Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Problem of Other Minds and Vintage Perfume

Reflections on Artificial Intelligence (2001) 
directed by Steven Spielberg

When I was growing up, my father, a civil engineer by training and profession for nearly four decades, was fond of quipping now and then, "You could be replaced by a machine." Who knew that Dadoo was a prophet? Today, with technological gadgets rapidly proliferating, it may not sound that profound to opine that everything a person does could be done at least as well—and probably better—by a machine. My father, however, began using computers back when they were the size of buildings. Programs back then were written on huge stacks of punch cards. Suffice it to say that the state of technology was fairly rudimentary, relative to where we are today. 

Thanks in large part to DARPA and the DoD—and, above all, the federal taxpaying citizens of the United States—we've reached the point where people's jobs are constantly in the process of being rendered irrelevant by technology. Yes, it's true: "You could be replaced by a machine." Having witnessed this happen over and over again, in many different realms, one might reasonably begin to wonder: 
Is there anything that a person does which a computer cannot also do? Has the U.S. president perhaps been microchipped to spout out Pentagon-speak whenever troubles arise on the horizon? Could that humming bird whirring outside your window be a microdrone collecting information about you for the NSA? Are you even so sure that your best friend is not really a robot? How could you ever know with certainty that you are not the only conscious mind in existence, which generates in the manner of a dream all of the phenomena you take yourself to see?

Believe it or not, philosophers have been debating "the problem of other minds" for a very long time. You may not know anyone who spends time and expends mental energy on this issue, but that is because those who do tend to be segregated away in closed spaces where outsiders are strictly forbidden entry except under close supervision. No, I am not talking about insane asylums, but modern academic philosophy departments. Of course, people in insane asylums may also be discussing such questions, but they are not earning salaries for doing so.

I am of the considered opinion that philosophical thought is no more and no less than intelligent thought. There are two activities of philosophy: posing questions about inconsistencies in theories (aka: criticism), and devising hypotheses to explain things (aka: theorizing). But any theory is subject to criticism, and any phenomenon is open to explanation. Therefore, any person who engages in these activities is a philosopher, whether or not he or she would label him- or herself in that way.

Being a philosopher is not, however, the same as being an academic or professional philosopher. To be one of those, you must agree to spend your time on questions deemed worthy of discussion by whoever the current holders of endowed chairs happen to be. If you are not particularly interested in such things as tropes, possible worlds, the problem of other minds, the so-called problem of reference, or the metaphysical substratum of the universe, then you might be rejected by the club officers as not "intelligent" enough to be inducted into their group. 

In truth, it's a clever confidence scheme. The differences in opinion about which specific matters warrant sustained investigation and debate are fundamentally a matter of values. Or, if you like, they are matters of taste. Your not being particularly interested in what academic philosophers happen to be discussing today has nothing whatsoever to do with your level of intelligence. It has to do with your interests, formed over the course of your life through a contingent historical process, in a very specific cultural context. 

During the twentieth century, academic philosophy became more and more narrow, focusing on more and more obscure questions because people who disagreed with the men (and they were nearly all men) in philosophy departments about what was interesting were at a decided disadvantage. This problem was exacerbated by the modern tenure system, ironically established in order to protect political and intellectual freedom, but having instead a squelching effect. 

Dissenters were automatically spurned by "the experts" for refusing to spend the best years of their life writing footnotes to already-tenured professors' academic screed. Those who did not agree could not break into the club, because “the experts” deciding what was worth discussing—again, in disciplines such as philosophy, this is a question purely of values and taste—simply turned them away, by hook or by crook. As a result of this severe homogenization process, professional philosophers today occupy a very insular space which many students quite naturally avoid because they find it irrelevant to their experience—and interests. 

