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Fragrance and Ethnocentrism

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This may be a bit of a difficult topic, but it’s one I feel I’ve been wanting to address for a long time, and so I’m going to give it a try. As a preface, let me just recommend that if you’re feeling defensive about your own cultural perspective, perhaps you ought to leave this post for now and come back to it when you think you can take a more impartial view of it.

Well, a long time ago now, I started a thread in which I inquired how closely the whole project of fragrance-making was bound up with French culture. In it, I talked about how much the perfume industry as we have known it in Europe and America has been strongly shaped for a long time by a French aesthetic and by French professional expertise, as well as by France’s pride in its leadership in the field of fragrance.

Of course, there are limits to this. The French fragrance industry no longer has sole leadership in the field of perfumery, and occasionally, the French consciousness of the greatness of its tradition can be a bit overwhelming and on balance, perhaps even a bit tiresome.

Lest I give the impression that I’m going to beat up the French here, let me say very clearly that they are not my target. To the extent that I have a target, it is any form of ethnocentrism when it comes to perfume. You see, I feel that ethnocentric attitudes betray a certain kind of provincialism, and that they are rather limiting to a person’s potential to achieve a degree of sophistication and worldly wisdom.

I believe that an interest in the finer things in life, such as perfume, music, art, well-made clothing, and well-prepared food (to mention only a few) should dispose a person to a greater openness to new experiences and even to appreciation of some foreign and exotic elements in these areas. The spirit of fine taste is a spirit of acceptance and open-mindedness, as far as I’m concerned. In my experience, it opens one to new learning, to curiosity, to the desire to seek out the beautiful in new explorations, and notably, to acquisition of new skills and knowledge in the pursuit of these values.

One of the things that disappoints me is that some people who aspire to connoisseurship of scents refuse even to try to acquire some of the skills associated with it. In the appreciation of scents, one who would like to have his opinions considered seriously by others might reasonably be expected to know the names of some of the ingredients of fragrant compositions and be able to know their more common uses in different sorts or genres of perfumes. With longer and deeper exposure, a person might be expected to give reasons for his preferences and evaluations of different scents by using this ability to name their elements. Many people do come to have greater or lesser ability in this regard, and that is all to the good. Others claim that they do not have the ability to develop a “nose” for fragrance or a capacity to name its elements. Forgive me if I say that I must wonder that they love fragrance so much in the absence of an ability to perceive it or talk about it well. I wish they had more confidence in their own capacity to gain the skills they need for the journey into this fascinating world of aroma.

And now I’m going to risk the flames that my next point may provoke. I think that given the French dominance of the perfume trade for so long, people who love fragrance might have an interest in some of the French language associated with perfume. I know very well that it is not reasonable to expect everyone to be able to learn how to pronounce French well; but I also know that there are perfectly acceptable ways to pronounce the French names of scents even with an English accent. If I did not know French, I think I would still feel it was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate some sophistication at least to take a stab at it. It is certainly hard to have a conversation about fragrance without having to mention the French names of many prominent products of the trade.

I see a pattern of ethnocentrism in some people’s attitude that everyone ought to learn English while English-speakers have no need whatsoever to show any respect for other languages — even languages (such as French) which have a high degree of importance in the world of the fine arts which those very English-speakers claim to admire. This betrays a sense of entitlement on the part of English speakers which many speakers of other languages cannot help but resent. The unfortunate result is that many other parts of the world stereotype English speakers as unsophisticated and unappreciative of the ancient artisan skills and high art which those cultures embody and of which they are justly proud. They think, with some justice perhaps, that we hold them cheap by failing to take them seriously.

In the past, there have been French pronunciation threads on Basenotes, often with links to sound files or to websites which would “read aloud” words typed into a data field in their original language. Anyone who cares to should be able to locate these threads by searching on “French pronunciation” in the search function. Using them doesn’t mean imitating the native speaker perfectly, but rather just coming close enough to make yourself understood. I have a lot of respect for people who take the time and effort to do things well. I hope Basenoters love their perfumed world enough to learn its language(s) and delve into its mysteries. The “Holy Grail” may not so much be in the bottle as in the Quest.

