I went back to the swamp where I grew up last week, a place of bracken and mangrove, sand and paperbark trees. The scents of that place unlocked memories, and those memories in turn unlocked other scents, the scents of childhood: sunscreen and chlorine, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, mercurochrome and musk sticks, seagrass matting and rattan peacock chairs, of eucalyptus leaves releasing their oil into the simmering heat of a solstice maxima.
Childhood memories are kaleidoscopic, but I wonder at the utility of that metaphor now. Those of who remember using kaleidoscopes are dwindling in numbers. Maybe beauty was once held inside a kaleidoscope’s twisting cylinder, but for some time now it has been presented on the screen of an infinitely scrolling slate, the smartphone. Optic play is ubiquitous now, but while our capacity for generating beautiful artifice has increased logarithmically, our capacity for creating authentic spectacles has not.
Revisiting the swamp, I remembered my father’s sapoderm soap, my mother’s Anais Anais perfume, my sister’s herbal shampoo, my grandfather’s White Ox Tobacco. I remembered the smell of cannabis at family gatherings with my parents and their friends, all young hippies. Their eyes were red as they passed around the joint but I didn’t know that was a sign of being stoned; I just thought they had all been crying. Now I think: well, they were progressives in the 1980s; they probably had been crying.
Fragrance traps me in its recursions, a perfumed Möbius strip: one side is scent and the other side is memory, but they are both the same side. How am I to tease the original sense apart from the sense of remembering? Memory is another kind of sense, a self-organising after-sense, recombinatorial. The paradox of memory is that it can never generate anything new, but at the same time it is only ever producing new sensations, new experiences. Memory is mythology as process.
I look at the word “adolescent” and I see the word “scent,” the scents of my body changing, my sexuality awakening, my personality spinning into place like a nascent solar system, around that central star, this fragrant world.
What were the scents of adolescence? They were the henna powder that dyed my hair auburn; the small bottle of “Oceanus” from The Body Shop, the cheap Nag Champa incense and the expensive Sandalwood essential oil I bought from the health food store; the green ginger wine, so sticky sweet, and the port royal tobacco, its fragrant filaments rolled into a licorice-paper cylinder.
I remember the taste of smoke, not just the smoke of my own cigarettes, but the smoke of Mayfield, that patina of char and ash and solder that seemed to dust the rumpled lanes and old streets, clouded across from the topaz bright chimneys of an island that was once a swamp, and wanted to be one still.
I walked home on cool Autumn evenings with a bag full of books from the library, many of them fantasy paperbacks. Sunset turned into dusk, and magical fantasy turned into literary fantasy, full of sensual olfactory promises: Jeanette Winterson’s “Sexing The Cherry,” Patrick Süskind’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” and especially my favourite, Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea”:
“Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered – then not an inch of tentacle showed It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.“
Literature taught me that the soul should be approached through the senses. The voice of the seasons spoke in a language of flowers: frangipani, rose, jasmine, honeysuckle, geranium. Walking through the laneways in the dark at night, I learned how to identify the flowers by scent alone. I spent a lot of time alone in those days.
Becoming gay at this time felt like a dire but compulsory challenge. I had already understood, after much guidance from my high school peers, that I was ineligible for straight normality. But achieving gay normality would still require prodigious work. I would have to change my shape, change my personality, and I would have to buy the correct signifiers and accessories. Foremost among these was scent: to be a gay man in 1990s Australia was to smell ostentatiously attractively, aggressively lovely.
Exposure revealed to me the Gay Olfactory Universe: the gay male body was spritzed in a fizz of luxury scent, then clouded in the smoke of a nightclub smoke machine and of menthol cigarettes. The corners of that cosmos were variously redolent of amyl nitrate, spilled beer, need, semen, and sweat. On my earliest visits to gay dances, I wore the only perfume I owned: a small hand-blown glass bottle of sandalwood oil from an Indian import shop. I had assumed that when I started going to gay dances I would be propositioned relentlessly because I was homophobic and thought all gay men were predators, but when I wasn’t propositioned at all, I figured it was because I was too poor to afford the right luxury perfume. It was only later when I realised that there were other boys my age who got propositioned all the time and they were too poor to afford luxury perfume too. I decided it must have been the way I looked, and I internalised a condemnation nobody ever spoke but was somehow on the cover of every gay magazine.