Some of the intelligent people who left academic philosophy gravitated toward film. Errol Morris (the director of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Fog of War) is one example. But the best filmmakers have always been philosophers: posing critical questions about received views, and offering their own novel pictures of reality. When I learned that Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick had collaborated for twelve years on Artificial Intelligence, my interest was naturally piqued. Unfortunately, owing to circumstances perhaps beyond either director's control, the film was highly disappointing to me. Rather than risk being accused of self-plagiarization, I'll share here my short review from IMDB:

Do Spielberg and Kubrick mix?
17 July 2014
Artificial Intelligence ends up being less than the sum of its parts. I am a big fan of many of the works of Spielberg and Kubrick. Both have created resplendent masterpieces. This collaboration, however, is something of a mess. It's not abysmal, but it strikes me as akin to the filmic equivalent of a garbage pizza. Lots of good ingredients thrown together pell-mell to produce something rather unappetizing.

The idea for a good film—or five—is here somewhere, but it's so tangled up with so many other ideas none of which is ever resolved in any satisfactory way, that it's hard to see what exactly the take-away was supposed to be. Monica loves David because David loves Monica but not enough to persuade her husband to keep him around. From there everything devolves into a "please every crowd member with something or other" adventure-action flick.

The film starts down one path for a while, but when it becomes clear that there isn't enough interesting material there, then it lurches in another direction before abandoning that path as well. Maybe this is a case of production fund surfeit? Not sure.

I had no idea what this film was going to be about. I am not sure what I was doing in 2001, but I never read or heard anything about Artificial Intelligence. I picked up the DVD at the library under the assumption that it would offer some sort of eye-opening perspective on technology. It tries to, but falls flat because of the incoherent schmaltziness. It just doesn't work.

It seemed initially that this was going to be a deep philosophical reflection on love and perhaps even a critique of selfishness and possessiveness. The idea of wanting a robot to love one's self unconditionally and unilaterally--is that really so different from getting a dog? I have to wonder. It's not really like Pascal's Wager, which exhorts would-be believers to go through the motions of religious faith, and one day they will find that they truly believe. That probably works because on some subconscious level the mind recognizes that if the person is doing all of this stuff for God, then if God doesn't exist, that can only mean that the person is flaming mad, complete with visions, voices and ubiquitous spies. But that's another story.

The combination of Color Purple-style emotional string pulling and A Clockwork Orange's brazen amoralism doesn't work in this production. It's like oil and water. The movie is also too long, and the utterly gratuitous Jude Law character, to be perfectly frank, just seems like an effort to compensate for some of the vacuity of the main storyline. He plays the role of a gigolo robot—in effect, a man-shaped, walking and talking dildo. I'm not making this up.

I do not recommend Artificial Intelligence. It's not the worst movie I've seen, but it's nowhere near any of the masterpieces created by Spielberg or Kubrick individually. Some of the scenes are well composed, but taken together as a work? This is truly a mess. Sometimes less is more.

The first several minutes of Artificial Intelligence seemed very promising. The problem of other minds loomed ahead, with a female "mecha" (from mechanized) being displayed for his colleagues by the professorial William Hurt character:

In fact, both this mecha and William Hurt disappear from the rest of the film after what ended up being a few cameo shots. 

Artificial Intelligence might have investigated the nature of self-deception, given the opening problematic, but it did not—perhaps under executive producer veto (who really knows?). Instead, the main plotline is best viewed as a high-tech variant on the familiar “boy meets girl” theme.

The Opening Story

Monica and Sam Swinton are a couple plagued by the near loss of their son Martin—he’s not dead, but he lies inert in a coma. The boy is being preserved in a potentially living state by a fancy looking contraption. He is being essentially stored, seemingly asleep, at some sort of medical science center. The distraught mother pays regular visits to her son, reading him stories in the ardent hope that somehow he will be jolted back into consciousness by the warm caresses of her voice.

The prospects for the boy are dim, the doctor informs Mr. Swinton, but offers the concerned husband a way to save his wife, who is being slowly whittled away by worrying. At the same time Monica’s life is being consumed by the unrealistic and likely to be unrealized hope that her son will rejoin his mother and father in what was their happy home. 

