Friday, July 27, 2012

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics 2: Anaximander, Anaximenes, and the Importance of Contrariness

The heavy rain faded away leaving a thick curtain of humidity hanging in the air. It suddenly dawned on me: could water [or eau de toilette] alone explain this steamy effect? Would it not be more accurate to say that the hot and the dry gave way to the cool and the wet, and then as the heat returned, it transformed the wet into this muggy blanket of moisture now tinging the world rather gray and making me feel as though I were in a permanently decaffeinated state?

My thoughts are running slow; my speech is slightly slurred, but this much I believe, albeit foggily, that I know: Does not reality, my exquisitely scented friends, ultimately comprise pairs of contrary things: the hot and the cold, the wet and the dry, the black and the white, the scented and the unscented?

As a matter of fact, there was a pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander, who appears to have believed precisely that. This theory is ascribed to Anaximander by historians, all of whom write about other historians' writings, leading back to the sole extant phrase said to have been authored by this man:

They give justice and reparation to one another 
for their injustice
in accordance with the arrangement of time.

Now, the historians who interpret this cryptic phrase pregnant with possibility understand it to mean anything but an assertion of the profound philosophical importance of perfume, and I am confident that no one has ever before ended the list of contraries ascribed to Anaximander with the all-important pair “the scented and the unscented.” Yet it seems obvious that such an exclusion cannot be rationally justified, given the abundance of smells found naturally in the world and of which Anaximander was undoubtedly aware.

Could Anaximander really have been anosmic? I think not. Instead, what has happened is that historians over more than two thousand years have dogmatically re-penned the same old interpretations over and over again, the very interpretations in which they were steeped as students. All too eager to please their mentors, these thinkers have never really made any progress at all. Trapped in what they have been told by equally ignorant others was the worldview of the ancient Greeks, scholars continue to this day to neglect the central role played by perfume in the history of Western philosophy. Let's look now more closely at what Anaximander, clearly an avid perfumista—whether closet or not—really thought.

Anaximander is said to have believed that all of these contraries emerge from an enormous “Indefinite-Infinite,” what he termed the apeiron. The existence of the apeiron would seem to be the only possible explanation, too, for the fact that perfumers still today, more than two millennia after Anaximander reflected upon the nature of reality, continue to make radically disparate, even antithetical perfumes. Translating the terms of the question and its answer to a modern context, how would Anaximander have aligned the opposites in perfumery?

We perfumistas all know that sharp, soapy floral aldehydes such as Hermès Calèche and Amouage Dia bear next to no resemblance to a sweet floral oriental such as Tom Ford Black Orchid Voile de Fleur or Bond no 9 Chinatown

But all of these perfumes are closer to one another than any of them is to a flowerless fragrance such as Prada Infusion de Vétiver or Annick Goutal Mandragore.

How to explain the seemingly endless ability of perfumers to continue to come up with new creations, using a finite palette of scents in the world?

It is through the interaction and exchange of opposite qualities emerging out of the indefinite-infinite apeiron, the wise Anaximander explained, and we may rest assured that he would have wholeheartedly concurred with the application of his theory to perfume. 

Indeed, perfume would seem to offer the clearest illustration of what are said to be Anaximander's own views. This philosopher's metaphysical theory has the added virtue of having prophetically predicted what would happen in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in the world of perfume.

Anaximenes, Air and the Accordion Effect

Anaximander's thought has been admired by many, but another pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes, refined the theory of the indefinite-infinite apeiron, whose generation of opposites was left unexplained by Anaximander himself. In a brilliant anticipation of modern theories of physical chemistry, Anaximenes reasoned that the qualitative differences observed in nature were brought about by quantitative changes.

To give a simple example: think of water at very different temperatures. Water which is frozen has the properties of a solid thing. Water which is heated up acquires the properties of a gaseous thing. On analogy to this case, throughout nature, Anaximenes reasoned, it is through quantitative changes that qualititative differences emerge.