Comments

  1. gandhajala's Avatar
    To say nothing of a rather lax approach to diacritics. As a university administrator once asked my beloved old Pali teacher: "Why do you insist on putting all these marks over the letters in your syllabus? It just confuses the students".

    I'm a linguist though and probably overly sensitive to such issues.
  2. Robin-in-FL's Avatar
    I don't speak French, but do speak ballet french, and shampoo bottle french, and to some extent food french, I am guessing will eventually learn to speak perfume french. By speak, I mean be able to understand the words when I see them written down and have some idea of how they are pronounced, not actually be able to say them like someone who lives inside the language.

    But I am descended from Louisianans and not at all bothered by american pronunciation of French words. My grandpa was fluent in French and never sounded like he was from France at all.

    I am also not at all bothered by people speaking American English here with other-than-American pronunciation because they are not native american speakers.

    I am bothered, like you, by closed-minded attitudes, unwillingness to learn things, thinking you are the center of the universe, stuff like that. I think all that comes from fear.
  3. JaimeB's Avatar
    I guess all those flyspecks didn't mean a thing to that administrator! Well, after all, if we don't need them in English, how could they matter?

    Perhaps the teacher should
    just have done the syllabus in Brāhmī script?
    Updated 17th February 2011 at 03:59 PM by JaimeB
  4. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    What a great thread! As somebody who has to program in support of "foreign" languages, I agree with you completely. You won't be getting any flames here. At the risk of getting some myself, let me just add that delusions of linguistic manifest destiny seem to be an inherent risk of "superpower" status, throughout history. Getting past that is the duty of us all, in my opinion (admittedly, I'm something of a radical on language preservation).

    I might also add that French perfumers are, in my humble bystander opinion, some of the least ethnocentric people on the planet. Other people may roll their eyes at these perfumers' inspirational travels to the far corners of the world, but I see this as bona fide evidence of recognition of beauty and wisdom around the world (if not even an artistic fear of missing it). If anything, French dominance of perfumery has come from their historic attention to the world, something very worthy of emulation.

    Well, enough of my opinions. Bravo for stating yours so delicately yet so well!
  5. rogalal's Avatar
    Through my job, I'm becoming quite fluent in menu Italian (I couldn't hold a conversation about the weather, but if a word corresponds to a pasta shape, I probably know it). It just sort of happened through some sort of language osmosis, and I assume that my "perfume French" will happen as well.

    That being said, I was hoping this post would be a breakdown of the ethnocentrism that's very much built into the brick and mortar of the art of perfumery itself. "Occidentalism" vs "Orientalism", Eastern vs Western, as well as that subtle but overarching French elitist idea of the "noble savage" (in the sense that French perfumers through history have looked to inspiration from the middle east and Asia and held their ancient practices in high esteem while simultaneously thinking that they (the French perfumers) were better equipped as trained artists to express other peoples cultures in perfume - while these other cultures may have been respected as aesthetes or early innovators, they still weren't held in the same esteem as French perfumers by the perfumery system, largely because of race and France's huge colonialist history).

    To use a rather strange metaphor, there's a California Olive Oil Council that rates olive oils from around the world. They use a rating system based on the way Italians rate their olive oils. Because of cultural differences and different styles of production, olive oils from anywhere other than Italy or California are automatically judged to be unfit for consumption under these rules, meaning that, according to the California rules, any olive oil from the cultures that invented it (Greece, Turkey, Jordan, etc) are officially considered flawed. Which, of course, is ridiculous, Eurocentric, and could easily be seen as vaguely racist. I think the French control of perfumery works in a similar way, excluding natural perfumery, as well as oil-based perfumes and attars and a lot of the original expressions of perfume. They accept them as legitimate influences, but not rarely equals.
  6. RHM's Avatar
    Jamie, this is a thoughtful and interesting post. I enjoyed it very much. My 13 year old has the right idea. She's been studying French in school. When I asked her why French, she said "Because some day I want to go to Paris with you and enjoy the perfumes. I'll be your translator!" Her next language request has been to study Chinese. When I asked her why Chinese, I got the "eye roll". "Mom! It's because almost everything is being made in China. Don't you want to know what's in your stuff?"
    Yes, I do sweetheart!
  7. rhiannon_chiana's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by rogalal
    I was hoping this post would be a breakdown of the ethnocentrism that's very much built into the brick and mortar of the art of perfumery itself. "Occidentalism" vs "Orientalism", Eastern vs Western, as well as that subtle but overarching French elitist idea of the "noble savage" (in the sense that French perfumers through history have looked to inspiration from the middle east and Asia and held their ancient practices in high esteem while simultaneously thinking that they (the French perfumers) were better equipped as trained artists to express other peoples cultures in perfume - while these other cultures may have been respected as aesthetes or early innovators, they still weren't held in the same esteem as French perfumers by the perfumery system, largely because of race and France's huge colonialist history). *snip* I think the French control of perfumery works in a similar way, excluding natural perfumery, as well as oil-based perfumes and attars and a lot of the original expressions of perfume. They accept them as legitimate influences, but not rarely equals.
    This is kind of what I was hoping for too, when I saw the title.

