Yesterday, Athena and I rode in our bronze chariot over to the Florentine apothecary shop on the other side of town.
With its exquisitely crafted wooden perfume organ and handmade glass bottles, it was reminiscent of the medieval shop at Santa Maria Novella. And so, not surprisingly, stepping into the shop, we were therein immediately transported back in time.
Recently, Robert Harrison did an entitled opinions show on the history of listening. Generalizations are always problematic, he said, but there is one generalization you can make about western civilization that won't get you into any trouble. And that is that Western civilization is one that thorougly priledges vision over the other senses. There is no question about this; from Plato's Ideal forms (eidos: visible aspect) to Proustian vision, it was spiritual vision (and rational in-sights) that were thought to be the means to knowledge. Harrison mentions being amazed at the way our video technology progresses constantly--while that of our audio continues to degenerate. This is also something that is unquestionably true.
And what of our sense of smell?
Smell remains the most evocative of the senses and the mistress of the shop explained that it is the sole sense that bypases the neocortex---being the most primal and well as the most primitive, I suppose. With no dicernible cell phones in the shop, no computer screens and not even a cash register within view--indeed, we felt ourselves back to an earlier time-- a time when the senses really mattered; back at that ancient crossroads between the sacred, the medicinal and the everyday...
The mistress of the shop, Sarah Horowitz was herself like a Florentine vision--emerging from the back in a cloud of tuberose, gardenia and orange blossoms.
After settling in, I told her about my dream.
It was mid-Winter and my friend Daniel was in Tokyo for a lecture. I had agreed to pick him up at his hotel and escort him to the lecture hall and was racing through Tokyo Station thinking about the things I wanted to talk with him about. It was the morning rush hour and the station was packed with people rushing toward the exits in thick coats, bracing themelves again the northern wind which was howling outside.
Arriving at Daniel's hotel room, I knocked on the door. He immediately opened the door and there I was speechless, for he had in his hands this gigantic piece of amber. Behind him, the curtains were open and a strong shaft of light was hitting the amber just right too, for it was glowing. Silently I noticed that in the middle of the honey colored, glimmering chunk of amber was a million year old red bug.
What could this mean, I wondered? (Even in my dream it was all so unexpected).
He said that he wanted to get his coat and as he put it on, I noticed that his briefcase was also full of amber. And like happens in dreams, the golden honey color just infused the entire room with color and warm fragrance.
"But I thought you were here to talk about China?"
"No," I am here to talk about my new theory."
I waited for him to tell me what (knowing it must have something to do with that piece of amber in his hands).
"The Three Kings from the East, the Magi, they didn't bring frankiscence, myrrh and gold. What they brought with them on their long trek to the King was frankiscence, myrrh and amber."
Sarah had mentioned that in those days incense and frangrances were worth their weight in gold and were gifts worthy of kings and queens. Of course, Queen Cleopatra famously lived in clouds of perfume as did the Japanese aristocrats of the Nara and Heian periods dwell in a dream-like world of perfumed baths and robes infused with the scent of precious incense brought from the exotic lands to the west.
There was aloeswood, camphor, and sandalwood from Southeast Asia; cinnamon and musk from Vietnam and Frankinscence from Somailand. Cloves were used to freshen the breath. These aromatics were used to treat both body and spirit as they affected the totality of the person: body, mind and soul.
As Sarah blended my perfume using the frankinscence and myrrh of my dream --with a touch of peony and roses from this blog, along with some lemongrass from my travels, I thought of my tea teacher and how every week in the tea room, we were to cultivate all of our senses. Always there was high quality incense at the start of the ceremony --to create the shared mood and consecrate the space. There were artworks to stimulate our minds-- and as for sounds, my teacher always gestured toward the sounds of the water boiling in the brazier or maybe to the frogs singing outside, the sound of the cicadas, like rain 蝉時雨.
It has been nearly two years since I have left Japan. I miss it terribly--and perhaps more than anything I miss the shared calendar of seasonal events that create what was for me a heightened awareness of mood and the senses. Our senses being the old fashioned way we know the world, they embed us in time and place. Creating meaning, they sustain our souls.
Proust, I am sure was right when he concluded that an hour is not merely an hour but rather is "a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, places and climates! . . . So we hold within us a treasure of impressions, clustered in small knots, each with a flavor of its own, formed from our own experiences, that become certain moments of our past."
Chariots and sandalwood...
Asked to come up with a name for my perfume, I have been left feeling myself in Hamilcar's garden, and so I am thinking of naming it: Salammbô