dimanche 24 août 2008

Skanky Epiphanies

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 Darwin’s theories, humanity constituted itself through the shift from smell to sight: our non-vertical ancestors explored the world, and each other, through odour. In other words, when we walked on all fours, we could sniff bums to find out who was attractive, available, dominant, etc. And we rose and our intimate organs receded from direct access, we came to depend on sight for mating. To cut a long story short, civilization was made possible by the repression of scent in favour of vision.

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

63 commentaires:

  1. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.

  2. Carmencanada, this is so great you give us a chance to discuss olfactory sexual and libidinal topics which are usually taboo and ridiculously forbidden in the perfume community.
    I 'm very cautious when it comes to Freud 's psychoanalytic theories. His views on homosexuality and gender identity for instance are extremely obsolete, today we all know it 's biological and nothing else.
    What he says about kids pooh-pooh is wrong too. We 've been genetically programmed to be irked by shit and dung so we stay away from it as a survival hygiene process.
    I believe dirty musks and civet are directly linked to sexual smells but nothing really to do with feces. Since we come from Apes after all we still sniff each other 's armpits and butts. Your boyfriend 's sweaty T-shirt has the amazing power to remind you of him when he 's away. Freud opened the door to a lot of things but he 's weak on evolution which is essential when it comes to human behavioral studies. For instance today 's bisexual males who enjoy to be orally dominant with other males (I 've been around and there 's more of them than what genetic women imagine), well it simply goes back to the times of our monkey ancestors when dominants and the submissives were establishing their social roles through sex acts. We have evolved but everything we are today is linked to these guys.

    From my experience, men like female scents that are both fresh, flowery and innocent (because it says young and fertile) with a little dose of dirty and naughtyness in there (sexual teasing). Lutens Fleurs d 'Oranger (before its watered-down reformulation) gave me the most compliments ever from men. I wouldn 't know what it was to go out and not have at least one guy compliment me, hot and wild compliments, not just "you smell good". On the other I was always surprised to realise the dirtiest most provocative scents never attracted men very much, Musc Ravageur disappointed me, where was the ravaging effect? Men never really seemed to care about the supposed power of forbidden dirty scents at all.

  3. I think my skank epiphany was perhaps MKK. It certainly was the point where it coalesced: I smelled this and thought "yum!", even though I had (and still do) keep myself as well-scrubbed as possible to avoid really smelling like that.

  4. My skank epiphany occurred a few days ago with MKK, as well. I can't see a man being moved by it, but as a woman, it was powerful.

    Interestingly, I don't find Musc Ravageur to be very skanky at all. It's a pleasant, warm musk that has nothing of the animalic, armpit scent of MKK. I loveit, though!

  5. Emanuella took the words out of my mouth: about Freud, evolutionary studies and men's preferences on women. I couldn't agree more!

    In my particular experience men are genetically programmed to direct attention to fertile ~and that is the connotation of beauty, if you think about it, too: slim waist, curvy hips, full breasts, bouncy hair, good skin, big shining eyes, voluptuous lips, they all signify "I am at a reproductive age and healthy to bear offspring". Little girls don't possess all of the above and menopausal women are starting to lose some of the above, so it's a good bilogical director.

    Indeed it is the women on blogs and fora who almost fantasize about men liking outwardly animalic scents (and vanillic ones, just how many times have I heard this and I don't know even one man in my entourage who goes after those!)
    I think it's much more complex than that and there has to be some interplay of wholesome-ness plus teasing for men to be truly interested: they do have the Madonna/whote syndrom somewhere embedded, you know! LOL

    I don't recall ever having an apiphany: I always liked "interesting" smells. But I have grown up in an olfactory rich culture and climate: the rich fragrant flora and fauna, heat making smells smell more intense than in Northern countries, cooking tradition that uses lots of smelly ingredients, the concept of grooming with Eau de Cologne and powder, Eastern influences through Islam's vicinity and French influences through diplomacy... lots of factors!

    And I agree that Musc Ravageur is not skanky or even very musky. I plan to elaborate on this on the blog soon ;-)

  6. So many typos.....
    (biological, whore, epiphany) Sorry! Should teach me to re-read before posting.

  7. E,

    It's funny, from what I've observed around me (not necessarily representative, of course!), younger males tend to "respond" to gourmandy-vanillic scents ("hmm, you smell yummy/like cake/cotton candy") while older ones seem to prefer florals or more "traditional" fragrances (aldehydics à la N°5).

    Re: the fantasy of men being attracted to animalic scents - ha! I got a "reaction" once to my wearing MKK, being, I quote: "er, it smells like goat cheese in here, is that you?"
    For a man-magnet, I'd rather go for something a bit safer ;)

    Now, are women overall attracted to animalics on men? (I'm thinking Kouros here, being a widely-available, popular - I think - fragrance)
    What about the preferences of homosexual women and men? Inquiring minds want to know!

