What is an “intellectual” fragrance blog ?

Over the last few months I’ve received messages from people who have stumbled upon my blog and used this phrase (that is, telling me that they like my blog because it is intellectual). Because I’ve pointed out recently that I didn’t find the Now Smell This blog to be especially useful much of the time (and certainly a lot less “controversial” than it could be, not that I want to read a blog that tries to be), other than to announce some new releases, I thought I should address the kind of qualities I seek when I read reviews or blog posts. And just so you don’t think there’s something about the NST blog that has “stuck in my craw,” I’ll examine their latest review, which is of Chergui. On the contrary, I appreciate the effort they put into their site and understand that the way they appreciate scents may differ from the way I do.

The review begins with promise, as we are told in the first paragraph that: “today Chergui to me smells much more complete and complex than I’d remembered.” This is consistent with my experience, and I’ve said such things in the past now and then. In any case, we are then told that for Chergui: “notes include honey, musk, incense, tobacco leaf, hay, amber, iris, rose and sandalwood.” Then there is a specific statement about the top notes, which I’ll refrain from commenting upon because I have little interest in top notes and try to avoid most of the potent initial blast. Beyond the top notes, this is the crux of the review:

…Unlike Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque, which is all about the humidor, Chergui’s heart is cooled and lightened with flowers — iris stands out the most to me, although it’s subtle — and sweetened just a touch. It’s cooler and drier than I remembered. Also, I didn’t remember Chergui’s musk, but it’s definitely present as a clean, refreshing thread woven through the fragrance’s thick, dry body. After fifteen minutes, though, what stands out most is dried, unsmoked tobacco leaf (the plant and not the processed cigarette or pipe tobacco) and sweet hay.

As Chergui settles over its six or eight hour quiet life on my skin, the tobacco eventually burns away, and soft sandalwood and spicy amber — the stamp of an oriental fragrance — eases Chergui to its last breath.

I certainly like the idea of comparing Chergui to Fumerie Turque, but to me this is too superficial. And it sounds like after fifteen minutes this person had a “spiky” experience and should have worn it on more time before writing up a blog post review (“tentative” reviews are good for sites like Fragrantica and Basenotes, IMO). After writing the above, I decided to wear Chergui (on 1/7/14) and discuss my impressions of it. I hadn’t worn it in such a long time that I can’t say I have any clear recollections, other than I didn’t think it was worth the cost. I agree that there is something at first that comes across as “cool;” I’d call it mint with the flavor missing, so to speak.

Where I disagree somewhat is with the notion that there is a focus on tobacco here. Moreover, I don’t get much hay, at least not the way it’s been presented in other scents that claim to possess a hay note (and that I’ve tried). There is nothing especially animalic or green or dry about Chergui. There is a slightly powdery quality (otherwise, just a little floral) and I’d call it at least a semi-gourmand, with the honey being obvious if not overwhelming. If you want a strong gourmand scent that sort of goes in this direction, try Keiko Mecheri’s Loukhoum. If you are looking for something along the lines of Michael for Men by Kors, I don’t think you will get enough tobacco here. And if you like the idea of having that “cool” quality persist for a lot longer, there is vintage Lapidus Pour Homme (1987). Far into the drydown (perhaps two hours in), the “cool” quality seems to reemerge a little, as a kind of “clean” though vanillic musk, and it also seems a bit more floral than it did in earlier stages. I’d call it a hybrid now, a kind of mild “floriental,” with a hint of tobacco and a clear but weaker gourmand element. Honestly, I think most aficionados would prefer something like Elvis Cologne (which I reviewed on 11/30/13) at this point, especially men (even if they have just a little “gender” sense in this context). Longevity is great but I find it lacking in dynamism after perhaps five hours.

One statement in this NST review I found to be over the top, in a sense masquerading as intellectual, is: “Lots of perfume writers have pointed to Morocco in their Chergui reviews. To me, Chergui smells dreamy and vaguely Victorian.” The Victorian age was too long ago for anyone to know what it smelled like, and we are given no background information about how the author may have tried to reconstruct Victorian odors, which would at least provide some credibility to this notion. This is the kind of thing I really don’t like to see in reviews, because it may have the effect of playing on the emotions of some people. Let’s remember that the Victorian age could be called “the great age of the workhouse” too! The people forced to live in those “houses” must have smelled plenty of interesting things, though perhaps few of them pleasant!