    I understand the blogger's point, and as a person of indigenous descent I agree that the American obsession with everyone speaking English, especially when coupled with the lack of interest in learning anyone else's language, is irritating (I always counter the "English or get out" camp with "speak Algonquin or get out" to which they invariably respond "well you lost and that was a long time ago" without realizing the inconsistency of their arguments, but I digress).

    But the French are hardly the first group I would consider to be under an ethnocentric onslaught, since as a culture they have held much power, and historically and currently participated in much ethnocentrism themselves (from colonialism, to holier-than-thou fashion/fragrance snobbery, to forbidding Muslim girls in public schools from wearing the headscarves the girls consider a basic religious requirement for modesty, etc.). Yes, it's annoying when people mispronounce French words, reading them exactly as they are spelled in a way so blatant it almost sounds deliberate. It does feel insulting, as if those people are denying that anything other than English pronunciation exists. But if we are looking to the topic of fragrance and ethnocentrism, the French probably aren't the group most in need of being defended. They set the tone for fragrance, for example everyone waxes orgasmic about Guerlain and Creed constantly (and Guerlain permits animal testing, so they don't deserve that kind of praise), and you barely hear about any other culture when it comes to perfume.
  8. JaimeB's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by rogalal
    Through my job, I'm becoming quite fluent in menu Italian (I couldn't hold a conversation about the weather, but if a word corresponds to a pasta shape, I probably know it). It just sort of happened through some sort of language osmosis, and I assume that my "perfume French" will happen as well.

    That being said, I was hoping this post would be a breakdown of the ethnocentrism that's very much built into the brick and mortar of the art of perfumery itself. "Occidentalism" vs "Orientalism", Eastern vs Western, as well as that subtle but overarching French elitist idea of the "noble savage" (in the sense that French perfumers through history have looked to inspiration from the middle east and Asia and held their ancient practices in high esteem while simultaneously thinking that they (the French perfumers) were better equipped as trained artists to express other peoples cultures in perfume - while these other cultures may have been respected as aesthetes or early innovators, they still weren't held in the same esteem as French perfumers by the perfumery system, largely because of race and France's huge colonialist history).

    To use a rather strange metaphor, there's a California Olive Oil Council that rates olive oils from around the world. They use a rating system based on the way Italians rate their olive oils. Because of cultural differences and different styles of production, olive oils from anywhere other than Italy or California are automatically judged to be unfit for consumption under these rules, meaning that, according to the California rules, any olive oil from the cultures that invented it (Greece, Turkey, Jordan, etc) are officially considered flawed. Which, of course, is ridiculous, Eurocentric, and could easily be seen as vaguely racist. I think the French control of perfumery works in a similar way, excluding natural perfumery, as well as oil-based perfumes and attars and a lot of the original expressions of perfume. They accept them as legitimate influences, but not rarely equals.
    Allen,

    I see the point you're making here, and I suppose I was trying to make a parallel point about English-speaking people's ethnocentrism. I think the difference is that the French really made use of other materials and traditions to make French perfumes, i. e., I suppose that they were interpreting the other culture's achievement in forms accessible to those in their own culture.