It turns out that great strides have been made in robotics by this point in future history, making it possible for barren women and men to raise their own children without having to compete in the adoption market. Actually, it appears that in the world of this science fiction there is no human adoption market, because breeding has been curtailed—along the lines of the Chinese system limiting reproduction to one child per couple.

This couple has a son, but he is a son only in name and memory. The doctor proposes therefore that Monica and Sam adopt a robot son, a recently perfected prototype, a “mecha” who acts, looks, reacts, and indeed seems identical to a real boy. Monica’s husband agrees to give the idea a try, reasoning along something like these lines: 

What have we got to lose? Worst case scenario, it won’t work. It’s only an experiment with a machine. There is no risk involved.

Initially Monica is appalled by the proposal and deeply offended that her husband could even entertain the possibility that a robot might be able to fill the void left by her unconscious son. 


Soon thereafter seduced by the sheer cuteness of the Haley Joel Osment character, the empty-nest-syndrome sufferer agrees to a trial period, allowing this new mecha boy, David, to live at the house just as her biological son had before. 

After a time, the couple and their mecha begin to bond, and it becomes clear that he is significantly enhancing the quality of their family life.

Mrs. Swinton decides to go ahead and execute the imprinting protocol, after which David will be connected to her eternally—in the manner of a biological son, only better, since he will never, ever stop loving her and his loyalty and devotion will persist through any and all challenges and obstacles. 

The "mecha-mom"-to-be follows the detailed instructions for the sacred “love-instilling” imprinting ritual, which involves holding the back of David’s neck while he looks at her and she reads an apparently nonsensical string of words to him.

In an amusing variation on the paradox of happiness (that the more one consciously seeks happiness, the more elusive it becomes), once Monica and Sam have begun to settle in with their adopted "son" and new happy family life, Martin, the couple’s biological son, miraculously awakens from his coma! Perhaps it is a primeval territorial response, the biological son having perceived on some subliminal level the threat to his status represented by the effective invasion by an outsider of what is by birthright Martin’s home. Who really knows? 

What matters for the plot is that now, of course, a problematic arises: competition between the real son and the mecha son. The jealous biological son begins a concerted campaign to implicate his mecha brother as a miscreant and wholly unfit to remain in the family—indeed, a threat to its very existence.

Predictably, like a once-beloved pet abandoned upon a young couple’s first pregnancy for fear that it might eat their offspring, David is thrown out of the house. Monica cannot, however, bring herself to comply with the original terms of the contract. If the arrangement did not work out, the couple was to return the robot to the factory for destruction, since once imprinted no robot can be reassigned to any other human being. Monica drives her mecha son close to the factory but then releases him rather than leaving him at the unwanted robot depot to be destroyed and recycled. David is now free, but he must live without Monica, whom he however refers to as Mommy and loves (apparently—he is a robot, after all!) unconditionally.

Fortunately, for our exalted purposes here at the salon de parfum, there is no need to rehash the absurd plot of what this movie eventually becomes. Artificial Intelligence is replete with intertextual film references, by the way: to Kubrick’s oeuvre, to Spielberg’s oeuvre, and of course to the omni-film referent: The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps that is why the work garnered some critical praise (who really knows?). But all of the bells and whistles add up to no more and no less than cacophony, in this not-so-humble viewer's estimation.

Despite the promise of its name to offer philosophical insight on the problem of other minds, Artificial Intelligence ends up, remarkably enough, weighing in on only one philosophical issue: the question of vintage perfume. For those who watched this movie but missed this short but profound philosophical excursus, or who later became discombobulated by the plot-overload and general turgidity of the rest of the production, sherapop has arrived on the scene to salvage the relevant scene.


Steven Spielberg on Vintage Perfume—sort of

The perfume sequence of events begins with Monica standing before a large mirror in a formal gown. She is dabbing perfume on in preparation for a big night on the town. Her husband approaches from behind to embrace his wife as he sniffs the air and gushes, 

“I love it when you wear this stuff.”

