Saturday, May 8, 2010

the problem with lilacs

IMG_4506  Last night we had a 70th birthday party for my thesis advisor at our house and had a bunch of people—grad students and professors—over for a catered dinner from a local Thai place. Hoping to make the place smell good and look better, I gathered bunches of lilacs from the lilac bush outside our back door and placed them around the apartment. So far, so good. The problem was, one of my thesis advisors started having a MAJOR allergic reaction to something, and was clearly miserable. Of course, he stuck around eIMG_4554ven though he was sneezing continuously and dealing with a major runny nose and tearing eyes .  I felt terrible, as you can imagine, and eventually collected all my bouquets and put them outside. I joked that now I know his weakness, I am going to hide a huge bunch of lilacs in a corner for my doctoral defense; he will be too distracted by his allergies to give me too much trouble. He laughed, dryly.

The problem with the smell of lilacs—both in perfumery and in bouquet making, is how quickly the line between gorgeous floral and rotting garbage is crossed in the lilac’s process of decomposition. I have noticed cut bouquets whose scent transforms within the space of hours from extremely fair to monstrously foul. I don't know what it is about the aged lilac blossom (compared to other indolic blooms) that so approximates the smell of a rotten bag of garbage, but it is a powerful thing, and not something one wants on her body as perfume.

Incidentally, I think Walt Whitman, that great sinaesthete, was thinking of just this aspect of the lilac bloom when he penned his
famous “When Lilacs last in Dooryard Bloomed.” Whitman intertwines images of the corpse with the fragrant fullness of the lilac bloom (“yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me”) in a brilliant implicit equation of the fullest of life with the consummation of death.

I have noticed that few fragrances boast lilac as a note, and very few lilac soliflores exist (but see Highland Lilac, the official fragrance of the Rochester Lilac Festival, and I have yet to sample Pacifica’s french lilac, but I bet it’s ok).  I feel like I remember reading someone—maybe Chandler Burr) who was talking about the way a lilac scent degrades too quickly into that garbage smell, which make it fairly incompatible with perfumery. Ok I found it: It’s in one of the chapters of The Perfect Scent when he’s chatting with Ellena about the maturing of taste in perfume.

One’s taste in perfume develops and evolves sophistication like one’s tastes in music. A person matured, Ellena noted, from, say, simple lilac to the rhick, sophisticated, white-breasts-in-satin-gowns-at-the-Moscow-Opera of Caleche. It took some effort and some education. (Frankly, getting to lilac can take a little work too. Lilac smells of soiled underwear)” (213-14)

Ok, rotting garbage, soiled underwear, whatever. My nose says garbage, but maybe Burr has sniffed some pretty rancid underwear….hmm. Ok, this might be a good time to sign off.
I’ll leave you with the haunting last stanza of Whitman’s poem, to clear your mind of garbage and soiled undies:

Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep—for the dead I loved so well;
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands...and this for his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.
 183 Syringa Vulgaris Common Lilac

All lilac pics mine (no. 1 taken in the Bonsai room of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens). Lilac print from chestofbooks. com

Works of Walt Whitman. Including Leaves of Grass, Specimen Days, Drum Taps & more (mobi)  The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York 

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