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Capsicums, Perfume & differential equations: the novelty of essence, in a sense

Dear Internet,                                                    

We call this 5¢ense partially for sensory reasons ... though we haven't talked here much about the sublime sensation of smell—the most under-appreciated & ethereal of the senses, the hardest one to put your finger on.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind This past week we've been reading the sensational Perfume by Patrick Suskind, which is a sort of opus on all things olfactory. We read it mostly stewing in our own smell on a spin bike in the last sultry days of summer. It's about this guy (Grenouille) in 18th century France that is born with a supernatural sense of smell. He himself gives off no scent & has a sort of superhuman resiliency (he is exposed to things like anthrax & syphilis but survives). He is orphaned, literally discarded as trash by his mother (who is then executed for it) in a fish market. And because he gives off no smell he creeps out wet nurses, priests and would-be adopters, who want to have nothing to do with him. But eventually he gets an apprenticeship with a famous perfumer who exploits his extraordinary powers, bottles Grenouille's liquid creations into commercial commodity, perfume.

The book is marketed as a sexy thriller or murder mystery, when in fact it's quite philosophical. For example, in the throes of a 7-year exile on top of a snow-covered mountain where he lives off lichen & dead rats, Grenouille becomes obsessed with why he doesn't emit an odor. So he develops a scent that is the scent of someone giving off a scent:

«It did not smell like a scent, but like a human being who gives off a scent. If one had smelled this perfume in a dark room, one would have thought a second person was standing there. And if a human being, who smelled like a human being, had applied it, that person would have seemed to have the smell of two people, or worse still, to be a monstrous double creature, like some figure that you can no longer clearly pinpoint because it looks blurred and out of focus, like something at the bottom of a lake beneath the shiver of waves.»

Put that in your pipe & smoke it. And extend it to the other senses, for example, can you taste the act of tasting? Or see the very threshold through which we see? Or on the Cagey flip-side, can we hear the sound of no sound? As sensory beings with language, does it make sense to even think about a vacuum?

Through the exploration of scent, Suskind gets at something you can't quite put your finger on, that could apply metaphorically to more than just scent. It's like he likens scent to an aura or soul.

Grenouille is again exploited, this time by a scientist in Montpellier that works in experimental agriculture. After abandoning his previous 'udder flower' project (that involved spreading bull semen over grass to produce a milk-yielding animal-vegetable hybrid that tasted of goat), he develops a theory that the earth emits a corrupting gas, a fluidum letale, that saps our vitality & sooner or later kills us. He tries to use Grenouille as a guinea pig to prove his theory by putting him in an isolation chamber for a week & it's here the book takes a Belle et la Bête sort of turn (with a twist of Hunchback of Notre Dame).

cocteau beauty beast

Grenouille dons this scent (of a human emitting a scent) & goes public & is suddenly loved by everyone—he is no longer the monster he used to be.

Grenouille is conflicted because of his abilities—at times he is disgusted by humans & their smells (what leads to his self-imposed exile) & at other times odors (in particular of Lolita-like virgins) overwhelm him, intoxicate him & drive him to murderous acts in an attempt to 'capture' the essence that lures him.

Anyway, we don't want to give away too much of what Perfume 'is about' in case you haven't read it yet. There is a story-line after all, something that usually doesn't interest us as much as the language of the book (originally German). Perfume is a novel of ideas, not of language or story (despite the stupid subtitle: The Story of a Murderer). But what of language in Perfume?

«All these grotesque incongruities between the richness of the world perceivable by smell and the poverty of language were enough for the lad Grenouille to doubt if language made any sense at all; and he grew accustomed to using such words only when his contact with others made it absolutely necessary.»

The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath

Levi Bryant wrote an interesting post the other day, From The Bell Jar, about the deviation of species & crop rotation, as relates to writing—this compulsion to be original, which means deviating from the source.

