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Limbic scents(ations)

I haven't written about my recent-ish obsession with the sensual and intellectual joys of olfaction. It probably started really with cooking more with my daughter, and the enjoyment that brought, using more ingredients, trying new and interesting recipes, and then the handling, assembling and of course,  the act of cooking and eating: touch (kneading bread), smell (cutting and scraping seeds from a vanilla pod) and taste - wonderful revelations! The best part was the enjoyment of being beside my beautiful daughter, and sharing the enjoyment (and sometimes the drama and failures) of it. The only sense which gave me difficulty was of course sight - fiddly wee things to slice, materials the same colour as their background, bubbling pots and ovens I can't see into... With help from my daughter and a serious of carefully placed, sometimes precariously balanced lamps, I managed, though not without periods of grief and rage. We opened a pot of star anise and sniffed delightedly together, and thus was asserted for me, the joy, the bliss, of smelling as a sense that has no association with loss.

I re-read 'The Perfume Lover' by Denyse Beaulieu, a book which I had first read a couple of years ago, which explores the creative process of perfume making with 'nose' Bernard Duchafeur. She lovingly describes the process from inspiration, through development of the 'mods', to a finished scent (Seville a L'Aube), via Denyse's own life story through perfumes, love and desire. It inspired me to begin thinking about my own 'scent story' (perfumes which have been in your life, if you like that sort of thing). My mum had a bottle of Youth Dew by Estee Lauder on her dressing table when I was a little girl, and I was fascinated by this liquid which looked, and smelled, like cola. It was spicy, it was exotic, it seemed to speak of adulthood, that mysterious land from which I was still delightfully excluded but which hovered in the future. She doesn't remember even owning it, but it was my original scent marker. In my teenage years I wore Miss Dior, the ultimate bluestocking scent with naughty undertones, then Fendi by Fendi, a hurriedly adopted 'signature scent' when my best friend Amanda confidently declared hers to be Oscar de la Renta. Fendi was spicy and reminded me of Youth Dew, and is still a great favourite, although it has now been discontinued. I also wore Aromatics Elixir by Clinique, (probably way too much of it, its famous for being very strong) and it began my love of chypres. Then, via Jean Paul Gaultier's first perfume for women in the curvy, basque and stocking-wearing bottle, which confused me with its mis-match between the sexy promise of the bottle and the sickly smell within, and Baby Doll, a gift from a boyfriend, also confusing for its sickly sweetness, but interesting for its initial blast of sulphurous pineapple and blackcurrant. Then as a young woman I bought a bottle of Mitsouko by Guerlain. A classic, a work of art (according to perfume lovers), its wonderful, and has more than a faint whiff of skank. Wearing it for a day is a commitment. Its a day of feeling wrong if you are in a rush, if you don't have time to linger and savour each moment.  I think it's a work of art because it asks the philosophical question 'how should one live?' 

After thinking about my own perfume history, and in particular those ones which reach back in my memory to myself as a young woman, I began to sniff for Scotland. Sample after sample arrived by post, and I went out on smelling expeditions to the department stores in Edinburgh, even though going to the city alone still filled me with fear of flashbacks and panic attacks, and fear of crowds because of my poor vision, I was sniffing my way through these difficulties. Standing in a department store with my eyes closed, inhaling deeply, this often brings out the fear in sellers of mainstream perfumes, and I felt wonderfully eccentric (read - mad). They couldn't understand why I wanted to smell the classics and not the newest release. I was filling in a catalogue in my brain, and heeded no distractions. 

What I discovered is that there is a whole underworld of perfume people, who live for olfactory delight. Like any geekdom, it has its leaders, its articulate writers, its forums. I discovered a group apart from mainstream 'houses' - the niche brands, who still work with large budgets and often have stores of their own, and a whole wonderful seam of perfume makers who work from home, the independants and self-taught perfumers. More on these wonderful people, and those who love their creations, in a separate post.

My husband bought me as a birthday gift a day-course perfume making course in London (I can't find anything similar in Scotland), which led me into the arena of actually making my own perfumes. And with that I discovered an enjoyable hobby, one which (mostly) concerns the sense of smell rather than sight, and it therefor so much more relaxing for me. I wonder whether it has something to do with my visual difficulty with seeing 'wholes' - I see fragments which my brain has to piece together, and this is tiring. I can't see a whole image, my work is in fragments, like peering through the wrong end of a telescope and swivelling it around from place to place. But with smell I can smell 'wholes', there are no gaps in my ability. But here's the thing, you make perfumes by blending lots of ingredients together, and these ingredients have different volatilises in air, ie their molecules dissipate more slowly or quickly, so wearing perfume is essentially an art form with time as an element, more like film or music than visual art. That is, the person experiencing it goes through it in real time. The person composing it moves about within the time/space of it at will. This is very difficult with perfume making - you have to have a reasonable understanding of the different ingredients and their tendencies, how they work with time, but also how they work with each other. There is also an element of control and freedom - an old theme of mine, and one which is built in to the creative process. Building something takes a lot of knowledge of how the materials will work, and a careful plan, but it also (I think) requires periods of 'letting go', moving instinctively, emotionally, in a flow state. The tension between the two keeps me interested in creating things, and informs my whole understanding of being alive.

I find interested parallels, and differences, between making perfume and making visual art. What I also discovered was something very interesting - that is the sense of smell and the funtions of the brain. Several people have commented on that old idea that when one sense is compromised you might have a strengthening of another one. I don't know how true this is, its a bit of a cliche. I think a more in-depth analysis of this is that when one sense is compromised your brain generally would try to gather information about your surroundings in as many ways as possible in order to help you manoeuvre through life. I read a book by a man who had gone completely blind, and I was very interested in his extra sense of things around him, which he could 'feel'- such as a building looming up in front of him. He tells of how he manages very well on his way home from work himself - he has this 'sense' of obstacles, but interestingly when someone else is with him he loses this sense and becomes more dependent on the other person. His sense of his environment has to include them, their proximity, their conversation, and is attention is too dissipated. This makes perfect sense and I think we can all grasp a sense of this - if you have ever stood still somewhere in nature, like a wood, and just let everything around you unfold, and you 'feel' it as well as sense it, don't you?

Someone told me that it is thought that our sense of smell is based in the limbic system of our brain, so I looked into what this means. Firstly, can I just point a fact which is rather strange,  given my interest in the concept of liminality, these areas of the brain are called the limbic system because they surround the limit between the cerebral hemisphere and the brainstem - they are on the border or limbus. I think the connection with my own experience lies in what associations olfaction might have with other functions of the brain, but its geography was startling. What I find interesting is that the sense of olfaction is situated in the same areas which support other functions including emotion, behaviour, motivation, long term memories and the formation of memories. 

So am I comfortable stimulating my limbic brain because it has been so 'switched on' by all the things which happened to me? Perhaps it is like tonguing a bad tooth, perhaps this voluptuous comfort is the next stage after the voluptuous comfort I used to gain from obsessively reading about terrible events and other people's suffering, or indeed previous to that, going over again and again what happened to me.

Anyway, maybe perfuming is my new art form? Or maybe its part of my healing. Are they even any different?

jane francisComment