Yesterday I took stock of the layered fragrant moments that together formed a sort of synesthetic potpourri du jour.
It all started with aromatic vapor captured in a ray of morning kitchen light. I paused to watch the smell of coffee as I thought about various ways to depict — in visual media — odors and the experience of smelling them. And I remembered that sometimes images, like words, can conjure powerful olfactive spirits.
Moving from hot coffee to steamy fiction (with persistent overlap), I spent a good part of the day re-reading Théophile Gautier’s 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin. Gautier is probably best known for the novel’s preface, a witty diatribe against utilitarian art, much cited in defense of Art for Art’s sake: “Everything that is useful is ugly” (xxvii); “The most useful place in the house is the water-closet” ( xxviii).* Gautier and his protagonist, d’Albert, frequently link perfume to the concept of ideal beauty: “Mien, gesture, breath, color, tone, perfume, all that life is enters into the compostion of my ideal; everything that has fragrance, that sings, or that is radiant belongs to it as a matter of course” (105-106). Never mind for now that d’Albert owes this reflection to misgivings about his own mistress, whom he deems an incomplete beauty.
Mademoiselle de Maupin‘s digressive, on-and-off epistolary tale features constant interruptions and clever interventions. At one point the narrator decides against recounting a scene, urging the reader instead to “imagine five or six pages of the most delicate, most capricious, most curiously fantastical, most elegant and most glittering description” (140). Despite such ellipses, the text devotes plenty of words to the justification of cross-dressing, the depiction of literal bodice-ripping, and the elaboration of classic misogynist musings challenged by down-right feminist observations.
The scent-focused reader will encounter perfume references throughout the novel:
“My room looked upon a little lake that I have just described. My window was framed with jessamine, which was shaking its stars in silver rain across the floor. Large foreign flowers were poising their urns beneath my balcony as though to cense me; a sweet undecided odor, formed of a thousand different perfumes, penetrated to my bed, whence I could see the water gleaming and scaling into millions of spangles […]” (90-91).
Perhaps it was the word jasmin (I was reading in French) that gave me a sudden craving for Bvlgari Jasmin noir–a smooth, rounded fragrance in a handsome, angular bottle. Many of its notes could go terribly wrong: gardenia (garish), tonka (foody), jasmine (intrusive). But the blend turns out to be neither heavy nor particularly floral. Instead, its rather light, softened, bitter almond edge offers warm comfort. A harmonious complement to hot coffee, a good read, and the January chill.
* I’m quoting from a 1905 Société des Beaux Arts edition, with illustrations by Toudouze. It’s free on Google Books.