One Thousand Scents

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It Got Me Thinking: Bond No. 9 Nouveau Bowery

I was going to write about Bond No. 9's Nouveau Bowery weeks ago, but I wore it and wore it and got sidetracked into philosophical ruminations, and you know how these things go with me.

To get this out of the way, I don't like Nouveau Bowery very much. The very first breath of it is reminiscent of Eau Sauvage, with its citrus-herbal freshness, but alongside it is a strange and thoroughly synthetic accord, metallic and dairy and papery: it makes me think of a typewriter dipped mid-sentence in skimmed milk, which is not as interesting and CdG as that sounds. It is not especially pleasant. The rest of the scent is mostly a fougere with some flowers thrown in and then a nondescript woody base, not dramatically different from the sorts of things you would find on the men's side of the aisle in any department store for a whole lot less money (this stuff is $150 for a 50-mL bottle). I guess it's unisex, what with those muted, masked flowers, but it seems much more like a standard men's scent to my nose. (The company's own take: The sweet scent of skid row transitioning to ultra-modernity. For contrarians of all genders, an enticing anti-perfume, composed of near dissonant florals, citruses and herbs. Nope, not getting that, except for the literal "florals, citruses and herbs". But this would not be the first time that Bond's description of their scent doesn't seem to me to have any basis in reality.)

Here's the weird thing, though. I was wearing it for a few days to get a handle on it as ever and so I wore it to work, and a co-worker commented on how nice I smelled. That hardly ever happens. I usually wear scents that are very low-key, and in such small amounts that I figure nobody else can smell them, and unless I'm trying out something that I intend to write about, I only ever wear things I like. And people don't generally comment on them, so either they're polite or I'm accomplishing my aim of wearing fragrance for myself only.

So she liked it quite a lot. As an experiment, I wore Serge Lutens' Arabie the next day, and it is one of his usual oddball concoctions that I love so much, and either she didn't notice it or she didn't like it, because she didn't say a word.

What to make of this?

Perhaps you kind of like sushi and you eat it every now and then, and sometimes it's supermarket sushi and sometimes it's at a restaurant. You don't have much of a basis for comparison: you just kind of like sushi, and that's fine, of course. But if you like it quite a bit and eat it frequently in different places, and you've been to a number of different sushi restaurants in different cities, then you are inevitably going to develop a more refined taste. You will have more experience, more scope: you will have a much clearer idea of what's good, what's not so good, what's boring and what's innovative, what you've seen a hundred times before and what's new and interesting. It is not unreasonable to say that your opinion of a particular meal of sushi is more valid than that of someone who has less experience. Likewise, a movie critic who has seen and thought about hundreds, thousands, of movies, is going to have a better sense of cinema as an art form than someone like me, who may have seen nearly everything Hitchcock ever did but watches only a couple of dozen movies a year if that.

And this is true of every art form, of course, not least the art of perfumery. My co-worker who thought I smelled good didn't have the range of experiences with fragrance that I have: she's smelled some men wearing cologne, maybe bought some for some guy as a gift, and all of that certainly within the department-store and drugstore lines, because she doesn't have the inclination or the knowledge to seek out anything else. I, on the other hand, have smelled certainly over a thousand commercial scents over the last thirty years, and Nouveau Bowery is in some ways very much like other things I've smelled (not in a good way), but also rather oddball (also not in a good way). And as I get older and have smelled more and more scents, and compare them to all the other scents I've ever smelled, which itself is a number always increasing, the likelihood of finding something good and interesting and valuable falls and falls and falls.

And this is what got me to thinking about immortality.

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Let's make a couple of assumptions. You're an average person, neither epically rich nor grindingly poor, living in a world just like ours except that for all of recorded human history, while many people live a normal lifespan, a fair number of people live a very long time, anywhere up to a thousand years and sometimes more, and at birth there's no telling how long. There's nothing magically special about you: you don't have a rare blood type that will cause you to be hunted down and your blood drained to be injected into some rich person's veins, and you don't have to hide your identity to keep people from discovering that you will live to be a thousand. You just happen to be one of those people, that's all. Lucky you!

The first problem with a hugely elongated lifespan, as the Greeks recognized, is that you're going to keep getting older and more decrepit. Look what happened to poor Tithonus, the mortal of whom Eos (the goddess of dawn) was so enamoured that she contrived to secure immortality for him while forgetting to also ask for eternal youth: he weakened and decayed and begged for death which would not come, until he was shut away forever. So if you are going to have immortality, you had better not senesce, either: some age between say twenty and thirty seems pretty good, although you may have other ideas about what constitutes the perfect age to remain at. It can't be the case that you simply age at one-tenth the usual rate, because then it would take almost two hundred years to grow to adulthood, and you would have a very, very long period of decrepitude at the end. Let's assume, then, that you grow to adulthood in twenty-odd years, age at the rate of one year to a hundred for the next nine hundred years or so, and then age more or less as normal people do.

