Hands up everyone who got perfume for Christmas

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The Independent Culture
NEW YEAR'S resolution number one: shut up. Not you; me. And I don't mean this stuff. This stuff is all right; I mean it'll do, there's a purpose to it, it's for something: it takes your mind off your troubles for a few minutes and puts food on my table. Words into bread: the miracle of printing.

No; what I mean is the drivel, the endless self-narratising that goes on even when you want it to stop. Especially when you want it to stop. It reached its nadir 10 minutes ago, when I was sitting on the lavatory, reading a book. "Here I am," I thought to myself, "sitting on the lavatory, reading a book." An unattractive picture in more ways than one, but we must not shy away from unpleasantness in our quest for truth, wouldn't you agree? (Here I am, writing my column, questing for truth.)

No. It must stop. But to stop something successfully, we must ask ourselves why it started. The alternative is to behave like a politician and rush into a little flap, waving our arms and shouting "Stop it! Stop it at once!" for all the world like Joyce Grenfell in one of her schoolmarm monologues. (Here I am, remembering Joyce Grenfell in one of her schoolmarm monologues.)

They won't stop it, of course, and why should they? They started it in the first place because they had a good reason to, and unless you fix the reason, their best interests are served by just carrying on. So why this drivel? Why do I tell myself endlessly what I am doing when the truth is that I know perfectly well what I'm doing, or I wouldn't be doing it? (Here I am, doing it.)

The answer, as always, lies elsewhere. I spent a day just before Christmas learning more about the perfumery, up at Guerlain. My other New Year's Resolution is to give all this up and go and train as a perfumer, except that it's too late for that now, so I suppose my real other New Year's Resolution is to stop all this too-late-for-that-now nonsense.

But listen: hands up everyone who got perfume for Christmas. I thought so. Now hands up everyone who actually liked the perfume they got for Christmas. I thought that, too. (There I was, thinking that, too.) And do you know why you didn't like the perfume you got for Christmas? You didn't like it because it was nothing to do with you at all. It wasn't even to do with what the person who gave it to you thinks about you. It was simply a question of which of the carefully crafted marketing images the person who gave it you would like you to adopt; unless, of course, you were given CKOne, in which case the person who gave it to you is that paradoxical nonentity, a sexless prick.

We are drowned in marketing. Highly paid manipulators sit in plush offices, designing images to seduce us into doing what they want, and we respond by buying a thin duplicate of the reflection of a hologram of a phantasm. Almost nothing we do is honestly our own, and there is no escape. Even if you are frightfully post-modern and ironical and buy your things unlabelled in Muji, you have bought, not just things, but a carefully marketed image for yourself: the marketing image of a frightfully post-modern and ironical person who is not fooled by carefully marketed images. We live on the brink of a complete loss of self-definition. Even the man who buys his clothes bespoke from Savile Row so as not to be one of the crowd will walk along thinking, "Here I am in my Savile Row suit."

But perfumes - the perfume you were given two days ago and which you don't like - are both the quintessence of this process and the key to its overthrow. Go into the perfume section of a department store and you are assailed by marketing: the images, the saleswomen, the opulent packaging, the cacophony of turbulent odours, of aromatics and woods and spices, of coumarin and orris, veltol and damascenone, indole, hedione, linalol and benzyl acetate; the language itself, describing things that do not exist, things that are deceptions, things that do not please in themselves, but only in what they represent to our poor little selves, struggling frantically for expression. Sixty per cent of the decision to buy a perfume has been made before you first smell the stuff, and by then, it's too late.

But now smell blind, as I was allowed to do the other day. Nothing you believe you knew is true. One woman on the Guerlain course fell into a double trap: she found herself denouncing, with little cries of dismay, a perfume she had always believed to be her favourite; and then fell into raptures of sensual delight over a perfume she had always resented, her boyfriend giving it to her each Christmas because it was what his mother used to wear. Freed from intricate preconceptions, her precognitive cerebellum could respond to the architecture of the odours themselves; the sleek men with their glossy photographs and their adjectives were suddenly reduced to their proper insignificance.

Perhaps my endless drivelling narrative is nothing less than a survival mechanism, an endless attempt at self-definition, a perpetually evolving apologia pro vita mea. Marketing, after all, does not start as we become old enough to consume, but begins in the cradle; thereafter we are shown innumerable coercive models to adopt: table manners, standing up straight, washing, don't poke your sister in the eye, the dog will bite if you do that, nice little boys don't ask that sort of question, there are starving people who'd be glad of it, you don't want to grow up like the common boys on the estate. And what is the narrative but a vain rejection of all this, a defiant reassertion of ourselves, a valiant attempt at a blind-smelling of life itself? Here I am, attempting a blind-smelling of life itself ... but the important phrase in that is "Here I am."

Here I am, thinking the important phrase is "Here I am," and it's going to stop on Thursday, at midnight. (Here I am, thinking it's going to stop on Thursday at midnight. Mmm ... smells good.) !