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What’s That Smell? Constitutionally Protected Free Speech

For Banned Books Week, a perfume company is selling scents tied to landmark events in censorship, both of which involved prominent Jewish figures

Marjorie Ingall
September 28, 2016

It’s Banned Books Week! Every year at this time, the American Library Association publishes its list of the previous year’s most frequently banned and challenged books. Last year, I noted with dismay that only one of the ten most objectionable books was written by a Jew. This was disappointing because, in the past, our people ruled this list. Judy Blume, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, Alvin Schwartz, Lesléa Newman, and Nadine Gordimer used to regularly cause pearl-clutching patrons and parents to have conniptions, so I worried that we Jews were losing our edge. This year, however, we have reason for optimism: Two books on the list— that would be double last year’s number—have Jewish authors. Thanks for representin’ for the People of the Book, David Levithan and Susan Kuklin!

But what really marks a red-letter day for First Amendment-loving Jews is the fact that my fave goth perfume company, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (known to the cognoscenti as BPAL), is selling two new scents as a Banned Books Week fundraiser.

First, an introduction: BPAL (sold online and in a few small boutiques, with a cult of devoted fans trading tiny vials via social media) offers up deliciously overwritten, Lovecraftian descriptions of its dark and loony scents. My own fave (I’m wearing it now!) is Cthulhu, “a creeping, wet, slithering scent, dripping with seaweed, oceanic plants, and dark, unfathomable waters.” I’m also a fan of Wilde, described as “just the slightest taint of patchouli’s passion, tonka bean’s decadence, the philanthropy of bergamot, moss’s cynicism, the sharp wit of lavender, and the hopeless romantic longing of jasmine and thyme.” Makes no sense! But who cares! And I adore Schrodinger’s Cat (“a paradoxical scent experiment!—tangerine, sugared lime, pink grapefruit, oakmoss, lavender, zdravetz, and chocolate peppermint,” and no, I don’t know what zdravetz is either).

Every year during Banned Books Week, BPAL throws its black-clad, heavily tattooed support behind the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal aid, education and advocacy to comic book creators, publishers, and sellers, as well as to librarians and readers whose First Amendment rights are threatened. In past years, BPAL has sold Neil-Gaiman-themed fragrances as a CBLDF fundraiser. Gaiman, a Brit with Eastern European Jewish origins, has written about his cousin who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, reading aloud to other prisoners in defiance of the Nazis. But this year, BPAL is selling two comic-book-themed fragrances, and both have Jewish antecedents.

First we have Cohen v. California, a scent based on a landmark First Amendment case. In 1968, a 19-year-old man named Paul Robert Cohen was arrested for wearing a jacket that said “Fuck the Draft” on it. Cohen was convicted of disturbing the peace and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He appealed, saying his jacket constituted protected speech. The Supreme Court ultimately voted 5-4 that the “simple public display of this single four-letter word” was, indeed, not a criminal offense. BPAL’s interpretation of the ruling (accompanied by a phrase from Judge John Marshall Harlan’s majority opinion, “one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric”) is “black tea, apricot, honey, saffron, apple blossom, tolu balsam, ginger grass, white ginger root, and vetiver.” I bought it, sight unsmelled.

The other CBLDF-supporting scent is Sordid and Unusual Activities. That’s a phrase from the Comics Code of 1954, which basically censored comic books. Justification for the code came from the work of psychologist Fredric Wertham, an assimilated Jewish psychiatrist originally from Germany. In Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham wrote about how comics damaged youthful minds. (His research has since been largely discredited.) Ah, well. But one of the Comics Code rules said, “If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.” So in tribute, BPAL created a scent described as “degenerate, squalid, and utterly wretched: bleached white cedar and bourbon vetiver with poplar, smoked cumin, oak-barrel whiskey, and a dribble of spiced rum absolute.” Yeah, I don’t understand it either. But I bought it. I am as powerless before BPAL’s semi-coherent absinthe-drenched flow of words as Namu the Lion before the heaving barely-clad bosom of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. I tell myself I’m supporting the fight against censorship and the good work of Banned Books Week while also smelling divine. Win-win.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.