Religion has a hell of a lot to answer for.
Only this week, the so-called Buddhists of Myanmar are on the cusp of a successful ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority Rohingas, who are now stuck in an infernal quagmire of squalor and uncertitude. So much for karma. The supposedly devoutly Christian Republican American government, led by the vile, living epitome of amoral greed, is quite unable to show any real compassion, let alone life-saving action – possibly through pure racial prejudice – towards the victims of horrific double hurricanes in Puerto Rico, even though they are categorically U.S citizens. Strangled by the mutual financial interests of the National Rifle Association, ‘Christians’ vote for the loosening of gun control, despite massacre after massacre with assault weapons that need not remotely be there, in a truly civilized society, in the first place.
Love thy neighbour!
I am from a country where Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other in hideously cruel manners for centuries; where British born ‘Muslims’, brainwashed by those most barbaric of devilish, ‘holy’ serial killers, ISIS, gleefully decapitate strangers in the name of some glorious black-bannered war. I have an apartment in, and may possibly retire to, a country where six million Jews were pointlessly and systematically murdered, purely because of their religious identity. I live in a country, also, where, in the name of the heavenly Shinto emperor, millions were annihilated during World War II in a frenzy of ‘religious’ and nationalistic fervour, hundreds of thousands gleefully beheaded, raped and experimented on, often joyously, all in the name of some shimmering ethnic religiosity, some mythical ‘rising sun.’
From many a perspective, then, the world is complete bullshit and people total assholes. And the world’s so-called Great Religions are quite often the source. All of them. No religion is immune to being poisoned, perverted and polluted by its very own practioners : Hindu nationalists are always ready to decimate Muslim Indians, Jews Palestinians, Shiites Sunnis, the list goes on throughout history interminably. The unimaginable suffering that we human beings have suffered for centuries and millennia because of ‘religion’ would almost be laughable if the sheer chasm between the original tenets of each of the world’s religions ( essentially love and peace), and their often deeply perverted reality (hordes of Catholic priests having sex with children!) weren’t so utterly contemptible, vile, and tragic.
Because if people actually read and understood their holy scriptures, handbooks and sutras, none of this would actually happen. If ‘the religious’ were more aware of the ultimate irony, the inherent blasphemy in acting like God and meting out punishments to those they deem unworthy ( instead of leaving the justice to their creator, now or in the afterlife), then we could all, ostensibly, live in peace, no matter our beliefs.
For the record, while we are in the mode of grandiose, sweeping statements, although I greatly respect anyone’s individual religious identity (not as common a stance as it really should be!), I personally could never commit to any one particular religion, myself, for three basic reasons :
1. I do truly believe the doctrines of each scripture were written by humans, not the direct word of any particular divine being: hugely influenced by history, contingent events, bias and pragmatism, they should thus not ever be taken as actual, literal, gospel, no matter how divine the potential original sources.
I believe implicitly that the vast majority of people who adhere to any particular religion simply, and ONLY do so, because they happened to be born in a particular place. If they hadn’t been brought up there they wouldn’t have been exposed to it and would never have become one of the devout. If they had been born somewhere else, then they would have been following a different creed (can anyone counter this point?). The religion they so often mindlessly cling to did not come to them from on high, they merely absorbed it into their belief system because of education and their surroundings. It is so arbitrary, so random, so OBVIOUS ( to my own irrationally logical brain at least), that I can never understand why more people don’t seem able to relativize our differences, and realize that we are the way we are because of our immediate cultural milieu and the place we physically live, and this only, and thus everybody else as well, and so we are all the same, and yet the fervent; the chanting; and the febrile of eye are so often willing to slice another person’s throat, gun them down, or blow them up in a stadium simply for not believing what they believe in, that this lack of awareness of what I believe to be a very simple and basic truth ( that both religion and ‘culture’ are simple matters of individual accumulations of events and geography ) makes me burn with frustration, exasperation, and fury.
3. I can only ever, and will probably only ever be, agnostic.
For the very reasons I have stated above, falling hook, line, sinker and machete for any of the established religions and taking any word printed in a book as a god-given truth is a total impossibility for me : I am just too global in my thinking. For all I know, all, or none of them could be correct (deep down I feel they are just regional variations on the same religious god instinct and that all contain messages that, if followed correctly, would benefit mankind). To me, it really is quite possible that there is nothing out there in the beyond; that we just get switched off like a light and that is that, as science and logic might suggest; and I do respect humanist atheists who just want to make our time here on earth as pleasant as it can be, unencumbered by the moralizing mumbo jumbo of conflicting religious cults and their haphazard, yet stridently proclaimed, dogmas that often don’t make people happy and in fact often instead make them quite miserable ( or, quite a lot of the time, actually dead). I always have thought that this terrible nothingness after we die is a distinct possibility, greatly influenced by my French and Italian existentialist university studies, even if these days I am veering ( having read some very fascinating books in recent times about reincarnation, and just from my own observations and feelings) at times more in a direction that is a tad more optimistic and afterlifey. Oh well, it suits me anyway. We don’t know, though, and that is the point ( isn’t it?), so all I can do really at the end of the day is leave it at that- we’ll just have to see what happens when it eventually happens.
