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«Murderous Visions of Relativity In the Novels Das Parfum and Oceano mare Mattia Marino by BEYOND MOURNING Social rites attempt to fill in the bodily ...»

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Murderous Visions of Relativity

In the Novels Das Parfum and Oceano mare

Mattia Marino



Social rites attempt to fill in the bodily gaps left by death. The aesthetic rituals of

the novels Das Parfum (1985) by Patrick Süskind and Oceano mare (1993) by

Alessandro Baricco come to terms with death in representations of murder which

convey a relativist conception of being as presence, based on creative and critical

dissent from the social resentment revolving around the dualist consent of life as absolute essence and death as absence. Both novels present death in ways which deviate from the mourning conventions derived from the socially constructed distinction between life and death. An interdisciplinary approach, where philosophical perspectivism and post-structuralism, sociological intersectionality, and historical hybridity are integrated, suits to the intercultural analysis of intertextual relations within these literary works, that is, of their embeddedness in the western cultural intertext of life and death. Although the two novels seemingly belong to very different contexts, they can be discussed in the wider context of western post-modernity. Their metaphors of scent and sea, associated with murders, converge in aesthetic rituals which celebrate the cycle of being in death.

The present analysis of these two novels intends to discuss the critical representation of death in a literary reworking of inner sense perception and outer natural landscape, respectively.

Saggi /Ensayos/Essais/Essays 168 N. 4 – 10/2010 Das Parfum and Oceano mare offer two different relativist metaphors of being, which provide a critique against the ideology of progress through the complementary images of internally perceived scents and externally moving waves, where the normative consent of linear progression gives way to elusive transiency both perceived subjectively and occurring on a cosmic scale. The idea of progress suggests the subject’s control over the absolute essence of life and resentment against the dark cosmic force of death, which it is necessary to exorcise by means of rituals meant to self-referentially reinforce the illusion of control over living bodies despite the loss of the dead. The ritual exorcism of death in the form of mourning marks continuity between the moral ideal of salvation, where the loss of the dead is handled as the passage of the good souls to the spiritual world, and the modern ideal of progress, where death is a moment for the living to realise the ultimate value of ever-improving material life. Both salvation in morality and progress in modernity encompass absolutist conceptions of life and death as essentially distinct from each other, either as preparation and passage to spiritual salvation, or as enjoyment and privation of material progress; both ideals are normative, either in ethical or in physical rules.

Whether spiritual or material, linear progress gives way to circular recurrence and relativity to perception in the metaphors of scent and sea, where life and death are presented as presence and return of presence in ever different forms, which it is possible to embrace in the characters’ creative dissent beyond all consensual norms.

Textual analysis is a semiotic method, as it examines signs (Eco, 1976: 7), precisely not for what, but for how, that is, the ways in which they mean (Sturrock, 1986: 22). Language is only one of the infinite and all-pervasive systems of signs in use (Barthes, 1967: 9), and presents a level of abstraction which makes it particularly suitable in the philosophical discussion of being (Saussure, 1983: 16). Using language, or, for that matter, any other semiotic system, involves a dialectics between the available means to create meaning (Lévi-Strauss, 1974: 29). In this respect, texts’ cultural contexts play a significant role (Lotman, 1990: 124-125), which hints at the desirability of an interdisciplinary socio-historic-philosophical approach. In the sociohistorical context of the early twenty-first century, global-local hybridity involves a renegotiation of identity and memory beyond the historicist ideology of progress, with its dream to minimise death by maximising techno-scientific control (Claeys, 2005: 273). As postcolonial societies question the ideal of techno-scientific rationality, associated with the imperialist violence overcome by enhanced hybridisation, the rationalist concept of death as physical loss is inadequate. Death as absence belongs to the rationalist ideology of biological life as absolute essence.

Saggi /Ensayos/Essais/Essays 169 N. 4 – 10/2010 This form of essentialism legitimises heteronormative male privilege and the colonisation of non-modern societies in the name of the improvement of health and social conditions. In the 1980s and 1990s, marked precisely by intensive postcolonial discussions, Das Parfum and Oceano mare represent death as constitutive of being as presence, beyond the distinction between essence and absence.

While techno-scientific essentialism posits physical life as the absolute essence of being, a critical ontology of hybrid history poses the force of being as relative to the different perspectives, or philosophical perspectivism (Nietzsche, 1887), of its phenomenological forms, which constitute a structure of consensual meaning from which each of them differs (Foucault, 1969) in the philosophical post-structuralism of its particular intersections, or sociological intersectionality (Crenshaw, 2005). As life as essence is laid bare as a sexist and imperialist discourse, being is relative to perspective. Social rituals provide a space of consent where different perspectives can interact in an orderly structure of conventions, which define identity and memory in terms of language, belief, class, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, citizenship, health, and age. Each particular perspective is characterised by unique intersections of these socially constructed categories of identity and memory. No absolute hierarchy of values exists, as all perspectives are fatally doomed to death, giving way to ever different forms of being. The awareness of this relativity allows each perspective to accept death by dissenting creatively from the structure in which it interacts with the others, while the lack of such awareness involves both the incapability to cope with death and resentment against those perspectives which do not correspond to the values of reference. The cycle of being and the tension between dissent and resentment are celebrated in the aesthetic murders from Das Parfum and Oceano mare.


The story of the murderer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille unfolds in eighteenth century Paris, from his birth in the most stench-ridden market, through the lives silenced in his enterprise of making for himself an enchanting perfume, to his suicidal overdose of perfume which makes his worshippers literally eat him. Scent is perceived by the sense ranked as the lowest one in the imaginary essentialism of the herd. Scent’s multiplicity and elusiveness represent the occult force of transiency in the subjective forms of being. This inspiration shines through the constant and abundant descriptions of the realm of scent in Perfume, as well as in the succession of the characters and in the death of the scent-overman.

