Tag Archives: Frankincense

THESE DAYS I CRY: : : : : THE ORPHAN by SERGE LUTENS (2014)

 

 

 

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The first words that came to my mind upon smelling this, L’Orpheline, -The Orphan – Serge Lutens’ latest addition to his ever-expanding portfolio of perfumes, were…. ‘meanspirited.’

 

 

 

 

Spiteful, grey; flinty, miserable, a scent that if you were to wear on a dark and rainy day, skulking through jet-black puddles under your November umbrella, might just tip you right over the edge in its haunting, face-reflecting bleakness……………..this perfume, to me, really is bad mood in a bottle.

 

 

 

The second word that came to my mind, I’m afraid, was ‘unoriginal’. The sheer number of peppered, dour incense perfumes that have been released recently in the world of niche perfumery is quite startling, as if the fiscal austerity that has gripped a few parts of Europe over these last few years of economic and societal difficulty had been translated, in grim and unrelenting unsmilingness, into our perfume. For those that consider themselves ‘serious artists’. For the people in the fashion industry; dressed in black, their no- nonsense baby, drip me in incense, feel my cool, metallic exteriors; their no sweetness, no pink; no gourmandise flippancy – please!……These Byredos, Comme Des Garçons, Agonists and Tauers; these taut and unforgiving bleaknesses that sear the nostrils and clad the air around them with their drynesses and armour and that have become an overfamiliar leitmotif of angular self-consciousness; of hair-cut severity, and of a very specifically urban, grave-hungry, and sunken-cheeked, chic.

 

 

 

 

 

L’Orpheline, a perfume I do quite like, actually, despite what I have just written above, still smells incredibly familiar to those that know Lutens well. There is the inky black Japaneseness of the (far more daring and interesting) Serge Noire; a slight touch of the spiced, forest darkness of Fille En Aiguilles (though with none of that perfume’s delicious, caramellized ginger compromises) but there is, also, a new departure of dry, skeletal boniness; of seared and moisture-sucked frankincense resins that does bring us in mind in fact of physical and spiritual emaciation. An orphan, indeed. A matchstick girl, playing alone with tindersticks. A barebranched winter; a mournfulness, the theme making most definite sense. Yes: an orphan.

 

 

 

 

And Lutens has totally gone to town this time with his background story, his imagery, his psychosexual pathways meant to lead us into ‘understanding’ a perfume that is, when all is said and done, rather simple. It is a watery, and melancholic ink painting, effective and atmospheric, well-executed and canny, that nevertheless does smell, as I have said, like scores of other niche perfumes that we have known these past few years; brittle scents that flood the trendier shelves of the outlier boutique perfumeries with their skeins of dead leaves; their deracinated woods, their frowns under fringes; their ‘pain’ and pseudo religious nonsense.

 

 

 

 

I still can’t help being slightly drawn in, though. I like these linkings of creative psychobabble and autobiography being segued into scent, the passion involved in someone’s innermost sanctums being candidly and liquidly immortalized (if you just allow yourself to suspend some disbelief for a moment and become willingly immersed).

 

 

“Yes, if you believe that she is the abandoned part of me. I have cut the world in two”, the ‘master’ writes in his (quite incomprehensible) commentary, alluding quite openly to his traumatized childhood; his hatred of the father, his splintering off into a girl child alter ego that he is releasing, here, from incarceration……(so is this perfume, in fact the first ever Transgender Fragrance?)

 

 

 

L’Orpheline is a perfume, apparently, come from ‘dust’, from the ‘wake of his life’: a darkened duality of almost Gothic gloom and speckled soil (unmoistened frankincense; black pepper, myrrrh and woods, with patchouli) that is severe; mineralic, moody and very deflective in these initial, love-fearing stages. We do sense quite strongly that this person, damaged and sensitized, most definitely does, when we first come across her, want to be left alone.

