Beyond the binary: The ugly-beautiful dance of complex perfumes

As a doorway into the complex nature of beauty and attraction, you couldn’t do much better than experience complex perfumes. Though many of them are merely pretty, or even achingly pretty, those that lodge in our consciousness, that call us back for another sniff (and then another and another) often aren’t “pretty” at all. In fact, some of them may at first seem like chimerical melanges of near Frankensteinian proportions. How on earth is it that these fragrances’ flirtation with the abject can itself lead to such sublime experiences, moments of pleasure, disorientation, and awe?

For most of us, most of the time, at least for Westerners, it is probably fair to say that we are caught up in a binary either/or that is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Learning language itself is largely a process of agreeing to adhere to a list of oppositional adjectives that will come to structure our “normal” consciousness. Pairs like black/white, hot/cold, tall/short, happy/sad, love/hate, culture/nature, and boy/girl serve as a foundation that supplies a false, but relatively comforting, sense of manageability and control over the world. Unfortunately, more nuanced thinking, that which has as its shifting reference points shades of gray, and fluidities of all sorts, must be sacrificed on this naive quest for reduction and mastery.

Even more unfortunately, for many, this turns out not to be merely a stage of development, but an entrenched mode of constituting and relating to reality. And not surprisingly, conservative institutions are all too happy to reinforce oppositional pairs like holy/evil, normal/weird, and pretty/ugly. In fact, we get all sorts of encouragement for relating to reality as if we were two-year-olds unable to see, let alone appreciate, the fairly obvious fact that neither reality, nor our feelings about it, are accurately or interestingly characterized by oppositional binaries. To the delight of some, and the horror of others, it eventually become evident to many of us that we are not merely boys OR girls living in an evil OR blessed world in which we can expect to be happy OR sad.

And I think it may be at this shimmering line between such oppositional pairs that some of the most interesting art, including perfume, both messes with our heads and draw us in. Because some perfumers have the courage to reflect the blurriness of a reality out of control, they offer us a grown up experience of ambivalence and indeterminacy that becomes our companion when we discover that life is far more complicated than Fox-in-Sox knew. Some perfumes that spring to my mind: the neo-classical darling, Rien (Etat d’Orange Libre) with its throwback combination of outsized clean aldehydic florals and civet-tinged leather and Onda (Vero Kern), which dares us into a crypt-like earthiness that is also spicy and fruity. Another is Hyde by Hiram Green which pairs an acrid steak-sauce opening (to my nose anyway) with a radiantly sweet woody dry down (see also Tyrannosaurus Rex by Zoologist). A designer favorite is vintage Fahrenheit with its unnerving interplay of gasoline, leather, and violet.

It isn’t merely that, by dancing between the poles of dichotomies, some perfumes make themselves more quirky or interesting in a gimmicky fashion. It is, rather, that we may experience them as sublime precisely because they defy supposedly fundamental oppositional pairs that, in our heart of hearts (and nose of noses) we just know to be false. For me, for example, experiencing perfumes that challenge contemporary gender binaries (e..g, Portrait of a Lady, Christopher Street, Boutonnière no. 7, Dior L’homme, and many others) confirms my sense that queerness is a reflection of how things ARE, regardless of how much strain it puts on conventional conceptual boy/girl binaries. In other words, some art, including some perfume, can remind us that conceptual boundaries are artificial, shallow, and misaligned, and not that we are irredeemable misfits, hopelessly mismatched to the world we inhabit.

I’m curious: Were there moments in your development when it occurred to you that reality could not be categorized as neatly as you’d been led to believe? Are there some perfumes that you feel drawn to because of how they straddle supposedly oppositional poles like ugly/beautiful, fresh/dank, etc? How often do you seek out perfumes (or other forms of art) in order to challenge your senses and sensibilities rather than for their straightforwardly pleasant appeal? Please comment below if you’re so inclined.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the binary: The ugly-beautiful dance of complex perfumes

  1. “For most of us, most of the time, at least for Westerners, it is probably fair to say that we are caught up in a binary either/or that is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. ”

    So entrenched in love and politics. No space left for nuances. Silos, islands, and divided dinner plates come to mind.

    But you asked about perfume . . .


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