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A Perfumed Philosophy

A dialogue between Marcel Proust and his valet, overheard by Mike Fuller.

André (the valet): You know, Monsieur, I was really upset by the way the Baron de Charlus spoke to me the other night when you and he were discussing scents and I tried to join in. Do you remember? He spoke about the “opinionated slobber” of a “little lackey” like myself and he asked me what made me think that the “excremental judgement of a bilious cretin” like myself could “see fit to utter pronouncement upon such abstruse matters of taste”. I don’t see why the Baron thinks he’s a better judge than me about perfume or anything else!

Marcel: Well, mon cher André, we live in a democracy, so I suppose you are entitled to your opinions, however execrable. Besides, you need to remember that the Baron is a tremendous snob and also has a reputation to uphold as an arbiter of aesthetic taste.

André: So you agree with him, then?

Marcel: In all seriousness, André, I think you have raised some nice philosophical points, albeit unintentionally, concerning aesthetic judgement, issues of value and even of truth. But to answer them adequately we would need to ask several questions.

André: What questions, Monsieur?

Marcel: Questions like the following: What is scent for? What role does it play in nature and human life? Are there good arguments for assuming there are absolute, universal standards of taste, especially in regard to perfume? Only then can we hope to discover whether the Baron has a better nose for fragrance than yourself. Shall we address each of these questions in turn?

André: Whatever you say, Monsieur. You’re the boss.

Marcel: What is scent for? Now, the average person would probably reply: “It’s to make us smell nice.” A good answer, do you think, André?

André: Seems alright to me, Monsieur. I wear it to smell nice for the ladies! It’s a babe magnet! Smooth and sexy scenteroo! Hubba hubba!

Marcel (wincing slightly): A somewhat vulgar response, André, but perspicacious concerning one dimension of the function of fragrance, seemingly derived from nature, and to do with territory, dominance, and sexuality. We all know that some male animals ‘spray their scent’ to mark their territory and that dogs, for instance, can be attracted for miles by the scent emitted by a bitch on heat. Similarly, some contemporary fragrances may declare, in effect, “Sexual and dominant male in the vicinity” or “Sultry and responsive female hereabouts”. Indeed, perfumiers often deliberately seek to attain such stereotypical effects.

André: So the purpose of scent, then, Monsieur, is to make us smell nice and sexy and, if we’re chaps, dominant, and, if we’re girlies, responsive?

Marcel: No, André, that is far too simplistic, as the contemporary emphasis on ‘unisex’ perfumes illustrates. We need to remember that human beings are most complex animals and that history, culture and convention can modify still further crude natural responses and functions. The common ingredients of scents themselves illustrate this: fruits (especially citrus), flowers, woods, herbs, spices. This allows the vocabulary of fragrance to run the whole gamut from clean and fresh (as with lemon, lime, lavender, etc.) to sultry and animalic (as with patchouli, musk, civet,etc.)

Further, the possible combinations and relative proportions of the basic ingredients – the various fruits, flowers, woods, herbs, and spices – allow a possibly infinite range of olfactory impressions. If we regard each such creation of the perfumier’s art as an attitude, then it is clear that the number of attitudes is probably endless, even if they can be reduced to a finite range of families and types (chypre, fougere, oriental, etc.).

André: So you are saying, Monsieur, that the purpose of scent is to allow us to express an almost endless array of attitudes?

Marcel: Yes, and sometimes to capture and project a mood or feeling (possibly quite a complex one) that seems embodied by a certain scent; sometimes to project an image of who we think we are or who we would like to be. The point is, André, that scent provides a hedonist’s paradise rather akin to that of the connoisseur of fine wine.

André: But put like that, it’s a bit decadent, ain’t it, Monsieur?

Marcel: Partly – but arguably no more decadent than music, painting or lyric poetry. For no good reason that I can decipher, the art of perfumery has always been regarded as inferior to other arts and is often seen, from the producer’s side, as a mere tradesman’s craft and, from the consumer’s side, as mere cosmetic ornament. Yet no one finds it especially decadent that music, painting and poetry may also ‘express an endless array of attitudes’, ‘capture and project a mood or feeling’ or ‘project an image of who we think we are or who we would like to be’. It is none too clear why an art based on the nose should be considered so inferior and limited compared with arts based on the ears and eyes Further, hedonist pleasures, arrived at through the senses, are not necessarily divorced from spiritual dimensions. Even my imperfect knowledge of the history of perfume grasps that scents have long been used in religious ceremonies to induce a spiritual atmosphere, a tradition still preserved by the use of incense in Catholic churches and Hindu temples. Now, arguably, a move towards some sort of aesthetics of scent reached its zenith in the period somewhat unfairly called Decadence or Art for Art’s Sake, such as in certain poems of Baudelaire and in J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours. One reason why I esteem Baron de Charlus so highly is that he played such a prominent role in that era. [1] Indeed, I myself, so much a product of that period and its sensibilities, could be said to have indirectly explored a similar aesthetic in my own work through my emphasis on ‘sensation memory’. The sense of smell, it is widely held, is the most evocative, poetic, and poignant of all the senses.

