Mandy Aftel makes, what I think are, beautiful perfumes, which have always struck me as being deeply personal. I love the way Mandy articulates her thoughts about her aesthetic, her creative process and so when I wanted to start a conversation on beauty, I had to ask Mandy to participate.
Unlike in the case of the other participants, I received Mandy’s responses by way of a phone interview. Mandy had been tirelessly working on a book, a sequel to Essence and Alchemy (which incidentally has a section on aesthetics and beauty) and so understandably preferred to talk about her thoughts about beauty rather than write them. The conversation was wonderful and took many tangential turns. Among other things, I discovered that both Mandy and I count Middlemarch as our favorite book, that we both love Rolling Stones, and think Bob Dylan is beautiful. Below I try to capture some of the charm of Mandy’s answers including the many tangents, as well her passion for the beauty of the materials she works with.
1) What do you mean when you call something beautiful? Do you have different definitions when you talk of different things like faces, art, landscape? Or is everything you find beautiful characterized by something similar?
Beauty is this aesthetic wave that takes over. It is not rational. For something to be beautiful- it is the ‘whole’ of it. It isn’t reducible to parts. You can’t take those parts apart and put something together that’s beautiful. It is something that has a holistic nature, that kind of enters you, that goes past logic and you have an experience with it..this experience of beauty. And you look at it and say you know, ‘this is beautiful’, but the experience, I think, precedes any language.
I see beauty as also a kind of vacation from life in a way. I feel like it is a place that you can go to. It is special. It’s like an ideal place. It is restorative and it makes you feel good. And the reason that I am so attracted to it is that being around beauty is like being in a perfect space. I feel like it has no functional purpose except that it reminds you of a blissful, aesthetic, joyful thing. Oh God, I sound like a lunatic.
[At which point, I assured her that she did not and that I understood the charm of beauty as being unnecessary, and that it becomes necessary because it is this useless thing;]
And perfume is like that too and that is why I love perfume. And beauty and perfume are absolutely connected. Beauty takes you out of ordinary time. And when you experience beauty, you are connected in someway to everything that’s ever been beautiful. And there is an excitement and a kind of recognition of it. It gives you something back that’s special. And it is also available to any one, whether you are poor or rich or sick. It is out there for anybody to experience.
Is there a pattern in the kinds of things you find beautiful?
Yes- I am kind of drawn to complexity. There has to be a feeling of layers-the things that I find beautiful. It is easier for me to see a pattern in the things that I don’t find beautiful than in the things that I do. I don’t find things that most people find beautiful, beautiful. But it is very idiosyncratic, I don’t know what the thread is.
When I’m making a perfume, I’m thinking of beauty. But I can never take it apart and figure out, ‘what happened’. I just kind of know when it is right.
And as a perfumer, I work with essences. I find the essences that I work with so beautiful on their own. And then putting them together- it is such a thrill for me. And it is hard to top that. I find all kinds of things that that smell foul to people, beautiful, because they are interesting to me. And I work with naturals only because they interest me. I don’t have a drum to beat about naturals. I find the texture of them, the shape of them, the layers of them, just the way they exist, to be extremely beautiful. I really like that about them. Not just their smells, but like as if they were sculpture. I like to work with that- but I am in the minority.
So does this pattern, this criterion of complexity, does it extend across mediums: art, landscape, faces
Faces are different for me. I think I’m face blind. I think my whole view of beauty about people is pretty off. In real life, I don’t think I recognize people’s faces and I live in fear about that. I don’t think I see people’s physical beauty as well as say, other people, nor am I critical about it. None of that goes on for me. My feelings about people and their looks is completely colored by how I feel about them. And that I see very quickly. And if I stop liking somebody they start to look awful, like they physically change. And the more I like someone they get better and better looking.
[At this point there was a lot of agreeing and ‘Exactlys’, uttered by me]
So unlike in the case of other things that I have around the house, I don’t have a very involved or strong view about beauty when it comes to faces. When it comes to faces, I am useless.
2) Is there something that you find beautiful that is an exception to the above definition or which lacks the above characteristic/s (i.e. complexity in your case)?
Yes there is- but then it has to have a depth. Things are imbued with meaning for me. I have so many one-of-a kind things in my house, in my life. Things have a meaning for me. And I pick very carefully, I am not a big shopper. I don’t really like to have a lot of stuff. So many things I have are either antiques, or one-of-a kind or somebody made them. Or they have a very special aspect to them. Some of this goes back to when, (before I was all the different things that I have become ) I was a weaver. This was before I was a writer, long before I was a perfumer, or a psychologist. And I really loved ethnic textiles. And I loved searching among them for the one that was slightly different. I enjoyed the mark of someone’s hand on what they made.
3) Do you make a distinction between aesthetically pleasing (or appealing to the senses) and beautiful? Can you call something one without it being the other? Is something that is aesthetically pleasing to you also defined by the characteristics described above?