  8. Emmanuella, I had a few qualms about referencing Freud because so many things have evolved today (behaviours, values, scientific knowledge) that were he to work today, he probably wouldn't elaborate his theories at all in the same way. Most of what early psychiatry/psychoananlysis says about homosexuality is tripe: the one improvement is that their work let to decriminilization.
    But that's not the point here.

    Limited as Freud's viewpoint is, I was interested in the shift in our species that made smells, initially a primary source of information, into a subordinate, more or less subconscious form of information.

    In the refined world of perfumery, of course, that mere *hint* of animal/sexual smell is sufficient: any more would trigger culturally acquired disgust (and does, in many cases, if there's too much musk/civet/etc.) That smidge of the animal is more or less subconciously perceived, I believe. Any more, in a non-sexual context, will be sure to trigger aversion rather than attraction in most people, although they wouldn't necessarily know why.

    Stronger, sexual smells are a turn-on in an intimate situation (though apparently not for everyone, and to varying degrees according to the person's history/culture). Once you've accepted to let a partner approach enough. If we went around sniffing each other's personal smells in public spaces it would be too promiscuous!

  9. Tom, MKK seems to be a kind of test in that field: people whose nose and taste I respect feel the stink - and then, chose to embrace it or not. To me, it's sexy and soft. Not a hint of barnyard, horse or Mongol. I put it down, at least partly, to selective musk anosmia. I really should wear it one day and ask anyone I can what they perceive, without them knowing what the scent is... Hey, that's an idea for a post: Une journée avec MKK!

  10. Elizabeth, I've already responded to Tom on the matter of MKK. I think it would depend on the nose of the beholder, and his relationship to the wearer.

    For the past 2 centuries, flowers have equalled femininity, and wearing the scent of flowers sigifies a will to seduce/be seduced, along with makeup, nice clothes, etc. It is one of many controlled signals of the traditional feminine identity and of sexual availability. Flowers are part of the code: musc isn't any more (it was in the past, for both men and women).

    As for Musc Ravageur, I suspect it's the yumminess of it that acts on some "recipients" rather than its purported intense erotic effects.

  11. Helg, I totally agree about Musc Ravageur (see above). It's basically foody and comforting to me (a condition for getting sexy, perhaps?).
    I think the conjunction between healthy pulchritude (ill people give off a different smell) and an unexpected hint of odor sui generis (once you get close enough to perceive it) is much more of a primary attractant that, say, smearing yourself with the latest bottled head-turner.
    As I said above to Elizabeth, perfume-wearing is a social *code* , one sexual signal among many, more primarily visual ones.

    What interests me now is why some people choose to devote an inordinate amount of interest to scents in themselves: it's not neutral.
    People who were born, like you, in environments both fragrant, cultured and steeped in scrupulous grooming traditions, may have one type of relationship with fragrances, including more "challenging" ones.
    People who were raised in a "perfume is a useless luxury", "perfume is there to hide personal stink", "you should smell clean from the shower" culture might have different initial motives for entering the perfumista world. This points towards the USA, but of course, Americans come from all over the world and their personal history can be very far from the cliché of the "cleanliness-obsessed" American...

  12. Six, I'm not surprised at all that young men like scents that remind them of yummy sweeets -- they're quite close to childhood still (up to about 35?). Yummy=snuggly.
    About floral scents, as I answered above, it's an easy code for femininity, and easy to love.
    I'm not sure homosexuality, male or female, has an enormous impact on the choice of fragrances, except that, of course, gay men might be more open about experimenting. The gay women I know are not butch and their choices are based on being a perfume lover or not, so it's pretty varied. I would imagine a very androgynous woman choosing a masculine or gender-neutral fragrance, but more as a *sign* than as an overt sexual attractant.

    As for man-magnets, well, I think it's the woman who wears the scent who carries it off in a certain way, rather than specific compositions. Though the more challenging ones (CdG Tar, for instance) might be off-putting, once they get up close!

  13. Thank you for a very interesting post! I wish I could have mentioned a perfume that gave me an epiphany, but have none in particular. As many of your readers I have been fascinated by scents as far back as I can remember, and, of course, also by bodily/sexual scents.
    On Freud's theory about children's develpoment, I think Emmanuella has very good points. Much of that he claims in that field has been shown to be directly false by research in developmental psychology (in as far one can talk of truth and falsity), it often sounds as if he himself had no direct experience with babies and small children at all. (Ad feces: mothers to normal children probably have noticed their natural aversion towards the smell; that is not something one has to learn! On other smells: I have firsthand experience of how fond my children as babies were of my own smell! Mothering in itself for me was an epiphany, as it made me more than ever before realize how much we still are animals! Fortunately culture doesn't decide on all matters, and often is only a thin varnish over the animalistic in us)
    Well, the new Fleurs d'Oranger is still potent, it has given me many compliments the last weeks :)
    My husband, by the way, likes vanilla better than me, actually finds the scent of vannila among the sexiest there is - but perhaps he is biased: I know his exwife liked to use a simple vanilla oil, so he has the scent strongly associated with sex. I don't know if food associations alone can sexualize a scent?