Of course, romanticizing the past is something that probably everyone does to some degree at some point in their lives, but talking like this about a period in which you (and nobody you knew) ever lived leaves you open to criticism. Overall, Chergui is a “neither here nor there” scent to me, though perhaps a good “starter niche scent” for many. It’s not very strong, but it’s certainly different enough (along with being natural smelling) from most of today’s designer offerings to make the first-time niche buyer feel that he or she is wearing something “unique.” Note that some have claimed there are different formulations of Chergui and that the color of the liquid is one way to tell. I received a decanted sample years ago and can only say the liquid is a deep, dark red. The NST review of Chergui isn’t “bad,” IMO, but I prefer to write blog reviews when I think there is something particularly interesting about a scent. Otherwise, I usually write up a “basic” review on Fragrantica or Basenotes.

Lastly, I want to speak to the notion of “intellectual.” I remember in graduate school one professor said something like, “we aren’t here to make you intellectuals but to teach you a methodology.” Some of the things I learned were to question any assumption that seemed problematic, to put forth clear and concise hypotheses, to cite evidence both for and apparently against my hypothesis (and to examine the evidence in detail), and to always consider what is the “exception” and what is the “rule.” One thing I came to learn is that one often has to “deconstruct” in order to “reconstruct,” which I think is related to Einstein’s quote. In this context, you need to understand a scent on a “fundamental” level before you can be “intellectual” about it, and to me the best way to be “intellectual” about these olfactory concoctions is to consider the history of the industry and to compare the scent in question to others that are similar in some significant way.

NOTE: I used up the last of my Chergui sample so I didn’t see any reason to hold off writing up what is likely my final review of it. Also, it may be a good idea to make it clear that I do not view myself as an “intellectual,” and I can even understand that some people would regard my worldview as at least somewhat “anti-intellectual.” If I had to describe myself in these kinds of matters it would be as an investigator who is trying to determine what is likely the case. Notice that I did not say the truth, because in many instances that cannot be determined. Instead, I examine what I view as credible evidence and then come to a tentative conclusion about what seems most likely.



Filed under Criticizing the critics., Fragrance Reviews.

10 responses to “What is an “intellectual” fragrance blog ?

  1. Dear Bigsly
    Interesting musing on a fellow blogger’s review.
    A couple of things caught my eye. First your beef with the use of the term ‘Victorian’. I see no problem here, such labels when applied to art rather than history refer as much to our notion of a period as expressed through the medium of that art as of the world as it existed at that time. Hence Victorian architecture relates primarily to the early industrial and late Gothic and Free styles; however that is not to say the majority of people would necessarily have lived or worked in such buildings. Likewise ‘The Victorian Novel’ is literary shorthand for large-scare superficially realistic works that rely heavily on near operatic coincidence and express a deal of social conscience in their narrative conclusions. Hardy, Elliot and Dickens spring obviously to mind. Not all novels written in the Victorian period were such.
    Therefore, I would contest that to a degree such labels and the taxonomy of works of art are matters for successive generations of critics rather than contemporaries or the historical record. Moreover. is it not reasonable to suggest that the ‘Victorian’ feel of the perfume was a resonance or echo of scents created in the Victorian period, many examples of which continue to be produced (albeit in modern versions) to this day. Could it not be Phul-Nana or Hammam Bouquet to which the reviewer refers rather than the odour of the satanic mills?
    The other difference I might perhaps have is with your apparent view that cultural materialist / new historicist approaches to perfume criticism (i.e. understanding the industry that produced them) or a (for want of a better term) literary comparative approach (reviewing works exclusively in the context of others) are the only valid methods of ‘intellectually’ analysing olfactory works. I think there is a great deal of merit in the first, less in the second, which can become a meaninglessly reductionist exercise in wearing one’s knowledge on one’s sleeve in certain cases. But I am certain that there are other valid methodologies that can usefully be applied.
    As I said, a very thought provoking piece.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • I do not find the use of the term Victorian credible in the context of that review, and I think I explained my position well. If it had been presented in a different way then I might have a different opinion, but I can only comment upon what is there, not what could have been there. Thanks for your point of view.

