Blood and Sand: Part Two

val-blood-sand

 

‘APPROPRIATE’: a doom-laden word of today. So, is it appropriate to use the smell of blood – the essential fluid of life – as a  perfume accord or a fragrance theme? I’d say it was permissible, interesting, provocative, adventurous – if risky. To others it remains weirdly and wholly inappropriate. The problem is, that blood – which could and should be perceived as awesome, sacred, even mystical – evokes in many people a sense of fright, revulsion and disgust.  The very thought of it, coursing hotly within us all at this very minute, is upsetting or repellent. Blood is all too intimately relevant to birth and (of course) to death. The circulation of the blood is inevitable, involuntary and universally applicable, but is best ignored whenever possible; or distanced by the conventions of cinema, Hallowe’en grotesquerie or gallows humour. Those avant garde perfumers who have so far “had a go” with blood, have therefore so far tended to trade on shock value, rather than contemplating the austere beauties of the metaphysical.

The splendidly polarising and revolutionary ‘Secretions Magnifiques‘ is probably still the best-known and most startling example of this small and recherche fragrance family. And here’s an interesting thing: in the ten years since its launch, the perception of this startling impressionistic blend of various intimate human body fluids has somewhat tamed and softened. People do still come into Les Senteurs to smell the bottle at arm’s length and to shudder & scream; but a younger generation has now grown up who consider ‘Secretions’ more thoughtfully and analytically.

Many of us have now come to recognize in ‘Secretions’ those molecules which give the perfume a curious similarity with certain crisp florals. Like the Aztecs¤ we may subconsciously make a connection between brilliantly coloured flowers¤¤ and hot spurting blood. For it remains vital that – for now – a sanguinary fragrance accord should display a certain clinical freshness. The reek of stale blood that so repelled the Conquistadors in those Mexican temples, and which stampeded the cattle herded past the guillotine in Revolutionary Paris, is really still too awful to think about. This is the stench which helped to drive Lady Macbeth out of her mind:

“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! Oh! Oh!”

Our olfactory decadence has yet some way to go. Sweat may play a role in ‘Secretions’ – but clots of black blood.. not at all, thank you.

Don’t forget, the ‘Secretions’ are still described – ironically or not – as ‘Magnifiques’. There is still somehow the suggestion of a divinely created grandeur. “The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.” Out in the commercial world you can enjoy Lady Gaga’s similarly themed fragrance: this is called “Fame”. You can read that name as bathetic or irrelevant – or alternatively, as a rather splendid invocation of the multi-tongued Roman goddess, proclaiming the perfume and its awe-ful contents to the nations. The veins of the Old Gods ran not with red blood but with ichor, a golden fluid redolent of fragrant honey and nectar. “Bloody Wood” by Liquides Imaginaires suggests something of this lyrically poetic theme: the scarlet succulence of a libation of richly symbolic wine, roses, cherries and raspberries. A Bacchanalian banquet before the Maenads of Dionysus run murderously berserk.

Last week we pondered the scented lure of the desert. The connection of blood & sand begins with the terrifying Egyptian myth of the attempted destruction of Mankind by the lioness goddess Sekhmet, “The Lady of the Bloodbath, the Ruler of the Chamber of Flames”. Enraged by the sins of men, Sekhmet came ravening out of the Western Desert and was stopped in her awful mission of slaughter only by making her dead drunk on jugs of red barley and pomegranate beer. This the lioness lapped, believing it to be the gore of her blasphemers.

Blood and sand coagulated in the Roman amphitheatres beneath awnings of violets and showers of rosewater. A shadow of this vanished ambience still mingles in the bull rings of southern Spain. Vierges et Torreros with its dusky musky accords of leather and tuberose is the corrida sanitised for lovers of “Ferdinand the Bull”, the dear little beast who loved to “sit quietly and smell the flowers” in “all the lovely ladies’…hair”. You might try Tom Daxon’s Vachetta too, a deep, rounded profound leather once described by an admirer as “beefy”. (All that fine Spanish leather is sourced in the ring; and the meat goes to the best restaurants in town).

