Sunday, March 31, 2013

Entry #5: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Empirical, Empiricism, and Empiricist

The contrast class for metaphysical is empirical or empirically observable. An empirical phenomenon need not be directly perceivable using our sense organs, but it has to be inferrable by appeal to empirical data. Think of the scent of cigar lingering in a hall. That gives you some empirically perceivable evidence for believing that someone was recently smoking a cigar in that very space. A woman wafting of the scent of Lancôme Trésor gives good reason for believing that she applied that perfume earlier that day.

Empiricism is one approach to knowledge, often contrasted with rationalism (to be defined...). Empiricists are people who believe that empirical methods, including observationwhether direct or indirectyield truth. They tend to be scientifically or naturalistically minded and may reject questions such as "Does God exist?" as incapable of being answered. But not all empiricists simplemindedly espouse atheism. They may instead sincerely maintain that there is no compelling evidence for the existence or the nonexistence of God. It's up for grabs. The jury's still out. That kind of thing.

Could there be empirical evidence for the existence of Plato's Forms? The Form of the Perfect Perfume is an idea or a concept, some would say, but Plato seems to have had in mind something more significant, something metaphysically real.The Form of the Perfect Perfume would be what a real, empirically perceptible perfume would be like, if it were not mired in the lowly world of becoming. Earthly perfumes can only aspire to the realm of the Forms, including the Form of Beauty.

Somehow I cannot imagine that such examples are helping anyone who wishes to come to an understanding of what metaphysics is. Let us begin again. Is reality exhausted by the things which we human beings happen to be able to perceive? Or is there more to reality than what can be reasonably inferred to exist from the deliverances of our idiosyncratic sense organs? Does a perfume never sniffed thereby cease to exist? Sounds a bit crazy, doesn't it?

Nonetheless, at this point in history, our culture is quite scientifically focused. For the most part, science is thought to tell us the truth about the world. Anything which cannot be confirmed or refuted by empirical testing, through setting up a hypothesis and determining what its implications would be, falls outside of the realm of science. In this sense, religions are metaphysical, although contemporary professional metaphysicians think of their vocation as quite a bit more important and rigorous than either religion or new-age "metaphysics". But even atheistic metaphysicians have their own little "gods", their objects of faith, their fanciful theories.

Among other things, metaphysicians are interested in categories. Here we can return to the case of perfume and ask whether any of the orthodox perfume categories actually "carve reality at its joints", as philosophers love to say. Or is it rather that we adopt these categories for organizational purposes? 

Floral perfumes are those which feature primarily floral notes. Classical chypres contain some combination of characteristic notes, often including oakmoss and/or patchouli. Floral aldehydes obviously contain a perceptible dose of aldehydes, along with floral notes. Floral green perfumes often feature galbanum.

In the twenty-first century we seem to have a whole new set of categories, and this may suggest to critical minds that these really are all just conventions. Do shampoo-conditioner fragrances exist? Well, there are plenty of perfumes out there which smell just like the scent of shampoos and conditioners, so why not? Do "don't worry, be happy, never dislike, only like," SSRI fragrances exist? They have a bright and shiny demeanor, and it's easy to identify them once one has been familiarized with the "reality" of this new fragrance category.

What about office-ready, inoffensive, fruity-floral frags? There seem to be lots of perfumes out there which fit that description, so why not give them their own acronym: ORIFFF? What about Oud perfumes? Is there such a thing as a real and existent category of oud perfumes, or are there only a bunch of independently produced oud perfumes, which are similar to one another in that they all (claim to...) feature oud? I think that you can see where all of this is leading.

Do the categories of things named by us really exist? Or are they simply useful organizational schemes for talking about things? A skeptical take on all of this is that we make up categories to suit our purposes. There is a decision being made about how to talk about what we wish to distinguish as separate objects in the world. Scientific testing will not help in these cases.

People who have limited experience with perfume may find that Chanel no 5 and Britney Spears Circus Fantasy smell very much alike. And it's probably true that they do smell more like one another than either smells like water. We call them both perfumes, even though that is a crude label which does not distinguish any of the more finely delineated categories described above. 

To be honest, I feel the same way about the "Perfume is art" thesis. A very few perfumes may attain the status of art, given the conditions of their production and the intentions of their creator, but most of them? That would be a conceptual confusion of the highest order. Perfumery is first a business. What happens beyond that depends on the individual perfumer. Sweeping claims about all perfumers being olfactory artists make very little sense at all when one reflects upon what most of them do and, above all, why.

One response to this sort of discussion, particularly frequent from nonphilosophers, is: Who cares? That may sound unsophisticated, but it could also be the heartfelt expression of a school of philosophy known as pragmatism. More on that to follow...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Entry #4: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Metaphysics and Metaphysicians

The term metaphysics was first used by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle as the title of one of the volumes of his massive philosophical corpus. Metaphysics was literally the volume after Physics. What were the subjects contained within Aristotle's volume Metaphysics? All sorts of topics which involve a higher level of abstraction than physics itself or, if you like, dig more deeply into the nature of reality than even physics.

