I remember years ago hearing about a candle maker, an artist one should say, who was able to conjure up the spirit of a loved one in scented wax: he had recreated the perfume aura of Rita Hayworth so that her daughter should feel her presence about the house upon the striking of a match. There is something essentially ghostly and ethereal about all perfume with its electric stimulation of memory: maybe this is why many people find it hard to throw away empty bottles, why they cherish old flacons as they would clothes and accessories of loved ones, still faintly and intimately scented after long years, the occupants having long since departed and fled.
Perhaps all perfume is the alluring ghost of plants, woods, blossoms – like Hiawatha’s rainbow of all the flowers of the prairie: “When on earth they bloom and perish / Blossom in the sky above us”. Distilled in elixir and more powerful than they were in their first life they flower again, a marvellous parallel of rebirth and regeneration. Like a ghost, the magic of a perfume does not always reveal itself to everyone; it appears in a different manifestation to each. It mysteriously changes smell and personality according to your moods and health. In her wonderful story “Poor Girl” Elizabeth Taylor writes of a malevolent lubricious haunting by a perfume, a dry musky scent, which fills a house with disturbing seductive fumes, a ghost from the future rather than the past.
This is a brilliant inversion of the traditional association of the reek of cold decay with phantom manifestations. (Think of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s monstrous-smelling car in “Mr Wrong”). “Pink May” is Elizabeth Bowen’s sinister/comic tale of a poltergeist wrecking a war time love affair (and marriage) by mercilessly disrupting a woman’s early evening beauty routine at her dressing table as she makes herself lovely for sin. J Clayton’s 1961 movie The Innocents (based on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”) refutes the cliche that film cannot translate a sense of smell: in the midsummer gardens of Bly luxurious white roses grow in profusion and fill the vases of the house. Never have sun-drenched perfect flowers seemed so sinister nor adorned such horrors
I think of all our stock at Les Senteurs Pierre Guillaume’s Louanges Profanes (untranslatable really: but “evil praises” comes close) is the most other-worldly, both in name and substance: a shimmering summoning of the supernatural; a glamorous ambiguous translation into the jener Velt.
Image from user tony’s pics on flickr.