  14. Stella Polaris, I'm pretty sure Freud didn't have much direct experience with babies (men weren't hands-on fathers back then, and neither were well-off women). However, he does raise a point about us not being repulsed by the smell of our own productions quite as much as we are by others', unless we are ill.
    Psychoanalysis hasn't explored much the sense of smell until recent years, but it's interesting to note that smells and the nose (re: Freud's nose operations by his colleague Fliess and their cocaine habit) are actually very present in the birth of the field. And I'm sure that somehow, a deep and abiding interest in smells and scent has some significance -- it may point more towards the mother-baby bonding...

    I don't know why some men find sweet foody smells like vanilla sexually compelling: it may have to do with the link between sex and cannibalism ("I could just eat you"), or, more simple, with the comfort and relaxation procured by sweets and their childhood associations.

  15. What a great exploration! I am going to come back...don't really have time and ponder and give full justice to this right away...but I will offer:

    My scent "epiphany" regarding skank came long before I entered the perfume-loving realm. I was having a conversation with a friend, who confessed to me her boyfriend liked "skank"...a time when the word was still relatively new, and rather pocketed into certain sub-cultures. Of course, in that case, we were discussing real body odors, not simulacra in a bottle.

    As to who/why is attracted to skank...it seems to me that that is rather complex, and potentially diverse. Reactionary, as you propose, is one possible response--but even within that, perhaps there is more than one trigger, not just cultural hygiene conventions? After all, we come to "deviance" from many a path, starting with how deviance is understood (in relation to what) and progressing to motivations.

    ZOIKS! So much for me waiting to speak until I had a chance to process...THANK YOU for bringing up such an interesting side bar.

  16. "However, he does raise a point about us not being repulsed by the smell of our own productions quite as much as we are by others', unless we are ill." I don't know if it is relevant to your point, but: Mothers generally seems to find the smell of their baby's feces ok as (perhaps even pleasant (?) in weak consentrations) as long as it is 100% breast fed, when other types of food is introduced the smell gets bad, for the mother, and perhaps also for the child(?). Perhaps that also has to do with the "foreign" element introduced?

    Your theory of why men also associate sweet and foody smells with sex is probably to the point! (am in a hurry now, and can't remember neither the name of the author, nor the title of the book, but I read some years ago a quite intriguing novel about a woman living in NY who in the end killed and ate her lover, it was the ultimate sexual act, for him also. Perhaps you know it!)

  17. ScentSelf, within my questioning of who is attracted to more challenging fragrance, I am also wondering about the very reason why people are so fascinated by fragrance that they would devote a significant chunk of their time, not only exploring it, but discussing it and writing about it...
    Somehow, attraction to "transgressive" perfumes (as measured against mainstream tastes/mores) seems to be a natural development of this olfactory passion.
    There is also, somehow, a kinky dimension to all this!

  18. Stella, the limit between erotic love and cannibalism is as thin as skin... Even metaphorically, we tend to digest/appropriate the other through shared tastes and mannerisms. But that's another subject. If you remember the name of the book, let me know!

  19. Hello, D (and everyone else) -- what an interesting discussion this is. Some of my thoughts:

    1. Similar to Tom, SL MKK was definitely a skank epiphany for me. I wrote once that it reminded me of the smell upon stepping out of a luxurious hotel in Bombay during monsoon season: the combined smell of sweat, skin, feces, and decay, with the smell of smoke and flowers. I only say feces because I know that smell was there in India -- in MKK itself, I don't particularly get "fecal" as a separate note.

    2. I remember once going shopping (many years ago) with an out of town visitor (a gay man). I had tried on a t-shirt at a store which had clearly been tried on previous to me by a sweaty young man, because his scent lingered in the fabric. "Smell this," I said to my shopping companion, and he buried his face in the fabric and inhaled deeply, with pleasure.

    3. While our ability to smell things, and perhaps the intense connection between scent and memory, might be "genetically programmed", I am more inclinded to think that our interest in particular scents has more to do with association (both cultural and personal) than with "genetic programming." You said, D, fragrance is a code, and I suspect that for many of us, there is pleasure in the decoding as well as in the actual smells.

    4. I think it's interesting to think about interest and obsession with scent as such as fetish (which is what I think you're getting at), i.e. the investiture of sublimated erotic energy into the chosen object.