Still, I spent my dole cheque and some Christmas money on my first ever bottle of expensive perfume. I chose “Aramis” from the department store in the city. It seemed to promise a rugged individualism that flattered my desires to escape white gay conformism. It had a mature energy that instinctively pleased me. Also, I was a smoker; I needed a perfume that would not be contradicted by cigarettes. Finally, Aramis was within my working class price range – barely. The scents that other gay men wore were wildly unafforable for my budget, no matter how much I earned. Even if I had come into a large amount of money somehow, yet still that money would have been spent on replacing broken things, paying down debts, buying some independence, and there still wouldn’t have been any money left over for a bottle of Dior Fahrenheit to please the other gays.
Gay men were opinionated about brands. We still are. I don’t know why. Maybe we think that being snobs will make us feel less like rejects. Maybe we think that we can pose our way into being rich. Whatever it is, it certainly undermines our political demands for equality.
This irony was most evident in Sydney’s Oxford Street, a kitsch goblin-market that was somehow a sanctuary for queer bodies and the epicentre of gay liberation. The class, race and gender disparities were extreme: jet-setting professional white cisgays with perfect pectorals and Parisian eau-de-parfum stepped over Indigenous transwomen begging in the sticky gutter amongst the cigarette butts and strips of burger lettuce. I found the place emotionally serrated, and I avoided it, but there was a part of me that thought my own gay liberation would come from a gym membership and a bottle of designer perfume.
I might have declined Oxford Street’s invitations to a good time, but I still introjected its dreams of status.
The media regime of those last years of the twentieth century had its own sensuality: the hot buttered popcorn of the theatre; cups of instant coffee steaming in front of fresh newspapers; frozen sausage rolls in front of the television; the crisp plasticky glamour of a magazine; the smell of new books and the smell of second-hand books that were sold in almost every suburb, every day.
This line, from Peter Greenaway’s “The Pillow Book”:
“like Sei Shōnagon, my sense of smell was very strong. I enjoyed the smell of paper of all kinds. It reminded me of the scent of skin.“
I tried to brace myself for the disappearance of paper from my life, knowing that personal computing was just the tip of the internet iceberg. I knew the digital revolution was happening. The science fiction future was arriving. But there was a totality to the way that paper engulfed and expressed culture that meant I even thought in paper back then – in diaries, notebooks, sketchbooks, commonplace books. Stationery was self.
And what of the books? The phone books and address books and recipe books and street directories and atlases and encyclopedias and dictionaries and books of quotes and Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video guide – “Now with more than 19,000 entries!” – or my second hand copy of “Teleny, or the Reverse of the Medal”:
“…tell me, which is your favourite scent?’
“Without giving me an answer, he pulled out his handkerchief and gave it to me to smell.
“‘All our tastes are exactly the same, are they not?’ And saying this, he looked at me with such a passionate and voluptuous longing, that the carnal hunger depicted in his eyes made me feel faint.
“‘You see, I always wear a bunch of white heliotrope; let me give this to you, that its smell may remind you of me to-night, and perhaps make you dream of me.’”
Before internet porn, there was porn on paper. Too poor to afford to buy pornography on VHS or in magazines, and too pretentious to buy one-handed pulp paperbacks from adult shops, I could nonetheless collect literary erotica from the 18th and 19th centuries in the more cosmopolitan second hand bookshops – books like “Memoirs of a Coxcomb” or “My Secret Life.” It never occurred to me that other people might have masturbated while reading my copy of “Teleny.” My intimate attention was focussed almost entirely on the author, who had created the text as a sort of epistemic glory hole. But now that I look back, I guess I do think of that paperback’s previous owners as my metamours. Maybe all books are this way. Regardless, I cherished my copy of “Teleny.” Erotica was harder to find back then, and because of its rarity, it was far less disposable.
