Friday, May 19, 2017

Archy Stillman and the Perfume of Commes des Garçons 2

When a human nose bends sinister there is more than reek to deal with. This is foreshadowed in an excerpt from A Double Barrelled Detective Story by Mark Twain. Five-year-old Archy Stillman's sense of smell is a superpower. Guided by his mother's counsel, he agrees to keep his talent a secret. The young man is on the receiving end of manipulation that has a foul air, but things aren't quite so black and white.
During his absence she had stepped to the bookcase, taken several books from the bottom shelf, opened each, passed her hand over a page, noting its number in her memory, then restored them to their places. Now she said:
"I have been doing something while you have been gone, Archy. Do you think you can find out what it was? 
The boy went to the bookcase and got out the books that had been touched, and opened them at pages which had been stroked. 
The mother took him in her lap and said, 
"I will answer your question now dear. I have found out that in one way you are quite different from other people. You can see in the dark, you can smell what other people cannot, you have the talents of a bloodhound. They are good an valuable things to have, but you must keep the matter a secret. If people found out, they would speak of you as an odd child, a strange child, and children would be disagreeable to you, and give you  nicknames. In this world one must be like everybody else if he doesn't want to provoke scorn or envy or jealousy. It is a great and fine distinction which has been born to you, and I am glad: but you will keep it a secret for mamma's sake, won't you?" 
The child promised without understanding.
A Double Barrelled Detective Story by Mark Twain

The sense of smell isn't good or bad on its own. How the nose is put to use determines how it will be judged. If this sounds like the beginning of a sermon you are hearing the echoes of an olfactory artifact whispering in your ear. The belief that the human sense of smell is inferior to that of animals was perpetuated by fear-based interpretations of religion and old science, each of which imposed a moral yardstick on the sense of smell.

A Double Barrelled Detective Story was written towards the end of the Victorian period and published in 1902. This period in England's history emphasized a refinement of the senses that traveled across the Atlantic to the United States accompanied by vestiges of Puritanism.

Nose-averse moralists believed that smells possessed one of two natures—good or evil. Scientists dismissed human olfactory prowess, emphasizing that the sense of smell became less important to humans when they abandoned their nose-to-the-ground ways and began walking upright. These former cultural norms encouraged keeping one's civilized nose to the grindstone above the olfactory business in which animal noses trade.

Physical uprightness is a metaphor for moralism as it devalues four-legged creatures that have no problem sticking their nose in anything as long as it satisfies their curiosity and leads to a desired outcome related to survival (food, a mate, devastation of a predator, etc.). A third reality exists in the duality of moral contrast, but it takes a really good nose to sniff out what an artist's eyes see quite clearly; black and white make gray and gray, though a combination of two colors, is a color in its own right.

Commes des Garçons 2 perfume was launched in 1999 and formulated for designer Rei Kawakubo by perfumer Mark Buxton. The fragrance—housed in a bottle with the number two drawn in a child-like hand—is inspired by Japanese Sumi ink used by temple monks in calligraphic painting. Sumi ink is made from the ashes of pine trees, mixed with binding agents (including aromatics) and molded into bars. The aesthetics of Sumi-e rely on capturing the "spirit of a thing" while painting it—whether the subject is real or imagined. This unseen element exists between complements and contrasts. It is the gray matter between darkness and light.

The candle version of Commes des Garçons 2 is an olfactory representation of the duality embedded in Archy Stillman's innocence and his superhuman sense of smell. Experience has yet to teach him that a gift, inborn or material, can be used against him. The reek of scheming cloaked as maternal concern is lost on him because the flame of the candle is his mother's love.

Archy Stillman's innocence floats above a circular pool of melting candle wax perfumed with white magnolia flowers and black Sumi ink. In his mind's eye Archy sees a temple monk forming the crescent of a watery moon with the tip of his paintbrush. The flower's fragrance masks the "spirit of a thing" that is beyond Archy's sense of smell—the colorless arc of duplicity that lives in the shadows.

This is the second in a series of posts about interesting literary passages with an olfactory twist. The first can be found here. Each post includes a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke recommends experiencing the fragrance while reading the text associated with it. Get your nose inside a book. The hashtag for these posts is #SmellLiterature.