    5. There seems also to be an aspirational dimension to scent among perfumephiles. I think often we tell ourselves we want to like certain things because we learned to associate those things cognitively with attributes we'd like to see in ourselves. Even if, say, we we find ourselves not initially liking vetiver, even though we've been told it is quintessentially virile or powerful or austere or what have you, over time and repetition don't we sometimes end up absorbing into our scent-framework?

  20. Jarvis, those are some great points you make (this goes for everyone who's commented!).
    I'm especially interested in what you say about the pleasure of decoding, which is definitely part of the intellectualizing, sublimating process.
    You also very perceptively link the fetishistic dimension to a form of snobbery (your word is "aspirational"), which irresistibly brings to mind the words of one of the libertines of the Marquis de Sade about his tastes. Something to the effect of "we love what no one else loves, and this adds to our pleasure" (not an exact quote, but I'm not digging through the 1000 pages of the Story of Juliette to find it).
    I know that I've taught myself to love certain notes, to overcome my initial hesitations, much in the way that I taught myself to love bitter coffee, strong cheese or sushi: first for aspirational reasons (perhaps because someone I was in love with loved it), then to find out about the pleasure that was to be derived from it. You can extend that to other domains... Which I won't go into. But the fact of overcoming a block (say, leather scents, civet or aldehydes), of raising the stakes, of pushing back the boundaries, can really open up new vistas.
    Even if we were initially drawn into the game for more futile reasons...

  21. Aha, D! I had not immediately linked it to the erotic give and take involved with overcoming an initial inhibition (I will leave it at that, and not say "to what"). But yes, I think it has a similar energy. For example, I still have this reaction to the initial few minutes of applying L'Artisan Timbuktu: a part of me smells the sweatiness, and says, "no, no!", and another part of me says, sternly but lovingly, "Wait! Be still!" And that tension is now part of the enjoyment I derive from Timbuktu.

    Repetition has a part to play as well, whereby that psychic energy becomes invested in that tension through a sort of conditioning process.

  22. I am glad I sent you that email, Denyse. What I was originally saying was that I rail at the limited range within which we (perfumefiles/sexual beings) enjoy sex and scent. I remarked on the slavish way that "skank" is only enjoyed once branded as risque and also note the circumscribed and tame way that we enjoy sex, only through naughty props that make us feel safe around our dangerous bodies.

    I hadn't considered the evolutionary purpose of aversion to nasty smells that commenters have noted here.

    Part of that for me, is that I never accept that my own attractions are entwined with reproduction. I should learn more about science, but I fear that such knowledge might conflict with what I want to be true in the realm of desire.

  23. I didn't respond last night because I wanted to take my time and formulate a cogent, erudite comment, but the discussion has been so lively and covered so many topics already. In response to a comment above, I want to say that, as a gay man, I do love the scent of my bf's crotch (lots of cumin), but I don't know if I would love the scent of "crotch" in general, and I certainly don't smell any at all in Black Orchid. I think it really depends on the man/fantasy of the man who is sweaty/smelly rather than the smell itself. A bit of olfactory metonymy, in a way.

    All your talk of sublimation and Freud and eroticism takes me back. I remember a particular discussion with my postmodernism professor on shit (we were talking about Freud, Derrida [my fave] and Mulholland Drive) and how we have been aculturated to despise the smell. After all, babies are fascinated by shit, play with it, even eat it. Of course, it's not hygenic, but everything's relative. We hold the rails on the subway, don't we?

    Just now, I'm reminded that this weekend the bf and I went to Chanel to check and see if they had Beige yet (nope). Anyway, I picked up the Cuir de Russie Les Exclusif, and my bf, who is not into scent, and who I use as such as a sort of control or objective observer, said, "Oooh, I like that." So I made him try it on. It turned really fecal on him. I then tried to explain the concepts of indolic jasmine and civet, but I don't think he bought it. The difference between him and a perfumista is that while we never forget that it smells poopy, we understand and even appreciate why. We like the intellectual subversion going on rather than become immune to it (bad smells).

    Even now, as I wear Ambre Narguile (which now strikes me as Musc Ravageur Lite), I can pick out a tiny bit of skank...and I like it.

    Merci pour this post, c'est fantastique (the next Lancome?). :-)

  24. Oh, and I love the art you used for the French post.

  25. Is perfumistery, truly, a "kinky dimension"?

    I have trouble universally fetishizing olfactory exploration. To take an example from another sensory domain, when I push my aural limits and explore music whose structure, scale, presentation, sounds are all "foreign" and perhaps displeasing, I am not inclined to believe I do so purely out of rebellion, or because I want someone to MAKE me like it. (Or will never like it, but find the pain exquisite.)

    I understand that we are including in our assumptions the concept that olfactory is a basal sense, pre-cognitive, and that one might dismiss more "complex" processes from the discussion. I still think there is something to it...

