Saturday, 3 November 2012

Perfume & Poetry (Sophie Read)

Perfume & Poetry (based on a talk by Sophie Read)
Smelling is not usually associated with the intellect. Unlike sight and hearing, by which we learn things from books and lectures, smell along with touch and taste are traditionally seen as more primitive, even bestial. There is some plausibility to this view, reflected in the parts of the brain devoted to these senses, smell belonging to a very primitive part of the brain, much earlier than language. Smell is ephemeral. It is always on the way out. It is indescribable. The words we use to describe it often come from other senses, such as sight or taste. A smell may be bitter, sweet, earthy, musky, … or flowery, citrus, lemony, sparkly, radiant, … or just smelly … or that vaguest of words, “nice”! There is a myth of the wild child with very acute smell who when reintroduced into society learns language and loses their primitive sense. Whether based in truth or not, language and smell are perceived in inverse relationship to each other. The opposite can also be true — an increased perceptiveness of language can have the effect of increasing our awareness.
Historically, smell has perhaps been devalued along with emotion and memory in favour of sight, in the so-called enlightenment, not enscentenment. Fitting then that poetry, similarly at the boundary of language, at the fringes of what can be expressed, should have an affinity with fragrance. Wordsworth once described poetry as “Emotion recollected in tranquillity” which captures both those elements of emotion and memory (recollection), but he omits fragrance. Wordsworth had a condition which affected his smell and even in his famous poem of the daffodils, there is no mention of their scent. If you look, however, at Coleridge and Shelley, we see their excitement as they get waylaid by some wonderful fragrance. Proust too takes great delight in smell, for example in his famous passage about the madeleine. 
There is a paradox to smell in that the means of capturing it are all very violent, destructive mechanisms: effleurage, pression, tincture, distillation, an act of destruction in order to preserve. Incense is burnt, wood is crushed. The etymology of perfume is from the Latin pro-fuma meaning “through smoke”. Its presence comes from something tangible, and yet it is intangible. It has a quality of the divine, of religion, of romance.
The primary organ of smell is the brain. It bypasses the intellect, and has a quality of truth to it. We see this in Shakespeare: the smell of blood that not all the perfumes of Arabia can erase, the smell of mortality in Hamlet. In sonnet 5, Shakespeare tries to seduce his love by arguing that she should preserve her essence by procreating. “Flowers distilled, though they with winter meet, lose but their show, their substance still lives sweet” Shakespeare’s father was a glove-maker, and gloves used to be scented, so Shakespeare must have known well about the production of fragrance, and the destructiveness associated with this process. This lends these lines a strange and ominous character not really appropriate for seducing a lady. Would she really want to be crushed to preserve her essence?

It was once believed that smells carried disease before germs were discovered, so smell carried some very negative connotations. During the plague, doctors walked about the city wearing huge beaks filled with herbs and flowers to ward off the stench. These might have actually been effective because some scents such as lavender and rosemary are believed to have antibiotic properties and are used in aromatherapy today. 

Some scents also have aphrodisiac effects, which have also traditionally been cause for suspicion. An English Parliamentary Act of 1770 protected men from the seductive wiles of powdered and scented women by rendering marriages brought about by such “deception” null and void.
Coco Chanel famously marketed Chanel No. 5 in 1921 as a perfume that smelt “like a woman, not like a flower”. She sought to emancipate woman from the fragile flower-like image, an image epitomised in literature East and West, in Chinese poetry for example just as in Western art. Has there yet been a similar revolution in poetry? Robert Herrick’s description of Julia breaks the usual formula for how a woman was expected to smell. And yet his Julia smells of incense, of oracle, of the church.


