My first memories of baths date back to early childhood, when my father would deposit me along with my two sisters in the tub for an economy-of-scale suds-up. Yes, we all fit: three girls in four years was what my contraceptively challenged parents—while still undergraduate students—managed to produce during the first three years and six months of a marriage which finally ended around my sixteenth birthday. No need to express condolences: divorce was the best thing that ever happened to my parents' marriage. Aside, of course, from its fruits—mistakes though we may have seemed to be at the time...
Both of my parents have been happily remarried now for many years, much longer than they were married to one another, which would seem to suggest that mutual fertility is not a sufficient basis for a stable marriage, notwithstanding the “grand plan” of whoever—if anyone—devised the preposterous pregnancy scheme. Marriage has of course enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent times, but I suspect that all of the excitement will eventually die down—perhaps in seven years? In the meantime, I think that any couple—straight or gay—interested in tying the proverbial knot (what a metaphor!) should be required first to do a dramatic reading à haute voix of Ionesco's play Délire à Deux. If, having successfully completed that exercise, the happy couple is still intent on taking vows, all I can say is: more power to them! But I digress...
A civil engineer by training and in mindset, my father, in addition to having fun regaling us with rhymes such as “Scrub-a-dub-dub: three girls in a tub!” undoubtedly derived a measure of satisfaction through conserving both time and water by bathing us in this way. Indeed, his area of specialization is none other than dams and irrigation systems!
I have no other clear memories of baths for many, many years. I believe that I took only showers during high school, and I certainly did not take baths while living in the college dormitories. I am not even sure whether the shared bathrooms had anything but shower stalls. That's how little importance bathing in a tub had for me. I do seem vaguely to recall that someone barfed in a bathtub somewhere, during a party at which Koolaid spiked with Everclear was being served. (Was it, perhaps, me?)
Fast forward to today, and here I am a full-fledged bath addict. This is no exaggeration: I do not even feel clean unless I take a full-on soak in a tub, and on those occasions when I am forced to forgo my bathing ritual because of traveling, I await with great anticipation the opportunity to return home where I'll be able to bathe once again in the manner to which I have grown quite accustomed. Mind you, I am not an obsessive-compulsive hand washer, or anything of that kind.
I observed one of those people recently in the bathroom at the library. She was lathering up and scrubbing her arms and hands when I entered a stall, and she was lathering up and scrubbing her arms and hands when I left the stall. I stood briefly next to her in what may have seemed to be a show of hygienic solidarity, a couple of sinks down. But after I had spent maybe ten seconds washing my hands and reached for a paper towel, she was still standing there, lathering up and scrubbing her arms and hands. No, you may rest assured, I am nothing like that.
I suspect, however, that some shower advocates may view me in just that way when I say that I honestly feel that a thorough cleansing can only be accomplished through a bath. Perhaps they, too, will smile politely and walk quickly away—or the internet equivalent: navigate away from this page... I imagine five-minute hot shower takers asking in their minds, Really? You only take baths? in entirely sincere puzzlement over how someone could waste so much time.
I went from nearly no memory of having taken baths to wishing only to take baths. I am by now so habituated to baths, an important part of which involves lying in a supine reclining position, that I consider showers even to be a form of work. Standing up? Really? is my natural rejoinder of puzzlement to the advocate of showers who cannot imagine spending an entire hour—or even half—on a bath.
Having numbered for so many years among those who take only showers, I do of course understand why people opt for them. Yes, it is true: they are quick. And yes, it is true: they work in shared bathroom arrangements such as dorms and houses where not all inhabitants have private bathing quarters. I recall that a fellow living in a house where I was renting a room at one point in the Los Angeles area used to leave the bathtub half-full of dark gray, opaque water, clogged as the drain was with his body hair. No, this is not a joke. Ian was his name.
Two other renters, Ann and Stan, also lived in that house, and so did the landlord and his wife, but the person whom I'll never, ever forget—no matter how old I eventually become, and even if I lapse into an advanced state of senility—is Ian. In addition to being ape-ily hairy, Ian also left a strong acrid odor behind wherever he went—a trail of sillage, if you like—even after having bathed. I think that it is fair to say that anyone who rejects The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth never shared a house with Ian. What would Chanel no 5 smell like on Ian? Honestly, I do not want to know. Come to think of it, although he did not fully bubble up in my mind at the time, Ian was perhaps the ultimate subconscious inspiration for one of my proofs: The case of the stinky guy.
