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April 1, 2010

"Professional" By Luca Turin

"Professional" By Luca Turin

When I was a young lad I used to admire older people with great experience, not so much because what they told me seemed useful or interesting, which it seldom did, but because I wondered what it must be like to be so used to things. And not just frightening, unexpected or merely difficult things: beauty, of all things, was to me the hardest one to get used to. It seemed to me that grown-ups could bravely face up to and judge the beauty of things very quickly and get it right whereas I struggled for weeks.

For example, my parents listened to classical music all the time at home. When they played a new record and declared it wonderful, I felt as if I had been set a fresh, hard problem to solve. All the paintings, books and pieces of music that eventually made me a better person initially felt like bacalhau, nutritious but stiff as a plank. Chewing on Beethoven’s string trios took me years, and I am still soaking his late quartets in running water. Perfume was just as hard, of course, but not part of high culture and therefore never talked about.

I remember my mother’s Diorama floating like an enigma in the air, its contradictory austere and lush facets demanding to be reconciled by an explanation that never came. But what would the explanation feel like ? There is a painting by Magritte, entitled Explanation, depicting a wine bottle, a carrot, and a wine bottle in the process of turning into a carrot. The half-bottle, half-carrot is properly the work of art, as in artificial (note to translator: Robin, is there a wordplay on kunst and kunstlich that would work ?).

Maybe Diorama’s beauty lies only in the fact that you eventually, reluctantly, accept it as a whole. Conversely if it were not beautiful, carrot and bottle would never coalesce, no new form would have been created and you would have learnt nothing. I still think strangeness, novelty, and arduousness that softens into self-evidence with time are the attributes of the kind of beauty I was trying to understand as a child.

There are other kinds: the sublime in which we play no part, for example, the beauty of mountain peaks at sunset or of the smell of roses; and the cute, the beauty of puppies, kittens and cheerleaders. Perfumery lives under constant threat from sublimity and cuteness: wonderful raw materials tempt one to minimalism, hence the endless proliferation of identical vetivers, incense etc. Cuteness, on the other hand, is a sort of artistic dwarfism, the creative equivalent of cooking entirely with “baby” vegetables.

Lately perfumery cuteness has come either in a bleached-blonde style (fruity florals) or in a dark-haired version with a hint of dark fuzz on the upper lip (Coco Mademoiselle and its descent). Where is Athena with one blue eye and one brown? Where is cross-eyed Aphrodite? I, and all perfume lovers, need to get used to something new.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.