Life is so very fluid and uncertain that there’s great comfort to be found in the Eternal Truths of the primeval cosmic myths. The contemplation of the planting of a Garden, east of Eden; or the Laying of the Cosmic Egg by the Cosmic Goose. These stories have the great calm of an eternal inevitability. There was a riveting, if slightly grumpy, discussion of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi on the wireless last week: a fresh churning of that ocean of perfumed milk and white lotus flowers from which the deity sprang, entire and perfect, like Athene or Aphrodite. I was enchanted by the description of the cosmic elephants trumpeting golden largesse and wearing garlands of impossibly lovely blossoms of unearthly fragrance. The animals were maddened by the sound of the scent. The pachyderms were bombarded by the vibration of the intoxicating perfume, in itself the sound of Creation. At this point the studio experts disputed as to whether the noise was coming from the flowers themselves or from the bees swarming on their nectar. But what an image! We have all in our time been deafened by fragrance; and stung too, as by a merciless horde of insects.
I’ve been re-reading Hilary Mantel’s magnificently upsetting Beyond Black: a novel of the grotesque, cruel and comic supernatural, replete with invasive, disturbing and disorienting smells. These are the kind of reeks that muck up your powers of hearing – and thus your balance – just as the ungodly voices of fiends gibber on the psychic Alison’s tape recorder. In vain she tries to repel them with hot scented baths and liberal applications of her sweet signature perfume, pregnant with meaning: Je Reviens.
An early lost work by Rembrandt has recently been rediscovered in the USA. This is one of a series of paintings illustrating the five senses. Rembrandt’s depiction of the sense of smell is perhaps the last thing you would expect: nothing lyrical nor sentimental here. We see the eponymous Unconscious Patient in a swoon, during the course of some minor and doubtless dubious surgery. The man is being brought round with pungent smelling salts: consciousness being revived by the shocking sting of sal volatile. When I first saw images of the painting I instinctively thought, with my foolish modern sensibilities, ah! now here is a patient being given a whiff of merciful ether prior to treatment. I was, of course, ahead of blessed anaesthetics by two centuries. Rather the artist is taking a very grim look indeed at the power of smell: its use to restore that consciousness lost through pain in order that the victim may endure more – possibly efficacious – agony.
All this bearing in mind that, as was appreciated even then, the healing arts of the seventeenth century killed more than they cured. Our ancestors used perfume for pleasure, to be sure: but scent then was far more to do with awe, magic, alchemy and enchantment – and that’s enchantment in the witchy – rather than the QVC or Disney – sense of the word.
I have been stung – literally; not in the monetary sense¤ – several times by fragrance. By crude pot pourri that burned the nose – “don’t get it near your face” – and which roughened the hands as though you were laying carpets; by liquid perfumes that scorched my neck and peeled my ears. These items I have avoided at point of sale. It is trickier when you are assaulted by scent worn by others. I don’t subscribe to the general execration heaped on Dior’s Poison – I think it’s an ingenious and pioneering creation. However, some quarter century ago, I worked for a whole year standing next to a girl who apparently swam in Poison and washed her clothes in it. I was comprehensively worked over by Poison; pounded and force-fed by that curious smell that is so like that of old Russia: spicy fermenting bruised apples.
Last week – anticipating LES SENTEURS’ paradoxical new scent ATTAQUER LE SOLEIL – I said a little about the pain in pleasure of certain perfumes. These You Have Loathed – Yet Loved. I remember now my tormented relationship with Fahrenheit – is there some curious anti-bond between me and Dior? – in the late ’80’s. People today say Fahrenheit has an unnatural strength and vigour: but back then – o my! Those wild accords of leather, mandarin¤¤ and violet and I don’t know what. It was something akin to the buzz you may get from the smell of fresh petrol on the garage forecourt. I adored it and had a standing order with the Dior girls for empty testers from which I could wring a few more drops. The precious odour of Fahrenheit kind of hurt my teeth: it made my gums ache and my mouth water¤¤¤. I think it’s the closest I ever came to a perfume addiction.
Perfume is an exciting and nerve-wracking business: occasionally even the most ardent of lovers needs to take stock. Every once in a while a fragrance-free weekend, naked as nature intended, rests the nerves – while simultaneously sharpening the appetite for more. The technique of the true epicure and the connoisseur of sensations.
¤ In 50 years of purchasing power I’ve always felt I’ve had my money’s worth from perfume. I have bought into the dream all my life and never yet awoken.
¤¤ ‘mandarin’ – or ‘man-darr-INN’ as everyone pronounces it these days.
¤¤¤ Lancome’s Tresor – once the cult fragrance of Holloway wardresses – had something of the same effect. A compulsive acidic juiciness.