However, Anaximenes did not embrace water as the ultimate substrate, as Thales had. Instead, Anaximenes hypothesized that pneuma or air was the most basic substance, the underlying foundation of the universe. He reasoned that air becomes denser and denser as it undergoes condensation, to produce all of the other apparently disparate types of matter in a series looking something like this:

air fire wind cloud water earth stone

In tandem, dense matter becomes lighter through the reverse process, of rarefaction:

stone earth water cloud wind fire air

In other words, air is the beginning and the end of all things. It goes perhaps without saying, then, that given his explicit focus on air, Anaximenes would have been very, very conversant with the perfumes of his time, and with only a bit of interpolation, we can derive important implications of his theory for the modern world of perfume.

How did Dior Poison and Giorgio of Beverly Hills Giorgio 
give rise to the house of Clean?

In some ways, what Anaximenes was suggesting held sway was the proverbial “pendulum” or “accordion” effect, which obviously applies directly to perfume. Among other phenomena, the 1980s excesses of super-potent or scent-ful perfumes which filled entire public spaces could only have been followed by the pendulum—or, if you prefer, the accordion—effect of the apeiron. If asked to explain what transpired, Anaximenes would surely have replied that an expansion to the upper limits of scentedness had to be followed by a contraction back to unscentedness.

So there you have it my fragrant friends: the ultimate explanation of the anti-perfume backlash and the mass of perfumes being marketed today which offer no more and no less than the scent which should be expected upon one's emergence from the shower or bath.

Hair conditioner and shampoo florals, sweet laundry scents, and “not a perfume” perfumes all emerged from the inexorable oscillatory expansion and contraction of the apeiron. The “not a perfume” perfumes such as Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 and Juliette has a gun Not a Perfume may represent the limit to which the contraction of the apeiron can still be capitalized upon in persuading consumers to pay for less complexly scented liquids. Or are people also prepared to pay niche perfumery prices for a completely unscented liquid? Only time will tell.

For now, we have Anaximander and Anaximenes to thank for providing us with the explanation so many of us have been grasping for in attempting to make sense of recent developments in the world of perfume, a microcosm of the vast universe which these wise philosophers undertook to explain. Clearly these thinkers, like Heraclitus and Thales, were inspired and enlightened by their experiences of perfume.

A House of Mirrors

What is it, then, which unites all of these pre-Socratic philosophers? No, my fragrant friends, it was not just that they preceded Socrates, nor that they indulged in metaphysical speculation. Nor that they had far too much free time on their hands, as non-philosophers may be tempted to jest. In reality, although their views have been rendered scent-free by olfactorily challenged historians throughout many centuries, all of these monistic thinkers recognized that, far from being a mere cosmetic item, perfume holds within it the key to the deepest mysteries of the universe.

Our memories elicited by scent reflect an infinite kaleidoscope of experiences unique to individuals yet still binding them together as one. When we disagree about perfumes, proving yet again that “One perfumista's treasure is another's trash,” we reveal that each one of us, like Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, have grasped different facets of Reality. We may lose sight of this truth, under sway of lists of fictitious and metaphorical names given in the note hierarchies for perfumes.

Cotton Candy: Aquolina Pink Sugar and MOR Marshmallow MOR

Popcorn: Dior Miss Dior [Chérie] and Memo SIWA

Vodka: Bvlgari BLV Notte Pour Femme and Parfum d'Empire Ambre Russe

Earth: Tokyomilk Crushed and Tauer Perfumes Pentachords Verdant

Seawater: Comptoir Sud Pacifique Aqua Motu and L'Artisan Parfumeur Fleur de Liane

Suede: Keiko Mecheri Cuir Cordoba and Tangeri; Serge Lutens Daim Blond

Ozone: Bond no 9 Fire Island and Linari Vista sul Mare

In reality, cotton candy, popcorn, vodka, earth, seawater, suede and ozone are found in no perfume. These are names given to the intended evocations of the perfumes in which they are said to figure. People with no prior experience of cotton candy, popcorn, vodka, or suede will not be reminded of those objects when they smell a perfume which its creator intended to call to mind those things. But even less obviously metaphorical notes, such as rose, jasmine, ambergris, and many other naturally occurring things, are also, in truth, metaphorical. There is no rose in a rose perfume. A rose perfume is intended to evoke the effect of a rose on the person who smells the perfume. What is the effect of a rose on a person who comes in contact with it? Depends on the person!

