BENEATH THE FIG LEAF : ATHENEAN by HEELEY (2021) + FICO D’INDIA by ORTIGIA (2011) + FIGUIER EDEN by ARMANI PRIVÉ (2012)

In ‘A Handbook Of Symbols In Christian Art’ by Gertrude Grace Sill, we are told that :

‘The fig, the figleaf and the fig tree are all symbols of lust, which originated after the Fall, when Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Gen. 3:7). The Tree Of Knowledge is sometimes a fig tree instead of an apple’.

The fig tree here represents temptation; awakening; but also subterfuge and hiding; sly : evil.

In contradiction , we are also told that

“The fig itself represents fertility as well as lust, because of its many seeds. In a positive sense, the tree is used to represent fruitfulness and good works”. Just as in many cultures, where figs are seen as celebratory, there are two or more sides to everything: the Buddha, sitting beneath a fig tree, achieved enlightenment.

The religious and cultural ambivalence towards the fig match my own feelings towards this plant. I love the smell of the leaves, and sometimes pinch them when I walk past a garden which houses a fig tree growing to extract the darkly green juice from the strong hairy leaves; the scent drawn from the vessels within the leaf invigorating and pure; resolute and full of health. I like dried fig: we had a very nice confiture de figue with our Christmas dinner, a cooked ‘co-production’ that we both enjoyed; the sweetness went well with the meat. And yet I find the fresh fruit quite repulsive (figs are not even botanically a fruit, apparently, but rather an ‘infructescence’, or inverted flower; pollinated by specific fig wasps, the females of which, while searching for nectar, often get trapped inside, eventually devoured by the fig itself, like a Venus Fly Trap.) Texturally, the soft squishiness of the pulp, oozing with seeds against the about-to-split eerieness of the skin, is instantaneously problematic, so I never try or buy them. And yet the generalized figginess of the fig is something I find attractive, from the shape of the beautiful leaves to the overall scent (if you are going to be standing naked, deeply ashamed of your physical reality, it might as well be with a fig leaf – a flattering form against the body ; the lactic sap of the fig veins, as a complement tp the flesh and blood pulsing of the human skin..)

The Black Narcissus is essentially a diary, and if I were to scroll through what I have written this year, I am sure I would find quite a lot of joy. There have been a lot of good experiences to be grateful for. But this year has also been very brutal; intense; chaotic. At times it has felt almost apocalyptic. Even if you don’t have problems of your own (and who doesn’t?), the sense of a world shifting seismically, of being out of control and veering intocalamity, has been very palpable from the beginning of the year. The horrible war in Ukraine forms a continual backdrop to everything; peace immediately shattered, then impacted globally in the economic fall out and misery that is spreading across continents and affecting hundreds of millions of people (thanks Putin! Great job! ) The ex-prime minister of Japan was shot; tyrants everywhere rose up; societal currents became more and more inflamed, brim full of hatred and mutual loathing and deliberate misunderstanding even as the world itself often literally went up in flames as environmental catastrophe loomed. Anyone whose head isn’t totally in the clouds will have been affected by all of this in some way; the lingering effects of all the splintered anger; the violence, the oppression, the revolt, the after effects of the coronavirus, whether psychological (and they have been phenomenal) or physical, in terms of recovery ; even before getting to your own issues, be they health, relationships; financial; the dread and terror of death, it is a pretty much undeniable fact that universally, this has not been a restful year.

I myself reached some kind of tipping point in the summer, which is why I disappeared from here for a couple of months. I was so burnt out I couldn’t even dream. When I can’t dream – waking up from the boredom of repetitious actions and unfinished sentences like scratched records – I know my soul is tired. In such circumstances I can’t write a word. I am sure that a numbed resignation, weariness, suppressed stress, is a contagion that has affected many people reading this in one way or another over the last three years ; we became so used to it that we no longer express it because seems so obvious; a shared understanding. So we stopped talking about things – because it just became too self evident, about whether or not we had had the virus ourselves, because we were just too tired to do so anymore and it became easier to discuss pleasant things — like perfume. We need these delicious distractions.

