The embodied intimacy of aesthetic pleasure

One of the most remarkable features of bodily experienced arts such as perfumery, fashion or cuisine, is that there is often very little distance between our emotional selves and the experience of curiosity, pleasure, or disturbance they may bring. Because some creations are actually meant to be put on, or even in, our bodies, the aesthetic experience they evoke can be remarkably intimate, so close, in fact, that there is no distance at all between where we end and they begin.

In grad school, we used to argue enthusiastically about the nature of beauty, or, at least, about what Aristotle, Nietzsche or Hegel meant by that term. Many of the old philosophers warned that we should be suspicious of beauty, especially of sensual beauty. I learned that beauty, especially in the form of wine, women, and baubles, could rip my attention from measured contemplation of the eternal, the universal, the perfect. Not surprisingly, despite my decades in philosophy, I never lost my hunger for curiously colorful, tangy experiences.

A philosophical, aesthetic approach towards life can be double-edged. On the one hand, it may be a conceptual corrective for the lazy myopia of mundane experience, bringing into sharper relief much of what is precious, but underappreciated, by the practical, scurrying, survival-oriented human senses. Philosophy’s best gift, I think, is to help us see what has been unseen, to really explore the spaces, angles and lines of what is otherwise merely taken for granted.

But aesthetic philosophy also threatens to add another barrier between one’s consciousness and reality. Rather than immediately experiencing the salt sea, the shrieking gulls, the thrum of the jet ski, we may find ourselves considering it all as a tableau. We may, emotionally and mentally, move a half step back rather than diving into the cacophonous plenum of fully being at the seashore. Philosophy demands that I step back, that I re-see it all, and, in this simple act of transcendence, meaning becomes possible. My mundane existence suddenly has the potential of poetry or, perhaps, of a gorgeous Instagram post.

But in making a drawing, or poem, or photo, my existence is also pushed away and held at arm’s length, if only for a short while. The very richest stuff of life must be temporarily held at bay, like pulling away from the face of a lover or an infant nursing at one’s breast. Only by imposing a kind of separateness from what is, it seems, can we make philosophical, aesthetic meaning out of what is. But only in immersing ourselves fully can we know it with joyful intimacy.

In one sense, all arts have the potential to be experienced as intimately embodied. Music’s sound waves bang on our bodily surfaces and sneak into our skulls. Even arts that rely mainly on vision, often thought to be the most distancing of the senses, must, of course, be mentally processed by us before they can become meaningful. Still, with my own skin as its canvas and my animal nose as its entryway, perfume can blur the line between me and not-me in a very personal, embodied way. Artistic perfumery invites me not just to contemplate and appreciate fantastical juxtapositions and dizzying beauty, but to become one with them.

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