Monday, October 29, 2012

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics 6: Democritus, Atomism, and Convention

Democritus, the next of the pre-Socratic philosophers in our History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume series criticized Anaxagoras' explanation of qualities. Anaxagoras had hypothesized that the bits corresponding to the salient qualities of a thing are present in greater proportion than are the bits of other things. A bottle of Tom Ford Black Orchid contains a liquid which smells like Black Orchid because it is made up of many tiny little “Black Orchid” bits. His reasoning, to review, was in effect:

How could Black Orchid come from what is not Black Orchid, or Allure from what is not Allure?

In stark contrast, according to atomism, the theory championed by Democritus, reality comprises lots of different things which are made up of lots of little parts, but those parts are not direct or microcosmic reflections of the thing which they comprise. Instead, geometrical arrangements of smaller parts give rise to the emergent qualities which we perceive. The primary difference between the sort of Lego perfumery model presciently sketched out by Anaxagoras and the atomism of Democritus is that the small building blocks in the latter case have no color whatsoever, and between them are not other Lego blocks but the void. Atoms and the void are the basic components of reality according to the ancient Greek atomists.

The atoms—as Democritus and his mentor, Leucippus, did in fact refer to them—making up a perfume bottle are not tiny perfume bottles, or even pieces of glass. Nor does the liquid inside comprise individual “bits” sharing the qualities of the whole. Instead, the atoms are altogether devoid of such sensorily perceivable qualities. We do not perceive anything at all until the atoms have coalesced into much larger congeries. Out of nothing, something comes. Where there were no observable properties, suddenly they pop into our view, becoming a part of our reality because they are experienced by us.

The atoms have extension and shape, but they possess no qualities perceivable by human beings through their sense organs alone. It is only when the atoms are brought together in certain combinations and proportions that such qualities arise, emergently, out of the arrangements of individual atoms. Between the atoms is space.

Sound familiar? Yes, Leucippus and Democritus did indeed anticipate modern theories of chemistry, according to which all objects, including perfumes, comprise molecules, and all molecules are built up of atoms. Chemistry has obviously been refined over the more than 2,000 years since these pre-Socratic thinkers amazingly hit on something like it by casting about in an aim to understand the world in which they found themselves. We now identify the atoms in question as Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, etc. The early atomists knew nothing about the scientifically hypothesized atoms of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Was it just a lucky guess, a stab in the dark? My hunch is that their bold conjectures were based on their first-hand experience of perfume.

Perfumes which look empirically indistinguishable often smell wildly different. How to explain this disparity in perception? The problem with Anaxagoras' theory was that all things were said to be made up of things which they resemble. This does not help in explaining the distinction in smell between two liquids of the same color. 

Take some perfumes by Annick Goutal with similar shades of color, say Quel Amour, Eau d'Hadrien, and Petite Chérie. These perfumes smell radically different. What makes these perfumes distinct, despite their visual similarities, is not that they comprise tiny bits of, respectively, Quel Amour, Eau d'Hadrien, and Petite Chérie.

Why, again, do beautiful, fully composed perfumes comprising high-quality materials, such as Miller Harris Jasmin Vert or Géranium Bourbon or Figue Amère smell so different from a vat-produced chemical soup which induces dread and malaise in the wearer? (The selection of examples is left as an exercise for the reader.) It is not because the former are made up of tiny homuncular (so to speak) bottles of great perfume. No, something else must be going on, the atomists correctly inferred.

Yes, today, with the benefit of hindsight, we perfumistas can see that, thanks to the early Greek atomists' felicitous encounters with perfume—edited out of the history of philosophy, but nonetheless true—these thinkers incredibly developed a theory which we reach for still today in attempting to make sense of our experience. True, atoms have by now been split (they were thought back then to be indivisible), but it is at the level of atoms and molecules where our ordinary scientific understanding and its folk applications end.

True, one can dig deeper, if one wishes, but theories of multidimensional strings are not going to provide much insight in attempting to understand why when an ebay hawk or grey market decanter dilutes a perfume it smells weaker than it did before. We modern people pretty much call it a day at the level of chemistry, which helpfully explains all sorts of empirical phenomena readily observable by us.

Colligative properties such as freezing point depression and boiling point elevation are good examples. Why does making a sorbet with a touch of alcohol added yield a softer outcome than a sorbet mixture to which no alcohol is added? Why does pouring salt on the sidewalk in wintertime prevent ice from forming?

We can even understand in the basic concepts of organic chemistry why trans-fats are worse than cis-fats. Chemistry offers satisfying answers to these questions. Digging deeper is possible, and physicists certainly do that when they go to work in their laboratories, but good luck trying to grapple with aspects of everyday existence—becoming—through appeal to strings. You may as well just return with Parmenides to the realm of Being!

Where there was no Jean Patou 1000, suddenly it appeared, in a grand creation act, as though plucked from a magician's hat, when an assortment of atoms (in molecules) were juxtaposed in just the right way and in the right proportions. That's pretty much all that we need to know, and all that perfumers need to know as they scrupulously document their new formulas so that it will be possible in the future, to reproduce over and over again—should anyone choose to do so—the final combination of ingredients which make up what has been christened a new perfume.