 

 

 

And this is perhaps the key to L’Orpheline. Perhaps the least fleshed and voluptuous of the Serge Lutens creations, it is more like a fragile, self-protecting shroud, with only the crows nesting in the trees keeping a watchful eye on your progress as you talk to them, solitary, making your way, out of necessity, to some destination beyond those blackened, psychic trees that line the pathways.

 

 

 

 

No doubt. There is a doleful blanket of wintriness that encircles the air about The Orphan as she walks along, in timidity, keeping the frays of tears – always, when visible, in her eyes – (because she wants you all to see them) but I must reiterate again that there also is a thinness: a musty, old font of church ozonic wateriness (the base notes do, I have to say, remind me somewhat of Demeter’s rather tongue-in-cheek Holy Water) that grates, and nerves me as it lingers in my mind.

 

 

 

She cannot keep this up, though, this pitiful charade. Perhaps the orphan is a Sagittarian, like myself, and, you know, that unavoidable unbridled optimism will always inevitably, eventually at some point just lay some more full-bodied stakes, some warmth in the proceedings. Soon, soft musks, modern, familiar cashmeran, and a more anchored, tonka bean wilfulness come into play, and she is one of us, again, now – more playful, eased, and smooth. She evinces a happier (if more banal) aura at this point: a soft and comforting stole that makes quite an enveloping contrast with the cold, wind-chipped bitterness of those initial, more painstaking overtures.

 

 

 

In between, during her more satisfying middle act (the most successful stage of this perfume), there is a very nice morphing that occurs between the two contrasting facets in the scent, where a blanket of sandalwood-like warmth begins to hover above, and the more balsamic and gentle undertones begin to coalesce quite happily with the damp and evil peppercorns persisting in the scent’s thorny outer layers (the ‘forgiveness’ that Lutens is talking about, his way out of the emotional labyrinth?). Whatever it is, the base notes of L’Orpheline, as they make themselves known, are soft, smoothed over, and certainly, for many people I would imagine, quite potentially soothing.

 

 

 

 

For me, though, they are also uninspiring. While wearing and smelling this scent throughout the day today has been intriguing (and I think it could actually smell quite beguiling on the right, wide-eyed person who can carry it off), the gauntness at the heart of this perfume’s composition, though in some ways linking quite convincingly to the spindly-limbed images we have of little, undernourished orphans, make me yearn, nevertheless, for the original, unreformulated Serge Lutens perfumes from back in the day when he first unleashed himself on us all with those rash, impassioned Moroccan oil paintings that were anything at all but wan, miserabilist and tear-flecked. They were bold. They were thick, they were quite uncompromising and exotic. Outrageous, even. So though the pathos inherent in the concept behind the L’Orpheline is admittedly quite interesting to me (and I love the fact that the emotional palette of the Lutens collection is gradually widening) I also think, ultimately, that I do definitely prefer something more generous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Instant cathedrals….. INCIENSO ARTESANAL COPAL, VIRGEN DE FATIMA

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Copal, a gum-resin obtained from the hymenaea tree, was to the people of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica what frankincense was to the East: an ambered, crystallized substance whose scent, when used as an incense in Aztec and Mayan ceremonies (as ‘food’ for the deities) induced feelings of transcendance, succour, and religious connection.

 

 

I have read about copal before, and like any other scent maniac worth his salt, I find perfume ingredients, raw materials with exotic names (especially ones that I have never smelled) quite mesmerizing. ‘Copal’………. it resonates. Part jewel, part metal, part unknowable unguent; what, we wonder, could it smell like?

 

 

Yesterday at an import shop in Tsujido, one train stop from where I work, to my surprised delight I came across a packet of incense that I had never seen: COPAL by VIRGEN DE FATIMA, MEXICO. The heart leapt at the sight, though I immediately checked myself, assuming that surely it couldn’t possibly be as interesting as it sounded and looked (and, wrapped up and unopened, it was impossible to sample). I of course bought it anyway, and last night when I got home late after an extremly exhausting evening of teaching in Yokohama, I burned, quite intrigued, one stick of the grey, powdering incense in the entrance, as Duncan slept upstairs.

