Perfume as charisma

I consider myself to be perfume crazy (that should be perfume wise) but I hadn’t seen the film The Perfume until today.

I started to read the book many years ago but didn’t get far, in spite of the subject; it did not feel like good literature, or simple readable.

The film shows clearly the limitations of “genius”. Grenouille is a perfume genius but that is his sole strength. He is more of a savant, however, I feel that much more praised and less fictitious “geniuses” should also be regarded as savants.

A very strong specialization, meaning being very brilliant but only in one region, is an unbalanced thing. Sch a person can only contribute in very specialized and limited way to the world.

What struck me was the ending of the film.

Grenouille is not executed, he has literally one more trick, his greatest, up his sleeve. Having distilled the scent of a number of dead maidens, he has composed a perfume that is more than charming, seducing, or even magical.

It literally turns him, not in the eyes but in the noses of his fellow human beings, into, first, an innocent man, and then, an angel.

This is olfactory charisma. I think of the odor of sanctity of holy men and women. I have met a couple of holy people, in the sense of very advanced, but they didn’t smell better than others. (Or my nose is not developed enough for this.)

What if it was possible to construct a scent that had this or similar effect on people? Is anybody trying? The opposite — of course, on this warlike planet – is true. The military are experimenting with odors so bad people will puke. How unimaginative! If I were a military strategist I would commission a scent that would make my enemy love me.

What then would I do with him? Let’s not even think about it. Military ambitions are about seducing, controlling, putting down.

However, I am also reminded of Carel Capek’s book “The absolute at large”, where an inventor constructs, of all things, a carburator in the vicinity of which everybody sees God, The Absolute.

Now that is really something! A heavenly carburator.

But the subject is somehow still charisma. We perceive it in looks mainly.

True, some have magnetic voices and we fall into their spell when listening to them. Of course their words also add to the effect, thus effecting our mental sense.

But a scent would go deeper, it would need no words, no looks, no movement even. You could be dead and smell good and people would be, in the old sense, charmed by you.

Women speak about falling in love with a man, or his after-shave. I can believe it. But I don’t think it was only his after-shave. We perceive, receive people as a package, and seldom deconstruct them into their constituent parts. Scent comes together with visual impressions, sounds, words, and a lot of more or less un-analyzable material.

Of course a scent is a short-cut. Let’s train and practice our own odor of santicity. It might be felt if not by noses then by our

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The scent of Christmas

Once, when I was a kid, Christmas was about presents. Of course. What’s in that package… and what’s that BIG one over there?

Then Christmas went through many phases: a family affair, the stress of shopping mania, giving rather than getting presents, lonely Christmas, etc.

Now I would say that Christmas, the spirit of Christmas, is a scent. The smell of a Christmas tree, the old classic type that hasn’t lost its aroma, is enough. Christmas is for the nose.

Ahem…. modern surrogate.

Talking about the nose, I notice something in the hall.

We know — though of course quickly forget since we quickly get used to it — that every apartment has it’s own smell. Probably the result of the sum total of walls, paint, curtains, bed clothes, furniture, electronics (TV, stereo, etc), so on. Did I mention the piano?

In some apartments something lovely happens when you open the windows wide. The walls (I suspect) gives off an pleasant, old-world aroma in contact with the air from the outside.

This is one of the so called small joys of life that we (our intellect) easily forget. But the nose knows this.

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Music and chocolate

[From a lecture held at a school for young rock and jazz musicians]

Good morning. I would like to ask you, what do you like best and what gives you most satisfaction, music or chocolate? Who said chocolate…? Nobody?

Well then, how do you enjoy music? What a silly question! You listen to it, of course. Everybody knows that.

But then, how do you enjoy chocolate? More silly questions, you EAT it of course.

Let me read something for you from a small booklet that I got when I bought some fine chocolate.

The title is promising; “The art of tasting chocolate”.

(BTW when I googled that phrase I got a couple of thousand “hits”. There is even a website called exactly that, “The art of tasting chocolate”. When I googled “The art of tasting music” I got one hit, about John Cage.)

Anyway, this is what the little book says about how to (not eat but) taste chocolate.

Tasting technique –
[Did your teachers tell you anything about listening technique?] “It is best to be calm and relaxed, but alert and concentrated, and seated in an uncluttered place.”

Hm, that sounds just like a preparation for meditation.

“It is best to taste chocolate on an empty stomach, to the point of feeling hungry.” (Do you listen to music on a full or empty stomach?)

Further, not only you but also the chocolate should be prepared for the experience. It takes two to tango.

“Its ideal temperature lies somewhere between 66 F and 76 F. It is preferable therefore to remove the chocolate from storage at least an hour before tasting.”

There seems to be an awful lot of preparation when it comes to chocolate. How do we prepare ourselves for listening to music? (Another stupid question with no answer?)

So what´s next? Visual and auditory examination. Let´s look at it. “The chocolate should be brilliant, smooth and pure in colour.”

Then, listen to it. “The exterior should break cleanly with a faint, delicate sound.”

[Here I brought out a small piece of chocolate and held to it the microphone. “Let us listen to chocolate” — and I broke it carefully, the whole auditorium listening for the faint, delicate sound…]

Then what? Nothing! Place the chocolate in your mouth and do nothing. Don´t chew it.

“Allow it to sit (!) for a few moments to release the principle flavors and aromas.”

Then, finally, “chew five to ten times to reduce the chocolate to little morsels”.

