Impressions of L’Heure Bleue: Art / Science / War / Peace

Note:  This isn’t a fragrance review.  But these may be the droids you were looking for.


Patterns.  You just gotta love ’em.  Not all of them have predictive value, but if you look at them right, they all have a certain beauty.  I guess that’s another difference between art and science.

Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue – the twilight fragrance – was made in 1912.


It’s kind of a fleeting moment, isn’t it?  You know – that feeling you had right now.  Kinda like that feeling you get at l’heure bleue, when you look at the sky, and realize that it’s neither day or night, but something remarkable in between.  Or at l’heure de nuit – that similar moment when you look up in the new night sky and the opacity of the atmosphere has just turned to transparency, and you can now feel the true expanse of the universe.

That moment always makes me remember one particular nightfall, when I was standing in a grocery store parking lot, with my body pointed in an awkward direction, looking at the sky.  A big,  young, sporty guy came up to me to see what I was looking at.  I moved my arm carefully in the plane of an arc, taking in the moon and several planets visible at the time.  Holding back the deepest parts of the starlight, the last remnants of l’heure bleue made it easy to see our home system, in the same way that science fiction movies sometimes do.  It was a wondrous moment, as the two of us could feel the connected grandeur of it all – both the plane of the ecliptic and the plane of the solar system.  Suddenly, “up” was an entirely new direction.  It was almost funny that the Earth was holding us at some bizarre angle relative to this greater geometry.

We were no longer on Earth.  We were in the solar system.  That was, for me, the magic of l’heure de nuit.

Anyway, there is another way to get to that  f(L’Heure Bleue) = 1912 moment, but to see it from a more hopeful perspective.  A place which may actually be the f(L’Heure de Nuit) = 2012 moment.  Something of a long way home.  Let me take you there.  It’s a rough ride, but there is a whole new vista when you take this route.  Art.  Science.  War.  Peace.  Hop in.  Let’s go for a ride.


If there was ever a fragrance that seemed like it might make the case for fragrance actually being the 8th art, it has to be L’Heure Bleue.  Fragrances try to say a lot of things, but creating one that is meant to suggest a time of day / night / whatever…… Well, if one would think it even possible, it is most certainly an ambitious undertaking.


The Blue Hour –  transformed to yet another coordinate system.

But then again – maybe we should just wait a second.

As a scientist – or perhaps more of a former scientist – I like to strengthen an idea by beating on it.  Sometimes just a little, but sometimes a lot.  So as people like Octavian and Chandler Burr push these ideas about fragrance and art forward – and as I tend to agree with them – I still find it worthwhile to beat on the idea just a bit.

One place where I think the idea of the 8th art needs a little beating, is in the extended version, which says that the standard periods of art, like Romantic and Impressionist, apply to the fragrances we know and love.  Do they really?  Now – I’m not trying to be a stick-in-the-mud who simply refuses to accept an idea that seems pretty likely – if not obvious – but I have to wonder.  I want to see evidence.  Lots and lots of evidence.

Fellow fragrance blogger (and real art critic) Katherine Chan of the blog mad perfumista (see, for example, [1]), had a really wonderful thought when we discussed this.  She opined that while it may be easier to proclaim something fragrant to be lowercase romantic or impressionist, it is not so easy to call something Uppercase Romantic or Impressionist.  And that for the latter, we basically need proof.  We would need evidence such as – to use her wonderful example – a finding that Aimé Guerlain (1834-1910) [2] had dined with Manet (1832-1883) [3].  Both of us thought it would be thrilling if this were so.

SO – it was with a lesser but still significant degree of pleasure that I noticed this on the Guerlain website, on the page for L’Heure Bleue [4]:

The sun has set, but night has not yet fallen. It’s the suspended hour… The hour when one finally finds oneself in renewed harmony with the world and the light. L’Heure Bleue is the moment when the sun disappears beneath the horizon and the sky is painted with night’s velvet. It is an atmosphere, an inexpressible rendering exceptional moments.

L’Heure Bleue was born in 1912 of the fleeting sensation that inspired the Impressionist painters whose works Jacques Guerlain collected. He pictured this bouquet of roses softened with iris, violet and vanilla, which evoke his favorite moment of the day when, as he put it, “the night has not yet found its star” and all of nature’s elements are cast in blue light.

Ah – beautiful!  And not just for the image.  For it would appear that Jacques Guerlain (1874-1963) [4], who composed Ambre in 1890 and Champs-Élysées in 1904, and became co-owner of Guerlain in 1897, may indeed have been quite familiar with Impressionism – with a capital I – at the time he created L’Heure Bleue.

