Heaven Scent

In perfume as in literature, the sublime often comprises a soupçon of the horrible. The art of perfumery was known to the ancient Chinese, Hindus, Egyptians, Israelites, Carthaginians, Arabs, Greeks and Romans. Traces turn up in the Bible (remember “frankincense and myrrh?”) and beyond. Test your knowledge of life’s “essential” things.

1. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, this picaresque tale of an olfactory genius-monster’s scheme to distill the very essence of innocence and desire became an international bestseller for its German author.

2. A sort of bile that forms in the intestines of sperm whales, this malodorous secretion – which rates a full chapter in the all-time great American novel – is “worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist,” the epic’s narrator reckons. Washed ashore, the waterborne grayish-yellow slime naturally hardens to an aromatic wax valued since antiquity as fragrance, medicine and spice.

3. A forerunner to the symbolists and decadents, he celebrated the senses – often smell – in verse, as in these lines from “Correspondences”: Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants / Doux comme les hautbois, verts commes les prairies / Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants…”

4. Originally a mixture of citrus oils, lavender and neroli, this “admirable water” (invented by an Italian barber but named for the Rhineland capital where, in 1709, it became all the rage) contains only 5 percent essential oils – compared to the 25 percent concentration of perfume.

5. “Here’s the smell of the blood still: All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” murmurs this notorious sleep-walker, arguably her creator’s most complex female character.

6. Taken from the sex gland of Siberian stags, this substance was prized in the Orient for its supposed stimulant, antispasmodic and aphrodisiac effects. Used in the best perfumes and soaps, its quality varies according to the season and the age of the animal from which it is extracted.

7. A tiny shop in Deauville, France, was the springboard for her famous “poor girl” look. Among her fashion innovations are turtlenecks, bell-bottoms and the little black dress. For six decades she ruled Parisian haute couture, but the bedrock of her empire was this scent she introduced in 1922.

8. In this extraction method, flower petals are placed between layers of purified animal fat, which become saturated with flower oil. Alcohol is then used to obtain the “absolute” – the most concentrated form of aroma.

9. In a short story titled “Memory,” this early 20th-century French writer demonstrates his signature use of sensory experience to release unconscious recollection: “… I was numbed by the violence of fragrances, which boomed like organs, growing measurably more intense by the minute… In my humdrum life I was exalted one day by perfumes exhaled by a world that had been so bland. They were the troubling heralds of love.”

Illustration by Michael Klein


Last Word Solutions

1. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind

2. Ambergris, in Moby-Dick, by
Herman Melville

3. Charles Baudelaire

4 Cologne

5. Lady MacBeth, in Shakespeare’s MacBeth

6. Musk

7. Coco Chanel’s Chanel No. 5

8. Enfleurage

9. Marcel Proust