Enough of my lecture.

I think my young audience realized that while we listen to music just one sense is involved (hearing), but almost all the senses are involved when we taste chocolate. Eating chocolate is a simpler affair, just involving your mouth, taste buds and nose (since so much of “taste” is actually smell).

All this throws light on the difference between eating and tasting. And also on the rather primitive approach we have to music tasting, if such a thing exists.

Well of course it exists, but not as a known idea or concept. We DO taste music, for example when we go to a record store and sample different tracks from a new CD to decide whether we want to buy it. But that is a mainly utilitarian kind of tasting, with a precise goal; decide to buy or not.

When we take the CD home, are we still tasting it? Yes, maybe the first couple of times. But we might just as well use it as background music right away, degrading it to a soundtrack with a simple, commonplace goal: to create a feel-good mood.

We make mood-music of many a piece that was never meant to be furniture music.

Talking about richness of experience I of course don´t want to claim that listening to a piece of chocolate breaking is comparable to a Chopin Nocturne. But let´s stop right there! I used the words “listening” and “hearing” without thinking about it. There we have those different quantities and qualities again.

Unfortunately we very often hear music without actually listening to it. We hear it, yes, but without those mindfulness-like qualities that manifest when we taste chocolate, wine, cheese and perhaps food in general.

If a small piece of chocolate can give you a rich experience for all your senses, imagine what pleasurable heights we might reach if we applied the same kind of carefulness and mindfulness to tasting music!

Yes, you say, but all this is really quite logical. A physical thing like chocolate, a sandwich or even a pencil, we can touch, taste, smell or break. But how do you chew or break music? You cannot take it into your mouth, you cannot see it, you can only listen to it.

Let us not be so limited. Why did we get our inner senses if not to see, taste, touch or smell music? How can a melody be “sweet” or a sound “fat”? Look at this list of common expressions and tell me that we don´t see, taste, touch or smell music.

  • “metal” (heavy, black, industrial, Celtic (!), etc)
  • fusion
  • swinging
  • “hot” and “cool”
  • acid
  • sweet (dolce)
  • bubblegum
  • soft / warm (harmonies)
  • angular (rhythm)
  • lugubrious (piece by Scriabin)

The list could go on and on. If we look around we can find many examples of the senses overlapping. There is no need to talk of synesthesia, or one could say that we all have it to some degree.

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The fallen angel

A fool sniffs not the same scent that a wise man does , said (almost) William Blake. (He talked about seeing — trees.) Leaving fools and wise men aside, people sure seem to have different relations to scent and perfumes. Helen Keller likened smell to the fallen angel of the senses. She also called it “a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”

Not bad for some molecules in the air.

There is a spectrum from bad to good smells, but this picture does not hold if you look (sniff) more closely. There are things in the supposedly “good” corner that at least I find awful. And there are supposedly good but still despicable — at least questionable — olfactory habits.

I have only read about kings and aristocrats of yore who only bathed once a year, but who used overwhelming amounts of perfume. It would be interesting to actually visit a salon with such stinking (?) luminaries. The bad habits I am thinking of is using perfume either to mask other smells, or to add something not really necessary to neutral smells. What´s wrong with neutral? Water and air, neutral and lovely — but not appreciated enough.

I have a hard time falling asleep in bedclothes washed with perfumed washing powder. Whole houses sometimes smell of washing powder! People also walk around in clothes that smell of washing powder. I can understand if you want to smell of perfume, but not of detergent.

Scented paper handkerchiefs… Am I now supposed to perfume the inside of my nose? Who is going to climb in there and explore it? And perfumed toilet paper… give me a break. It would be better to stop eating food that rots in the gut. Why not invent a food that makes shit itself smell good? Ah, let it just stink: it is one string on the olfactory harp.

Then we have the lovely scents, good perfumes and incense, great soaps. The perhaps most beautiful (non-human, I must add; people are an altogether other story) smell comes from burning wood. It is far from french perfume, yet the word itself is close. Latin per– “through” + fumare “to smoke”.

Smoke gets in your eyes, and perfumed toilet paper gets on my nerves.

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Dangerous diary

I pass a shop window and what do I espy there? A warning against keeping a diary. Apparently it can kill you!

Well, almost.  I thought it said “Diarium” but when I look more closely it says “Djarum”. Which is a cigarette.

I don´t smoke, haven´t been able to start the habit (tried for years), but I sure would have bought this package if it really was called “Diarium”.

I might buy it anyhow. Seems this is a clove cigarette, perhaps easier to get addicted to than the regular ones.

And when I find the following on YouTube, I, avid for tasting — wine, cheese, perfumes and especially music — realize that there is such a thing as cigarette tasting.

But I only give him 3 of 10 for smoking in a car.

So, keeping a diary still seems to be a non-lethal pleasure. I´ll continue for a while, trying to keep it short to get a tasting (not eating) effect. As our cigarette reviewer says: “That cinnamon one, I didn´t really like it but it was a great experience.”

Thus speaks a real taster!

But of course there are dangers with keeping a diary.

A tempting illusion: there is some intrinsic value in writing things — almost anything, an association or flimsy reflection — down. Actually it can be a way of losing values.

Writing something down is often a way of getting rid of it.  Like going to the toilet. That explains the pleasantly surprised reaction to older texts. “Did I really write that…? I am impressed.”

Maybe you shouldn´t be: you managed to forget all about it. Retaining all small and large insights one has had, now that would be impressive.

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