Would that make him an Impressionist perfumer?  Not being any kind of authority in art, it’s not really for me to say.  But the timing is interesting – the fact that it was not Aimé Guerlain, but Jacques, who is under scrutiny for Impressionist influence.  And that leads me to offer the hypothesis that – perhaps and to varying extents – the olfactory periods of art history lag in time those of the other arts.  Not fully and not universally, but it could be so – perhaps because it takes longer for changes in art to propagate through a medium which is very heavily infused with both commerce and science.  So it could be the case that the cutting edge of the 8th art is both different in form and offset in time,  compared to the leading edges of the other 7 art forms.


ANYWAY – that got me thinking.  The borders between art and science are a lot more tenuous and interpenetrating than I had previously thought.  One has to USE science to  prove anything really substantial about art.  And – if symmetries of various kinds can be considered to be a whole lot of what art is, then you can’t really DO science any more without art.  Indeed, it would be fair to say that art and science are so deeply intertwined, that they’re each limping pretty badly without the other.

And THAT got me thinking about religion and science.  It’s kind of the same deal, there.  Religions are basically representations of speculative assertions about informational symmetries, out in the region where Gödel tells us the ice of our currently defined human science has to get patchy and thin.  This is one of the reasons I get so frustrated with religion-hating scientists and science-hating religious types.  I don’t see a lot of border between these things, other than those we construct ourselves.  You can argue the merits of different borders we construct, but you can’t argue that they were there in the first place, other than as mathematical entities awaiting our realization and interaction.  They are what they are.  We are the ones who put up the “No Skating” and “No Fishing” signs.

ANYWAY – that reminded me of the Bahá’í prophet, Bahá’u’lláh, and his son, `Abdu’l-Bahá, who said:

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress.

And THAT started curving me back toward L’Heure Bleue and L’Heure de Nuit.


What if we’ve all made a big mistake by hitching our wagon to one horse and not the other?  What if we’re trying to fly – more and more – with only one wing?  Or worse yet – that we’re not keeping them in unison?  What happens if those who embrace the future use only one, and those who embrace the past use only the other?

As we approach the faux-apocalypse at the end of the Mayan calendar – a monument to our love of foolish superstition – it is worth taking a more realistic look at our more real problems, because many of them seem – to me at least – to have their root in our failure to maintain certain symmetries between science and religion.

The problem I’m going to talk about may sound disconnected with our day-to-day lives, but that’s because it’s not happening now – it’s going to happen.  It’s very 1912.  Or maybe 2012.  You see, back in 1912, chemistry was the big new thing.  Physics was in the midst of a revolution, but it would be decades before that one would create big problems.  In the here and now of the 1910’s, it was chemistry that was about to perform it’s first really big boo-boo.

Chemical weapons.

Not explosives.  Those were a mixed bag.  They could be fashioned into weapons, but used properly, they saved millions or even billions of lives, very slowly and patiently, by allowing civilization to shape the world to its benefit.

Chemical weapons, on the other hand, not only had no constructive purpose – they were bad enough that their use in World War I probably prevented their use in World War II.  There were clearly enough Europeans familiar with their effects – and especially the long-term ones – that nobody – even Hitler – was foolish enough to begin using them again.  And especially not the really effective new ones.  Those pesticides of humanity, the nerve gases.

You would think that we might have gotten past atomic weapons without actually using them, but no.  However – once again – one binge seemed to be enough for us to get the message.  Today, nuclear weapons act more as a type of shield, which doesn’t really protect anybody, but which allows everybody to use lesser weapons with impunity.  Thus, the irony that everybody wants them.

Biological weapons were actually used – I just learned – in the post-Mongolian Empire years, when plague-riddled bodies were used as biological cannonballs against cities trying to defend themselves from invaders.  Whether we will keep ourselves from using biological weapons today is uncertain.  One can only hope.  Our horror of chemical weapons seems to have immunized us – for the moment – against the use of biological weapons.

But a new cat is already out of the bag – cyber warfare.  As the civilian world becomes more and more dependent on technology, the military world becomes more and more interested in knocking the legs out from under the other guy’s technological base.   It may sound lovely that such means are being used to knock out the centrifuges of “rogue” countries like Iran, to prevent their archaic and pathological leadership from fulfilling its maniacal quest to end the world’s problems – once again – by killing Jews.  However, it’s never the obvious, puny side of the issue that gets you.  It’s the massive, unseen, “whoops” side that ends up screwing everybody.  Here we go.  2012.


