Imagine we’re playing a word association game, where I say a word, touch your nose and you then tell me the first thing you associate with that word. No thinking! Here goes.
Perfume. Ah, see – already, your nostrils are flaring. Perfume – heavenly scents in beautiful bottles, exorbitantly expensive, conjuring up any number of images and emotions – the clay-like smell of a newborn baby, the fragrance of baking bread wafting through a room, the aura of evergreen and orange pomanders in December, an exquisite scent in the air, trailing after a beautiful woman – or a man. All of these bring out any number of associated images and accompanying scent-memories, all prompted by one word – perfume.
Which is to say – by choosing the word ‘perfume’, our brains have already taken sides on the qualifying line of good vs. bad: perfume = good. The word ‘smell’, on the other hand, is neutral. Something can smell good or bad. Stink, on the other hand, is all – bad. The phrase ‘the heavenly stench of humanity’ seems to contradict almost everything we’re indoctrinated with in this hygiene-obsessed age, which at the very least is to smell like nothing at all.
The thing is, we all do – smell like something even when we don’t, all leaving behind an imperceptible trail of our own unique selves, all of it registering on a gut level of awareness our brains record and that we react to emotionally, but aren’t consciously aware of. Science has proven that women in particular have acute noses due to hormone levels, are able to perceive which men have differing immune systems, and be attracted precisely for that reason, no matter what we can articulate to the contrary. It even works in the opposite direction – during menstruation, we gravitate toward more nurturing, caring men, but during ovulation we want the bad boys, the alpha males, the heartbreakers who give us babies with survival instincts and superior genes.
Perfume – the word – makes us associate something good, the smell of roses, of lily-of-the-valley, of incense and cinnamon and Shalimar and Narcisse Noir and Mitsouko and any number of names branded into our awareness of – perfume.
At least, that’s how it used to be. Because in 2006, the renegade French niche perfume house of Etat Libre d’Orange decided to push the buttons of perfume preconceptions everywhere and gave an unsuspecting world a stupendous creation named ‘Sécrétions Magnifiques’ – Magnificent Secretions. A liquid love letter, if you please, to the ‘heavenly stench of humanity’. Sweat, saliva, milk, sperm, blood – oh, yes! Let’s not forget, these are the folks behind such euphonious perfumes such as ‘Putain de Palaces’ (Palace Whore), Jasmin et Cigarettes, and my own favorite, ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong, Baby, I Don’t Swallow’. I would love to see that advertising…
I came across a few drops – I wasn’t fool enough to try it on my skin – in 2008, and I think my olfactory synapses exploded. That’s what I got for thinking that perfume should be beautiful, that scents should smell good. Because it was – at least to my nose – the stench of humanity, and no heaven in sight. Spunk and funk in a bottle, with added blood. Or I could put it another way – the kind of night to remember you could never, ever, tell your mother you had, or even your best friend, because it involved hair-raising activities neither would approve of.
Katie Puckrik, video perfumista extraordinaire, put it thus: “This smells like a crime scene.”
But is it perfume if it stinks? There are people, I’ll have you know, who actually buy this stuff – and wear it, in public even. Is it possible that this is in effect one overlarge and very hyped practical joke – to turn our perceptions upside down, to make us aware of just how far we’re removed from our animal origins, to make us aware, in fact, that no matter what we wear, no matter what we buy, dab, spray or embalm ourselves with, underneath it all, buried beneath layers of soap and shampoo and body lotions and deodorants and scents in all permutations – people, let’s face it. We stink.
In a famous letter, Napoleon wrote to Josephine: “I arrive home in three days. Don’t wash.’ That got many laughs since those letters were published, simply for being so alien to our modern sensibilities. Ew. Three days without soap and water, in an age without deodorant, even. Napoleon wanted Josephine, not Josephine with an overlay of the musky scents she loved to wear, but the musk that was all her own.
Once upon a time, I had a boyfriend, if not as extreme as Napoleon, who could relate to that. The day after a rip-roaring party, when I wafted hangover, leftover scent traces and cigarette smoke, always did him in. So far as he was concerned, I only lacked one thing to be perfect.
The extra layer of ‘human’ that Etat Libre can now supply in a bottle.
I live for many things – for music, for literature, for my writing, my loved ones, for art and for the art that is – perfume. I live for the epiphanies in bottles that make me…walk taller, feel better, feel prettier, sexier, more in command of strange situations, more confident and at ease. Just as Jean Grenouille in ‘Perfume – the story of a murderer’ was shunned for not having any human aura of his own, I feel somehow diminished without perfume, less complex and even – dare I say it – less human and definitely less female.
I also live for those moments that turn my world on its head, that make me change my perspectives and question my assumptions and the Big Fat Why of It All. I live to be challenged – even by a perfume that so far as I can tell, is the complete antithesis of what I believe perfume should be. It’s another form of artistic expression that’s every bit as valid as any other, even if it leaves me cold, indifferent, or in hives.
So long as I live, I can honestly say I never want to smell this ever again. And so long as I live, I can also say – I’m glad I did. Simply because – it challenged me.
Which is more than I can say about 95% of the contents of perfume counters these days.
Image: Steuben sterling silver/glass perfume bottle, ca. 1910