Daring to speak the impossible language of beauty

After some years of both admiring and cringing at reviewers’ efforts to translate scent into words, it finally occurred to me that the very impossibility of doing so was part of the attraction, that if one could, finally, once and for all, verbally reduce the scent of Amouage’s Jubilation XXV or Guerlain’s Apres L’onde, then this would only prove that these were not, after all, the masterpiece works of fragrant art that we’ve imagined them to be. When perfume rises to the level of art, which it does not always do, or need to do, or even set out to do, perfume lovers are left awestruck, speechless, and yet still struggling to express it. This is not only in order to churn out reviews, but because the conceptual, linguistic dance with the ineffable is so central to the human, and humanistic, project.

And the very failure to express that which we set out to express about beauty is very much part of the glory of such descriptions. Like virtuoso creators and reviewers in every area — choreographers, computer programmers, musical composers, or chefs — the fact that perfect execution or description is impossible is no problem. It is, in fact, it is this very challenge, the prospect of merely glimpsing the sublime, that calls us forward again and again. This, even though we already know, in some sense, that we are going to fail. In fact, we must almost want to fail, for if we were ever able to fully capture these elusive sightings in our (let’s admit it) clumsy human words, brushstrokes, and notes, the magic would leak away like air from a punctured tire.

You are probably not surprised, then, that some perfume aficionados do not even approach the descriptive arena, intimidated, perhaps, by the prospect of offending the perfume gods. You will easily find them on YouTube and notice that, though they may run through the perfume’s “official notes,” that non-descriptive, sometimes silly, list meant to suggest a perfume’s actual and “fantasy” ingredients, they never really attempt to describe the scent. Instead, they focus on factors like: the perfume’s “presentation” (box, bottle, sprayer, and such); its “performance” (how much it “projects” and how long it lasts); where, when and buy whom it should be worn (e.g., office, date, summer, winter, man, woman, young person, old person). While they may conclude that the perfume smells “really good,” or that “it doesn’t do it for me,” they avoid the poetic abyss into which “artier” perfume lovers routinely, and masochistically, hurl themselves.

And it will come as no surprise that, though I sometimes appreciate a straightforward, nuts and bolts, consumer-oriented perfume review — and some of the arty farty ones really are over-the-top — I am often utterly entranced by the poetic, often elliptical, paeans to scent that I routinely find on sites like Bois de Jasmin, Grain de Musc, Now Smell This, and Kafkaesque. This is both in some of the reviews and in readers’ comments. A YouTube reviewer who often wows me with his descriptive reveries is ouch110. And this is so even though I can often detect a kind of miserable thread running through such reviews, a hint of their foreknowledge that eloquence alone will not solve this expressive conundrum. The good ones know they will fail before they set out.

And, of course, in the larger sense, it is not a problem or failure at all. It is, rather, a symptom of the fact that we are limited creatures ever reaching for, and gesturing towards, what seems to lie beyond our merely human grasp. That perfume lovers so often describe being reduced to tears at a perfume’s sublime nature — e.g., vintage versions of Dioressence, Mitsouko, or Rochas Femme — says much about perfume’s true power. It can take us right to edge of our own linguistic capacity and nearly throw us over the edge of our controlled, conceptual, habitual world.

Do we cry because of a thing’s beauty or because of our own inability to put it into words?

5 thoughts on “Daring to speak the impossible language of beauty

  1. I sometimes enjoy the stories in reviews. Some are quite imaginative. Although I confess to not reading the very long ones. And, of course, humorous remarks are always welcome. I find the fragrance community to be very civil and uplifting compared to other groups. That is really something to have a fragrance reduce one to tears! I look forward to the day when we have scent experiences in movie theaters. That would be such a trip.

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  2. Thanks for you comment, Blanche. I agree that one of the really great things about the frag com is its generally positive vibe. As for fragrance in movie theaters, I had one such experience — admittedly pretty low tech, at a specialty film screening — and can’t recommend it! Again, though, this was a pretty low tech version!

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  3. I tend to gravitate to the more lavishly descriptive ones. There’s something very sterile about the ‘nut and bolts’ review. I feel like i could get the same information from fragrantica press releases and such.
    A review which emotes adds a bit of something new to the fragrance conversation, makes me ponder a bit after i finished reading the review.

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  4. I agree. The reviews I like best are those that make little pretense to objectivity, that, instead, allow me to almost get inside the head of the reviewer. Thanks for stopping by, Gunmetal, and for all your posts on Instagram too!

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  5. I am always highly impressed by/envious of those who are able to tell the story of a fragrance in such beautiful language; I don’t quite have the knack for it yet, myself. One of my dear friends just compared it to writing about food, which is another genre that I can read and be inspired by endlessly!

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