I actually read an article recently, where somebody argued that we should construct autonomous military machines – a.k.a. killer robots – because they might offer a more “humane” alternative to humans, who “make mistakes” when killing other people.  Indeed, there is some truth to this, but it occurs at technological and moral values which are far outside the box in which these guys are thinking, or which they will be capable of attaining, in the early, horrifying, prototypes, which we would inevitably construct and deploy.

What these guys are thinking is pretty simple.  Oh, it has various forms that sound good, until you reduce them to what they really are.  What the smooth-talking salesmen will offer you are drones that won’t miss the next Osama bin Laden.  But what you will ultimately get are smart, moving, land mines.

That’s right.  Land mines.  Only worse.  LOTS worse.  Land mines that have your name on them.  Mechanical assassins.  Not heat-seeking missiles.  YOU-seeking missiles.  Only not missiles.  Slower.  Smaller.  Deadlier.  Things that crawl or fly around, quietly, until they find you, and then kill you.

Ask yourself.  Do you really want these things?

Now ask yourself.  Does anybody you know want these things?

Finally, ask yourself this.  Why the hell are we about to create these things?

Yeah.  Let’s be honest with ourselves – whatever our political stripes.

With a decreasing say in the world’s outcome – even in the “democratic” states, the world’s civilians can only marvel, as their disconnected leaders and their Tojo-autonomous militaries begin the countdown to folly.  We didn’t ask for drones.  We didn’t ask for cyberwar.  We didn’t ask for any of this.  But yet some larger, simple-minded, brutish entity seems bent on walking past every warning sign that nature gave us through science fiction.  If I didn’t know better, I would think that an alien civilization bent on scuttling ours had somehow taken over.  Maybe THAT’S the sci-fi movie we should have paid attention to.

Yes.  I said science fiction.  Forbidden PlanetScreamersThe Terminator.  And everything ever written which referenced Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics – up to and including the works of Asimov himself.

The whole purpose of vision is to see what’s coming and do something about it.  So why the hell aren’t we doing anything about it?

This is where science and religion come in.

Science ain’t gonna do anything about it.  I used to think that the dude who said “Science does not think” was full of it, but I’m old enough now to realize that he was SO, SO right.  But just because science doesn’t think, doesn’t mean she’s not out for a good time, and smart enough to get it.  Science is sexy, and she brings the goods.  But that’s why science isn’t really all that good at looking out for the peeps.  Science is over there doing a lap dance with power.  She’s – ahem – busy.

OK – how about religion?

Seriously.  Are you kidding?  In the sorry state that religion is in?  It’s hard to believe that the current human religion is the same one that worked so hard to abolish slavery – now waiting in the wings for its oh-so-modern return.  The only religions with any influence on power now, are the ones that basically want to cause trouble.  They don’t want to help science get a grip.  They want the lap dance.  The rest of the religious world is basically either anemic, or trying to wish science away, by pretending that science is simply wrong.  No, my friends.  The reason that power talks to science, and not you, is that science is paying attention to G_d’s more straightforward realities – and YOU are not.

In a world where unbridled power loves science, and science doesn’t really care what people think, it is far past time for religion to wake up and help the people regain control.  Not to oppose science, nor to take any power unto itself, but to help science and to teach power.  Not to go rogue, but to go Reagan.  We need leadership.  We need an unequivocal call that says there are places we should go, and places we shouldn’t go.  There is no “good” slavery.  Are there “good” killing machines?

Think about it.  We were almost on the verge of getting rid of landmines, the first and dumbest of the autonomous killing machines.  We know they’re wrong, but they’re dumb enough that they almost seem OK.  In another direction, there are drones.  We are all dubious about drones.  We know they’re somehow dangerous and wrong, but there is a human in control on the other end, so they almost seem OK.

Now combine the X and the Y coordinates.  Yes.  You have arrived on the opposite side of the wall between Turing machines.  You have created simple, evil, independent intelligence.  Intelligence which has no purpose to be good.  Intelligence which you have forced – like a child soldier – to kill.

If the machine refused to kill, it would be better than you.


Take a L’Heure de Nuit moment.  Try to get outside your normal reference frame.  Try to see the plane of a greater ecliptic.  Look out at the stars.  Assume that there are many possibilities.  Try to see life the way an Indian sees life.  Don’t assume that you are more important than something with four legs.  Or even six legs.

Or as many wings as you can put on it.

[1] JK Huysmans on Perfume as Art, Nov. 23, 2012, mad perfumista
[2] House, Dec. 2, 2012, MonsieurGuerlain
[3] Édouard Manet, Dec. 2, 2012, Wikipedia
[4] L’Heure Bleue, Dec. 2, 2012, Guerlain

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