Over the many centuries since Aristotle, metaphysics has come to mean philosophical speculation of a nonempirical type, of intrinsically nonobservable phenomena. One example is causation. We don't observe causation. We observe what appears to be a cause, and what appears to be an effect. Are they joined causally, or are they merely coincidentally connected? This is a big question for philosophers interested in metaphysics. They have also speculated about such things as tropes and possible worlds. 

To skeptics, all of this is well and fine, but an elaborate fantasy is, at the end of the day, still a fantasy. For obvious reasons, then, metaphysicians are not that keen on skeptics. When confronted with a meticulously woven metaphysical tapestry, rather than complimenting its maker, the skeptic points out all of its flaws, and reveals that even the metaphysician's most cherished theories are incapable of being demonstrated as anything more than figments of his imagination. To metaphysicians, skeptics are like an annoying kid at a party who pops everyone's balloons.

Eternal, Transcendent Masterpiece
or Highly Contingent Mass Market Success?

Where does metaphysics fit into the perfume picture? One question which has arisen lately is the status of perfumery. Is it art? Does it matter? On the one hand, this seems to be a simple conceptual question. Define the term art, and then examine perfumery and see whether it fits the definition. I've noticed a tendency on the part of the "Perfume is art" crowd to conflate art and aesthetics. 

Beauty stopped being a necessary condition to art more than a century ago, so there's definitely a conceptual confusion in the minds of those who infer from the resplendent beauty of some perfumes that they are works of art. When people begin exalting perfumes as masterpieces, or "one of the ten greatest perfumes of all time," there seems to be something more going on. When such claims are made with quasi-religious fervor, then one can only suspect that perfume has become some kind of surrogate for a higher purpose or power. Perfume seems to hold some sort of metaphysical significance for such enthusiasts, a value beyond the pleasure derived from the experience of perfume.

Eternal, Transcendent Masterpiece
or Highly Contingent Mass Market Success?

Many people appear to wish to believe that great perfumes have an eternal aspect to them, despite the obviously evanescent quality of the real liquids which go by the label perfume, and despite the fact that perfumes arise in very particular cultural contexts, and despite the dependence of our tastes in perfume on highly contingent cultural factors. Being skeptical by nature, my distinct impression is that the people who fall into the "Perfume is art" camp are making sweeping generalizations based on their own love of some perfumes. Obviously, all perfumes are not artworks, just as most texts are not literature. So right from the beginning there is a problem with the "Perfume is art" thesis. 

Surely any thoughtful person would distinguish great perfumes from vat-produced chemical soups created solely in response to marketing data amassed about the preference of current consumers. There is something of a vicious circle in all of this, because the perfumes thought to be market-worthy end up on the shelves, and then consumers buy and wear them. They may in this way become habituated to those sorts of scents, and then when they are surveyed, they will express in complete sincerity an interest in wearing more of the same. Homogenization is inevitable in such a scheme.

Returning to the question of metaphysics, one may ask whether there are transcendent perfumes, which attain a higher level. Plato would say that, if so, then they participate in the Realm of the Forms, specifically, The Form of the Perfect Perfume. Now there is a metaphysical theory, if ever there was one. But in order to understand Plato's theory of reality (his metaphysics), we'll need to think a bit more about empiricism, a term yet to be defined. Stay tuned...

Eternal, Transcendent Masterpiece
or Highly Contingent Mass Market Success?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Entry #3: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Skepticism and Skeptics

The word skeptic is used quite a lot in a loose way to refer to someone who harbors doubts about a particular question or subject matter. In philosophy, skeptic and skepticism refer more specifically to a type of epistemological doubt. Skeptics are people who start out as epistemologists, attempting to determine the conditions and extent of our knowledge, but they end by concluding that the answers to the following questions are rather dim: 

What do we know? Diddly.

How do we know? We don't.

Can we know? No.

Do we know anything at all? No.

What is truly fascinating about skepticism is that it knows (pardon the pun) no bounds. It is possible even to be a skeptic about skepticism! So a consistent skeptic ultimately ends up in a quandary: how does he know that he does not know?

Socrates appears to have been a skeptic, who did not espouse any positive views of his own about the world, but famously exhorted people to Know thyself. When it came to matters transcending the self, Socrates was all questions and no answers, and this really annoyed his contemporaries, who in the end sentenced him to death for his irritating habit of walking around the streets of Athens and badgering people with questions until they revealed the truth: that they had no idea what they were talking about.

Socrates revealed this truth to his interlocutors by catching them in contradictions. It cannot be the case both that p and that not-p (where p is any proposition), but when Socrates persisted in his questioning, he invariably found that the people with whom he conversed contradicted themselves, thus demonstrating that, despite their sophisticated airs and alleged expertise and experience, reality and appearance diverged.

Are there skeptics in the world of perfume? Of course. One of the most common examples is the Creed skeptic, who denies that the house of Creed really is all that it purports to be. To the Creed skeptic, a Creed skeptic skeptic (such as Bryan Ross at From Pyrgos) retorts: how do you know that Creed is a sham? 