Taking a bath in such a tub, shared with such a fellow as Ian, was never going to happen, for obvious reasons. The whole experience of even wanting to shower in that tub on a day when Ian had already been there was in itself a sheer nightmare, a veritable horror story rivaled only by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. At the time, however, I myself was a showers-only type, so the challenge each morning became to beat Ian to the bathroom. I'd scuffle down the hall as quickly as I could in jammies and rubber flip-flops, mug of French roast in hand, fluffy white robe in tow, to take my shower and scurry back to my room, deeply relieved to have escaped the horror which would now await some other poor unsuspecting soul.
A Question of Culture?
Americans, on the whole, are a part of a showering culture. Baths tend to be reserved for special occasions: to soothe sore muscles in Epsom salts after running a marathon, or to help clear one's congested sinuses with an herbal remedy including eucalyptus and the like... I understand that culture, because I, too, was a part of it for most of my life. Even when I lived in a beautiful house in the mountains and had a private bath, I used it only infrequently as a tub, to alleviate stress. Baths back then were a type of event, not an ordinary way to cleanse myself.
So how in the world did this radical transformation, from a showers-only person to a baths-only person, take place? Interestingly enough, the changes in my attitudes toward showers and baths, like the circumstances of my birth, were entirely a matter of chance and, some might even say, negligence. I discovered that an apartment which I had rented with a one-year lease had a bathtub with a malfunctioning shower head. The nozzle barely dribbled any water at all, but when I pointed this out, the skinflint landlord insisted that it was supposed to function like that.
Everyone, I trust, has run into one or more of those “special” landlords who insist that everything is exactly as it should be. Whether I liked it or not, my only real option for cleansing myself during that year became taking a bath. What I found, hundreds of baths later was that I actually enjoy taking baths. Slowly but surely my entire perspective on bathing ended up transforming to the point where I never, ever shower at home anymore. I am so much a bather at this point that after moving to the house in which I now reside, I did not even bother to hang up the shower curtain and rod until some house guests arrived!
Ironic though it may seem, it is nonetheless true: as a direct result of a cheapskate landlord, today I feel deprived whenever I find myself in a shower-only scenario. This happens when I travel to a place where hotels either do not come equipped with bathtubs, or they do but for one reason or another it is infeasible to render them acceptably clean. I am very picky about bathtubs: they must be spotless in order for me to soak my body in one. I realize that this may make me sound a bit like the woman in the library bathroom compulsively lathering and scrubbing her arms and hands, but I do here confess that I will not bathe in a hotel bathtub which I have not scrupulously inspected for cleanliness.
Not a problem in a couple of parts of the world, above all, Japan, the bathing capital of the universe, where spotless baththubs—and sencha tea centers—are de rigueur! I have also often been pleasantly surprised by the accommodations in Europe, especially Italy. Europeans, while not quite obsessed with bathing—as the Japanese truly are, to their credit, I hasten to add—do seem to appreciate that a good bath tub is just as essential as a good bed. Or a bidet! Some of the most beautiful bath tubs and bathrooms I've ever encountered were found in Italy and in Spain.
I never intended to become a bather, but it happened, and now I honestly cannot imagine forgoing what has become my bath ritual. Along the way, I became a major consumer of bath products, and thanks to the ridiculous biannual sales at Bath & Body Works and The Body Shop, I could probably go for years without needing to buy anything. Every time I consider the possibility of moving, in fact, I realize that I need to decrease my gross shipping weight before doing so. I did give away about a thousand books last year, and I no longer buy either CDs or DVDs, but despite having skipped the sales at BBW and TBS, I still have an impressive array of bath and shower gels, scrubs, and lotions. And then, of course, there are the colognes and perfumes.
