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Lost & Found: Elissa Schappell on Mandy Aftel
Whence this fragrance wafting through the air? Why, from this week’s Lost & Found from the vault. Today, we’ve followed our noses to Elissa Schappell’s take on Essence and Alchemy by Mandy Aftel. For an even stronger hit of Elissa’s ambrosial prose, check out her new book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls. We confess we may be partial around these parts, but the word on the street is that it’s pretty damn good.
And in the beginning there was smell, our most primal sense, that which draws the infant to the breast, the lover to her quarry in the dark. Scent is our most profound trigger of emotion and memory, and yet an author who yearns to enrich her writing with olfactory details is at a loss. One can cast back to Proust, who found his muse in the madeleine, or Dickens, who wallowed in the stench of London’s alleyways, or Shakespeare, who waxed romantic at the smell of a rose, but where is the contemporary writer at whose knee one can learn after thoroughly exhausting Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume? Where can she find the language, the courage to describe the smell of a new Apple computer still in the box, the aroma of an unwashed tween with a spray tan cruising the mall?
Look no further than the pages of Mandy Aftel’s enchanting book, Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume, which waspublished in 2001.At turns charming and erotic, scientific and scholarly, Aftel’s illustrated compendium delves into the history, science, and mystery of scent, while guiding those aspirants eager to learn the ancient and esoteric art of perfumery. A more passionate or learned mentor would be hard to find, for Aftel, founder of Aftelier Perfumes, is, in the age-old tradition of perfumers before her, a true seeker, on a quest to extract the “quinta essentia, the spark of divinity at the heart of living things.”
In Essence and Alchemy this quest leads readers deep into the past, to the ritual anointing of the dead by the Egyptians, the aromatizing of the Roman baths, and the followers of Mohammad, who imbued the mortar they used to erect their mosques with a musk that, with the sun’s heat, infused their worship with scent.
Unlike the majority of modern perfumers, Aftel, a pioneer in the natural perfume world, preaches the use of traditional methods–beakers and Bunsen burners–and purely natural elements. While synthetic perfumes are capable of mimicking the essence of a scent, they are incapable of reproducing the spirit, soulfulness, and energy that exists only in a living thing’s natural state, in the way that one can copy Anna Pavlova’s arabesques or imitate the distinctive style of pianist Glenn Gould, but never possess the magic. A night-blooming Jasmine born on the vine hardly resembles that born in a test-tube.
The body can’t be fooled. Even while beauty conglomerates market pheromone-laced cologne engineered to spark desire, it is, Aftel, (the mistress of aphrodisiacs) confides, the rank odor of animal musk and sweat that really gets our rocks off.
It is the same with books on scent. While others exist, it’s a tragedy that this enchanting little tome–which garnered bouquets of praise when published nearly a decade ago–has, sadly, faded away. It is nearly as rare, it seems, as ambergris.
Essence and Alchemy is in a class of its own because Aftel is not simply a perfume aficionado or a “Nose” trained to discern the subtle complexities of fragrance (laying waste to the adage a rose is a rose is a rose), but one blessed with the gift. In the way that a composer who hears a symphony is able to mentally transcribe the notes, or an artist to draw out the soul of a landscape with a piece of charcoal, Aftel not only distills the ineffable, the beauty and voluptuousness of a budding English rose, but intoxicates us with heady descriptions of its procurement.
If that’s not enough, Aftel also assumes the role of teacher.
Aftel’s vision of scent is as a mode of artistic expression drawing on a palette of scents, an orchestration of olfactory chords, capable of capturing place and time in memory and transforming consciousness in unexpected ways. In the spirit of passing along her craft, Aftel leads the apprentice alchemist step-by-step through the composition of his or her own unique eau de moi.
Essence and Alchemy will inspire you to stop and, yes, smell the roses. It will open a window into your imagination and, whether you are inventing a world in a beaker or on the page, let in the scent of something exotic and divine.
Elissa Schappell is a co-founder and editor at large of Tin House, as well as the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. She is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.