    ...just as I think we need to be careful in suggesting that liking skank means we are exploring the subversive, the divergent, what have you. I wouldn't want to go the other direction, and suggest that all perfumistas who enjoy skank are obviously self-loathing, because they choose to put themselves through putrid pain/pleasure.

    Nor would I dismiss any of these possibilities. I guess what I was trying to say before was that I am leery of any single-label generalization for what mysteries drive our perfume inquiries.

    It was interesting to see Octavian (1000fragrances) reference yesterday's discussion in his post today; must be a good day to deconstruct the scent-sual. Thanks again for being such a good, thoughtful host!

  26. Jarvis, I've always thought that tastes could be re-trained, and the paths to pleasure re-circuited. The chemical senses (taste, smell) may be a little harder to cultivate in that respect, because they are so directly emotional. It does take an amount of will and, uh... self-discipline.

  27. Cait, I'm glad you *did* send me that email.
    Hey, our bodies -- our rather the power of our minds on our bodies and vice versa, more vice than versa as a matter of fact -- *are* dangerous. And we didn't insert the whole pleasure-seeking process into language and thus, inevitably, into a cultural/individual system of taboos, identifications, projections, etc, we would be psychotic. I think the dimension of perceived transgression (and the pleasure associated with it) might be an actual safeguard, as well as a sublimation process.

  28. Billy, first of all, my condolences on Cuir de Russie turning bad on your boyfriend -- it's possibly my favorite scent, bar none, and it's a shame neither of you can enjoy it on him...
    As for "man crotch scent" -- which I don't get from Black Orchid either -- versus "*my* man's crotch scent, that's a very apt point. Most of us enjoy intimate smells within the context of intimacy, not at large: that would be crossing the boundaries that have been set up for us to live in crowded communities.
    On the other hand, I often caught myself, when coming across an attractive stranger, male or female, trying to inhale their smell as they walked by. Such animals we are too...
    Lancôme Magnifique might not be the next review. I have a couple of things to explore first.

  29. Billy, about the art: I discovered this painter on the blog that's linked to the image. He's a French neo-surrealist, obviously influenced by Cranach and Bosch.
    Oh, and I didn't know Derrida was still taught in the USA. He wasn't so highly regarded in France! But he was my teacher in the 80s. Sigh... Such an attractive man...

  30. ScentSelf, I would also want to avoid generalization, and perhaps the choice of the term "kinky" was misguided. I didn't mean to imply at all that there was masochism involved.
    I do think that perfume aficion is an intellectual pursuit, just as the appreciation of music, art or literature: that's why I talked about sublimation in the post.
    What interests me is that, though it's certainly not a recent phenomenon, the perfume amateur culture has considerably developed and coalesced through the internet (like all special interest groups). It would be fascinating to study the discourse at work within that volume of discourse. The perception of stink, being both cultural and emotional, would yield fertile grounds for such a study.
    I've just seen Octavian's post. He's a real-life friend and I'm sure that we will pursue this discussion offline!

  31. I think that for some people olfactory exploration can be a fetishising activity, in that it as an intellectual pursuit inherently expand the area of the pleasurable by letting new "things" produce pleasure in us.
    By sniffing we create new possibilities of bodily and intellectual (intertwined) pleasure by the eroticization of new nuances of scent, sometimes initially very odd scents..
    To explore scents is a way to experiment with pleasure and its possibilities - like S&M is, but, as we know, that can also be a strongly intellectual kind of activity.
    (for both Platon and Bataille, eroticism leads to knowledge and truth!)

  32. Stella, I think Bataille just turned in his grave in Vézelay, after being put in the same sentence as Plato!
    But, yes, I agree there is a type of perfume appreciation that is an expansion of pleasurable sensations through intellectualization, and back. It's mine, though it doesn't exclude the simpler "mmm, that smells so good I'd love to lose myself in it" sort of rapture. In fact, that's how most perfumes end up in my collection. The Wow factor, pure and simple.

  33. Carmen: most of my perfumes found me that way to..
    (yes, probably Bataille would do so! :) But, on the other side, as we know Plato can be read an an erotic thinker, maintaining eroticism, knowledge and death as unseparably linked)
    I found the author and title of the book I mentioned:
    Slavenka Drakolic: The Taste of a Man

  34. Ah, yes! I have had similar thoughts...it *is* quite interesting to see how the collapsed space that is the internet has allowed?encouraged?created? a community dialogue about perfume at such an intense level.

    I have found equally impassioned dialogues about writing implements, ephemera...a wide range of things. But I think you are right to ponder the intersection of intellect, passion, and perfume as represented by this discourse. And to ponder possible effects...such as, with a greater/better identified, coalesced, and increasingly educated audience, would a perfumer get greater recognition as "artist"? (Case in support: the New York Times hires a writer who reviews perfume.) Will we be able to trace societal shifts in perception of scents as a result?

