The true hedonist of our time is a drama queen with real diamonds in her crown, says Andrei Navrozov. And Chanel No5 is for hygienists – not hedonists.
A prosperous, consequential, roly-poly Greek with a name that sounds like an Aztec root vegetable – we are, of course, talking about the philosopher Aristotle – once proclaimed that if you’ve got a brain, A cannot be both A and not A. Some five-and-twenty centuries later, a bookworm-poor, reed-thin, dark-cloaked Dane, who for most of his life had been unhappy in love, replied that if you’re in love, A can be anything.
Aristotle’s proposition was good for building railroads, winning wars, designing machineguns and inventing computers, spreading marmalade on toast, organizing municipal rubbish collection – in short, for civilization generally. Kierkegaard’s rebuttal was only good for the soul. Though maybe for haute couture too, as we shall see.
At times it may look like science has finally bridged the chasm between the two contrary and irreconcilable positions. Our somber-suited physicists speak of the irrational behavior of subatomic particles, our crazy-haired artists are calculating enough not to fly commercial. Bankers turn green, flower children file their tax returns on time, and bloodthirsty tyrants call for fair and democratic elections in places we never knew existed.
At other times it seems that, instead of the gods that the Age of Reason promised we would one day become, we now more closely resemble the Dark Ages’ idea of the Antipodeans, walking on our heads, tweeting strangers, reading our fortunes in cardboard cups from Starbucks. In our world, Juliet Googles Romeo before their first date at Cipriani and Romeo hires a private eye to find out if Juliet really has a mother. Soon they txt, check out Ibiza, and live happily ever after like a pair of silicone peas in an iPod, meaning he spends his nights watching Internet porn and she does her own Botox. Indeed, what other thereafter is there for them, wretched heirs to the Age of Reason, in a concrete world where A can’t be both A and not A?
Our notion of pleasure is wholly consequent on this dilemma. Should the hedonists among us fall in with the Aristotelian view of the global playpen, demanding ever sweeter sugar, ever louder music, ever more Facebook friends, ever louder orgasms, and ever thicker lines of ever purer cocaine, as well as more personal space, quality time, and peace on earth to enjoy them in, or should we go for the Kierkegaard option instead?
That, of course, would mean our eating none but the darkest chocolate, which is quite bitter on the palate; subjecting ourselves to the agonies of genuine feeling, which not only ruins the skin, but carries the risk of a messy suicide and even a double murder; listening to music whose harmonies are complex and emotionally disturbing, ideally on an old gramophone in a room suffocated in dark, gold-veined brocades, with only a narrow breach in the faded velvet of the curtains to admit sunlight; writing love letters on tear-stained, robin-blue aerogramme paper that’s no longer made, scorching the mouth with bootleg absinthe, and leaving healthy, wealthy, and wise wives for Moroccan nightclub dancers who turn out to be men; losing money at the tables, not as the rich do, idly and painlessly, but like the desperate gambler who loses his one good shirt of cambric linen and goes home to homelessness in silent remorse and freezing November rain; and yes, squeezing boldly, like Alizarin Yellow from a big fat tube of acrylic, into achiropoetic gowns of brilliantly dyed spider’s web and fine Flanders moonbeam, shameless in the décolletage yet straitlaced in the consequences, reflecting in men’s eyes, flirting with one’s own delectable shadow, thrilled to breathe, dying to love.
It would mean all that and a whole wagonload of other experiences besides, but anyway the point should by now be clear. The sweet tooth of instant gratification and pre-tied bow ties, of boringly earned, or even serendipitously inherited, creature comforts, of thoughtless Ibiza nights and lazy mornings on Panarea, is an X-ray of life for the dental hygienists among us to get excited about. Constraint, discomfort, anxiety, even frustration and fear, these are the true modern hedonist’s playthings. Silver-sweet jouissance is more pleasurable than saccharine plaisir. Ecstasy is more intoxicating than the round pill that bears its name.
Where the Aristotelian, with his pursuit of the active life, has always been something of a sadist – building empires, projecting the power of Reason to the four corners of the earth, demanding submission from bodies both temporal and heavenly – the true hedonist, who takes after Kierkegaard, is highly contemplative and something of a masochist. Any woman whose pulses quicken as she uses a man’s money to pay for the most politically incorrect and sartorially extravagant of the season’s diabolical snares; any mermaid who swaps her natural form for the ritually eroticized torment of a fairytale princess; any angel who senses her wings being singed in the flame of unattainably human emotion; any of these real, flesh-and-blood modern hedonists know just what, in our Antipodean hell of topsy-turvy rationality, being a masochist or a sadist really means.
The true hedonist has what psychiatrists call an active fantasy life, and in this his playground resembles the catwalks of Paris and Milan. Not for him the plainness of the drudge, the practicality of the accountant, the providence of the empire builder; he dwells in impossibility, revels in discomfort, and would rather be plunged into iridescent penury than attain a dull and colourless eminence. If he could be bothered to design a coat of arms, it would depict the green helleborine immortalized by Jocelyn Brooke in The Orchid Trilogy; fun for the botanist, yet cleistogamous and self-loving, too. How shortsighted of Mademoiselle Coco to have chosen the saccharine-sweet camellia!
