Perfume: Murder, Scent, and Society

In which a parasite exposes humanity

Perfume is Patrick Suskind’s 1985 novel set in eighteenth century France, mixing the recognisable and the fantastical into an interesting, if somewhat slow starting, story about the life of an unhinged genius perfumer. The following is not a review, not really concentrated enough to be an essay, and there’s no specific argument. It’s more a general collection of thoughts and themes that stood out to me while reading it, though I imagine that speaks more about me than it does Patrick Suskind. That said, the prevailing core here is moral polarisation and the interactions between the book’s somewhat black and white portrayal of virtue, and the absence thereof. While it’s not particularly subtle, the resulting narrative seems to reflect some ever-present inevitabilities of life, humanity, and wider society. This whole post deals almost exclusively with the last quarter of the book, so forewarning: Massive spoilers ahead. If you want to read the book, go do that before reading this.

Perfume, and all good scents, have an association with the wider notion of what is ‘good’. Off the top of my head, I’d judge that it’s probably linked to the biological responses ingrained in the subconscious that are triggered when encountering scents that we like. We have evolved to treat scent with a great amount of importance: It’s one of the first indicators as to what is dangerous and what is safe. Food may be perfectly safe and enjoyable. It may also cause illness if it’s been left for too long. One of the first identifiers of bad food is the scent. Sour milk is the obvious example. Therefore, a perfumer would, perhaps, be associated with the idea of moral ‘good’. We are likely to trust a good scent thus a creator of good scent inspires an idea of safety and what provides safety is linked with virtue.

Grenouille, protagonist and master perfumer, has no scent. This throws off the idea of him, as a perfumer, being a good person. One would expect, by that reasoning, that if a person has bad scent then they themselves are probably bad. Grenouille notes how almost all people smell bad. Of the world smelling bad. The opening paragraphs of the book beat the reader in the face with a sensory bombardment of spoiling and age and decay. Humans are described along the lines of of sour milk, sweat, and excrement. The obvious conclusion, backed up by a cast of almost entirely selfish and deceitful people, is that humans in themselves are evil. Given Grenouille’s lack of scent, is he then to be considered neutral?

The concept of scent is also linked to personal identity. There are only a couple of people in the book who smell good to Grenouille. They smell good to the point where he becomes infatuated with their scent. Not them, just their scent. We are to assume that they are good people. In a mire of fecund humanity, there just two people who embody the virtue that the rest merely preach. The church itself becomes representative of this lie; with row upon row of pews saturated with the residue of unwashed bodies, genital secretions, all obscured to the mass by a mixture of deliberately overwhelming incense and biological inferiority. What kind of God could be worth following if His own house is seemingly pure on the surface, but filthy beneath, questions our increasingly misanthropic protagonist.

So Grenouille’s lack of scent would seemingly place him outside the book’s scale of good and evil. That’s consistent with his place as a societal outsider, often deliberately so, the entire way through the book. There are a couple of things which, depending on how you read it and depending on your personal conceptions of morality, are perhaps going to push Grenouille into the territory of ‘evil’.

The major one goes back to the idea of the two ‘virtuous’ people he encounters. You would think that his goal would be to preserve, nurture, and otherwise seek to improve the rest of humanity through the good that he finds in these specific individuals. Instead, his response to this purity is to try and take it. To bottle it. The people are just vessel for scent to him: They are disposable. So he kills them. For the record: There’s got to be a better way of obtaining people’s scent than this, even if they are the virginal daughters of wealthy tycoons, in a society so repressed you’d need a kilogram stick of dynamite, in the shape of a vein wrapped phallus, to make them consider the prospect of acknowledging the pleasure of an orgasm.

Alternatively, you can ask whether the ends justify the means. Is the death of twenty five young women worth the production of, what is essentially, bottled love? Arguably, while its application remains morally problematic, in and of itself the perfume can more or less be viewed as a raw source of virtue, if we are to equate ‘love’ with ‘good’. It’s said to be a highly virtuous thing to be able to love the sinner. At the end of the book, everybody loves Grenouille – a sinner up there with the best of them. More or less everyone would agree that love is a good thing. So if the end result of an immoral action results in the creation of a physically manifest virtue, assumedly without fault, does that nullify the immoral means of producing it?

If the insanity plea won’t work, an orgy will do.

If the insanity plea won’t work, an orgy will do.

