I just noticed that the great perfumes are French, usually either just pre-Great War or between the two World Wars… This essay followed. It was first published on Military.com in the Warfighter’s Forum, then led to my speaking engagement at Brown University’s Front Line, First Person: Iraq War Stories Conference.
Perfume and the Memory of War
Having arrived (inevitably yet somewhat unexpectedly) on the high side of 40, and never having been a glamour queen, I’ve concluded that most makeup is a waste of time and money. The only exceptions are a few flattering lipstick shades, which will of course vary from woman to woman, and perfume.
For many of us, scent is powerfully linked to erotic memories: first kiss, first penetration, a particular lover or lover’s gift or request. There are also other experiences, often less fondly remembered. Scent can trigger everything from afterglow to PTSD. For me, whenever I smell Prescriptives’ fruity, mossy Calyx, I think of heavy armor. I was a freshly minted Army second lieutenant, wearing Calyx the first time I ever saw an M-1 tank move, and what a revelation that was: the perfect balance of mobility, armor and firepower.
And therein lies a larger connection.
Scent is, or should be, part of more than individual memory. Like wine, scent is part of cultural memory. And of historical memory. People sometimes have the opportunity to drink very old wine. Imagine pouring a vintage made from grapes picked by men who went off to die in the Great War, better known to us as World War I, and by the women who had no choice but to watch them go. Almost instinctively, we feel a bond. Almost instinctively, we want to drink to them.
Yet we do not think of perfume this way. Cultural memory is intellectual and bound up with the wars and other great events that have shaped Western civilization. Wine is part of culture, part of history, however tangential. Perfume is merely part of fashion. Fashion—couture—may be an important industry, but it is mainly associated with women and the men who dress them: a significant endeavor, sometimes of interest to historians, but hardly on a par with war and the memory of war. Or so we think. We know we drink to the long-ago dead but we rarely perfume ourselves in their honor.
I recently purchased off Ebay some old (at least 50 years) Chanel No. 5, still sealed. It was an unusual purchase. Back in the 80s, when I was studying tanks and poetry and kindred matters, I never liked Chanel No.5. I found it far too commercial, and far too subtle, compared to my favorite young woman’s scents, such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium and Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men, or for that matter Guerlain’s Shalimar, which I still love. A few months ago, however, I tried Chanel No. 5 and liked it. Perhaps they’ve tweaked the composition; more likely, my tastes have evolved. Thus my purchase.
With scent like this, who needs makeup?
Please do not think of me as some educated nose who can intone, “Ahh, top notes of aldehydes and base notes of sandalwood, suffused throughout with jasmine” (which is in fact true of Chanel No. 5). I simply hold that Chanel No. 5 in parfum strength is a beautiful scent, drying down to some Platonic ideal of baby powder and the very softest kidskin, with, at least on my skin, just a hint of cool sweetness. I smell it and I connect to poetry. Not lovesong or commercial tripe, but lines from a Russian poet beloved since high school, a connection as unlikely, yet also as evocative, as smelling Calyx and thinking of tanks.
Rummaging in your black memory you find
gloves up to the elbow,
and the Petersburg night. And in the dark of the theater boxes
that stifling sweet smell.
Wind from the gulf. And there between the lines,
shunning the ‘ahs’ and the ‘ohs,’
Blok will smile at you contemptuously—
the tragic tenor of the age.
“Three Verses” by Anna Akhmatova, translated by Richard McKane, from Post-War Russian Poetry, edited by Daniel Weissbort.
Anna Akhmatova was the greatest poet of the brutal 20th Century, a guest in the beds of many members of Russia’s brilliant pre-1914 cultural avant-garde while so much the heir of an older, classical, tradition that she was widely acknowledged to be “Anna of All the Russias,” in the style of the Tsars. A survivor of wars civil and world, famines natural and manmade, Stalinist purges and Leninist horrors, she kept faith with the living by bearing witness for the dead. “Blok” is Aleksandr Blok, one of the most important poets of the last century and an early admirer of the Bolsheviks. The formal cause of his death in the year 1921 may have been starvation in hungry St. Petersburg, or it may have been tuberculosis. Millions died of both. Whatever the notation on his death certificate (assuming anybody issued one), Blok, watching the descent of Communism into unimagined and unimaginable cruelty, simply refused to live. Farther to the west, a Europe settled into pensive peace after its own pandemic of death, struggled to regain its own desire to live. And it was during these years, when Paris was a refuge for many Russians, that the Russian émigré and perfumer Ernest Beaux created Chanel’s greatest fragrances: amongst them, No. 5 and No. 22, Bois des Iles, Cuir de Russie, and Gardenia.
