One Thousand Scents

Friday, February 05, 2010

Critical Mass: Montale Chypre Vanillé (eventually)

A critic, a proper critic, has to have three things: a bottomless passion for his subject matter, a large accumulated body of knowledge about it, and the unshakeable conviction that he is correct.

This third is where I really fall down. I'm could never be a proper critic because, whatever my knowledge (could be greater) and passion (probably couldn't), I can never assert that I am absolutely right in my opinions and therefore dissenters are wrong. Even when I loathe something and decry it as absolutely valueless, I'll still cave when someone else says they like it.* If they say it's good, I might argue the opposite: but if they say they like it, who am I to dispute that? It comes down to taste. I like things that aren't good, that are perhaps indefensible, what are generally known as "guilty pleasures" (though I feel no guilt). If you like one of the various Britney Spears flankers or some cheap drugstore cologne, hey, enjoy. Don't let me stop you! (And maybe it works. A co-worker, a girl of 19, wears a discreet amount of the only scent she owns (I asked), Siren by Paris Hilton, and even though it's one of those standard-issue gourmand fruity floral things that we've seen about four million of in the last decade, she smells nice when you're working with her, so who am I to say she ought to shell out a hundred bucks for something better?)

I would like to stress that I am not saying there isn't any such thing as good and bad. There are great works of art and terrible ones, and all sorts in between, and the world would be a better place if people developed a sense of taste about artistic matters--including perfumery--and used it to discriminate between the worthy and the un. But if you refuse to watch subtitled movies ("I don't go to the movies to read!") and prefer those machine-made Hollywood blockbusters, if you hate all the classic perfumes and would rather wear the latest celebrity scent, have at it. I don't run your life.

A couple of quotes to illustrate the point:

Ethel Merman, after seeing Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy", said (as quoted by Fierstein himself), "I thought it was a piece of shit, but everyone else was laughing and crying, so what the fuck do I know?"

That's the classic non-critic response: "I hated it, but other people love it, so I could be wrong." It's my usual tack: my taste isn't everyone's taste, but even though I may think something is dreadful and without merit (and will always happily argue the point), maybe you like it, and who am I to say you're wrong? (Even though in writing I express my opinions as fact, I'm not as dogmatic as that.)

On the other side of the fence, expressing immovable certainty born of long consideration and the belief in one's own taste, is George Bernard Shaw: "With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his."

To compare yourself to Shakespeare and come out the victor? That takes a special kind of nerve. That takes a critic.


And this brings us to Chypre Vanillé by Montale.

I think it's utterly dreadful: a huge, perfumey opening, possibly aldehydes, certainly a big, vicious floral bouquet up front and centre and leading into the core, laced with a trickle of the promised vanilla contaminated by a huge helping of the same gagging powderiness that made Le Labo's Labdanum 18 such torment to be around. Surprisingly, there is a genuine chypre feeling to the base; even though oakmoss is a rarity in scents these days, and there doesn't appear to be any in Chypre Vanillé (the given notes are vanilla, rose, amber, incense, sandalwood, iris, vetiver, and tonka bean), it has that bit of snap and snarl--hard to define, but so obvious in classic chypres like Mitsouko and Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum--that make chypres so interesting. But it is so deeply lodged in the overwhelming powderiness that it just flails around helplessly; it can't assert itself, because nothing could.

I don't think I can exaggerate the sheer enormousness of the powder. It surrounds you like a cloud of gnats, and it will not leave you alone; it leaves trails when you move. It will not be washed off: three increasingly severe and desperate hand-washings (because I always apply to the backs of my hands) did nothing to dislodge it. The little vial on my desk reeks of it. I can't even imagine wearing this in public, because you would occupy all of the space you were in: an office, a subway car, the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace.

But what the fuck do I know? Maybe it's great. Maybe everyone else is laughing and crying (in a good way). Nevertheless, into the garbage, wrapped in a couple of layers of plastic just in case, goes my sample: I won't be subjecting myself to its special brand of horribleness again. If you want to, it's going for $125 for a 50-mL bottle. Just don't wear it around me.

* Or even if they think they might like it: after tearing La Voce to shreds, I backed down as soon as a commenter expressed disappointment that it wasn't any good, and I immediately said, well now, don't take my word for it, try it anyway, you might love it. And she might. Who am I to remove a possible source of pleasure from her life?



  • I'm laughing at the thought of something so awful it would clear out the Nicholas Hall. Run for your lives, all 5000 of you! :-)

    But back to your main point: I have a friend who loves Thomas Kincaid artwork. Now I almost put artwork in quotes, because I think his work is very bad. And so does my friend, but as she says, "I know it's hackneyed junk, but it makes me happy." So a critical, artistic judgment can exist side by side with an emotional one.

    By Anonymous Aparatchick, at 7:55 PM  

  • It absolutely can, and what's more, one person can love things that seem as if appreciation of one ought to exclude appreciation of the other. I love all sorts of classical music, from Bach to opera to modern composers such as Philip Glass: but I also have a weak spot for electronica, trance, and dance music, and am currently undergoing a deep infatuation with Lady Gaga. I like big, structured classic scents like Mitsouko (again with the Mitsouko!) and Chanel No. 5, but I've also given good reviews to cheap, mass-markety throwaways like Spark by Liz Claiborne. I wouldn't pretend that the one is as good as the other, but I don't have to: pleasure exists on more than one level.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 9:03 PM  

  • I completely agree with you, and get into fights about this with my boyfriend, who is a rock music snob. Particularly music, but I think anything that affects you in a personal and emotional way - who's to say what you like? I review fruitcakes and there are some that I would (and do) call good, some I call bad, but heck, if you like the nasty one that you were brought up with, well, here's to ya!

    I personally think that shows more maturity than a George Bernard Shaw-type response ;-) . ..

    By Blogger Isabelle, at 2:32 PM  

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