“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn,” is the opening sentence of The Picture of Dorian Gray, so you know Oscar Wilde knew how to use scent to set a scene! The gothic novel was decried as indecent, because of its current of homoeroticism, which though largely excised from published editions, still offended nineteenth-century sensibilities. Wilde was also attacked on personal grounds for his hedonism. As we remarked in a recent Baudelaire post, Aromatica Poetica adores our “dear, old-fashioned, disreputable men of genius!”
While the novel is not likely to offend our modern ears the way it once did, the pages drip with a decadent sensuality that still feels quite new and marvelous. A large part of the decadence is expressed through scent, and we could almost quote the whole book, as there are vases of flowers wreathed in smoke and perfumes for the hanky on every table, carved from exotic scented woods.
However, we’ll content ourselves with one extraordinary passage wherein we are told of Dorian Gray’s intricate studies of the art of perfumery and his obsession with the power of scent. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 11, in which Dorian Gray’s sensual investigations are detailed and backed by a philosophy of aesthetics: ” The worship of the senses has often, and with much justice, been decried, men feeling a natural instinct of terror about passions and sensations that seem stronger than themselves, and that they are conscious of sharing with the less highly organized forms of existence. But it appeared to Dorian Gray that the true nature of the senses had never been understood, and that they had remained savage and animal merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic.”
Dorian Gray’s psychology of perfumes
And so he would now study perfumes and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one’s passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots and scented, pollen-laden flowers; of aromatic balms and of dark and fragrant woods; of spikenard, that sickens; of hovenia, that makes men mad; and of aloes, that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul.