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notes on nihilism

Written By The Modernist 17 May 2019

Is a rose just a rose?

notes on nihilism
Part of me is wary where something "creative" is concerned, to go from the act of making something to an analysis of that process. But, I was in the mood to be more introspective than circumspect, so why not? And, nihilism is somewhat topical.


Memory is invariably cited as an origin for a fragrance; the way our olfactory sense interacts with our other senses, the environment, brain, mind and psyche. A starting point. And that's all it really is for me. Just a place to start. What interests me far more than memories are the roots that sprout beneath and earth themselves in the unconscious. And the opposite of that - the role played by the unconscious in our memories.

I absolutely like to start with a memory but treat it with care, conscious there’s more going on than appears on the surface. Why else would it have the power to stay with you - and lead some of us to sit with bottles of essential oils, pipettes, notepads and scales?

When I start working on a new fragrance, the bridge between memory and unconscious is a single smell. This origin note tends to be overdosed and the fragrance constructed around it. For the modernist, it was frankincense; for geist, honeysuckle and for nihilism, rose (MFL4 is sandalwood). I research it in the context of perfumery and in the world beyond. I dig into its history, seeing where it crops up. I get different variants, smell it, diffuse it, smell it in other perfumes, commit it to memory and spend far too many hours thinking about it and the triggers it sets off.

For nihilism, why rose? - it’s a smell I don’t particularly like. It reminds me of sulphur, but the smell of the devil is not necessarily a bad thing. It was my father’s favourite flower and as a kid I was trooped around various nurseries looking for particular roses - aesthetics being as important as fragrance. Then there were the cemetery trips with my mum and nan, a different kind of trooping about the family graves, before most of the flowers became artificial. The sweet smell of decay, that big steel cage where all the dying blooms were mouldering to compost. I suppose the “brief” was not especially corporate.

I like to unpack and pack my collection of oils every time, as laborious as that is. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed I compose relatively short formulations from a “classical palate”. I love wild and wacky new molecules as much as anyone, but I always find myself back in the fundamentals, exploring what they can say.

Then it gets quite instinctive and a kind of olfactory free association. I pull bottles and blotters as quickly as my neuropathic hands will allow and start to formulate accords and layers. These file away in the psyche and the pondering starts again. Rinse. Repeat. With nihilism, I knew I wanted something rose and animalic with a sweetness to it - and to have a verdant touch that wasn't too green but kept me firmly in the nursery and the cemetery.

End to end, from initial thought to finished product, was nearly 3 years with a lot of learning along the way.

And, after all that, I really like the way it smells.

As Freud never said, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".