My latest post on stink fostered a lively and fascinating discussion, and makes me want to pursue the theme a bit further. A friend whose perfume blog has been inactive for some time sent me her comment directly by email, and one of her remarks struck me particularly: the fact that for many perfumistas, the love of skank is lived, more or less consciously as a transgression of our relentlessly hygienic environment/education. In other words, as a kind of olfactory kinkiness, providing us with forbidden but delicious thrills…
This led me to further reading, in particular of a book by the French anthropologist Annick Le Guérer, Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell, in which she explores the history of mythological, ritual, medical, philosophical and psychoanalytical perceptions of the sense of smell. While the whole book is fascinating, this time around I was particularly interested by the chapters devoted to psychoanalysis.
According to Freud, who was himself reprising
This evolution of the species, again according to Freud, is paralleled in the evolution of individuals. Babies bond with their mothers through smell; small children have no repulsion for stink, or indeed for their own excrement. They need to be taught to find it repulsive in the process of socialization, leading to a repression of most pleasures linked to strong odours, including that of the mother. Unfortunately, said Freud, this repressive process of the primary source of pleasure, the olfactory, leads to the repression of the libido and various neuroses. So that in becoming socialized/civilized, we must sacrifice our potential for erotic fulfilment.
I believe perfumes are to raw smells what eroticism is to un-channelled sexual impulses: a cultural and aesthetic elaboration. And I wonder whether the collective obsession of perfumistas (admittedly a small part of the population) for scent isn’t an attempt to have our cake and eat it, as it were: to derive pleasure from our sense of smell through reflexion, verbalization, writing. To achieve sublimation, the ultimate step of civilization (sublimation being the channelling of the libidinal forces into higher forms of endeavours), through the cultivation of the most neglected, except in a negative way, yet most vital of senses.
In this perspective, overcoming our acquired aversions to stinky smells through their incorporation in beautiful, elaborate compositions could be a way of not renouncing our instincts, while incorporating these instinctive pleasures into the life of the mind, notably into language (the miles of words written in blogs and fora; conversations during joint sniffing expeditions). Of course, not all of these verbal elaborations concern skank, very little in fact. But our very obsession with scent – quite recently exposed, over the last few years, through online communities -- does point towards a peculiar form of libidinal investment (libidinal investment doesn’t mean we derive -, sexual pleasure from our scented pursuits, but that perfumes focalize some deep-seated energy).
I’d love to discuss the perfumista phenomenon with a psychoanalyst: there is some form of benign perversion at play here, somehow…
In the meantime, I’d be interested to know if there’s any point at which, in your love of fragrance, you tipped over into appreciating, or being drawn to, smells that you were more or less consciously taught were bad. Was there a thrill of the forbidden? Were you even conscious of the skank factor before discussing it online, and discovering other people wrinkled their noses at what you considered delicious? Did you ever realize you’d crossed a threshold? Did you have a skank epiphany, and if so, do you remember the fragrance that brought it on?
I’m very much looking forward to reading as many answers as possible!
P.S. Octavian of 1000fragrances has posted a companion piece to this one, on the American perception of "clean" fragrances. And if you're just reading this post, please don't miss the comments, there's a lot going on!
Image: Johann Heinrich Füssli, Titania Embracing Bottom, 1792-93, Kunsthaus Zurich, courtesy Femme, femme, femme