Revealing the precious rarity of the elixir which she has just applied to her décolleté, Monica replies: 

“Will you still love me when it’s all gone?”

Her husband assuages any fears in Monica’s mind that he may love her only for her perfume: 

“Yeah… That way we can get married again and begin with a fragrance
that’s not in such short supply.”

The perfume in question? Chanel Coco.

Obviously by this time, in a distant sci-fi future, the perfume is no longer being produced—not even in an abstract, shadowy and shallow reformulation altogether devoid of natural essences. Monica has somehow scored a bottle of bona fide vintage Coco, and she and her husband have been cherishing every drop since the day of their betrothal. We have no idea, of course, whether Monica’s vintage bottle was produced pre-Y2K or post-Y2K or even post-Y3K.

In all likelihood, Monica’s bottle is “vintage” because—and only because—production of the perfume was halted during her lifetime. Any bottle older than that would have evaporated from the face of the earth over the course of a century or more—even if stored at the Osmothèque and opened only on occasion for specially selected sniffers so that they could write irrelevant appendices to mediocre books.

Can we say anything at all about the perfume which Monica is wearing? Not much. Only that company executives at Chanel christened the liquid as still being Coco. It may contain none of the ingredients of the originally launched perfume. It contains whatever the final creative director decided to sign off on—the final formulation of Coco accepted as adequate by whoever was making production decisions immediately prior to the perfume’s discontinuation.

For all we know, the bottle may contain a liquid empirically indistinguishable from Grès Cabotine. Or, for that matter, Britney Spears Believe. Simply calling the liquid inside the bottle Chanel Coco was enough to sell the remaining bottles at no doubt elevated prices, to be cherished ‘til death or drainage did they part, by whoever the lucky winners of the final ebay auctions happened to be. (For those interested in more on “the question of ebay,” I refer you to the blog of my comrade-in-nose, Bryan Ross, who recently opined at From Pyrgos on these matters as they relate to a different fragrance, one made for men.)

On its face, the above-cited little exchange may suggest that both Monica and Sam regard perfume only functionally. Monica jests that her husband only loves her for her perfume—in the way that women sometimes worry that their husband only loves them for their body. And the Jude Law character of this very film suggests that some women may love their husbands only for their body parts as well. Monica’s husband assuages her facetious fears by making clear that his attachment to this particular scent is purely nostalgic. He loves this perfume, Chanel Coco, in particular, because Monica wore it for their wedding. Had she worn another perfume, he implies, he would love that perfume instead.

Of course, we cannot test this hypothesis. Suppose, for example, that Monica had chosen to don for her wedding Grès Cabotine, from a bulbous Grès Cabotine bottle with a bright green molded-plastic flower cap. Now there’s a liquid which should be running freely from fragrance taps until the end of time. Given its hypothesized ready availability in the world of this film—not all fragrance has been abolished by the perfume police and their henchmen at the IFRA—what if Monica not only got married in but also showered herself daily in Cabotine?

Perhaps with a large volume of her signature scent ready at hand, Monica would become a ten-spray spritzer, having developed an olfactory tolerance approaching anosmia to her own fragrance. Would her husband then love her more, or would the scent become banal, rather like the automatic air fresheners dispensed from boxes on the wall in public restrooms? Worse, perhaps an overload of Cabotine could spell disaster for their marriage, serving as the prelude not to cuddling and lovemaking but to divorce.

Is Monica’s attachment to Coco only as a tool of seduction, to keep her husband near and dear? Fortunately, her mecha son David arrives on the scene to resolve for the viewer all of these vexing questions in one fell swoop: the first of a fated series of debacles which eventually lead to the would-be son’s expulsion from the family. It may not be obvious, at first glance, that perfume was implicated in David’s fall from grace to pariah status, but on reflection this seems clear.