Saggi /Ensayos/Essais/Essays 170 N. 4 – 10/2010 Scent represents the transiency of being, where all entities are characterised by their unique combination of scents, and are doomed to pass away with the recombination of scent in ever different patterns characterising other irreducibly unique forms of subjects. The awareness of transiency offers the creative inspiration distinguishing exceptional subjects such as the novel’s protagonist, whose status as “Genie” (genius) and “Scheusal” (monster) in relation to the “flüchtige Reich der Gerüche” (the elusive realm of scent) is emphasised from the first page (5). Scent’s characterisation as elusive suggests the metaphor of scent as the elusiveness of existence, with the adjective flüchtig’s phonetic and semantic associations and partial rhymes with not only Flucht, but also Flug, that is, flight, and Willkür, that is, arbitrary will, which is etymologically related to the corresponding terms in Latin and Greek, as well as to the Sanskrit bala, that is, force. As represented in the image of scent, existence is irreducible to a static essence, as it is actually a dynamic force.

Scent corresponds to identity (34). The subject is represented as a unique combination of scents doomed to disappear without trace, spurlos (5). Being is revealed as meta-essential, or metousiastic, that is, as constituted beyond any ideal of absolute essences in the ephemeral assemblage of decaying scents, perceived by the sense organ regarded as the most “primitiv” and “niedrig” (20) from the essentialist perspective of organised society culminated in modernity, where the abundance of smells characterising Grenouille’s pre-revolutionary environment is repressed to serve the ideologies of hygiene, public health, and common good. Far from corresponding to the ideal of essence sanctioned in ideology, identity is elusive and transient as in the unpredictable juxtapositions of scents.

The exceptional subject, Grenouille, is hypersensitive precisely to scent, whose ineffability reveals the insufficiency of linguistic conventions to capture the elusive complexity of identity. The extraordinary awareness of the elusiveness of existence is represented in Grenouille’s scentless position, as he “riecht überhaupt nicht” (does not smell at all, 14) and possesses “nicht einmal einen eigenen Duft” (not even a scent of his own, 20). The monstrous genius’ position as a subject without scent, that is, without identity, is a metaphor for his hypersensitivity to the elusiveness of existence, accompanied by the insensitivity to the essentialist ideologies governing social and subjective organisation.

The monstrous genius absorbs voraciously all scents and all conventional hierarchical distinctions, until the discovery of the scent which constitutes the “Ende aller Gerüche” (end of all scents, 47) and the principium individuationis of organised society's essentialist hierarchies, which lies in the body of a girl at puberty. All conventional distinctions associated with the dichotomy of good and evil are reduced to the essence of heteronormative reproductive sexuality as the ultimate foundation of organised life. The image of the red-haired maiden with tree fruits alludes to Eve in the Judaeo-Christian myth of origins, where humanity's loss of innocence is determined by the sinful woman who mothers the generations of mortal sinners needing social organisation to enforce God’s laws.

Saggi /Ensayos/Essais/Essays 171 N. 4 – 10/2010 The modern scientific and technological proceedings of perfumery, associated with alchemy and magic, rely on conventional hierarchies based upon the supreme scent of heavenly bliss and innocence not-yet-lost, hinting at the continuity between the religious and the modern essentialist conceptions, of which the former sets the ultimate essence as God’s spiritual dimension, and the latter continues the myth of linear progress with the ideal of material beauty, health and wealth. The overmanly, that is, hyperhuman, perfumer criticises the ideologies derived from the essential principle of virginal scent by engaging in the creation of a sublime perfume which achieves the essence of innocence in the ultimate moral decay of serial murders.

He creates for himself a “Duftkleid” (suit made of scent, 231) by means of his critical “Jagd” (hunt, 235), whose victims are those who essentially inspire conventional “Liebe” (love, 240), that is, virgins ripe to serve the herd as mothers and

housekeepers. His perfume is a “Duftdiadem” (scent diadem, 246) where:

(w)enn man sich […] all die Opfer nicht mehr als einzelne Individuen, sondern als Teile eines höheren Prinzips vorstellte und sich in idealistischer Weise ihre jeweiligen Eigenschaften als zu einem einheitlichen Ganzen verschmolzen dächte, dann müsste das aus solchen Mosaiksteinen zusammengesetztes Bild das Bild der Schönheit schlechthin sein, und der Zauber, der von ihm ausginge, wäre nicht mehr von menschlicher, sondern von göttlicher Art (258).1 The overman is associated with Christ with a “Holzkreuz” (wooden cross, 291), and then “Allah” (301) and, further, “Herrgott” (the Lord) in a “Bacchanal”, as well as “Prometheus” (304), wearing his “Duftmasker” (scent mask, 306) revealing “Liebe” (love, 316) as merely a murderous illusion. The intersections between different religious images from eastern and western traditions and those between Grenouille’s low social class, asexuality, premature genius, deviancy, and physical disability, along with his offering his body as food for the poor and the criminals of Paris in the end, converge in a relativist revaluation of Christ which, while criticising Christian morality, stresses Christ’s and all other religions’ prophets’ openness to the abject of organised society. The metaphor of the sublimation of murdered virgins’ scents unto an allmighty perfume overcomes the essentialist dichotomies derived from the absolute distinctions of good and evil, life and death.


In Oceano mare, the Almayer Inn hosts seven guests all irresistibly attracted by the sea. Plasson and Bartleboom intend, respectively, to paint the sea and to write an as soon as one imagined all the victims not any longer as distinct individuals, but as parts of a higher principle, whose respective properties were melted into a unitary whole, then these pieces should compose, as in a mosaic, an image which is the image of beauty par excellence, and the magic irradiating from it would be not of a human, but of a divine sort.

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