God this scent is fascinating.
I had actually briefly sampled the solid perfume on previous occasions, with its carnal, but slightly dulled, rubbered edges, and knew then that I would have to come back to it, but had not, until the other evening in Shinjuku – the heart of commercial Tokyo; the busiest station in the world, the core of the yakuza crime syndicates, government, the ‘fuzoku‘, or sensual underground, and a place I feel strangely myself in – ever actually experienced the liquid.
After combing the available perfumeries for jasmines and taking notes (probably carelessly looking like a weirdo to the Tokyoite onlookers), I went to my favourite Thai restaurant to restore my energy, and then decided that I would go and see a film, the current internet sensation and apparently ‘scandalously erotic’ Ai No Uzu, or ‘Vortex Of Love’, a semi-comic (but actually really quite depressing) drama centered around a group of Roppongi swingers who meet up for an orgy (many of whom have never done this ‘sort of thing’ before and are consequently embarrassed when they first arrive, sitting around in bathtowels, exchanging pleasantries with people they are expected to f***).
Not since Ai No Corrida (‘In the realm of senses’) has there been a commercially successful, semi-pornographic film that has had the prurient masses furtively sneaking in to have a look to this extent (the office ladies in front of me were giggling nervously when the ‘action’ began, and there was quite a lot of action), and, as it was the last day that it was showing, I decided that I would have to see it. I was the only foreigner in there.
The Lush store was just around the corner from the Musashinokan cinema, and I just couldn’t resist the humour (and the obviousness): why not go and see this minor cause celèbre, a work that deals with promiscuity, desire, boredom, and sex addiction, drenched in possibly the most shocking jasmine ever made? Add another dimension to the film, and perhaps conversely, to the perfume?
And so I went into the shop, and to the bemusement of the shop assistants, I gave myself a dose of Lust.
As I came out onto the street – and yes, I know I am prone to ‘overheightening’ things with my prose sometimes, I did, though, literally feel disoriented: transported immediately into a pinkish, flesh-cushioned, cloud-cradle of sandalwood and vanilla-touched jasmine absolutes, a bit delirish; thoughts deliciously addled and momentarily incoherent.
The world was a rainbow; floral, irreal.
This jasmine, surely, in short, was a drug.
But less than a minute or so into its development on my skin (this perfume is inexpressibly wrong on me, hysterically so), the soft, light beauty of pale pink jasmine petals was taken over by a scent so fabulously indolic it was though I was being assailed and suffocated by moths: giant, powder-heavy moths battling moth balls battling me and discomposing my senses: a riveting journey from boudoir to corpse in a matter of seconds as though I were ageing, rapidly, like David Bowie in ‘The Hunger’: you could almost feel the cobwebs creeping around my decaying flesh, my vociferously grannyish tendencies, as I went to the convenience store, pre-film, feeling amusedly self-conscious and reeking of a jasminoid, eros/thanatos death stench.
The brilliant Eva Vosnaki of Perfume Shrine does a thorough analysis of indoles, one of the components of natural jasmine essence: their origins, chemical make-up, and psychological effects in perfumery – the fine line that can be drawn between a bodily, faecal element in a tuberose or jasmine scent (a natural oil can contain up to 2.5% pure indoles); the very evidently sexual note that can be extremely arousing in white florals, with its hint of the naughty underpinning the butterfly.
It is the natural combining of the other constituents of the flower, with this one note in very small proportions, that gives this effect : the dying decay of a weighed down, bobbing head of rain-drenched lilac that is simultaneously heartrending, erotic and perturbing – but in isolation a pure indole has a very strong intimation of death, of decomposition, not merely of shit, but of napthalene.
I don’t know if you know this word (I didn’t myself for a very long time), but it is precisely the smell of clothe-protecting mothballs, or urinal cakes – those chernobyl balls of disinfectant that can render even the most urinous juice, and its stenching after-effects, antisepticized.