The couple is preparing to leave the house for their party when Monica sniffs the air, suddenly worried that she may have overapplied her perfume. Will she be clearing the room? seems to be her concern. Glancing up the stairwell, she sees her mecha son standing with a Cheshire grin on his face.

Mecha-mom Monica dashes up to her boudoir where she finds to her dismay that her worst perfume nightmare has come true: David has drained the precious bottle of Chanel Coco! Some of the liquid is on his body and clothes, and a few drops were spilled on the vanity. Now they lie there next to the empty crystalline vessel, like the victims of a multi-vehicle accident on a highspeed freeway, beyond the possibility of resuscitation. Dabbing her fingers in the remaining drops, Monica attempts to contain her emotions, but she is devastated.

A very well-programmed mecha indeed, David attempts to kiss and make up with his “Mommy”, distracting her attention from the loss of her cherished perfume with the topic of mortality. He endearingly tells Monica that he hopes that she will never die. The robot’s ruse works. For now, the two are reconciled, as the woman appears to have forgotten momentarily that her mecha son is no more and no less than a robot, programmed to express emotions as though he really felt them. 

Monica has been thoroughly seduced. She cannot distinguish David’s behavior from that of a real, biological boy. She has in effect achieved the dream of the robot’s designers: to enter the realm of willful self-deception. Monica now experiences reciprocal emotions toward this boy in response to a clever, mechanical feint.

We know from this exchange that Monica has been thoroughly duped to the point of delusion vis-à-vis the status of her mecha son. Is she also in a state of delusion about perfume? The extreme emotions which she experiences upon the discovery of the “demise” of her cherished Coco suggest that Monica is indeed a member of the class of “vintage lovers”, who will travel to the end of the earth to “score” a vintage bottle. The problem now, of course, is that there is no more Coco around. Perhaps if Monica were to sell some of her stainless steel appliances or mortgage her gorgeous multi-level home complete with hardwood floors (no doubt also a rarity in the world of this sci-fi film), she might be able to procure another bottle of Chanel Coco.

Instead, she may have to adopt a new perfume, one which has been vetted by the IFRA and is in abundant supply. Or perhaps she will forego perfume altogether, having lost the love of her fragrant life. In this way, the empty bottle of Coco is an apt metaphor for her relationship with the mecha boy David, who is doomed (if it makes sense to apply such a term to a thing devoid of true feelings) to exile. Because of her real son, Monica must learn to live without David. Because of David, she must learn to live without Coco. But she cannot let go completely. She cannot destroy David, because to do so would be the equivalent of pouring her cherished perfume down the sink.

The arbitrariness of the source of her emotions is beside the point. In preparing for her wedding day, Monica might have scored, after all, a bottle of vintage Jean Patou Joy instead. Indeed, she might have scored a bottle of vintage Britney Spears Believe, which will likely be discontinued some time after the passing of the pop star, if not earlier. Would Monica not have loved any surrogate perfume just as dearly as she did her bottle of Coco for the simple reason that she chose it first? Would Monica not have loved any surrogate robot son as much as she came eventually to love David, though it would have been run by the very same program? 

Are our tastes in perfume anything more than a product of cultural happenstance? Can we not reprogram ourselves to prefer vat-produced chemical soup and thereby avoid the emotional upheaval caused by the discontinuation of what we in our benighted state take to be the mangling reformulation of our favorite perfumes?

I open the floor now to you, my fragrant friends, and anxiously await 
your response to these modest perfume provocations!


  1. Dear Shera

    I do not know if this is serendipity or just great – or similarly perverse - minds thinking alike. I have just posted my version of the 'vintage nightmare' so I am already tuned in for the conversation.

    I totally agree with your review of AI (I am even bored to write the name in full). The first minutes of the film were obviously based on Kubrick's ideas, the rest is pure excrement.