    I guess I view this as a case of cultural dissemination of perfume materials and tastes. There's a whole other post to be written about that. Every culture borrows from other cultures, and in the process creates a kind of fusion. It is usually a fusion of the exotic elements that takes advantage of their knowledge of their own culture's habits and preferences, in order to make sure the fusion project "flies."

    Now, I'm not trying to excuse the French colonial enterprise in any way. I'm just saying that in one way, the contact between the cultures was productive to the larger world. It doesn't negate the colonialist and oppressive methods and goals of the European power in the Orient. The French went to Indo-China, for example, knowing that high-quality benzoin and musk could be had cheaply there — things that the French themselves couldn't produce at home — and so they "secured the market," as one might put it. They had also discovered sources of coumarin in other regions they had colonized and made use of that in their perfume industry
    as well.

    As for the idea of the noble savage, John Dryden and Alexander Pope were among the early pioneers of the use of the concept. The first appearance of the term is thought to have arisen after the seventeenth-century Wars of Religion, as a reaction against their excesses. The idea arose that even "savages" were more civilized than the Europeans who had been involved in such savagery of mass violence. As for the common notion that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had the same idea, that may not be quite right. Rousseau's notion was that man was good in the "state of nature," a period that he considered to have preceded what he called the "social contract." He didn't seem to consider that the "state of nature" was any more "primitive" or "savage" than later societies.

    Again, it is certainly not my intention to excuse colonialism or exploitation. That is a live issue even in the world today, in subtler forms, under the seemingly innocuous label of "globalization of trade," which is still nevertheless engaged in exporting menial work to less developed economies and "securing the market" for certain goods, notably petroleum and its derivatives.

    My point was more along the lines of advocating respect for any cultures that have contributed to the production of the finer arts and luxury products that we all enjoy. Why be hypocritical about the fact that we enjoy their achievements? The French were certainly instrumental in bringing cultural innovation to the manufacture of perfumes, and certainly they did that by disseminating in Europe many exotic ingredients; at the same time, they interpreted them to make them accessible to European sensibilities and tastes. In this they were no different from the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, who sailed to the Horn of Africa and the Hadhramaut seeking incense resins which they had learned about from the Egyptians. They too established their own trade routes to "secure the market" and eliminate the Egyptian middle-man. Cultures will disseminate their artifacts and they will be spread and altered to suit new tastes, new venues, and new circumstances. We have evidence of extensive trade networks in what were considered luxury goods even in the Paleolithic period.

    My plea is to show respect for those who create and for the fruits of whose cultural and material legacy we enjoy. One way to do that is to enter into their world view in an attempt to understand what it is about them that made it possible for them to produce these things. To my mind, one of the best ways to enter into the mind and world-view of another culture is to learn its language. A language is an embodiment of the way a people sees the world and its possibilities, and learning a language can provide a deeper grasp of those things.

    What could our attitude be as the inheritors of great things? Certainly the beneficiaries' pretension to sophistication is given the lie by a lack of respect for the providers of such marvels. Sincere appreciation would seem to be more in order.
    Updated 24th April 2011 at 08:24 AM by JaimeB
  9. JaimeB's Avatar
    It just struck me that, in an odd twist, some Japanese fragrance companies have played turnabout on the French with perfume culture. They have re-imported some aspects of French perfumery and done some reverse japonnerie with them, using yuzu, shiso leaf, bamboo, and other Japanese scent materials, thereby adapting them to Japanese markets and tastes. "Turnabout is fair play," we used to say...
  10. ECaruthers's Avatar
    I agree that ignorance is bad - whether of perfume ingredients, perfume history, perfume language, perfume culture or even of non-perfume matters.

    I'll just add the caution that trying show off my self-taught French at the perfume counter has resulted in a humerous "failure to communicate."
    Ya got the latest from Gee-law? How 'bout Eee Slaw-raw?
  11. JaimeB's Avatar
    @ ECaruthers:

    On fait de son mieux... (One does one's best...) ...and it'll just have to do!
  12. Primrose's Avatar
    Great blog entry, Jaime. As so many words dealing with perfume happen to be in French, I think it only apropos to learn French is one is a hobbyist or in the sales of perfume

    It is grossly pathetic when a perfume sales person knows nothing of the product.
  13. Hillaire's Avatar
    I agree a language/pronunciation primer of the languages of relevant cultures, in the pursuit of any sort of 'true' connoisseurship is always helpful... and in good taste!