Is a skeptic about Creed skeptics a true believer? Or does he simply deny that the grounds for Creed skepticism are sound? I encourage you to read some of the many excellent pieces on these matters over at From Pyrgos.

We'll pick up tomorrow where we left off, with the skeptic's mortal enemy: the metaphysician!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Entry #2: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


The word epistemology means theory of knowledge or the study of knowledge. This branch of philosophy is concerned with the most fundamental of questions: What do we know? How do we know? Can we know? Do we know anything at all?

Naturally one of the first questions to be addressed by epistemologists (the philosophers who spend their time primarily on questions of knowledge) is simply this: 

What is knowledge? 

According to one orthodox answer to this question, knowledge is justified true belief. That may sound complicated, but it's really just common sense. If I know that the perfume which I just donned after my bath is Clinique Aromatics Elixir, then presumably it is true that I just donned Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and I do in fact believe that to be the case. Furthermore, I must be justified in believing that the perfume in the bottle which I just sprayed on is indeed Clinique Aromatics Elixir. Are there any reasons for doubting any of this?

Or to turn the question on its head: What precisely are my grounds for believing that the perfume which I just donned is Aromatics Elixir? It certainly seems reasonable that the brown liquid inside this frosted glass bottle is Aromatics Elixir. I did not buy my bottle from an ebay hawk, who in an effort to maximize profit may have decanted half the liquid and refilled the vessel with anti-freeze, adjusting the color back to that of the original perfume by adding some dye. 

Of course, it's possible that some perverse factory employee of the Clinique company pulled a practical joke such that an entire batch of what was bottled as Aromatics Elixir was in fact a completely different perfume. It's also possible that an incompetent employee simply made a big fat mistake, say, by confusing the various recipes in the factory fragrance book, and combining the ingredients needed to produce Clinique Happy instead of Aromatics Elixir.

Nonetheless, I feel justified in my belief that the perfume which I donned after my bath is not Clinique Happy, because happily it does not smell like that fragrance. In fact, the perfume wafting up my décolleté smells exactly like Aromatics Elixir

There is still a problem, however: my alleged knowledge of what Aromatics Elixir smells like derives solely from the bottles in my collection (one was produced in the United States, the other in Switzerland). If those bottles do not contain Aromatics Elixir, though I believe that they do, I could still be wrong. They both open with a bitter and intense chamomile but eventually dry down to oakmoss-patchouli bliss.

Now, of course, the astute reader is wondering about the probability that the liquids in the two different bottles, produced in entirely different countries, could possibly both be erroneously filled with some substance other than Aromatics Elixirand the same one, at that! To my surprise, the color of the liquids in the two bottles is not at all the sameone seems more yellow, the other much more brownbut the scent seems quite similar, especially by the drydown. 

Would it not take a conspiracy of grand proportion for both of these bottles to be filled with any perfume other than Aromatics Elixir, even though empirically speaking they are in fact quite distinct? Can we not explain the difference in color by factors such as the particular crop of patchouli used in the two distinct batches? 

I think that you can see where all of this is leading. Epistemologists really do spend time on all of the various ways in which we can be mistaken in our beliefs. If knowledge is justified true belief, then when we are mistaken in our beliefs, we lack knowledge. Perhaps it should be obvious why epistemologists have so few friends and are hated above all by people whose beliefs are grounded in faith. 

There are so many very different ways in which we might be mistaken that after thinking about these questions for a while, one may simply capitulate to skepticism. But that's tomorrow's word, so stay tuned, especially since Creed may be mentioned...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Intro and Entry #1: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


My mother is fond of reminding me every several months or so that "normal people don't use words like epistemology and phenomenology." She is an intelligent woman with a graduate degree in political science, so I feel that she's not just picking on me. The last time she mentioned this, she adduced as further evidence of the truth of her claim that when she asked her husband, an attorney (not my father, who is an engineer) whether he knew what the word epistemology means, he shrugged his shoulders and replied, "No."

Needless to say, I've been doing some soul searching and have decided that it's time for me to start defining my terms. I realize that the salon de parfum has been in existence now for more than fifteen months, but, as they say: Better late than never! If my highly educated parents don't even know what epistemology means, can I really expect even astute perfumistas to know what I am talking about when I pepper my texts with such terms as ontology, metaphysics, phenomenology, and the like? 

Effective right now, I am building a philosophical lexicon for ready reference by visitors to the salon de parfum who wish to debate deep issues about perfume but have no idea what I am talking about. This will take me a bit of time to complete, so I'm going to approach this as a blogger, which you may have noticed is not really my style. I prefer to post essays, but for about the next month or two, I'm going to try to put together, piece by piece, a philosophical lexicon. Composing such a reference source in a single sitting would be too tedious for me, and you can be sure that my ADD would be fighting it every minute of the way. 