Am I “hoarding” bath products? I think not, because the variety is very important to me. A day when I wish to take a citrus bath is not at all like a day when I'd rather soak in lavender or jasmine or cherry blossom or... the list goes on and on. I delight in selecting which bath bubbles to run under the faucet, and I coordinate scrubs and soaps and even hair products so as to complement the scented water. As a part of my ritual I also apply Borghese Fango mud to my face, and I may actually hold the record for the most tonnage of that product consumed by any individual person.
Deontology versus Teleology: Showers versus Baths
I suspect that eighteenth-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, probably the most famous deontologist in history, preferred showers. According to Kant, morality is a matter of duty: it is not because of the benefits which one can expect to derive from doing the right thing that one should do the right thing. No, consequences have no relevance, morally speaking, in Kant's view. You should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do!
|Immanuel Kant, author of The Metaphysics of Morals|
Americans certainly seem, for the most part, to regard showering as a duty to execute, not a pleasure to enjoy—except insofar as removing dirt can be a source of relief. One of my sisters, a deeply entrenched shower advocate—who perhaps not uncoincidentally also has a dog—insists that baths increase the incidence of urinary tract infections. She once expressed extreme distaste for my predilection for baths in these terms:
How can you stand to sit there in a pool of dirty water?!
To which I replied:
The water is not dirty, BECAUSE I BATHE!
I do not doubt that a person who takes only showers over many years with nary a bath would indeed create a dirty pool of water just like Ian, the fellow whose sole distinction in my memory bank is to have been the stinkiest person I ever knew. What else did he do? I have no idea.
Anecdotally, I can report that the first time I bathed HRH Emperor Oliver, the bath water was indeed rather dark and gray. He had never been dipped in a tub throughout his entire life, why? Because cats have superlative personal hygiene and shun bodies of water larger than the volume of space which their body occupies.
Since his retirement, it has become necessary to provide some bathing assistance to The Emperor now and then, as a result of which I have become convinced that in fact all cats hold within their minds a quasi-Jungian “collective unconsciousness” fear of drowning. I suspect that it is the image of small kittens being mercilessly terminated “with extreme prejudice” in a pond by some illiterate and sadistic hick which may surface inchoately—to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the intellectual capacity of the cat—when they first face the specter of a bath.
Happily, dozens of baths later, The Emperor has learned that drowning at the Divine Feline Assisted Living Retirement Community is not an option. It's not going to happen, so long as his chief of staff is standing by. Having largely overcome his initial reluctance to bathe, The Emperor today enjoys the benefits of hydrotherapy so dear to bath lovers more generally and especially helpful to those such as he, who suffer from diabetes and debilitating neuropathy in their legs, feet, and toes. But I digress...
|HRH Emperor Oliver relaxes after a bath and blowdry|
The Bath-Perfume Connection
While bathing recently—one day in satsuma, the next in grapefruit and citron, the third in lavender and chamomile, and yesterday in Fresh Citron de Vigne shower gel—it occurred to me that the attitudes of many people toward perfume can be mapped onto their attitudes toward bathing along two different axes. First, it seems clear that some, perhaps many, people think of perfume use in purely functional terms, just as they think about showering.
Consider, for example, the “panty dropper” threads which get started over and over again by new visitors to fragrance community websites. This may seem risible to veteran perfumistas, who regard themselves as having a higher appreciation of perfume, often as an art form, but the reality seems to be that most consumers use perfume as a way of increasing their own attractability to persons with whom they may become romantically involved.
I myself found this factoid rather unbelievable, but in a fashion magazine a couple of years ago, in one of the relatively rare features on perfume, the statistic was reported that the number one reason why French women use perfume is to attract a mate! That was a sobering statistic to me, generally inclined to believe as I am that the French tend to be leaps and bounds above Americans in terms of sophistication. Meaning, of course, that the statistic for Americans could only be worse.
There is another axis along which perfume appreciation can be mapped, and this one does not point toward the same rather self-congratulatory conclusion, that most perfume users are philistines and only elite perfumistas appreciate the artistry of vrai parfum and the work of “olfactory artists,” to invoke here Chandler Burr's term for accomplished perfumers. This second axis is that of pure sensory experience, which does not seem to me to be relevantly distinct in the case of bathing and perfume use. In other words, thinking about perfume use in purely phenomenological terms, as a subjective experience, the use of perfume may be much closer to bathing than perfumistas ordinarily suppose—unless, of course, they happen to be bath addicts like me.