I am acquainted with the metallic tang  of hot blood as I grew up with my father’s veterinary surgery just across the passage from our kitchen. And in those far-off days, tots seemed to fall over and bloody themselves almost constantly: of course, we all wore shorts to a remarkably advanced age and romped about outside for much of the time. Health and Safety was in its infancy. (I remember having to have the section on First Aid in my Enid Blyton Diary slowly explained to me. “But what does it MEAN?”). The smell of blood is sharp, metallic, rather like the iodine with which all those injuries were agonisingly daubed.¤¤¤

It doesn’t panic me, as it does animals – and many humans – but it inspires me with a certain awe and I think perfume-wise it deserves to be treated with respect. And, so: this is where we came in!
¤ a percipient sociologist, whose name I cannot recall, once famously noted that civilizations who appreciate liberal blood-letting are usually keen flower gardeners, too.

¤¤ flowers scream when they are picked, as Ian Fleming reminded us. I well remember my mother and grandmother shrieking aloud when they reached this line in a Bond novel. Naturally we children were enthralled.

¤¤¤ but why does modern iodine not sting as it once used to? Have they ‘taken something out’? I bought a bottle recently, and had a dab for old time’s sake. The formula is now strangely mild. My aunt used to say it was added to my orange juice to calm my infant agitations: a suggestion my parents hotly denied.

Advertisements

10 Key Odours

par17

Picking up on that new American theory of smell we were talking about on Tuesday, I drew up a list of specimens in the shop.

MINTY : Geranium Pour Monsieur by Editions de Parfum.

There’s plenty to chose from in this category, but I’m plumping for Malle’s green ice spectacular with peppermint and mint absolute and the creamy musky base.

DECAYED: Charogne by Etat Libre D’Orange

Overblown flowers, the weird beauty of ylang ylang and incense with fleshy animalic hints. The scent of gamey carrion, food on the edge of rot.

PUNGENT: Velvet Oud by Maison Francis Kurkdjian.

Weighted wine-coloured velvet drapes, impregnated with smoky earthy oud. A scent so thick and heavy you can cut it, bruise yourself on it.

SWEET: Teint de Neige by Villoresi.

Powdery and white, like snow or icing sugar. Delicately candied jasmine flower, rose petals, vanilla and soft blond woods. A lovely face, a crystal mirror.

LEMON: Verveine d’Eugene by Heeley

Lemon’s not as common as you might suppose. Here’s a dazzling lemon verbena with blackcurrant, pink rhubarb and green bergamot. Droolingly citrus: is your mouth watering?

FRAGRANT: Un Bateau Pour Capri by Eau d’Italie

Peony, jasmine, cedar, rose and heliotrope with a dash of champagne and clear morning sunshine. Smells like the plains of Heaven.

POPCORN : Aomassai by Parfumerie Generale.

If you can’t wait for La Fin du Monde try this adult feast of caramel, toasted hazelnut, liquorice and resins. Black and gold fires, smoky vanilla, liquid tonka.

FRUITY: Playing with the Devil by Kilian

Hide and seek in the woods. Dripping juicy blood orange, peach, blackcurrants and lychee.

WOODY: Sandalo by Lorenzo Villoresi

Dark, clean, sombre, grainy: Asian and European woods, sap, bark and the forest floor.

CHEMICAL: Secretions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange

The intimate fluids secreted by the chemicals of the human body – interpreted with adrenaline and azurone layered with flowery accords.

So that’s mine. Or one of mine. And what is yours?

Image: fisheaters.com

The Blood is the Life

Fascinating to me that in both the original Ira Levin novel and also the film version of Rosemary’s Baby, perfume is used to make a very definite point. From the start, the apartments we see in the company of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse at “Black Bramford” are forcing houses of herbs and soi-disant medicinal plants. As both Rosemary and her unfortunate acquaintance Terri Genofrio are drawn into the garrulous old Castavets’ sabbats they are embraced by the foul bitter reek of the diabolical tannis root (“can a root be an herb?”) in its exquisite silver Renaissance pendant: pungent, earthy, sharp and repellent. “You’ll get used to the smell before you know it,” chuckles Laura Louise, the jolly witch from the 12th floor, and the strange thing is that Rosemary does. She becomes anosmic and I think this is a metaphor for her shutting her eyes to her instinctive suspicions of the supreme horror approaching, and one hint of many that ultimately she will become another Minnie Castavet, a perfect mother to the infant Satan at the ambiguous conclusions of the movie.