Democritus was a materialist interested in mechanical explanations of phenomena. He was a “How?” man, not a “Why?” man. For this reason, some historians have considered him to be more of a protoscientist than a philosopher. In fact, his predilection for mechanical explanations was itself a philosophical position, in some ways anticipatory of modern pragmatism. What works is valid, and what does not work is invalid. That is the essence of pragmatism, in a nutshell. And it rings true for perfume as well.

An iconic perfume has succeeded in carving out a new spot of previously uncharted territory on the grand olfactory map. A second requirement, for even a highly original perfume to achieve true icon status, is that it enjoy widespread market success. Many perfumes carve out new spots of previously uncharted territory, but for one reason or another they are market flops. Usually they are discontinued. Only iconic perfumes hit on a formula which appeals to a sufficient number of consumers to warrant keeping the perfume in production. But the contribution of the house, its willingness and ability to market the perfume is even more important to contemporary recognition than is the nature of the creation itself. The Britney Spears perfume collection has reaped millions upon millions of dollars of profits.

Curious, Fantasy, In Control Curious, Midnight Fantasy
BelieveCurious Heart, Hidden Fantasy, Circus Fantasy
(Not Pictured: Radiance and Cosmic Radiance)

Materialism and Hedonism

The retention of the same name for what has become a different perfume, as in the case of Guerlain Mitsouko, or the preposterous renaming of Miss Dior Chérie as Miss Dior, may on its face appear to provide confirmation of the Parmenidean view on the realm of becoming, that it is the realm of falsehood and illusion. Then again, Yves Saint Laurent Champagne was also renamed, to Yvresse, not because of a blunder on the part of some officious executive wishing to leave his grimy fingerprints on the perfume, but because of a testy dispute with French champagne makers over what they took to be the inappropriate use of that term.

Everything is fair game in the realm of becoming, and people will do what they will do in order to get what they want. But if all acts of naming are a matter of convention, then is anyone really to blame for retaining the name of a formerly great perfume and using it to label a less noble variant of the same? Whatever works, works. What does not work, does not work. We find ourselves, my fragrant friends, yet again, in the realm of Parmenidean tautology, now in the service of an eminently non-Parmenidean philosophy!

In a materialist world view such as that of Democritus and the atomists, everything, including morality, is a matter of convention. There is no higher power; there are no laws written in invisible ink in the sky; and there is no afterlife—whether filled with heavenly bliss or eternal damnation. What you see—or sniff—here and now, on planet earth, is what you get.

In this sort of world view, materialistic hedonism, there is no pure and absolute, immutable essence or Platonic Form of Perfume (to anticipate a bit future episodes of this lengthy story...). No, perfumes are short-lived, fragile creations, creatures of sorts, kept in existence only for so long as they prove to be profitable to someone somewhere. It's not enough that a perfume once launched be loved; it must also earn its right to continue to exist.

Once a perfume has ceased pulling its weight, so to speak, perfume houses simply pull the plug. From the hard-headed perspective of pragmatically oriented materialists, vain attempts to re-create the perfumes of centuries past are futile efforts to change the structure of reality as conceived by naturalistically minded thinkers such as the atomists of ancient Greece.

One interesting implication of a hedonistic picture of perfume appreciation—such as seems clearly to be implied by the atomism championed first by Leucippus and Democritus, and later by Epicurus (who, too, will be discussed in more detail in a future episode...)—may be that many perfumistas, in their enthusiasm to exalt perfumery as an art, give short shrift to the impact of marketing on our reception of perfume.

This picture lends weight to the idea, discussed in The Bottle Controversy, that the vessel in which a perfume is housed and travels and from which perfume is drawn, being a sensorily perceived object, is no less worthy of our attention because it is no less capable of producing pleasurable sensations in us. The question becomes: in terms of the overall pleasure derived, is the bottle less important than the scent inside? While it is true that the bottle can lead one deceptively to buy a perfume which does not deliver on the promise of its packaging, the same can be said of advertising more generally. In fact, that is what advertising is: seduction, pure and simple. Do you really need that item or gadget—or bottle? Advertising has as its aim to convince you that you do.

There is a substantive sense in which the bottle contributes to the overall success of a marketing campaign. But there is a difference: the bottle is an independent object, designed by someone somewhere no less than was the perfume, and therefore potentially worthy of our regard. It, too, exists to our sensory organs because a group of atoms and molecules have been brought together and arranged in a particular way so as to affect our sensory receptors. When the sight or touch of a bottle provides pleasure, then it has just as much value as any other source of pleasure, including the scent of perfume. 

That, at any rate, my fellow fragrant travelers, is the way in which the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus appears to have viewed these matters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Public Space and Private Perfume Preferences: Is There a Problem?

I have often been surprised at the fervor with which some people denounce the use of perfume in certain spaces, most often the workplace, where the perfume naysayers appear generally speaking to hold sway. As a perfume lover, I am inclined to bristle at the effective olfactory tyranny of some in response to the complaints of a few, usually people who claim to suffer from severe allergies, and some of whom probably do. I doubt, frankly, that all of them do, just as I doubt that all of the people these days who request gluten-free substitutions in restaurants are in fact afflicted with Celiac disease (wheat gluten intolerance), as its incidence in the general population is rather low (~1%).

