France / Perfumes / Philosophy / Writing

A Philosophy of Love: the Self and the Scented

“Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way someone is?”–Jacques Derrida

When I was a teenager, there was a distinction between “love” (with a capital L) and “like.”  Love is something heavy, grown up, and slightly tortured, while like allowed you an out.  You can like someone, without ever being in love, without the promise of fulfillment that love entails, and enjoying certain attributes but not the whole.

The word “like” is also the most valuable tool in the marketing of modern perfumery.  A perfume smells like roses, it envelopes you like the spices at a market in Istanbul, it comforts like a tray of freshly baked cookies.  The word “like” creates an analogy, which Wikipedia defines as “a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another particular subject (the target), and a linguistic expression corresponding to such a process.” The word distinguishes itself in common parlance as an option outside of the responsibility and profundity of l-o-v-e, but at the same time creates a link between two indescribable things.

Of course, nothing is completely “like” anything outside of the thing itself.  Something can smell like freshly-aired, clean, laundry, but you lack the experience of touching the fabric, of feeling warm sun on your face, of hearing birds chirping from afar.   You can like someone because you enjoy their jokes, or a perfume that hints at the smell of suntan lotion.  But nothing can ever replace the real thing.

That doesn’t stop the perfume marketers from trying.  In advertising, “fragrance is given an image; a glamorous metaphor that gives shape to a fantasy world. What is noteworthy how faithfully the fantasy, when it is good, reflects the essence of the scent. As in any metaphor, the two entities, image and scent, are connected through similarity, and so the quality of one, the sexy allure of the image, must reflect a quality of the other, the musky scent, for them to be associated in the mind of the viewer.” (1)

The legendary French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, has some wise remarks about the philosophical ideal of love.  There is love for the “singularity,” defined as the person, and then a love of the ideal, i.e., the way that she is.  Perfume attempts to offer an olfactory experience that connects you to a singularity.  If one could distill the scent of love, it would never match up to the loved person, in all of her beauty and ugliness, her multitude of contradictions.  It’s the idea of love that the perfumer futilely grasps at by precisely choreographing the dance between scent molecules, knowing well that in the end, it will only scratch at the surface of being alive.

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