Monday, 16 November 2009

The Loneliness of The Solipsistic Nose

"No man is an island" according to the poet John Donne, meaning that it is a human instinct to crave company. When it comes to matters olfactory, though, the sad fact of the matter is that "Man - or woman - IS an island", in the sense that we are all isolated in our own sensory corners, experiencing perfumes in potentially very different ways.

This thought struck me most forcibly of late when a friend smelt my new HGS, Penhaligon's Amaranthine, on me and remarked that she didn't care for it and that it was very similar to Chloe Narcisse. I had not smelt Narcisse at this point, but given that it is currently discounted to under a tenner in my local Superdrug, the comparison was distinctly unsettling. Had I just shelled out £60 for a 50ml bottle of Amaranthine to find that it is merely a re-invention of a 90's drugstore fragrance? The rest of the evening was overshadowed with this gloomy possibility, and the next day I hot-footed it to Superdrug, where the SA helpfully dug out a tester from below the counter.

A few seconds later I was relieved to detect no marked resemblance between the two scents. The Narcisse I found cloyingly sweet, orangey and spicy, like a mix of CK Eternity and marmalade. Amaranthine, on the other hand, is a tropical white floral with green notes and a creamy, vaguely dirty, spicy base.

But hold on a minute.....the key qualifier in all this should always be "to my nose", for even if others agree that the comparison between these two scents is unfounded, that does not invalidate the impressions my friend formed of Amaranthine versus her memory of Narcisse. Yet our instinct is to say: "That's rubbish!" and to believe in the superior smelling powers of our own nose, and that the way odours appear to us is how those odours objectively are - and I am not even talking taste here - merely perceived similarities or otherwise.

Every day on perfume sites someone will lob in a question along the lines of: "Please does anyone know of a scent that smells like Light Blue (or whatever)?" and people will pile in and volunteer the strangest suggestions (in my view), based on their ideas of what most closely resembles the scent in question. Sometimes I comment, but often not, because the thread appears to be groaning already under all this weight of misinformation, such that I feel there is little chance of my view standing out as "the answer" to the question, not that anything similar to Light Blue springs to mind for the moment!

This is arrogant of me, I know, but it is simply symptomatic of the solipsistic state that is being a perfumista! Even Luca Turin, who as a biochemist can deconstruct many more components of a scent than the average person, has a subjective nose at the end of the day in terms of exactly what he smells, again regardless of whether he likes it. Caroline Herrera 212 he famously likened to the sensation of getting "lemon juice in a paper cut", while I got a flatter-smelling second cousin of Narciso Rodriguez for Her. 212's a bit one dimensional, granted, but softly smooth and musky with no discernible lemon - though knowing Luca he was probably being metaphorical...

So when the strips are down, perfume enthusiasts must resign themselves to the fact that appreciating scent is a lonely business. We shall never know exactly what anyone else is smelling and whether they love the same perfumes as us for the same reasons. Lonely - and humbling too - when we realise that our nose is not better than the next person's, merely different. I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it...!


  1. Delightfully true! I would say you are there already, based on comments like, "in my opinion", etc. Since falling in love with my perfume obsession, I find myself rolling my eyes all the more when friendly SAs state, "oh this is a beautiful fragrance".....for you, perhaps. It's all individualistic, after all, based on taste, olfactory evolution, past experiences, etc. Gotta stop rolling those eyes so much; ocular muscles are aching!

  2. And of course we can also disagree with ourselves - even ourselves of a week or two ago. I am resniffing Idylle today and I don't know how I missed the likeness to NR for Her before, and thought it just a routine fruity floral. I wouldn't mind this in my stocking, as it goes!

  3. So funny and true. As well, as our noses evolve in this hobby (as with a sommalier) we can smell different notes, more notes even. And if there are musks, that where anosmia might play a part. I have had anosmia come, go and morph with musk. One day I can't smell anything, the next I smell animalic, the next, smooth lovely clean musk. All from one musk based scent.

  4. Hi 3xasif! Very good analogy with wine tasting - smell is also a sense you can hone over time, though a subjective/personal element may still remain (matters of preference aside). As for temporary anosmia to musk, this could explain my odd experience of Idylle, about which I puzzle in my latest post! : - )

  5. Great reading and writing, thank you! I love "When the strips are down" :)

    I always wonder why people post looking explicitly for a scent that smells like one they already have. I know I must be missing something here, and I understand that each category encompasses many variations, but generally once I have a scent with a particular smell, I'd quite like my next one to be different. I suppose it must be a comfort zone thing.


  6. Very good point - why would you want a scent that smells similar to what you had before, with all the wealth of choice out there? Perhaps people want the new fragrance to smell 80% similar to the old one, but with a 20% different twist? In that way they can ring the changes a little bit without straying outside their comfort zone...