When I got in yesterday afternoon I threw off my clothes and started spraying perfume into the air and all around me, like a child frantically filling in an old colouring book. I wanted an immediate fix of something warm and sweet. But also with freshness and impact, and instinctively grabbed Guerlain’s Cologne du 68, using at least a tenth of my bottle. It felt right. Like painting in cracks. Not exquisite, at least not this particular bottle, which I think has soured a little (rather like myself), but still absorbing and cheering.
Usually on the Black Narcissus, the visuals, whether created by me or stolen, are chosen to match the atmosphere of a particular fragrance. Today’s do not. This is an uplifting, scintillant cologne: the second I smelled this perfume when it first came out I thought of Roma, by Laura Biagiotti (1988), my sister’s soft, signature grapefruit oriental, as there are remarkable similarities in the general effect. Both end on fluffed up rugs of balming, vanillic realness, but begin with citric freshness, and there is nothing really dour or miserable about either of them – quite the opposite. Roma is the lighter and more enjoyable for me: 68 makes rather a meal of its notes, which you can read for yourself as they are listed on the bottle : thinking about this perfume you wonder what isn’t in it rather than what is.
The base of this perfume is all benzoin, opoponax, vanilla, ‘musc végetale’, amber, ciste and a gourmand praline accord, which is why it will smell quite familiar to a lot of people – possibly a precursor in some ways to the slew of sugary ambered cougars we have been subjected to in the fragrance market ever since. It is nice though: comforting. From the clinging, oriental base, as we move up the mirrored tower of layered accords we smell heliotrope and iris for a confectioner’s touch of powdered icing sugar, along with a list of alleged flowers that are supposedly there in the mix somewhere but which are never immediately obvious to the nose (frangipani, jasmine, magnolia, rose, carnation, cyclamen, peony, ylang ylang – will wonders never cease?), alongside only faintly palpable smatterings of spices (really?): nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, black pepper; fruit (fig, lychee? green pear), the volume of which is all turned down very low in the mix to the point of complete absence. No : the most noticeable accord in Cologne 68, is the direct dissonance (and hence its interest) with the voluptuous base accord that lies beneath : the zinging, green citric herbal freshness of the top, which, like Roma, is centred on grapefruit, with a whole fruit specialist’s array of citrus fruits alongside it from clementine to lime, to bergamot and blood orange fused genially in a great rush of culinary herbaceous, with juniper berries most definitely at the fore to my nose, twinned with basil, aniseed, and myrtle/cypress to give a leafed and foresty foregrounding. If it all sounds like something of a mess, for the first seconds I always wonder whether it might be, but yesterday – to just fill in my monochrome framework, a morning of severe stress — it worked quite nicely.
To talk of dissonance, especially cognitive dissonance (in the field of psychology, ‘cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of this’) – yesterday was a most rich example, and I am still reeling and run down (convinced I have now got the coronavirus), and desperately trying to process it all. I also have to be careful how I say it.
What I realized, or what, rather was reinforced, essentially, is that there is an entire, alternate universe playing out here in Japan. Which you will have sensed from what I have been writing a lot about recently, from my piece on peaches and Mt Fuji when writing about White Zagara, to the wedding (what was I thinking?) and a whole load of other posts I have put up on here since hammering the point home that the country just simply does not seem to be taking the threat of the coronavirus seriously, for some, inexplicable reason that has been driving me insane. To experience it in the flesh though, when you have been hiding in your perfumed paradise is to recoil; to feel traumatised by the gap between what you ‘know’ to be true (from Western media sources, from here, from Facebook, I would like to say common sense but that is always a subjective term) and how another culture – the adopted one you live and work in and pay taxes to – is processing that same information. The huge gulf between how you – always trapped in your sad David and Goliath trope – behave, and how your Japanese colleagues behave, simply for the reason they have no choice but to do so (whether this is true or not, literally, I cannot say. Of course we have a choice. But nobody is going to choose to be without a job and starve to death, especially when they have children).
This was explained to me, as my boss drove me in the car, yesterday morning, picking me up from my house (by chance, my Japanese mother, Mrs Mitomi was walking out of her door onto the street at that very moment and said to him directly, ‘Look after this boy, please (‘kono ko’): he’s already had pneumonia twice!’, which touched me deeply as I marched to his car, both of us masked, while we discussed the severity of the times for the company and the national, and international, situation. I see it from his viewpoint clearly: they really do feel that there is nothing else that they can do but soldier on. Unless the government takes solid action. Essentially, unless this government has an actual lockdown – at least one as defined by what is happening in Europe, America, India and almost everywhere else right now, where you must stay inside, by law, and all businesses are closed in order to stop the spread of infection, businesses will continue to go ahead as usual because they feel they have no alternative; if you close and your competitors pick up your market share, down goes your income; your company goes down the plughole, and so do your employees; thus, like the pictures I put up the other day in Tokyo, virtually nothing has changed here. They are ‘urging’ a 80% reduction in social contact (‘social distancing, or ‘shakaiteki kyori’ is now just starting to be mentioned on TV now as a ‘thing’, my translator friend told me yesterday), but you would never have known that yesterday. There WAS no social distancing. Anywhere. Not on the streets, and not in my company. All of the teachers and staff, about twenty of them, most of whom I know for a fact have come down on the train from Yokohama, Tokyo – where cases are surging – and other areas to the metropolitan centre, were packed into the teachers’ room – from what I could see from the great distance I was looking at them all from – with about 500cm between them – and no windows open.