One reason why I doubt that very many people suffer from allergies bad enough to make even a whiff of someone's fragrance a cause for undue strife or major illness is that many parts of the world in which we live, and especially cities, are chock-full of scents. I often poke fun at New York City, in particular, but if such hypersensitive persons were truly so severely allergic, then it would be miraculous that they should be able to survive in most any city, in the midst of so many smells, many of which are quite a bit more offensive and obnoxious, if not noxious, than even Christian Dior Poison or Thierry Mugler Angel, to name but two of the more notoriously over-applied perfumes still in rotation among perfume wearers today. 

Despite my skepticism about and consternation at the anti-perfume backlash, however, I must confess that a couple of cases cause me to pause before dousing myself with loud perfume and proceeding to waltz out the door to a library or other public venue.

The Case of the Stinky Homeless Man

When I first moved to Boston, I used to attend free movie night at Boston Public Library on Boylston Street, conveniently located a few blocks from the Prudential Center and Copley Square and accessible by the T (our subway system). The films screened were usually classics, and so it was basically like going to a theater without paying but also being afforded the opportunity to see something which was actually worth watching. Overall, it was a nice way in which to indulge my passion for classic films without spending any money, which was especially good in my case as I had moved to this city without first finding a job and was living only on savings at that time.

The lure of attending free movies in a public space was considerably greater back then, before I had acquired a large flat screen television to forever obviate the need and squelch what motivation I once had for leaving my humble abode in order to see worthwhile films. I hardly ever go to watch movies in public anymore, and I suspect that I am not alone, although some theaters are managing to survive, even in a world where DVD releases succeed new movie premieres in some cases by a matter of only weeks. Since acquiring an HDTV, I find it very difficult to muster up the motivation to make my way to public movie screenings, although art film events such as the Boston French Film festival at the Museum of Fine Arts occasionally coax me away from the comfort of my couch.

One of the most unforgettable aspects of watching movies on Wednesday nights at Boston Public Library was the spectre of the local homeless men, one of whom in particular would often come to the movie screening and bring with him his weeks—months? years?—of accumulated stench. On the occasions where he sat within a few rows or seats from me, it was necessary to relocate to another part of the room because the smell was simply unbearable. One night I was so nauseated that I actually left without seeing the film.

The failure to bathe sufficiently or frequently enough is certainly not the province only of homeless people, but it is probably true that transients, having neglected hygiene in some cases literally for years, tend to be the worst olfactory offenders in this regard. They do not appear to recognize the type or extent of the scent which follows them around, leaving permanent memory traces in some people's minds, including mine. There are other varieties of unpleasant human-generated scent, but in thinking about public spaces and the question of perfume, I find myself drawn over and over again to the analogy which unwashed persons represent.

On the one hand, no one has the right to force someone else to bathe more frequently than he chooses to. On the other hand, it seems antisocial and rude to foist the scent of one's unwashed body upon other persons in public places. The case of the homeless person who reeks unbearably of filth, sweat, dirt, and general body odor all mingled together to produce a noxious “perfume” of sorts is especially interesting to me because of the apparent lack of intention on the part of the person to offend. Instead, stinkiness is a natural consequence of a lifestyle which may or may not have been chosen by the offender himself.

I imagine that most homeless people have not freely and willfully chosen that lifestyle, although a small proportion of them may have. For the most part, they are down on their luck, in some cases unable to land or keep a job because of psychological and emotional troubles. Having spent whatever resources they once had, they now lead a day-to-day, animal-like existence, living hand to mouth at the mercy of sympathetic passersby.

Perfumed people who stink because of their choice of fragrance or because they have overapplied it have definitely made a conscious decision to scent themselves, the consequence of which is to offend some of those in their environs. But I do not believe that very many such people intentionally overapply their fragrance in order to offend other people. Instead, they seem closer to the homeless man who, as a result of having not showered in weeks, months, or even years, verily stinks.

I was first made aware of the reality of olfactory fatigue on a day when a former colleague did not complain about but complimented me on my perfume, Marc Jacobs, which I was entirely unable to detect on myself so late in the day. In fact, when she asked me what I was wearing, I had to think back to what I had applied that morning in order to be able to answer the question!

In a recent comment on Perfumes of Geography: What's in a Place Name? here at the salon, Pitbull Friend observed that Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan could be accurately renamed “Eau de Homeless Person”! Many people of course like and choose to wear this perfume, so Pitbull Friend's pointed barb underscores the general problem of divergent reception of perfumes, caused by our different tastes, backgrounds, and sensitivities, and is one reason why the question of perfume and public space seems to me to be quite complex.

What is interesting in the cases of the overperfumed and the homeless person (or the person who wears a detectable application of Muscs Koublai Khan in the presence of Pitbull Friend!) is the paramount importance of the subjective experience of the various parties in question. The overperfumed person does not believe that she stinks any more than does the homeless man. In each of these cases, the unwitting culprit, if you will, has become habituated, inured to his or her scent. The perfumed person has been wearing her perfume faithfully, let us say, for some time and has developed a tolerance for it, leading her to apply more and more so that she herself can smell her own perfume. The effect for others may be not at all unlike the homeless man who decides to sit close to you at the movie theater, making it impossible to concentrate on what is happening on the screen—or even to breath.

