When political prisoner Ingrid Betancourt was released after six years of captivity, she was asked how the experience had changed her. Her complicated response included a commitment to “always have flowers in my room and wear perfume.” The experience of being brutally treated, and, she emphasizes, isolated from most of the human cultural forms she had taken for granted, helped her to appreciate how blurry the line separating luxury from necessity can be.
The notion that music, poetry, and other aesthetic expressions are mere frilly add-ons to the nuts and bolts structure of life continues to be influential, perhaps especially among those most shaped by practical, Protestant-oriented, white North American values. Such folks are, it seems, particularly conditioned to be suspicious of ornamentation, decoration and whatever may be regarded as merely cosmetic ostentation. We can have “nice things,” pretty “extras,” such implicit training teaches, but only once the debt of life has been paid.
It is hardly surprising, then, that, in the West, perfume is regarded as a quintessential luxury item, and, so, for example, generally tossed into the “beauty” category of consumer goods. And it’s a categorization that is quickly revealed to be a feminist issue. “Beauty products,” after all, are overwhelmingly thought to be the purview of women, who, as great minds from Plato to the Nietzsche opined, seem to have an innate and irresistible penchant for such trivialities. It is no wonder, then, that so many contemporary Western women, especially feminists, feel conflicted about our attraction to the realms of “style” and “beauty.”
And, of course, perfume is obviously a mere luxury item in one important sense. We do not need it — or poetry, music, or visual art, for that matter — to survive in the most literal sense. However, as soon as we imagine a life imbued with constructed human meaning, some form of intentional aesthetic creation is indispensable. The arts — and we may include perfumery here — are revealed to be as essential to certain forms of specifically human existence as are air and water. As mammals, then, we may survive quite well without such symbolically rich manipulations of our reality, but, as human beings, we may quickly feel impoverished when these are denied us.
Paradoxically, the very tendency toward the denial of pleasure and its attendant message that sensual pleasure must be earned can push us toward overindulgence. After all, what better way to prove to others and myself that I have overcome my conditioning and embraced my own sensual desire than to give full rein to such indulgent whims? Besides, don’t I deserve to treat myself? Haven’t I worked hard? In a relentlessly consumerist environment, it may even be dangerous to defend perfume as an art, and risk providing further rationalization to those willing to max out their credit cards to possess it.
On the one hand, then, perfume is more than a mere luxury. As an expression of sometimes astonishing human artistry, it has the power to awaken our sensibilities and grace us with a sublimity that may feel utterly absent in other parts of our lives. On the other hand, though, contemporary perfumery, like other forms of commercially exchangeable art, has a shadow side, an aspect of commodification that marks it as a potentially addictive collectible. Perfume is not merely a luxury, then, but nor is it merely an innocent objet d’art.