Oh, I've lots of stuff today, including the difference between the Man of the Hour and the Man of the Week, and why the presence of Nipsy Russell was only part of the problem with the latter, but that's for tomorrow. It's a column night. And I have to rip up "Autumn Solitaire" and start from scratch. Other than that, the novel's going brilliantly. Anyway:

I have a problem with this WSJ article on expensive candles.

“Some consumers may not be up for splurging on a vacation or new car but many can rationalize the treat of a $65 candle.”

If you’re feeling skint - right on your uppers, as the great Scottish poet put it - the idea that you should compensate your inability to buy a car by spending $65 on a candle hints at the reason you can’t afford the candle in the first place.

The most I’ve ever spent on a candle was $20 or so, and it was the size of a good-sized coffee mug. It smelled like burning leaves, or at least tricked you into thinking it did; it was an autumn-themed candle called LEAVES, and you burned it, so, well, what else would it smell like? Make the suggestion and your brain fills in the rest.

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with people who rhapsodize over smell. We all like good smells. Of course. It’s when people get all animal about it that I step away. I suppose the philosophers have ranked the senses high to low in terms of their moral standing, or some such criteria; I’ll bet Sight and Hearing fight it out for the top spot, followed by Taste, Smell, and Touch. Sight and Hearing engage the rational brain as well as the emotional knee-jerk yee-haw pleasure centers; Taste has an element of rationality, as you develop preferences and ascribe certain chemical reactions to certain spices, cultures, memories, and so on. Smell is as basic as it gets. It’s nice to see it stand on two legs and make an intelligent argument for itself, but we all know that once you strip off the civilized clothes you’re left with wide nostrils drinking in musk or blood.

These are elemental reactions, and while there’s nothing wrong with having them, there’s no need to assume that their instinctive nature makes them more real or more genuine. Rationality is not artifice. It is the floor over the pit.

Anyway, the candles are expensive. Unless you won the Lottery! Did I? Checking ticket . . . nope. If I had, I would spend $65 dollars on a candle, if it had the right scent. Surely the ones in the article would hit the spot. After all, “‘Carmelite’ conjures up the ‘old, mossy stonewalls of church convents.’” What magic! A discriminating nose would say “that’s much better than the previous version, which reminded me of new mossy stonewalls, and had a hint of apostasy. This one really nails it.”

Then there’s “Baroque,” which blends “oudh and agar wood oils from Northern India.” Would you like to know what oudh smells like? That’s like saying “What does South Dakota smell like?” It’s British name for a region called Awadh. As for Agar Wood, this may be a misspelling: the region was also known as the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. “Agar” iis a gelatinous substance derived by boiling[1] a polysaccharide in red algae, where it accumulates in the cell walls of agarophyte and serves as the primary structural support for the algae's cell walls.” Or an actor.





Or a tree! The article notes that another company makes something called “Amber Oud,” and that “out is a rare wood that comes from the Agar tree.” This is in the same article. Didn’t the earlier description make a distinction between oudh and agar wood? Or is Oud different than Ouhd?”

Wikipedia to the rescue:

Agarwood, also known as oud, oodh or agar, is a dark resinous heartwood that forms in Aquilaria and Gyrinops[1] trees (large evergreens native to southeast Asia) when they become infected with a type of mold.

What I love about the description: Northern India. Like this means anything to Cher’s personal shopper who was sent down to pick up a box of candles. “Mold-infected lumber” wouldn’t sell as well, though.

Oh: another candle is also “Steeped in earthy notes of vetiver.” That’s a grass. It appears in 90% of western perfumes.

So what we have here is pretension; people can talk about vertivier or auhd as a substitute for, well, substance. Not saying it’s not useful to learn these terms, but usually they resort to analogues everyone understands. Leather, pepper, citrus, that sort of thing. The next step is describing the complex range of the smell - top note of sliced apple, smooth finish of freshly-whipped horse flank, that sort of thing. But once you get into the ingredient terminology of the industry, you open it up to all sorts of snobbery.

As long as it doesn’t smell like the “teen” shop in downtown Fargo in 1975, which was all hippie incense from India, which was like a Holy Place where they were Spiritual and stuff.

I’m being too curmudgeonly. For all I know I love agarwood and don’t know it and would be delighted to find out that the burning-leaves scent did indeed come from infected Northern India logs. But the more complex your knowledge, the more likely you are to wall off lesser experiences because they don’t rise to the level of your more exalted experiences. At the store today I actually had a conversation with the checker about why my mood was “grand,” but not “exalted” and I said that term might be reserved for the mood that followed a glass of red wine.

“Which one?” he said, naming off something I assumed to be a Trader Joe’s special, which was probably on sale. I said that it didn’t matter as long as it wasn’t too sweet; not a fan of the Kool-Aid varieties, but really, they’d do. Said my French brother-in-law always brought something from his cellar, something that had been resting for five years, and they’re always eye-opening selections. He prefers them to be really, really French. The earthy part I like. The lancing sensation of the tannins, less so. It’s good to know what’s good, but I’d hate to be spoiled by an excess of taste and the shackles one applies when you insist on the best.

I actually said “An insistence on the exceptional keeps you from enjoying the banalities that life has to offer,” as though I almost meant it. Really meant to say: if I’m too cheap for a $65 candle that lasts a few days, I’m really not going to spend $35 on a bottle of wine you have to share.

Hey, new Motels! Just four. Enjoy, and I'll see you around.












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