Can there be a connection?
If you love scent, two of the great houses are Guerlain and Caron. My introduction to Guerlain was Shalimar as a girl; my introduction to Caron as a woman was Nuit de Noel. Two very beautiful scents that I almost instinctively related to military history, as I have Guerlain’s Djedi, which I have never smelled.
You can’t understand these houses and their scents without placing them in the context of war, specifically the Franco-German wars. Two great land powers occupied the heart of Europe; centuries of hate and death passed between them. For convenience, we’ll elide the dreary dynastic squabbles and Napoleon’s assorted depredations to start with France’s shattering defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Otto von Bismarck, having forcibly united all the non-Hapsburg German lands into one Reich, and having helped himself to the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, now declared imperial Germany a “satisfied” Power and adopted a foreign policy of “Can’t we all just get along?” For its part, France lived the motto, “Think of it always. Speak of it never.” Over the next four decades, Europe chose sides. Germany crafted alliances to keep France isolated and weak. France crafted alliances to keep Germany surrounded and bereft of overseas colonies. The official goal of both alliances was deterrence. But by the early years of the 20th century, it was clear that the alliance system had become less a facilitator of peace than a guarantor of carnage. Everyone knew it. From the politicians to the poets, from the philosophers to the perfumers, from the general staffs to the general public, few doubted that another war was inevitable.
The history books proclaim that everyone expected a short war, dashing and gallant. The truth is that everyone hoped the war would be short, hoped in the manner of a losing gambler staking it all on a single spin of the wheel. It was no secret that war had changed because technology had changed. Muzzle-loading muskets, for centuries so erratic that the firing command sequence was “Ready, Level, Fire,” had been replaced by repeating rifles firing manufactured cartridges, accurate and lethal to several hundred yards. Machine guns were common; so was artillery firing high-explosive shells. Barbed wire, originally an American invention for fencing in cattle, became a defensive staple. Railroads made it possible to concentrate millions of men into preposterously small areas; trenches made it possible for them to fight for years without moving the front more than a few miles. Millions killed each other. Millions more died of disease or lived on, physically, mentally, or emotionally shattered. And sometime during the First World War, the very nature of courage changed. Once, valor had meant bold and independent action. Now it related primarily to the ability to endure and obey. The virtues not of aggression, but exhaustion.
The First World War was followed by a second. And everybody saw that one coming, too.
To smell the scents of the great perfume houses of Guerlain and Caron from say, 1910 all the way through the middle of the century, is to smell sorrow upon sorrow. Sometimes that sorrow is anticipated, in a perfume such as L’Heure Bleue, the blue hour of Parisian evenings. Sometimes it is as fresh as blood, as in N’Aimez Que Moi (“Love Only Me”). The poilus, French soldiers traveling such routes as the Voie Sacrée to Verdun, gave this scent to women they hoped would remain faithful to them. The women hoped that if they wore it and their lovers survived, they would return to them in a land more and more bereft of its young men. And sometimes that sorrow is remembered, as in Nuit de Noel, when the men who died should have been with their parents and sisters, the women they never married and the children they never raised. It is sorrow for the fair and the brave, ruined and broken and bereft before their time, the dead and their survivors.
Often the sorrow is for the young men slaughtered. Sometimes, as in Shalimar, it is for women. The scent is named after the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, which Shah Jahan created for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their thirteenth child. Until well into the 20th century, childbirth was to women what war was to men. With one exception. For men, war was an episodic horror. For women, it was routine decimation. Do the phrases strike you as odd? Isn’t war supposed to be the routine decimation, childbirth the episodic horror? Think again. I did, after returning from Afghanistan in 2005 and discovering that, statistically, a modern Afghan woman has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than a World War II American infantryman did of dying in battle. How many of those men, I wonder, brought back French perfume for their women, or died with bottles in their packs, perhaps broken open by enemy fire.