Instead, I'm going to post a separate entry for a new word each day, and combine them into a full-length lexicon, which by the end of this process should provide all of the definitions and examples needed to be able to participate fully in philosophical debates about perfume. 

Let us start at the very beginning, a very good place to start:

Entry #1: Philosophy

The word philosophy comes from the Greek (and Comrade Christos from Memory of Scent can back me up on this) for "love" and "wisdom". Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Love is probably not going to cause anyone to pause. But "wisdom"? What could this mean? 

My own take on this concept is that some people seek out the truth and a deep understanding of subject matters and their own place in the universe. Is wisdom the same as knowledge? Not exactly. One could know everything there is to know about the chemical components of a perfume without appreciating its beauty or greatness. On the other hand, a person entirely ignorant of the chemical components of a perfume may intuitively grasp truths through their experience of it. 

I believe that many perfumistas are philosophers in this sense: they are seeking to deepen their understanding of perfume and also themselves through traveling around the olfactory universe and testing lots of different perfumes. It seems to me that philosophy (love of wisdom) and love of perfume go hand in hand in cases where people are interested in perfumes not solely for functional benefits (pleasure, seductive appeal, fame and fortune, etc.) but also as things in themselves. Perfumistas who actively acquaint themselves with new perfumes are engaging personally with them, because scents elicit memories from the wearer's past and help to connect disparate things together to make more sense of the world.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Secret Perfumista Life of John Steed, and a tribute to the coolest couple in the history of television: The Avengers...

Must-view Avengers for any self-respecting perfumista:

How to succeed ... at Murder

Volume 8, episode 3, 1966

Having renounced television quite some time ago as the largely worthless and mind-numbing diversion that it is, I nonetheless have always been an amateur of fine films—of every length. While still a member of the Columbia House DVD club—before it became clear that physical media would soon go the way of oaxmoss-rich perfumes—I procured a complete, nearly fifty-hour set of the British television cult classic The Avengers, which originally aired from 1965 through 1967, starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Since acquiring this collection—The Complete Emma Peel Megaset—I have not seen it for sale anywhere else, so I feel fortunate to own it, and also to have seized the opportunity to give a set to each of my two sisters. In my considered opinion, The Avengers is one of the very best television series ever to have been produced.

Why is The Avengers such a superlative series? Where to begin? First, every sizzling episode oozes with both style and substance. The aesthetics are top notch, with each scene carefully thought out and all props well chosen and arrayed. As a result, virtually any screen shot is picture perfect and worthy of extended reflection. The dialogue is always witty and often poetic, and the plots are extremely well-crafted, exploring a range of issues and posing and solving a conflict within the short span of only 50 minutes. The writers of this series essentially mastered the filmic equivalent of the fine art of the short story.

Part of the wonderfulness of The Avengers derives from the simple fact that the two protagonists, Emma Peel and John Steed, have impeccably good taste. It certainly does not hurt that women's fashion of the 1960s exhibited a distinctness and sleekness never before seen in history and unrivaled since. The Avengers are handsomely dressed, but Emma's wardrobe in particular is peerless among female television series protagonists. (Unfortunately, Ginger, of Gilligan's Island, appears to have brought only one dress—and a sequined mermaid model at that—along on her three-hour cruise turned epic island adventure...)

The Avengers' acute aesthetic awareness is really just one reflection of their boundless intelligence, proving yet again that a sharp and sensitive mind applies across the board to every realm. But rather than giving themselves over completely to the life of the aesthete, spending all of their time in the enjoyment of the finer things in life, and concerning themselves only with the heightened pleasures of the moment available to them, Peel and Steed are the dynamic and daring duo who relentlessly combat both evil and stupidity, applying their keen intellects to solve intractable crime after crime and thus leaving the world better than it was when they found it. Fully defying the image of the hard-boiled gumshoe detective who lives out of his car and eats fast food, Emma and John approach every problem from the aesthetic space which they already occupy and in which they are firmly ensconced, their lives replete with style and artful design.

This couple is not a couple, at least not on film, but their relationship within the episodes makes it impossible not to wonder what may happen in between. At the end of this particular episode, How to succeed ... at Murder, Emma and John are sitting side-by-side studying their new books on ventriloquism—an interest piqued by the events of the dangerous plot which they have only just managed to foil—in the back of an obviously chauffeured travel trailer, moving off into the distance.

The affinity and mutual esteem between Peel and Steed is undeniable, but they are much too cool to stoop to boorish public displays of affection, so if they were romantically involved, they would certainly never broadcast that fact to their gawking admirers. For this reason, I reject the orthodox line, according to which the couple are only professional partners against crime.

It is true that Emma goes by her married name, Mrs. Peel, but her husband was a pilot whose plane had disappeared somewhere over the Amazonian forest (and he was presumed dead) before her collaboration with Steed. It simply stretches credulity that Mrs. Peel would adhere to antiquated conventions governing widows, and marriage more generally. Emma and John break every other rule in the book, so why would they feel bound by something as parochial as petit-bourgeois tradition?

