Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Entry #14: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Solipsism, Solipsist, Solipsistic

Have you ever awoken from an incredibly complex dream filled with characters some of whom you have never met in reality? Perhaps the phone rang, and suddenly the narrative came to an end before you were forced to contend with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. You may have been relieved to discover that it was only a dream.

Now imagine if you did not wake up, but the dream continued on and on, all produced by your own mind, but unbeknownst to you. Your world would be that of a solipsist. You'd be all alone! In some ways, solipsism represents the farthest reach of skepticism: doubt about the existence of other minds such as your own or, if you like: subjects of consciousness.

I've never heard anyone but philosophers use the term solipsism, most likely because it's a fairly crazy idea. Can you conceive of being the only real mind in existence? It's difficult to do, but philosophers love to discuss the so-called "problem of other minds," which puts the burden of proof squarely on the conscious subject who believes in the existence of other minds, not vice versa

How do you know that I, sherapop, really exist? How do you know that I am not a figment of your imagination? Perhaps you are an evil genius creating in some corner of your mind the entire salon de parfumtexts and comments alike! You might object that since you did not know the word solipsism until today, you could not have produced the text in which it appeared. However, the same thing happens in your dream, as its plot unfolds, you have no idea what is going to happen next, despite the fact that the dream is clearly created by your very own brain! Is it not?

It might not seem that solipsism has much bearing on perfume or perfumery, but I used the word here at the salon a while back in diagnosing the problem which I found with the idea of appropriating the jargon of visual art theory for talking about perfume. Since art theorists don't seem to know much about perfume, and perfumistas don't usually know all that much about art theory and history, how can they have a conversation using that language? If someone decides to theorize about perfume in this way, then it seems that he will end up talking to himself. No one can participate in a meaningful dialogue, because no one else will have any idea what he is talking about. It would be like being all alone. Hence, my use of the term solipsism

Another possible application of this term might be in cases where people simply emote short and strong praise or denunciation of a perfume in their review. We were discussing this problem in the comments a couple of days ago: how does emitting solely the words "I hate it" communicate any meaningful information or knowledge to anyone but the speaker himself? It gives no context or reasons or explanation or even a clue as to why the reviewer hates the perfume. Perhaps the perfume contains patchouli, which the reviewer happens to hate. Or perhaps the perfume does not contain patchouli, which the reviewer happens to love and feels should be there. 

It seems to me that simply emoting love or hatred is a somewhat solipsistic form of reviewing, since it does not reach out to readers to communicate the basis of the love or the hatred. I don't really believe that "solipsistic reviewers" are solipsists, but they might be like small children who believe that the world is exhausted by the limits of what they know and can see. Of course, there is no need to communicate with other people, if they do not even exist, but then why do such reviewers bother to write at all? Perhaps it is a way of expressing their emotions, no more and no less.  


  1. sherapop wrote: "However, the same thing happens in your dream, as its plot unfolds, you have know idea what is going to happen next, despite the fact that the dream is clearly created by your very own brain! Is it not?"

    Notice that you wrote "know" when the correct word is "no" I'm delighted you prove your moronism yet again.

    Also, you put forth the idea that you can't know in advance what is going to happen next in a dream. That is pure speculation.

    Once again I prove I know more than you an ANY subject.


    1. Thanks for the correction! I usually proofread these when I wake up, but I overslept. Still recovering from my cold...

    2. Anonymous's correction is cute, because she writes "Once again I prove I know more than you AN any subject" instead of "I know more than you ON any subject."

      Stupidity is usually at its clearest when stupid people attempt to be smart. If you're going to criticize someone's grammar, have the common sense to proofread your own writing.

      Sher, feeding an intelligent troll is one thing (if such a troll exists), but this person is really not worth the energy it takes to hit "publish."

      I think a perfume review that is limited to isolated statements like "I hate it" are only meaningful if the writer's character and preferences have been established elsewhere. Points of reference are always direly needed, which I believe was Sherapop's point.

    3. Thanks, Bryan. I apologize for feeding the troll in a vain but ultimately futile attempt to socialize him. Clearly, it's a lost cause.

      Following your advice (in email), I will not be publishing anymore of his comments here at the salon de parfum because several readers have expressed exasperation with what has been going on.

    4. excellent! I look forward to troll-free enjoyment of Salon de Parfum!

  2. I feel a sense of deja vu coming on. Less philosophically, I posted my own views on this a while ago: Why do people post their SOTD? Granted, my take was less focused on the existential perspective of so doing, but it raised the same basic question with which you closed.

    "It seems to me that simply emoting love or hatred is a somewhat solipsistic form of reviewing, since it does not reach out to readers to communicate the basis of the love or the hatred."

