Yesterday, in melancholic moment, I bumped into Rimini, a particularly heart-wrenching song by the late Fabrizio De Andrè. De Andrè was an absolute genius, and his sudden death in 1999 left many in Italy with an incurable sense of void. His death woke many of us up to the reality that his voice would not have commented on our world and its miseries and joys forever. Rimini then led me to this interview:
Now, Fabrizio De Andrè wasn’t keen on giving interviews, but in the few he gave every word uttered is heavy as a stone and sharply meaningful. He was used to speak his truth with a warmth, humility and precision that one would think he took it from the same mysterious source he drew the lyrics of his songs from. As much as his relationship with the supernatural was troubled, to say the least, and despite his iconoclastic anarchism, I wouldn’t hesitate to call that source ‘divine’. In this sense, his words were always an entrenching and rigorous exercise in what the Greek called parrhesia.
The way De Andrè conducted the interview had me thinking about the notion of the care of the self and the connection between ethics, aesthetics and truth. Briefly and simply put, the care of the self is a fundamental principle of moral rationality, which has been exiled form modern thought and simultaneously deprived of its ethical content in current practice. The connection between ethics and aesthetics, however, is necessary if one want’s to turn life into a ‘work of art’, to borrow a Nietzschean expression. It is a call to practice beauty, which I think is one of the marks of De Andrè’s life and work.
Now, what does this have to do with perfumes. It does.
This interview sparked a reflection on my own practice and the role I want perfumery to have in what I do. As I have said, in order to make sense of a fragrance, you have to tell a story around it. But alas! when you do it, you are doing it to make it attractive, to trigger emotions, feelings and memories. The risk of it is slipping into affectedness and inauthenticity. If, with Plato, rhetoric is the art of making truth persuasive, marketing is the art of making a lie appealing. What I am trying to say is that, in the practice of perfumery and its necessary marriage with words, one has to practice the discipline of the care of the self: making love to words cannot degenerate into raping them.
De Andrè was well aware of that. Answering to the last question on an prize he had just been awarded, he responded by eluding the question. Western, Aristotelian obsession with telling the black from the white, he says, results in being obsessed with victory: ‘I am rather against victories, and awards are victories’. With his usual yet always stunning and unsettling sensibility for the wretched of the earth, he goes on: ‘The other side of a victory is a loss, or even multiple loss. And these awards gratify the most vulgar side of my self’. De Andrè managed to make of his life a work of art, and did so by being truthful to himself by exercising parrhesia in his art as well as in his thought. Whatever the art or craft one is busy with, it’s so easy to slip into falseness, to get phony and affected – which would compromise not only art, but also life.