In reality, which is to say, within the fiction which is the reality of The Avengers, it matters perhaps little whether or not Emma and John ever share the same bed, and they certainly would not care what we happen to think. What is indubitable is that they are kindred spirits and make a superlative professional team, defeating evil enemies left and right, and proving that intelligent people can also be both comely and civilized—and even nice!

That's right: nice. Whenever Peel and Steed encounter an agent of evil, they treat him or her with the utmost respect, and if it becomes necessary to take them out, there is no rancor or anger involved in the execution of what is done invariably and only in self-defense. Emma and John do not sentence to death and execute persons suspected—or even known to be guilty—of crimes. Instead, they protect themselves from them.

Whenever possible, the Avengers, in their boundless clemency, spare their adversaries' lives. Alas, this is not always possible, as in this rich episode in which a group of misguided radical feminists have been brought together—unbeknownst to themselves—by a psychotic man to commit murder after murder of successful businessmen in a misguided effort to realize what they have been brainwashed to believe is their mission and dream:

Ruination to all men!

Having been produced in 1966, How to Succeed ... at Murder offers a creative and incisive critique of radical feminism gone awry. Feminists back then, as now, are undoubtedly right that women have been kept down, with secretaries dominated by tyrannical bosses often less intelligent than the women whom they depend upon. In the United States, by 2009, nearly half a century after the ratification of The Equal Pay Act of 1963, women were still earning only 77 cents on the dollar paid to equally qualified men for performing the very same work. (In 1963, they received 59 cents on the dollar paid to men.)

What is the proper response to this unhappy state of affairs? Whatever the solution to the problem of the oppression of women may be, it must be acknowledged that only some men are in willful complicity—John Steed being a felicitous counterexample to the premise underlying misguided and sweeping anti-man campaigns.

Recognizing the fallacy in the reasoning of this particular group of radical feminists, Emma and John make short order of their ill-conceived plot. Upon learning that this angry group plans to do away with men altogether, Steed tips his hat and politely observes to a woman who has volunteered to wipe him out with a machine gun, “We do have our uses, Madame.”

Needless to say, I highly recommend this series. Rather than providing any more plot spoilers, I would like to turn now to the specific role played by perfume in this episode, in particular.

The Perfume Angle

Perfume first appears in How to succeed ... at Murder when Peel and Steed are examining a crime scene. A man has been found dead in the back of a taxi, and the two sleuths are attempting to deduce what has transpired. After taking stock of various physical facts, Emma suddenly sniffs the air and asks John, “What's that perfume you're wearing?” Her partner against crime replies, “None. … Today.”

Yes, embedded within this little story—engaging in so many very different ways—is also proof positive that John Steed, perhaps the coolest male persona in the history of television (pace Stringer Bell), was a perfumista! He reveals to all attentive viewers in a single short phrase that he does indeed wear on a regular basis not only fragrance or cologne, but perfume.

The couple proceeds to comment on the quality of the perfume in the taxicab, noting first that it smells nice, and then that it has a slight sweetness and, therefore, cannot be an aftershave. They conclude that a woman has been in the cab with this now-dead man and, therefore, may well have been the killer.

From there, the couple moves swiftly to capitalize on this unusual clue. Steed grabs a tire pump, and sucks some of the perfumed air in through the valve before closing it, and handing the sample over to Peel for further investigation.

Emma enlists the aid of J.J. Hooter, Perfumier Extraordinaire, who, he informs her, has one of the finest noses in all of Europe. To protect his precious proboscis, he wears a thick covering to prevent the unwanted entrance of “effluvia”, as he puts it. 

The perfumer rinses his nose with highly distilled water before submitting the sample to direct testing, at which point he immediately recognizes the scent to be one of his very own creations: Leap Into My Fervid Arms.

But wait, there's more: following another, independent, trail of clues, Steed, while doing some late-night foraging through an accountant's records, suddenly starts as he sniffs the very same perfume which he and Emma had encountered in the cab.

Sure enough, the culprit has entered the office behind him, and a scuffle ensues. Knocked out by the heel of the woman's shoe, Steed is briefly dazed, but emerges undaunted and even more determined than ever to solve the crimes.

Later, during one of his interviews at a firm where the boss has gone missing—said by the secretary to be on “extended holiday”—Steed reaches naturally for a flower from the vase and brings it under his nose to sniff over and over again throughout the exchange.

So there you have it, my fragrant friends: proof positive that John Steed of The Avengers fame was indeed a perfumista. You, my gentlemanly readers, may now pride yourselves for being in extremely good company, having as a comrade-in-nose the great British sleuth himself. Spritz on!

Monday, March 11, 2013

I fell head over heels with Lanvin Arpège...

It happened, as it were, completely by chance, as I suppose these things always do. Who can predict what new arrival at the forefront of one's mind—a flickering image, a faint idea, a vague prospect heretofore unrecognized—may inspire an outpouring of passion? Does anyone possess the wherewithal, the sheer power to turn such a force of nature away?

