Scent, so famously linked to memory, brings us back to the scenes of our past, but it can do something stranger: it can take us just beyond the edge of our experience to places and people we have never known, yet claim beyond reason as our own. It doesn’t really matter whether our affinities are nostalgic, aspirational, or ancestral. The powerful experience of smelling something for the first time and knowing that we’ve come home cannot be denied.
Though my perfume loves continue to grow and expand, for me most of these coming-home scents fall into the category of orientals. I’ve grown to appreciate and even to adore many florals, and I aspire to the elegance of chypres, but it’s abundantly clear from my collection that resins, woods and spices, often touched by dark roses and the occasional judicious (and, OK, sometimes not so judicious) measure of dark fruit or honey, are what I reach for most often. They are the scents that feel like the most expansive, luxurious, confident, sensual version of myself.
Outside of perfumanity, the word “oriental”—unless applied to carpets—stinks of out-of-date ignorance and self-entitled sloppiness. But the “oriental” of perfume is a term so fantastically antique that it by-passes contemporary racism and proceeds straight to the bloody, knotty histories and dreams of Empire. Setting aside for a moment, the messiness of the category itself (What exactly is an oriental perfume these days? And what is not?), we could say that The Orient of perfume is not the Far East—China and Japan—but the Near or Middle East, a region located more or less in North Africa and the Southern Mediterranean.
But even this vague outline begins to dissolve as soon as it is drawn, for perfume’s Orient is truly a collection of journeys. It is comprised of the ancient spice and incense routes, over land and sea, where the raw materials for spiritual and sensual life were (and in many cases continue to be) gathered and traded, and of the journeying borders, peoples, and armies that accompanied the quest for precious aromatics and the wealth they represented. This Orient sends its tendrils through space and time across Egypt and Arabia to India, the “spice islands” of Northern Indonesia and the Southern Phillipines, and then up into China, throughout the old Roman Empire and even into the New World where Columbus was, after all, looking for a new spice route.
Of course, the peoples of the Orient didn’t view themselves as such – it’s a Western state of mind, from belly dancers and dreams of Genies, to Lawrence of Arabia. It is the Dutch girl who became Mata Hari, and the inscrutable, perfect face of the Swede who played her in the movies (and that nightmar African/Arab idol/monster she dances with on the movie poster). It is the Orient of 19th-century Romantic poet Coleridge and his opium-fuelled dreams of Kubla Kahn:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
It is, in short, Orientalism, the late, great scholar Edward Said’s stinging rejoinder to the myopic Western stereotyping and exoticization of (primarily) Muslim Arab worlds, extended by others into a similar critique of the West’s exoticization of Asia.
The blend of empire and dream is clear in the scent portrait of oriental perfumes. There are the ancient, amazing resins—frankincense and myrrh, sandalwood, and the complex resin produced by the heartwood of the mold-infected aquilaria tree known in its various homes and forms as agarwood, gaharu, jinko, aloeswood, or oud—and the spices—cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, clove, coriander, nutmeg and saffron. And there are the citruses, roses and jasmine beloved so throughout the Middle East and South Asia. But what would Shalimar, that ur-oriental, be without vanilla, of which the Old World knew nothing until Columbus’ fateful journey? The trade of other crucial ingredients, in particular ambergris and its plant material substitutes, have their own, intersecting stories.
And, in the way of dreams, other travesties of empire get smoothed over and mixed in/up with the oriental story—witness Lubin’s Idole, with it’s African mask bottle, and its hefty dose of rum mixed with all those spices. Tribute to the enslaved Africans traded for rum and spices? Co-optation of exoticism for profit? Cluelessness? Certainly, it’s dream logic.
I don’t think oriental dreams are going anywhere. I found it impossible to do so much as list the spices and resins above without falling into a kind of reverie. Perfume lives, in part, through fantasy, and fantasy (as we feminists have had to learn) is never politically correct. Indeed, there’s too much rich history and mythology keeping time alongside the Western silliness to want to leave it entirely behind. But Orientalism is so rampant in the perfume world that as I swoon over my oriental perfumes I can’t help but wonder about the things they both point towards and cover over.
The fog of fantasy obscures a truly fascinating history of Western perfumery’s debt to the East, and of it’s greedy absorption and re-interpretation and of these scents. It is simply impossible to imagine perfumery—far beyond “orientals”—without the raw materials of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Literally and figurally, the region provides perfumes basenotes and heartnotes (and a few topnotes, too). But how was the basis of classical perfumery shaped by the ancient ways of blending those woods and spices? And how many of our contemporary perfumers find their sensual or actual homes there?
Perhaps some of what feels like innovation is actually a more conscious connection to ancient ways. The work of the much-praised Serge Lutens, for example, can be seen as an extended meditation on the Middle East. From Anya, on Smelly Blog, I learn that another innovator, Linda Pilkington of Ormonde Jayne, spent several years at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Like Lutens, Pilkington’s perfumes are clearly connected to the scents and flavors of the Middle East (consider, especially, Ta’if). What are her emotional connections to that world? These are only the crudest and most direct of connections—there are many others, more subtle, to be traced. If you know more, please do comment.
In this time of war, when fantasy so quickly turns to nightmare and monster-making, I think it’s worth searching out human stories to stand alongside our dreams. My own Orientalism takes the form of nostalgia for the great vibrant, cosmopolitan cities of old, where West and East, Jew, Christian, and Muslim truly lived and worked (if not always happily) together. And I wonder what we—what I—could learn about my yearning for the scents of the Orient if I knew what they meant to people for whom they smell, quite simply, of home.
(As if home were ever simple. But that is a story for another day.)
Photo credits: digischool.nl, tinyurl.com, wfa-usa.org.