Base Notes

Still from CHANEL N°5 advertising film from 1990 “La star,” by Ridley Scott. [A close up of a fancy lady under a wide brim hat, demurely smirking into the distance. A lounge chair in the background and what looks like a bathing suit strap imply that she’s sunbathing at the pool.]

This piece was originally published in the 2024 Annual, now available for pre-order.

“What is it like to have something soft and hard at the same time?” This was the riddle-qua-instruction articulated to perfumers by Parfums Dior in the brief for Pure Poison in 2004.1 There is an inherent sense of contradiction to a perfume, an aspirational dialectic that is enforced by its very nature: invisible yet potent, present yet ephemeral, fantastical yet purchasable. This contradiction extends even to the origins of certain ingredients used in its conception: while perfume is understood to lend a pleasurable scent to the body, many of the world’s most popular—Chanel No. 5, Eternity by Calvin Klein, and Dioressence by Christian Dior, to name a few—contain traces of chemical compounds that are found in places less than pleasant and almost always relegated to the margins of polite conversation. Bile, feces, vomit, and animal oils will never make an appearance in any perfume advertisement, yet historically they—or, more commonly today, their synthetic substitutes—covertly underpin countless perfumes on the market.

Technically, these compounds function as fixatives, imparting longevity to the more ephemeral ingredients of a perfume while ensuring the scent’s lasting presence on the skin. Aesthetically, they lend a stylistic nuance to a perfume’s profile. Perfumer Anne McClain, co-owner of MCMC Fragrances in Brooklyn, thinks that part of the allure may be because humans are naturally “just a little bit gross,” as she puts it in a conversation with Katy Kelleher for her book The Ugly History of Beautiful Things. “I think there is a depth to anything that is made of life and creates life. There’s something inherently sexual in that. Even though something like civet will smell gross on its own, it adds an element of reality.”2 Ironically, it is reality that we attempt to elude through the fantasy postured by the standard perfume commercial. Yet the image we fetishize conceals a rather secret, sordid reality. “Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console. . . ” writes Susan Sontag.3 In Greek mythology, this perspective was also alluded to: Aphrodite, the goddess of love, lust, passion, pleasure, beauty, and sexuality, was begotten from violence, betrayal, and decay, borne of the castrated genitals of the sky god Ouranos after they were cast into the sea by his son Kronos.4 Her name, interpreted to mean “foam-borne,” is reminiscent of the ambergris that plunges through the ocean and, very rarely, washes up on shore.5

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. [Venus, goddess of love, stands inside a giant scallop shell in the center of a big Italian Renaissance painting. Ocean is behind her, and on the right a woman reaching to cover the naked goddess with a floral cloak. On the left Zephyr and Aura are blowing, presumably making the wind that carried her to Cyprus.]


Ambergris, also known as the “treasure of the sea,” “floating gold,” the “universal cordial,” and “the odor of sanctity,” is a solid, waxy substance that originates in Physeter macrocephalus, colloquially known as the sperm whale. The species consumes vast amounts of squid and cuttlefish, and the whales usually vomit the indigestible elements of these cephalopods, such as the beaks and pens, prior to digestion. But in very sporadic, isolated circumstances, the superfluous units relocate to the whale’s intestines and join together into an accretion that self-augments within the whale over the years, ultimately expelled through either regurgitation or excretion, as one popular theory speculates. It is unknown exactly how the sperm whale produces its ambergris, and the mass is found in less than 5 percent of whale cadavers. In his 1851 novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote of the stench of a dead whale, from which “stole a faint stream of perfume.” When first taken from the whale, the odor of ambergris is heavily fecal, but it becomes more moderate once it dries out, taking on a more musky profile.6 Chemist Gunther Ohloff has described ambergris as “humid, earthy, faecal, marine, algoid, tobacco-like, sandalwood-like, sweet, animal, musky and radiant.”7 In addition to prizing it for the unique olfactory profile it imbues into a scent, perfumers use it as a fixative, combining it with other tinctures to produce perfume.8

Ambergris. [A man with spiky hair and a blue windbreaker leans over a table covered in blue velvet, on top of which sit what look like large red-orange rocks, but are in fact ambergris.]