Lanvin Arpège was the farthest thing from my mind back then, when I was still wearing Chanel Allure: sweet, nice, and linear—a scent for every time and every place, and my favorite especially to don right before embarking on a journey to a land far away. Gambling on new perfumes was never really an option. Subject my fellow passengers to the latest Dior Poison flanker? Or some blue aquatic nonsense which might be even more emetic than the food served on board?

No, and as a seasoned traveler, I knew that every single duty-free shop in the world carries Chanel, before anything else. Let's put it this way: if there were a duty-free shop in an airport in even the remotest corner of the universe, it would contain tester bottles of Allure eau de toilette and eau de parfum within arm's reach. It's as though Chanel has underwritten the very existence of such stores—along with the Toblerone chocolate company.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you, for it is indeed true that in my many travels abroad to destinations far and wide, I have come to depend upon Allure as a dose of serenity, a way to calm my frazzled nerves before boarding a plane which might in fact—it's all a numbers game—experience a malfunction, impelling in a flash all of the passengers in the congested cabin to dredge through the many otherwise meaningless prescriptions inscribed in the deepest fissures of their brain to locate this phrase, relevant at most one time in any person's life:

Affix your own air mask before helping a fellow passenger.

A prescription which I confess to have found equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to my attitude in the morning when opting first to prepare coffee before acknowledging the existence of anyone else. It is also the basis—whether sound or not—of many a person's refusal to help another person in dire need, even the proverbial damsel in distress. Remember Kitty Genovese? Probably not. But that's another story.

Allure was perhaps the precursor to the twenty-first-century SSRI scents now flooding the market, impossibly inoffensive, while at the same time a pleasure to wear. A beautiful blend of floral and light oriental notes into a seamless, indivisible layer of sweet niceness. “Linear” they called it, and linear it was, indeed, as dependable as a German or a Japanese train. Nothing rank, nothing obtrusive, nothing ugly. The perfect solution for long journeys spent in close quarters with complete strangers brought together fortuitously by nothing more and nothing less than their shared desire to be somewhere else and virtually anywhere but there, suspended in air, 30,000 feet above the surface of the earth.

My first bottle of Allure was purchased in Toronto, where I spent a few days alone and found that I really did wish to don a perfume, though I had neglected to bring any along. I acquired the bottle blind from an upscale department store from which I was buying a red cardigan, having discovered that the temperature in Toronto even in the summer months was quite a bit cooler than I had been led to expect. Did I become attached to Allure because of the comforting companionship it provided during that short trip? Whatever the explanation may be, I went on to drain bottle after bottle of both the edt and the edp, habitually reaching for Allure as a safe yet simultaneously endearing scent.

To be honest, I do not recall the circumstances of my first encounter with Arpège, but it certainly was not in a duty-free shop in a land far away or nearby, as I have yet to see any perfume by Lanvin being sold in any airport store—or virtually anywhere, for that matter. Perhaps the glimmering globes are hidden on some lower shelf in a dark corner of some of these establishments, but no one makes any real effort to sell Arpège, in particular, unlike the pro-active, seemingly ubiquitous Chanel sales associates, as hopeful as the barefoot Hare Krishnas with their tambourines, who will spritz even unwilling passersby with Chanel no 5. Which is not however to deny that the ploy appears more often than not to have worked, a part, as it is, of a grand, five-hundred-year master plan for marketing No 5 as not just the best-selling perfume of the twentieth century, but of all time.

Arpège, in contrast, is quite a bit more caddy, perhaps even coy. One must seek Arpège out, and if one fails to do that, well, you may rest assured that Arpège could not care less. I was one of the chosen few, the truly fortunate ones to happen upon this splendid and arcane creation. Yes, it is true: I felt blessed. I emphatically did not seek Arpège out and did not even really know what I had found for quite some time after having acquired a bottle, which is probably why I do not recall when precisely that was. Arpège was somehow delivered to me, a scent literally heaven sent, as though someone somewhere, a metaphysical matchmaker of sorts, had determined that it was meant to be.

Yes, somehow those beautiful bulbous bottles made their way onto the top shelf of my armoire, as though conveyed by supernatural forces beyond my power to control. But all of the history leading up to the big event proves irrelevant in the face of what transpired next.

I fell head over heels with Lanvin Arpège and, yes, I fell hard. How did it happen? you may well be wondering. From nothing to love in the blink of an eye, it happens every time, as the world is transformed beyond recognition all over again.

I began to see what had seemed to be his icy stare—at times a piercing glare—for what it really was: clarity. The lucidity of a mind capable of penetrating the inner secrets of the soul through the application of logic alone.

In the beginning, Arpège did not seem to have much interest in me, and to this day I wonder whether he ever did. Always cold and aloof in our initial meetings, he was sometimes brusque to the point of being rude. Never one to hug and kiss à la française, Arpège was more apt to refuse even to accept an outstretched hand. Some no doubt thought that he was rude, like the drunk who approached me as I was preparing one afternoon to depart from my table in a restaurant bar where I had stopped for a quick snack after a strenuous shopping trip.

