Monday, December 3, 2012

Fragrance Intertextuality: Homage or Creative Dialogue?

In Opera aperta, Umberto Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning. He proposed therefore that texts are open and internally dynamic, thus deeply engaging from a psychological point of view. Literature works repressing potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line are the least rewarding, according to this view, while those that are most open and most “active” between mind and society are the most lively ~and ultimately much more satisfying too! In my turn I am arguing that perfumes are not different than literature oeuvres in that scope and that in fact the elective affinities between them provide immense satisfaction of the cerebral as well as the sensory. And although the assessment of perfumes in terms of their psychological subtexts and their historical background is not uncommon, the study of their “language” and semiotics entering into the context of perfumery is less usual. To further this idea I should bring into the discussion a literary term: intertextuality!
Venus of the Rags, via
Intertextuality is the shaping of texts' meanings by other texts. [A notion championed by post-structuralist Julia Kristeva’s semiotic, according to whom the emotional reach dwells in the fissures and prosody of language rather than in the denotative meanings of words. Therefore semiotics opposes the symbolic, which attaches meanings to words following a reasoning process]. Umberto Eco simply said: "books speak of other books”. Substitute with "art works" in general and you're there. It can therefore have a dual meaning: refer to an author’s transformation of a prior text into a new creation or to a reader’s referencing of one text in reading another. Do we interpret Joyce’s Ulysses as a modernist exploration of the novel, as a response to the epic tradition, as part of some other conversation, or as part of all of these conversations at once? Is Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s witty intertextual thriller El Club Dumas more enjoyable because it prompts us to revisit the French writer? And is there some degree of intellectual vanity at play, a flush of pride when you recognize an allusion? I am certain that there is!

When Homage Gains Momentum
If we consider perfume creation as authoring ~and indeed several perfumers and perfume enthusiasts consider it as such~ and if Süskind’s “Das Pafum” novel is full of intertextuality, then the theory could be applied in fragrances themselves as well in both its meanings. Just think of how many times we sense a perfume as homage to another one, usually a revered classic. We can find two prime examples of such a treatment in the F. Malle line: both L’eau d’hiver by Jean Claude Ellena and Dominique Ropion’s Une Fleur de Cassie are artful interpretations of a spermatic idea first explored in Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée (as is their own later marvel L’Heure Bleue!). The dialogue between the delicate cassie garlands of Guerlain’s classic with the fluffy cloud of L’Eau d’Hiver is soft-spoken and tender ~the undoubted modernity of the latter is sweeping its revolution under the rag: quiet but unshakeably there, the beginning of a new era. Une Fleur de Cassie, on the other hand, has more spirited one-liners with the Guerlain classic; injecting at once a carnal aspect (when there was miniscule before) and an increased intensity of the prime material. Whereas the archetype holds on to the heliotrope and aniseed to speak of the tentative rays of the sun coming up to fondle the branches, the modern candidate washes the landscape in saturated hues of deep vermillion. If we attenuate it into more distant allusions, we can reference Cologne Blanche by Dior as having a secondary dialogue with L’Eau d’Hiver and Caron’s Farnesiana being the old sage pre-empting Une Fleur de Cassie.

The allusion needs some getting to know, like conversationalists who have become acquainted and share common interests peripheral to those expected of them. Patricia de Nicolai’s Sacrebleu is an eavesdropper who can’t hold off injecting a witty quip with its mellow deliciousness or its very name. Alternatively think of the evolution of aldehydic fragrances ~ which ties them into an olfactory family but also references them into distinct personalities meeting at a posh tea-party of ladies who lunch. The whole game is here uttered in different fabric allusions: The iconic Chanel No.5  is clad in chic black crepe (but wears garters underneath) while her prettier, sweeter sister is showcasing her own ivory chiffon. They both talk spiritedly with cousins who don light merino-wool twin-sets in pastel hues, right out of a Douglas Shirk film: Le Dix by Balenciaga and Madame Rochas. Whereas the estranged aunt with the bombastic presence is sporting White Linen and talks about the new and improved alkaline soaps of the United States with a heavy accent. We could be almost forgiven for not noticing behind her the discreet and elegant debutante Iris Poudre and her twin Ferré by Ferré, clad in salmon organza (both by eloquent Pierre Bourdon), if it weren’t for the pang of sudden recognition that seeing all of them lined-up ignites!

It does not matter if the accord of oak moss and peach or plum denotes the synergy between moss, damascones or undecalactone: the alliance is always representative of the golden nectar off a woman’s skin or the buoyancy of a glamorous epoch. From the wistful Mitsouko to the exuberant Rochas Femme to the contemporary Jubilation 25 by Amouage one cannot fail to hear the grandeur reverberating though their throaty tunes; but it wouldn’t be far off to claim that segments of that tale are surfacing in unlikely candidates such as Eau d’Hermès and Cartier’s Declaration.

