Friday, August 26, 2016

Thyme of Mani

Thyme of the Mani at Tiganis
The Mani peninsula, second finger from the left of the Peloponnese hand, is an arid place; its inhabitants scraped by for centuries on subsistence agriculture and piracy. The government encouraged olive cultivation in the 19th century and one sees little else there in terms of husbandry. There was in fact a great exodus - to Athens, America and elsewhere and today many villages are deserted. Urbanized Maniots may return from the city for the weekend or holidays and I suppose it is the kind of place that you may leave, but that never leaves you. Kith and Kin reach deep here.

 The Greeks of the Mani, particularly the inner region, were fierce clannish warriors steeped in bloody feuds for centuries until they united to challenge (the somewhat nominal) Ottoman sovereignty, beginning the Greek independence movement. Blood feuds, family towers and the pre-Christian tradition of the myroloja - deeply moving, spontaneous, yet intricate grieving chants performed by the women otherwise relegated to the sidelines of this patriarchal society upon somebody's death - are what the Mani was known for. Patrick Leigh Fermor, the wonderful Anglo-Irish travel writer was so impressed with the region he not only wrote a book about it but settled and concluded his life there, not the least, I believe, because the emotional release of the myroloja spoke to his own deeply buried demons which he had unsuccessfully tried to run from by his profuse travelling and drinking. He writes, most insightfully:
Patrick Leigh Fermor, "Lamentation" in: Mani. Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (London: John Murray, 1958)
Such a harsh society produced such deep wisdom, as the harsh environment of the Mani brings forth incredible beauty and life intensity. Rarely have I been more strongly in the moment, fully aware, mentally, emotionally, sensorily of myself and my surroundings and their interaction than in these landscapes so barren, yet so full of sight, sound and, of course, smell. All places of the Mediterranean have their specific herbal smellscapes and the Mani is no exception. You can taste it in the stern, almost bitter honey the Maniot bees make and its emblem to me became the thyme that flowered with abandon across the stony terrain besides dusty roads and pathways: bright violet blossoms challenging the dusty ochre and washed out green surrounding them and a smell and flavor so wonderfully strong and pungent it outdoes the wild sage and garlic even. Those plants live hard, they have little to go on and their strength is wonderfully evident, inspring and enlivening in the bite of their oil. The thyme of the Mani is like a myroloja of nature, singing of the hardship and loss that is part of existence, yet therein affirming life to the fullest, exuberantly and with a firm, clear voice: here am I, beautiful, unique, safely nested at the bosom of mother earth and brimming with the force of father sun. Mourn the dead to feel you are living. 
Tigani, the "frying pan" which harbors the remains of the old great castle of the Mani, salt pans all across the handle, and bushes of windswept thyme

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Old flacons in a pharmacy window in Porto Rafti, Greece

Anyone who read my occasional blog in the past, or my perfume reviews elsewhere, knows I'm not too happy about where the perfume industry has been going these last decades (the same could be said about democracy or capitalism, but those are lesser matters --- just kidding). There's an inflation of brands, lines, releases, flankers, all of which have in common that they are made soley for profit, with too little time, quality and aesthetic consideration invested in them and the flacon and PR campaign getting more attention than the juice to boot. Big business and much start-up niche perfumery is aesthetically largely bankrupt (laudable exceptions prove the rule). And yet the digital age has spawned indie perfumers addressing an audience of aficionados who are reinventing and saving the art of perfumery. Great perfume is being made today and it is worth smelling, and, perhaps, writing about. Luca Turin has chosen the wise path of only reviewing perfumes he likes ( I regret that a bit, because he was a master of the scorcher). I won't be doing the same, as I like a good rant and want to fully express how I feel about smelly things in this little space. But I will also keep trying to connect perfume with smell culture in general, which seems to be receiving inreasing attention in academia, the arts and elsewhere, and with broader social concerns and thus try to add a dimension to scent that will hopefully make reading this blog more than a verbal redundancy of actually smelling something (which should always be your first choice). So, here we go again...

Monday, March 2, 2015

Oud and the Eternal Cycle of Life

"Humus ist the true black gold. Humus has a good smell. Humusscent is more sacred and closer to God than the smell of incense. Whoever walks in the forest after rain knows this smell."