I had no idea what napthalane was, which for almost everyone is simply the obvious smell of mothballs, until I went to Italy at the age of twenty (do we even use the stuff in England?). I’m pretty sure that my parents didn’t, nor even my grandparents – are the moths so especially ravenous for cloth in most countries that all vestments – never washed in a washing machine for decades, for centuries, but which must never face neglect, only dry cleaning, be then preserved in this highly odorous substance? The fibres morbidly, slowly delineating themselves in toxic solitude, then, to be breached and packed for the winter in boxes and paper-lined boxes with the zombie bride of cold, ice-ditch, napthalene?
I am quite certain I had not smelled the stuff until I lived in Rome, when one weekend in the midst of my falling in love with all of my friends, one of the sweeter, ‘rougher’ but more introverted of them, Pietro, invited me out of the blue to go and stay at his mother’s house located just outside the city.
Pietro had always made himself out to be very ‘rustic’ and ‘simple’ (though his passion was never remotely in any doubt: when jilted by his Swedish girlfriend, who had treated him most cruelly, to show how he felt about her, despite my horrified protestations, he sent her, in a carefully sealed tupperware box, wrapped, carefully and posted, a most clearly voiced token of his deep disgust, which he had produced, that morning, from his own body….)
He was so earnest, somehow. Obsessed with The Pogues, and poetry, and all things Irish, he was the sweetest of all the friends I had in Rome, if not the closest, but I was delighted, in any case, that weekend, to have the chance to stay in a real Italian house with a real Italian family in the countryside. My first time.
And it was a palazzo. Freezing, in stone, but beautiful as something from a Pasolini or Visconti film, a hunkered down block of familial stone that was carved, and embellished, and turned into a casa, with every room as simple and exquisite as you would naturally expect it to be, and me, wondering if my natural lack of manners and insufficiently decent command of polite Italian expression would allow me to suffice the weekend stay (if the cold itself didn’t kill me, I remember I was dying…..I have an image, real or dreamed I am not sure, of myself and Pietro shivering in nightshirts in his room, not daring to dip a toe from the sheets it was so spectrally icy breath outside the letto), but the strongest memory, and what I associate the most of all with that weekend, the overpowering, and overwhelming, napthalene. I felt as though I were being choked on this bracing, chemical smell that moved glacially, and invisibly, down the corridors.
Like Terence Stamp in Teorema, an English fish out of water in a semi-aristocratic milieu, I adored that experience, that weekend – its sheer beauty doused in the smell of packed-together moth balls that, crucially, imprinted itself forever as a romantic smell in my head, despite its medicinally……………and it is the intensity of such memories that makes me feel, now, that Italy will always remain in some ways the apex of what I consider beauty. The ‘Great Beauty’, at the very least.
What is it about jasmine, though, the surge of life in its florality, yet also the disturbing undertones in its natural makeup, its indoles, its napthalene, that has this totally discombulating effect on the senses?
When you examine the flower further – explore its history, the fact that this precarious dialectic of life/ death vs the continuous flow or ‘circle of life’, known as samsãra, or sangsãra in Sanskrit, should exist, ready formed, inside a flower, is actually not that surprising. All flowers fade, their flesh gradually falling from fresh and alive to foul: as it is for humans, putresence is a fact of life. However, it is hard to think of another flower that possesses these opposing facets simultaneously and in such exquisite balance. A rose smells fresh, lemonish, dewy, exhilarating, but then it turn it goes musty: all sour and mildewy. Though the ylang ylang and tuberose flowers I smelled in Indonesia, despite the obvious presence of some white, indolic facets in the latter, smelled pure as the driven snow when they were in full bloom, they simply then became unpleasant, rank and and mucoid in the cusp of the descent towards dying.