It posed a horrible dilemma. I want them to be well. I worry about them getting infected. Even the teachers I don’t personally get along with I still respect for their knowledge, dedication, and ridiculous levels of hard work, and besides those, there are other people I get along fantastically with – a clutch of oddball intellectual eccentrics who share my sense of humour and general life philosophy – but who don’t have my defiant attitude, which I think simply comes down to the fact that I am a foreigner from outside and thus have much more leeway; a different work contract, different conditions – I will never be one of them; couldn’t be even if I wanted to, and you know that I don’t in any case – my freedom is just too important for me.
Still, to arrive, be shuttled up to a room upstairs without saying hello was quite embarrassing (but sharing elevators, even just with those two teachers! Every surface looked terrifying, contaminated to me yesterday; the shared pens, the having to film with the windows shut because of construction work outside; the hands on the equipment I have to borrow in order to set up my virtual classroom at home; I was wiping down everything ‘like a madman’, disinfecting my hands every five minutes, I felt sick: when I went to the bathroom and took off my mask for a second to see my unwillingly just shaved face I was red as a tomato, bilious and puffy, really nervous, with slightly bloodshot eyes, but everybody else was just acting as usual as though nothing whatsoever were going on). This is cognitive dissonance I think: when your world is split in two, or three and you start to lose a sense of what is real (I could feel all you watching me yesterday as I was doing what I was doing; I could see the dismay on your faces at the lack of hygienic precautions being taken; I could sense your worry, the sheer illogic of it all, so it was like living in multiple dimensions at once; yes, understanding the logic of what you were thinking, which I am virtually guaranteed to agree with 100%,, but at the same time, immersed in an entirely other dimension, from within, acting intuitively from the Japanese perspective, having absorbed the unwritten, silent mores of this place, feeling the Japanese mindset, doing what I ‘had to’, knowing what was acceptable to say and what was not; to just ‘get on with it’, and get the job done.
But then, to insist on leaving, the moment I had done what I had been asked to. Refusing to get on public transport like everybody else. Explicitly (the president was apparently furious about this). Being ordered a taxi (the outrageousness of which you honestly cannot conceive): not only am I leaving without even approaching the teachers’ room where my comrades are tapping away at their computers, frightened behind their masks, unable to do anything except what they are ordered to do, but then I am just leaving through the automatic doors and waving behind me like a foreign dignitary, a film star (the government’s ‘state of emergency’ is truly laughable, here, though, honestly: I HAD to do it that way….I wish there were a stronger word to express my condensed exasperation, but listen to this: in today’s Japan Times, it was reported that the ‘economic revitalisation’ Minister, Yasutoshi Nishimura, has said that “Barber shops, beauty salons and DIY stores are vital in maintaining daily lives” – so would remain open, along with all other businesses : : : only karaoke parlours and certain restaurants are being restricted; pubs will have to close at 8pm instead of 11pm. (????) The sheer stupidity of that last sentence, and the fact it is true, is what is eating me inside like furiously writhing maggots in an apple. It is rending me. I feel like Cassandra, a person who is condemned to know reality, and the terror of the future, but is never believed by anyone. People just blinking at me being their masks. A kind of void. In a way, it’s torture, and it creates a stress in the body that swathes around me like a barely suppressed maelstrom that yesterday, when I got home I just succumbed to, but then (‘stress can be helpful, if you own it’,’ says a very interesting article in the New York Times today
and I am, which is why I am writing this; ‘anger is an energy’ said John Lydon in the P.i.L song, and I am not angry all the time, especially now I am back in the cocoon (about five weeks initially, and then we will take it from there, even though figuring out how to do my job completely differently is not going to be easy.) But then again it goes without saying that none of this is easy for anyone.
Ultimately, I don’t quite know where it comes from, but I do think I have a steel backbone of truth in my body that is very fierce, which is why I am completely immune toreligionsand cults. I must be careful, I need to earn a living, but I WILL resist. Even in the face of complete madness, though it isolates you and you can feel a great welling sense of frustration that can border on psychosis (see my piece on the aftermath of the earthquake here in 2011, when straight afterwards, as the Fukushima reactor was pumping out lethal radiation and might possibly explode and most of the foreign population was rushing to the airports, I was being told that ‘everything is fine! there is no problem!’…… I almost felt a sardonically enjoyable calm among the maelstrom. A sense, almost, of just yielding to it in peace. Of resignation. OK then, just take me. And for a few seconds, you just give up to the craziness. You just let it crack open your head and pour out the albumen and yolk into the wind. You cannot change what you cannot change. Which is certainly not restricted to where I am writing this now. Every time a certain man in the Whitehouse spews an utterance …….it’s very similar. You still feel agitated; incensed.
Which is how I left it yesterday. I knew I had to go into the teachers’ room to say hello, goodbye, how are you and whatever but something inside me explicitly forbade me. I COULD NOT. I may pay for it later, socially, and perhaps in other ways too, but to me it felt like walking into a plague zone. It was impossible for me to even approach it. I detest the fact that people might think that I think that I am ‘above it all’, that I am being seen led out the building by the powers that be into a taxi, as though I have special or preferential status. I truly don’t want to, as that way of thinking is directly different to my ethos. But I know that that is how it looked to everyone who could see it. He thinks we are contaminated. He won’t come near us. But we are stuck in here. Who does he think he is?
I don’t know. Just someone who is rationally weighing up the dangers and parsing my information from a great variety of sources: trying to be as objective as possible; someone who has already experienced family members getting it, people dying, my siblings being out of work, who has read extensively about how hideous it is to be intubated and in complete solitude in an ICU not knowing whether you are going to live or die, and who sometimes simply has to take matters into his own hands.
It was bliss to get back here yesterday.