Tell if thou canst, and truly, whence doth come

This camphor, storax, spikenard, galbanum;
These musks, these ambers, and those other smells,
Sweet as the vestry of the oracles.
I’ll tell thee: while my Julia did unlace
Her silken bodice but a breathing space,
The passive air such odour then assum’d,
As when to Jove great Juno goes perfum’d,
Whose pure immortal body doth transmit
A scent that fills both heaven and earth with it.
— Robert Herrick (The Hesperides, 1648)

We leave it as a challenge to you… to do in words what Coco Chanel did for fragrance: to capture the scent of woman, of real woman. Which writer does it best? ...can you?

Images: Aoi Miyazaki (2009) & Chanel (1921) by Sem [Georges Goursat]

Canopus Archives commented: Love the poem.

One thing only hinted at is the use of smell in magic rituals. When a magic ritual is performed its effect is to stimulate parts of the brain to cause an effect in the real world, whether it does or not is a debatable point. For example the perfume Ambergris is associated with Kether the Crown in qabalism, middle pillar in tree of life, Parabrahman, Siva, Brahma, Zeus, Jupiter, God, Swan, Hawk, Almond in flower, Diamond, Union with God, The Point, The Self, Atman and the sahasrara cakra (above head). Scent in magic rituals is one of the mos
t important ingredients of the ritual as it stimulates perhaps the deepest centre of the brain. Remnants of this can be seen in such rituals as the burning of frankincense in the Catholic rituals. 

okei: Your connection to magic reminds me of the following:

“There are said to be certain Mexican shamans whose magic is based on a performance of the crossroads, wherein the act of situating themselves in a crisis of choice between multiple, indeterminate directional possibilities summons an intense cosmic energy with which they can change their identity at will. Personal transformation is brought on through agonistic self-splitting and animistic metamorphosis. Ohmaxac - at the crossroads.”

— Edgar Garcia, Review: Poetry’s Fork

That's an interesting comment you make. I think the speaker at this talk was going to look specifically at the history of ambergris, and she had brought a sample for us to smell. A very strange smell it was too! And the connection of magic with the primitive, harnessing our deepest self... fascinating thought!
Canopus Archives: Ambergris seems to be a very difficult incense/oil to find. The first two times I went to Egypt I looked for it, but, everyone said it must be an old name and tried to sell me amber. However, it's regurgitated or defecated by sperm whales and although sometimes wrongly called amber true amber comes from a tree. Strange how a substance that when initially secreted smell like faecal odour end up being the highest spiritual perfume. I'm sure there is something very Zen about that.
Here's some info on 
Her research looks as if it could become a very interesting book.  
I know galbanum, it was another one I looked for in Egypt and met with blank stares by perfume sellers. It was easy to find there once. It's No. 11 on the key scale which in itself is a magic number, represented by Aleph in qabalism, Zeus, Jupiter, the eagle or man, Aspen, topaz, chalcedony, divination and the dagger or fan are its correspondences among others.

okei: I don't know anything about magic in qabalism, but thanks for sharing all these cool correspondences. I hope I might come back to them one day and they'll make more sense.

I'm guessing you were asking for these perfumes not because you wanted to blend them together to make your own, but a more spiritual intention, to make your own incense for meditation or something?
Canopus Archives: The correspondences come from an extensive table of correspondences in a wighty tomb called Magic, Theory and Practice by the English magician Aleister Crowley written in the early 1900's. Yes, he does have a bad reputation a lot of it to do with bad press although if he were alive these days peole would think little of it. He did however do extensive research into magic paths etc. and information he reveals itself gives invaluable insight into this side of human thought.

As far as perfumes are concerned, as you have already pointed out, they do have effects on the psyche on a very deep level. Even just a small experiment with them will show you haw some scents relax you, others excite you and yet others invoke a sense of spirituality. I was more interested in obtaining some of the rarer ones that acted upon higher centres of the psyche to see for myself any effects they produced, but, alas it was not to least in Egypt.

Egypt was once one of the main places for obtaining high quality perfume oils, but, alas these days most that are there are imported from the French perfume manufacturers and then watered down so to speak. You can still get some very good amber oil there though :)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Canopus for all the great comments!

    I have posted them at the end of the main blog.