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Anomie's Bonhomie: Un salon littéraire de parfums or THE REAL IN THE LIBRARY

Quotes from Djuana Barnes's Nightwood on Perfume, Mother Earth, and The Eternal Feminine

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p. 38
The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface.
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p. 39-40
Felix, out of delicacy, stepped behind the palms. The doctor with professional roughness, brought to a pitch by his eternal fear of meeting with the Law (he was not a licensed practitioner) said: 'Slap her wrists, for Christ's sake. Where in hell is the water pitcher!'

He found it, and with amiable heartiness flung a handful against her face. A series of almost invisible shudders wrinkled her skin as the water dripped from her lashes, over her mouth and on to the bed. A spasm of waking moved upward from some deep shocked realm, and she opened her eyes. Instantly she tried to get to her feet. She said: 'I was all right;' and fell back into the pose of her annihilation.

Experiencing a double confusion, Felix now saw the doctor partially hidden by the screen beside the bed, make the movements common to the 'dumbfounder', or man of magic; the gestures of one who, in preparing the audience for a miracle, must pretend that there is nothing to hide; the whole purpose that of making the back and elbows move in a series of 'honesties,' while in reality the most flagrant part of the hoax is being prepared. Felix saw that this was for the purpose of snatching a few drops from a perfume bottle picked up from the night table; of dusting his darkly bristled chin with a puff, and drawing a line of rouge across his lips, his upper lip compressed on his lower, in order to have it seem that their sudden embellishment was a visitation of nature; still thinking himself unobserved, as if the whole fabric of magic had begun to decompose, as if the mechanics of machination were indeed out of control and were simplifying themselves back to their origin; the doctor's hand reached out and covered a loose hundred franc note lying on the table. With a tension in his stomach, such as one suffers when watching an acrobat leaving the virtuosity of his safety in a mad unravelling whirl into probable death, Felix watched the hand descend, take up the note, and disappear into the limbo of the doctor's pocket. He knew that he would continue to like the doctor, though he was aware that it would be in spite of a long series of convulsions of the spirit, analogous to the displacement in the fluids of the oyster, that must cover its itch with a pearl; so he would have to cover the doctor. He knew at the same time that this stricture of acceptance (by which what we must love is made into what we can love) would eventually be a part of himself, though originally brought on by no will of his own.
... truly is how I feel about very watered-down reformulations! ...

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Engrossed in the coils of this new disquiet, Felix turned about. The girl was sitting up. She recognized the doctor. She had seen him somewhere. But, as one may trade ten years at a certain shop and be unable to place the shopkeeper if he is met in the street or in the promenoir of a theatre, the shop being a portion of his identity, she struggled to place him now that he had moved out of his frame. 'Caé de la Mairie du VIe,' said the doctor, taking a chance in order to have a hand in her awakening.

She did not smile, though the moment he spoke she placed him. She closed her eyes and Felix, who had been looking into them intently because of their mysterious and shocking blue, found himself seeing them still faintly clear and timeless behind the lids—the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye.

The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a 'picture' forever arranged, is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger. Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person's every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey. Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache—we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers.
p. 40-41

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And these passages illustrate and capture the kind of damned eternity, feminine complexity, and hazy shapeshifting I feel from my new signature combo of vintage perfumes: Aromatics Elixir by Clinique vintage parfum walk-through mist + Corday Toujours Moi behind the knees and on ankles + Ombre Rose on pulse points.
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Updated 29th August 2012 at 09:15 PM by anomie et ivoire



  1. Hojji77's Avatar
    I have never had any idea how to read Djuna Barnes. I admire the intensity, but I have always come away feeling confused and mildly repelled by all that churning of thought and feeling; want to tell her to lighten up and draw a breath. I know that's probably not the point though.

    A similar feeling inhabits my reaction to the "real" novels of Anais Nin, although perhaps not to the same extent. I think I like her pornography better because the strictness and compactness of the form, and perhaps her emotional distance from the subject matter, actually grant her greater clarity.

    This has nothing at all to do with perfume...
  2. anomie et ivoire's Avatar
    Barnes is so heavily gothic, but her intensity fits the double bind of fraught display- piece-meets-existential invisibility of women in her time, further complicated and undermined by being lesbian. Leaving behind one's mother country and rejecting the safety of men was choosing insanity in those days (some still think it is?). I am partial to frightening intensity in writing though: it creates a rhythm and mood behind words like a good hook makes lyrics obsolete. Not all the time of course! But such heaviness usually shows up when someone who should probably be solely a poet writes prose (Barnes for sure IMO). The poetic form would dash the explanatory apologetics of paragraphs, pages, and narrative. The same happens with Nin in that way, though her pornography is where she does the poetry.

    I both love and hate Nin but find her more of a compelling trainwreck than a favorite (same for her man Henry Miller, Hemmingway, Burroughs, most of those Live Big to Have Something to Write types).

    Barnes, by comparison, strikes me as a natural writerly writer (vs. Nin's sensualism that would be better expressed in action) and one who didn't do things to shock but was dismayed that society could be so shocked by her merely existing. To bring this back to perfume, Barnes was like a classic chypre today: why do people find them so "old lady" and perplexing? Nin was a niche offering: "look, I transgress! And I can do cheap but not for cheap!"

    I appreciated your pointing out Turin's reviews being Apollonian and Sanchez' mostly Dionysian: and hers in the best sense-even one about falling in love with a scent while drunk. So much the realer.
    Updated 1st September 2012 at 06:12 AM by anomie et ivoire


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