    Every response to the question posed that I can perceive begins with 'why': Why is it relevant information? Why does one person like/love/dislike/hate a scent? Why is the person sharing the information? At some point, we need to filter what we've chosen to process since there is so much information and we cannot possibly knkow all of it, much less care unless we're provided a rational proposition.

    Dopamine. The very act of just stating something that people will view and potentially agree (especially in a Facebook setting) gives us an instant gratification -- that shot of dopamine -- that people "Like" what we have to say, even if it's nearly nothing at all. It's mood altering. So maybe this has less to do with art and more with human emotion and interaction, perhaps just how we think, some more eloquently than others.

    As to solipsis, my own view is that our language and forms of communication should continue to advance and improve (in some ways, I have my doubts, since we seem to communicate far more than we ever did and much of that is simply static interfering with the message). If we all communicated from the same point of reference, similes and methophors would have long ago been obsolete.

    1. Good morning, Andrew, and thank you for these interesting points!

      I was definitely thinking about your interview when I wrote this one...

      I agree with you that there has been an exponential increase in text with the advent of the internet and social media websites such as Facebook. Do we communicate more? Or are we mostly just talking to ourselves? I feel that at Facebook the format is not conducive to fruitful conversations. It's too difficult and time consuming to read through a huge list of comments on a post, most of which are emotive expressions of "like"--basically adding an exclamation point to the "like" button already pressed.

      Now that I think about it, your recent post on "like" is relevant here, too! In fact, you've written three different pieces which express similar concerns. First, the interview with Kurkdjian and his remark about contentless reviews. Second, your piece on the vacuity of SOTD posting. Third, your post on Facebook "like".

      Some people just stay away from Facebook. I read over at Avery Gilbert's First Nerve, that he falls into that camp. It's too touchy-feely for him. Too many hugs and kisses (xxxooo) and not enough criticism. What is starting to annoy me more and more about Facebook is receiving product recommendations in my daily feed. Whenever my Facebook friends "like" a company or product, it seems that I get a mini advertisement of sorts.

      Honestly, I don't want to know what my friends are buying and where. Taken together, the limited capacity for true conversation and the inability to suppress advertisements--with an unfortunate conflation between persons and companies and products made possible by the fact that anyone and anything can have a Facebook profile--these features are conspiring to keep me away from Facebook. I generally spend about five minutes a day there.

      A propos of your point on metaphor: yes, metaphor is only possible when someone else uses a term in a novel way. A good retort to the would-be solipsist!

      Thanks so much for all of these insights, Andrew!

  3. What about the OTHER part? You can't possibly know that people don't have a mechanism to preplan a dream in some part of the brain. So why state they can't as fact? Let's not attribute that to a cold also.


    1. I see that you are a good skeptic, taking doubt to its logical limit! Bravo!

      I believe that I appended a question to my statement: Here's what I wrote:

      "However, the same thing happens in your dream, as its plot unfolds, you have no idea what is going to happen next, despite the fact that the dream is clearly created by your very own brain! Is it not?"

    2. I contend you do know what is going to happen next or else it couldn't be "scripted" by your very own brain.

    3. This seems possible to me, depending upon how one defines "knowledge"...

      Must one be aware, have a conscious belief, in order to "know"? That is the question...

    4. Nope, you don't have be conscious of something to "know".


    5. On reflection, that sounds right to me. Surely much of what we know is lodged in the crevices of our brain and drawn upon only when it becomes relevant. ;-)

  4. If to think of it, almost (?) every reviewer is a solipsist: no matter how exact one describes the notes of the perfume, how it smells or which memories or feelings awakes, it all exists in the reviewer's head and relevant mostly to him/her and more people than not will smell the same perfume differently according to their own system of memories and experiences.

    P.S. I'm surprised you haven't heard the word "solipsism" "in the wild": it's such an enticing idea, it just asks to be used - probably more in figuratively speaking context but still. It was very popular in my college/soon after college environment.

    1. Hello, Undina, yes, I agree that there is an inevitably solipsistic facet to whatever we say about a scent, since we are the only one privy to our own perception of it. 

      In fact, I even think that "a person" is too much of an abstraction, since that's really a sum of all of our time slices, each of which could count as a separate solipsist! I say this because, in reality, we only process a perfume under very specific conditions, and it can smell quite different depending upon those conditions. 

      I'm not talking only about the weather, which definitely matters for me (citrus green colognes smell great in the summer, not so great in the winter; amber smells great in the winter, not so great in the summer...). There are also conditions having to do with the state of our body. (Needless to say, I am a believer in the effect of "skin chemistry", which in my view is just code for all of the biological factors which affect our perception in the moment...)