Bittersweet is more fun. Such is the modern hedonist’s mantra, and as he follows his hero Kierkegaard into the deepest vortices of life’s emotional current, what pleasure he finds there is heightened by the sorrows of the imagination. In the rational, practical, predictable world that he reluctantly inhabits, he is a drama queen with real diamonds in her crown.
I have mentioned Coco Chanel – the formidable personage who, in the bygone days, was also known as Agent F-7124 of the Abwehr, the Nazis’ military intelligence – for a reason. The thrall, verging on hysteria, in which Western women since the times of Marilyn Monroe have been held by the advertising and publicity agencies acting on behalf of Chanel No5 can only be compared with mass adulation for totalitarian leaders like Hitler, Stalin or Mao. A closer look at this social aberration may help to illustrate the distinction I am making here between the two hedonisms, Aristotelian and Kierkegaardian, between sickly-sweet sugar and bittersweet chocolate.
No man I know likes the smell of No5 or finds the scent even remotely useful for pheromonal communication with the opposite sex, though this is putting it mildly. Put bluntly, it stinks. Western women take offence when told that it smells like an old lady, yet what they ought to be told is that it smells like an old lady who is a barrack supervisor in a concentration camp – a rational occupation, incidentally, if ever there was one. Not entirely by coincidence, during the Russian Civil War, Ernest Beaux, the Russian perfumer of French origin who compounded the perfume for Mademoiselle, had run an internment camp in Murmansk, above the Arctic Circle. He later recalled that the black waters of the Barents Sea had been an inspiration to him when he resumed his career as a nose in Paris.
In fairness, we do not know what Beaux’s original concoction, chosen by Mademoiselle from among the ten samples he had made up, was like, though I suspect it had something in common with the Soviet perfume I recoil at remembering, Krasnaya Moskva, “Red Moscow.” This was made in a factory the Bolsheviks had looted, along with everything else in the country, from its owners, Henri Brocard, in 1917. Beaux had worked for its main competitor in Russia, A. Rallet & Co., until it too was nationalised and renamed “Soap and Perfume Works No. 4,” later “Liberty Perfume Factory.” Again, we have no way of knowing what the original, launched in 1913 for the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty as “Bouquet de Catherine,” smelt like, but the Soviet incarnation of it – it was said to consist chiefly of an extract of carnation – was one of the foundational nightmares of my Soviet childhood. Red Moscow! It is a wonder that, a half-century hence, I can yet dissociate a woman’s presence from its emetic sweetness.
Sickly sweetness, however, is not the only characteristic that makes Chanel’s No5 the number one choice of the modern rationalist. Like the last scents assembled by Beaux at Rallet, No5 was among the first perfumes in history to rely in its composition on aldehydes, synthetic substances of whose presence in the world we only become aware when we read about the formaldehyde in which Damien Hirst has pickled a shark under the preposterous pretext of giving it a fancy title like “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” In fact, on the basis of a recent chromatographic analysis Marcel Carles, son of the founder of the Ecole de Parfumerie Roure in Grasse, was able to determine that No5 was developed from Bouquet de Catherine, meaning that the Chanel perfume and the bane of my childhood, Red Moscow, are in effect first cousins.
It is synthetic substances like the aldehyde C-12 MNA (2-methyl undecanal), first produced in 1903 by another Russian of French extraction, the chemist Auguste Georges Darzens, that account for the scent’s action as an olfactory dead end – a blind wall of smell – rather than a bouquet in which different notes may be discerned, a polyphonic cloud of opalescent nuances within whose billowing a woman moves, breathes, and undresses. Musically speaking, where the great scents not relying on aldehydes are like the voice of an Amelita Galli-Curci, summoning the true hedonist from the recesses of an old gramophone, No5 brays like a Madonna in Tramp’s. “It is my soul that calls upon my name,” Romeo tells Juliet – in Shakespeare, not in Tramp – and
How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!
I remember coming across such a perfume once, at the St-Ouen market in Paris. From under a tangle of pricetag strings, tortoiseshell buttons and bejewelled hatpins, an elixir of Kierkegaardian hedonism emerged into the dim light of day in a flacon of frosted glass with a mahogany ebullience of mink on the gilded stopper. Made by Robert Beaulieu, a Paris furrier of some renown in the 70’s – originally, in all likelihood, as a gift to his best customers, which had also been Coco Chanel’s reason for making No5 – it looked modern enough, and yet instinctively, even before withdrawing that fur-trimmed, over-the-top stopper, I knew that its music would not be the artificially amplified plainchant of aldehydal rationalism.
That flacon of frosted glass changed me – for the worse, some might argue – in the way wars and books are sometimes said to have the power to do. In reality, of course, it is only women who have the power to change men’s lives, and so I’ll go further and say that Beaulieu’s Vison became the love of my life – a hedonist’s love. Suitably bittersweet, because once my wife had used it up I was never able to find another bottle.