Of course, other flowers do display their beautiful allure at the peak of their powers while equally emanating the death urge: bluebells, narcissus hyacinths, lilac blossoms, and lilies (not to mention the fungal white doom of Japanese gardenias): all these flowers (and I love the smell of all of them ) are nevertheless, it must be admitted, noxious, almost putrid from the outset when you loom in close, all nauseating in excess : not scents to have in a windowless closed room of too much profusion – the olfactory volume set too high, because they are never truly balanced – adding, dramatically, of course, to these flowers’ excess, their undeniably addictable qualities.
Yet I could never think of the lily, somehow, gorgeous as that scent is, be it the Casablanca, or Stargazer, as being vital.
Much as I love them, there is a woozy, blowsy decadence, a sense of overblown, of limp melodrama, in these flowers, as soon as they bloom, like unselfaware, tragicomic divas.
The scent seduces, yet it also repels: we sense a flawed excess, a toxicity.
Jasmine, on the other hand, achieves a perfect balance. It tantalizes from a distance, is almost edible up close.
Intoxicating and seductive, but also revitalizing to the nerves – rejuvenating. A fertile smell, radiant and happy, its indolic animalic presence noted, but never suffocating, and even when the flowers are limp they still retain a pleasant scent, which is why, when dried, they can simply be drunk.
Aromatherapeutically, unlike the essential oils of tuberose, hyacinth, gardenia, narcissus, all produced in minute quantities and used, only rarely for ‘high class perfumery’ (and which possess almost no physiological, or medicinal benefits for the body), jasmine oil (along with rose, neroli and lavender), is the floral oil par excellence, used as a curative remedy for a large number of physical and psychological conditions as varied as bronchitis, nervous coughs and hoarse throats; as a treatment for skin disorders, depression, septicaemia; but especially for sex-related issues, including prostatitis, gonorrhoea, frigidity, and as an aid in child-birth (as it strengthens the uterus).
According to Robert Tisserand, one of the founding fathers of modern aromatherapy, the chemical constituents of jasmine oil are almost hardwired to produce feelings of ‘optimism, confidence, and euphoria’ in human beings, which explains its pronounced effect on our nervous system. We are not just imagining it: jasmine literally is an arousing life-force to be reckoned with.
And it is for this reason that it has been used for millennia by different cultures in rituals and religious ceremonies, in legends, as peoples from widely differing traditions gravitated naturally to jasmine intuitively.
It is the national flower of Indonesia, and the flower has a particularly strong presence in the myths and culture of Java, precisely the place where I had my astonishing ‘jasmine attack’ at the Grand Aston, Yogyakarta. Known as melathi puti, jasmine is, as in many cultures, used in great proliferation at wedding ceremonies. In the Javanese case, jasmine flower buds that have not yet fully opened are picked to create strings of jasmine garlands called roncen melati, which are used as garlands to decorate the hair of the bride, intricately intertwined strings of jasmine garlands left to hang loose from her head.
Interestingly, though, the groom’s kris, or ceremonial sword, is also adorned with five jasmine garlands called roncen usus-usus, which refer to its intestine-like form, linked to the legend of Arya Penangsang, a rather gory tale in which the warrior Penangsang, feisty, intrepid, afraid of nothing, but rather too prone to impetuousness, was speared by one of his foes, Sutawijayain, a man who so thoroughly pierced his stomach that his intestines were hanging from his open wounded gut. Possessing ‘extreme spiritual power’, the wounded warrior soldiered on however, in that fashion, encircling his hanging entrails on his kris, or sword as he continued to fight, succumbing to death only when, in a fit of impatience, he unsheathed his sabre, unwittingly severing his stomach and finally dying. The jasmine flowers that decorate the groom’s stomach, therefore, at an Indonesian wedding, apparently symbolize strength, but also symbolize sacredness, grace, humility, kindness and benevolence, the precise qualities lacking in Penangsang. In its associations with life, birth, and death, we thus see in Javanese culture an appropriation of the jasmine flower as a symbol of all life’s rites of passage (in Bali jasmine is used for funerals as well as weddings), while equally embracing the feminine and the masculine, the area of the male body decorated also directly linking to jasmine’s more animalic undertone, even as it celebrates the beauty and purity of the bride.
