By Alyssa Harad
Alyssa Harad is a freelance writer living in Austin, TX. She writes about books, food, gender and sexuality, feminism, her unsuspecting family—and now perfume. A longtime foodie, she is grateful for her new, non-caloric obsession with scent. You can contact Alyssa at ahperfume at gmail dot com.
“Perfume? Really?” said my friend J., his incredulity laced with contempt. “You mean, like, natural oils, right?”
We’d been smoking and confessing on a sultry Texas evening in the backyard of a ramshackle Victorian at a party with a great deal of food and drink and very few guests. A voluptuous excess. I remember my quick twinge at having said the wrong thing when I thought I was safe: J.—flamboyantly, joyously queer—had just completed a long research project on writers notorious for their queer decadence, including Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose pleasure-seeking narrator in À Rebours used a “scent organ” to play himself into fragrance-induced delirium.
I don’t remember what I answered. I know that I lied, and agreed with him.
Since that day, I have learned to take pleasure seriously. I have met and admired too many women and men who have been punished or denigrated for their pleasures and their desires. I have seen them fight for those pleasures, lose, retreat, and begin again.
But in that unhappy stretch of my life I knew very little about my own pleasures. So little that I absorbed my own lie and it became the truth, so that when I look back I can’t imagine why I would have told anyone I loved perfume. Did I even own any perfumes that year? Perhaps a once-beloved bottle of Elizabeth Arden’s Sunflowers, dusty and denuded of both cap and sprayer. Maybe a couple of Thymes Limited bottles I’d picked up at a high end grocery store: Green Tea, which smelt disappointingly of pink roses, and Fig Leaf and Cassis, which I adored, but which scared me. On the rare occasions I used it I sprayed only once, lest I offend anyone with my scent.
I have no memory of purchasing—or even sniffing—anything else for another five years.
Not all pleasures are equal. It’s the ones that nourish something tender and vital in us that are the most vulnerable and the most stubborn. If J. had said to me—Coffee? You still drink coffee?—I would not have switched to tea. But he said – Perfume? Really?—and, so quickly I hardly knew what I was doing, I accused myself of silliness, of hypocritical decadence, of self-delusion and frippery and luxury and political incorrectness and I backpedaled before I had even committed to anything.
As my unhappiness passed and my self-knowledge grew, my love of fragrance returned and thrived (thanks, in no small part to the gentle passion of this online community). My new cloud of sillage came trailing changes in the way I lived my life and made my living. So much of the pleasure of scent is memory, and perfume helped me recover things I didn’t know I’d lost, didn’t know I longed for: a delight in moving and strengthening my body, a simple love of words and imagining, and running through it all, the silver thread of something I can only name the divine.
But most of all, perfume was a back door into a kind of femininity I thought was closed to me. A femininity certain gatekeepers try to keep locked up in temples of commerce and luxury, held tight within a world of just-so clothes, hair, make-up and bodies. I longed to play with that feminine power, but fled because I could neither live by the gatekeepers’ rules, nor bend them enough to breathe freely.
Ah, but they couldn’t lock up the perfumes. Unleashed from their bottles, those genies led me back to a way of moving through the world that has to do with sex and beauty, yes, and desire too, but also, with my grandmother: an elegant, bossy, Jewish woman who worked the floors of high end department stores in her wicked heels for forty years. It has to do with the box of jewelry I inherited from her that looks nothing like my usual ethnic chunky stuff but has somehow become something I wear every day. And with the bottle of Bal à Versailles she gave me years ago when I was far too young to appreciate it, but which I kept anyway, sniffing cautiously every other year or so. And it has to do with an idea of femme that includes chutzpah and drag queens and fat girls and a thousand other attitudes and creatures undreamt of by the gatekeepers.
Every now and then, in the midst of our conversations on this blog and others I’ve seen worries over the pleasure of perfume: Shouldn’t we be spending our money on something else? Is there a morality of perfume? Or sometimes, a worry over its seeming opposite: a loss of pleasure in perfume, a feeling of being jaded and bored.
For me the answer to both of these worries is to recall the vulnerable heart of my obsession. I love scents for themselves. I love novelty and learning. I love the art of perfume and even the commerce, with all its down and dirty contradictions. And pretty bottles. But it’s the way that perfume makes a specific intangible into something I can smell and wear and share that drives my collecting and my passion.
What is at the secret heart of your perfume love?
For another view on knowing one's own pleasure, please see the wonderful "The Art of Seducing Oneself: How to Select Perfume" on Bois de Jasmin, an article which helped me to clarify and stand by these thoughts.
Image source, noelpecout.blog.lemonde.fr.