    The concomitance of increased presence of aromatherapy with knowledge AND presence of perfumery may lead to changes in assumed/shared knowledge across a broader population.

    Haven't even begun to address the role of marketing and the dialectical influence as they monitor the hum of this chatter. Marketers trying to sense trends, influence perceptions...of course, it may simply mean that the rules of the game are changed, but not that some sort of larger collective knowledge gets influenced.

    This is all a bit to the side to your interest in the psychological impetus behind scent exploration, but I see it all ultimately woven together.

  35. Stella, anyway you did well in mentioning Bataille. I was a great student of his work way back when, and though I now consider that much of his thinking on transgression is somewhat dated in the contemporary world, it is just possible that, related to the very strongly emotional world of odours, it still might apply. (Off to look through book shelves).
    Thanks for the reference!

  36. P.S. When I studied Derrida here in the U.S., it was the late '80's, and JD was one of a pool that included the usual suspects; from France, Lacan, Foucault, Levi-Strauss. We were not philosophy, but lit/critical theory students. He was oh-so-all-that at the time.

    I believe at least one of my fellow students would have given an eye tooth to have been one of your compatriots, listening to the man himself teach.

  37. ScentSelf, you're right, it is somehow linked to marketing. We bloggers are read by the powers-that-be, we can sometimes tell by the domain names on our site meters. How this will impact the market remains to be seen. The rush of all the big brands to go niche, or niche-ish, may be linked to these new consumer perceptions/feedback, though I'm not really sure. Nothing is more secret than the perfume industry!

  38. ScentSelf, in response to your P.S.:
    I'm a Québécoise, and when I came to France in the 80s to do my PhD in semiology and literary history, I did the North American student Grand Tour: Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Serres, Kristeva... Unfortunately, Foucault and Lacan had already passed away, or they would definitely have been part of the program.

  39. I wonder how a perfume inspired by this poem by Bataille would smell like, at least it would have to be skanky!

    Rire (laughter)

    laugh and laugh
    at the sun
    at the nettles
    at the stones
    at the ducks

    at the rain
    at the pee-pee of the pope
    at mummy
    at a coffin full of skit

    well, if made it would have been metaphysics through perfume! And for daring souls only to try

  40. Somehow I doubt Jean-Claude Ellena would be inspired... But Christophe Laudamiel could get on the case.

  41. Indeed, my professor was sort of a big Francophile, so we read a lot of Derrida, a ton of Lacan, Badiou, Barthes, etc. That's incredible that you were taught by Derrida--I always thought he was kind of attractive too, in the same Maurice Roucel-type way, with all that hair. My God though, getting through some of Grammatology...phew. I did love Structure, Sign, and Play though.

    I think you got exactly what I was trying to say about the specificity of smell affinities. My boyfriend's very specific smell is attractive to me, but so is the smell of another very physically attractive man. I mean that two men might have the same BO stench, but the one that looks like Colin Firth is going to be more attractive, in an olfactory way, than the one who looks like (later) Marlon Brando. So even if I'm not intimately involved with the person, the visual still informs the olfactory.

    PS: I'm just curious, do you know who Francois Sagat is? :-)

  42. Sorry, reading more above: I loooved Kristeva.

  43. Billy,
    1) Derrida was much more fine-boned than Roucel... Couldn't possibly compare them.
    2) I kind of liked Kristeva's husband at the time...'Nuff said.
    3) I've never heard of Sagat.
    4) Getting back on the perfume track: it's a chicken-or-egg question. Are we attracted to someone because of the way they smell or do we find their smell attractive because we like the rest of them?
    I find that the one personal smell I can remember precisely is that of the man I've loved the most. No Colin Firth, he.

  44. For clarification:


  45. Billy: now there's a man who seems quite fond of himself.
    Readers: said blog has, let's say, *adult* content of a muscle-bound type.

  46. I was going to get into this whole thing about clean vs. dirty and the implications for masculinity vs. feminitity and the complicated relationship between cleanliness and personal fastidiousness being associated with female behavior while a certain non chalance towards hygeine skews masculine. Then I was going to bring in the visual/fragrant component in discussion of someone like Mr. Sagat, perhaps throwing in some Delicious Closet Queen-type asides. But as you can see, I haven't the intellectual prowess to flesh it out myself.

    I think the self-display is more of a detachment from his own body. In a way, he has sculpted his body so perfectly that it no longer seems human or even part of him--it's become an art object. Sort of like he's his own muse. I actually don't really find him attractive (any more) for that very reason.

    How off topic have we gotten now?

