The terrifying, and profoundly affecting, central conceit in Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (made subsequently into brilliant, if entirely differing, film adaptations by Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh) is the idea that we are, essentially, how others see us. Although this is hardly a new notion, especially for anyone who has studied existentialism or simply spent time analyzing the human condition, it is still put into very painful relief in the form of Rheya, the wife of the main protagonist and scientist, Kris Kelvin, a man who finds himself investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of scientists on board a spacecraft that is being inexplicably magnetized, radiated and manipulated by Solaris, the planet the spaceship is currently in the process of orbiting: an insidious, nocturnal, interference that manifests itself in the form of night visitations to the surviving crew members by people that they left behind on earth, many years ago, mostly dead.
They return, to visit their loved ones, looking and seeming identical, the planet’s advanced intelligence scanning each crew member’s memories of that person and reproducing them with perfect fidelity, except, and most crucially, for the fact that they only have that person’s memory to go by. Meaning that the replicant being – unmalevolent, new, unaware of his or her condition – feels strangely, and excruciatingly lacking: sensing, and suffering, from the fact that vital parts of their mechanism – their soul if you like – are missing, for the simple, yet deadening, reason that their reborn, reassembled selves are composed, solely, of one other person’s limiting, self-serving and subjective, view point.
As the implications of the narrative begin to unfold, I always find this to be quite a horrifying idea. Where the myriad of components of our personalities, some concealed, some revealed, some unformed, some exaggerated, are in a perpetual flux of opposities and contradictions, moods and nuances – an ever evolving, constantly shifting mass of contrasting moods and perceptions, the Solaris projection is fixed: locked: and limited, simplified annihilatingly by the absorbent and moulding – if loving – gaze of another. We are trapped, in other words, in their vision; undeserved: simplified: trashed. I may be wild and anarchic, a hooligan, libertarian: rude, vain, aggressive, irrational, a dreamer inclined towards decadence and crazed romanticism – but I can also be conservative, quiet, logical, removed, and actually, to the surprise of some people, really rather introverted. Both libidinous and chaste. Stupid and intelligent. Compassionate yet vindictive. Spiritual, yet a hedonist. Multifaceted. Just like anyone.
And although it may seem like a somewhat spurious link, I think the ideas presented in Solaris are also connected, in some ways, to perfume and personality: signature scents, other people’s associations of us, and the varied, unfaithful, and promiscuous lives of the true and collecting perfumist. Unlike the civilians on the street, who usually probably have just one, or possibly two scents, often given to them by somebody else as a gift (can you imagine having your signature scent conferred on you? my mind thrashes instinctively in protest and rejection even imagining this), just to wear………. because, we ‘smell sensitives’ bond far more deeply with the scents that we have identified with and chosen for ourselves – knowingly -and use them, often, to externalize and exteriorize our internal feelings (….why do we do this? To reinforce them? Double them? Colour them and decorate them, make them manifest? What weird, space-probing extroversion is this exactly?).
When we feel erotically inclined, we know what to wear, precisely, to boost the body’s arsenal. Extroverted, gregarious, attention-seeking: they’ve got my name on them. Comforting, sweet……oh yes. Mysterious and complex….something vintage and difficult; impenetrable, androgynous, and cloaky, from my antique Japanese cabinets. Then, another day……. simplicity, to strip ourselves right down to the bright rind frisks of the lemon, the yuzu; iciness, colournessness. Negation; nihilism even – I Hate Perfume’s Black March, with its bleakness of black-branched, crow-cawing sky; its hints of death, of soil, and of winter.
So while we may have our standard, essential, familiar-to-others base character – in my case probably patchouli, vanilla, tropical flowers, and coconut, and I admit that these are the smells I most readily identify with (party boy: heat: dancing: summer), we all, all of us, have our secret sides, our private sides, our unexpecteds, our anti-intuitives – our mood-changers, if you like: the perfume that is our rebellion against type. Our clandestine, impenetrable, refuge.
Rheya, in Solaris, is trapped, tragically, in her grieving husband’s remembrances of her, which centre around three pivotal characteristics. Firstly, her sensuality (less so in the Tarkovsky, but especially in Soderbergh’s version of the story – one of my favourite films of all time, incidentally, starring a beautiful, sad and bereft George Clooney as Kelvin, and the compelling, eerie Natascha McCelhone as his dead wife . We see their first chance meeting, on a train, and she is mystery and salvation itself; alluring; intellectual, all eyes and try-to-get-me gestures). Her strange beauty, which has such a hold over him, is the principle affirmation in her alien reincarnation. But also there is poetry, for this is what they bond over, initially – their shared love of Dylan Thomas’ ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’:
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.