You had better have some uncommonly awesome healing skills, because the idea of breaking your neck in a diving accident at fifteen and then living the next nine hundred-plus years as a C1 quadriplegic is not a pretty one: nor is even simply accumulating the normal wear-and-tear injuries that everyone is prone to. If you don't heal supernally well, then you are going to have to live your life oh so carefully, and where's the fun in that?

And then comes a huge problem, that of the proportions of time. When you're a child, a summer lasts ages and the time between the Thanksgiving and Christmas is nearly an infinity (not so bad for Americans, who celebrate Thanksgiving in November, as for Canadian children, who have Thanksgiving in October and no other real holidays until the end of December). When you're in your forties, as I can attest, time skitters by: Christmas was what seems like a few weeks ago, the end of February is already within view, and it will be spring and then summer before you know it. I can only imagine what it will be like at seventy or eighty.

The reason for this accelerated perception is that the moment of time in which you currently reside is always perceived as a ratio to the time you've been alive. (Smaller increments of time are not affected as much as larger ones: an hour generally seems like an hour to me no matter how old I am, though of course that might change when I hit fifty or sixty or seventy. But a year goes by more quickly as I age, and likewise a decade.) For an eight-year-old, a year is twelve per cent of your entire life (and a quarter of the time you remember, if your first permanent memory is from the age of four), and so it lasts a long, long time. At twenty, for some reason, time seems to run at the rate we'd expect it to: a year feels like a year. Once you're fifty, though, a year is a tiny two per cent of all the time you have ever known, and time simply seems to tick by much more quickly. When you're a thousand years old, a year rushes by at an unfathomable speed, and this is what it will look like: Say you're a twenty-year-old passenger in a motor home that's carefully observing the speed limit, riding along, watching the world go by outside the window, for one year. That year seems to go by, as we have established, in one year. If you are a thousand years old, that year-long trip whips past you, a huge smear of incomprehensible motion, in a perceived time of eight hours, forty-five minutes, and forty seconds. (If you could live to be ten thousand years old, a year rockets by in less than an hour--fifty-two minutes and thirty-four seconds, to be exact, assuming that there isn't something about a ten-thousand-year-old brain that makes time go by even more quickly: it almost certainly won't run by more slowly.)

So medical science will have to alter your brain, somehow, to manage this. Evolution certainly didn't equip people to be able to comprehend such spans of time, so some tinkering will be necessary. Quite a lot of tinkering, actually, because there's another problem, and that's storage. The human brain, majestic though it unquestionably is, did not evolve to hold everything we ever put into it: we forget things (a lot of things), and everything keeps changing, and changing faster and faster as time goes on. Language certainly changes: the English in which I'm writing didn't exist at all a thousand years ago, and chunks of it wouldn't be comprehensible to people living five hundred or even two hundred years ago. You will keep piling information into your brain, phone numbers and sports scores and actresses' jail sentences and recipes, more and more and more data, and you will hit a load limit at some point, and then you are in trouble, because you are going to have to start forgetting old things in order to remember new things, and if you don't get to decide what to forget, then your brain will.

There's also the problem of tedium. I don't mean boredom: a reasonably alert person can find enough things to do to make sure that isn't a problem, because there are millions of books to read, countless games to play and movies to watch and perfumes to smell, and while with every passing decade you may have to search longer and harder to find things that aren't rehashes of those you've already experienced, those things are out there. But tedium itself, the monotony of repetition, is going to accumulate as you get older, and nothing will mitigate that. You wake up and realize that you have to shave, again, for the thirty thousandth time, and will have to keep doing so for as long as you can imagine. And then there are those dishes to be done. And you have to go to work, and get the groceries, and clean the cat's litter box, and brush your teeth, as you've done countless times before and will have to keep doing countless times again. And it isn't just your own little life that's repetitious: culture, society, the entire world are going through the same things they've gone through since the beginning of civilization and will continue to go through: another disaster somewhere in the world, a new pop song that sounds like all the thousands of other songs you've already heard, yet another fruity-floral perfume like the hundreds of others you've already smelled in the last twenty years.

And another problem. In my experience, people's tastes tend to solidify in the first third or so of their lives. By the time you're in your early to mid-twenties, you know what you like, and you will probably discover new things as you get older, but your general taste is fairly secure, and everything that comes along after that is compared to the first third of your life's experiences and often found wanting: the music of your youth, as people have been saying for hundreds of years, was enjoyable, but what they listen to nowadays is just noise. People complain that music and food and popular culture aren't as good as they used to be, that human nature is baser than it used to be, and they've been saying these things for a couple of thousand years at least, and quite possibly since the invention of language. It isn't the case, of course, that the world is getting worse and worse: it's actually getting a lot better by many significant measures, at least in the Western world. But people's perceptions of their surroundings are ever compared to the way things were when they were young, and ever failing the test. So you live to be a thousand, but your tastes were more or less formed in the first twenty or thirty years of that, and the following centuries are an ever-increasing litany of how much worse everything's gotten.