«I don’t know about you, but I perpetually suffer from the terror of repetition, from the horror of finding something I thought I thought (note the reflexivity) in the next book or article I pick up, and it absolutely paralyzes me; when it comes to writing anyway. How, after 250k years and 6k years (at least) of literate culture, can anyone pick up a pen… Or a typewriter… Or a keyboard? I place my faith in the power of the unfaithful; the unfaithful copy. That’s as good a reason to write as any. I leave uninterrogated why my sense of self-worth is so bound up with writing.»

This drive towards the original, via the unfaithful copy, also applies to the senses—we always want to experience new & novel things, whether they be by sight, taste, smell, touch or sound. Grenouille, in Perfume, is a glutton for trail-blazing smells.

«The goal of the hunt was simply to possess everything the world could offer in the way of odors, and his only condition was that the odors be new ones.»

Through our ears, in music, we are always in search of fresh sounds. And The onticologist's deviation principle (channeling Deleuze & Guattari) perhaps gets at what it is we like about bands like Horse Lords. Not just because their sound is new & novel, but because there is a certain tension created by their music that is not as much about being 'in a groove'—as you could perhaps say about most music—but how close you can teeter to the edge of the groove without falling into it, in a spiraling juggernaut of canonical repetition. They seem to be ever on the verge of control/chaos, especially the guitar riffs, that seem to be always pulling away from the beat, from the thread, never letting you put your finger on it. But at the core is a strange attractor, a supermagnet that reels you in, that makes sure the noise doesn't deviate too far from the norm, what we're accustomed to. And while the music seems primitive—like what cavemen given electric guitars & drums might make—at the same time it seems highly evolved, evolved in an original unfaithful sense.

You need to differentiate, but at the same time you can't spiral into noise otherwise you snap people's attention span. The secret is to ride right on the edge, remain in the threshold. This is where constraints & door-jambs come in handy. Self-imposed restraint. Differential equations that break convention, that present novel ideas disguised as trash novels. Evolution happens in baby steps. One foot in the groove so you don't get spit out as unpalatable.

This edge, this fine line between deviation & coherency is something we are ever striving for in our own writing, though we perhaps error too much on the free-falling side of originality (at the expense of loss of attention). While most people might not 'get' The Becoming story-wise, we challenge anyone to find 5 consecutive words that appear in that order in any other existing piece of literature.

We don't try to be weird, we always set out wanting to tell a story, something accessible, but something, something almost alien, always intervenes. This alien is what compels us to deviate, that leads to strangement & alienation. Alien or not, it remains faithful (or ever unfaithful) at least to itself.

This compulsion towards originality, novelty, also manifests itself with our tongues not just in language but in taste. Food. Like Grenouille in the laboratory, every time we cook we feel compelled to create something entirely new, from scratch, that we've never tasted before. We never follow recipes. In Perfume, Suskind says something to the affect that recipes (in this case protocols for creating perfumes) are only useful after the fact for plagiarists & copycats. To re-create the original, which is not creating, not art.

Last night we dreamt we ate triple-cooked rice, sauteed, simmered & steeped in essence of itself. In some massive hole in the wall restaurant restaurant with only 1 table where the kitchen took up 97% of the space.

We're not big fans of Nirvana & think Kurt Cobain is a half-baked poser (all he did was appropriate music we listened to in the 80s & make it palatable to 90s frat boys) but his favorite book was Perfume. He even wrote a (terrible) song about it—'Scentless Apprentice'.

Cobain focuses mostly on Suskind's disdain for the rest of humanity. We see it more as alienation. Grenouille the extraterrestrial. Or the rest of us are an alien-nation. Either way. How do you commune with aliens while staying grounded?

For some reason Georges Bataille just popped into our head. We weren't thru talking about The Absence of Myth in this Punk Dada post. In an essay on René Char & poetry he says:

«If I want to raise myself and attain the heights, I tell myself that the opposite—degradation, debasement—is no longer without its charms. In truth this comes from my fear of limiting myself to a defined possibility—which does not only lead me away from another, equally narrow one—which separates me from the totality of being, or from the universe which I cannot renounce. But two fields of action open to my thought: the first is that of confined existence, distinct from the rest of the world, and whose well-understood interests are sordid; the second is that of a sovereign existence, where I stand, which is not in the service of any enterprise, not even of its own egoistic interest.»