He bumbled his way over, managing even in his stupor to see that there was only one body there, not two, and that it was a woman, not a man. He extended his hand, introducing himself, as though I should be happy to see such a slob standing before me with leering bloodshot eyes. I signed my check, picked up my things and dashed to the door while he lingered behind exuding what he took to be righteous indignation that I should be so uncouth.

That, too, is perhaps how some, even many, may have viewed Lanvin Arpège, but I knew that there was more to him than that abrupt façade, so I adamantly refused to retreat. Fortunately, I ,unlike the pathetic drunk who accosted me on that otherwise peaceful day in a restaurant bar, was not hopelessly confused.

I learned to brace myself before each encounter, and soon found that if I gave him some time, his layers of complexity would unfold, unraveling like infinite bolts of silk before my eyes until at last I realized that he had crept into my heart, and I could not live without him anymore. I began to regard his brusqueness as endearing, his way of fending off what might otherwise be the hordes of suitors unworthy of him. Was he elitist? Without a doubt, but it was this, perhaps, I cannot tell a lie, which drew me to him before anything else.

In the beginning I wanted nothing more than the modest privilege of being but one among his little club of followers. As time progressed, however, I began to want more and more, until at some point I realized that I was ready to turn my life over to him. I fantasized about him constantly, while knowing that most everyone else was satisfied with Chanel no 5, what they had been indoctrinated to believe and indeed took to be the greatest perfume of all time. Like the throngs of couples assembled together to take their marriage vows before Sun Myung Moon, they incessantly gloated as though No 5, which they happened by chance to have found lying around, were the best new discovery since sliced bread. Wonderbread, I hasten to add...

They had not yet met Arpège, and having tied the knot to No 5, perhaps they never would. To me, of course, all of this was perfectly fine, and many of them to this day remain mired in their abject state of ignorance, the corridors of their mind as dark as the remotest recesses of Plato's Cave. I knew all along, deep down inside, that they were wrong, but I had no desire to disabuse them of the errors of their ways.

They had all been tricked by the hype, the slinky black dresses flaunting vast areas of bare skin, Chanel bling, and the promise of a luxury of which their lives were otherwise entirely devoid. They were sucked in, like lambs to the slaughter, completely unaware of what they were missing. I haughtily and, I suppose, selfishly declined to correct their mistakes. By now it should be obvious: I wanted Arpège all to myself.

Aldehydes, yes, we all loved our aldehydes, but Arpège offered so much more, so much complexity and depth on top of the aldehydes that there was really no point in comparing the two. Yes, aldehydes; yes, jasmine; yes, rose. But those were only the beginning for the noble Arpège, a treasure thankfully never tied to images of blonde bimbos and the nouveaux riches. So why in the world would I want to share with all of the No 5 bots the truth about Arpège:

top notes: aldehydes, neroli, bergamot

middle notes: ylang-ylang, rose, iris, jasmine, cloves, coriander, geranium, tuberose, lily of the valley

base notes: patchouli, vetiver, vanilla, sandalwood, styrax

Instead, Arpège could remain my private—or near private—stock while all of the wearers of No 5 would smell the same. Did they smell like Marilyn Monroe, like Catherine Deneuve, like Carole Bouquet, Nicole Kidman and Audrey Tatou? To me, if the truth be known—and why not, after all?—the odor wafting off their bodies was quite a bit closer to that of Brad Pitt after three days of hitchhiking on a dusty desert highway, cigarette butts and empty beer cans rolling and jostling about like tumbleweeds in the wind.

To me, more than an arpeggio, Arpège was the olfactory equivalent to Bach's Goldberg Variations, which, too, had drawn me in and seduced me to believe for a time that nothing in the world could be nobler and more worthy of my life than perfecting such a magnum opus. Could it be accomplished in a single lifetime? Evidently not, but nothing would stop me from trying.

So, yes, I openly admit to having become completely obsessed with Lanvin Arpège, so much so that I began to believe in the house of Lanvin, not just this one particular perfume, but the entire family. I suppose that I might have been a bit like the man I know who married the sister of his former wife after she was inexplicably murdered one day while doing nothing more than walking home from work in a neighborhood not too far from mine. I shuddered upon hearing the story of this crime which, like the one-out-of-three murders in the United States never solved, implies that cold-blooded killers are roaming free throughout our streets.

I shuddered because I wondered—and still do to this day—whether the man who married his wife's sister might have had something to do with his former wife's death. Perhaps the idea was planted in my mind by Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, a modern-day film noir in which a “well-regarded” ophthalmologist enlists the aid of his seamy brother to hire a hit man to dispose of his mistress, as she has become “troublesome”. Or was it Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice which caused these nagging questions to arise in my mind? I don't know. All I know for sure is that this woman was in fact killed by someone, for reasons which remain obscure, and hit men do in fact exist, so there must be people who use them. Therefore, it is indeed possible that this man had something to do with that death. Have I watched too many movies? Perhaps. But I digress...

