Though lots of people say we live in a post-modern era, common sense ideas about what’s “merely in our heads” versus what’s “actually out there” in the world haven’t really changed much. We know, of course, that when we’re in love, our “rose colored glasses” make the “external” world shimmer with magic. And we know (don’t we?) that enculturation, socialization and even our own freaky idiosyncrasies shape whether we will experience something as deliciously aromatic or repulsively stinky.
All of this knowledge makes it even odder that we persist in speaking and living as if such nastiness or delight were actually out there, separate from us, in a realm that we merely encounter rather than actively help create. When it comes to the stinky or sublime, our default reaction still seems to be one of blaming or crediting the world. Happily, perfume-lovers, and other sensual connoisseurs likely have an advantage. Our changing experiences of one and the same fragrance, like an evolving reader’s experience of one and the same poem, is a repeated reminder that, yes, REALLY AND TRULY, our subjective orientation can pretty radically influence how we come to judge all that stuff “out there.”
It’s a point underscored for me quite dramatically by my tumultuous relationship with Chanel’s Coromandel, which I found nearly unbearable at first. It was too sharp, too screechy, far from being the “cozy” scent so many others kept alleging. For me it was brutal, heavy, and uncompromising. I kept at it, though, the way one might continue to make overatures to an unlikeable, but interesting, cell mate. After a long while — I am talking about years! — I noticed that my Coromandel misery was confined mostly to its opening hours and that, during its loooong drydown (and, wow, it is long), it had become, well, pleasant. I began, if not to crave Coromandel, to appreciate and enjoy it, and even to think of it fondly during long separations.
The real kicker, though, came when I set out to determine what it was about that first hour that had been rubbing me the wrongest way. I’d always thought of myself a patchouli lover, so I knew that it couldn’t be THAT. But then came my embarrassing realization, after assiduously reading skillful perfumistas’ descriptions, that the mental construct of patchouli I’d been relying on, that I had inherited from childhood and carried around with me for decades, had been blindingly narrow. Quite startlingly for me, once I made the conscious mental adjustment to my patchouli concept, the olfactory lens through which I’d been sniffing it, all was smooth sailing. What I had experienced in Coromandel as strange and harsh was suddenly — quite suddenly! Gestalt-like, even — reconfigured as congenial, and even lovable.
The experience was actually both unnnerving and empowering. On the one hand, it was reinforced to me that I had incredible agency in terms of taste, that I was not at the mercy of world, no matter how “visceral” my reaction might feel to me. Coromandel made it utterly evident that, through repeated exposure and some conscious cognitive adjustment, I could reshape my sensual world. On the other hand, though, it disturbed me to realize that the Coromandel monster I’d created, and suffered for years, was one of my own imaginings. Now, of course, I can’t help but wonder: What other beasts have I nurtured into existence that might dissolve away, or even lay tamely down by my side, if only I had the creative and courageous patience to see them through new eyes?
I’m curious: Is there any one perfume with which you’ve had a similar experience? Have you ever been really surprised by a sudden shift in your perception of a weird stinker to an addictive beauty? How much control do you think you have over whether or not you ultimately end up rejecting or embracing a scent that has been challenging to you? Comment below, if you’re so inclined.