Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Olfactory Narratives of Josh Meyers

One of Josh Meyers’ Imaginary Authors

I didn’t get into smells for the fragrance, but after discovering an artist like Josh Meyers, it makes me wonder what the hell I’ve been missing.

In his interview with fragrance blog Olfactif, Meyers recounts his high school self shunning perfume as too conformist. Like Josh, I have always been perfume-averse. Perfume was an adornment, like jewelry, which I do not wear, and furthermore like a form of branding. “You know, he’s one of those Drakkar Noir guys.” (In late adolescence I wore Drakkar and was obsessed, and then in high school my friend dropped a bottle of it outside his locker and we all reeked for days; I didn’t start buying perfume again until twenty years later.)

My pursuits in the osmic sensorium are slowly leading me back to perfume-obsessed, but I still have that anti-conformity, anti-branded-identity thing to overcome in the process. That’s why when I came across the work of Josh Meyers, I had to stop and really absorb what he was doing with his chemical poetry.

He’s composed a series of fragrances titled Imaginary Authors, where each fragrance represents a story about a fictional author’s biography and written works. In his bottle of Soft Lawn, we experience the world of Claude LeCoq (1893-1957) and his (doubly) fictional character Hampton Perry, a charmingly snotty tennis champ at a New England college. Leisure; clay court and tennis balls, that’s what it smells like. Something you wear when you go to Princeton, or to a country club. Imaginary Authors is described as wearable with a dose of weirdness, riding a fine line between art and commodity. Who doesn’t want to smell like The Weekend?

“Intellectually engaging” is another way his scents are described. He really puts the “cognitive” in fragrance, something usually taken as emotional. But at the base of it, and what I am so into, is the fact that he's taking full advantage of our surreal relationship with the language of smell. He describes his fragrances based on when you should wear it (weekends) and where (the country club), not by using typical olfactory descriptors like “citrus” or “sandalwood.” He gives you the backstory, the context.

In reality, smells are holistic and contextual more than they are a combination of aromatic units. It's the “whole” he's going for, and the whole he delivers. And for once I realize that you can’t do this with a painting, or with a good book. A book might smell good, but it won’t smell like the story you’re reading. When the story is crafted into the fragrance itself, we can let it interact with a deeper part of our imagination.


I can't talk about fragrance alone, because my first love is the mind. Place and context are essential to our understanding of sense, and it is to the benefit of all when used in describing olfactory experience, for the two cannot be separated in our minds.

Besides the amygdala, the emotional core of our brain, the second most popular part of our odor-ceptive system is the hippocampus. This is the area associated with spatial orientation and memory. Any talk on Memory touches on the ancient technique of creating a “palace of the mind” where memory objects are stored. One simply “walks through” this imaginary palace to remember everything. And speaking of quintessential examples, how does Proust finally discover the source of his most famous shudder of exquisite pleasure?

Excerpt from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.
-circa 1913

It happened when he went to her bedroom. On this, I rest the case. Smell needs context to be understood, and by that I emphasize the hard, physical space which our bodies inhabit and not the ephemeral lexicon of detached, abstract linguistic descriptors.

Josh Meyers certainly gets this, and we get to immerse ourselves in a narrative that goes way beyond its literary content. There is only one place where pieces of our brain extend beyond the envelope of the body to be directly exposed to the world outside, and that is in the holes of our nose. The words “upper-crust” don't jump the blood-brain barrier in quite the same way as Meyers’ “Soft Lawn”.

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