“Reader, pause here. What followed was, and remains, an utterly unique experience in my life. This was no shop girl waving strips of scented blotting paper, hawking mass-produced aromas in a mall. This was the man who had created new perfumes, from scratch, and who had come to Greece because the country’s botanic wealth might yield up a grace note or two for his compositions.”—Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
By Way of Being
By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
“God gave us memories that we might have roses in December.”—J.M. Barrie, Courage
“One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted /One need not be a House/The Brain has Corridors – surpassing/Material Place”—Emily Dickinson, “Poem 670”
“The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object . . . you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest.”—Joseph Campbell
LIMBEAU Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—January 2018—Here in my tiny Floridian office, I sit facing a white wall. I roll my eyes up, up, above the bright screen, and back, as though gazing at mountains, and I am . . . elsewhere.
As Deputy Editor of The Athenian: Greece’s English Language Monthly, I spent much of the 1980s at a small desk in The Plaka, marking up copy and meeting with writers. We were located just off Filomousou Etairias Square (named for The Society of the Friends of the Nine Muses) and, from our long, penthouse balcony, there was a clear view of the Acropolis.
Our Masthead ran to only two or three permanent staff, but the publisher, Sloane Elliott—my living, breathing Philhellenic-Google-before-Google and walking Style Manual—was there almost daily. I enjoyed him so: Sloane was witty, kind, learnèd, and a paragon of East Coast Brahmin tact (useful in an office of Greek women given to speaking in decibels above 70).
My decade in that swivel chair brought me gifts of every stripe: friends for life, writing assignments that comprised a continuing education unavailable in any academy, before, after, and ever again, and a cast of characters who walked in off the street like The Magi with a new book, band, exhibition, invention, or cause to promote. The magazine was the only slick Anglophone publication in Greece from the 70s through the 90s, and I grew up, as a writer, editor, and person, in the university of its pages.
One day, a middle-aged stranger so unassuming that I have forgotten every last detail of him, from his nationality to his appearance, came in and was routed to my desk by Olga, our secretary. He told me that he was “a nose,” a designer of perfumes, and I believe he was Irish—certainly, his first language was English—but his base of operations was France. It was my feeling that he had come to The Athenian as so many did in that decade, to meet others of his kind: literate expatriates. I also remember that he had nothing at all to promote or peddle: he was neither a writer nor a reader. His realm was scent, and he was in Greece seeking out raw ingredients for a trio of fragrances.
We sat. Olga made coffee (in order to eavesdrop). And then my guest brought out three little stoppered bottles of perfume, and asked for my—what?—opinion.
Reader, pause here. What followed was, and remains, an utterly unique experience in my life. This was no shop girl waving strips of scented blotting paper, hawking mass-produced aromas in a mall. This was the man who had created new perfumes, from scratch, and who had come to Greece because the country’s botanic wealth might yield up a grace note or two for his compositions.
Regarding perfumes, consider this: In 2003, archaeologists uncovered what are believed to be the world’s oldest surviving perfumes in Pyrgos, on Cyprus. Dating back more than 4,000 years, they were discovered in an ancient perfumery, a huge factory housing at least 60 stills, mixing bowls, funnels, and perfume bottles. Excavation leader Maria Rosaria Belgiorno’s team “analyzed the remains of the mixing jugs and identified 14 fragrances native to the Mediterranean region used in perfume production. Extracts of anise, pine, coriander, bergamot, almond, and parsley are among the ingredients the ancient perfume-makers preferred. The team also discovered four ‘recipes’ concocted with the different fragrances.”
Four-thousand-year-old “recipes” for scent, from the island sacred to Aphrodite . . . .
We’ve been at this business, dabbling in this genre, for millennia, we Homo sapiens, and yet, when one is asked to name the grandest of humankind’s art forms, one usually ticks off music, the plastic arts, the dance, but not anything perceived via that keenest of senses, smell.
The tiny bottles on my desk were labeled “Earth,” “Fire,” and “Wind,” and Mr. Nose opened and then handed them to me one by one, giving me time to respond to each in turn, no flourishes of blotting paper, etc., involved.
