Fragrance and Ethnocentrism
by, 17th February 2011 at 06:49 AM (4201 Views)
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.
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