Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Angry Smells

I have a theory, not based on any tests or even any kind of evidence or observation, which states that if you smell like something, you don’t impose yourself to be that something.

If we take as given that a certain percentage of our emotions and actions are through compensation (which is certainly not a given, but just for now…), then this perhaps makes a tiny amount of sense – if, through smell, we have convinced ourselves we are something, then we lose that compensatory motivation to be that. If we smell very very sexy and alluring then our attempts to convince the world that we are, in fact, very very sexy and alluring through other means – via what we say or how we act – are perhaps lessened. Again, this is entirely a theory pulled out of thin air and not based on anything at all apart from a mild amount of experience, and I make no pre-tense about actually being correct about this (or anything). I do believe that with the world of smells though it is worth a thought – I know that when I have worn very sexy fragrances like Nasomatto’s Duro my propensity to communicate sexiness is unconsciously stifled. This, more than anything else, is perhaps the greatest that can be said for a perfume increasing one’s confidence – all it works in is alleviating insecurity through a kind of emotional self-manipulation.

Or the entirely opposite thing happens: if you wear something that you utterly do not believe yourself to be, then all the smell informs you is of the chasm between who you are and who the smell is suggesting you are. That is why Jubilation XXV does not make me feel more secure about my financial status, it simply feels like I am too poor to pull it off successfully. Chanel no.5 does not make me feel more feminine, it informs me how unfeminine I am by comparison. The effect of this though isn’t so much an increase of insecurity though, rather, since smell is more visceral and operates from the gut (not literally, of course), it rejects outright these contradictory smells. Jubilation XXV makes me feel poor, but not insecure about not having much money – I viscerally reject it, and accept my paltry lot. Similiarly Chanel no.5 does not make me aspire to be more feminine to match it, rather it recognizes the length of this chasm and pedals back accordingly.

So, to summarise: if you wear a fragrance which communicates something you both aspire to and are able to display, then the experience of wearing it will reduce your insecure motivation to display said thing. However if you wear a fragrance which communicates something which you have no self-belief in achieving, or else doesn’t communicate anything of either your aspirations or realities, then you reject this communication and similarly don’t display said thing.

What happens then if a fragrance is communicating something you don’t aspire to, but at the same time can’t remotely deny as being part of you? What if a fragrance communicates something which, in fact, you don’t like about your personality? Say a fragrance that made you smell greedy, or shallow, or deceitful. What happens then, how do the rest of your actions compensate?


Today I tried on two different fragrances from two different houses which, to me, smelt angry. One, Vetivier 46 by Le Labo, is a kind of charged, fiery anger. The other, Sandal De Mysore by Serge Lutens, is a brooding, manly anger. But they both carry in them something which communicates fury.

To start wirh Vetivier 46: vetivier absolute, when smelled un-diluted, is one of the most rough and jarring of all perfume ingrdients: it smells of burnt coffee and dirt, and you wonder how it ever became such a perfumery mainstay. When controlled however, and its best attributes highlighted, it becomes one of the most beautiful of notes. Similar to how patchouli can transform from being a dirty, hippy smell into a sweet, elegant note, vetiver transforms from this ugly earth demon to this pinnacle of class and sophistication. Vetivier 46 works so well however because of its success in leaving some of this demon in. This has a cave-dwelling, indolent, extravagantly earthy smell – the gaiac wood and vetiver lend the masculine beauty, while the black pepper and patchouli allows it to crackle off. This is where it becomes angry – it is so stubborn and uncompromising in itself and those crackles – the points of the scent which splinter but do not fizz like citruses (though it has bergamot in it, which I imagines adds to this effect) – hint at an emotional fragility (which contrasts with the calm vanilla on the base) and the cloves lends the fieriness. And that’s what it smells like really: fire. Disarmingly beautiful fire – not just the smoke or incense of so many other scents, but proper, burning fire.

Sandal De Mysore is an entirely different equation, but really just as beautiful. It starts as this almost funky, sweet-sweaty, spicy smell, but soon (but not too soon, it flashes its ugliness around a good deal first) smoothes into an unapologetic calm of Mysore sandalwood. But it is unerring. With that calmness, that ugliness is still there – the body odour, and the all too edible smell. It’s as if it forces itself into this calm beauty in spite of itself. And this is why it is so marvellous: in using its notes so delicately, it communicates a kind of restraint. This is where its anger appears: it seems so acceptable, now so well meaning, but you just saw it as this ugly, putrid beast. You know it’s lying now as it sits still, and you wait for it to break, to snap.

It doesn’t, it just sits and occasionally reminds you with a whiff of something animal, which is then all the more alarming.


My un-scientific, un-proven (un-provable) theory about smell and insecurity would suggest this: if our fragrance carries with it an attribute that we deem negative perhaps the wearing of it would lessen the uncontrollable, invisible effects and motivations of that attribute. Especially because it is beautiful, it gives us a chance to own it, to claim it as our own and then gain some control over it, rendering it more articulate, and at the same time, less dangerous. If we wear an angry fragrance the emotional experience is not one of making ourselves angrier, but rather that of recognising and bringing to the surface such things so they need never surprise us, and reach out from the dark corners like clawing hands.

Of course, as always I am quite willing to be completely wrong, but I hope I am right. It is a nice thing to believe.

(image on top, as well as samples, from luckyscent.com - who do a wonderful job and I am very glad of the existence of)

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