Friday, 1 June 2012

Heliotrope and Marzipan

‘… in his search for sensations that would be at once new and delightful, and possess that element of strangeness that is so essential to romance, he would often adopt certain modes of thought that he knew to be really alien to his nature, abandon himself to their subtle influences, and then, having, as it were, caught their colour and satisfied his intellectual curiosity, leave them with that curious indifference that is not incompatible with a real ardour of temperament…  And so he would now study perfumes, and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily-scented oils, and the burning odorous gums of the east…’ 

Thus Dorian Gray.  And thus Arthur Symons:
The feverish room and that white bed / The tumbled skirts upon a chair, / The novel flung half-open, where / Hat-pins, puffs, and paints are spread… / This … will rise, a ghost of memory, if / Ever again my handkerchief / Is scented with white heliotrope.
And thus, so to speak, Catherine Maxwell in her beguiling professorial lecture at QMUL this week, exploring the frequent but hitherto under-appreciated allusions to cosmetic fragrances in Decadent literature.   A suggestively fascinating topic, promising new synaesthetic avenues into 1890s culture, personality, sexuality, performance, perversity.
But until, in a flourish to end the lecture, Catherine handed out scented sticks, I had not known that the fin-de-siecle perfume white heliotrope smells just like marzipan – or, as Catherine noted,  like playdoh.  Which brings a different perspective to Symons’ poem, or maybe to playdoh.  But, impo, not a nice aroma for anyone's hankie.

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