At the same time, and as Pitbull Friend suggested in christening Muscs Koublai Khan with her own colorful moniker, one perfumista's treasure is another's trash, and one person's heaven sent scent is another's hell-engendered olfactory torture implement. The question, then, for perfumistas becomes: when we wear perfume in public spaces in the presence of persons for whom perfume is a source of unpleasantness on a par with what we find to be highly offensive body odor, are we conducting ourselves in the manner of the transient who pays no heed to the negative effects of his scent upon the noses of others? Having consciously chosen to perfume ourselves, are we not, however, culpable in a way in which the homeless man cannot really be said to be, at least if it is true that he did not freely choose his current deplorable living conditions—city streets and alleys—and his resultant state of filth?

The Anti-smoking Revolution

Second-hand smoke offers a second tinted lens through which to view the perfume and public space issue. Not so long ago, smokers ruled the day. Nonsmokers had to grin and bear it in restaurants and bars because the smokers, having purchased their cigarettes and pipes and cigars, had simultaneously purchased the power to use them where they wished. The powerful tobacco lobby acted to promote and perpetuate the sale of tobacco far and wide, creating nicotine addicts in such abundance that they were able to bind together in solidarity to effectively repel the complaints of the nonsmokers.

The power of the smoker bloc shrouded the weakness of its individual members—they could not live without the stuff—but they were supported in a capitalist system where whoever has the gold makes the rules, and tobacco growers and cigarette manufacturers managed to suppress legislative efforts to curb tobacco use. Second-hand smoke was an annoyance which nonsmokers simply had to tolerate.

There has been a complete about-face on the second-hand smoke issue as more and more people have been made acutely aware in recent years of the serious health hazards of smoking, and the number of smokers continues to dwindle. The medical costs of dealing with the health problems caused directly by smoking eventually became more of a motive force than even the profits enjoyed by tobacco growers and cancer-stick manufacturers.

Massive marketing campaigns and legislation requiring the visible printing of health advisories on all ads and packaging for tobacco products eventually gave rise to an increased consciousness among people about the scientifically documented dangers of smoking. As a result, the number and proportion of smokers in the general population has plummeted in recent times. 

A big part of this downward trend in the percentage of smokers, and the concomitant turning of the tables to accommodate nonsmokers, leaving smokers out in the cold—figuratively but also literally, as anyone living in a city with frost on the ground in wintertime can attest—can be credited to the levying by governments of taxes on tobacco products so steep that it has become prohibitively difficult even to become a smoker, requiring as it does a significant amount of cash on hand to do so.

I actually marvel at the fact that any poor people are smoking at all these days, given the prohibitive cost of doing so, and I'm not sure what explains the persistence of this habit beyond the ongoing perception of a sort of “coolness” still associated with this practice in some sectors of society. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the very people who really can still afford to smoke tend to be well-educated and aware of the dangers of developing an addiction to nicotine. Taken together, these forces—the generally improved information disseminated to potential smokers and the prohibitive cost of purchasing tobacco-laden implements of premature self-inflicted death—persuades many would-have-been smokers (in earlier decades) never to begin.

Perfume haters who lobby for the prohibition of perfume in public space are concerned that many of the chemicals used in fragrances today have been demonstrated to cause health hazards on a par with exposure to second-hand smoke. Their argument is that they should not be in the position of endangering their own health because of someone else's willful decision to don a substance which will pervade the air of any space in which she travels.

I am sympathetic to the concern on the part of some people to avoid some of the substances included in perfumes today. Many of the chemicals do have pretty ugly health profiles, and I eschew them in my own personal perfume use. The question, then, is: should someone who avoids BHT, for example, be subjected to exposure to the substance simply in order to indulge another person's aesthetic caprice?

One possible solution to this problem, from the wearer's end, is to refuse to wear poisonous perfumes. This way one can prevent poisoning not only one's self but also others. The problem remains: which fragrances are the toxic soups, and which are innocuous liquids? Nearly anyone has horror stories of encounters with perfumes which induce vague feelings of malaise or even acute neurological distress.  But are those the poisonous perfumes? 

Once again, in considering personal perfume reception, it appears that one person's poison is another's panacea! I myself literally shudder at the thought of applying Estée Lauder Intuition or Isabella Rossellini Manifesto to my skin. I actually think that I would prefer to have my toe nails forcibly removed than wear Intuition again. Other people wear those perfumes comfortably and even reach for them in anticipation of the enhancement which it will bring to their day. A chacun son corps!

Some among the perfumes which I love, on the other hand, may well make some other people cringe. However much we may all love our own favorite perfumes, we are wired somewhat differently, and this manifests itself not only in our radically different evaluations of the quality of perfumes but also in our willingness to wear them. All of us quite naturally avoid the perfumes which induce in us undue strife, despite in some cases the praise of other people of the very same creations as great. It simply does not matter how much artistry has gone into a fragrance which makes us feel physically ill. That is the ultimate test of a bad perfume, it seems to me: its inability to be worn. While that may be an entirely subjective judgment, it is nonetheless authoritative—to us.

Ethics or Etiquette?

I am fortunate to have a large selection of perfumes ranging from intense mega-sillage elixirs which I myself cannot even don with the hope of getting anything done, to light, skin scent-like colognes whose presence I barely detect, if at all. I realize that some people who complain about perfume are simply complaining for the sake of complaining, because they want people to jump at their beck and call and to modify their habits at their behest.

