Sunday, March 23, 2008

It's all subjective

Yesterday I read Chandler Burr's Top Ten List of Perfumes. Now, Chandler Burr has written two fine books about scent and is the fragrance reviewer for the New York Times, so I'm not going to dis anything he thinks. He knows forty zillion times more about this subject than I'll ever know and has sniffed thousands of scents. I love his writing and he's solid on the science of the whole biz.

But, when I read this, "God knows Nos 19 and 22 can be tough to appreciate immediately", I was rather taken aback. I adore adore adore (and on and on until the word is meaningless) Chanel No. 19. I still remember the first time I sniffed it. Hard to appreciate? Why? What's hard about it? Someone please tell me.

The first time I smelled No. 19 I was at B. Altman's on 34th St. and 5th Avenue in New York. This dates me, as the store closed on December 1, 1989.

I loved Altman's. There was something totally wrong with the store by the time I was shopping there as an adult. One could sense it was doomed. Unlike Macy's, which was perpetually packed, Altman's was quiet. It had few customers and quite a small stock. It felt personal shopping there even though it was a big store, for the service was always lovely without being nagging. I always felt very young in that store. Everyone who worked and shopped there was "of a certain age". What age is that, exactly? I think I might be beyond it now!

Again, I am getting off topic. There are two topics. One: Chanel No. 19. Two. Altman's. I suppose the third is Chandler Burr's estimation of No. 19 as being somewhat difficult, but I'll drop that one. I won't fight with a professional!

I bought all my perfume at Altman's. I could have gone to Saks or Henri Bendel. At the time I'm talking about, Barney's was still a men's clothing store only. I suppose I could have gone to Macy's, for that matter. They had a huge cosmetics department. I forget there was also Lord & Taylor, but if I get into why I loathe that store, this post will be endless (but if you want to know, leave a comment!) On second thought, I'll tell the story some time, with or without coaxing. It's pretty crazy.

So: Chanel No. 19. The one perfume that I have always loved above all others and judged every other perfume on. Why do I love it so? I do not know. The first time I sniffed it, I fell in love. Can you explain what love is? Love at first sight, at first sniff, at first hearing or first taste?

We can deconstruct all we want. We can find the little pieces that point to what we love: "He had such piercing blue eyes." But many people have piercing blue eyes. "I love the taste of honey." But I bet you wouldn't eat dog food with honey, would you? "I love the beat. Yes, it's the beat." So? "It's that first rush of bergamot, followed by. . ." Nah, I'm not buying it. Love is subjective. Once we objectify it, it's no longer love. It's just analysis.

I'm not saying it's random. It's not. But I'm saying that the factors that go into "what we love" are so complex as to defy deconstruction. Oooh, I don't want to deconstruct! How pre-modern of me! I don't.

Let love be a mystery. I love Chanel No. 19 and I don't want to know why. It makes me feel happy. Isn't that enough?

Note: Photograph of B. Altman's can be found here, along with an essay about it's architecture and the hey-day of 5th Avenue department stores.

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