    I find the whole discussion on vintage completely irrelevant because no one really cares how well the juice has been preserved. The bottle of vintage perfume is a symbol. It symbolises the person we used to be while the perfume was in production. So what about collectors who venture out to find elusive vintage perfume bottles they have never smelled before and pay hundreds of dollars for most possibly decomposed organic waste? For them 'vintage' is an even greater symbol, it is the unicorn. They could be people who 'love the finer things in life', which usually means that they cannot see their own value unless it is set against the value of their knowledge, their expertise. Before you jump to the conclusion that there is a dose of disrespect in my words, let me set you straight by confessing that I am contemplating the purchase of a bottle of Kenzo King Kong.

    And this brings us back to what humans can do better than machines. And that is to create drama. The perfume tantrum little-mecha throws is something that will never be achieved by artificial intelligence. And the reason for this is in reality machines can only be controlled fully or not at all. And drama lies there, exactly in the middle. If one loses control over a drama situation, drama becomes a catastrophe. Even Greek ancient drama displays the ultimate type of control, it announces itself: the etymology of the protagonist's name usually describes a good part of the plot. In real life the core of the dramatic situation is always insinuated and announced by the heroes past life. Nobody enters drama unwillingly. Vintage perfume hunting is a very benign, innocent form of eliciting drama. And this is exactly its virtue. I imagine that if by chance and after many years of maceration some vintage perfume bought on ebay would develop such chemical properties that it would burn holes on the buyer's skin, the whole vintage fad would disappear quickly. Drama turns catastrophe. IFRA regulations, much like Prohibition laws, can only serve to increase vintage perfume prices. Vintage perfume hunting (and shopping in general) is one of the few socially acceptable activities that can replace a hunter's thrill.

    1. Always a pleasure to read you here, Christos! I realize that I have not been doing much significant posting lately, and I appreciate your patience. It's a relief to find a courageous comrade on this issue--willing to say what many dare not! Sometimes I feel that I am public enemy number one to the vintage hunters. Come to think of it, I should salvage my comment responses on this issue from Dnotes--if they still exist...

      More to follow on your brilliant remarks... I need first to go read your piece...

    2. Well, I’ve said it before (The Question of Vintage), and I’ll say it again: everything turns on the condition of the juice, which obviously cannot be known a priori. Nonetheless, one reads frequently in the various perfume forums (including the Facebook groups) about people “scoring” a “sealed” bottle of Chanel this or that. In reality, I’d say that it’s just plain stupid to gamble on such bottles being peddled on ebay—for the simple reason that the person selling them needs some cold hard cash—and fast. When I said that in the past, people stepped forward to denounce me as cynical and proceeded to bear witness to the reputability of their favorite sellers. Which is fine, of course. But what reputable sellers can tell the buyer absolutely nothing about is the condition of the juice inside the sealed bottle—even in the best-case scenario, that it was indeed sealed at production time and not later on down the line...

      With regard to the degradation issue, the activity of vintage hunting starts to look more like gambling. You spin the roulette wheel, and maybe it will come up black and maybe it will come up red. The chances that the ball will land on your single selected number—that would be perfect condition juice—is incredibly small. There are infinitely many ways in which a perfume might turn, and most of them have to do with the natural propensity of substances to fall apart over time. It’s a simple fact: a newborn baby does not look like a ninety-five year-old moribund human being. Even if the person was incredibly pampered, used all of the latest anti-aging products, stayed out of the sun, never drank or smoked, ate only healthy food and hydrated constantly, time is the great equalizer. A ninety-five-year old peasant is not going to look all that different from a ninety-five-year old tycoon. Probably a greater percentage of tycoons live to see triple digits, but nothing that they do—and no matter how much money they spend—can forestall the ultimate ravages of time.

    3. Which brings me to the incredibly odd tendency on the part of vintage lovers to attempt to proselytize their faith to new would-be believers. As the perfume scene in AI reveals, these bottles are in short supply. Only some of them contain perfume which smells sublime. But the more newly converted vintage nuts clamor for them, the more expensive the bottles become! Simply wanting the juice to survive is not enough to ensure that it does. The unicorn is a very apt metaphor for the absurd phenomenon of people seeking out old bottles of perfume which they have never even smelled. They are not so much perfume lovers as they are speculators.