Nonetheless, I approach the question of public space scent from the most charitable possible vista. I assume that there really are people whose ability to function well may be severely impeded by what to them is perfume-infused air no less polluted than a room full of second-hand smoke. For this reason, I reserve my intense, big projection perfumes for use at home, where I can be sure that no one will be bothered by the scent.

At the same time, when I encounter someone wearing the metaphorical equivalent to “Eau de Homeless Person,” I make a concerted effort to “put daylight” between us, to invoke a phrase unforgettably ascribed to U.S. President Barack Obama by presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney. I operate under the assumption that such people do not know any better when they behave in socially unacceptable ways.

I do not conduct myself thus only in order to avoid conflict. No, I have an ulterior motive as well. By exercising discretion in my choice of perfume in public spaces, I avoid giving the perfume haters more grist for their mill. Similarly, while assuming that over-perfumed persons do not know what they are doing, I do not voice my disapproval because I refuse to give the perfume police and anti-perfume activists more evidence for their view that all perfume should be banned from public spaces. Nothing of the sort is true, of course, so strategically speaking, this approach makes the most sense to me.

In saying all of this, I should clarify, by way of conclusion, that I do not believe this to be an ethical issue at all. I do not believe that other people's even poisonous perfume is inflicted on those around them in concentrations sufficient to cause them harm. At the same time, as I have remarked before and will no doubt again, it seems quite clear to me that there is no natural right to perfume. Perfume is a luxury, pure and simple, and we are fortunate to be among the small percentage of humanity capable of enjoying this luxury. It is a privilege, not a right to perfume one's self, and no one is wronged by being deprived of something which was never his right in the first place.

Because we are among the tiny, incredibly privileged portion of humanity to enjoy the opportunity to indulge in the perfuming of ourselves, we should do so with discretion in public spaces, ever aware that it is our honor to do so. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard than the homeless man at the library and comport ourselves with civility among our fellow human beings, whatever that may require, and even when their perceptions differ radically from our own. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Bottle Controversy: A Philosophical Investigation

In thinking about what might be called “the bottle controversy,” that is, whether the vessel in which a perfume is housed should be an object of our attention and concern, I have become more and more convinced that bottles really do matter, and in more ways than I originally supposed. I have always been pleased by aesthetically beautiful bottles, and I occasionally retain a perfume for its bottle, even though I never (or no longer) wear the liquid inside. But the philosophical significance of bottles I now find even more striking than their aesthetic value as functional objects of design.

There are of course bottle collectors, who have made a hobby of the accumulation of perfume bottles in the way in which some people collect stamps or coins or figurines or baseball cards or... you name it: if an object appears in a variety of instantiations and can be possessed, there are collectors of it somewhere.

My interest in bottles is not that of a collector. I am interested in the philosophical importance of bottles. At the first level, I wonder what it could mean to say that the bottle and packaging of a perfume do not or should not matter. Why, from an aesthetic perspective, should a bottle matter any less than does anything else? has always been a persistent puzzle to my mind. To be honest, it's a version of a question which pops up regularly regarding virtually everything in my experience.

Believe it or not, whenever I see a notebook or even a block-colored cooler or trash can marred by an ugly label still affixed, though its purpose was only to bear an SKU so that the product could be sold, I ask myself why the owner did not peel it off, which would have left behind a smooth monochromatic surface worthy of regard. We don't wear price tags on our clothing, so why do some people leave such labels on objects which, too, will be visible to other people's eyes?

Despite my evident belief that everything in our experience has aesthetic potential, even what some consider to be the lowliest of objects, and despite my puzzlement over the sheer arbitrariness manifested by people in their selection of some but not others things as worthy of their aesthetic regard—I think here again of my well-off yuppie friends who have expensive artworks hanging on their walls but flatware which looks as though it was lifted from a local hospital cafeteria—it occurred to me recently that it would behoove us to dig a bit deeper. What I found was that beyond their manifest aesthetic value, perfume bottles possess a metaphysical and an epistemological significance as well. Indeed, even bottles which I do not find beautiful are nonetheless philosophically important to perfume.

The Philosophical Significance of Bottles I: Metaphysics
The Bottle [Body] as the Temple of the Soul

I have occasionally compared perfumes to persons, pointing out such similarities as mortality, natural progression or change over time, including aging, and how fickle our relations with them can be, in part because our perception of them is intrinsically perspectival. We cannot grasp a perfume in its totality any more than we can grasp a person in his or her entirety. What we have as experiences of them are snippets or screen shots, if you will. In reality, the precise properties which we attend to in a particular encounter may have much to do with arguably irrelevant or extrinsic factors. Were we distracted, perhaps multitasking? Did we not attend to the complexity of the story being told because there were other matters on our mind? Were we tired, exasperated or perhaps in a surly mood?

We also may experience radical changes in our affect toward perfumes as toward people. A perfume which we once loved, we may become unable to endure, whether because we have changed or it has. Some perfumes do not age well; others have been reformulated. Some of them don't change at all, but because we do, they no longer seem to be what we once thought that they were.

We may become more sophisticated in our perfume choices, or we may simply change our tastes, in some cases influenced by what happens to be on the market today, dictated by marketing gurus attempting to capture our wallet share. However slim our own investments in the perfume market may seem when regarded individually, the fact remains that we are all members of market niches. There are literally thousands of others like you, my fragrant friends, at least when it comes to perfume-shopping behavior.