The flip side is that in his final act, Grenouille demonstrates the love is not, in its entirety, good. It has its darker places. You need only look at idolisation, infatuation, or obsession, and their resultant unhealthy behaviours, an extreme version of which Grenouille demonstrates, to understand that what is often held most high is not as pure as we might like it to be. Now some will argue that idolisation, infatuation, obsession, and so on, are not “true” love. Ok, but then what part of that gradient is? If we section out one singular part of the scale and decide that only the behaviours within that boundary can be defined as love, do we then write off all other relationships, even if they’re functional and sincere, as “untrue”?

Back to the concept of evil for a second. It’s noteworthy that when Grenouille is revealed to the crowd for the first time, they are stunned by his appearance – shocked that someone so nondescript could be capable of atrocity. They’re confused by the idea. It conflicts with social conventions. We like our monsters to look the part and to act the part. That is: Larger than life. Appearance equal to action, Picture of Dorian Gray style. The drama of the throne-o-bones is comfortable. We know where we are with a broken drainpipe laugh. It is disconcerting to imagine that you could shake hands with a person who has spent last night beating in the skull of a teenage girl with a heavy length of wood. It’s disconcerting to think you could look in the mirror and find the same person.

You probably think of yourself as a decent person. You probably wouldn’t accept the idea that you are capable of murder. It’s probable that many of the people who have ever killed someone, have thought the same thing. When the monster looks like you it’s difficult to ignore the idea that, in the right circumstances, you could be one and the same. None of us like to think of ourselves as insincere, and not that we have to be concealing anything quite so extreme, but there’s a reason for the carnival of masks that make up much of societal functionality. Of necessity we wear the mask of civilisation and we play our roles every day. It all gets tangled when you start to unpack it. Quite honestly I’m not necessarily equipped to do so anyway, but I’ve started with the unoriginal social commentary, so I may as well continue with the ill-conceived armchair philosophy.

For the sake of ease, and to avoid an essay length tangent, we’ll just consider the archetypal French person of the period. The widespread archetypal image of this 18th century Frenchman is bourgeois or aristocratic. It brings to mind a society that is God-fearing and hierarchical. It is obsessed with the ideas of civilisation, holding the upper class male as the pinnacle of the natural form (not evolution – Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species wouldn’t be around until the mid 19th Century). Order is key and popular conceptions of the workings of the world aren’t all that far removed from later Victorian era England. There are certainly historically educated people who could provide a far more accurate, and probably different, representation of the reality, but where this is concerned I will stick with pop-culture perceptions for the sake of this particular set of musings.

Through these perfumes, Suskind exposes humans for the animals that they essentially are. Not just the final messiah odour; the earlier ‘au de humanity’ scents gives weight to the idea just as well. Ignorant of their stimuli, the people Grenouille meets after his experiments around the Taillade-Espinasse fluid theory part of the novel, are manipulated and guided by his scents. He realises that they have ignored his presence or been perturbed by him, because he has no scent of his own. As soon as he has something resembling a natural smell they are far more receptive towards him. What does that remind you of? Do you have a dog? Does it meet another and immediately stick its nose into the arsehole of the new dog? Does it sniff madly at you? Does an un-neutered tomcat spray highly pungent piss all around the place to mark its territory? Have you ever been told not to touch a baby hamster lest the mother devour it because she no longer recognises the scent, and have you not heard of other actions within this spectrum of odour based behaviours performed by countless other creatures?

The final quarter of the book is where the narrative picks up, having moved fairly slowly up until that point. By that point we’re aware of Grenouille’s thoroughly disturbing character and patterns, yet outside of one specific instance they remain confined to his thoughts and his work. When he decides to finally start moving on his plans it all gets very grim very fast. The narrative switches focus at this point. It almost becomes a procedural detective drama. We’re introduced to Antoine Richis, richest man in Grasse and father of Laure Richis, the one-woman pheromonic blitzkrieg. Richis is a social ideal. He is rich, he is ambitious, he clearly has a keen mind as demonstrated in the way he sets out his plans to keep his daughter safe and advance his social power at the same time. He has also helped to produce the most attractive young woman in France, who turns heads everywhere she looks, but remains always demure and virginal (naturally), and so on and so forth. You know the drill. The implication is that Antoine is of superior breeding stock, it’s just in his blood. He’s the top of social pile and not by coincidence. He’s easily twice the man that Grenouille is. Grenouille, by comparison, is living in a shack, working as an apprentice, club footed and utterly nondescript in appearance. So we have our archetypal hero in Antoine.

