A periodic table of perfumes

My scent museum would even boast its own periodic table, listing all the perfumes in my life, beginning, of course, with the first, the simplest, the lightest — lavender, the hydrogen of all fragrances — followed by the second, the third, the fourth, each standing next to the other like milestones in my life, as though there were indeed a method to the passage of time. In the place of helium (He, atomic number 2) I’d have Hermes, and in the place of lithium (Li, 3) Liberty; Bernini would replace beryllium (Be, 4), Borsari boron (B,5), Carven carbon (C, 6), Night nitrogen (N, 7), Onyx oxygen (O, 8), and Floris fluorine (F, 9). And before I know it my entire life could be charted by these elements alone: Arden instead of argon (Ar, 18), Knize instead of pottasium (K, 19), Canoe for calcium (Ca, 20), Guerlain for germanium (Ge, 32), Yves Saint Laurent for yttrium (Y, 39), Patou for platinum (Pt, 78), and, of course, Old Spice for osmium (Os, 76).

As in Mendeleyev’s periodic table, one could sort these scents in rows and categories: by herbs; flowers; fruits; spices; woods. Or by places. By people. By loves. By the hotels where this or that soap managed to cast an unforgettable scent over this or that great city. By the films or foods or clothes or concert we’ve loved. By perfumes women wore…

And here lay Mendeleyev’s genius. He understood that, though he could plot every element, many elements hadn’t been discovered yet. So he left blank spaces on his table — for missing elements, for elements to come — as though life’s events were cast in so orderly and idealized a numerical design that, even if we ignored when they’d occur or what effect they might have, we could still await them, still make room for them before their time. Thus, I too look at my life and state at its blind spots: scents I have never discovered; bottles I haven’t stumbled on and don’t know exist; selves I haven’t been but can’t claim to miss; packets in time I should have lived through but never did; people I could have met but missed out on; places I might have visited, gotten to love and ultimately lived in, but never traveled to. They are the blank tiles, the “rare earth” moments, the roads never taken.

From Andre Aciman‘s Lavender in The best American essays 2003, Edited by Anne Fadiman. These are the most sensuous three paragraphs I have read on the subject of the periodic table and elements since Oliver Sack’s first few paragraphs in Chapter 1 of Uncle Tungsten.

One Response to “A periodic table of perfumes”

  1. The periodic table of Primo Levi « Entertaining Research Says:

    […] is one of the most intimate ones on the topic of elements that I have read in a long while — the other such accounts I have read being Uncle Tungsten of Oliver Sacks and an essay titled Lavende…. In any case, as the following paragraphs reveal, declaring zinc boring does not stop Levi from […]

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