One Thousand Scents

Monday, April 02, 2012

A Matter of Time: Paco Rabanne La Nuit

If you pursue any art form long enough, perhaps you are destined to have this experience: it can't just be me, surely. You will find some exemplar of the form that you don't understand — that you viscerally hate, in fact. Not only do you not get it, you don't see how anybody else can, either: you don't even understand how the thing could have been made in the first place. Perhaps it even becomes a sort of outer limit for how far your love of the art form can extend. And the years go by and you've explored more and more of the art form, and then one day you re-encounter the thing, and suddenly the scales drop from your eyes and you get it, and more than that: you love it.

When I began listening to opera in the mid-1980s, I hit my brick wall in the form of Richard Strauss, on a CD called Beverly Sills Sings Mozart and Strauss. Side B, the Strauss, was completely different from the tuneful, beautiful music I had been listening to up to that point. It was horrible to me: shapeless, formless, meaningless. I remember that I was actually angry that I could not find any meaning in it.

And I listened to ever more opera, eventually stumbling across such modernities as Berg's "Lulu" and Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" and Tippett's "The Knot Garden", which slowly opened my eyes to the possibilities of music beyond mere beauty, and one day — I don't remember when, exactly — I listened to Sills singing Strauss's "Amor" again, and suddenly it all snapped into place: compared to the structure of an aria, it is shapeless in its way, but its shapelessness has a purpose, and I got it, the giddy, skittering evocation of Cupid's playfully fluttering wings.

And now a Strauss opera, "Salome", is one of my two favourites (the other is Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor", the first one I ever listened to front to back and absolutely unmatched for tunefulness, almost the polar opposite of Salome). Your tastes can change over time as you become more educated: you're not going to love everything (I still don't really get Hindemith), but you're going to be open to more possibilities.

Which is exactly what happened with Paco Rabanne's La Nuit. I still remember, vividly, the first time I smelled it in 1985. I was sniffing literally every new scent that I could find, and that fascinatingly mechanical-looking bottle, almost a prototype for a vehicle from the future and (as it turns out) very Rabanne, was like a magnet. And I sprayed it, and took a sniff, and snapped my head back with a revulsion that I can still feel in my neck. What was this filth? How could anyone call it a perfume? How could it be manufactured and sold and worn? And for years it remained the outer limit for how awful a perfume could be.

Unlike the Strauss revelation, I do remember when I tried it again: a month ago. A while back I ordered from The Perfumed Court a sampler set of rose fragrances for men, and there was the hated La Nuit. I ignored it, of course. And then one day I was reading a fragrance blog and it was mentioned, and I remembered that I had a sample of it, and I figured, oh, what the hell, you've got some, you might as well try it for old time's sake.

And of course I found La Nuit stunning, a huge, powdery rose scent buried deeply in a cloud of civet and patchouli and oakmoss, filthy-dirty and animalic and slightly shocking. It is sexual, in a sex-as-a-weapon way, nothing polite or friendly or reserved about it at all. It is what you ought to smell like when you are determined to get what you want. I loved it instantly, so much that I began thinking I should maybe get a bottle of it. (It's available at the usual online retailers for not much money: it might have been reformulated in the intervening years, it probably goes without saying.)

I wasn't wrong when I hated it at first: like the Strauss arias, it was well outside the boundaries of what beauty meant to me. But if your tastes don't change and broaden at all as you get older, then you're stagnating, and you're missing a lot that could make you happy. I couldn't have understood La Nuit without first having understood Tabu, which I could not have understood without years of smelling orientals and chypres and gradually acclimating myself to the idea that art is not just about beauty but also about expression, whatever form that expression takes.


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