This does not mean that I am not afraid of death. I am. It is a human instinct. But compared to much of the first twenty five years of my life or more where it obsessed me, now I hardly give a damn. I don’t even (let myself?) think about it any more. I am too busy enjoying my life. I am not entirely sure what the catalyst for this change has been – I think it is various things, gaining a certain level of wisdom through experience being one of them, but I do know that these last ten years or so, and recent times especially, have been a release and a new epoch for me of almost spiritual and creative liberty that I cannot, categorically, say is entirely earthbound. My mind does, resolutely, remain open.
Religion still fascinates me – always has, always will, – despite the disdain I might seem to heap on it here. I find it ridiculous in many ways (because of all the entrenched rigmarole and frippery that believers seem to think was ordained in stone), but then I feel that way about most of our cultural traditions too. They are so random. And people stick to them as though they were etched into their very own marrow. But we need something beyond the confines of our own, limiting brains – something bigger, more encompassing, be it a national day of celebration, for whatever historically random reason it may be, or a religion : and this feeling that there must be something beyond the toil and materialism of the daily grind is an impulse that is surely part of humanity, something universal.
And quite beautiful. The underlying feelings, impulses and goals are basically exactly the same, surely, wherever the specific religious faith that is practiced. In Java, when we visited an Islamic academy in a village near the vanilla plantation we were staying and studying at in Bandung, there was such a feeling of purity and benevolence among the attendees living and studying at the school that it literally brought tears to my eyes as we stood there talking to the people by a river and forest; in Melacca, Malaysia, the smell of vetiver khus khus paste, smeared over the entire almost naked body of a Hindu priest as he sat in quiet, absolute, meditation was breath-hushing, sacred, and one of the most pungently evocative scent memories I have ever had. Just a little further down the street, sandalwood incense burned in droves at the Chinese Tao temple as the local faithful sang beautiful, unearthly, religious hymns, all mingling with the soul-wrenching call to prayer from the tall, white minarets of the nearby mosque.
Here in Japan, we are fortunate enough to live in the former twelfth century capital of Kamakura, when Buddhism and Zen flourished and temples and shrines were founded in the hills. Even if you know nothing of the history or the minutiae of the religions (both Buddhism and the indigenous, animist Shinto religion are curiously intermingled here ), the austere, exquisite visual aesthetic and nature-fused simplicity of the places of worship; the mind-taming otherness of the centuries-old incense tradition are immediately, whatever your background, spiritual : there is an incontrovertible timelessness in ‘listening to incense’ while hearing the solemn, heart-slowing chanting of the monks, flowing out from the temple precincts that can stop you in your tracks: transport you, for a time, to another place.
It is this double-sided aspect of religion – at once the sheer hypocrisy and evil that is generated by it, and the accumulated beauty and solemnity that appeals, innately I think, to something in human nature, that so fascinates. The intolerance; the contradictory hatred, and the rituals and mesmerizing gilded trappings all inextricably linked, and yet, despite my deep loathing of the former, I still appreciate the latter, for the interior resonances these ceremonies generate, the sense, imagined or otherwise, of the tranquil immortal ; of soulfulness; even, on occasion, the possibility of the divine.
Last year, on a Saturday morning, for no particular reason, we decided to go to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ochanomizu just to spend a day in that neighbourhood of Tokyo, but also to experience the atmosphere of St Nikolai – a chill of lingering frankincense and Byzantine mosaics and iconography that, as I entered, immediately soothed and altered the temperature in my mind. Scent, incense, perfume, they are a vital and fundamental part of all the world’s religions, and I sometimes wonder whether my obsession and fascination with phials, vials, bottles and elixirs: liquids trapped within flacons and their transformational properties; the secrets of the crypt, the release of a drop of fragrance that is like a momentary feeling of transubstantiation, a pure release of spirit from the body, is not linked to this aching, ancient need for there to be more; that a love of scent, of all art, in its yearning for pleasure in spiritual clarity, is, in its own way, almost religious. Yes, there is a Dionysian, decadent, wanton side of perfume too, and I revel, unapologetically, in that also, but I still do believe there is a deeper, yet ethereal connection to the eternal in our sense of olfaction, that is embodied in the strangely sensual chastity of such ancient, Middle Eastern resins and essences as benzoin, frankincense, camphor, galbanum and myrrh: lulling, trance-inducing : breath-slowing, and spirit-piercing.