Two of the scents were, to me, entirely unremarkable. The third, “Wind,” was an experience like no other and, given that I am a writer, I am compelled to remember it now in pale words on paper, as opposed to, say, song, or pyrotechnics, or splashes of paint.
But what is word in the face of wind?
If I close my eyes, all these decades later, and inhale consciously, remembering, some of the notes of “Wind” will still return to me, on warm, anonymous breath. The scent is not entirely forgotten, if never-to-be experienced again.
I think of every perfume—every identifiable scent—as a musical chord, for that is the obvious analogy. Wikipedia, again: “Perfume is described in a musical metaphor as having three sets of notes, making the harmonious scent accord. The notes unfold over time, with the immediate impression of the top note leading to the deeper middle notes, and the base notes gradually appearing as the final stage. These notes are created carefully with knowledge of the evaporation process of the perfume.”
As I breathed in “Wind,” Mr. Nose remarked, “The scent is not yet fixed.” That reality, not yet understood, would come back to haunt me. For the time being, though, in the moment, I was simply transfixed. The smell in that bottle was utterly new to me, utterly original, and something close to the divine. Perhaps perfumers can create scents which are instantaneously addictive, scents that, when they vanish from the human lexicon, break the human heart. “Wind” was one such scent.
Knowing what little I know of perfumes, I believe “Wind” was an early avatar of a group of scents we now know as Aquatic, Oceanic, or Ozonic. (Wikipedia: this newest category in perfume history first appeared “in 1988 with Davidoff Cool Water, Christian Dior’s Dune, and many others. A clean smell reminiscent of the ocean, leading to many of the modern androgynous perfumes. Generally contains calone, a synthetic scent discovered in 1966, or other more recent synthetics.)
Bear with me for a bit of science here regarding calone: “Calone or methylbenzodioxepinone, trade-named Calone 1951, also known in the industry as ‘watermelon ketone,’ was discovered by Pfizer in 1966. It is used to give the olfactory impression of a fresh seashore through the marine and ozone nuances. Calone is similar in structure of certain alicyclic C11-hydrocarbons like ectocarpene, excreted by some species of brown algae as pheromones.
“Calone is an unusual odorant which has an intense ‘sea-breeze’ note with slight floral overtones. It has been used as a scent component since the 1980s for its watery, fresh, ozone accords, and as a more dominant note in several perfumes of the marine trend, beginning in the 1990s.”
Science aside, Reader, I reacted with all the ardor of brown algae reacting to pheromones. I swooned.
Mr. Nose took note.
Editor David Kudler, in his notes to Art as Revelation, one of the last works left us by Joseph Campbell before his death in 1987, writes of the most transcendent works of Homo articus: “. . . Campbell makes excellent use of Joyce’s theory of art, described in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and emphasizes the role of ‘proper art,’ the function of which is to hold the viewer in aesthetic arrest ‘as before a revelation’ in which an awareness of the material world as it is, is suspended, and for a moment (or in the case of the artist, Campbell remarks, a lifetime), the metaphysical reality in which the world exists overwhelms one’s awareness and allows one to see through manifest forms, through the conventional understanding of what it means to be human and, finally, make a kind of sublime sense out of the horrible realities of living.”
I would expand this concept quite a bit, here at the end of my long life, to encompass such works as Proust’s Madeleine, Anne Sullivan’s fingers spelling “water” in Helen Keller’s hand, the transcendent smell of Mr. Nose’s “Wind,” etc., etc., etc., works without name or end.
Why limit she who experiences aesthetic arrest to “the viewer?”
I took home with me, gratis, courtesy of Mr. Nose, that little bottle of “Wind,” and opened it every day, and wore it on my pulse points . . . until it turned, and morphed, and died. It was not yet “fixed,” that perfume, and so it was not . . . forever.
I kept, for years, Mr. Nose’s business card, and tried, while I was still in Greece, to contact him again, but it was not to be.
Like so, so much else in life, for those of us with noses, with palates, with eyes, with ears, with our vast pelts of sensitive skin, aesthetic arrest is the exception, in daily life.
We are fated to know it at first blush, and succumb to its coup de foudre and, as I look to the heavens, I can still call up memories of that mercurial little bolt from the blue—I am still possessed by it—but I shall never again possess lightning in a little bottle.
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