Richis pulls a classic misdirection ploy to send the unknown killer to the wrong place and catch them. He is, unfortunately against Grenouille’s nose, which can apparently sniff out a pothole and save the protagonist from falling on his face while he walks along a country road with his eyes closed. So Grenouille has no trouble with Antoine’s ruse. Having successfully killed 24 other people over the course of a summer, our murderous perfumer has no problem slipping by Richis, murdering Laure, and finally claiming her scent. Several paragraphs ago I mentioned that we like our murderers to appear as sinister as their actions, and Suskind highlights this with Richis. Despite standing directly in front of Grenouille, Richis pay him no mind due to his perceived lack of threat based on nothing more than Grenouille’s appearance and a specifically scent. So much for the earlier demonstration of brains.

Grenouille is caught and captured anyway, and the book looks to be heading towards a pyrrhic victory ending. However, Suskind robs the reader of any sense of catharsis. The book goes through the expected motions: Imprisonment, punishment, and the lead up to an execution. It all goes along relatively smoothly and so you start to expect a twist. Only it doesn’t come. Grenouille, throughout the book, is impassive towards life. He clings to it for the sheer sake of clinging to it, but he doesn’t feel particularly attached to it. Added to this, he seems to accept the possibility of death before he even kills Laure. The narrator refers to this ascent towards his moment of crowning achievement as his ‘final drop’. So, to this effect, he is unmoved by all punishment thrown his way. He does not respond to his imprisonment, his visitors, or public display. Even torture is ineffective. The fact that this general disinterest in his own life, aside from the acquisition of perfect people-scent, is present from the beginning, means that his lack of response doesn’t inspire persistent suspicion in the reader, as it otherwise would. Instead, it’s merely a consistent character trait . Therefore, it’s easier to accept the idea that he will, in the end, simply go to his death, having achieved everything that he intended to achieve in life.

If the reader is chasing the righteousness of justice, the satisfaction of putting the world to rights, or just the grim pleasures of revenge, they are going to leave unfulfilled. In order to get anything out of these desires, the opponent has to resist and they have to break. If they resist and they don’t break, it’s frustrating. If they don’t resist then it’s disappointing. Worse, it makes the victory hollow. For lack of any better options we head for the final execution. At least we can get it out of the way and get some closure to the whole uncomfortable mess.

Suskind plays the event up. Even with Grenouille’s dispassionate approach to his own death, we are given more than enough of the eagerness of the townsfolk to compensate. Their moment of closure becomes our own. Then, at the very moment of Grenouille’s execution, Suskind pulls the rug out from underneath us, in fantastic fashion when Grenouille abruptly subjugates thousands of people. Wait, what? What kind of deus ex machina is this? Did he pull a magick wand out of his arsehole and cast a spell? Well… not quite. But close enough. Perhaps it’s just because of how I instinctively read the scene, but I have the notion that I’d be far less forgiving of another book, especially if it didn’t have the setup that Perfume did. Grenouille’s master scent, harvested and distilled from the corpse of Laure Richis, makes him a god to everybody around him. They all love him. They forgive his murders, they don’t find him so ordinary anymore, quite the opposite.

In the modern world we tend to draw quite a clear distinction between lust and love. One is a lot of blood flowing around your erogenous zones, the other is a higher spiritual connection that ends in a lot of arguments and shared bills. Suskind’s interpretation of love has no such romance. The thousands of people gathered to see Grenouille’s execution fall in love with him in one fashion or another. It’s interesting to note that they live him based on their own projection and what they would prefer to see, not on what is actually there.For the majority that seems to begin and end with rabid lust, for others it takes on paternal or religious tones. Based on the descriptions of them fumbling for their discarded clothing and avoiding eye contact the following morning, however, it’s safe to conclude that it all ends in the same place. If I’m extrapolating correctly, they’re exposed to a highly concentrated dose of pheromones. The effect is described as the otherwise hateful protagonist having “touched their erotic core,” and they descend into a frenzied mass orgy. They lay hands on whatever flesh they can take hold of in the moment and go at it. Let’s be frank for a second: It’s pushed to absurd extremes, so my uneducated babbling about pheromones here is a little rich. Humour me.

This whole scene exposes the lie of the elevated human. With all the rigid notions of justice, all the iron clad ideals of moral classification, all the inflexible hierarchies of class, the chaste, the prostitutes, clergy, officials, nobles, and peasants, the parents and family of the murdered girls; all are dragged onto one flat line. All the nebulous boundaries that are upheld as real, disintegrate and everyone regardless of status, position, expectations or obligations, is reduced to acting on their basest instinct: To fuck.