I think even as a child I was always quieted and slightly awe-inspired by the smell of cold, whispered vestiges of the censer, hanging like the shadows of saints in the stain-glasses rafters of churches: it echoes, like silent music. Sinister, too, transgressing the mundane and the everyday : unfamiliar; the other side. L’Artisan Parfumeur’s brilliant L’Humeur A Rien, from 1994 – the same year that Etro released its groundbreaking, softer, more crepuscular, but equally Catholic Messe De Minuit ( or Midnight Mass ) – a stark, almost grim, evocation of the rain-soaked steps of church on a winter’s day, was the first ever incense perfume that I smelled, and I remember it blowing me away so much at the King’s Road original boutique in London, all curtained off in black (as part of the Sautes D’Humeur, or Mood Swings, box set released as a limited edition) that I simply had to buy it on the spot. It was chilling. Almost too evocative. This was an unwearable scent, for me in fact, death -ridden and depressing; nihilistic, even (the ‘rien’ of the name like a void, a nothingness), yet it was marvellous for solo moments of back-of-the-hand contemplation, a temporary portal to another sphere.
Six years later, and to great, predictably iconoclastic success, Comme Des Garçons of course released the soon to be classic (and far more wearable) , Avignon, the first holographic church perfume that made me gasp out loud the first time I smelled it as it was so accurately redolent of actually being in a Catholic church (the days I would spend just gazing at Caravaggios in different locations around Rome; sneaking into mass at the big basilicas on occasion just to drink in the Latin incantations; settling, unobtrusively, into the dazzling, frankincensed air…….) ; this was obvious quite a brilliant and original piece of work, even if smelling it again recently I do still find it a tiny bit flat in the middle and base notes, now a bit generic, overfamiliar, despite its everything-in-the-pulpit-sink-including -the-pews-and-altar-and even-a- black-leather-bound-Bible vibe.
Cardinal, by Heeley, strikes me as a more single-minded incense perfume ; dry, a more commanding frankincense ; quite severe, quite masculine, despite its alleged lightness and transparency. I think I prefer this, as I often do with woody and incense fragrances, on a girl (far more mysterious); the harsh, furrow-browed ministrations of a black or scarlet-clad cardinal used in a hipster, urban context just not particularly appealing: too aggressive, too obvious – even though when worn by the right person, discreetly, and with the right knowingness, there is an edginess, even a humour, to Cardinal that accounts for its continued, cult popularity.
LAVS, by Unum, perhaps the ultimate frankincense perfume in some ways, is truly quite fascinating to me from a number of angles. The back story to the perfume – that this is actually the scent worn by the present and previous popes (and thus in some ways the ultimate celebrity scent), was enough to make me really want to sample it; the perfume itself indeed, extraordinarily episcopal; garmented, ordained.
Strangely, LAVS ( for Laboratorio Vesti Sacre), apparently started out as an ambient fragrance in the cloakrooms used to scent the vestments, airspace and costumes of the pope and other clergy with an instantly recognizable sacred air (and is there not something rather ersatz about this, even if practical?) ; rather than the pope’s clothes being genuinely perfumed with the incense smoke that surround him in his chambers and places of worship, an idealized, almost celestial frankincense and elemi perfume was created to lightly spritz his person in his dressing room before then appearing in public. The fact that this indeed extremely religious smelling perfume is then available for the man on the street to buy strikes me as extraordinarily curious, as I would have assumed that there would have been Dan Brown levels of secrecy and exclusivity surrounding such a product – even denials of its very existence.
In fact, LAVS, as its name might suggest, does have a peculiarly laundry-like aura to it, a very high-planed, aldehydic, cherubial dryer-sheet aspect to its composition alongside its crystal-ashes of illumined frankincense tears; spectral, translucent, the holiest of holy washing machines in which the sacramental garments are cleared and plumed with soul-purging candor and released, unblemished, to the wind. It is a very interesting perfume, actually, having at once an impeccable, almost repellent cleanliness; yet also an almost spooky, ghostly aura of religious aloofness.
Mortel, from the generally impressive new range of perfumes by Parisian candlemakers Cire Trudon, is yet another religiously inspired perfume perfume chock full of frankincense, but is far more human than all the perfumes I have described above, less infallible. While the sacramental elements of its myrrh and benzoin based formula are immediately apparent and set quite a familiar tone, this perfume is ultimately more bound in our earthly, more bodily realities, the warm, erotic basenote of cistus absolute quite a vivid and candid expression of human desires. This is a man. A real person with skin. A touch retro masculine perhaps in its leanings ( but in this case, convincingly, sensually so ), Mortel represents, according to perfumer Yann Vasnier,
‘The artist, living between shadow and light …. a mortal creature.
Halfway between the religious and the revolutionary, with an unquenched thirst for eternity, Mortel is a revolutionary drive that combines virile force and natural harmonies.
A fatal attraction.’
This, for some reason, speaks to me. I don’t know why. I am not even entirely sure what the creator of Mortel is trying to say here exactly, in truth, but it does seem to be intimating and touching on, nevertheless, the eternal dilemma that I have described above – the ever continuing struggle between the cruelty and brutality of our greed and power driven world, with its blinkered hatred, bigotry, and intolerance masquerading as love and pious ‘religion’ – and yet, simultaneously – always – our inner, ancient, inexorable, inextinguishable, never-ending drive towards the unknown……………….the godly, the angelic, and the mystical.