Then there is Jacques Guerlain’s masterpiece, Djedi, from 1927.
Djedi was the legendary magician of ancient Egypt. Pharaoh Khufu, the god-king, had brought Djedi to court to entertain his courtiers. Pharaoh wanted to see if Djedi could rejoin a severed human head to its body. Djedi said he could, and Pharaoh commanded a prisoner be brought in and decapitated for his amusement. But Djedi refused, saying, “Do not do this to a human being, my sovereign lord: surely it is not permitted to do such a thing to one of the noble herd of God.” Pharaoh agreed and permitted Djedi to rejoin the head of a duck to its body instead.
The message for that most blood-soaked of our centuries: there are things that human beings should never do to each other.
For those who have been lucky enough to smell it, Djedi is the strangest perfume ever created, and often the most beautiful.
It opens with scents of stone and mineral. One might think of camel thorn bleaching in the desert sun, or smoke rising into the desert sky. Then it opens into rose and iris, vetiver and spice, beautiful and brief, before melding into leather and bitter herbs, and musk that is both animal and powdery and that to some people smells of roasting meat. One might, if one is so inclined, think of burning tanks and what happens to the crew inside, or of dead infantrymen. Indeed, some people note a scent of putrefaction, even of feces.
The overwhelming impressions of Djedi are of a regal beauty that is conquered by terrible grief, a beauty that does not stoop to weeping or pleading, but is broken to standing ruins like a shattered sword.
To name a perfume for women—wealthy, cultured, aristocratic women—after a mythical Egyptian magician who is remembered to us for upholding the human dignity of a condemned prisoner was the act of a great perfumer who understood that he was living in a civilization that had no serious defenders. Not the traditionalists and conservatives, whether of the monarchy or the Church. Nor the totalitarians of Left or Right. Nor the cultural modernists. Nor the bourgeoisie, nor the workers, nor the intellectuals. Djedi is an expression of sorrow for a civilization that did the First World War, and would do a second, and between them birthed political movements that delighted in cruelty and slaughter. He, the perfumer, knows that his country, having endured one Verdun, cannot endure another. In 1916, 70% of the French Army marched up the Voie Sacrée to Verdun, a battle whose architects on both sides crafted to bleed each other to death. A quarter million men died and half a million were wounded, German and French together. The perfumer—it must be said, the great artist—cannot condemn his country for being unable to do it again, even if the price of failure will be far greater next time around.
Djedi is the scent of an uneasy era when people hoped that if they pretended enough, they wouldn’t have to think about doing Verdun again. It is also a lament for all the beauty that the perfumer knew had survived the first act of Europe’s catastrophe, that he knew would perish in the second.
We live now as they did in 1912 (L’Heure Bleue) and 1922 (Nuit de Noel), or 1925 (Shalimar) and in 1927 (Djedi). We are living through the beginning of the ending of our world. Our civilization is slipping away, perhaps also towards some dreadful cataclysm. Everyone knows the catalogue of perils, from terrorism and climate change to lunatic wars and the lunatic debt that funds our wars. And how long can we pretend that reality will conform to our fantasies, so long as we keep up the pretense?
The classic scents of Ernest Daltroff and Jacques Guerlain are scents that were understood to be great then, were great because they encapsulated the terrible beauty of a doomed civilization, in a time when the educated and cultured knew they were living at the edge of damnation. Ernest Beaux’s beautiful scents for Chanel are the scents of a man who has found a fragile, tentative refuge amongst beauty from slaughter. The callow 1914 invitation of the English poet Rupert Brooke—Let’s die together; it’ll be great fun—was only one attempt by young Europeans to evade their understanding that the war that was coming down upon them was going to be uniquely terrible. And so would be its aftermath.
We talk now of failed states, but Europe of the first half of the 20th century was a failed continent, a failed civilization. And the great scents of those decades, the Guerlains and the Chanels and the Carons are suffused with mourning for that civilization, every bit as much as they were also suffused with, for example, the images of Jazz Age flappers daringly smoking in public, as Tabac Blond is.
When those of us who will survive the coming decades look back, what will be the scent we associate with these last ephemeral years?
Fantasy and Curious “by” Britney Spears, perhaps. And Heiress and Paris Hilton “by” Paris Hilton, perhaps also. Fruity, sweet, without staying power, “girly.”