André: But what I still want to know, Monsieur, is why the Baron reckons he’s got better taste than me.

Marcel: Very well, let’s address that question. Now, it seems to me that you have at least one formidable ally in the shape of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s formalist aesthetics explicitly argued that any aesthetic judgement based on our senses, such as the liking for a particular colour or smell, must inevitably be subjective, arbitrary and ‘impure’. So, according to Kant, there could be no objective and universal standard of taste, it seems, for such things as perfume.

André: So that means that the Baron’s taste in scent is no better than mine! I reckon that entitles me to wave two fingers at him on that score!

Marcel: You could try, André, but, knowing the Baron, he might chop off your fingers with his swordstick. Besides, Kant’s position is only as convincing as his intricate and almost impenetrable discussions about the relations between the senses, understanding, reason, imagination and judgement. So perhaps we had better not rely too heavily on Kant in this debate. Now John Stuart Mill, I think, would probably have supported the Baron’s superior taste through his arguments about competent judges of higher and lower pleasures.

André: What’s that all about, Monsieur?

Marcel: Mill argued that all judgements of value were based on pleasure. He further argued that only someone who has experienced all pleasures, both higher and lower, can be called a competent judge of pleasures. Extrapolating from this to your own case, it could be argued that the Baron, with his immense wealth and passion for perfume, must have sampled every scent in creation, while you, on the paltry pittance that I pay you, have probably sampled only a few cheap and nasty fragrances. So it would seem to follow that the Baron, like myself but unlike you, is a competent judge of good and bad scent. You simply lack the educated experience to competently judge better from worse. You have not sampled enough scents.

André: Hang on, Monsieur, that’s a bad argument!

Marcel (somewhat offended): Oh, and pray tell me why? I believe my logic was impeccable.

André: Look, Monsieur, you just said that you were as competent a judge of scent as the Baron. And I know for a fact, from talking to his valet, that your collection of scents is just as big as the Baron’s. Now, I’ve sampled every single scent in your collection, and that means, according to John Stuart Mill, that I’m as competent a judge of scent as either you or the Baron.

Marcel: You’ve sampled all my collection? I never gave you permission!

André: Sorry about that, Monsieur. But I’m right, ain’t I?

Marcel: Oh, very well, I concede the point. Let’s try a different approach. Now there are those, of a biological persuasion, who argue that Nature has built into us, for whatever reason, a preference for certain scents at the expense of others. So it is natural for us to prefer the smell of fruits, flowers, woods and spices to the smell of excrement, smelly feet or rotting corpses, for instance. These natural olfactory predilections constitute an objective and universal standard of taste for the human species.

André: But how does that help us decide the question about the Baron’s taste and mine? From what you’ve just said, the Baron and I ought to share the same taste and we don’t!

Marcel: Well, neither you nor the Baron presumably favour perfumes based on excrement or rotting corpses (if, indeed, such perfumes exist). So there is some truth in the theory probably. But I take your point. Within the range of smells that human nature seems to enjoy, there does appear room for wide variations in taste. David Hume, in his essay ‘Of the Standard of Taste’, largely supported the view that our shared human nature does provide us with something approaching an absolute and objective standard of taste. But he nevertheless conceded that that there was room for significant and legitimate variations. These would be based on such things as age, sex, culture, history, and perhaps even individual temperament and mood. So it is perhaps understandable that a young, modern, proletarian and heterosexual person like yourself has rather different tastes in scent from an older, traditionalist, homosexual aristocrat like the Baron. Now, we could at this point simply assert, in spite of all this, that nevertheless some people just do have better aesthetic taste in fragrance than others, but that would be arbitrary and hard to justify. It would be equally arbitrary and hard to justify if we tried to link aesthetic taste in fragrance to moral character, as by trying to argue that if Gandhi liked Old Spice and Hitler liked Habit Rouge, then Old Spice must be the better fragrance. That, it seems to me, would simply commit the ad verecundiam fallacy. [2]

André: So my taste is just as good as the Baron’s, then?

Marcel: It would appear so, unfortunately. But perhaps we had better not tell the Baron.


[1] The Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes was the aristocratic dandy hero of Huysmans’ novel A Rebours. Among his other aesthetic exploits, he was the inventor of a ‘scent organ’ on which he composed and played symphonies of scents. The fictional des Esseintes was partly based on the real-life aristocratic dandy and aesthete Compte Robert de Montesquiou-Fesenzac. Montesquiou was a mentor of the young Marcel Proust and introduced him into the highest society. They maintained a (rather difficult) friendship for many years. The character of Baron de Charlus in Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time was partly based on Montesquiou.

[2] Ad Verecundiam Fallacy of Argument – Illegitimately appealing to authority, as when one tries to extend legitimate expertise in one field (say, morality) to expertise in another (say, aesthetics) where it does not obviously apply.

© Mike Fuller 2004

Mike Fuller teaches philosophy at Bolton Institute.

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