      Your experience with Shiseido Basala pretty much tells the story of what happens inside most vintage bottles—sooner or later, like it or not. I, too, have a number of vintage bottles and can attest that it’s hit and miss. I lament the fact that I did not use my Ralph Lauren Safari while it was still fresh. Now the top notes are a real turn off. I could probably put it on ebay and command top dollar for it anyway. Some vintage hunter would brag about the acquisition, and attempt to reconcile the condition of the juice with the price by reasoning that the drydown is worth it. If they wore Safari in the past, they might just be experiencing their “memory of scent”, as you may have with Basala... If they never experienced Safari as it was originally intended to smell, then they might persuade themselves to believe that this degraded juice is a masterpiece—a veritable work of art. (Whoops, that’s another topic, and another fallacy, for another day…)

      I don’t think that a case of perfume morphing into a caustic, skin-searing liquid—or even a deadly poison—would or could call a halt to the vintage craze. People have their entire identities invested in this enterprise—blogs, decanting businesses, now a book, perhaps more books to come. Such a case would simply be written off as anomalous. No one stops taking pain killers just because a batch of Tylenol was adulterated with poison by some psychotic factory worker. They simply switch brands until the matter has been cleared up and then begin buying Tylenol again.
      Vintage perfume hunting will continue on for so long as fragrances are still being produced. Everything discontinued will always be coveted for the simple reason that it has been discontinued and is therefore in short supply. I myself prefer discontinued perfumes (originally produced in the twentieth century) to the recent abstract chemical soup reformulations, but the trick is to use them before they turn.

      Carpe Diem!!!!

  2. Ironically, Blogger asks me to prove I am not a robot! I suppose we, humans have more than robots to prove, as I cannot imagine a situation in which a robot could be asked to prove that they are not human. Their whole existence is based on the exact opposite.

    1. amazingly, I have been unable to reply to my very own blog!

  3. I felt so emotionally duped by this quagmire of a film that I tried never to think about it again. Mr Spielberg redeemed himself as a filmmaker with the considerably finer Minority Report. I think our taste for beautiful things including fragrance is much more than cultural happenstance. I am still fascinated by the notion that when I smell Chanel Coco, I am not smelling exactly the same thing you are but somehow we both know it is fine and lovely in much the same way we could both recognize a beautiful carpet or painting or automobile. That ability to recognize the gorgeous is hard wired in all of us, that is why vat-produced chemical soup will never be able to fulfill our longing for beauty or our simple desire to smell good.

    1. I see that you are a true romantic, Katy! ;-) I, too, believe in beauty. But are not our conceptions of beauty culturally determined? I have to think about this more, and will reply in greater detail hopefully tomorrow (we are having internet connection issues chez moi, so I won't be writing this tonight at 3am, my usual modus operandi, but I'll give it some serious thought!)...

      I have not seen Minority Report, but will go check it out right now (I'm at the library)! My favorite relatively recent Spielberg film was Munich.

      In the meantime, thank you for your contribution to the discussion. In honor of your remarks about Coco Chanel, I'm going to review that perfume tonight and post it tomorrow, too!

    2. I’ve now had a chance to give this issue some more thought. Apologies for the delay in response, but I currently inhabit an internet-free zone—as unbelievable as that may sound! To be honest, I’m finding it liberating, but that’s another story…

      Of course, as a true believer in the resplendent beauty of such perfumes as Creed Fleurs de Bulgarie and unreformulated Guerlain Mitsouko and whatever formulation is inside my bottle of Houbigant Quelques Fleurs l’Originale eau de toilette, etc., I would like to be able to agree with you, just as I am as confident as I can be of anything that the works of J.S. Bach are objectively beautiful. But let’s face it: the reason why young whippersnapper perfumistas denounce some perfumes (especially aldehydic ones such as Chanel no 5 and Estée Lauder White Linen) as “old lady” and unsuitable to wear is because they are being formed in a context in which fragrances are almost by definition abstract, simple, and clean. Their tastes are being decisively molded by the offerings at the Sephora wall. Fill that wall with sweet laundry scents, and that is what Jill Q. Consumer will buy—because it is there.