The In-laws

I decided to order other Lanvin perfumes, first Eclat d' Arpège, which came in the clear spherical bottle stamped with the same iconic image of mother and child but in silver rather than gold. The perfume inside was purple, not brown, and the cap, too, had been newly designed. The presentation was stunning: the perfume and a body lotion to match were housed in a lavender-colored leather hat box with a zipper closure. Alas, despite all of these beautiful trappings, the perfume itself never worked for me, albeit not for want of trying. 

Later, I bought a bottle of Rumeur blind, still convinced that the noble name Lanvin sufficed to justify such a purchase scent unsniffed. To my disappointment, the opening of Rumeur was empirically indistinguishable from the smell of an organic chemistry laboratory. I worked in one for some years, and so, no, this is no metaphor. All of the fumes mingle together as they waft out of the many hoods, each with its artfully constructed distillation apparatus, shimmering glass bulbs and joints assembled to achieve the specific task at hand: to isolate and purify some precious chemical substance under precisely controlled temperature and pressure conditions by removing all of the unwanted “stuff”.

No, the fume hoods never seem to work very well in those laboratories, which is one reason why some of my colleagues occasionally joked that there was a reason why men in organic chemistry have a higher tendency toward baldness than do men in the general population. For decades, no one even knew that benzene was a carcinogen, so it was splashed about like water, along with countless other liquids presumed but never proven to be safe.

Rumeur improves over the course of a wear, but the opening is so difficult for me to bear that waiting for the magnolia at the end of the journey is not really a possibility. I swapped the attractive thick-glassed milk bottle facsimile away. I am aware that there are people who love and cherish Rumeur, but to me, the opening smells simply too close to carcinogens—or other toxins—for comfort.

After those two poor purchases, I began to become wary of Lanvin. I had heard tales of the reformulation of Arpège and decided that I'd best be satisfied with the bottles in my collection, since the very persons responsible for the new perfumes were undoubtedly those, too, who reformulated the love of my life at the time, Arpège.

I gave the house one final chance when they launched Jeanne Lanvin, which was not to my liking either and, having apparently been composed under the influence of the “muse” of marketing data, seemed to be more of an insult than a tribute to its noble namesake. After that, I wrote Lanvin off forever and stopped wearing even Arpège, ironically because I did not want to run out. I simply could not bear the specter of another tragic reformulation of what once was a masterpiece.

Alas, as a result of my very own attempt to grasp too many grapes, the story, I'm afraid, took an Aesopian turn for the worse...

A Change of Heart

I regret in some ways to admit, but it's true: over time, I eventually fell out of love with Arpège, as I began to wear more and more chypre perfumes and then became seduced even by the modern sweet patchouli chypres—La Perla was one of my favorites (until its reformulation)—to the point where Arpège began to smell wrong or off. Had my bottles turned? Or did I? Perhaps I'll never know.

Had I stuck with Arpège through thick and thin, 'til death or drained bottle did we part, then perhaps I would not have noticed the mutual transformations taking place in each of us. We might have been like the old couples celebrating their thirtieth, fortieth, even fiftieth anniversaries, who simply do not notice subtle changes from one day to the next—the flaking dead skin cells, the graying hair, the creaky voice, the flabby flesh, the wrinkles creeping like cobwebs—though the sight of their loved one at the beginning was quite different from that at the end.

What's done is done; what's gone is gone. But I can and do here attest: once upon a time, I fell head over heels with Lanvin Arpège. Of course, it is true: I was different person back then. Now I've pretty much moved on, though I'll pull out a bottle every once in a while, to take a short walk down memory lane.

I was reminded of my former love recently upon donning Lubin Nuit de Longchamp, which seems to be close to an Arpège facsimile to my nose. But I must confess that today it smells to me rather old. Do twenty-first-century women have any business smelling like aldehydes? Gabrielle Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin passed away long ago, so long ago, in fact, that I wonder whether it is not simply time for perfumery, too, to move on to the next big thing.

Overdoses of aldehydes now seem to me as old-fashioned as floral soliflores did to Gabrielle Chanel back when she insisted that her new perfume smell not like flowers but like a woman. Do women smell like aldehydes? Well, many certainly tried to for a full century, seduced by the idea that they were more glamorous than flowers. But they were seduced to accept the dictates of marketers no less than they are today. Was I, too, on some level, in some intangible way? It's hard to say.

Was I wrong to fall in love with Lanvin Arpège and then to fall back out of love again? What could that mean? They say that “all good things must come to an end,” and I do believe that it is true. But that doesn't prevent us from imaginatively rehearsing fond memories of them. And it certainly doesn't preclude the possibility of its happening again... Could I, should I rehabituate myself to aldehydes, so that I might fall back in love with Arpège?

The paradox of morality and the inexplicable unpredictability of love are two facets of the very same crystal: no one can argue anyone else into changing sides. It simply happens, like a gust of wind arriving on the scene to sweep one away into yet another fantasy for a brief period of time, a drop in the pool of eternity, until at last what was once passion becomes but a plaintiff sigh.