If the fig represents self-knowledge – and fig leaves have been fluttering at the peripheries of what scents have been worn this year – then 2022 was for me a year when I categorically came to some important personal realizations. Forgive my self-indulgence if I explain (or repeat myself) further. I have become much more aware, and unashamed of my own natural limitations as a human being this year; less willing to compromise on what I know will damage my delicate equilibrium (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, actually has involved compromise). Because of all the rows starting at the beginning of 2022 with D, connected to the fact of having to socialize with people I am not interested in – we have actually acted on this now and it is working well. Aside an all nighter at our house with two good friends – when the ingenious Antonia/ Bubblegum Chic amalgam unleashed its beauty – I haven’t been meeting anyone aside a couple of one on onee parties before the end of term; Christmas Eve, we went up to Tokyo together, where I found the exquisite Dior Dior; we had dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant in Okubo, then went our separate ways for a few hours; he to an underground party at Mistress Maya’s, I wandering Shinjuku to find a film I could watch at one of the many cinemas (another, worrying, slightly sad, but also illuminating thing I have realized this year : I am just not getting stimulated by Tokyo any more : I don’t dislike it, but you would have thought that two years away stuck in Kamakura, would have made everything feel new and refreshing; in fact, however, the opposite is true; the fashion (all beige and baggy still with boys and girls in pale faces and red/orange eyemakeup, bores me to death; I feel like I know every corner from memory; nothing feels new or especially interesting. Is this age, or just saturation?). The loneliness of walking in the cold on Christmas Eve was a little piercing at first, but then as I pounded the streets looking for a suitable entertaining, headclearing; I went to a small cinema to see an old French film (La Boum 2 with Sophie Marceau); we met up afterwards in the centre of Shinjuku and came home happily together : YES! SOLUTION! – this will be the modus operandi henceforth.

Everything came to a head, for me, in the summer. In the intense heat, both of us had been occasionally reaching for Heeley’s Athenean, a very green fig – they can’t be too green for me – with a white tea and cedar base that we both like, and a melon note that we don’t – and yet somehow, what irked initially faded into the background and I don’t notice that note any more : it just forms part of the flesh. When it is sweltering, this sharp fragrance worked really well sprayed onto a t-shirt; robust but Greek-romantic with an unsentimental staying power that cuts through the sweat and grime). It now has a pride of place in the bathroom downstairs.

The summer term is my purgatory – it lasts for eighteen weeks, and I am only really ‘there’ for about nine or ten. The rest of the time I am on autopilot, just getting through: I have realized succinctly, slightly embarrassedly, but not really, that once I pass over a certain threshold of working I am poisoned like Chernobyl and there is no going back until I am on holiday again. I am just built that way: I have inbuilt limits. Yet the trip back to England, so loaded, so fraught, so emotional, so important, felt like anything but a holiday and was constantly looming on the horizon. It was wonderful and vital, to see family and reconnect, even when painful memories were unearthed. Still, it felt like overcoming an invisible hurdle: not seeing everybody for so long was not healthy; so there was no question we would be going back for the full summer holiday then coming straight back to work in September. And yet the knowledge, the fear of interaction; the worry over Covid (knowing that no one was wearing masks and not having had it yet; knowing that the National Health Service is going down the pan and that we probably couldn’t have got treatment even if we were sick); just the fretting over everything as the term boiled to its conclusion meant that my filament went; thus we semi-deliberately caught corona at a party – maskless throughout in close proximity in a club underground with no ventilation – everybody got it, with precisely the same symptoms; D was ill for a week; I just worked and drank wine through it; very hot to the touch, a horrible sore throat, but as the rapid antigen test said negative I just thought fuck it and carried on.

Being in England was both familiar and strange. After the confinement in one place for so long my senses were alive to the newness and the sameness; the differences from Japan; the overall, comparative sense of relaxation in the UK but also the comparative great lack of general finesse. Still, ambling about beautiful places like Leamington Spa and Norwich on nice sunny days when the temperature was so pleasant – little of the stereotypical cold rainy Englishness here: long summer evenings; the shivering clouds of morning that almost always dissipate; the enjoyment of browsing for perfume unpestered, I tried Ortigia’s Fico Di India twice: once with D in Leamington; such an airy place that I have loved since childhood, only half an hour or so from where I grew up with a beautiful, reedy river and park; we drifted into Cologne & Cotton, always a fantastic place to buy big bottles of delicately scented lavender and orange blossom eaux de cologne; at the back of the shop they had the Ortigia range – I loved their Ambra Nera straight away, a proper dense amber without annoying fake sandalwood endings, and their Indian Fig was undoubtedly also very alluring, the type of perfume you pick up three or four times to keep smelling and get a proper angle on. Warm, heavy, and sultry, this is quite the dark narcotic fig; orange blossom and cedarish dark woods, and probably vanilla with fig leaf, cactus and fruit – a real, slow-lidded seductress. Smelling it again with Emma in Jarrolds – Norwich’s biggest department store, where you can just spray at your leisure without worried suspicion and overeager staff like you have in Japan – it was bliss to be left alone. E told me that one of her teaching colleagues wears the body lotion of Fico D’India, and that it apparently smells rather gorgeous under clothes, so if you like the more full-bodied, semi-hippiesh fig style (like Miller Harris’ old Figue Amère: click this also for more figs in the pantheon), you might also gravitate towards this Ortigia.

