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 literary passages with an olfactory twist. The first post can be found here.  Each article includes a recommended perfume and/or raw material for smelling that resonates with the text. Glass Petal Smoke suggests experiencing the fragrance(s) while reading the associated text. 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.