Thursday, September 13, 2012

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics 5: Was Anaxagoras the first Lego Perfumery theorist?

The Question of Qualities

Suppose that there were only four different perfume qualities: floral, fruity, aquatic, and green. It's easy to see how one could mix things up to produce fruity floral and floral green perfumes. Even floral aquatic and sweet laundry scents could be produced through the judicious mixing of aquatic with fruity elements:

But how, pray tell, could one build from those basic building blocks—or types, if you like—a woody oriental perfume or a leather chypre?

This was essentially the response of pre-Socratic thinker Anaxagoras to the theory of Empedocles according to which all of reality comprises air, earth, fire and water mixed together in various proportions as a result of the competing forces of Love and Strife. The critical question said to have been posed by Anaxagoras naturally omitted his thoughts about perfume, but the idea is clearly the same:

How could hair come from what is not hair or flesh from what is not flesh?

translated into perfumery terms:

How could chypre come from what is not chypre or fougère from what is not fougère?

Never one to gush over “abstract florals,” Anaxagoras was among the earliest, and may indeed have been the first to observe that there is no such thing as a floral perfume.

Tuberose? Yes.


          Jasmine? Yes. 

                    Narcissus? Yes.

                   Heliotrope? Yes.

Violet? Yes.

Orange blossom? Yes.

Rose? Of course. 

In fact, in virtually all cases there are multiple varieties of any given flower designated by a simple name, but we can consider the name 'rose' as code for a set of different types of roses, Damascus, Ta'if, Bulgarian, etc .“Floral perfume,” in contrast, could only be a fiction, unless by that expression one meant a floral bouquet of specific flowers, say, gardenia, tuberose, and jasmine. Or perhaps the expression “floral perfume” should be reserved for “abstract floral” perfumes?

What about the mixing of the various elements of a perfume together? Anaxagoras was certainly sympathetic to the idea of there being fundamental forces or actions, but instead of Empedocles' Love and Strife, he posited the existence of something not unlike the view of God promulgated by sophisticated believers. He called it Nous, which is Greek for Mind.

According to Anaxagoras, “in everything there is a portion of everything.” Reality is made up of lots of things which are made up of lots of little parts or bits. The orchestrator of all of this is Nous, the all-pervading Mind which imposes an intelligible pattern in an otherwise unintelligible universe.

We can infer what the individual parts are by considering the distinct qualities manifested by disparate things. Jean Patou Sublime does not smell anything like Fendi Theorema, despite the fact that the two liquids look similar in terms of color and viscosity. How to explain the disparity in scents? Well, Anaxagoras would have reasoned, had he lived to sniff those two great perfumes, Sublime is made up mostly of little Sublime bits, while Theorema is made up mostly of little Theorema bits!

I see some smirks on your faces. Yes, the reasoning sounds not unlike Molière's jibe at the explanation of opium's sleep-inducing properties, said to derive from the quality of being somniferous. But Anaxagoras was no fool. No, he was really on to something, as we can begin to appreciate through reflecting on this matter as it relates specifically to the case of perfume.

The formula or recipe of a perfume is a complex list of a variety of different chemical substances, but the reproduction of the perfume requires strict adherence to that recipe, if the same perfume is to be produced. Conversely, any perfume which contains those very same substances in the very same proportions—or similar enough to be indistinguishable by the human nose—will smell just like the original perfume.

Of course, some noses make finer discriminations than do others, and for those people even small changes in formula will result in what seems to be a very different perfume. For those with more obtuse olfactory receptors, it may not be possible even to distinguish a kiosk “smells like” knock-off from a masterpiece. Are those people fortunate or unfortunate? A question for further reflection...

In the view of a pluralist such as Anaxagoras, what makes two visually indistinguishable perfumes olfactorily distinct is the fact that they contain different proportions of a variety of different bits. This is a rational inference which is illustrated by the faithful and continuous reproduction of perfumes first composed in some cases decades ago. In contrast, reformulated perfumes, which do not adhere strictly to the original recipe, obviously will not smell the same to those capable of making fine olfactory discriminations, and according to whom reformulations—auto-knockoffs, if you will—are misleadingly named for marketing purposes.

Given his views on the nature of things, Anaxagoras can be not implausibly regarded as the first Lego perfumery theorist in history. Lego blocks are very similar to the qualitative bits of which he wrote: they come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, and can be combined in different ways to build the larger things of which they are comprised. Consider a few simple examples.

Building a structure out of only yellow Lego blocks will yield a yellow structure, just as building a perfume essentially out of ambroxan will yield no more and no less than bottled ambroxan. Same story, evidently for iso-E-super, which we could symbolize metaphorically as blue Lego blocks.

What if one builds a structure of interlaced yellow and blue Lego blocks? From a distance, when viewed together, the structure may look green. More complex perfumes will also have different overall qualities depending upon which individual components are snapped together into a single structure (poured into a bottle).

