One of the most comforting things that I am learning through reading The Diary of a Nose is that even great noses tinker. They go about doing their job through a trial and error process the exact same way as I do. Now, putting together a formula, blending the ingredients and finding out that you have to start again from scratch because the result sucks, can be depressing. Knowing that the likes of Ellena sometimes happen to ditch a draft because, well, they think it sucks, gives you hope.
This image of Ellena smelling his drafts, evaluating them and ultimately judging them unworthy to survive evoked in me the idea of the delicate relationship that governs every creative undertaking, suspended in between solitude and teamwork.
There are two things that the French philosopher and historian of religion Henry Corbin would remind time and again in nearly all of his writing. The first was how, vis-à-vis the abyss of the monde imaginal, ‘historical criticism loses its rights’. It was Corbin’s elegant way to claim for himself the right to treat the visionary experience in religions as a fact, a mantra he disseminated his work with as a reminder of his own brand of phenomenology. The second is his evocation of the years of study under Etienne Gilson at the Religious Science Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and the elating experience of reading and interpreting the primary sources with him: Gilson would read straight from Latin and the extraction of the meaning was a collective effort, an inexhaustible process whereby the study group would make the text itself alive and speaking centuries after its redaction.
Intelligence, I got to think, pondering the image of Gilson evoked by Corbin, is the result of a collective effort – no significant achievement can be obtained in total solitude. I think, among many other examples, about the Sufi concept of ṣuḥba, or about the many (and cruel) experiments conducted over history in which a human being was left living in total isolation from all social interactions (they would not survive for long, if you were wondering). But – and here’s where Ellena’s account of his working in isolation comes in – companionship and teamwork have to be balanced out with individual, and to some extent secluded, work; and there you go – Sufi ṣuḥba balanced out by khalwa, the solitary retreat, usually lasting forty days. Ellena, who made the choice of working away from the decision-making centre of the company he is head perfumer of, admits that “the majority of ideas are the fruit of day-to-day work, sometimes the result of meeting people, country walks, idle strolls, readings, moments when the mind is free to roam”. That is to say, a balanced combination of solitude and interaction. I know it can be a luxury. I remember the couple of years after my PhD when I was an “independent researcher” (a self-reassuring way to say that you’re looking for a job in academia), and the frustration of working away from colleagues, removed from the informal exchange of ideas, inspiration and criticism that you need to produce anything meaningful.
So, yes, I guess that what I wanted to say is that, as a perfumer, I am now somewhere on the solitary side of the creative process and, although I cherish it as it allows me to work out my own way and style with relative tranquillity, my own interaction with fellow perfumers, with few illustrious exceptions, is probably too limited at the moment, and this is something that needs to change. My fragrant khalwa needs its share of ṣuḥba.