Life After Life (Karthik Pandian and Paige K. Johnston)
Curated by Lumi Tan
In an official list of trees approved for planting on New York City streets, there are a number of white flowering trees including Horsechestnut, Japanese Pagoda Tree, Amur Maackia, Serviceberry, Cockspur Hawthorne, and Snow Goose Cherry. All of these are noted for their attractive spring flowering in a dedicated column for “visual interest,” but there is no column to describe their scent, which hangs heavy in the air for the brief life of their blooms. This scent becomes inseparable from a turn in our own way of being—a yearly reminder that our bodies can emerge again, that a body can derive pleasure from being outside, that a body sweats and burns from overexposure.
A traditional perfume note, indole, is present in the scent of white flowers such as those listed above, in addition to jasmine, orange blossoms, and other more popular perfume florals—but in its purest form is the scent of fecal matter and corpses. In collecting descriptors of indolic scents from perfume blogs and their fervent commenters, I’ve found a formidable range: animalistic, bad breath, sweaty, wet socks, mothballs, vaginal, freshly showered butt, sexy, hot urine, toilet in a clean restaurant, soapy, armpit, horsey, horse manure, musty grandmothers (but decidedly not grandfathers). There’s a palpable difficulty in these attempts, despite coming from those who clearly revel in the challenge of relaying the subjectivities of smell in words. Winking emoticons and a jokey affect ease the embarrassment of sharing personal opinions on the abject, the sexual, and the moments where our own bodies become overtly natural. Statements of confession and denial are inherent to the enjoyment of an indolic scent: “I am the kind of person who loves a dirty foot,” or, “I’ve never understood how anyone could be turned off by flowers.”
“Too personal” has been the most telling descriptor I’ve come across, taken from an account of a sales associate at Henri Bendel dissuading a customer wanting to purchase an unnamed perfume. Perfume is a public smell for others to enjoy— inoffensive, aspirational, outside of the body, a cover up. Our own smells are not to be disseminated, they require privacy. These two words successfully killed the sale.