Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Prolegomenon
to Any Future Phenomenology of Perfume Perception
July was a very long month. How did this happen? Why did sherapop spend thirty-two evenings of her life with the Serge Lutens wax samples to the exclusion of all other possible posts here at the salon de parfum? you, my five remaining readers, may well be wondering.
It all started so simply, as these things always do. One small step leads to another, and then another, and then another, until finally an inexorable sense of commitment is formed, and one must follow through in order to finish what one has already begun.
That is precisely what happened in this case, believe it or not. I did not scheme for five months—from January 31 to July 1—about beginning the very first phenomenology of perfume experiment precisely on July 1, 2013. No, I did not. It happened completely by accident, or perhaps divine intervention—or reasonable facsimile (I am agnostic, after all). Something, some unknown force, led me on July 1, 2013, to pick up the attractive black wax sample folio which was sent to me last year by the house of Serge Lutens. I had thought before about when to begin sniffing the samples, but there was no real planning involved. Instead, I just pulled out one of the cards and began. It happened just like that, and I did not even realize the date, until I came to the salon to post the first wax sample haiku. But then, of course, it all made so much sense: thirty-two wax samples; thirty-two haiku. The first foray on the first day of July. The rest is history.
Yes, OCD kicked in, and I could not resist the pull to continue on and on and on. Once five were finished, then I was already committed. There could be no turning back. To stop then would have been to admit defeat. Now that it's finally over, and all six of us can finally breathe a deep sigh of relief, it is time to take stock. What were the lessons learned from this extended haiku holiday of sorts in the land of le grand Serge?
- I learned that perfumes are nothing but a bunch of smells stuck together. They are no different from smells in nature except that groups of them have been clustered together, and that cluster has been christened some name (often arbitrary) and captured in a form where they can be found together again (usually in a bottle). Perfumers can be viewed as matchmakers of sorts, who bring together scents which are not married naturally in nature, but which work together harmonically. Sometimes...
- When I sniffed each wax sample, I discovered that the different scents brought together were sometimes confusing and muddled and corresponded to no single and precise scene in reality. Could such a fixed marriage between seemingly incompatible scents be sustained? Or would they not represent a divorce waiting to happen, and accomplished through a bath?
- No matter how cacophonous the mixtures sometimes seemed, they did, nonetheless, manage to remind me of groups of objects. Sometimes it took a couple of minutes, but eventually something more or less clear and distinct would pop into my mind.
- Haiku ended up being a reasonably good way to capture small parts of my experience of these clusters of scents. In some cases, I had difficulty coming up with an image, because the cluster really smelled like nothing recognizable to me at all. But I was always able eventually to come up with an image or two or three of what the smell(s) reminded me of. The challenge then was to devise a haiku meeting the 5-7-5 syllable requirement. Sometimes I ended up changing the image, tweaking it so as to be able to conform to the rules. Perhaps a more honest phenomenological study would need to be completely free form, with no restrictions or requirements whatsoever.
- It can be said without hyperbole, I think, that these wax samples served more as Rorschach tests than anything else, because the images evoked were deeply embedded in my mind, or created by combinations of other images deeply embedded in my mind. Once again, Christos of Memory of Scent has been vindicated: perfume, no matter the medium in which it is delivered, above all is this:
“a mixture of fragrant essential oils and aroma compounds, fixatives,
and solvents used to create, modify and recall memories”
- I do not have static memories. My memories are dynamically connected so that I'll think of one object and then another object and then another. When I attempted to conjure up a single image, I generally failed. Even when I came up with a scene, it was usually more like a film than a snapshot.
- Throughout the thirty-two trials of this project, I felt a sense of liberation in knowing that I had never promised to be delivering reviews, so no one could really take issue with what I ended up conjuring in my mind and transforming into a concise text. In some cases, each line was a different image; in others, the lines were parts of a bigger image. Sometimes I felt that I was just making something up, but then I wondered to myself: how is making something up different from finding an image in my mind?
- I have to admit that the haiku structure requirement made me feel a bit less free, but it also made this more fun than simply penning a free-form review. Despite the structural constraint, I still found haiku somewhat less stifling than the tugging sense of obligation to “capture” the scent for readers looking to find out “the objective truth” about a perfume. By this I do not mean to suggest that I agonize over my perfume reviews, but it seems that I do feel some sense of obligation to say something useful, which in my more reflective moments I regret, as I do not believe that reviews are ever objective, so the most that anyone can do is honestly to report their idiosyncratic experience and ideas. The “requirement” is really just this: explain how it is possible for a person to experience this perfume in certain very precise circumstances and at a certain time and under particular weather conditions and while in a certain mood. In other words, perfume testing is not really open to “scientific confirmation” at all, since it is impossible to isolate the variables or to reproduce the same experimental setting twice!
