A recent obsession with scent

Sometime during the two weeks I took off work to finish my draft of THE SHADOW CLOCK, I found myself using (wasting!) my precious writing time to read wildly on the Internet about perfume.

A short explanation of how this happened. I ran out of some completely serviceable, everyday perfume my mother-in-law had brought back for me from a trip to France. I was fine with it, I wore it unthinkingly. A uniform.

But, trying to buy a replacement online, I encountered an entire subculture and community of perfume obsessives who wrote endlessly about perfumes and what they meant (viz. Basenotes).

I was floored. Discovering these sites brought up memories of a time when I took perfume seriously. In high school, a friend who we looked up to as a tastemaker wore her mother’s perfume. I remember her sniffing a handful of her shirt and announcing “I reek of Chanel No. 5.” It was hard to follow that, but I tried. I remember dutifully applying myself to the sampler bottles at the perfume counter in the local department store, trying to convince myself that Chanel No. 5 was great, although it remains one scent I can never bring myself to like: cold and ill-suited to me.

When I lived in Paris during college, perfume became something without which you felt under-dressed. I was not (still am not) a very polished person. But perfume offered welcome help in presenting oneself as an adult. And it was impossible to walk through Paris without encountering parfumeries—stores dark and steeped in feminine glamor, that sold only perfume.

I was surprised to discover that perfume threaded together so many different memories and times. I did not think perfume had importance in my life, but I was wrong. The bottle of Opium, for instance, always on my mother’s dresser, became shorthand for years of my childhood. Then there was the pretty bottle of some Annick Goutal scent that I bought on a trip to New York after reading about her in a fashion magazine (a memory that forced me to realize, yes, I used to read those!). Too goopy and flowery in the end.

I had also forgotten perfume’s power to unsettle and suggest. In high school French, reading Baudelaire’s “Correspondances,” I felt somehow scandalized by his list of scents, which start with those that that smell like babies’ skin, and ends with those that are “corrupt, rich and triumphant.”

All these moments, recollected through a memory of scent, of course made me recall the famous madeleine scene in In Search of Lost Time. There, it is the taste of the cookie crumbled into the lime blossom tea that opens a magical pathway to the past:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

And there it is, the paradox. The ability of scent—which is insubstantial—to carry surprising weight is what makes it worthy of obsession. I found this lovely meditation on the power of perfume on Barbara Herman’s blog in an entry about the strange suggestiveness of Chanel No. 19:

“[P]erfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence.” — Luca Turin, Perfumes: The Guide.

I feel this is the place to address this arresting quote from Luca Turin (written in a review of Issey Miyake’s Le Feu D’Issey). Chanel No. 19 was a similar fragrance for me, astounding me with its suggestiveness, its intelligence, its moods, its significations. I pondered this perfume as deeply as a film, book or song that moved me. It’s been one of the many revelations for me in discovering perfume in this sensual/cerebral manner that there is, in fact, a limbic intelligence that we don’t cultivate enough. Perfume is the perfect vehicle for exercising this intelligence and articulating what it has to tell us.

The market in rare and vintage perfumes—how they’re sold on eBay or other sites in the original packaging or with notes about the condition of the box—did end up giving me an idea for some of the magic trading that happens in THE SHADOW CLOCK. (It may not stay in, we will see.) So it wasn’t wasted time. But I only realized that later—after I was frustrated and angry with myself for following this thread, for avoiding work and word count. Which brings me to another realization, perfume has meaning because it exists outside of practicalities.

I was glad to rediscover it.

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