Essay: Perfume

Gohar Abrahamyan, BFR Staff

Last semester, I took a class on the forgotten literary art of the epistolary. To drive home exactly how forgotten this art form is, I had to look up what epistolary meant. But hey, I thought, I write letters! I don’t usually send them, but if I’m interested in writing them, I should take a stab at reading them. And what better insight re: interpersonal relationships throughout time than people (almost) directly talking to each other? Fun fact: Victorians talked to each other exactly the way you think they did. In the class, what counted as letters was expanded to include text messages, and looking at that correspondence through a new lens gave my writing a new sense of liberty. So in honor of under-appreciated literary forms, I’m making a case for the unsung heroes of metaphor — perfume descriptions.

I once read an article in a magazine describing a woman whose personality matched her perfume; a brazen confidence was accompanied by a smell that evoked a Turkish brothel. My imagination ran wild; I spent ages trying to figure out the right combination of tobacco flower, musk, jasmine, sandalwood, etc, and what it all meant. And I developed an obsession with reading all of the descriptions of confusing, complicated smell. What does mystery smell like, and how can I find the words to match the feelings and associations it conjures? The smell of onions cooking in butter has an almost mystical ability to sooth the soul — somebody should figure out how to make that a wearable scent. Why isn’t it ok to smell like curry as a fashion statement, as an assertion of personality, as expression? Why do orange blossoms smell like promises and hope? Most importantly, what made me feel most like me?

Is there anything with more power to conjure deep seated and long standing emotion than a smell? Anything more ingrained to our subconscious? Regarded as the strongest of the five human senses, our olfactory senses, according to Marcel Proust, carry something special, a point he outlined in In Search of Lost Time. As the first to link scents with memory, the Proust Phenomenon actually made strides for scientists using neuroscience to figure out how our instant recall functions work. But beyond the technical, Proust weaves a wormhole for his characters. The momentary whiff of a particular smell traverses barriers of time and space, constructing and reconstructing our pasts and how we interpret them.

As abstract as it may seem, the distortion of time and memory plays a very real part in my life. The rare moments of homesickness I still feel happen when I encounter my mother’s perfume. Like her, it is charming, elegant yet not without its liveliness. It is warm and comforting, but defiantly confident.

My sister’s first perfume was donned in her early high school years. Tucked away in a drawer, I would sneak long whiffs of the unequivocally girlie Pink Sugar, yearning to know the adolescent secrets it seemed to hold. As she got older, her tastes became more complex; I recall a particularly unpleasant phase in my life, and an uncomfortably uncertain one in her own, in which she wore a scent I can only describe as “chocolate schnapps.” It was rough. My own taste gravitates toward CK One, the first unisex cologne. It’s androgynous, hard to pinpoint, a contradictory scent that is somehow both feminine and masculine, bold but not loud. It smells like how I would characterize the 90s. It feels right.

How perfumed women smell is a choice they make about how they present themselves. There is an element perfumes share with letter writing, and that is the plasticity of authenticity. Just as we chose the side of ourselves we reveal to others in our writing, just as we construct a literary persona, so our choices of the impressions to leave in each other’s olfactory cortices are contingent upon how much we decide to reveal or conceal. I can use a scent to project who I want to be, or to express in the language of unconsciousness who I am. I can express a feeling, a memory, a sentiment in a mere moment, I can change my reality and alter yours. And the people who are tasked with creating an image, an aura, a story for these fragrant creations have no insignificant role. It is one thing to describe something as “musky.” It is another thing to bring to life a place I haven’t been to, a feeling I haven’t felt, an experience I haven’t had. To be able to construct a Turkish harem using only scent and a pen is a fine tuned skill, and one that in a perfect world, I’d be paid to hone.

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