      As a result of such variability, I am always wary to pen a review based on a single wearing. If I have enough of the perfume for multiple wears, then I wait until I've drained the last drop. As odd as this will sound, for me the hardest perfumes to write reviews of are the bottles in my own collection—for the very same reason. I always feel that my relationship with them is evolving and needs to reach a stable plateau before I can write something meaningful about it. But even then, as you say, it's really going to be more about me than about the perfume. Or perhaps I should say that it's going to be about the perfume filtered through me, so to speak.

      That's because even more important than the variations in our sensory perception are the factors you mention: our idiosyncratic memories and experiences, which are bound to change continuously for so long as we are alive. Every single thing that we do changes our memories and also causes the others to be reordered and related to one another in new ways.

      I realize that you do not pen reviews (or that's what I've gather from your blog...), but none of this prevents me from doing so. To me, it's just another enjoyable genre of writing, and writing need not serve any "useful" purpose whatsoever. I don't have a problem with the intrinsically autobiographical nature of perfume reviews. That's just the nature of the genre.

      I think that the reason why I prefer to have a lot of experience with a perfume before writing about it is that I know that lots of people do read them for information, so I do not want to mislead people with false information, even though my reviews carry an implicit operator: "valid for sherapop at this time on this day!" I've occasionally entertained the possibility of writing a little caveat explicitly at the end of each of my reviews, but then I always end up deciding that it would be too neurotic to do so. ;-)

      Despite my belief in the autobiographical nature of perfume reviews, I do stand by my earlier contention that reviews which are purely emotive—such as "I hate it"—are not the best representatives of the genre. It's just not very interesting to me to read those kinds of purely emotive reviews.

      Thank you so much for raising these excellent points!

      Regarding the word 'solipsism': I'll have to try this one out on my extended family and see what they say. They are all well-educated but do not use philosophical jargon. Maybe I am wrong and lots of nonphilosophers whom I know use this word unbeknownst to me! ;-)

  5. A comment to my last blog post included a claim that nobody else in the world thought that renaming reformulations was worthwhile. After reading your post, I wonder if this person was guilty of some kind of solipsism, or was just plain wrong. After all, there is Lagerfeld Classic along with some others that have in fact been renamed, and there have been BN posts in which people agreed with me. But was the claim against me that I was being solipsistic? To me, blogs are exactly the place for one to express his or her opinion, no matter how unpopular it may be (or how few people care)! And if this person was correct, what does it say about him or her that he or she thought it was worth spending time reading and then commenting upon! Beyond that, my post was about the concept of a product and what happens when that product is so degraded as to be an "empty vessel," for all intents and purposes. I used the example of a YSL's Jazz, which was reformulated into a "good" scent, but one without much character, and certainly not very "jazzy" in any way I can imagine. Is such a reformulation a simulacrum? Is a "dollar store knock-off" a simulacrum? I'm not sure there is a definite answer but if I'm going to attempt philosophy, this is what I'd rather discuss (as opposed to "what is the chair?"). LOL.

    1. Hello, bigsly!

      Reformulations used to upset me, until I changed my approach to perfume. Now my motto is:

      Here today; gone tomorrow!

      I'm thinking of perfumes as mortal beings these days. Once the bottle is empty, it's time to move on.

      Pace my perfume pal Bryan Ross over at From Pyrgos, I am of the opinion that many, many great perfumes have been disastrously reformulated. I was happy to see him recently bringing gas chromatography to bear on an example, as that can be used to assess with some objectivity what has really been done. In some cases, surely reformulations are not all that bad and perhaps even good.

      However, in my experience, reformulations have mostly been bad and have sown a huge amount of confusion in attempts to have meaningful discussions about perfume. Retention of the name is purely a marketing ploy when the juice has been completely redesigned or "streamlined".

      Accordingly, at this point, my best bets are new launches (including limited editions—which never get reformulated), and discontinued perfumes. This protects me from all of the nagging concerns about whether my perceptions are awry or the juice has been rendered the olfactory equivalent of muzak—or some combination of the two.

      The worst case I ever tried was Coty Muguet des Bois, which stripped me of any respect which I may have had for that company. I simply cannot take Coty seriously, if they are willing to sell a liquid which smells to me like paint thinner and call it "perfume".

      Different people have different sensibilities, of course, so each person needs to come up with his or her own "best practice" in the age of reformulation and twitter launches!