I don’t think about pleasing to the senses as much. I mean, pleasing is nice, but it is relative. But beauty is something that I have this experience with. It is my own personal thing. In fact when I make something and people write about it and find it beautiful, I am always like thrilled (and a tiny bit surprised) and thrilled because it’s such a relief. I feel like I’m on this small island making these things. And when somebody finds it beautiful, or somebody purchases a perfume, I feel a real connection to them. It is like this shared experience of beauty. It’s like they’ve been inside my head because the stuff I do are a very pure expression of me, my aesthetics and my values. And when somebody loves something I’ve made I am very very moved because I feel like a piece of me is in the stuff I make.
So are there things that are pleasing to you that you like but that you wouldn’t be able to call beautiful. And what takes something from just pleasing to beautiful
Yes, I think there are. There are definitely things that are pleasing to me for all sorts of reasons. Or an aspect of them is pleasing to me but they are not a falling in love kind of experience. Whereas something beautiful has got that falling in love thing for me.
For example, I buy a lot of oils. A frightening amount of my income is in oils. I search, I source and I get a lot of version of things. And I enjoy comparing them and picking the one I think is the most beautiful. For example, I have this line of chefs essences, the food stuff that I do. And I had cinnamon, really good cinnamon. And when I was shopping for something else, I noticed that there was a different cinnamon somewhere. It was a CO2 extraction of cinnamon and I had an essential oil. And I had, I mean a lot. I had bought it, I was using it and it was really good. But I just thought, you know, I wonder what this is like, you know I am going to try this. And I liked it better. I just felt the beauty of cinnamon (in it?). So I got the new one and got rid of 1 kilo of the old one. I did that with my basil recently. [And because I am tiny, I can do that.]
I enjoy the hunt and looking for something that is especially beautiful. And when I find it it is meaningful to me. Like I remember the whole experience. So I enjoy that process a lot and I enjoy the relationship I then have with things. Beautiful things should be meaningful to you and enrich your life. And they do for me. And you should have less but be more attached to it. And I enjoy the experience of getting it, but not just getting it, but after getting it, valuing it. And I think one of the important aspects of beauty is to really treasure it. Because it is fleeting. Things go away.
There is a beautiful concept in Japanese Aesthetics called mono no aware. It is about things aging, disappearing, going away.
[Mandy reads a passage explaining this concept from ‘Elements of japanese design’ by Boyé Lafayette De Mente]
“Seeking solace in sadness. One of the most conspicuous facets of the design and graceful living in early Japan was appreciation for the ephemeral nature of human existence….”
“In Japanese aesthetics mono no aware refers to the transient emotional elements of a work of art, as opposed to the ideal or objective elements. In effect, it means giving oneself up to tender, sorrowful contemplation of a thing or a scene that is the opposite of sunny, happy, and bright. For example,(…) the feeling evoked by the sight of falling cherry blossoms is mono no aware”
4) Do you have physical reactions to beauty? (e.g. eyes opening wide, tears etc)
I think I kind of swoon inside. I feel well, I feel good. A feeling of astonishment and happiness inside.
5) Could you list examples of ‘things’ you find beautiful under the following categories
My favorite perfume of mine is Sepia. I worked very hard on that and it was very meaningful to me about aging. About the whole idea of sadness in beauty. It was all about a feeling. I felt like I was putting that feeling into a bottle and sending it to people.
I find so many smells beautiful. I love so many smells. I love the beautiful florals, but I love the ones that are skanky, I love the animal ingredients. I love deep woods, oud. I would say I really see the beauty in almost all the essences unless they are poorly done.
d) Male Face
I think the people I admire are gorgeous.
1) Bob Dylan, 2) Oscar Wilde
e) Female Face
It’s always writers for me.
1) Virginia Wolf, 2) George Eliot
f) Music from your own country
Bob Dylan- Brownsville Girl (I based Sepia on Brownsville girl). I love the songs from his Christian period, with back-up singers. I love his spiritual songs (which are unpopular), the songs about his love life.
g) Music from a foreign country
I like rock and roll. I am a die hard rock and roll person.
I love the landscape of Northern California. I like the farms. I like the Gold Country, the rickety towns where the gold rush took place. I also love Berkeley- I love how Berkeley looks. I find Berkeley incredibly beautiful.
I like it where you can see the life underneath the life that is. Where there are still remnants of that and where you can see that and it is aged. I like that about Berkeley too- there are a lot of old homes here. In Berkeley there are a lot of gardens in the front. So as you go down the street you see people’s gardens. And you see where they used to have, say, a driveway, that’s all ‘growed up’ over it. I like to see the life that was there before the life now.
6) * Is there a piece of art (or ‘thing’ or face) that you find particularly beautiful even though you are in the clear minority in that opinion? If so, could you discuss it and explain why it appeals to you?
I think Bob Dylan is the most gorgeous celebrity on earth. Oscar Wilde would be another.
7) Is there something that is renowned to be beautiful that either doesn’t appeal to you or that you don’t find beautiful? Could you explain why?
Most people that are considered good looking — it is lost on me
I especially enjoyed learning about the concept of mono no aware or ‘the pathos of life’, because it reflects my own view on beauty and the things that move me. Does this concept resonate with you?
* Question 6 was suggested by Suzanne.
Picture Credits Pictures of Mandy Aftel via Mandy Pictures of 'Portrait of a Journalist by Otto Dix' via Wikipedia Picture of Bob Dylan via Internet Monk