Adulthood meant having my own bookcase in a rented flat, and displaying my erotica unashamedly. I also displayed my New Age books of magic spells and ancient wisdoms, all intended to heal me from some mysterious condition which I now recognise as the condition of having money. I consulted dream dictionaries, divination guides, and aromatherapy manuals. I soaked up their knowledge, and collected my own apothecary of tiny cobalt glass bottles filled with essential oils: rosemary for viruses, neroli for desire, frankincense for spiritual protection, rosewood for panic attacks, orange to stimulate conversation, myrrh for centering. I was the only one of my New Age friends who really liked the smell of myrrh, its rubber-resin primality. There were many nights when thunderstorms would tear the trees in the garden to shreds, and I would take a candelit oil bath and watch the myrrh-steam rise around me in lazy loops and whorls. The smell stayed on my skin for the best part of a day afterwards.
Adulthood also meant choosing the scent profile of my own house. I was sedulously clean, and my house smelled like methylated spirit, detergent, eucalyptus oil, orange blossom incense, pillar candles that required fire to release their paradoxically aquatic scents: “ocean mist”, “moss garden,” “morning dew,” “summer rain.”
At University, I became infatuated with the large University library that seemed to contain all the knowledge in the world. I found myself in that small selection of clothbound queer books in the Dewey 820s, early modern British literature: Suckling, Marlowe, Shakespeare. Early modern literature, classical mythology, and fantasy literature were the shape of my future imagination. In a course on fairytales I read Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” and its sensuality set me on fire:
“His voice buzzed like a hive of distant bees. My husband. My husband, who, with so much love, filled my bedroom with lilies until it looked like an embalming parlour. Those somnolent lilies, that wave their heavy heads, distributing their lush, insolent incense reminscent of pampered flesh.”
I had already been acquainted with the strange caustic smell of my own semen; but it was around the Millennium that I became best acquainted with the smell of other men’s semen. I would rub it into the fur of my belly and wear it around all day at work, the tight tugging of its crystals a reminder of the sex I’d had that morning. The scent of other men would be trapped in the stubble of my chin too: some of them smelled like expensive perfume, but many of them just smelled like their own skin – not luxe, but clean, and complex.
I started to understand that scent had more influence over my arousal and my emotions than sight. In fact, I realised that I had been forming opinions about men based strongly on the way they smelled, then pretending I had ideological or ethical reasons for liking or disliking them. The positive side to this was that I was a lot less Lookist than the culture around me. But the overwhelming negative side was that I was bigoted and didn’t know it, and so couldn’t mitigate against it. People do not choose the way they smell, and they do not smell the same way twice – I probably missed out on some good connections, but my nose did at least lead me to some other men who were far sexier than they looked or sounded.
I appreciated the irony of my historical situation. Here I was, living through a digital revolution based entirely on the circulation of images amongst millions of private screens. Everyone’s life was becoming subject to the copia of the screen: its copiousness and its copying. The Renaissance might have ushered in a Revolution by finding a way to disseminate thousands of identical pages over time, but that paled in comparison to the Internet’s ability to distribute millions and millions of copies simultaneously around the world. I was living at the dawn of a time of continuously ultraviral imagery, and it was in that world that I realised that it was in fact fragrance, not appearance, that captivated me most deeply.
That feeling has only intensified in time, especially as culture becomes more and more dependent on, and expressed through, image based apps. We are encouraged to base so many of our day to day decisions on images that the image itself has become a sort of decision making architecture for us. But here I am presented with a universal kaleidoscope, and all I want to do is close my eyes and inhale.
But the point of this piece is not to suggest that fragrance speaks the truth where images tell lies. Only that fragrance’s offline influence has, at least for me, intensified as the image economy begins to numb us with its glut.
But we should all hold the world of fragrance in deep suspicion. It is not exempt from the power structures of this world, but has at every turn reinforced them, allocating credit to the tyrants and blame to the downtrodden. And if I see one overarching narrative in the world of fragrance around me, it is racist colonialism.