One reason why I love bathing is because I am enveloped in the process not only by warm water, but also by beautiful scents. This leads back to the question, perhaps vexing to some, whether perfume really is different in any fundamental way from other toiletries, to wit: bath and shower gel, soaps, scrubs, lotions, oils, etc. There are more and less sophisticated toiletries, to be sure, and people may use them and appreciate them to varying degrees. But let us consider the case of bath and shower gels which have been scented with perfumes which we ourselves already affirm as excellent.
Is it any less of an experience of perfume to smell it wafting off the water or off the skin of a freshly bathed and lotioned body than it is to spritz on the perfume itself? In terms of the pure olfactory experience of the perfume, I cannot for the life of me figure out why one of these forms of perfume experience should differ from the other. The truth, it seems to me, is that we appreciate perfume, above all, for the pleasure it provides.
Read all the perfume reviews you like, you will find that the fundamental judgments derive nearly exclusively from an answer to the question whether the wearer enjoys the experience of the perfume being reviewed. That is the bottom line. Reviews invariably circle back to the reviewer: specifically, the effect that the perfume has upon the wearer.
Is this true of the nonperfumic arts? Do we evaluate the quality of a poem or a piece of music or a film by describing their effects upon us? Perhaps on some level and in part, but only a small portion of a review of any object of art explicitly references the experiencer. The rest points outward to the object itself.
In contrast, in the case of perfume, everything turns on the subjective experience, and the very terms which one selects in attempting to convey one's experience point back to the wearer. This seems to me to provide grounds for skepticism about the status of perfume as an art. People who love perfume would naturally like there to be objective truths about the object of their love, but the reason why even “the experts” do not agree, it seems to me, is that their reviews always say much more about them than about the ostensible object of their critique.
The object under review in the case of perfume is tied up essentially with the reviewer, because everything which he or she consciously perceives is determined by facts about him or her, not facts about the perfume. In addition to having entirely different personal histories, human beings are differentially sensitive to all of the various components of any perfume, which is how and why people with vast experience in sniffing perfumes and familiarity with even thousands of them can radically disagree about a question as fundamental as whether it is any good.
What matter in evaluations of perfume are not objective facts about the creation—what particular chemical substances were used to create a certain perceptual quality—but our subjective reception of it conjoined with our personal tastes. In fact, tastes appear to do most of the evaluative work. We like this or that note: patchouli, tuberose, benzoin, etc. We dislike this or that note: rubber, cumin, pineapple, etc. Therefore, if a perfume features those things which we happen to like and we also happen to like their conjunction, then that alone will suffice to make our experience of it a positive one. “Your mileage may vary,” but to us, which is all that matters in our own evaluation of a perfume, it ends up seeming like either a masterpiece or a disaster or, more often, somewhere in between those two extremes, based largely upon what we happen to like.
Now, one might reply that people's tastes in art vary as well, and this is true. The difference, however, is that in the case of perfume, tastes do the bulk of the work of evaluation. Everything turns upon individual tastes and preferences. To praise a perfume is to enjoy the experience of wearing it. This is why the more a reviewer writes, the more he reveals—not about the perfume but about himself.
Setting to one side all of the vapid chatter about art, I must own that when I make a judgment about perfume, the bottom line is that a good or bad perfume to my nose is rather simple to define. I derive pleasure from the former and not from the latter. This is not an objective judgment and reveals the folly involved in issuing imperious decrees about which perfumes are masterpieces and which are disasters.
In order to do such a thing, one would first have to assume the exalted status of one's own subjective values and tastes, in addition to one's heightened ability to perceive all of the many components of a perfume. Who can make such a claim, in complete sincerity? I know of no one, to be perfectly frank. Indeed, the two requirements would appear to be mutually exclusive. Moreover, a great or accomplished nose is probably not the best person to seek out for advice on which perfumes to buy. Why? Because your less than great nose will not detect the same things and to the same degree. In other words, you will smell what is essentially a different perfume than did he.
