I could not believe that they were old. But I also bought the perfumes directly from the company's website. This was not a matter of failed memory, as I worried might be the case, for in a side-by-side comparison of the perfume from the mini and the perfume from the full bottle, I found that, while somewhat similar, they really were not the same.
My best guess is that a company such as Banana Republic, whose primary focus is not perfume but clothing, may simply have batch problems. They swirl the ingredients about in a giant vat, and sometimes it gets stirred completely, and sometimes it does not. Perhaps it has something to do with who happens to be working at the factory on any given day. In any case, it seems safe to say, my reviews of the perfumes from the minis refer only to the perfumes from the minis and, more specifically, the minis which happen to be in my possession.
Should I delete my reviews? But why? When I wrote them, they were true...
In this connection, it is worth mentioning the house of Caron, asserted by some to be involved in a nearly continuous process of reformulating their perfumes, which makes it very difficult to have meaningful conversations about them with other people, who in all likelihood have not even smelled the same thing. Frequent or serial reformulations have the same effect as inconsistent batch quality control, and in fact there is a sense in which batch problems can be viewed as mini, inadvertent or unintended reformulations, it seems to me!
Rather than delving more deeply here into the topics of reformulations or vintage perfumes, let us pause to take stock. What do the above four lemmas demonstrate, pray tell? The reader may well be wondering: Has sherapop actually shown that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume is True?
No, of course not. The above are merely pseudo-lemmas, critics will be quick to point out. They show nothing whatsoever about the nature of perfume, and only illustrate that there are practical problems involved in making sure that different people have access to the same perfume bearing the same name.
So is it not in fact false that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume is True?
Not so fast, my finely tuned and no doubt well-caffeinated critic. There is much more to this apparently simpleminded “proof” than meets your myopic eyes.
What the Lemmas really show...
The sharpest among my very sharp readers will have taken note that my interpretation of each of the above cases was, well, an interpretation! I reasoned to my conclusion in each case based upon the best available explanation. But all of my explanations focus on factors extrinsic to me: how the perfumes in vials and bottles were handled and produced.
All of this leaves open the possibility that there is a single creation to which the name of a given perfume, launched at a certain time in history (setting to one side for present purposes, the ever-vexing Question of Vintage), the perfume in the world about which we should all agree, if only we could figure out a way to get our noses on the very same liquid.
In reality, it seems more likely that the radical disparities in reception reflected in the reviews of a given perfume often have much more to do with factors intrinsic to the reviewers than to variations in the ways in which a given perfume was produced or handled. Or perhaps it would be safer to say that the intrinsic factors are at least as important as the extrinsic factors.
It's not just that reviewers may fall along a broad spectrum of possibilities as regards experience, extending from persons with extremely limited experience, say, of only a couple of perfumes, to those who have sniffed literally thousands of different perfumes. That is only one axis of difference.
Next we need to factor in the anosmia axis for each and every detectable component in a perfume. It is well known that a fair number of people are incapable of perceiving certain musks. Obviously, whether or not one perceives a sweaty musk component, and how (as pleasant or unpleasant), if one does, is going to have a great effect upon one's reception of a perfume containing that component.
Is it not also true that human beings are going to be distributed over a bell curve with regard to their sensitivity to any and all of the components in a perfume? Musk may be the most well-studied case, but given that people vary in sensitivities to all sorts of chemicals, take salt, for example, what reason is there for believing that this is not the case for the constituent chemicals of perfumes? None whatsoever, it seems to me.
But wait, there's more: we also attend to some but not all elements in our immediate experience at any given moment in time, depending upon not only our interests, but also whatever happens to be on our mind. This selection process is prefigured by all sorts of background information peculiar to us. Our perceptions are also colored by our expectations, which is why I have suggested in some of my reviews that perfumers would do well to name their creations metaphorically in order to deflect a priori potential criticism to the effect that the name of their perfume is misleading or mendacious. If you call your perfume Oud Something, then everyone approaches the perfume sniffing specifically for oud, and if they do not find it, then they may cry foul.
Even perfumes which are metaphorically named, however, are bound to set up certain expectations in the minds of some sniffers, based upon their own idiosyncratic experience. One person may associate the color red with love; another may think of murder and mayhem. All of these sorts of factors together conspire to make it nearly miraculous that people ever agree about anything when it comes to perfume.
I do not believe that reviewers lie, with the notable exception of shills. But I also do not believe that some of the honest reviewers are right and others are wrong. This is because the very act of interpreting perfume is similar, as odd as this may sound, to the act of reporting a state of pain: one cannot be wrong, phenomenologically speaking.
If you think that you smell roses, then you smell roses, regardless of what the perfumer may have wanted you to smell. If you feel that you are in pain, then you are in pain. It does not matter whether there is some medically documentable reason for your pain. Your pain is self affirming, just as is your reaction to a perfume.
This, then, is what I mean in boldly proclaiming that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume is True. People cannot be wrong about what they believe themselves to perceive, since that is all there is to the perception of scent. It will be intertwined with personal memories of experiences and will be colored by what one has already experienced. But if what is a scrubber to me is to you a treasure trove of olfactory delight, I do not believe that you are somehow wrong and that I am right. We are different people, and there is no reason for believing that a person inhabiting completely different skin, and who has a different history and radically different experience, should ever have the same perception of a particular perfume as does anyone else.
After having written many reviews but also having read many times that number more, I have become convinced that it is senseless to condemn reviewers as wrong in some sort of objective sense. True, some perfume reviewers' perceptions cohere, generally speaking, better with my own than do others. But that does not imply that we are right, and the others are all wrong. I have come to embrace ecumenicalism in perfume reviewing not because I am some sort of raving relativist (which I am not, see above) but because the phenomenon of perfume perception is an intrinsically subjective one.
I've encountered enough intelligent, knowledgeable, and articulate perfumistas whose opinions diverge radically from my own about individual perfumes that it makes no sense to me to say that one of us wrong, and the other is right. But our differences in opinion are not merely about vintage, reformulations, and batch problems. No, we perfumistas are different people, and by reading each others reviews, we can learn how diverse the world in which we live really is.
What say you to all of this, my fragrant friends?