.

Armani’s Figuier Eden, worn later in the month, turned out to be a very ironic choice of perfume for D at the airport in the crowded, overheated nightmare that was Abu Dhabi airport on the return trip as our journey soon descended into hell. After a week of severe stress, with flights being cancelled with no notice, mad scrambles and hours on the phone and family eruptions, frantic rearrangements with work, we then had to pay for the privilege of a multi-legged horror show back which involved London>>Abu Dhabi>> Kuala Lumpur>> Tokyo, as documented in September, which took at least 73 hours. We left Windsor very early Monday morning to get a taxi to Heathrow, and arrived Thursday afternoon, blind with tiredness, in Kamakura. It took me days to just even see properly and shake the brain fog. I was already feeling foul and sweaty by the time we arrived in Abu Dhabi International Airport- a place with no feng shui, so horribly designed that nobody can sit down anywhere; the perfumes blaring everywhere as loud as foghorns and absolutely what you don’t need when all you want is fresh air (I spread on a vetiver selection anyway), D much more sensibly opting for the far more temperate fragrance, Thé Noir by Le Labo, which had a stabilizing effect on the nerves; a fresh and calming sense of reliability.

By the time we arrived in Kuala Lumpur we were already fatigued, but a shower and a stay at the airport hotel was very reviving; you may remember my dipping my finger into a hot essential oil burner of jasmine sambac and being elated, though I think that any posts written at that time are probably too confused and illegible as my mind was scrambled. KL airport is a lot more user friendly than most; aerated, spacious, which was good, seeing we were destined to spend a lot of time there. Like hundreds of thousands of travellers in this year of chaos, , having waited for hours for our departure, our flight was cancelled due to ‘technical difficulties’ and, after great confusion, incompetence and endless waiting we found out that the next one wouldn’t be for another 24 hours. D had had some final quick spritzes from the Armani stand as we made our way to the gate, and to my slight surprise, Figuier Eden felt perfect; cool and collected; clean; fig leaf, grass and tea for a green lift; mandarin and bergamot, with a contrastingly elegant iris and amber; nothing to shout home about, but definitely very pleasant: lingering for hours as we descended into the next bewildering stages of our odyssey back home, being forced to leave the airport and enter Malaysia, even though it contradicted the ‘promise’ we had made to the Japanese government on the SOS phone app, – which in itself took an entire evening for us to work out how to do in London – and which was mandatory at the time Covid-wise to get back legally into the country.

The adventurer in me loved the detour to Putrajaya, the bus, the mosques and Hindu and Chinese temples, as a rainstorm pounded on the windows and the palm trees outside, and the luxury of the hotel – the Marriott – was certainly not a problem. The food was incredible, the rooms grand with fine views over the muddy estuary of the riverbanks, statues and coconut trees, but we still felt quite ill at ease. Refused a room for two, it didn’t occur to me until afterwards, when I checked, that homosexuality is actually illegal in Malaysia, punishable by death.

Initially excited looking at our respective rooms, if perturbed by the overly strong artificial floral lemon being pumped into the ambience, we had been comparing the views and planning where to rest, sleep, shower etc before the meals in the restaurant downstairs. Seeing this information on our phones, however, we suddenly felt extremely vulnerable. Under threat. I respect, to a considerable extent, local customs and traditions, religion, and laws, and am not about to go on a damning indictment of Malaysian society or its Islamic principles (though quite how Islamic such Shariah law is remains open to interpretation – this was obviously also a big issue for many during the World Cup in Qatar). Also, it is doubtful that tourists, diverted into a city they had no desire especially to be in – effectively against their will, we had zero choice – would in any way be ‘hunted down’ and prosecuted just for being our natural born selves. Still, with D’s Paradisicial Italian Fig ironically still lingering on his skin, the mood descended rapidly into something akin to fear; fear of persecution (even physical harm, no matter how irrational it might seem now; the Religious Police do exist – just look at what is happening in Iran with all the executions); fear of fucking up the electronic reentry procedure back into Japan – which felt, at that moment, like HEAVEN ON EARTH ITSELF: we were suddenly so desperate to just get back there, to get back home, where nobody gives a shit about what happens behind closed doors, and where sexuality is effectively a total non issue because it is private. At a distance of just six and a half hours from where we were trapped, it felt like a deeply desirable haven where we might feel a little bit more safe.