As a result of all of these factors, our relationships with perfumes, just as our relationships with other people, may be shaped and even to some extent determined by arbitrary circumstances of chance. At the most fundamental and obvious level, we cannot develop a relationship with either a person or a perfume whom we've never met!

It dawned on me recently that if a perfume is analogous in so many ways to a person—specifically, what is often thought to be the essence of a person, his or her soul—then this would seem to imply that the bottle is analogous to the physical body of a person. In other words, the bottle, like the body, is the temple of the soul.

Now, not everyone buys this reasoning, and some thinkers woefully neglect their physical well-being, eschewing exercise, eating poorly, and in some cases indulging excessively in toxic substances such as alcohol and other drugs, under the arguably false assumption that they are actually benefiting from this self-inflicted bodily abuse. While a few outlier thinkers and artists may flourish creatively as their bodies self-destruct, generally speaking, the health of the body has predictable effects upon the health of the mind or soul. If poisons are coursing through one's body, then the brain, too, is bound to be affected in one way or another, often for the worse.

One possible basis for the folk wisdom that “the body is the temple of the soul” can be found in the thought of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who maintained that human beings are rational animals. Yes, we have minds or souls, but we also are connected in a fundamental way to the earth and the rest of nature as embodied souls.

There is no way for a person to live in this world without his or her body, and there is no way for a perfume to exist without being somehow housed in a physical object which will prevent it for a finite amount of time from evaporating. Eventually, every last drop of any perfume will disappear, no matter how carefully it is stored, and this is precisely what I mean when I say, metaphorically, that perfumes are every bit as mortal as persons are. The question becomes: given that our souls must inhabit bodies, should we not take care of the vessels in which we travel, and should we not care about the image which they convey to others?

Curmudgeons will of course reply “No.” They don't give a damn what other people think of their appearance, and some may even revel in their grunge attire and generally slovenly demeanor. In conducting themselves thus, such people sell themselves short, it seems to me, because while they may be rejecting the values of mainstream society, they do so to their own detriment. One reaction to what appears to be the undeniable fact that people really do care how we carry ourselves and how we generally look is to deny that those people's opinions matter.

Another reaction is to cultivate and provoke precisely the sort of disapproval which most people work hard to avoid, endeavoring as they do to conform or to “fit in,” so as not to appear abnormal or deviant. This sort of reaction might be termed the “rebellious teenager” response. People who during adolescence get mohawks and conspicuous tattoos and body piercings precisely in order to mortify their parents, unwittingly find themselves right back with the others, the herd, so to speak, conforming as they do in their nonconformity to the behavior of other members of what is in effect a subculture of "rebels". When the deviant appearance cultivated matches a familiar profile (Sid and Nancy, anyone?), then it all starts to look like a uniform and undermines the initial basis of what once was a creative revolt. Defining one's self in response entirely and only as a reaction to other people is the essence of what the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche termed slave morality.

Another, more sophisticated, approach to this question can be found, again, in the thought of Aristotle. The philosophical question for someone convinced of the equal importance of the mind or soul and the body is simply this: if we comprise both a body and a soul, why should we care only about the latter? The Christian response is of course that the soul is immortal, which the body is not. Therefore, the reasoning goes, because the soul exists infinitely, it is infinitely more important than the body.

Is there—or could there be—any compelling evidence for that sort of super-religious view, which pretty much negates the value of terrestrial existence? Many people throughout history have certainly believed in the immortality of the soul, which explains, among other things, the readiness of Christians such as Augustine and Aquinas—among many others—to defend wars whose most obvious and immediate outcomes are to bring some human beings' lives to a premature close. 

In reality, having only the evidence of the existence of our own mind and our own body, as we exist here on earth, it seems to me (and Aristotle) that there is no clear basis for favoring the mind over the body. The fact is that we are embodied beings. 

The question, again, quite naturally arises: are our bodies any less a part of us than our minds?

In the case of perfume, both the bottle and the liquid inside are eventually going to disappear or be discarded, but until then, they are bound together in just the way that we are housed in our bodies. The bottle naysayers take themselves to be exalting perfume, but they do so through a perverse denial of the aesthetic potential of the vessels themselves.

Many perfume houses clothe their perfumes in attire befitting of the glory and nobility of the elixirs which their resident or contracted perfumers have painstakingly created. Others appear to pour their perfumes into n'importe quoi, as though the user could somehow access the perfume without interacting with the bottle. No, I'm afraid that just as we cannot have direct physical contact with a person in reality except through his or her body, we cannot apply perfume without interacting with its bottle.

In fact, this is even more graphic in the case of perfume than in that of human beings. Modern technologies such as the telephone and the internet have made it possible for us to develop meaningful relationships with persons whom we have never encountered physically. 

Not so with perfume. In order to experience a perfume, you must apply it to your skin, which necessarily involves removing it from a physical object, its bottle or some sort of vial. The naysayers proclaim that we need to strip perfume of its irrelevant packaging and experience it as an art object in itself. Let us now examine a bit more closely the prospect of doing such a thing.