Mostly, though, what Kelvin seems to remember about his long-disappeared wife, now, is her depressive and hypersensitive nature, her strong, and ultimately fatal suicidal tendencies (he finds her dead in bed following a row, and is guilt-stricken and destroyed as a result). Rheya is thus confined to these three, simplified characteristics in her resurrected incarnation; a truncated, edited person, limited by his own projections of what she represented for him personally. Convinced, the first time, by the other vehement crew members to get rid of ‘it’, sending the cloned version of his beloved out to her death into the lifeless atmosphere outside, Kelvin nevertheless again has numerous re-visitations by this wife-clone, this hampered, uncomplex creature who feels all the lacks in her constituents, keenly, painfully, to the extent that she no longer wants to ‘live’ any more because her memories, and her sensations, don’t feel like her own ( despite the love that they still feel, inexorably, between them). The scientist, is too profoundly overjoyed, however, to have been given another chance at redemption – even if it is by an alien life form that is tampering with his insecurites – and is unable to let her die again. And as expected, he pays the ultimate sacrifice as a result (or does he? The film is steeped in ambiguity and the lovers, in whatever form they have taken, seem to be destined for eternity……..ultimately, though ostensibly a science fiction film, I think of Solaris as a deeply haunting love story). The Soderbergh version is one of the most hypnotic films I have ever seen, actually, largely due to the set design, atmosphere, and the throbbing, shimmering soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, while the Tarkovsky, original film from 1972 is almost too intolerably exquisite for me to bear: profound perfection, but deeply depressing, touching some chord in me that I wasn’t entirely sure I needed to be touched. It sits there waiting in my film collection to be re-viewed, but where I have seen the Soderbergh version probably at least six or seven times, The Tarkovsky will just have to wait until I can steel myself again fully, to its beautifully, searing, unalloyed, unflinching poetry.
Essentially, I am fascinated by the theories at the heart of this story, of the limiting nature of human-to-human interaction, how we box people, categorize them, reduce them to one, defining buzzword, feeling, trait. Even on the blogosphere, among the perfume cognoscenti, we know the essential tastes of the better known writers, can imagine this one person constantly sashaying about in a tart, trumpeting tuberose; that one in an essential oil of Laotian oud, another in Indonesian vanilla, even if they are guaranteed in reality to be as complex, and conflicting in their desires and fantasies as we ourselves are. Maybe they also, like myself, need their rebellious sanctuaries, reactions against type, smells to help them escape the confining, and suffocating, constraints of society, stereotype, and ‘personality’, to be freed.
And I think that Hermès Narcisse Bleu, which I smelled for the third time yesterday in a Japanese department store and loved ( I will need to buy it), might be one of those saviours: those tranquil, nerve-calming smells of cool, stalactitian antidote: the shady undergrowth where I suddenly want to be not what is expected of me; to rebel internally and from without, to be invisible, swimming silently, more subtle……The Blue Narcissus, this time, not the Black.
This is a perfume that is austere; aloof, removed: almost daringly, and revitalizingly cold. Though the notes are listed simply as being of narcissus and galbanum over woods, I was reminded immediately of the melancholy distance of Hermès Hiris (one of my other go-to ‘refuge’ scents), as well as the green and beautiful escape chute that is Geoffrey Beene’s violet-leaved Grey Flannel. I smell iris, and green notes, and something crisp, unsweetened, even bitter and tannic in this scent- it almost repels you, startlingly, with its aversion to the the sweet, even while it draws you in with its understated, arcadian elegance. It speaks to me directly, and will be a portal. To my grotto, a place you can’t touch. A place of isolation, peace, solitude. My anti-reference point. My blue lagoon.
The work of Tammy Frazer, a South African perfumer who works exclusively with locally sourced, sustainable aromatic materials, is impressive. While the names of the perfumes in the nine ‘chapters’ of the collection, each based on a particular combination of natural ingredients discovered on her travels, might not evoke poetic insights (‘Coffee and Orange’: ‘Mint and Patchouli’ and so on), the lack of pretentiouness also makes a refreshing change in the concept-overheavy current climate. Besides, some of the scents themselves are really quite beautiful: strange, poignant and peculiar creations that work on you slowly and emotively with their gentle fusions of time and place. This is a stimulating, delicate poetry of captured plant essences that produces an olfactory timbre very different from that of mainstream of perfumery or even of niche, and while it might be considered unfashionable among scent cognoscenti of the Chandler Burr School…
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When you think of some of the flowered wonders that exist on this earth with all their luscious appearances and perfumes, lavender and geranium are probably, on reflection, not the prettiest – I almost think of them more as herbs. Hardy, very English, pleasantly scented potted-plants to grace my doorstep and balcony, yes, but for me, more like loved and trusted medicines.