What I have learned about perfume through reflecting upon bathing while bathing is that pleasure, my fragrant friends, is the bottom line. There is no more and no less to perfume than that. We may, in our vanity, wish to follow the lead of thinkers such as the nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who distinguished higher from lower pleasures, claiming that
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied;
better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.
It is unclear from this pithy little adage whether it is supposed to be better to be a pig satisfied or a fool satisfied, but I suspect that Mill was not a vegetarian and may well have joined his compatriots in repasts frequently featuring offal.
|John Stuart Mill, author of Utilitarianism|
In any case, what seems indisputable to me is that what we may wish to honorifically label "olfactory art" is in fact an exceptionally pleasurable scent. It may be complex and unfurl in waves so as to induce in us olfactory delight. It may surprise us and lead us down new paths of our thoughts and evoke memories of times past and things lost. Experiencing perfume is a sensual process which begins with our nose and ends in our brain, but the measure of a good perfume is only the pleasure which it provides.
What does hedonism imply?
Just as people may adopt a certain attitude toward cleansing their body, viewing it as a necessity, a duty to be carried out, so, too, do consumers sometimes become distracted by extrinsic factors. They may become concerned by price, status (is it niche—or expensive—and therefore, presumably, refined enough?), or even the celebrities or models suggested or implied to be attached to the perfume through advertising. In view of the size of marketing budgets for many perfumes, it may well be the case that most consumers select the bottles which end up in their boudoir by such olfactorily irrelevant factors.
Such perfumes, once owned, may be spritzed on without stopping to smell the perfume, so to to speak. I see this, too, in the reviews written by many self-styled perfumistas who report quick impressions and often quite dismissively. Did the reviewer give the perfume the benefit of a full wear—or two? Was the experience interrupted, mediated, or curtailed by the wearer's memory of the experience of another perfume in the past? Can we experience a perfume as an isolated thing in itself? Probably not, given that our minds are not a blank slate—and if they were we wouldn't be able to make sense of anything anyway.
The famous deontologist Immanuel Kant never married, nor did he ever leave his hometown of Königsberg. Small wonder, then, that he had so much time for cogitation and the composition of extremely lengthy sentences. Naturally, he had something to say on this matter as well. Kant rejected the possibility of naïve empiricism—the pure, unmediated apprehension of reality—in these terms (translated from the German):
Percepts without concepts are empty; concepts without percepts are blind.
In some ways, bathing provides a superlative opportunity to reflect upon a perfume, as one is not surrounded by all of the usual distractions which can make it difficult to focus upon the olfactory experience itself. How often do we wear a perfume in the way in which we listen to a piece of music or watch a film? True, music is often playing in the background while we do something else, but when we attend a concert, we are there specifically to listen to the music, though we may of course be distracted by such annoyances as audience members who cough or talk during the performance. The same is true of our experience of films and may help to explain why many people today only watch films in the (quiet) privacy of their homes, made possible by the existence of so many new technologies in a series which began with videotapes and appears to be culminating in wireless media streaming.
Even perfumistas who exalt perfumery as an art may not actually dedicate any independent time to the experience of perfume. They may use perfume in the way in which they play background music while engaged in activities very different from what one does while sitting in rapt attention at a concert. Both music and perfume are nonrepresentational, but music is at least sometimes capable of capturing our undivided attention. Even further removed is the experience of a film, which, being representational, can convey a message of one sort or another. In the case of perfume, only one question really makes much sense: Does the perfume provide pleasure? Do beautiful scents fill you with joy?
One implication of this bath-inspired way of looking at perfume would seem to be that the provenance of a scent is irrelevant to one's experience of it. Perhaps this is why I don't care who allegedly made the first perfume in the history of the world to combine certain notes together. It doesn't matter. What matters is that they were brought together by someone—anyone—to produce a perfume capable of inducing in me the sense of pleasure I feel upon donning it. We may tell all the stories we like about perfumes, but our stories are no more and no less personal confessions, in the end.
I leave you now to soak in these ideas and look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter. As for me, I do believe that it's time for a bath!