Monday, March 26, 2012

Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume Is True 2: Heraclitus and Hume

Are there objective truths, and is there knowledge about perfume?

Or are we trapped in the realm of opinion and belief because of, first, the nature of perfume and, second, the nature of persons?

These questions have been pressing more urgently upon my mind as a result of two recent comments at the salon by philosophers Heraclitus and David Hume, penned under the pseudonyms GypsyParfumista and GypsyQueenMother. In effect, these two astute salonistas furnished a couple of key missing lemmas to my argument that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume Is True.

The original lemmas, to review, were:

Lemma 1: The case of the old vial (Robert Piguet Baghari sampled twice with very different results best explained by the age of the samples).

Lemma 2: The case of the erroneous vial (Christiane Celle Calypso Mimosa mistaken for Calypso Rose due to a decanting/labeling error).

Lemma 3: The case of the reformulated perfume (what was written about pre-reformulation Guerlain Mitsouko invalidated by the changes to the perfume's composition).

Lemma 4: The case of the variable batch (the Banana Republic perfumes reviewed initially on the basis of minis needed to be revised—but were they superseded???—after testing the perfumes drawn from full bottles).

In each of the above cases, I attributed the change in view to extrinsic factors involving the handling of the perfume. Somehow I failed to address two equally important cases, which I thank GypsyParfumista and GypsyQueenMother for supplying, the first of which is:

Lemma 5: The case of variations in the natural components of a perfume (leading to variations in the overall effects of the perfume).

Heraclitus, writing under the pseudonym of GypsyQueenMother offered the example of “her” spaghetti sauce:

Even when talking about the same perfume (from the same house)
there will always be differences in the "mix" of each batch. Natural
ingredients are just that, natural. More rain one season in Indonesia
will make the patchouli harvested that year smell slightly different.
The only way to control such things is to use all synthetic ingredients
that can pretty much be made the same way (by man in labs) each time.

What was added, even with strict quality control, will be a little
each time. Unless something is made in a sealed vat with no oxygen
or anything reaching it each and every "batch" will be a little (or a lot)
different from the previous or the next.

It is like when I make spaghetti sauce. I always use (pretty much)
the same things...but every time it tastes different. Sometimes it is
better, sometimes just okay...but it is always "my sauce".

GypsyQueenMother (aka Heraclitus), March 19, 2012

Students of ancient Greek philosophy will recognize immediately the encoded message above:

One never steps into the same river twice.

Yes, that's right, Heraclitus has arrived on the scene at the salon to point out that reality is constantly in flux, including perfumes, which we may however erroneously come to regard as stable things. In reality, they are always made of materials which themselves are subject to a great deal of variation. This would explain why any perfume which is not a completely synthetic laboratory experiment involving zero natural substances will vary quite a lot from batch to batch, just as does GypsyQueenMother's spaghetti sauce.

Fascinatingly and fortuitously enough, immediately prior to Heraclitus' insightful contribution to this discussion, David Hume appears to have been jolted from his not-so-dogmatic slumber to offer (under the pseudonym GypsyParfumista) this little gem:

Tastes also change. I know mine have.
The more I experience and the more I smell
the more my "nose" (as it were) grows.
(Not like Pinocchio either!)
I look back at earlier reviews of mass market
scents constructed of HORRIBLY synthetic
components and things I have since given away
[...] and can scarce believe my own lauding words...
but at the time, THAT was what I felt. I refuse to delete
older reviews as they show a definite journal of sorts
on my perfumed journey through life.

GypsyParfumista (aka David Hume), March 19, 2012

Yes, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume's theory of the self—which incidentally coheres quite well with that of the Buddhist tradition—according to which a person is like a rope, no single thread of which spans the entire course of his or her life, is encoded within GypsyParfumista's comment:

We regard ourselves as single, stable entities, but in reality all of our cells change over the course of our lives. What did you look like when you were born, and what do you look like now? QED.

Given that persons themselves change constantly throughout the course of their lives, what reason is there for believing that their opinions about a given perfume will not also change over time—assuming for simplicity's sake that the perfume itself has not been reformulated or suffered any of the problems described in Lemmas 1-5? So, yes, we need a sixth lemma:

Lemma 6: The case of a reviewer's own change in view.

Perfumistas change their minds about perfumes. I myself have experienced a radical change in attitude about any number of perfumes, some of which I wore nearly religiously (Oscar de la Renta Oscar) or occasionally (Calvin Klein Eternity), but no longer wear at all as a result of not changes in the perfumes themselves, but changes in myself. In other cases, in an intial wearing (or wearings), I disliked a perfume which I later came to appreciate (Sarah Jessica Parker Covet and Calvin Klein Contradiction are two examples).

So, how do such examples bear upon the question at hand: is it the case that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume Is True, or not? In the second half of that post, I focused upon interpersonal differences: some people are anosmic to certain substances and others are sensitive to varying degrees to those same substances.

What I failed to acknowledge and have now recognized thanks to the beneficent interventions of Heraclitus and Hume, is that intrapersonal differences may be every bit as important as interpersonal differences in our evaluations of perfumes.

Yes, I mentioned before that our reception of a perfume is affected by our background history and memories, but in reality those factors are salient to different degrees at different moments in any given person's life. This would help to explain why I changed my view about perfumes which have not themselves undergone significant—if even perceptible—changes.

If I wear a perfume taken from the same bottle six months after an initial test, and the bottle has been well-cared for (sheltered from heat, light, and fluctuations in temperature), yet I completely change my view, then something else must explain this radically different reception.

That “something else” is none other than me. I changed, therefore, my opinion of a perfume changed. The question remains: Was I wrong before and am I right now? We certainly prefer to believe that updates to our opinions are more valid than their predecessors were, but in the case of perfume, I am driven irresistibly by the factors pointed out by our honorable guests Heraclitus and Hume to the conclusion that, in fact:

Thank you, GypsyParfumista and GypsyQueenMother for raising Lemmas 5 and 6 and further strengthening this proof!


But wait, there's more: At the same time these philosophers have broached an equally compelling Parmenidean idea which has been circulating through my mind for quite some time and occasionally erupts to consciousness: Perfumes are very much like persons, and persons are very much like perfumes. Are they in fact the same, my fellow fragrance travelers?

According to standard readings of ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides (whose view, by the way, finds expression also in the ancient Indian philosophy concept of Atman—proving yet again that nihil sub sole novum est...):

All is one. Change is illusory.

Many scholars (obviously ignorant of the world of perfume) have interpreted Parmenides' idea (according to him, there can be only one!) to constitute the strict antithesis of the Heraclitean view, according to which

Everything is in flux. All is change.

But I wonder now, thinking about persons and perfumes (the latter having been entirely neglected throughout the history of both Western and Eastern philosophy), if it is not rather the case that both perfumes and persons can be in flux in the Heraclitean sense, in the very same way, thus demonstrating, paradoxically enough, the Parmenidean claim?

The time has arrived at last for you
to weigh in on these profound ontological matters,
my fellow philosophical fragrance traveler(s)!

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