Both are olfactory essences that I have long been in alliance with in terms of their aromatherapeutic use: the stern, health-giving and rigorously beautiful scent of lavender; the rosaceous, pungent, glorious life-force that is geranium essential oil. I would not be able to count the number of bottles I have bought and used over the years, to be honest: for baths, skin creams, throat gargles; insect bites, as antiseptics, to sprinkle on the pillow at night as a natural, calming remedy to help me sleep.
I also like lavender perfumes, although I don’t really wear them all that often. Duncan is from Norfolk, source of the finest English lavender fields (we even went on a lavender tour there, and I am not ashamed to say that I did shed a tear when I saw the distiller drip its first drop of pure essential oil into the container bottle, as great bales of freshly harvested lavender were put into the machinery). He seems to be naturally drawn to the scent, and his mother also often sends me bunches of lavender that she has picked and dried from her garden (and which I also hung up in my hospital room during this stay – thanks Daphne x ).
Serge Lutens’ Gris Clair (which, perhaps scandalously, I doctored with some high-altitude Mexican lavender essential oil to make it even more lavendered); Guerlain’s sharp, dandyish and violet-heavy Lavande Velours, and Penhaligons’ suaver than suave Sartorial are all lavender scents that smell fantastic on him – elegant, understated, intriguing, and fresh.
The lavenders I have worn myself are more vanillic, or else almost nothing but lavender: Caron’s Pour Un Homme and Les Plus Belles Lavandes De Caron with their sensual undertones of vanilla and amber come to mind: Gaultier’s husky mint-musked lavender Le Mâle, Yardley’s English Lavender – which is beautifully simple and almost grave in its traditional Englishness, and, even better, and by far my absolute favourite, the lesser known, but utterly delightful Lavande Royale by Roger & Gallet, which has a compelling, flinty nutmeg note in its heart, alongside the refreshing cologne-like citrus top notes and more balsamic, benzoin-laced base.
This latter scent has some points in common with Diptyque’s new Eau De Lavande from ‘Les Florales’, a recently introduced range that includes the nicely done, if unthrilling, Eau De Rose, and Eau Moheli, a bright, twisty, and interesting take on the ylang ylang tree that I couldn’t help buying last year as a wake-up, oceanic, summer work scent.
Call me style over substance, but I must say upfront that I just love the packaging of these perfumes, to the extent that I think I would buy them merely to be able to look at the bottles and boxes on the dresser (stupid though that probably sounds): the Geranium Odorata, with that clever little red, softly indented, band, the pleasureably ergonomic smooths of the bottle; the hypnotically pure, classical botanical prints embossed all over the white box…. it all really does strike me as an especially gorgeous design, and must say that I like the lavender one as well, with its Arcadian fountain, its flow of lavender springing eternally from the sage, Hellenic wells of antiquity. The perfume inside is also quite nice, again with a nutmeg note ( a smell I adore), as well as cinnamon, coriander, and a warm, if somewhat drab, woody base. It veers towards the masculine side of things, and is quite sensual for a lavender perfume; a bristling, fresh lavender scent with an immediate, commercial hook that I can imagine making it quite successful, but it is a little dun, and ‘sportively understated’, for my own more purist, lavendrial tastes.
Comparatively, geranium is a far less common star player in perfumery, even though it is a fundamental ingredient, along with lavender, in the classic, familiar, gentlemanly fougère composition. Geranium essential oil is one of the strongest aromas that exist, so pungent and diffusive that a few drops in the bath will fill up the whole house with lung, brain, and hormone-secreting fullness. This vital, voluminous strength of odour speaks of its power: the geranium is one of the hardiest of plants, surviving in all kinds of conditions and temperatures, able to just live on and on and keep doing what it does best: BLOOM. I don’t do anything with the geranium plants we have upstairs on the balcony, and I am constantly amazed by their ability to flower in despite of adversity: in frost, in the scorching Japanese summer, the bright red flowers show no sign of ever being cowed by their surroundings, and this is probably why the essence is so valued in aromatherapy; it truly is revitalizing.