- Lots of smells overlap, especially perfume smells. On several occasions I found myself erroneously guessing what the identity of the perfume was—usually either Fleurs d'Oranger or Arabie. Ironically enough, neither of those perfumes, which I had tested and reviewed earlier in liquid form, was included among the wax sample folios! Part of the reason why I kept thinking of those two perfumes was that so many of the Serge Lutens perfumes are either thick and powerfully floral (Fleurs d'Oranger) or spicy and heavy, with an emphasis on culinary scents (Arabie). Each time when I guessed that I must be smelling Arabie, in fact, it was something else entirely, albeit also something with heavy spices and dried fruits—at least to my nose at that time. It seems not unfair to say that a lot of curry and cumin is circulating about chez Serge, and it is clearly an acquired taste whether in cuisine or in perfume. On one occasion, I literally expressed gratitude outloud (and HRH Emperor Oliver can back me up on this) that I had been spared the curry and cumin that night through the benevolent intervention of the scent gods—or reasonable facsimile.
- My impression from several tests of the liquid perfumes of this house remains that many of these creations are event scents, good for experiencing but not necessarily all that pleasant to wear, and probably not something which I wish to smell like to others. Some of the wax samples conjured negative and even ugly images. I did not like the way they smelled and would not want to smell like them nor to smell other people who smelled like those perfumes.
- Negative images were elicited by some of the wax samples during my initial wearing, as I devised my haiku, but a few of them ended up smelling much nicer later on down the line. Others, however, did not. As a result of my desire to finish all thirty-two wax samples during the month of July (with one running over to August 1), I was forced to modify my bathing schedule from summers past, when I often bathed in the morning. (Occasionally, on super-hot days, I have been known to take two baths, as my humble abode is air conditioning-free.) I found this year that I needed to take a bath at night, after my wax sample haiku session, for fear that the unpleasant or simply strong scent would induce nightmares in me. My concern on this front was caused by my knowledge that whenever I eat spicy food late at night, I have dreams about murder and mayhem. No, I am not joking, and I could not take that chance, as I had other things to do this month aside from the wax sample haiku.
- I learned that whatever I attend to in the moment seems essential, but it's really just a selection, and had my focus been on something else, then that thing would have been essential, at that moment, to my mind. This confirms, again, my long-standing belief that perfume review experiences probably should not be stable, at least not for any perfume with a fair amount of complexity. Because I can only focus on one thing at a time, my take on a perfume will be a function of how much time I spend thinking about it. If I apply a perfume and then go do something else, I'm bound to miss many of its facets.
- This selective attention problem helps to explain the sometimes radical divergence in opinion about a given perfume at fragrance community websites. Some people really focus in a dedicated way on a perfume over several hours; others take a whiff of the top notes and call it a day. These two approaches are bound to produce very different reviews, even by people who have had similar experiences in the past. Of course, none of this is new, but it seems to confirm some concerns expressed eloquently by Bigsly at Bigslyfragrance on a number of occasions. He is fond of reminding readers that he ignores top notes, but it seems clear from many reviews, that perfume wearers often have neither the time nor the patience to “wait it out”, so to speak.
All in all, this was a valuable learning experience, the most important lesson of which to my mind was that perfumes are really smells. As trivial as that may seem, I somehow find it profound. Perfumes evoke memories of groups of things because those or similar things have been smelled before in reality by the perceiver. In many cases, the smells are associated with other perfumes, but they are still things in reality which have been smelled before as distinct and isolable entities which can be found again and again, as someone somewhere decided to group a certain set of scents together and capture them in a small volume of space (again, usually inside a bottle).
These findings help to explain why laymen (by which I really mean nonperfumistas!) believe that perfumes are not works of art but scents, similar to the way in which the chirping of a bird is a sound, not a work of music. Phenomenologically speaking, that is precisely what they are, and although we may wish to lay an elaborate theoretical lattice upon our experience, in the end, comparisons to non-perfume scented things occurring either in nature or in man-made reality are no less valid, and probably more, in some ways.
As I think about all of these matters, I continue to reflect upon the elizabethW magnolia candle which sits on a bookshelf close to the computer in my living room. I notice it only about once every several days—sometimes less often than that—but each time that I do, I find myself delighted by the scent and amazed that I had not the slightest perception of it for the several preceding days, during which it ceased to exist, for all intents and purposes, to my mind.