In that moment, waiting for a terrifying ‘knock on the door’, I began to imagine, or wonder, what it must have been like to have been Jewish, in hiding, waiting for the Nazis during the Second World War. Waiting to be attacked, and then killed, for merely being who you are. Holding your breath in desperation behind a heavy wooden door. Captured. Then sent off to a death machine, a concentration camp. All because of one, despicably distorted viewpoint.

While my luxurious experience in Putrajaya obviously has nothing, really, to do with any of this, the recent exponential rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial has brought this homicidal prejudice very much back into the foreground this year and is by far one of the most horrifying aspects of the recent rapid shifts in world perceptions for me in 2022. Trump hosting ‘Ye’ and other uncloseted fascists down in Florida; the mainstream acceptance of Jew-hating and bigotry in general, the unleashing of human’s worst instincts and tendencies sanctioned by this man, who I have written quite enough about already, but which I feel 100% vindicated over as I was right : his influence on humanity has been more pernicious than anyone in recent memory; more than we even knew. The Bolsonaro refusal to concede tells us all we need to know; the man who deliberately destroys the rainforest; no human receives more contempt from me ; all I know is that the broad currents of intolerance and the anti-Asian violence, the shooting of gay people in clubs (I wrote about a vogueing. gay pride event on a US airbase in Yokota earlier this year; the person who invited us – a marine who hosted Joe Biden on the base and was personally responsible for much of his visit, was later at the club in Colorado : he and his partner moved back there, and three of his friends were seriously injured, one killed when they all went out for the night…). There has been so much rabid antipathy and bitterness unleashed it could and actually does, make me cry.

In many ways, despite some definite highs and plenty of distinct, distilled, positive and enjoyable experiences, many hopefully documented on The Black Narcissus – I will be glad to put this year behind me. It has just been far too much. The tiger sure bared its teeth! Even ripped open a few jugulars: and then feasted ( I am ready for next year’s Chinese rabbit). That said, I do continue to have hope for the coming year. There are plenty of more benevolent, humanistic tides shoring up the meaningless, violent negativity. There is a feeling of life everywhere: there was in England, there was in Malaysia, there is in Japan. Human beings, in my view, are fundamentally decent, just too easily led by egomaniacs and fucked up by false philosophies. America has shown some sanity in recent months in rejecting the lies and instability; Europe has come together, to a large extent, for Ukraine. Periods of turbulence and misery come and go. This is the way that it is. There are still seeds of optimism.

As the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:

“No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I tell you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen. “

19 Comments

Filed under Flowers

19 responses to “BENEATH THE FIG LEAF : ATHENEAN by HEELEY (2021) + FICO D’INDIA by ORTIGIA (2011) + FIGUIER EDEN by ARMANI PRIVÉ (2012)

  1. I just ordered a fig perfume after Xmas. It is on the way. There are two plants I can recognize them right away. One is fig tree, and the other one is ginkgo.

  2. it won’t let me post my proper comment!!! it keeps telling me I have said it before? why?

  3. Here is my fifth attempt at posting it:
    This felt like a really necessary and complete piece of writing, beautifully put together as ever, but also a relaxed meander through the year gone by. It felt soothing, despite the awfulness of world affairs. I LOVE the sound of your Xmas eve, extracting any ‘magic’ out of the standard affair is an uphill struggle in my book. Really lovely to be with family, but beyond that, it’s an unattractive, formulaic thing that I don’t particularly enjoy. Walking in a beautiful forest was the highlight for me this year, but strolling the streets of Tokyo would be a nice change! (for me at least, if not for you). And mine has been a Farouche drenched Christmas, as you know, which is a very, very good thing.

    • Farouche is now one of my own definite certainties. I will look out for more of it..

      Yesterday I woke up in a strange mood feeling very purgative. I wrote some intense emails and this: I just felt like I needed to sum up the year, and had been meaning to write about the irony of the Eden Fig being worn in those circumstances and then it turned into a fig piece. At first I was going to delete it then published it by accident then had to frantically edit until it was half legible. Glad you found it relaxing despite the maelstrom.