Modern interpretations of the value of the sense of smell are shifting. Scientific studies continue to debunk myths that characterize the human sense of smell as inferior to that of animals. This isn't news to the gaming community where possessing an enhanced sense of smell is revered as a superpower. You may actually know what a dog's nose knows. You may also be able to smell like one according to a recent study led by Dr. John McGann of the McGann Lab, but you'll have to get over multiple meanings attached to the word "smell" and get your nose out of your armpit.

Ingredients that comprise the aroma of Commes des Garçons 2 perfume includeInk, Incense, Amber, Labdanum, Patchouli, Chinese Cedarwood, New Aldehydes, Cumin, Angelica Root, Vetiver, Cade Oil, Absolute Mate, Magnolia Flower and Leaf Absolute.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Snork Maiden and Ombre Rose Perfume

There's a wonderful passage in Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson that illustrates how descriptions of smells can draw us inside our imagination. This is interesting when one considers that much of what's been written about the transporting power of scent is related to the context of our own memories. 

Let's drop the Proustian madeleine for a moment. What happens when we smell something and forget ourselves? Wonderful things. Magical things. Things we don't want to admit to ourselves or show the world because we are too embarrassed to dream in front of others. Want to know more? Just ask Snork Maiden. 

The following passage is from the fourth chapter of Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. It's about an adventure that Snork Maiden has when she sets foot on a floating theater with an adventurous family of gentle creatures called the Moomins: 
She went instead a bit further along the passage, sniffing the air. She had noticed an enticing and very interesting scent, a scent of face powder. The small round spot from her flashlight wandered along the walls and finally caught the magic word "Costumes" on a door. "Dresses" whispered the Snork Maiden to herself. "Frocks!" She turned the door handle and stepped in.  
"Oh how wonderful," she panted. "Oh how beautiful."  
Robes, dresses, frocks. They hung in endless rows, in hundreds, one beside the other all around the room—gleaming brocade, fluffy clouds of tulle and swansdown, flowery silk, night-black velvet with glittering spangles, everywhere like small, many colored blinker beacons. 
The Snork Maiden drew closer, overwhelmed. She fingered the dresses. She seized an armful of them and pressed them to her nose, to her heart. The frocks rustled and swished, they smelled of dust and old perfume, they buried her in rich softness. Suddenly the Snork Maiden released them all and stood on her head for a few minutes.  
"To calm myself," she whispered. I'll have to calm down a bit or else I'll burst with happiness. There's too many of them...
What would the world be like if we responded to beauty by standing on our head rather than seizing what beckoned us? It would be a very different world indeed. If we stood on our head and felt everything that Snork Maiden did what would that moment smell like? The moment would be redolent of Ombre Rose L'Original (1981) by Jean Charles Brousseau. 

Ombre Rose has an interesting history. Perfumer Francois Caron included a premixed fragrance base that was used to scent vintage face powder in the formula for Ombre Rose. Madam Caron did this to shape the perfume's olfactory character as this introduced a timeless quality associated with glamour that several generations could relate to. 

Author Barbara Herman elaborates on this effect in Yesterday's Perfume, "That re-used base was itself being self-reflexive: by reproducing the scent of face powder (rather than a flower or something "natural") it's commenting on its own status as a cosmetic, but also on itself as an aesthetic medium. It reflects; it doesn't merely reproduce." 

And to that I would add that like Snork Maiden, Ombre Rose stands on its head. It's perfumed with glamorous actresses of the past modeling the aspirations of a young girl who will one day be a woman. Smell it as you read the passage and you can simultaneously dream in the present, past and future for yourself. 

This is the first in a series of posts about interesting literary passages with an olfactory twist. Each post will include a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke recommends experiencing the fragrance while reading the text associated with it. Get your nose inside a book. The hashtag for these posts is #SmellLiterature.

Demeter, a fragrance company known for its library of smells, sells a representation of snow as perfume. It was inspired by a passage in Moominland Midwinter. Snow perfume was formulated by Christopher Brosius when he worked for Demeter. Brosius is an independent perfumer and continues to create interesting olfactory portraits at CB I Hate Perfume

The image of Snork Maiden is from Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. The book is one of eight in the Moomin series. Jansson created the illustrations that accompany the stories in her books, which were written for children. There's a Wiki for all of the Moomin characters. Reading through the character descriptions makes it clear why Moomin stories aren't just for children. Character descriptions of Moomin characters on the official Moomin website are playful, informative and highly entertaining.