These back stories, these timeless uses of jasmine go some way, then, to explain the reactions that people have had since time immemorial to this flower. The effect of most jasmine perfumes is therefore of something spellbinding, magnetizing, and occasionally even mysterious. Simon Constantine, the iconoclastic founder of Gorilla perfumes, has provocatively destroyed the precious equilibrium of the natural flowers, though, in Lust, and has instead let them intoxicate themselves from within, the combination with vanilla and sandalwood and the particular, concentrated essence that is located in the depths of the perfume producing this startlingly morbid/erotic effect in me.
I walk along the streets of Shinjuku to the cinema with my aura of napthalene. To see a film about sex. An unbelievably strong smell of mothballs, of heirlooms wrapped in trunks, in lace: cobwebbish, spindly, lace: old lace, such a feature still, of ageing Japan as it greys and crinkles in windows and dreary coffee shops, of eldery ladies as they get onto the bus to Ofuna in their winter coats that they have just brought wearily out of from their closets. Napthalene, that smell that I see now is also an element of Eva Evanthia’s, Duncan’s Cypriot grandmother, and her little jar of Indian unguent: all heavily indolic with the matured souls of jasmine flowers still intact within its paste: a life half lived, somehow symbolizing a truth that I still don’t know the identity of. She hadn’t touched it when we opened it: it was just a memento, a scented (sacred) souvenir, but still, somehow, despite all the years smelling so vital, and yes – although it felt quite inappropriate in the context that we received this miniature heirloom in – lustful.
It turns out that the tickets for Ai No Uzu, which has almost sold out, are numbered: so I have to wait for my turn to be called until I can take my seat. Aware of my odour (of other jasmines as well that I am covered in from the day’s explorations, but mostly of the rotting naphthalene), I am eager to try and find a seat on the edges that is not too close to other people, and, fortunately, I am able to sit in the second row, right near the screen, on the aisle, which is where I would have probably decided to sit anyway.
The film, slightly ludicrous but still rather fascinating, I find quite good from a number of perspectives, especially anthropologically ( I love anything that allows me to go deeper in Japan), although I do have to admit that I find the embarrassed interactions between the characters excruciating. I sit with clenched feet and hands for much of the first twenty minutes, amazed at the inability of the characters to communicate with each other, two of them with heads bowed in silent shame until one of them finally manages to make a move (this while the other three couples are screaming in orgiastic ecstacy in the downstairs room). Ultimately, though, the scent I am surrounded in, with all its jasmine contradictions, is just so apt it almost hurts. The women on screen are all flushed after their carnal couplings, flowering from their embarrassments and work frustrations and finally admitting, after the characters graduate from polite niceties (after a couple of ‘sessions’ with different partners), that they are ‘sukebe’ (perverts, nymphomaniacs, have sex on the brain) much to the shared, mutual laughter. The inside of Japan as a fascinating opposing force to the usual restrained and polite exteriors.
Ultimately, in the film, and inevitably perhaps though, because such couplings can rarely be so simple, there are also complications, dramatic realisations; infatuations, and in the cold light of day, when all are spent and reality begins to bite, a sense of emptiness and sorrow……………….and here the napthalene rising up from my hands and wrists begins to make even more sense.
Something dead, wilted.
And so Lust, while not the most subtle of jasmine scents, nor necessarily the most beautiful – by a long way – is still, in many ways, probably for me the most compelling.
It embraces all of jasmine’s inherent paradoxes, its shimmering, contradictory play of sex and death, of longing in the moment and the inexorable decay that must also come. It smells shocking on me and is therefore all the more appealing, like embracing, after pushing away for too long – your dark side.
One of the most extreme perfumes I have ever encountered, when the film ends and it is now turning to night outside, and I walk towards the station to get my train back home to Kamakura, I see that the Lush store, to my surprise, is still open – just about to close.