      A propos of your philosophical interests: well, the salon de parfum is precisely a blog which addresses philosophical questions about perfume entirely omitted from the history of philosophy. For some reason, dead white men focused on chairs and the like... ;-)

  6. I remember in one of his blog posts, Bryan said something like he feared that an ebay seller would replace vintage Tabu with cheap patchouli oil. It seems that some people are deathly afraid of things like that. I did get a fake on ebay once but when I reported it costumer service sent me a mailing label to send it back and get a refund. There really is no issue, and the prices are great if you have patience and know what to look for. Sure, you have to put some time in, but obviously the three of us are doing that just in our blog posts alone! The major thing for me is that richness and complexity you get from the vintage greats. I have not found that in anything else, and that's what I want on most days. I have quite a bit of niche now but rarely wear those scents, so it seems that if one really wants vintage (and not reformulated stuff) one can find it, though not necessarily a specific scent, which may be too rare or expensive, but there isn't much risk since you can complain and send the item back on ebay, it seems. I have a few vintage Tabu bottles, and the sealed sprays smell exactly like the splash ones (and the cost was quite low).

    1. I confess to being something of an ebay-phobe, and I smiled when I read Bryan's post expressing a frank cynicism about the types of people looking to make money there. Almost by definition we're talking about certain types, are we not? They need money, and they are getting rid of "great", "fantastic", "priceless" treasures? Well, bigsly, I have some nice real estate for you down by Alligator Alley. ;-)

      In all seriousness, it seems highly plausible to me that some of the people there are are fobbing off n'importe quoi for the maximum profit possible. But this is another case where generalization probably isn't that helpful. When you say that you've never had any issues, I'm certainly not disputing or denying or diminishing your experience in any way, but I myself don't understand why anyone who really cared about perfume would be (1) selling hidden treasures, and (2) selling them specifically there. But if they don't really care about perfume, then they may not see anything wrong with dilution, etc. They might think that it is “no big deal” or even obviously rational.

      That said: all (one) of my ebay transactions went reasonably well. I could not find the Van Cleef & Arpels Collection Extraordinaire samples anywhere—not at the house, not at stores, not at their corporate offices—so I googled and ebay was the only option. One of the vials was only half full, but they all seemed genuine (and if they were fake, why would one be half full?), so I can report that my ebay experience has been 100% positive, on the basis of that one case. I briefly considered filing a complaint about the half-filled vial, but it wasn't worth the trouble, given that the sample set only cost about $20 to begin with.

      I have on a couple of occasions surfed through some of the other wares there, and to be honest, I was very unimpressed by the prices, relative to what one can find at the discounters. Why, then, should I buy from ebay? The answer, I guess, is that you're only going to find some vintage treasure from some wealthy dead person's estate sale there, not at brick and mortar establishments or discounters.

      My issue with vintage, even in the best case scenario (no dilution, etc.), is that we're talking about a vast range of possible juice conditions. My two-part post a while back on "The Question of Vintage" basically expresses my views on the matter. Perfume is made of a variety of chemical substances all of which eventually break down—and a fortiori when we're talking about pre-Y2K perfume, before the advent of the "age of abstraction" in which we currently spritz.

      Maybe an old bottle will be in pretty good shape, and maybe it will not. It's never going to smell as it did when it was launched, because time will have taken its toll. I know that you don't care that much about top notes, and it's true that their proportion of the full wear is quite small. But I've decided that, in the end, it's not worth the heartbreak even to try. Too many of my attempts to "relive the past" through buying bottles of "Balenciaga Rumba" (which ended up being an ugly Ted Lapidus reformulation) and the like were too disappointing to me, and I simply do not trust the peddlers at ebay of supposedly "perfect condition vintage" juice. Given all of my reservations, my position on this issue is definitely closer to Bryan's.

      Rather than going on time-consuming and possibly disappointing treasure hunts, I am finding a fix for my desire for richness and complexity chez the independents, especially haute natural perfume houses.

      So you're an amateur of vintage Tabu! Well, well, well...;-)

  7. Yes I think that is it: one either wants to be a "treasure hunter" or for some reason that is unappealing. Since ebay will let you send it back, I don't see much risk. I have gotten so many vintage scents there I couldn't even list them all (since I swapped or sold some off years ago). Recent examples are Obsession for Men original cologne version and Royal Secret EdC (similar to vintage Vol de Nuit EdC, which I also obtained via ebay, with the major exception that RC has a rose note added). However, I would advise people to stay away from the most popular or sought after ones, such as Chanel No. 5 (and recent/popular Chanels), Patou Pour Homme, and of course the recent releases that are so often faked. I bought a fake Polo Double Black not long ago, and they offered to refund, but because it was a lot it was worth it anyway. The funny thing is that the label on the bottle said Polo Black and there were two misspelled words! I told the seller it was a Double Black bottle and cap but he must have known by the way he responded, which was nasty, despite what an obvious fake it was. To me that's the worst that can happen, which is that you buy a lot and find a fake in there, but don't want to return it because it's still worth it. In that case, it would have been a much better deal if the Polo bottle was not a fake, obviously.


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