The final section as a whole takes a couple of sacred cows and slaughters them. Human dignity is gone, along with the implications of control and order that it entails. There’s a repulsive lack of pride and self awareness made worse for the fact that it is forced upon them. Loss of control in and of itself is not a bad thing, but from a social standpoint it is only acceptable in very specific, almost exclusively private, circumstances. There’s the notion of justice that takes a willing tumble through the mud. Thousands of people wanted to watch Grenouille die. Depending on your personal persuasion you agree with them or you don’t, but regardless it’s hoped that there is some form of fitting repayment extracted from the guilty, for crimes of that magnitude. Not only does he evade that, he takes all of their hatred and twists it until they revere him as a god. It’s not that he escapes that rubs the wrong way, but the way in which the natural response is twisted until the entire scenario more or less resembles the polar opposite of what it should be.

Suskind even robs the reader of a desire for petty revenge. Grenouille can just walk off into the sunset unopposed, nobody can oppose him. He theorises that he can walk into the court of the French King and turn him into a fawning devotee without effort. As it is, we get the domination of Laure’s father, Antoine, who throws himself, sobbing at the protagonist and begs for forgiveness. Forgiveness? For what? Antoine puts him to bed, gives him new clothing, and then, pitifully, begs Grenouille to become his son. “Will you? Will you? Will you have me for a father? – Don’t say anything! Don’t speak! You are still too weak to talk. Just nod.” There’s something profoundly uncomfortable in how unnatural the response is, made worse by how earnest it is. It’s like the people affected by the perfume become innocent again, with all the naivety and vulnerability that entails. He’s forgotten his daughter. Grenouille is lying in her bed. As a final mockery, even Grenouille’s death is his own choosing. He makes the time, he chooses the place. Nobody else is involved. Like I said: There is no catharsis here. It’s beautiful.

We’d like to think of ourselves as William Ernest Henley’s famous poem Invictus. It’s very reassuring. Comforting. It tells us we are strong, we do not break, we are in control. Hooah. In all likelihood, we are not. We have little to no control over the complexities and chaos of the world around us. Grenouille actually manages to resemble this Invictus ideal to a far greater extent than the average person – he really does prove himself to be the master of his fate. His motives, however, have nothing to do with the grandstanding and idealism reflected in the poem.

The book plays with moral and ethical status quos. The master scent removes social inhibitions resulting in the spontaneous feelings of love. If the people affected by it have no control over it, do we still consider it ‘good’? Generally speaking, who we love is not a choice in the first place, but we still need to retain self control regardless of its occurrence. Love becomes ethically questionable if the variable for bond forming is removed. We don’t, after all, consider Stockholm syndrome to be healthy. So, while Grenouille has, in some respect, actually done something to benefit people – inspiring love – the potential for ethical positivity is neutered by the lack of choice in the matter.

Cannibalism is generally considered to be an atrocious act. While it has been accepted by various peoples at varying points in history, it’s generally a taboo across multiple cultures and populations the world over. Yet it is not such a terrible thing in this book. It’s difficult to revile the cannibals for their actions for two reasons: The first is simply that they have removed a problem from the world, thus making it better. Secondly, under the influence of the perfume they had no choice or conception of their own actions. For an action, horrific as it may be, to retain ethical weight the actor must be conscious and in control of their actions. Furthermore, if the action is inspired by love and we still take love on its social idealised form, is it possible that horrific actions can be made virtuous? I think that question is better framed by stories like The Phantom of the Opera. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and motive changes the ethical weight of things substantially. They don’t have any control over their actions, they’ve removed a source of negativity from the world, and they have done so for love. Theoretically these three things, if all are either by proxy good, or at least lacking ethical weight, should create a new positive. So can cannibalism be made virtuous if you have the right combination of factors in play? Probably.

Like I said, God knows if Patrick Suskind actually intended any of this subtext to make it into the novel. Probably not, but that’s the death of the author in a nutshell, isn’t it? I’ve always loved the fact that the same text can be interpreted in multiple ways by different people. Still, the implications bear thinking about. Regardless of the book’s deliberate exaggeration, it’s worth considering our susceptibility to things beyond our control, or how biology impacts us in ways that conflict with our social expectations. Whether we proceed with our desires or not, it’s worth accepting them for what they are. You can control the outcome. You can’t control the origins. Either way, denial is ultimately destructive.

Enough of this pseudo-intelligent quasi-ruminatory babble. The podcast is on its way.


One comment

  1. Such a good book, and one of the best translated works. Like you said, I think his lack of scent allows him to be a vehicle outside the orders of society and the whole book can be an exploration of anarchy, in all its beauty and horror, if the world were to be approached without the invisible boundaries constructed by man. A return to the animal within.

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