      As for Christmas Eve, it is really strange: at the time I was feeling somewhat forlorn/indifferent and couldn’t find anything to watch: I considered Avatar: The Way Of Water briefly because I liked doing it with my students and find the aliens curiously erotic; but then I knew I couldn’t face three+ hours of blue, and packed multiplexes. I wasn’t in the mood for horror or anything negative, and then settled for this film La Boum 2 – partly because I thought that a film starting at 8:45pm that came out in 1982 wouldn’t attract too many people (I counted: there were 10), and also because even if it was crap, I just love being immersed in anything from that era.

      Sat right at the front of the cinema, at first I was just rolling my eyes all the time because of the ‘goofy’ French humour (even though I could hardly understand what anyone was saying) but I eventually just got into the atmosphere – it was the same styles that we encountered in Paris and Moulins in 1983. And there was something about being alone…

      The theme song has now become my Song Of The Week (especially the instrumental version, in the last five minutes):

      By the end I had that ‘purified by cinema’ feeling when you have just been immersed in another person’s world, and it was lovely to meet D beneath the iconic Alta screen in the middle of Shinjuku – it felt relatively Christmassy (a feeling that gets so tedious to chase every year – I find that it only really happens when you don’t plan for it, difficult when, as you say, so much is formulaic).

      And yes to walks in the forest.

  4. And on the subject of fig perfumes, sadly, I stalled back in the late 90’s after Dyptique’s Philosykos launched a tidal wave of imitators and I lost interest. It is a lack of exposure to good new and interesting fig (or any) perfumes that keeps me in this stunted state. I am no longer qualified to comment, but I am very intrigued.

    • To be honest, I don’t think there has truly been all that much ‘progress’ since Philosokos – pretty much any fig scent has that basic template – Athenean is quite similar, in truth.

      I used to smell SO GOOD in L’Artisan’s Premier Figuier, but now no.

  5. A veritable tour de force. (So much to say here, about figs, and many other things. But have been ill, and gradually recovering. Will write, properly soon.) xx

    • How frustrating when you have been looking forward to, and needing, time off so much and then you feel crap and can’t take advantage of it (although I personally think that being ill, though horrible, and just being in bed is a great prologue to when you feel better again and life feels even more elating when you step out into the sunny air). Still, a crap way to spend Christmas. I hope you feel better very soon.

      And glad you liked this. I just felt like I had to write it – I have been reading about ‘Mercury Retrograde’ which I know virtually nothing about, but which apparently started yesterday, the 29th, when I woke up in a really foul mood and didn’t feel like researching flowers. It is supposed to be an astral time when you go deeper and seek answers to bigger questions, probably why I rambled slightly beyond the usual obvious parameters.

  6. Robin

    My kingdom for a proper keyboard. This was marvelous, darling, and I wish I could write reams in reply. Thank you for every word you’ve written this year. Mwahh!

    • Are you literally just on your phone? I am also finding it too much of a one finger strain when I have to write on there.

      Glad there are reams in your head, even if I can’t actually read them. xx

    • PS is part of you enjoying NOT having a proper keyboard ? ( I can imagine myself enjoying not being able to nor compulsively drawn into online banter as a kind of pleasing and peaceful retreat ): but eventually it would surely bug me

  7. Philosykos is still the be all end all fig for me. Only because it gives the impression of the entire tree, reminding me of my childhood summers in Sonoma. There was a huge fig tree in our backyard that scented the entire house all summer long. Fond memories of suntans, blond braids, brilliant sunsets, riding ponies in shorts and cowboy boots over golden foothills, through endless vineyards, & fruited orchards. Sigh.
    I don’t much care for the figs as fruit (fresh or dried), rather bland & disappointing compared to the musky & green full tree. I also don’t care to wear fig scents, I prefer them as room fragrance or candles.
    Big cities all seem tired to me eventually.
    Oh the endless push & pull of relationships, can’t live with’em – can’t live without’em.
    All this human nastiness & hate has always been here, it’s just on blast with the internet these days. Remnants & relics of tribalism I suppose. Climate change is going to push humanity into fights over resources. And when backed into corners, most humans will choose to hiss & spit.

    • All true. The Internet is one hell of a foghorn.

      Re: Tokyo malaise (woe is me!) , I think we need to expand our territories a bit – so much of it we still haven’t been to in truth. Also, perhaps the pandemic changed us in ways we didn’t quite realize. Perhaps we aren’t quite as impressed by shiny baubles any more and prefer the actual tree – like your fig in California. How lovely to have that vivid memory…

  8. Hanamini

    What a great read. Alienation, sensuality, illegality, and figs. Figive and figet may often be the way, but some things are unfigivable, and there’s a lot to give a fig about. Let’s hope the fig is up for the worst of our leaders, and may there be peace in 2023. Thanks for your piece!

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