This is why, in the end, perfumes make up an infinite house of mirrors, into which we glimpse each time we take a sniff as our memories and associations rise to consciousness. This is also why perfume reviews reveal much more about the author than about the ostensible object of his or her critique.


  1. Sherapop ... this is just fantastic!!! ... Coutureguru

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Coutureguru! It's wonderful to see you here, and I very much appreciate your encouragement! (-;

  2. I think your closing paragraph is the essence of writing about perfume.

    1. Dear Christos,

      The very first time I visited your beautiful website, Memory of Scent ( I was struck by your innovative and daring display of your subjective perception of the notes of the perfumes which you review. You are right: what we perceive does not always coincide with the "official" lists--and why, after all, should it?

      Having seen your approach, I knew already that you were a philosopher. Now it's time for you to come clean: to which of these pre-Socratic philosophers does your family tree lead?

  3. As much as I admire these theories they seem to me bound within their historical limits: they had to explain the world based on thinking and intuition. In a way science has deprived us of the ability to see the world through their eyes. In order for them to make sense of the mysteries of they world they had to dissect reality and focus on the minute. With the amount of scientific knowledge we have today we inevitably have to move in the opposite direction: zoom out, squint and see the whole picture. It was certainly a breakthrough when Pythagoras described the relationship between ratios and the harmony of notes. It was a stepping stone but today music is a lot more than just harmony. I recently read a post about how ratios is everything in perfumery and while this is an undeniable fact I believe for me the most unique fragrances are the ones that have strayed the most from the golden mean. Maybe it is just me but for instance as much as I can see the beauty and masterful construction in all these classic Guerlain's I cannot be really moved by them. Which brings us to the House of Mirrors and the way the science (or pseudoscience?) of psychoanalysis has changed the way we perceive ourselves and the world. The way a perfume is constructed becomes less important than the way it is perceived and the filter through which perception passes contains memories, marketing, references of known ingredients and the surprise of newly discovered aromachemicals, not to mention the unknown factor of skin chemistry. And let's not forget other factors like neurological imbalances like toxoplasmosis infection which is reported to alter the sense of smell. All this makes me very sceptical towards this current trend of treating perfumery as an art. I believe we need a proper theoretical base before we are able to talk about art and this is seriously lacking. In the end I believe that perfume itself is not as important as the feelings and thoughts it elicits and as I am saying this I feel the lineage of Plato speaking through me :)

    Of course the pendulum is there, not just in perfume but everywhere around us: from the cold war era to Mai 68 and back to neoliberalism. From orientals to aquatics and back to the "discovery" of the Middle and Far East by Guerlain, Killian, Aramis and why not, Avon.

    1. Hello again, Christos!

      Yes, I agree: it's difficult to understand how people who lived so long ago think. Some historians consider the pre-Socratic philosophers as proto-scientists or cosmologists. What I love about their theories is that they all have an internal logic and represent the attempt by an intelligent mind to make sense of the universe.

      Yes, you are right: we have tons of incredibly intricate scientific theories today which provide explanations at every level. But I have never felt that the individual disciplines connect very well together, nor that any of them adequately explains my experience. So, for example, I can draw an elaborate "explanation" of what happens in an organic chemistry experiment. Little arrows show the movement of electrons and there is a before and after, which indicates how the molecules have changed into other molecules over the course of the reaction. None of this, however, connects up in any way with my phenomenological experience of, say, the mixing of two clear liquids together to produce a flocculent yellow precipitate. It still seems quite mysterious to me, no matter how satisfied I should be with my organic chemistry explanation.

