Intoxicating Perfume

Day 15: Friday

Good morning Zak,

I am writing you this letter over a fresh cup of loose-leaf Earl Grey tea…

Picture of this post being written over a fresh cup of Earl Grey

This is so meta…

Long time readers of Thily Fin will understand the psychological significance that Earl Grey has for me.  In this context, I’m using the phrase “long time” in roughly the same sense that a 14 year-old boy might use it when he’s in a committed relationship.

Zak, in your last entry you raised a deeply philosophical question about the sense of a particular phrase in context:

Does the Latin abbreviation cf. really mean “Hashtag?”

I once had a Latin teacher who said that “crap” was a suitable translation for res, so Zak, let me just answer your question with a question: does the fact that the ancient Romans never considered likening the concept of “random stuff” to fecal matter or that they didn’t use hashtags to share and compare pictures of kittens all over the world preclude the possibility of us using modern slang to translate Latin phrases?  Isn’t it possible that Cicero’s classic masterpiece De Re Publica, “On the Public res or “On the Republic,” is actually best interpreted as a philosophical commentary “on the public excrement?”

Sometimes as I write, I imagine my future employer coming across this blog…

As you can see, this cf. joke, like most things, gets a lot better when you dissect it.  When I was a 14 year-old boy in biology class, I had to dissect a rat.  Rats are also one of those things that get better when you dissect them.  When you’re given a rat in biology class, it doesn’t seem anything like the concept of “rat” that you thought you knew in real life.  It’s all frozen and yellow… really it’s closer to the concept of “burrito” than anything. But dissecting a rat is one of the most beautiful and meaningful experiences you will have early in life.  You will suddenly become very interested in biology, and later in life it will enrich your understanding of the concept of “rat race.”

Our brains have odd ways of associating concepts, words … and smells.  This can help us be creative when writing.  When I smell bergamot, as I do in my tea right now, my brain associates it with Medieval Italian love poetry…


Ferdinand de Saussure

There was once a French dude named Ferdinand de Saussure, who believed that the association between a word and a particular concept was always fundamentally arbitrary.  He would have argued that there is actually nothing absolute about they way we define words.  What I’m trying to say is, if it’s any consolation to people in biology class, there once lived a random French person with a fantastic mustache who at least in principle wouldn’t have necessarily objected to you giving “rat” the same definition that is presently reserved for “burrito.”

And then there’s Lucretius’ classic poem De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of res” or…

Anyway, as you start to take your rat apart, you will begin to notice a thick miasma of death that is now filling the space where you were once used to finding breathable air.  That ambrosial aroma is a concept called “formaldehyde,” one example of how rats get better when you dissect them.  The smell of this intoxicating perfume is permanently carved into my brain, right next to memories of my 9th-grade lab partner and rat intestines.

And that’s one great way to begin a committed relationship.

Until Monday,



3 thoughts on “Intoxicating Perfume

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