The Philosophical Significance of Bottles II: Epistemology
The Bottle as a Metaphor for Context

I find the application of the Aristotelian concept of the person to the case of perfume to be very helpful in understanding the importance of bottles. However, it is possible to ascend to an even higher, metalevel in thinking about bottles as well. It seems to me that bottles ultimately reveal themselves to have not just metaphysical but also epistemological significance.

Epistemology, for those who were too busy in college learning trades to be able bother with electives such as Philosophy 101, is the study of knowledge. What do we know? What are we justified in believing? How do we know what we know, if we know anything at all? These questions are at the heart of epistemology.

When perfumistas today say that they don't care about the packaging, they mean to be expressing a sophisticated view about the importance of taking the perfume on its own terms, as a thing in itself. This all sounds very lofty and nice, but the reality, my fragrant friends, is that no perfume exists in a vacuum. Perfumes arise always and only in social and economic contexts. Perfumes cannot be fully abstracted from this context. Why? Because even the very act of abstraction is culturally prefigured by an antecedent desire to elevate perfume to the status of one of the beaux arts.

Without a context, a liquid is just a liquid. It becomes christened as a perfume only as a result of having been created by a perfumer—whether professional or amateur—and then appreciated in a particular context. If a perfume is to be recognized as such, it must be placed into a larger cultural apparatus, a framework whereby other people are afforded the opportunity to experience it as well. All of this is done through the reproduction of perfumes according to recipes or formulas specified by perfumers. The mixing together of the various components is typically carried out by chemists or technicians conversant with all of the different ingredients and aware of the proper procedure to be followed in order to faithfully reproduce the original perfume.

Because a perfume cannot even in principle be shared without being placed into this apparatus, situated within this complex system—what is no more and no less than the business of perfumery—this implies that bottle-free perfume is a sort of intellectual fancy with no correlate in reality.

The fact is that we experience perfumes not in spite but only because of the marketing which is carried out in order to sell the product to consumers. This is true whether the perfume is being purveyed by a large megacorporate conglomerate such as Procter & Gamble, LVMH, Estée Lauder, et al., or by a small independent house such as those of perfumers Andy Tauer and Ineke Rühland or even less well-known perfumers such as John Pegg of Kerosene or Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse.

All perfumes known to us are known to us only because their creators, whether contracted or self-employed, have agreed to play the perfume business game. If they had been content to mix private bespoke perfumes for themselves and their families, then we would never have heard of them and would never have had the pleasure of experiencing their perfumes.

Now, the putative purists will reply, the fact that perfumes come in bottles and packaging and are marketed using a variety of gimmicks and techniques does not mean that there is not an olfactory object there to be appreciated as a thing in itself. We need to clear away all of the irrelevant matter and focus on the perfume, not its packaging—or so the self-styled sophisticate's reasoning goes.

This is all well and fine as an abstract argument, but as a project, it is entirely quixotic, at best. It is not just that our access to perfume requires that it be somehow stored and conveyed to us. No, the problem is much deeper than that, inhering not in fortuitous facts about the world, but in our very capacity to understand anything at all.

The truth is that our entire understanding of perfume derives from the business apparatus in which it is situated. Why do we talk about notes? Why do we talk about development trajectories, longevity, and sillage? Because they are created concepts which we only know about because they have been used extensively for marketing purposes. Why do we discuss perfumes in the terms in which we do? This one is a floral aldehyde, that one a chypre; both are very different from citrus colognes and gourmand perfumes.

The truth, my fellow fragrant travelers, is that we could have no conversation about perfume were we not to avail ourselves of the very language developed in order to sell perfume. What's more, without our memories of other perfumes, presented to us in rich contexts, of which their bottle is a metaphor, we could not identify or say anything whatsoever about a perfume. It would only be a smell.

Some may perhaps suggest that we return to the proverbial state of nature with regard to perfume. My reply:  Why would we want to do that? As a matter of fact, it's rather easy to determine what the untutored sniffer thinks of perfume. Ask any ignorant person whom you encounter on the street. Is that the sort of fresh, guileless naïveté which we should be striving for? In fact, there are plenty of such people opining about perfume all over the place. Their sincere proclamation that this or that new celebrity launch is a breathtaking masterpiece is a reflection, it seems, of their limited perspective on perfume, grounded in a lack of experience of anything but creations made in that mold.

But all of us have the very same problem of skewed perspective, it seems to me. There is no way for us intellectually to process perfume outside of the context in which it has arisen and is sustained in the culture in which we live. We come to any perfume, whether it is in a bottle or an unmarked vial or a room of scent devoid of visual cues so that we'll not be distracted from “the scent itself”, with a robust set of beliefs and theory. We cannot abstract perfume from marketing contexts because our understanding of perfumes derives primarily from our own memories of perfumes experienced in the past, all of which were anchored in that very same apparatus. This implies that in order to smell a perfume in and of itself, we would need somehow to suppress all of our memories of all of our prior experiences.

If we were to succeed in doing that, we would no longer possess the capacity to understand what we encountered. In the paraphrased and translated words of the eighteenth-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant:

Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.

Perfume bottles are, I would like to suggest, a metaphor for the epistemological apparatus which we must bring to any object in order to be able to apprehend it. Without all of our prior beliefs and memories, we would not be able to make any sense whatsoever out of a perfume. Removing it from its natural habitat, the bottle in which it is housed, therefore seems like a vain and arbitrary abstraction. Why should such a feat of isolation yield a more veridical experience than the use of a perfume directly from a bottle, which is precisely the manner in which we came to love perfume in the first place?