So wrote the Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in his 1979 eco-philosophical manifesto "Shit Culture - Sacred Shit" (it was the Seventies, you know).To him, this is the smell of life understood as a cycle. No life without death, no sustenance without decomposition, food to feces, feces to food. We are made of earth and earth we become.

I recently won a bottle of La Via del Profumo's Oud Caravan No. 2 - I had briefly written on Dominique Dubrana's trilogy of Eaglewood scents before this blog went into hibernation. These are not Western fashion ouds that contain nothing of the sort, but scents in the indo-arab tradition made from and centered on (cultivated, rather than the insanely expensive wild) oud. Oud, which like humus has been called black gold, is an olfactory cornerstone of Islamic culture and I assume that a European/American like myself would not ever be able to emotionally comprehend its many-faceted significance in this respect, but at best acknowledge it intellectually. In fact, most Westerners at this sanitized point in our civilization are likely to be disturbed by the deeply organic smell of "gaharu" and would consider it an anti-perfume rather than a precious jewel (the days of massive civet, cumin and musk bombs being, after all, long gone). Animalic / barnyard is probably the most common association, though the scent spectrum of aloeswood is actually rather broad depending upon its provenance, quality and age.

What, then, is my frame of reference for Oud Caravan No. 2? It is decidely memory-bound and Northern European. My perception of the Laotian and Bengali oud in Abdesalaam Attar's composition is organic, indeed, but vegetal, rather than animal - it recalls the fruity-estery smell of decomposing foliage on its way to becoming humus. As a child I spent many hours playing on the outskirts of a park upon three huge mounds of composting leaves, many layers of which had already turned to soil. It is precisely this memoryscape and smell that Caravan No. 2 brings me back to. There is also a subtle aspect of smoke, which rings autumnal to my mind and this leads me to my other association. It is from adult life and it is anything but Islamic, though distillation has its roots in Persia and the word alcohol is, after all, derived from the Arabic al-kuhul (also visible in kajal, as the word refers to cosmetics originally): Whisk(e)y, specifically the phenomenally complex nose of the 15-year-old Irish pure potstill whiskey called Redbreast, a dram defined by its fruity-estery nature that transforms a forest walk somewhere between fall and spring into a pleasurable flavor (it accentuates sweetness rather than rot, of course). Add to that some of the smokey phenolic notes of a peated Islay Malt (back to black gold again) and I get the whisk(e)y manifestation of the vegetal organic quality of Oud No. 2.  I won't strain the analogy by pointing out that "whisky" is derived from the Gaelic term for "water of life" (acqua vitae), but the idea of a scent of life, of a complex process of growth and withering, transformation and development is what ties all of this together and makes Oud Caravan No. 2 a very meaningful scent to me, far from any of its Middle and Far Eastern roots (or maybe not?)

Friedensreich Hundertwasser once more: "The smell of humus is the smell of God, the smell of resurrection, the smell of immortality."

Monday, January 26, 2015

The sickly stink of perfume

Which circle of the hell of consumer capitalism is it, in which homo consumens must wade through the fetid stench of mass perfumery, the synthetic vomit spewed forth by zombie accountants brown-nosing the idol of shareholder value and quartely reports, who believe that Daltroff is a cigar brand? How depleted must one's soul be to believe, to faintly hope even, that some sickly chemical broth hyped with the face of the moment will bring romance or adventure into your life, or even just get you laid (and if it did, would that not truly be the consummation of human abjection)?  Madness, madness all and the certain implosion of our world now that three billion Chinese and Indians and Brasilians aspire to pursue the same inane lifestyle practiced with blind abandon by 700 million Americans, Europeans and the other self-entitled masters of the universe.
I buy therefore I am - this bankruptcy of ethos; this bane of postindustrial humanity that drives the system and which the system forever generates. An icy hell of desperation, this misunderstood pursuit of happiness. No bliss. Bliss is elsewhere. Bliss is care of the self, as the Greeks taught it, as Foucault rediscovered it. Nurturing your soul lovingly, growing, mindful of yourself and therewith able to become mindful of the world, not its mindless devourer of ever unstilled appetites. Bliss is rose, smell of rose, and yes, the art of a rose transformed by the gift of a craftsmen into scented sculpture. Perfume as pursuit of beauty, pursuit, for years perhaps, within the soul no less than amidst the scent organ. No management briefs, no algorithms, four weeks and a three-cent budget. There is no hope on the floor of the department store; there your nose will find fourteenhundreed new reasons every year to give up. Hope is to seek out the few keepers of the flame, those of calling, of vocation and devotion. Dominique Dubrana, Josh Lobb, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Ayala Sender, Antonio Gardoni and all of like spirit: resistance of the aesthetic, aesthetic of resistance! Inhale deeply, inhale in slow time!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas everyone