Perhaps the lesser certainty around the origins of the otherworldly ambergris begets its allure, not unlike the lesser density of helium in an untethered balloon that lets it float into the ether far, far away. In 1931 Albert Einstein once opined that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. . . Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. . . a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.”9 “Love is my religion—I could die for it,” effused the poet John Keats more than a century earlier, in a letter to his lover in 1819.10 The trope of the mysterious stranger, so frequent in perfume advertisements as to be quotidian, comes to mind; in “La Piscine,” the 1979 advertising film by Ridley Scott for Chanel No. 5, a man dives into a cerulean pool and swims toward a woman reclining at the other end of it.11 Just as he is about to step out of it and toward her, he quite literally fades away, as clandestinely as he appeared—was he real, or but a thing of delusion, a fitful mirage? “Lovers, of course, are notoriously frantic epistemologists, second only to paranoiacs (and analysts) as readers of signs and wonders,” writes the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his book On Flirtation.12 To know something in its entirety is to be bored by it: ambiguity spawns the anxiety and fascination upon which love lays its head to rest. Ironically, anxiety is also what prompts brands to release a perfume in the first place, according to the art collective and trend forecasting group K-HOLE. “A brand’s anxiety around total incoherence. . . is usually the point when they release a perfume,” they told 032c in 2014.13

Therapists wax poetic about accepting your own imperfections and the imperfections that lacerate the love you will inevitably receive. “Indigestible” qualities coalesce, not unlike elements of the cephalopods in the sperm whale’s intestines, to bond and form a uniquely abject specimen of a relation that reflects only and purely your attachment and reeks of the sex that is necessary to sustain it.


Also commonly found in popular perfumes today is the chemical compound indole. Fragrance columnist Victoria Belim-Frolova describes the compound as lending perfumes “a rich, narcotic fragrance . . . without this unique material, which in pure form looks like white diamond dust, it would have been impossible to recreate the true scent of blooming flowers. A tiny amount of indole is all it takes to infuse life into a composition of floral notes, to make an abstract, vague petally form to appear as a lush, nectar-suffused flower.”14 Derived from tryptophan, a progenitor of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, which, to put it in layman’s terms, make you happy and go to sleep, respectively, the compound is present in both jasmine flowers and feces.15 

Jasmine flower. [Close up of a cluster of leaves and six slender white flowers with long petals that look like fingers.]

Perhaps the former is what Charles Baudelaire was thinking of when he wrote of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) in 1857.16 “According to Jacques Lacan, humans distinguish themselves from animals the moment shit becomes for them an embarrassing leftover, a source of shame, something to be secretly disposed of,” writes Slavoj Zizek in his review of psychoanalyst Dominique Laporte’s 1978 book History of Shit. “As such, shit casts its shadow even at the most sublime moments of human experience.”17 And due to the heat and moisture it generates, sex, the eternal sublime, reeks of indole. The French phrase la petite mort, “the little death,” refers to the erosion of consciousness postorgasm. As a dead body decomposes, indole features in high concentrations.19


The French luxury perfumes and cosmetics house Lancôme describes musk as “sensual, warm, enveloping, comfortable, skin-like, intimate, sexy, primal instinct.”20 Authentic musk can only be sourced from a sex gland of the male Tibetan musk deer, which is now endangered in large part due to poaching for perfumes and traditional East Asian medicines.21 These secretions are employed by the deer to attract mates,22 and to obtain its musk, the deer must be killed.23 To retroactively, crudely poeticize this murder: sans the ability to love, life is no longer worth living. The German fragrance chemist Philip Kraft describes the tincture in surprisingly contradictory terms: “The more one studies its character . . . the more contrasting, vibrant, and oscillating it becomes: repulsive-attractive, chemical-warm, sweaty-balmy, acrid-waxy, earthy-powdery, fatty-chocolate-like, pungent-leathery, fig-like, dry, nutty and woody, to give just some impressions.”24

Musk deer. [A deer at night lit up by a flash. The deer has a brown furry body and a darker brown or black head, fuzzy ears, and small tusks reaching downward out of their mouth.]

Musk is mainly found in Russia and Asia, and hunting the deer is illegal in China, Mongolia, and South Korea, although in Russia it is permitted when licensed and operating within quota. Authentic musk is now rarely used, replaced by a synthetic laboratory-concocted alternative. What is the allure of musk such that we cannot live without it, that we ache to derive its facsimile? Perhaps its contradictions: its ability—in the words of Walt Whitman—to be large, to contain multitudes.25 Psychologist Robert Francis Winch, who studied spouses in the 1950s, echoed the sentiment, coming to the conclusion that “opposites attract.”26 Musk’s odor has also been described as akin to that of a baby’s skin.27 Perhaps it awakens some leftover ember, still aglow within the beholder, that yearns for the natal site to which we can never return. Lacan defines desire as a “relation of being to lack. The lack is the lack of being . . . whereby the being exists.”28 In other words, we are drawn to what we do not possess, in an attempt to realize a fullness of being otherwise denied to us. Yet for desire to exist, this lack can never be reconciled. The musk deer, after all, is a solitary animal.29


Civet cat. [A small mammal, smaller than a cat but bigger than a chipmunk, yet with similar markings and coloring as the latter. Little ears, slender pointy nose. Tail like a raccoon.]

