A Digression

by Heidi Czerwiec

If we think via perfume, can consider it intellectually and aesthetically, can that make it art? In French, flair means not only “sense of smell” but also “intuition,” a way of knowing.[1] Perfume engages not just the senses, but the intellect.

The summer I fell in love with perfume was the summer I was apart from my love: while he worked a summer internship at a law firm we hoped would mean a move to Minneapolis, I stayed behind, teaching summer school. Connected with a company who sold decanted scents, I ordered sampler sets, spent my summer applying two each night, one on each wrist.

My first, a vintage eau de cologne of Caron’s Narcisse Noir, was a disappointment. I so wanted to be transported by it, the signature scent of eroticist Anaïs Nin. After all, Patty, host at the Perfume Posse, had described it as “mostly a narcissus perfume,” but that “this tramp drags the orange blossoms around through the dark mud of crazy.” And while I did smell the white flowers of orange blossom and the namesake narcissus, what I mostly sniffed was resin and incense. A college headshop, and a far cry from femme fatale; more hippie than Hollywood. I let the vial fall to the bottom of the Ziploc.

Narcisse Noir. Image courtesy of the author.

As a professor, I tried to engage my students’ intellects through their senses as well. When I taught Modernist Literature, I used a multidimensional approach so they could comprehend the radical aesthetic departures of the art of this period. In order to understand attempts to represent multiple character perspectives simultaneously in Eliot and Joyce, we studied Picasso’s Cubist paintings and listened to Stravinsky’s polyphonic compositions; to learn about absurdism in Kafka, we heard Mahler’s First Symphony – the third movement with “Frère Jacques” played as a dirge until interrupted by an oompah band – and looked at slides of Dadaist art and performances.

The last time I taught this class coincided with the start of my perfume obsession, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know how these people smelled. What, if anything, could this sense teach us about the people of this period?

Published by T.S. Eliot in Poetry magazine in 1915, and as the title poem in Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”[2] is a dramatic interior monologue that marks a shift from Romantic lyricism to a Modernist aesthetic of disillusionment. The poem, actually composed in 1911, contains the lines Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress? Could a perfume have inspired this longing on which Prufrock never acts? Googling “most popular perfume in 1911” returns the result Caron’s Narcisse Noir.

Narcisse Noir was composed in 1911 by Ernest Daltroff for Parfums Caron. The name suggests nighttime, eroticism, When the evening is spread out against the sky. It is a chiaroscuro of the language of perfume, a sharp contrast of white flowers—orange blossoms, narcissus, jasmine—with dark incense and dark impulses of animalic musks. The Baccarat crystal bottle, a flattened orb topped by a flat jet cap carved like a flower, appeared in a silent film starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, where she is at her toilette, and so intrigued women in the audience In the room the women come and go that it soon sold out at stores.[3] Narcisse Noir likely the scent wafted by the women in the rooms Prufrock haunted, pinned and wriggling on the wall.

The title character Prufrock, a prudish, emasculated, monastic man (the original incel?) represents the frustration and impotence of an aging man in the Modern world – unable to act, to even talk to women. And indeed there will be time / To wonder, “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?” Spoken mostly in future imperfect and subjunctive, he manages to talk himself out of even imagining himself acting, unable to seize the day like the carpe diem poet he quotes: And would it have been worth it, after all /…/ To have squeezed the universe into a ball.

The story of Parfums Caron is a story of secret love. Daltroff hired former dressmaker Felicie Wanpouille (perfume from a dress) to design his bottles, but instead she became his muse: supposedly smitten with her, he never formally declared his love.[4] And should I then presume? And how should I begin? This unrequited undercurrent resulted in some of the 20th century’s most tumultuous perfumes: the darkly demented Narcisse Noir, the melancholic N’Aimez Que Moi (“love no one but me”).

In the Norton Anthology of Poetry, where I first encountered “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” among the anthology’s onionskin pages, the poem has 8 footnotes – a lot for a poem, though much less than the 77 for The Waste Land.[5] One of my poetry mentors despised Eliot, said poems shouldn’t be so burdened by learnedness. At the time, wild with referentiality myself, Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse, I was pissed. As I age (I grow old… I grow old…), I come to understand what he meant, try to wear my knowledge more lightly. This essay does, however, have 5 footnotes.

There’s a famous urban legend in which Norma Desmond, a fading silent movie star in Sunset Boulevard played by Gloria Swanson, wears Narcisse Noir. This factoid is all over the internet, though it cannot be corroborated. Nonetheless, it makes sense that someone trapped in the past would be attracted to such a scent.

In my class, I passed around vials of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, Caron’s Tabac Blond, and Habanita, all scents composed to conceal the peccadillos of the New Woman who smoked and drank publicly. I also brought Narcisse Noir. This time – after a summer of educating my nose? or perhaps just a hot room? – the sultriness of it made me swoon. And later, dabbing it on all my sweet etceteras when my love returned, my longing did not go unrequited.

Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, and the poetry collection Conjoining. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary https://www.etymonline.com/

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock

[3] World Wide Aura blog: “a growing archive of beauty products and perfumes in movies and tv shows” https://borntobeunicorn.com/2014/07/07/sunset-boulevard-1950-caron-narcisse-noir-mystery/

[4] Fragrantica blog, https://www.fragrantica.com/designers/Caron.html

[5] The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th ed. Ed. Alexander Allison. (New York: Norton, 1983).

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