And that's for a lifespan of a thousand years. What if you could never, ever die?

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I suspect that most Christians who believe in the idea of immortality in Heaven have never actually thought about it. In fact, I'm certain of it, because an eternity in Heaven is a horrifying prospect.

Hell is what's supposed to scare you into believing into Christianity: an eternity of torment, never-ending suffering. Here's a delectable paragraph from the classic 1741 sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God":

It is everlasting wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.

And yet Heaven is no better in the long run (and that's what Heaven is, the long run). Some of the more rigorous strains of Christianity say that Heaven will consist of nothing but praising the name of God for all eternity, as testified to in the popular hymn "Amazing Grace":

When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
Than when we first begun.


It doesn't seem possible for people to actually believe that doing one single thing, lauding an egomaniacal deity, for all of eternity could be pleasurable, and most people seem to believe that there will be pleasures in heaven, not least among them reunion with departed loved ones. So let's assume that there are things to do in Heaven that are pleasurable, and that residents can partake of them while also praising the name of God, or that partaking in them is praising God, because he made all of it, and so we can be thankful in the same way that we're thankful to the cook at the same time as we're eating the meal they made. We still have a problem, and it is mathematical.

There is by definition a finite number of things to do in Heaven, but an infinite amount of time in which to do them. We know that there is a finite number of possible things because even if we assumed that human beings could theoretically do an infinite number of things, we can easily think of actions that will not be allowed: anything that could be defined as sin, for starters, such as promiscuous sex, or watching movies or reading books that depicted sinful acts. Since we're to be perfected in Heaven, of course, we won't want to do them, which raises the problem of free will, but there likely won't be much in the way of free will in heaven, so we might as well gloss over this. There won't be any pain of any sort in Heaven, no sickness, no misery, so that also eliminates a lot of possible activities: essentially, the entire creative process is impossible without failure and its attendant unhappiness. There will be no room for inventors, no new inventions, because the very idea of invention suggests that God didn't think of it first and supply it to the faithful in their eternal home: all the things that are ever going to be in Heaven are already waiting for you. Therefore, there is no progress, only the exploration of all there is and all there will ever be: consequently, there is a limit to the number of activities that are available to occupy our time. Time in the afterlife is infinite: actions are finite. And even if you consider all the possible orders in which you could perform these actions, or all the combinations in which you could do them--playing the violin while surfing just off the coast of a tropical island! while standing on your head!--there is still a finite number: you can't reach infinity by multiplying finite quantities.

Even if Heaven means (as the Jehovah's Witnesses images of Heaven always suggest) frolicking with lions and eating delicious food and enjoying time with resurrected loved ones and other such pleasurable pastimes, we are going to run through them eventually: we are going to do everything that can be done, and if we really plug away at them, we will have performed each of these activities a number of times approaching infinity, and time will still not have come to an end, because by definition it cannot. And what is worse, each of the activities is by definition as good as it can possibly be: there is not going to be any second-rate food in Heaven, no lacklustre lions that don't want to play with us, no arguments with our various uncles and siblings, so succeeding repetitions of each action will bring no more pleasure than the first.

Might this not get a little boring? If every single thing experience you have is as good as it can possibly be, will you not reach a saturation point sooner or later, and probably sooner? Move on to the next thing, you might say, but there are only so many things to do, and even if it takes you a million years to run through the entire list, time has only just begun, and you've done all the things on the list: so you do them again, maybe in a different order or a different combination--haven't bungee jumped in eight hundred thousand years, haven't had Thai food with Marie Curie on that particular cloud. But there is still an infinity of time ahead of you: once you've done all the things that can be done, each of them a perfect and perfectly enjoyable experience, in every possible order and every possible combination in which they can be done, time is still rolling on--in fact, it has only just begun--and it will not stop, ever. And then what?

If you have free will enough to wish for it, you'll wish you were dead, that's what. But death will not come for you.

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2 Comments:

  • Wow! All that from a perfume. Seriously though, what makes you think there is time in heaven? Or that time is experienced the same way in heaven?

    By OpenID maitreyi1978, at 7:15 PM  

  • "Wow" is right!.....my head is still spinning - Bravo on a really fascinating article, though.

    Maybe God's "gift" to everyone who enters Heaven is a type of "lobotomy" that erases your ability to remember what you did the day before....it wouldn't matter what order you did things in (or if you did the exact same thing(s) every day) because everything would be experienced as if it were new and exciting. Which leads me to my next question: does time only exist because of memories?

    By Blogger Marko, at 2:21 AM  

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