    When I studied art history at university, an art history 'major' mandated a pre-requisite reading knowledge of either Italian or German; the significant contributions of these two particular cultures to the field itself -- and the consequent mass of relevant information written in these two languages -- simply[I] did[/I] necessitate a[I] serious [/I]student's fundamental reading knowledge of wither German or Italian.

    The 'study' of perfumery is not different. Basic French-knowledge (even 'home French') lends a great deal to the appreciation of perfumery. And fundamental French-pronunciation knowledge unequivocally helps one along (both in understanding and naming) at the 'perfume counter'... as well is his pursuit of perfume-related erudition!:)

    That said, I have noticed, shopping in the U.K. as well as in the States at 'nicer' perfume retailers, that the British have a way of mispronouncing (maybe 'over-pronouncing' is a better term) French that is very different from the way Americans tend to 'get it wrong'. Discussing perfumes both with English friends and English SAs has occasionally made for some really prolonged 'back-and-forth's, with my jockeying between my school French and what I expect Americans to mispronounce, simply for me to discern the original French name in question!

    Now if we could just train Texas 'good ol' boys' to order at Mexican restaurants!

    Thanks for your post.
    Updated 19th February 2011 at 12:48 AM by Hillaire
  14. Primrose's Avatar
    LOL, Hillaire!

    It's like mangled Japanese to me: Kuh-moh-nuh, instead of "kimono," wuh-sah-bee instead of "wah-sah-beh," and saw-kee instead of "sah-keh." Just my beefs.

    Mangling French when you work for Guerlain is atrocious. I heard an SA say "Gurr-lon" instead of the proper Guerlain.
  15. Force of One's Avatar
    Good post Jamie - this hit's home with me on two accords

    1) I am one of those rough-around-the-edges psuedo connoissieur's who probably doesn't work to develop his nose like he should. I'm probably pretty comparable to the Thomas Hayden Church character in "Sideways" who's analysis to ever varietal of wine tested was "mmmm....pretty good". Perhaps I should apply myself a bit more....

    2) I am in the early stages of learning to speak French for an upcoming trip to France next year. Your suggestion about the "french pronounciation" thread was timely and appreciated!
  16. StylinLA's Avatar
    At a certain point all Basenoters should devote at least a little energy to becoming more adept at French pronunciations. I took some French in college, so it's not totally foreign to me, but it is daunting at times.

    If this is a hobby, as it is for many of us, I think you owe to yourself to at least become somewhat adept being able to speak "perfume French." I have a friend who says Buk-a-ron for Boucheron. He doesn't even make an attempt at Terre D'Hermes which he wears everyday. I sometimes wonder if there are not some people who like scents but just avoid getting involved due to fear of mispronouncing the names. A lot of people I know are very daunted by the French language and it often manifests itself in being defensive.
  17. Nostalgie's Avatar
    Content-based instruction has been promoted for some time in foreign language pedagogy. Imagine French 101, Italian 101, Japanese 101, and so on, all designed as content-based language courses developed around the topic Introduction to Perfume.

    I'm there.
  18. Sunsetspawn's Avatar
    French is much more harder than English. I usedta could dated 2 French girls and they helpded me with the pronunciation, but now I'm losing it cause I don't have them around for to help me.

    I think I can still pronounce L'instant de Guerlain, I think...


    maybe

    I guess it does make me cringe when I watch a video review and I hear GAR-LANE. Holy balls, I almost threw up.

    You know, I've actually been looking for some Italian fragrances to add to my collection because it's so damned easy to pronounce. I would prefer it to be one with a really long name so I can be a pretentious douche about it.

    Actually, I think it's a good thing if I can't pronounce the fragrances I wear; it keeps me from talking about it. And honestly, who wants to be that guy?

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