 

 

 

The great similarities with frankincense were immediately apparent (and how fascinating that on other sides of the world, completely unconscious of each others’ identities, even existences, different cultures would hone in on a natural substance that has such an involved method of agriculture; wounding the tree to collect the ‘tears’ and exudations, drying it, and using it in religious ceremonies. How wonderful that this non-coincidence truly suggests that there is something inherently spiritual about frankincense and copal, no matter what the religion).

 

 

If you had asked me to identify the odour as the stick was lit I would have immediately said that it was of course frankincense….the plumes of thick, spectral smoke were just like those from a censer: pure, Catholic incense, undoubtedly frankincensian ( a smell I adore ), perhaps less bitter, perhaps a touch more mellow, but most definitely a direct, if chaste, kissing cousin.

 

 

 

I have written before about how I have burned Somalian frankincense in the house, and how the neighbours have complained (and who can blame them). Though strangely satisfying – the intense, pyromaniacal lighting of the corner of a piece of solidified frankincense resin with a lighter, waiting for it to catch fire, glow and begin to give off ghosts – it is in fact a painstaking and time-consuming process that can lead to singed fingertips, lots of used up lighters and matches, and vales of intensely black, acrid smoke that are not entirely what you were looking for (for what you are looking for in fact is the moment just after the resin has caught fire and you let it linger just for just enough minutes before blowing it out: that moment when the smouldering, golden coal gives off wisps of delicious, pure frankincense).

 

 

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This new find, this copal, will solve all my boswellian dilemmas. I have just burned a full stick of the incense, this fine spring morning, and it is perfect. Very similar to the haunting smell we are all so familiar with, frankincense, just a touch softer perhaps, more animalic and benzoiny somewhere in its middle and heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has taken me back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In 2007 Duncan and I went to Mexico. We stayed in the capital for a few days, wandering around in a trance, went to the strange and surreal silver mining hillside town of Taxco, then travelled down to Guadalajara (for a friend’s wedding), before coming back to Mexico City via the university town of Morelia. It was an interesting holiday, intensely stimulating, even if the food didn’t agree with us at all (Duncan eventually stopped eating completely, as you can see from the pictures). It was an entirely new experience, though, and in many ways quite thrilling. I discovered, at the very worst time, that I suffer from vertigo when trying to ascend the Piramide Del Sol at Teotihuacan……. discovered an embarrassingly sentimental side to my possibly Japanized nature when I kept bursting into tears every time a mariachi band started playing one of those emotive, heartfelt songs near our restaurant table or on the street; and I was constantly fascinated by the churches, the roadside altars, the bloodish, voodoo-laced phantasmagoria (Alexandro Jodorowsky, creator of El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, is one of my favourite films directors, so I was basically in heaven).

 

 

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Those cathedrals…….. with the flowers, the icons, the incense – which I had assumed was frankincense, hanging in the corners of the cool, interior atmosphere – but which I now realize, geographically and economically, was far more likely to have been copal. And this morning, with that smoke lingering anonymously but tenaciously in the rafters, my house smells the same. Strangely transformed, like the atrium of a cathedral.

 

 

 

 

 

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Actually, while we are (kind of) on the subject, trawling through some of Duncan’s facebook albums (hence the graininess here of these Mexico photos- I had to take them off the screen), I have just come across some more photos vaguely connected to this theme, of a fantastic evening we had at the Italian Institute in Tokyo, where Duncan won second prize in the costume competition as a bishop on a skateboard (inspired directly by the ecclesiastical fashion show in Fellini’s Roma). It was utterly brilliant, that costume, assembled in a week entirely from bits and bobs from the 100 yen shop, pieces of lace and plastic, and then just at the very last minute, the skateboard, which a friend called him up excitedly to say that she had found in a recycle shop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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He was waiting in the wings, an irreligious prankster.

 

 

 

I pressed play.

 

 

 

And when the soundtrack began, to the delight of the audience, his eminence skateboarded in, a whirling pope, going round and round them in circles as they clapped and cheered.

 

 

Surreal. I loved it.

 

 

 

 

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