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Scents and Sensibility and Brian Eno

Kind correspondent Lila Das Gupta last month pointed me toward an old essay by Brian Eno that she knew I would love, not least because of the vocabulary and philosophy it contains. "Scents and Sensibility" appeared in Details magazine in July 1992, and begins autobiographically:

I started thinking about smell in 1965. At art college, a friend and I made a little collection of evocative aromas, housed in about fifty small bottles. There was rubber, naptha, motorcycle dope, cuir de russe (used to make leather smell like leather rather than dead animals), gasoline, ammonia, juniper wood. In 1978, in a neglected and unlikely part of London, I discovered an old pharmacy that was crammed with oils and absolutes.

Their beautiful names — styrax, patchouli, franipani, amber, myrrh, geraniol, opoponax, heliotrope — and their familiar/strange aromas attracted my curiosity, and I bought over a hundred bottles. Soon I found myself actively collecting the primary materials of perfumery — in Madrid I found a crumbling apothecary's with dozens of mysteriously labeled phials; in San Francisco I discovered the strage olfactory world of Chinatown, of five spices and jasmine and ginseng; a woman I met in Ibiza gave me a minute bottle containing just one drop of an utterly heavenly material called nardo (I later came to think that this was probably spikenard oil, extracted from a shrub growing at between six and eight thousand feet on the Himalayas and used by wealthy Indian ladies as a prelude to lovemaking).

I started mixing things together. I was fascinated by the synergies of combinations, how two quite familiar smells carefully combined could create new and unrecognizable sensation. Perfumery has a lot to do with this process of courting the edges of unrecognizability, of evoking sensations that don't have names, or of mixing up sensations that don't belong together. ...

Eno goes on from there to rhapsodize about the dimensionality of aroma, and to speculate about metaphors connecting fragrance and the rest of experience:

So, just as we might come to accept that "coriander" is a name for a fuzzy, not very clearly defined space in the whole of our smell experience, we also start to think about other words in the same way. Big Ideas (Freedom, Truth, Beauty, Love, Reality, Art, God, America, Socialism) start to lose their capital letters, cease being so absolute and reliable, and become names for spaces in our psyches. We find ourselves having to frequently reassess or even reconstruct them completely. ...

Fascinating thoughts, about uncertainty and life ...

(cf. Underappreciated Ideas (1999-07-06), ThoughtfulMetaphors (2000-11-08), ...) - ^z - 2012-11-20