We're not sure what this means & what the relevance is here, which is why we write it down. We are not interested in what we understand, but what we are on the verge of understanding or recognizing as familiar, or that which feels sublimely alien to us. We write this, 5cense, only for ourselves & for you, The Internet—so these thoughts exist in your cloud to perhaps one day seed new lightning & downpours.

Georges Bataille ID

And then in his 'Ode to Charles Fourier' essay (also from The Absence of Myth), Bataille says:

«We are endlessly devoted to this familiar world divided by set square and rail, where the object and the self are separated from each other, and in which if I do not want to burn my fingers I must set my face against the flame that warms me—coldly alien, as the wind is to the wall which it besieges—and we are so lost in its depths that we need to diminish what it is that eludes it (as being too trivial or too complicated). This is to no great effect, and this man who seized the world has managed only to place himself and his home halfway between equally deceptive and equally incongruous shapes, created by cosmology and microphysics (a barbarous jumble of images, schemes, indexes and notions). No less does he subordinate the infinitesimal or immense universe, by an artifice of thought, to the set-square mentality which commands reality.»

And while we have Bataille & Fourier on the brain ... & differentiation & limits & calculus, why not also throw some Leibniz in the mix, circling back to what Bryant says above:

«Issues of modality de re turn on identity questions. To say that a certain individual is only contingently a parent, but necessarily an animal, for example, is to say that there could have been a nonparent, but not a non-animal, that would have been the same individual as that one.»

Which is to say, does the original, master copy, even exist? Is there such thing as primitive thisness? Who is at the root of the evolutionary tree? And without language, does an object have an essence? All things we've been pondering & will continue to do so probably until the day we die.

For those of you who need to know what this is—this blogject, song, smell, recipe, etc.—we remind you that it is what it is. It's self-defining. It makes itself up as it goes along.

This week it is a creative extrapolation of Suskind's Perfume. The only thing that comes close to Perfume, in regards to a treatise on smell, is Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, which came out in English in 1984, a year before Perfume appeared, at least in English. The nose must've been on the brain in the mid-80s. We read Jitterbug Perfume around the time it came out but don't remember being aware of Suskind's book. Apparently we live in a cave. The first we heard about Perfume was perhaps Cobain touting it.

Robbins not only obsesses over smell in Jitterbug Perfume, but he also gets hung up on beets ... a love which we don't share. In fact, beets are one of our least favorite foods. At the top of our list is without a doubt peppers, chiles—anything in the capsicum family.

jitterbug perfume

The question is, which pepper is the top of this list? The habanero is definitely up there, not just on the heat index, but on the taste scale. But the habanero is perhaps more a spice since it is used so sparingly. There's the other category of chiles you mass consume like vegetables, and on top of this list, rivaled perhaps only by the poblano, is the Hatch Green Chile.

A few years ago we happened to be passing through Hatch during Chile season & picked up a couple of bushels we put on ice to lug back with us to NYC. But we've long since used up that supply & have had to resort to the canned variety for huevos rancheros & whatnot. So this season (which is evidently not a good one because of the drought) we decided to have 5 lbs of frozen ones shipped to us.

Hatch green chiles

We also got tired of our crappy little Cuisinart & went all out & got a Breville. We can't recommend it enough for anyone that spends a lot of time in the kitchen. In the past week we've made hummus (with jalapeño), babaganoush (with roasted poblanos) & of course green tomatillo salsa. And now that we got our shipment of Hatch green chiles in, the forces have converged to make green chile/turkey/pine nut enchiladas, while we concurrently write this. But we won't reveal our recipe as it's something you should unfaithfully discover for yourself. And while we may not offer you cocaine like other NYC publishers, invite yourself over anytime if you want to taste what these green chiles are about. Or consider getting a 5 or 8-piece Calamari chef's selection (domo arigatō to those of you last week who did).

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