  47. Billy: Mr. Sagat does seem to have a case of severe self-fetishization going on. I'm not quite sure I know how to link it to smell/hygiene/gender representation, though I kind of get where you're going.
    I think the greater obsession for hygiene in women could probably be linked to their age-old, perceived impurity (i.e. the monthlies), which is why America gave us feminine intimate deodorants.
    In many cultures (Islamic countries, Japan, just to name a couple), both sexes are very fastidious about cleanliness. In the West (and perhaps in other cultures), strong, virile smells were linked to fertility and sexual prowess: in fact, up to the early 20th century, people in France (maybe elsewhere too, but I don't have the research) thought that if a man were too clean, he would lose his genesic powers.

  48. Sorry, what I was trying to hint at was the sort of thinking that leads men to refuse fragrance precisely because it is seen as a product. A product in the sense of being an accoutrement used to beautify oneself--a tool of vanity, which, unless feminized, a man must not embody. The irony, of course, is that the trappings of hyper-masculinity, or even any masculinity at all, are themselves the ultimate accoutrements of the male figure. Wearing fragrance, thus, is no different from working out or combing one's hair, but it remains a "frippery," and thus, an accent that is dangerous to those who want to rigidly maintain a traditionally masculine identity.

    It's something with which I struggle sometimes. I often say to myself, "Stop over intellectualizing this! If you don't like Mitsouko, you don't like it!" I then feel the need to butch up and abandon scent completely. Usually it's my desire to read about it rather than smell it (which I think you spoke of very well in your previous post) that brings me back to perfumes. I love imagery!

  49. Billy, I wonder if the parameters are the same in Europe, or at least in France and Latin countries. I don't think cologne or eau de toilette are perceived as fripperies here, more of a final touch to the grooming process. I don't think it's because men are more in touch with their inner woman, more that culturally it's a tradition that has been upheld for centuries.
    I also find that a number of men have quite good noses here in France, which I attribute to wine-tasting -- a quasi-competitive sport in the upper middle classes!

  50. Billy: This very interesting topic you proposed about Sagat/self image /artificial is very well presented in a book called: The Meanings of Dress (Kimberly A. Miller-spillman). There is an entire chapter devoted to self image, via toys/porn movies and so on in the contemporary world. There are many good points of view that could be extended for the fragrance.

  51. Denyse: no doubt there are great differences between European grooming traditions and those of Americans. Perhaps it has something to do with the pioneering, frontier spirit associated with America. I.e., "We don't need none o' yer damn oo day toy-let! I smell just fine."

    Octavian: Thanks, I'll look the book up!

    Sorry to hijack the comments*

  52. Hello -- I think Billy's point about the particular anxiety of American men about fragrance in particular and self-care in general is well taken.

    There is a commercial that has been playing on American TV all throughout the Olympics about some sort of body wash (sorry I can't remember the brand). The general gist is that a number of geeky and misfit men are talking about how this particular body wash does not smell of anything, won't help them score hot chicks, etc. (All of them are misfits, so this is supposed to evoke humor). Then an effortlessly handsome man comes on, and says, "Isn't that the point? It just smells clean." The subtext being, any attempt to smell of anything other than "clean" is a false masculinity. Real masculinity, so the commercial implies, is effortless. (Of course, we know that the smell of "clean" is actually a historically contingent concept brought about by the saturation of laundry detergent with those synthetic musks in the mid 20th century; i.e. "clean" is no universal, essential concept, but a historically constructed one). It is a commercial that plays on the anxiety that men have (American men, in this particular case) about sexual identity.

    Which brings me to something I have often thought, which is that the parameters of what constitutes heterosexual masculinity are terribly narrow and restrictive. That is, to be a heterosexual male is to be constantly anxious about whether one is heterosexual enough and male enough. Constantly, one is engaged in a constant performance of the correct codes and behaviors to repeatedly declare one's sexual identity, all the while being anxious about the amount of work this takes (since it is supposed to be "effortless"). Indeed, it is probably the cathexis of this conflict between performance and ideal that constitutes identity in the first place.

    Scent seems to me to be one of the many tools deployed to reinscribe this identity. And it is one that is accorded special privilege because it is assumed to somehow be "more primal" or "essential" than, say, sartorial codes. Yet, as historical evidence suggests, the coding of scents as "masculine" or "feminine" changes over time, over culture, and, indeed, over class. American men have their particular set of anxieties, but men in other cultures have others -- the anxieties may differ, but the mechanism by which anxiety is part of the constitution of identity is not.

    Also, just to add, while a great deal of energy is invested in the use of scent to mark and inscribe gender, I am sure that scent is also used to signal allegiance with other kinds of identity as well. Take, for example, the legions of frat boys who wear Acqua di Gio, or a whole generation of gay men who wore JPG Le Mâle... I'm sure women are pre-occupied with their own codes and performances as well.

  53. Sorry, meant to type:
    "the anxieties may differ, but the mechanism by which anxiety is part of the constitution of identity DOES not."

