Against Notes.

(image source unknown)

Notes describe qualities of a fragrance. They offer a side door into the discussion of perfume with points of comparison.  If you have smelled a lemon, then a “lemon” note will make sense to you. Notes are used like similes. A “rose” note smells like rose. Bvlgari Black smells like rubber. (I exclude imagistic description couched as notes, typically in product description, eg. notes of burly arctic breeze or forlorn longing.)

Parfumo, Fragrantica, Basenotes, MakeupAlley… are communities where people come together over perfume.  Notes/similes put a name to things we can identify but find hard to discuss explicitly. Except for perfumers, perfume is an intricate, read-only art form.  That is to say that we, the audience, don’t respond to perfumes by making our own fragrances. Rather, we wear them and talk about them. Notes help us to do so by reducing complex aromas to a set of identifiers and can be used in elaborate and creative ways to describe a perfume. Without further vocabulary to approach perfume, though, notes limit the discussion to description.

Human olfactory neurology is strong on impulse, weak on consideration. Our nose/brains are remarkably adept at the two-step defensive reflex: identify and react. Stimulus (spoiled food, shit, Dior Poison) and reaction (recoil). This neurological processing is reflex, not cognition. Yet perfumers are able to create olfactory works that show aesthetic intention and we are able to experience them and reflect on them. A greater discussion of perfume and the olfactory is possible. Why limit it to the first part of the flight-reflex, identification?  

Description makes the experience simply about the perfume. It excludes the viewer and ideas outside the perfume itself. How can we discuss perfume more broadly? How do we discuss perfume in a way that it refers to ideas outside itself? Description is involved in the discussion of other art forms but it is typically a starting place. It helps to focus our thoughts and frame the work so that we can go further into it. Interpret it. Give it meaning.

A perfume’s value is specific to each of us and wonderfully non-specific among us. A perfume whispers a different idea to each of us and we’re left trying to reconcile a perfume’s meaning for us with what others might find. The same can be said of any work of art, but since there is so little shared language of scent, the situation is exaggerated. Notes might give the appearance of common ground for discussion but they miss the larger point.  

We rely on sight and sound to hold language. Perfumes convey complex and subtle information but they cannot express specific, unambiguous and repeatable meaning. ‘Drive straight for a half mile then turn left on Via Olorosa. We’re the fourth house on the left.’  These directions can be written, spoken or even pantomimed, but even François Coty couldn’t have conveyed this information in a perfume.

And why would he have? Why attempt to make unequivocal perfume? Burdening perfume with goals of fixed, shared meaning is a trap. Let’s not avoid the subjective in perfume, let’s run further into it.