It's not just that context matters aesthetically—which it does, as anyone who enjoys fine cuisine will readily aver. Why, after all, was silverware ever invented when we have hands which are perfectly adequate to the task of feeding ourselves? The answer, of course, is that beautiful place settings enhance delectable food. The same, therefore, seems to be true in the case of perfume. Beautiful bottles are not distractions but enhancers of beautiful perfumes.

You can't judge a book by its cover!” some will reply. And it is certainly true that if the text inside is ugly or incoherent, then even the most aesthetically exquisite book cover will not be able to hide this regrettable fact. However, sometimes gorgeously produced books do reflect the value of the text inside. Again, as in the case of collectors of empty perfume bottles, there are book collectors who may or may not actually read the books of which they amass large libraries. They are truly interested in the presentation of what others have claimed to be great works and may or may not have the time or inclination to read all or even any of them.

Some perfume lovers appear to be troubled by the use of bottles to seduce consumers into buying perfumes. In reality, however, if most perfumes are purchased scent unsniffed—as I presume that they are—then marketers are acting rationally in luring potential buyers through the use of bottles produced by designers every bit as talented as the perfumers who created the liquids inside. In some cases, a house or corporate conglomerate may become jaded, fill beautiful bottles with chemical soup, invest far more time, money, and energy in the bottle, marketing, and packaging than on the liquid inside. That was, of course, the take-away lesson of “Behind the Spritz,” the Daily Finance article which revealed that 98% of the purchase price of a bottle of mainstream celebrity brand perfume has nothing whatsoever to do with the perfume itself!

These facts are a reflections of the nature of business and in part the nature of the sorts of human beings who enter into business ventures. They may or may not share our aesthetic values or our interest in what we take to be a worthy object of our affection, in this case, perfume. They may regard perfume as an exalted toiletry which just happens to have a fantastic mark-up potential. (It appears that only cosmetics have a higher profit margin.)

Business people dressed up in artists' clothes may of course seize the opportunity to establish a niche perfumery house having discovered that perfume lovers are willing to spend $100, $200, even $800 for a bottle of perfume! The people who are willing to pay so much money for what hoi polloi regard as a toiletry along the lines of mouthwash and deodorant are investing in luxury products, which generally command huge amounts of money relative to the production costs. The price in fact becomes a part of the aura and fascination.

Many of the most expensive perfumes come in gorgeous packaging. Why? Because the people who consume them are enjoying them as luxury items in the way in which they might enjoy a watch which costs thousands of times more than a Timex but which serves the very same function: to tell time. That is the reply of people who scoff at Rolex timepieces. They prefer to pocket the thousands of dollars in change which they will save by wearing an inexpensive watch because the real reason why they care about watches is only as a source of information. I suspect that with the panoply of omnifunction handheld phone gadgets now in near ubiquity, the watch will soon become purely a piece of jewelry, if that has not happened already...

People who wear perfume as body spray are simply scenting themselves. They are not interested in spending hundreds of dollars for a bottle of perfume, because they have an entirely different attitude toward what they take to be its function. The truth is that perfume is dispensable. Unlike food and water, human beings can live without perfume. That we come to appreciate it at all is a result of the happy fact that some people in the business world, as crass and mercenary as they may sometimes be, have decided that marketing and selling perfumes is a worthwhile venture. 

We may idolize our favorite perfumers, but unless they are also business people or find ways to work with business people, then we can have no access to their creations. Unless they team up with persons interested in profiting from perfume through presenting it to consumers in enticing ways, then we will never have any knowledge of what they do.

Perfume exists in a social and cultural context, not a vacuum. To abstract it from this context would be to evacuate it of all meaning. Can we smell Chanel no 5 as a thing in itself? No, my fragrant friends, we cannot. Our consciousness has been literally flooded by images of beautiful women presumably wearing Chanel no 5. Therefore, our understanding of this iconic perfume derives not only from the smell of the liquid itself, which some maintain is divine, but much more importantly from nearly a century of incessant, relentless marketing campaigns which have created a narrative through which the perfume is understood by us. The very words 'Chanel no 5' evoke an avalanche of visual images and memories, even among people who have no idea what the perfume itself smells like!

The latest chapter of this lengthy, complex narrative is attempting to broaden the base of this perfume's lovers beyond the tuxedo and mink stole crowd to include, well, people who relate to or are attracted by Brad Pitt, whose current incarnation is housed in faded denims, long stringy hair, and a goatee. As one astute Fragrantican aptly wrote (under the moniker "100mlEDT"): "Brad looks like he needs a dollar, a shave, and a shower."

If the campaign succeeds, then Chanel no 5 may still be around a century from now. If not, at some point in time, somewhere down the line, people will decide that the perfume beloved by so many for so long smells dated and inappropriate: a relic from perfume's past. More likely, Chanel will simply recycle its formerly successful ads. A woman is a woman after all...

Whatever may eventually happen to Chanel no 5, no one can truthfully say that they are capable of abstracting it from its rich context and making objective judgments about its value as a perfume in and of itself, or so it seems to me. Without bottles and ad campaigns, perfumes are just smells.