What marks the distinction between an iconic perfume and a mess? It has to be the skillful layering and interlacing of the various components in judicious proportions so as to produce consistently perceivable and pleasurable effects, as when a classic perfume unfurls in stages. A good comparison might be to pointillist or impressionist paintings. Up close, there are no figures discernible—only dots or brushstrokes. Stepping back a certain distance causes the figures intended by the artist suddenly to pop into view. Sometimes they are more obvious than others, but in order to succeed, they must be recognizable by people who are capable of appreciating such things.

Any child can fill a canvas with dots or mix the contents of a number of different vials together. Only someone with a great deal of skill and experience can create a chef-d'oeuvre from the same materials. In the view of Anaxagoras, this process is guided by Nous, which could be interpreted as artistic or perfumic inspiration. In order for a great work to be recognized as such, intersubjective affirmation is necessary as well, and painters labor under cultural and market forces no less than perfumers do.

An iconic perfume has succeeded in carving out a new spot of previously uncharted territory on the grand olfactory map. A second requirement, for even a highly original perfume to achieve true icon status, is that it enjoy widespread market success. Many perfumes carve out new spots of previously uncharted territory, but for one reason or another they are market flops. Typically they are discontinued and fade away into oblivion, for the number of people who wore them inexorably diminishes as they pass away. At some point, it's as though the perfume never existed at all. How many perfumes from 500 years ago does anyone still talk about today?

Only iconic perfumes hit on a formula which appeals to a sufficient number of consumers to warrant keeping the perfume in production. But the contribution of the house, its ability to market the perfume, is even more important to contemporary recognition than is the nature of the creation itself.

Iconic Perfumes and the Question of Reformulation Revisited

I have entertained the idea that the tsunami of flankers and limited edition perfumes over the last few years may have as its ultimate effect that iconic and what I have termed “tattoo” perfumes are now a thing of the past. Like the supermodels of the 1980s and the Rolling Stones, iconic perfumes of previous decades keep hanging on, their marketing limits stretched further and further out.

Indeed, the entire vintage perfume industry trades on the same feelings of nostalgia which may well up inside nearly anyone upon hearing Mick Jagger belt out “Satisfaction” or Roger Daltry wailing “My Generation.” Such songs have been played so many millions (billions?) of times on radio stations all over the world, that they are immediately recognizable to nearly anyone with access to Western media.

The same sort of mass media inundation explains the success of many perfumes as well. Witness the advertisements for Christian Dior J'Adore, or Estée Lauder Beautifulperfumes which have been reformulated and yet continue to be marketed as though they were brand new launches. J'Adore and Beautiful succeeded in the past and continue to do so, even though the perfumes are not the same as they once were.

In some ways, such perfumes are similar to supermodels such as Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, and Stella Tenant, who despite being twice as old now as they were when they burst onto the modeling scene, continue to appear in countless advertising campaigns in widely distributed fashion magazines.

If the plug were suddenly pulled on the non-stop, virtually ubiquitous advertising campaigns for perfumes such as J'Adore, Beautiful, and I dare say Chanel no 5, would the popularity—necessarily measured in terms of market success—of the perfumes being sold by those names continue? 

If Linda Evangelista were to walk into a model agency cold off the street today, what is the likelihood that she would be able to land a contract, now that she is a middle-aged woman? None whatsoever, of course. But because of her successful modeling career, her image has become iconic and can be used to sell all sorts of products today, even to people who are half her age, which is why and how she can continue to refuse to get out of bed for less than $10K—although that figure must of course now be adjusted for inflation.

Will the J'Adore flankers, riding on the tail of the J'Adore marketing machine, enjoy a similar longevity? This seems highly doubtful. In fact, flankers can be viewed as simply another way of extending the market life of a previously successful perfume. Successful perfumes are not necessarily iconic perfumes, though all iconic perfumes have enjoyed at least a period of market success. What has happened in recent times, it seems to me, is that marketing has become far more important than perfumic integrity.

People will buy what is seductively packaged and promoted even without having any idea what is inside—in the case of perfume: how it really smells. Once purchased, provided that the perfume is not offensive or nocent or disagreeable in some other way, then the owner of the bottle will wear the perfume.

The trend, then, appears to be to get perfumes into people's hands and onto their vanity trays, after which as a result of a natural process of habituation, the same perfume will be purchased again and, the marketers hope, again. When limited edition flankers disappear, then the reformulated namesakes may be purchased in their stead.

The retention of the same name for what has become a different perfume, as in the case of Guerlain Mitsouko, may ultimately provide confirmation of the Parmenidean view on the realm of becoming, that it is indeed the realm of falsehood and illusion. Everything is fair game in the realm of becoming, and people will do what they will do in order to get what they want. But if all acts of naming are a matter of convention, then is anyone really to blame for retaining the name of a formerly great perfume and using it to label a less noble variant of the same?

We have jumped ahead to broach the question of convention, which arises quite naturally in the case of a philosophical theory of materialism such as was championed by Democritus, who will be featured in the next installment of the History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume. Democritus also offers a persuasive answer to the question: 

How could chypre come from what is not chypre or fougère from what is not fougère? 

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