      Another example: in biology, very detailed and completely different explanations of the same phenomenon (say, a heart attack) can be given at the level of molecules, cells, or organs, but how do the explanations connect to one another? How does one get from the movement of electrons on a single molecule, to the failure of an organ system?

      In a way, philosophers are like eternally problematic children who never stop asking "Why?" Every explanation leads to yet another question. At the end of the day, a scientific explanation is a description. This is probably why so many people take refuge in the God hypothesis: just to stop inquiry. God lies at the end of the line. There's the old saying that we cannot understand God's ways, and that is supposed to be the end of inquiry: we cannot know His infinitely wise ways. But skeptical philosophers are never really satisfied with any of the explanations offered of anything by even the most sophisticated scientists. They continue, like a precocious but to some annoying child, to ask “Why?”

      Metaphysical theories are religious in that they fulfill the same function of satisfying curiosity that the God hypothesis does. There is a question, then a metaphysical theory offers an answer. But the question of why that theory should be true has no answer—beyond that God wanted things to be that way or “It is thus.” (-;


    2. Reply to Christos, cont'd.

      Regarding your own reservations about viewing perfumery as an art: well, you're in good company, because Girasole shares your skepticism! I guess that I vacillate on this question. There is no doubt in my mind that many perfumers are artists. Of course, one could also say that anything can be done artfully: cooking, gardening, home decorating, getting dressed in the morning. My impression is that artistically minded people approach everything in their life (or much of it...) with the same artist's perspective. How could they not? They are artists! Literally everything is potentially a blank canvas to be painted upon.

      In some ways it just seems a matter of historical chance that perfume itself should be so evanescent and impossible to capture for posterity. But it also seems to be intrinsically mercurial because so much more depends on the subjective perceiver than on the contents of the bottle. I suppose that the same could be said of poetry, but somehow poetry critics are able to communicate in a way that perfume critics do not always manage to do.

      I find that my perceptions cohere with some people's and completely conflict with other people's, and this is not always a matter of lack of experience—although that can of course sometimes be the explanation. The cases I find most fascinating are where my perceptions diverge radically from those of other people with just as much experience with perfume!

      As an example, I have tried to find something likeable in the Chandler Burr Untitled S01E02 perfume. But it is so utterly unpleasant to me that I would never, ever choose to wear it as a perfume. It is of course possible that I don't “get it”. Or perhaps our perceptions are of more or less the same thing, but we have radically conflicting values/tastes?

      Thank you so much for sharing your ideas, Christos!

  4. I guess "God" comes in the equation as a means of empowering our capacities to the level that we wish them to be. Where we reach to end of our mental capacities God comes to fill in the gaps. It is much easier to accept the existence of God who made humans in his image and has the answers than to accept the limits of our mind. I always smile when I hear scientific talk about the Big Bang and the beginning of the Universe. In a most human way we set an arbitrary point and focus on this. We do not dare ask the question: and what we answer the question of how the Universe started, won't we still have to answer what was there before that? There are limits to our perception but instead of admitting to them we bestow all our hopes to someone who holds the truth and allows us glimpses of it. This is what I mean when I talk about zooming out, seeing the big picture. We are not outside the Universe, trying to find the key and keyhole into it. We are part of it and as such we will only be able to look at it from our set angle.

    As far as art, I really do not think that everything can be turned into art. To turn back to the Greeks, they had defined what art is and of course new media have added the moving image in the form of cinema, video, performance to the list. But olfaction has always been there since the beginning of the human civilization. Where is the theory behind it to make it a real art? Of course there are levels of creation and not all perfumers are made equal but I need to be convinced that a common language to express and critique perfume can be created before I believe it is true art.


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