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Book Review

Perfumer Tries to Make Sense of a World of Scent

ESSENCE AND ALCHEMY A Book of Perfum \o7 By Mandy Aftel\f7 ; North Point Press $26, 272 pages

July 09, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You are sitting in a restaurant, inhaling the aroma of a garlicky dish of escargots, when your nostrils are suddenly assaulted by the overpowering smell of a sickly sweet perfume or harsh after-shave.

Or you are enjoying a delicate, fragrant dessert on an outdoor patio, only to be assailed by the stench of cigar smoke.

On the grand scale of things, these may be minor irritations, but they serve to remind us of the fact that we live in a world permeated by odors.

Mandy Aftel, a Berkeley-based author, perfume creator and creative counselor, is one person who needs no reminder of the importance of what is perhaps the most underrated, certainly the least cultivated, of our five senses.

We cherish visual beauty in art and nature, she points out. We attend concerts and buy records of our favorite music, we stimulate our taste buds by sampling new dishes and our sense of touch with the softness of fur, the sleekness of silk, the crispness of linen.

But, unless we are into aromatherapy (or happen to be perfume creators, like Aftel), most of us don't spend much time cultivating our sense of smell.

Smell, as she informs us, is a deeply primal sense: "The olfactory membrane is the only place in the human body where the central nervous system comes into direct contact with the environment ....

"In other words, before we know we are in contact with a smell, we have already received and reacted to it."

Learning to walk upright, our species became more dependent on eyes and ears for information about reality, unlike so many of our mammalian relatives, of whom it might be said: The nose (or snout) knows.

Perhaps it was this very association with the "lower" forms of animal life that led to a certain shyness and embarrassment among humans about focusing too much attention on our own noses.

More alarmingly perhaps, Aftel speculates, "oversaturation with chemical smells has compromised our ability to appreciate complex and subtle natural odors. Many a client of mine has been astonished by a whiff from a vial of rose or jasmine absolute; they have forgotten--or never knew--what real flowers smell like.

"We are bombarded by department-store perfumes that shout their presence and linger monotonously and pervasively on the body and in the air, but the true magic of perfume eludes us.

"We have lost touch with what first drew our kind to the smell of flowers and herbs in the first place, and with the rich and tangled history of our species and theirs."

The aim of Aftel's book is to help us get back in touch with the pleasures of smell, specifically the soft, subtly ravishing odors of perfumes made from natural substances like sandalwood, cedar wood, frankincense, myrrh, civet, patchouli, vetiver, lavender, jasmine, rose, verbena, orange flower, coriander, tarragon, mint and bergamot (the very names are a kind of poetry!).

Aftel provides step-by-step guidance on how to go about creating your own perfumes. She not only describes the ingredients, supplies, techniques, but also explains the aesthetic rationale underlying the structure of a perfume, which she compares to a musical chord, blending base notes (the scents that linger longest), middle notes (the predominant odors of the fragrance) and top notes (the most evanescent and volatile elements, which flavor our initial whiffs of a perfume).

And, even for those of us who may not be inspired to try our hand at the venerable art of the parfumier , this book has much to offer: fascinating facts about the history of perfume, its links with the ancient art of alchemy and the roles it has played in many cultures.

Not only has perfume been widely used as an erotic enticement, but scented oils and perfumes have played a very different kind of role in many of the world's religions, from the fragrant oils that anointed biblical kings and the incense burned in Hindu temples to the censers swung by Christian priests.

"When you smell perfume," Aftel writes, "you absent yourself from habitual life and go on a journey. Scents materialize, one after the other, volatilizing and disappearing as if out of the mists on the horizon."

On this journey, Aftel proves an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Clearly a master at blending diverse elements of all kinds, not just scents, she makes skillful use of quotations from poets, philosophers and novelists--Paracelsus, Henri Bergson, Gaston Bachelard, Havelock Ellis, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Colette, Rilke and Baudelaire--to lend depth, resonance and the beauty of their words to her text, which is enhanced by charming and evocative illustrations.

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