I wish I could write a memoir and claim that I was always awake to other people’s suffering, but I really wasn’t. I was bigoted, and I wanted my fragrances to be as bigoted as I was, to flatter my bigotries instead of challenging them. The marketing guff that was attached to Essential Oils marketing – “exotic spices” from “distant lands” – centered my white perspective relentlessly. Part of what I was buying was that centering. After all, sandalwood is exotic to whom? Distant from whom?
There was a component of the New Age movement that was and remains, I think, sincerely anti-racist and racially curious in ways that are both scholarly and sensitive. But there is a larger component of that movement that steals from non-white cultures for the purpose of white adornment and white self-image. Corporations in Australia sold New Age products to white customers, capitalising on their racism. I may have told myself that I was somehow spiritually magnified by buying scents from the outback, from North Africa, from the silk road, from India – always India – but I wasn’t really being subversive of capitalism at all. I was buying some new traditions so I could have a new me.
In buying essential oils, my white spirit felt somehow cleansed of the guilt of my ill-gotten advantages in life. I felt exonerated for massacres somehow. I wasn’t like those other whites anymore. I was one of the good ones. I told myself that the incense I burned somehow banished a British blandness out of my suburban bungalow. I felt inside like adopting the decor and aesthetic of the East might exempt me from being complicit in Westernness, but I eventually came to understand that stealing from the East is the very definition of Westernness. I look very differently at those New Age books I used to buy that would “distil” (another perfume word) Eastern wisdom into nugget-sized quotes, just one bite, for the edification of Western consumers. Enlightenment was effortless, as long as you could pay the entry fee.
Today, when I look at the marketing for Essential Oil blends, I can’t help but see how these products promise an escape or exemption from contemporary whiteness. Consider three of the most popular blends from one of Australia’s top producers of Essential Oils. I will show the advertising description in full, and highlight the deployment of concepts of reminiscence and transportation that I believe are meant to flatter white memory and white longing for dominion:
Reminiscent of faraway lands, here the jungle creeps across moss-covered stone temples, monkeys howl and dense clouds hang in the humid valleys below. Let the aromas of Jasmine, Patchouli, Rose and Sandalwood transport you to a distant hammock and swing with the rhythm of the forest that surrounds you. 19° North of the equator the golden spire of mountainside temple, Wat Tham Pha Plong is seen rising our of lust jungle surrounds.
Reminiscent of ancient bazaars, here colourful, sand strewn tiles line the floor and walls. Glints of gold shimmer in the hot afternoon sun and wooden looms creak with the weight of their colourful fabrics. The heady scents of Frankincense, Sandalwood, Ceadrwood, Orange and Rose will transport you to this place, where camels rest under the shade of plam trees and dunes rise over the bygone city. 41° North of the equator lies the bustling 17th Century Spice Bazaar of Istanbul.
Reminiscent of long forgotten coastlines, here the sound of waves lapping at the shore is accompanied by the rustle of palm fronds waving in the breeze. Spices were once traded here in the stone-walled city. Allow the sweet and spicy Vanilla, Clove and Cinnamon aromas to transport you to this place where the sun warms your back and the ocean twinkles its deepest blue. 6° South of the equator lies an exotic oasis, the traditional spice island of Zanzibar.
The writing is beautiful, and I have bought each blend multiple times. After all, I wanted to be transported to a faraway place and a faraway time. I want to be taken out of this moment with its grim power relations and endlessly warring identities.
The New Age movement’s infatuation with old European trading routes and historical encounters with non-European cultures is evident in this advertising copy. The Irish singer Enya, probably the New Age’s greatest musical luminary, made her name with songs like “Orinoco Flow”, “Storms in Africa,” “Caribbean Blue,” “The Longships,” and “On Your Shore” with painterly cover art that looked like something retrieved from a sunken Spanish galleon.