  54. Octavian, thanks for popping in, and thanks for the reference: another book to look up!
    This idea of self-image could be neatly tucked into this "stinky" business, as well as Jarvis's remarks about "aspirational" notes.
    If you're anxious to present a certain type of image, any perfume that's got a "skank" to it, even if you somehow find it attractive, would make you anxious (will people think I have BO? Stepped on something?).
    If your self-image includes braving commonly accepted ideas, being a trailblazer, a dandy, whatever, then you might proudly flaunt your Jicky, MKK or Kouros.
    After all, fragrance is not exclusively a matter of personal taste and enjoyment: it is also self-presentation and a (hopefully slight) invasion of other people's territory.

  55. Billy, I don't have any studies on hand, and this might just be my perception. I can suppose, for instance, that the Hispanic Americans have a different attitude towards Agua de Colonia...

  56. Jarvis, these are all interesting points, and I should be taking them into account in other posts -- there is much to be said in that field. I didn't know about that commercial, but it's very telling! "Just clean", mind you, is not something to sniff at when you smell some of the concoctions the average Joe sprays on (Axe, anyone? Boss?), or the absence thereof in public transportation...

    As for the construction of gender/group identity through fragrance, particularly masculine identity, *vaste sujet*. There is a strong current of anxiety running through, probably linked, primordially, to the fear of fear of "it" not being "big" enough, and especially, of "it" having... hiccups. Which is not off-topic here, but big enough a topic to be adressed elsewhere, in an essay about the gender of scent.
    Thank you so much for the time and thoughtfulness you put into this response (that goes for everyone!).

  57. I am just rediscovering all of this. I'm American, but have lived in some pretty smelly places (southern Japan, Spain). There is, in those old cites, an almost-subliminal sewer smell that you just get used to, whereas here, that's not the case; coming back, I am surprised at how scrubbed-clean even the airports smell.

    In my experience, American men don't like skank. I know my DH doesn't. They seem to want Clean, floral (but not too much). I tried MKK on him the other day -- MKK fascinates me, and I love it -- and he was completely repelled, in fact asked me to wash it off, which he's never done with a perfume before.

    So, this is between me, me and all of you. Armpit and other forms of body-musk seem more appealing to me than they did pre-perfume obsession. All smells do, really. I still don't like the unwashed-for-days bodies, the way some men at my gym smell (and they're almost never American.) Maybe I'll feel differently about that some day.

    As for the "skanky" perfumes -- the Jickys and vintage Bal a Versailles, the niche musks, MKK, all the others I haven't discovered yet -- bring 'em on. I love that bass note, and am increasingly impatient with the watery, "clean" American take on perfume.

  58. Olfacta, "bass note" is a great way of putting it. I love the dark vibe too, and clean perfumes (except for marvellous colognes) just can't keep me interested. I think in the appreciation of perfume, we re-train our noses (and, above all, our perceptions) to be more curious, more accepting (but not of appalling hygiene -- sheesh). It's a shame your husband hates MKK, though. I can imagine you wear your favorites in subliminal doses when he's around!

  59. Just popping to write that I am fascinated by the discourse going on here; great to read the thoughts of people whoa actually take the time to think.

    I've seen that commercial for body spray: what I find interesting is it's kind of leading adolescents away from the "Axe" generation into "manhood". Cheap marketing as an engine of social change. The virile "older" dude doesn't need those body sprays to attract women; he doesn't have to spray on "drrrty", he's old enough to be "drrrty" Another case of a big company creating a perceived need...

    I once read a hilarious novel by Joe Keenan that mentioned (in a vignette) something along the lines that companies could actually get away with selling American men make-up if they came up with a butch enough name; guys would happily apply "lip dirt" from the pot as long as you called it "dirt" and not "gloss"

  60. Hi Tom, glad you popped in! Anything that can lead adolescents away from Axe is potentially a good think. Now if we could just wean their big brothers off Boss...

  61. D, I was more thinking of what gay people tend to find attractive in a potential partner and what they fantasize a partner will find attractive, see what I mean? Does this - apparently untrue - perfumista fantasy that "men will be attracted to animalic scents" hold true?
    (indeed, all gay people in my entourage, men and women, are resolutely non-perfumista, and just go for mainstream fragrances).

  62. Six, I honestly don't know which fragrances are thought of by gay men and women as attractive to/by a partner. Certainly, Jean-Paul Gaultier masculine fragrances seem to aim to a gay demographic, and are nowhere near animalic...
    There was a thread about lesbians and fragrance on Perfume of Life recently, and from some of the responses, it seems that fragrance choice (if any) seems to correspond, outside of the perfumista world, to certain community standards -- the sub-groups, based on types of gender representation within the gay community (butch, femme, etc.).
    There's no reason why gays shouldn't be less mainstream, within than own codes, as straights!

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