However once Rosemary discovers that she is indeed in the clutches of a nest of devil-worshippers and the time for the baby’s delivery approaches she drops the stinking root – “what IS it? A – a chemical thing?” ( a nice little in-joke, if unintentional, for perfume lovers) – down the drain and sprays herself heavily and refreshingly with Revillon’s 1953 Detchema. Now, why this scent? Possibly it was Ira Levin’s own particular favourite or maybe there’s a more pointed implication. Detchema is floral and heavily aldehydic – roses, jasmine and ylang ylang; iris, muguet and vetiver. About as far from sinister tannis as you can get, as the doctor’s receptionist comments. Its a bit middle-aged for Rosemary, though; and Revillon, being a fur company, originally commissioned it to complement the wearing of pelts. Perhaps a hint of the all the treasures of the world coming from Guy’s demonic bargain (“suddenly he’s very hot!”), but maybe too its a nudge to think animal; to imagine exactly what kind of baby poor Mrs Woodhouse is about to deliver….covered in fur, coated with scales? (“It won’t bite you…”).

As she slowly realises the Castavets’ game, Rosemary develops other understandable fears – “they use blood in their rituals”. This moves us into to quite different territory – the appeal of the vampire. Vampires have never really been out of style since the publication of Dracula in 1897, but they seem especially in vogue again now: there was even one running in this year’s Marathon. Amusing to read about Tim Burton’s new movie of Dark Shadows: I remember watching this as an late afternoon tv show in Bermuda in 1968, in a tiny house set in a grove of grapefruit and banana trees, with hibiscus flowering round the porch. Our hostess Barbara was a retired Ziegfeld Follies girl who had grown up next door to Joan Bennett, the pre-war Hollywood star who was now queen of the show, hence the obligatory daily viewing with the first stiff rum + coke. There was also the smell of electricity and faint scorching in the air as Barbara had to hold wires from the tv set to her head as a primitive conductor: reception was truly terrible on the island.

Why have vampires such a perennial appeal? If it’s just the smell of blood you’re after, pay attention next time you fall out with a can of beans and a faulty opener: sharp, metallic, hot, salty and of course alarming. Or try Etat Libre‘s Secretions Magnifiques: an extraordinary recreation and evocation of blood and other intimate fluids. An interesting and mesmeric scent (even if the mesmerism is one of repulsion or disgust) but to me, it lacks the necessary warmth of its human ingredients: there is corpse-like cold – or is it surgical coolth? – instead of a palpitating heat. And also a suggestion of decay; the accords seem to represent secretions from a body not entirely healthy, or having otherwise staled.

Vampires and their renewed popularity are a macabrely acute metaphor for the apathetic and fatalistic malaise into which society has fallen, just as they symbolised the decadence of the Naughty Nineties. We feel out of control, drained morally, financially and responsibly by the terrifying drift of the world. It seems impossible for the average individual, preoccupied by his own survival and that of his family to do anything to influence the general drift of events. Where once religion provided an anchor and a rationale there is now often a void, or a Church that itself that sometimes seems to have lost its way and fallen into schism. The notion of being sucked dry of the life force, of falling into a paralysed state of partially languorous torpor while initiative and vitality is inexorably drained away by a figure of supernatural authority (and erotic appeal) can be powerfully attractive as a fantasy to those without faith or hope. Stoker’s Dracula and many of his type are presented as possessing a hideous kind of attraction for their prey, being involuntarily welcomed in by their victims who become willing partners in their own destruction.

And ironically though many smells thought hitherto unpleasant or inappropriate have been transmuted by the perfumer’s organ (cigarette smoke, Stilton cheese, bubblegum) no one has yet unfortunately risen to the challenge of breaking the olfactory taboo of garlic.

Image from cinerarium.wordpress.com