Intertextuality in the Eye of the Beholder
Linda Hutcheon however argues that excessive interpretation through this line of thinking obscures the role of the author, because intertextuality is often "in the eye of the beholder", not necessarily entailing the communicator's intentions. She prefers the term “parody”, based on the notion that the latter always features an author who actively encodes a text as an imitation with critical difference. As semiotic is closely related to the infantile pre-Oedipal stage (as elaborated by Freud as well as Lacan), its subconscious effect is more impressed into our memory than the conscious, logical attributions which we place through knowledge and rhyme. Something mystically whispers in our ear that perfumer Maurice Roucel transports the problematic of salty, warm, pulsating skin from Musc Ravageur into L by Lolita Lempicka, L’Instant by Guerlain and Le Labo’s Labdanum 18 all the way through the stripped to its earthier, almost bulby notes of Dans tes Bras for F.Malle. Even if we didn’t know those were all composed by the same “nose” we might feel the generous, sensuous touch of the author’s signature having them converse. But does the author, Roucel in this case, intend a sense of parody, in the context above explained?

Conversations in the Horizontal and Vertical Planes
Additionally intertextuality can be divided into another two planes. Taking in mind the Danish film theoretician John Fiske’s distinction between 'vertical' and 'horizontal' intertextuality we can segregate between different media. Horizontal intertextuality denotes references that are on the 'same level' ie.books referencing other books. This is what we have analyzed so far. However there is also vertical intertextuality, showcased when for instance a book references a film or a song or vice versa. In the language of scent this could mean a difference of olfactory medium: a fine fragrance referencing a material (manifested in the niche market most obviously, where several fragrances aim to interpret rose or vetiver or patchouli etc.), or alternatively a functional product, such as a cleaner, fabric softener or insecticide, referencing a fine fragrance of established acceptance so as to inject familiarity, a necessary constituent to generate sales.

The exercise can be blatantly obvious such as Pledge translating as "lemon" to the point of Americans instantly equating the smell of lemons themselves with cleaning products. (A company in the 1950s decided that it should be so, apparently!). Pine Sol acts on a similar plane with -of course- pine. But it can also act in a more subtle, yet memorable way. Baygon Green insecticide (and others following it) is deliberately taking a page off well-known 80s bestseller Poison by Dior and the era’s “big” rose & tuberose chypres; thus accounting for several consumers equating the commonality between the two into the “bug spray note”!
 Fabuloso functional home cleansers pick other mainstream successes as the inspiration behind their scents, as do Intim Care feminine products by Frezyderm which directly reference L’Eau d’Issey by Miyake, the purity of “water” and lotus acting as a simulacrum for hygiene. Fabric softeners with their hydrophobic musks, as well as dryer sheets, have in fact acted in reverse: their equation with cleanness in the mind of the western world consumer of the second half of the 20th century has spawned a plethora of fragrances which mimic their laundry day notes from mainstream Glow by Jennifer Lopez to exclusive Cruel Gardenia by Guerlain.

In conclusion, that Eureka moment of intellectual euphoria upon recognizing kindred spirits where one wouldn’t expect to is half the fun in being a perfume collector. We wouldn’t trade it for the world!

NB: the above article appeared in a longer format on the Sniffapalooza Magazine of 12 May 2009


  1. Anonymous17:51

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  2. Thanks for this great article!

    You are able to develop your detected intertextaual conections even further: Coty's "L'Origan" was the first perfume to use isomethyl alpha-ionone as a violet scent. The combination with anisealdehyde and heliotrope (heliotropin) inspired Jacques Guerlain as well to "Apres l'Ondée" and "L'Heure Bleue". This anisealdehyde/heliotropin combination is also transferred to "L'Eau d'Hiver" in a quite pronounced way.

    To my opinion, Jean-Claude Ellena has cited "Eau d'Hermès" - the only perfume he sometimes wears - even ofter: Please try "Cologne Bigarade" and "Hermessence Épice Marine". It is also fair to say that the whole Hermessence series in their minimalistic conception is an hommage to Edmond Roudnitska and "Eau d'Hermès".

  3. Ronin,

    thank you very much for the kind words and for the detailed breakdown of the idea expressed. Yes, you're absolutely right.
    It's fun and ironic in a way to think that all of Coty's innovations have been exploited by Guerlain and rendered more "continuous presence" perfumes than the now defunct or mal-adjusted Coty ones.
    Very good observation on JCE and his work at Hermes!


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