This infatuation with early modern exploration and travel is very deeply ingrained in whiteness, especially emblematised by a love of early modern European cartography. There is an antique map in my room on the box of a luxury perfume, Penhaligon’s “Lothair,” part of the “trade routes” collection. The description of the scent reads:
“…the smoky heart of black tea is softened by fig milk and magnolia, sailing into an ambergris, cedar and wenge woods base, reminiscent of the varnished decks of these elegant ships.”
For whom is this nautical tradition elegant and evocative of pleasant reminiscences? For the white consumer.
I adore the smell of “Lothair” – I wear it every day, but nobody has commented that it smelled nautical or historical.
In fact, nobody has ever commented on it at all, no matter how close they get to my body, even soon after I spray it on and the smell is at its brightest. I suppose this underscores the fact that most of us do not know what we are smelling at any given moment, or even that we are smelling something at all. The wearing of a perfume is a subtle magic, if not subliminal then at least sublinguistic, affecting us whether we know it or not. Nothing that can be articulated. Nothing that can be resisted.
The overlay of language onto scent is very similar to the overlay of language onto food: full of racial specificities.
When I look at the description for my favourite perfume, Goldfield & Banks’ “Pacific Rock Moss,” I see a list that seems to promise more than merely factual information about the sourcing of ingredients:
Australian coastal moss
Cedar Wood Virginia USA
It reads as much like an itinerary as it does a recipe. I see this denotation of countries of origin a lot in the world of fragrance. The ethnic fantasies of the consumer are piqued: you can not only escape your racial allocation, but assert your racial ownership of other cultures including past cultures: buy your piece of the sea, your piece of the desert, your piece of history. Be transported.
The very name of this Australian perfume house, “Goldfield & Banks” is blatantly colonialist. The name refers to Australia’s gold rush – the flood of migrants who came to Australia to extract treasure – and to the Enlightenment titan Sir Joseph Banks, who visited Australia to “discover” its native flora. The romance of the perfume house is defiantly aligned with the European discovery of Australia. The website provides this paragraph about its founder:
The Goldfield & Banks story actually begins on the other side of the world when the French-Belgian Dimitri Weber – like so many voyagers before him – set out on a journey to discover the curious, enigmatic land that lay far beyond the horizon.
European history, European sailing, European memory. Perhaps this has everything to do with the Eurocentric and Imperial concept of “luxury”; after all, luxury brands seem so contemptuously anti-Indigenous. I find myself wondering: does luxury mean the promise of high pleasure or high status? But then I find myself tracing around another Möbius strip. I cannot tell the two apart. I want the status to have the pleasure, and the pleasure to have the status.
Above all, I want something exotic, something that can make me feel exotic too. I want the edges of myself to supple so I can change shape into something better than the sad violent culture that engulfs me. When I purchase a fragrance, I want to gain purchase on the past and its repetitions, on my transporting memories. My love of fragrance has taken me through an ugly revelation of racist capitalism to find that I am trying to be the owner of my own life, and to hurry up and spend the money that by rights, historically, shouldn’t even be mine.
My future of fragrance looms ahead of me with dark intimidation. As I continue to age, my stock of scent-memories will only grow, until my whole psyche is an almost suffocating garden in bloom. When I smell fragrances that remind me of the people who have gone, or of the times that will never return, how will I withstand the nostalgia then? I suppose I will not. My older partner keeps his late mother’s blanket solely for the purpose of smelling it. I wonder if I will keep his blanket in time too, if it will be my only way back to him then. There’s nothing I can do to shield myself from that pain, and I choose it willingly.
But then I also think of my hopes for the world after I am gone too someday, that its own wetlands will be restored, bursting with life, and its seas will be restored, flourishing with creatures, and the open cut mines will be turned into gardens full of trees and flowers that will smell like paradise. My body will be molecules too, dispersed and atomised, undiscoverable, incorporated into the soil, its minerals, its vegetal life, faint and non-human by then. That artificial division between self and environment will be a needless strut by then; I will be the environment. And it occurs to me as I finish this piece, that maybe when I inhale a scent, I am being the environment, mingling with its molecules, taking the outside in, and letting life tell its story through me.