Twilight Sleep – L’Eau de Circe

circe

I warned (or promised) you that we should return again to the theme of sleep; and what better time than now when the lurch into spring plays havoc with the body. The clocks go forward, temperatures fluctuate violently, clothes feel too heavy or too light. An Iraqi Kurdish barber once told me that the logical healthy remedy was blood letting – to drain off the poisons of the winter, to relieve seasonal tensions and impurities and that sensation of fogged vagueness. Twilight Sleep therefore strikes a chord: it’s a title I had long bagged for use, but I now find that Edith Wharton beat me to it in 1927. My great aunt was sedated with the German twilight sleep procedure in 1922: she awoke with twin daughters and a foster baby in the bed. A dream transformation indeed.

The Greeks believed that dreams come to and fro from the Valley of Sleep: those that pass out through the Gates of Ivory are mere fantasies, those that leave through the Gates of Horn are destined to come true. The dreams and thoughts of Twilight Sleep are those wandering reveries of half reality, half unconsciousness when we drift and then come to ourselves still unable for a few seconds to distinguish fact from fiction – those moments when we startle awake at our desks, on the Tube or before the tv unsure where or who we are, maybe drooling a little, bemused and half stunned.

Parfumerie Generale’s L’Eau de Circe is a magical but baffling phantasm of this realm. A soft warm damp cloud tinted with all the hues of the setting summer sun, this perfume is mysterious as it is seductive. It references the ethereal and the earthy, the grotesque and the romantic. Circe was an enchantress from a family of magicians who beguiled Odysseus on his sea voyage home from Troy. The hero’s thwarted attempts to reach his wife in Ithaca follow a classic anxiety dream pattern: like those nightmares in which one tries continually to catch a train, pack a suitcase or find the right book, Odysseus is hindered at every turn by the intervention of a supernatural being. Cyclops, Sirens, Lotus Eaters all impede him. The lovely Circe lays on a luscious feast in the gardens of a scented palace for the crew of the traveller’s ship; then on a whim, disgusted by their gluttony and drunkenness, she transforms them into swine in a typical abrupt dream metamorphosis. With divine aid Odysseus forces Circe to restore his men to human shape and in another sudden volte face the witch becomes a benevolent fairy.

Pierre Guillaume’s scent floats in an intoxicating haze of lilacs, osmanthus. The initial effect is of harmony, gentle innocence and peace; but then the animalic powdery musky lilac starts to pound and a fruity vinous note of osmanthus introduces a faintly oppressive mood, heightened by a dampness, a humidity: hypnotic yes, but maybe with a touch of feminine menace. Is osmanthus perhaps one of those trees beneath which it is dangerous to sleep? Do the sleepers awake raving like those who doze beneath the cypress, the datura or the pink and white oleander? L’Eau de Circe captures that moment just before the gorging sailors become pigs, the moment when the sorceress’s baleful beautiful green eye freezes the feasters with a basilisk stare. It reminds us of Alma Tadema’s painting of another doomy banquet – the diners frozen in time as the suspended canopies of roses let fall and millions of petals suffocate the revellers beneath. L’Eau de Circe is a riddle worthy of the sphinx; we smell it like children thrilled by the beauty and terror of a fairytale, reassured by the certainty of a happy outcome

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2 thoughts on “Twilight Sleep – L’Eau de Circe

  1. Dear Wedge
    I do believe that there is some affinity between Alma Tadema and perfume. His pictures often come to my mind when thinking about fragrance.
    How interesting to read about German Twilight Sleep and what a metaphor, the notion of seizure (the muscular word we use to describe fits and black outs) applied to scents is intriguing.
    Much food for thought, and if I remain a little unclear as to how this might smell, I have a sharper sense of how it feels. Which, after all, is far more important.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • Dear Soul

      “Dammerschlaf”, yes. I note that Betts Draper is sedated thus in Series 3 of Mad Men – with some degree of success. But I think by then the cocktail of drugs in the original procedure (primarily morphia) had been greatly modified.

      Why not pop round and smell Circe? You have hit the nail on the head – it is a fascinating scent but (no doubt by design) keeps you guessing as to exactly what is going on inside that great violet cloud…..

      Every good wish

      lw

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