The civet is a small, lean mammal found primarily in the tropical forests of Asia and Africa. It can produce civet oil—pheromonal secretions from the perineal glands situated near the anus of the civet cat.31 Civet oil is a foamy almost-liquid, a pale yellow that darkens and becomes salve-like in consistency beneath light.32 Its smell is so overwhelming that specific rooms were designated as “civet rooms” at the headquarters of the luxury brands that employ it as an ingredient in their perfumes, fitted with thicker doors to circumvent its odor from penetrating the rest of the building.33 User rasputin of describes it as “more like vomit than . . . feces . . . like the smell of Brie mixed with honey, or like month-old rotten fruit.”34 Ethiopian tradition dictated that it be added to the bathwater of a woman about to be married, and applied to the hair of the groom as a paste. The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert explains how civet can be incorporated into an unguent that, when dabbed on the groin and lower back, could “excite the venereal act.”35 What seduces can also kill, or maybe what kills must also seduce: when a man-devouring tigress went on a killing spree in the Indian city of Pandharkawada in 2018, hunters lured it to its demise by spritzing civetone-charged Obsession by Calvin Klein on their traps.36 Prior to 1998, Chanel No. 5 was rumored to contain civet. The process to obtain civet is not deadly but can be cruel, as the perineal glands of the often-captive, caged animal are squeezed until they release the substance.37 Due to insistence from animal rights groups, Chanel claims that it has replaced civet with a synthetic surrogate.38

Civets can eat foods that are either poisonous or unsavory to most mammals, including millipedes, carrion, and the fruit of Strychnos.39 Lacan defines objet petit a as the unattainable object of desire.40 Throughout history, the hegemonic discourse has traditionally construed desire to lie squarely within the realm of the sensual, the romantic, and the erotic. Yet eating can also be viewed as an intimate act: to eat is to take from the world into oneself, not unlike the act of sex, wherein one takes another from the world into oneself. It seems not coincidental, then, that aphrodisiacs—foods thought to induce sexual arousal—are named after Aphrodite, the goddess of sex, love, and beauty. To borrow from Ferdinant de Saussure’s theory of semiotics,41 decisions around eating can become signifiers, and morality the signified. “Eating, like other bodily functions, is an act that attracts and repulses because it highlights our attempts to keep our bodies clean and autonomous . . . eating calls into question the borders of our bodies and the ways we see ourselves; abjection points to the instability of our identities.”42 The civet’s eagerness to ingest material that we cast off as repulsive delineates its acceptance of itself as abject, a creature that is at a peace with its wretchedness. We are not at peace with our wretchedness, but we can edge closer by donning the perfume of a creature that is.


In the language of perfumery, base notes are compared to low frequencies in music, undulating percussively across time.43 Yet perhaps it proves useful to think of the phrase as a double entendre, for base can also take upon itself the function of adjective, deriving from late Middle English, to signify that which is vulgar, shameful, disgusting.

A single white rose, wilting, trampled down to mere velvet imprint in the mud. A mannequin’s torso, another mannequin’s head, yet another mannequin’s legs, once adorned in a window, eyes trained upon bodies, now abandoned, alone, in a junkyard. 

Pile of mannequin parts at Mannakin Hall, an attraction in Fulbeck, England. [A mountain of mannequin parts, pilings of white and tan plastic torsos, legs, hands, and feet, extending for several feet and off frame.]

A single tear upon the architectural cheek of an anonymous 1960s Hollywood actress, sliding down ruefully like a raindrop on a windowpane. A gazelle, wide-eyed and helpless, its hindquarters caught in a trap, oozing out a tapestry of blood the shade of a Red Delicious apple. Breaking a mug that once read “LARRY & NANCY ARE 85! MAY 1998.” An oyster that has never been wounded, never producing a pearl, because a pearl is a wound that has healed.

Is this what it’s like to be abject and beautiful at the same time?