      • Dear Bigsly
        And what context would that be? All we have in the first instance is the line “To me, Chergui smells dreamy and vaguely Victorian.” (Unless there’s more not quoted here).
        It seems perfectly reasonable that the comparison is being made to the a dream like quality that the reviewer perceives in the many surviving perfumes originally conceived in the Victorian era. Certainly this is as ‘credible’ as some notion that they are comparing the perfume to imagined smells of unsealed streets, sewers and workhouses of London. Indeed, that would be entirely out of kilter with the long quotation you make in block. So, precisely on the basis of the context of the review that it seems to me unlikely they are evoking the industrial rather than the aesthetic smells of the 19th century.
        Given the tenure of your post I thought you might welcome a little discussion, clearly from the tone of your response that isn’t the case.
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

      • I’m really not a “philosophical” kind of person, so I am sorry to disappoint. As I said in the post, I don’t see any value in that statement in the context of a fragrance review. If the author had done some historical olfactory reconstructions (or cited such reconstructions) or if the author was well-known for writing reviews that were shall we say especially impressionistic, then I would not criticize it (unless I thought the reconstruction was being misinterpreted). Again, as I said in the post, my view is that such statements largely function to put some readers into a state of mind that may lead them to want to buy a scent for emotional reasons, even if the author doesn’t realize it. By contrast, I doubt you’ll ever read a review by someone like this saying that he or she could imagine the scent being what one would smell in a Victorian workhouse!

      • Dear Bigsly
        I’m sorry to labour the point, but I feel we’re talking at crossed purposes.
        I’m suggesting that the reviewer is saying that Chergui smells like Victorian perfumes for example Phul Nana by Grossmith or Hammam Bouquet by Penhaligon’s and that this is a valid comparison.
        This is a practical point of criticism, which is what I thought your post was about.
        Equally if critiquing the methodology of a fellow critic in a piece referring to ‘intellectual’ blogs isn’t setting out a philosophical stall then I’m not sure what is.
        I’m now just left rather confused by what you were trying to achieve in the first place.
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

      • I couldn’t disagree more and will cite this passage from the NST review, which seems most relevant, and let readers decide for themselves:
        “Lots of perfume writers have pointed to Morocco in their Chergui reviews. To me, Chergui smells dreamy and vaguely Victorian. Smelling Chergui and closing my eyes, I see hand-drawn Rube Goldberg contraptions and smoky gentlemen’s clubs. It hews masculine. I think Fran Lebowitz would adore Chergui, and Oscar Wilde might have sprayed it around his library, although I think he would have chosen something violet-based for personal wear”
        For the review in its entirety, go here : http://www.nstperfume.com/2014/01/06/serge-lutens-chergui-fragrance-review/

      • Dear Bigsly
        Thank you.
        Now your comments make sense.
        However, your initial selective, very slight quotation, literally just the first line of what you have produced here gave readers no opportunity to draw a conclusion for themselves.
        Perhaps it would be an idea to quote more completely in future or provide links up front for a work you are dissecting.
        Even accepting the nature of the review, I’m not clear why you regard an imaginative critical response so negatively. This method of commentary is common to abstract art forms, think of ‘classical’ music and how writers wax lyrical on the association it stirs within them.
        Surely smell is the most associative and reminiscent of all senses, so a review approach that precisely draws out the personal associations (real or fantastical) is valid.
        You may not like it or find it useful personally, but does that negate its value?
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

      • As I’ve pointed out in some of my other blog posts, I regard blogs as way of expressing personal opinions. I certainly would not want a law passed that prohibited people from “waxing poetic” about scents, or scents I found to be “middle of the road” at best (especially in this price range). If someone does not find my approach to be useful, I urge that person to spend his or her “free time” doing something he or she regards as more fruitful. However, as I said in the note to this blog post, if you come to my blog, you get my approach, which I regard as primarily “investigative.”

        One reason I don’t like other approaches in this context is because smell appreciation varies so much, even within our own culture! And as I’ve said before, my impression of a scent can vary significantly from one wearing to another. This being the case, I don’t think it’s appropriate to do things like this blogger did (that is, use Victorian allusions), mainly because I think it can only serve to prompt some people to buy a bottle (in other words, it’s a kind of “emotional appeal”). And though I don’t think I need to make it clear, I will anyway: I know this is my opinion and that not everyone (perhaps very few) will agree with me on this idea.

  2. Where I have real problems with many fragrance reviews is when people seek to sound more artful in their prose than actually descriptive of the fragrance in focus. I think it’s OK here and there, as a garnish to tangible details, but terrible when intertwined in labor of trying to sound profound. How can something smell vaguely Victorian? I could see it worded more like “appropriately worn on someone of fine means in Victorian times, being focused heavily on lavender, rose, orris, patchouli and amber.”

    • Right, if the statement was something like, “this combination of notes and the descriptions I’ve read about certain kinds of Victorian scents remind me of…” then it would seem a lot more credible to me!

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