The big day of gift-giving in Germany is the 24th. I gave perfume (Rousse for the wife , Divine L'Homme Coeur for dad-in-law, a pack of care products from The Refinery for "junior") and received... whisky (gotta work on my reputation). Yesterday I wore Sharif by La Via del Profumo, low key radiance and a tribute to the Magi, today I stayed clean, as I was busy in the kitchen all day with chestnut soup, Turkey and hazelnut praliné semifreddo; extensive cooking orgies and perfume just don't mix. For the relaxing part of the evening it's going to be Aveda Chakra 7 Balancing Body Mist, not just meant to represent wisdom and joy of life, but also a very Christmassy scent built around olibanum, angelica root and elemi gum. It is strongly resinous-green, quite enlivening and archaic, lacks any kind of modern perfumist structure and fades within a few hours, as a body mist would be expected to do, but it works for me, particularly on this day. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ceci n'est pas santal - Santal Majuscule by Serge Lutens

I was griping about the disappearance of Mysore sandalwood six months ago - how fitting, that Serge Lutens would now release a perfume ironically title Santal Majuscule - ironically, because there's no CAPITAL LETTER sandalwood here. In fact, it's hard to make out any at all. Smelled blindly I would have taken this to be Amouage Jubilation XXV, or maybe Paestum Rose by Eau d'Italie, two perfumes (by Bertrand Duchaufour) I briefly owned. I sold them, because I found the gourmandy rose just a bit too much, both in terms of the actual smell and its ubiquity - that sugary floral accord has been all over the place in the last couple of years, it seems (I also perceive it in Cannabis Rose). So this is a spicy woody floral, but the wood is just another conventional accord dominated by the soft textures of cashmeran, iso-e-super and the likes. There is nothing here close to an actual Mysore sandsalwood note.  "Santal" "Majuscule" smells nice enough, though its confectionary intensity is not my cup of tea at all subjectively, but it's aesthetically redundant and misleadingly named - making Uncle Serge's schoolboy reminiscences a bit beside the point. Wasn't it nice, when a perfume named Rousse matched a redhead (like my wife) perfectly and Arabie actually smelled of 1001 nights. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ring out, solstice bells

What better time to revive state of the [car]nation than around the winter solstice, when the days begin to wax again. I shall be waxing poetic again myself, now that I'm on Christmas break, on this and that, but for now, let me please advertise Anya McCoy's lovely winter solstice project which includes lovely prizes every day and reflections on solstice rituals across the world:

A New Tradition: Anya's Annual Winter Solstice Giveaway Event
Anya is starting a new annual tradition on her blog. She has long been fascinated with this time of year, when, as a child, she noticed the cold, dark days of wintertime Philadelphia were made tolerable by the festive lights of Hanukkah and Christmas. In her neighborhood, Christmas lights were kept lit in windows until New Years Eve, brightening the dark streets and making the cold more tolerable.
This year, Anya is inaugurating a Winter Solstice Event on her new blog, hosted on her own website. The former blog site didn't allow her to see the email addresses of people who left comments, and some giveaway prizes went unclaimed when the winners couldn't be notified. Now, everyone will be notified immediately after their name is randomly chosen.
The celebration of lights will begin on the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21st, and continue through the lengthening days with a giveaway every day. Anya will also write about personal, perfumery, mystical and practical events that have shaped her in her art and life. It will be a lovely journey that she hopes to share with you, and with the giveaway gifts, pay it forward to the community of customers and natural perfume lovers who have helped build her businesses.
You can register at the blog to receive updates on posts, or subscribe to the RSS feeds for posts and/or comments by visiting the blog page.