[1] Rachel S. Herz, Neurobiology of Sensation and Reward, “Chapter 17. Perfume,” National Library of Medicine, 2011,

[2]Katy Kelleher, “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Perfume,” Longreads, September 10, 2018,

[3] Susan Sontag, “An argument about beauty,” Dædalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Fall 2002,

[4] Aaron J. Atsma, “APHRODITE : Summary of the Olympian Goddess,” Theoi Project, 2000 - 2019,

[5] Maite Gomez-Rejón, “The Ancient Wisdom of Aphrodisiacs,” The Iris at Getty, February 13, 2014, [6] Emily Osterloff, “What is ambergris?,” National History Museum,

[7] Thomas Bywater, “Marine gold: The secret scatological world of whale poo traders,” New Zealand Media and Entertainment, January 24, 2022, [8] Thomas Bywater, “Marine gold: The secret scatological world of whale poo traders,” New Zealand Media and Entertainment, January 24, 2022,

[9] Eugene Mallove, “Einstein's Intoxication With the God of the Cosmos,” The Washington Post, December 22, 1985, [10] Maria Popova, “John Keats’s Exquisite Love Letter to Fanny Brawne,” The Marginalian, February 19, 2016,

[11] Ridley Scott, “N°5, the 1979 Film by Ridley Scott: La Piscine,” CHANEL, Dec 18, 2012,

[12] Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[13] “The Brand Anxiety Matrix,” 032c,

[14] Victoria Belim-Frolova, “Indole, Indolic : Perfume Vocabulary & Fragrance Notes,” Bois de Jasmin, March 22, 2011,

[15]  Nuri McBride, “The Chemistry of Death and Desire,” Death/Scent, January 19, 2016,

[16] Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal (New York, New York: Liveright Publishing, 1857).

[17] “History of Shit,” INDY Week, July 4, 2001,

[18] “petite mort,” Oxford English Dictionary, December 2005,

[19] Anna Williams, “The smell of death—its chemical pattern could become a powerful forensic tool,” at Science X, September 28, 2015, [20] “MUSK NOTES IN PERFUMES: A GUIDE TO MUSK PERFUMES,” Lancôme, April 7, 2023,

[21] “Musk Deer,” WWF: World Wide Fund for Nature,

[22]  Zhang, T., Peng, D., Qi, L. et al. “Musk gland seasonal development and musk secretion are regulated by the testis in muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus),” Biological Research 50, 10, March 4, 2017,

[23] Volker Homes, On the Scent: Conserving Musk Deer - the Uses of Musk and Europe’s Role in its Trade (TRAFFIC Europe, 1999).

[24] “Musk,” The Perfume Society, [25] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself, 51,”, 1855,

[26] Jill Gallagher, “Do Opposites Really Attract? According to Science, It’s Complicated,” Talkspace, January 2, 2021,

[27] “What Is The Real Musk Of Perfumery?,” Experimental Perfume Club, December 7, 2019,

[28] Owen Hewitson, “What Does Lacan Say About… Desire?,” LacanOnline.Com, May 9, 2010,

[29] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “musk deer,” Britannica, May 04, 1999,

[30]  “Civet: wildlife guide to the african civet,” SafarisAfricana,

[31]  “WHAT IS CIVETONE?,” Scentspiracy,


[33] Mark C O’Flaherty, “Musk-have scent: the kinky allure of civet,” Financial Times, September 22, 2022,

[34] rasputin, “Civet smell,” Basenotes Forum, January 13, 2011,

[35] James McHugh, “The Disputed Civets and the Complexion of the God: Secretions and History in India,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2012,

[36] Jeffrey Gettleman, “How to Attract a Killer Tigress? Try a Man’s Cologne,” The New York Times, October 8, 2018,

[37]  Danute Pajaujis Anonis, “Civet and Civet Compounds,” Perfumer & Flavorist, January/February 1997,

[38] Patrick House, “The Scent of a Cat Woman,” Slate, July 3, 2012,

[39] “AFRICAN CIVET,” Animalia,

[40] Lewis A. Kirshner, “Rethinking Desire: The Objet Petit A in Lacanian Theory,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 53(1), March 2005,

[41] “Semiotics: Sign, Signifier, Signified,” Writing Commons,

[42] Heather Latimer, “Eating, Abjection, and Transformation in the work of Hiromi Goto,” thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory and culture 5(2), Winter 2006, [43] Frederic Jacques, “TOP, MIDDLE AND BASE NOTES, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?,” The Society of Scent, January 7, 2022,

Sarah Chekfa lives and writes in New York City. Her work has appeared in The Drunken Canal, Do Not Research, Flash Art, Delude Magazine, and Vogue, among other publications.