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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What the decline of civilization smells like

As is frequently the case, the French are at the forefront of social trends that make one wonder if we're living in the End Times. A story in the March 8 National Post informs us that the must-wear scents from Parisien perfumers resemble "dung, sweat and druggy sex":

"Bodies slick with sweat, hot with the odours of sexual favours" is how Hennessy describes his perfume in promotional material. Sounds swell to me; I'm lonely. But is it prostitution or perfume? Sweat, saliva, secretions of all description: Does anybody besides me want to smell of sexual favours? Does anybody want to pay by the ounce for sex? Mais oui!

In the world of perfume, sex is selling. Perfume counters at posh stores are crowded with the scents of coitus. There is French Lover by Editions du Parfum; Putain des Palaces (Hooker of the Hotels) by Etat Libre d'Orange; Querelle by Parfumerie Generale, named for the Jean Genet novel about a homicidal sailor in a seaside brothel. It was widely reported that Tom Ford wanted Black Orchid, his first fragrance, to smell "like a man's crotch."

Sex, drugs and druggy sex: These are the themes of L'Oeuvre Noir, or the Black Masterpiece, Kilian Hennessy's first collection of scents. The collection is an homage to the poetes maudits, the 19th century's foremost literary libertines: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud.


"It is a classic French way to make perfume," [Hennessy] says, referring to animalic scents, the basest base notes. Civet oil, which is drawn from the anal gland of the civet cat, and which is said to smell a bit like blood. Castoreum, the animalic note in Cruel Intentions by Kilian, which comes from a gland in the guts of a beaver. Perfume critic Chandler Burr has said that it smells of "leather, urine, smokey tar and of anus."

"American perfumes are so often what we call 'overdoses,' "Hennessy says. "They have a single strong sent, sometimes soapy. Americans like clean scents. I am creating something darker."

The French are fond of animal aromas. Christian Dior's perfumers called Dioressence (1969) le parfum barbare, the barbaric perfume. It smelled of animalic and fecal notes. Miss Dior (1947) smelled a bit like sweaty armpits. In Dior's day, perfumers and the ladies who purchased perfumes didn't discuss fecal and anal odours in public.
Perfumery was an art shrouded in secrecy. Today, a company could put out these same Dior scents and call them Feces and Armpits. Pourquoi pas?

Alan Cumming put out a critically praised perfume called Cumming. It smells like it sounds.

Cumming is only the beginning. Putain des Palaces smells sort of slutty: lipstick and face powder in an old leather purse. Secretions Magnifiques, also by L'Etat Libre d'Orange, comes in a box emblazoned with a cartoon penis that's squirting semen. Dzing! by L'Artisan Parfumeur (the scent has been discontinued, but is still for sale) is rich with circus smells: sawdust, gasoline and wild animal dung.

The great French perfumer Jacques Guerlain once said that perfumes should smell of "the underside of my mistress." The scents he created, such as Jicky (1889) and Shalimar (1925), were tinged with vaginal and anal smells. Perfumers today build perfumes around accords of saliva and sweat, and advertise ejaculation. What is advertisement without semen? Images of sex and death inundate us; perhaps their odours are becoming less taboo. Perhaps culture has convinced people to become so clean, so antiseptic, that the smells of dirt and decay are desirable. Perhaps it is a CSI effect: People are fascinated with the forensics of blood, semen, decomposition. Or perhaps it's all marketing.

"Perhaps culture has convinced people to become so clean, so antiseptic, that the smells of dirt and decay are desirable." Perhaps. Or perhaps we should stop following trends coming from a country where pissing in the streets is considered a human right.


Anonymous said...


Confirming Homer Simpson's "dirty as a frenchman" declaration.

Anonymous said...

comment above confirming the bland and sterile life of americans...Truly EWWW