It is also too harsh for most people as a perfume centerpiece: bright, sharp, almost cat-pissy. Frederic Malle’s Geranium Pour Monsieur did a fairly good job, I thought, with restraining the essence, dousing it, and putting it in a novel, fresh and minty context that made for a new take on masculinity, although I personally preferred Miller Harris’ excellent Geranium Bourbon, a Spanish-influenced geranium number that is piquant, unusual and intense, with its notes of cassis, palmarosa (another essential oil I love), rose and black pepper over a sultry patchouli and ambered base. There is nothing else quite like it, a strong and soulful flamenco geranium that, strangely, doesn’t seem to garner much attention. The solid perfume format, dense, thick and intense, is especially appealing.
Geranium Odorata is full of far less dramatic gestures, but what is good about it is the beautiful sense of balance that the perfume achieves. The geranium note (composed of two different geranium essences plus bergamot and pink pepper) is rosy, and blatantly geranium-ish, prominent, but, intertwined with a subtle, fresh tobacco note, cedarwood, tonka bean and Haitian vetiver, it avoids the raucous, minty green that the pure, unadulterated essential oil has. Instead it is mild, fresh, with a pleasing, and energizing, benevolence. Although I know I am certainly swayed by the packaging, I think I would like to own this scent in any case as a balancer; a re-equilibrizing post-shower scent when I can’t think what else to wear.
There has been some criticism of Diptyque on some perfume fora for playing it a bit too safe with Les Florales. When you think of some of the more uncompromising and striking perfumes in their past portfolio – the bizarre green basil of Virgilio, the sweaty armpit stench of the cumin-heavy, curried L’Autre, and the ghostly incense of the beautiful Vinaigre De Toilette, then I suppose these recent releases do come across as rather conservative. At the same time, what’s good about them is the lack of nonciness: flowers these days have to always be made demure, pink, and florabotanical ( I loathe all the modern. ‘feminine’ ‘roses’ that fill the department stores). In the Diptyque series they have a more brazen, vivid appeal, like the flowers themselves, reaching up in some June garden drinking in the sunshine and spreading their vibrant roots in the earth. For me, while none of the scents in the range have the clarity and sense-rushing lift of the very finest floral fragrances – there remains, at heart, something a tiny bit staid; safe, even chemical with the essential natural framework – at the same time there is an ease, a pleasantness and simplicity that I find I am rather drawn to.
While Shazam, an appealingly spiced and mood-enhancing fragrance by 4160 Tuesdays creator Sarah McCartney that was released last year, may not have the breadth and landscaped dazzle of some more opulent ‘event orientals’, with their top to bottom geneologies of pyramids, souks and magic carpets – the shimmering vistas of the deserts and Atlas mountains beckoning in the backdrop a l’Amouage; it has, instead, a forthrightness, a directness and familiarity that makes this curious and original perfume, in some ways, even more delicious.
While I love oriental perfumes in all their guises and wish that I could smell a proper, operatically spiced caravenserai on the average person just walking down the street every once in a while – standing in front of me on the escalator, on the train – as there is a complete absence of such perfumes in Japanese life – I can imagine that if you were constantly exposed to the full Arab deal on a daily basis it might get a little too much, the total, squeezed, dioramic spectacle of all those notes; the jasmine and the musks, the oudhs and the woods, the attars, thick ambers, and the roses.
There is in fact quite of nose pleasure to be had in an oriental scent that is less panoramic, less orchestratedly breadthened: more local, focused, straight and intimate. And I find Shazam! to be more like a liquor; a sauce, a caramellized and pinpointedly spiced elixir of resins, cardamom, pepper, cacao pod, frankincense, labdanum, amber and vanilla (with a fresh and lusty twang of juniper berries, bergamot and clary sage in the top that gives the blend just the right amount of lift), immediately appealing in its apparent simplicity and ‘rightness’, despite its complexity, because of its legibility and perfumed punch (D took to it immediately, and it is now on regular rotation).
You either like this kind of scent or you don’t, as you get what you smell. The lack of endless modulations from the usual bergamot and overdoses of pink pepper to the expected conclusions is strangely refreshing for me personally, the closest reference I can think of possibly being the first clove and resin-heavy eponymous groove by Comme Des Garçons.
There was always something slightly laboured about that scent, I thought however – despite its spicy iconoclasms and groundbreaking, aromatherapeutic warmth it never really felt personal to me: more like a quietly grandiose, rule-breaking statement by founder Rei Kawakubo.
Shazam, like its creator, Sarah McCartney, is much more down to earth. It is sweet, addictive, mood-effective, like some strange, yet comprehensive, cough mixture; a warm and spiced exudation to accompany you contentedly through your day like a trusted friend. I liked it straight away.