      I know that this is happening, and can attest in my own case that after a lengthy period of not wearing Estée Lauder Azurée, it smelled somewhat unpleasant to me. I had to readjust to that sort of perfume after having sniffed dozens (hundreds?) of newer creations in recent times. If we continue to buy perfumes from houses such as Dior and Guerlain, even as they reformulate their once classic perfumes beyond recognition, then we are willfully submitting to be molded into the sorts of consumers who crave what they now peddle. Our concept of perfume will be shaped, little by little, until we no longer know what was wrong with us when we used to wear “old lady perfume”. For people born in the twenty-first century—who never experienced the wild and crazy creations of the 1980s and 1990s, the very word ‘perfume’ will come to denote the sort of juice being pumped out by Procter & Gamble, a company which of course has every reason in the world to insinuate into our minds the idea that we should all smell like shampoo and conditioner.

    3. I realize that it’s tempting to cling to the notion that some perfumes are intrinsically, absolutely, undeniably beautiful, and certainly houses are capitalizing on the market potential of the names of their classic perfumes—even as they dumb them down to mere shadows of their former selves—but the reality is that consumers are being shaped to buy what is cheap to produce, and at some point, later on down the line, no one will be producing perfumes akin to the masterpieces of the twentieth century anymore.

      I’m pretty sure that even the sample of Chanel Coco which I recently tested had been “dumbed down”. My evidence is that the longevity was quite poor. When I wear great perfumes (by my estimation), I always enjoy experiencing them all over again as I awaken in the morning. Not a trace of the clove-monster was to be found on my body the morning after. When I read the reviews of what appears to have been Coco in decades past, I recognize that they are in all likelihood either talking about a different perfume or else parroting what others have said about a different perfume.

      You might take this as evidence for the claim that the original Coco was in fact intrinsically beautiful. I take it as evidence for the claim that the original Coco was very different than Coco is today, but people learn to love whatever it is that they spray—provided that it conveys to them everything that they are looking for in a perfume: prestige, luxury, compliments and, above all, pleasure.

  4. I sadly concede that there is truth to your above assertions. Many of us refer to the American consuming public as "sheeple." I think many men and women who buy perfume just want that purchase to be easy and convenient. These factors also make that decision largely uninformed. Corporations that manufacture fragrance are looking mostly at the bottom line because we as consumers have allowed them to. I do not really find it acceptable that most people selling fragrance to the public are not educated at all about the product they are selling. There is really no excuse for an ignorant buying public and the people who would sell to them. There is so much good information available, well, here and at other thoughtful and articulate scent blogs. I think there are robust and exciting fragrances still being made and not to difficult for the interested to discover. I think light and clean fragrances have always existed and always will. They are just easier to find and mindlessly wear. As for taste and culture, I think you are right about Estée Lauder fragrances being associated with older women, who with time, become inured to their perfume and over apply in compensation and we know that our sense of smell does not always improve with age. I can speak directly to this, being well in the throes of menopause myself. I am always thrilled when I catch a whiff of Knowing or Youth Dew. I wear many interesting perfumes. I speak almost daily to people curious about what I smell of. I think my enthusiasm about perfume, a portable and affordable art form, is contagious! Coco, my Coco, is the 1980s iteration. I am sorry to hear she is a ghost of her former self, but a ghost can be beautiful too. Just in case you were wondering, I sell books.......

  5. Allow me to paraphrase Duke Ellington: If it smells good, it is good. I've chased two vintage scents for the reason that I loved them when they were new: Weil de Weil and Mollie Parnis.


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