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Scent of Decadence
Perfume and The Decadence Movement

Scent of Decadence
  • Perfume and poison (by )
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (by )
  • London Nights (by )
  • Cities (by )
  • Against the Grain (by )
  • Olfaction and Taste : Proceedings of the... (by )
  • Poems of Paul Verlaine (by )
  • The Flowers of Evil (by )
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"Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul," Lord Henry says to Dorian Gray (p. 30, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde) as he drinks in the perfume of a lilac blossom. Perhaps too dramatic a sentiment for some people, Wilde was a Decadence writer through and through. The Decadents meant to experience life through all the senses with discriminate, hully-gully passion, reaching for the maximalist versions of art for art’s sake, artificiality, satire, sexuality, and ennui. 

Decadence writers had a special interest in perfume. It makes sense, considering the Decadence movement in both art and literature concerned itself with sensuality and an aesthetically driven separation from nature. "I seek new perfumes, ampler blossoms, untried pleasures,” writes one of the earliest Decadence writers Joris-Karl Huysman in Against the Grain

Perfume is indicative of class, excess, the bourgeoisie. It also serves as a vehicle for memory, emotion, and a powerful symbolic device in literature. Memory and emotion have to be driving themes for writers who seek humanity through the excess of sense and pleasures. Science today tells us that smells are processed through the olfactory bulb, which runs from the nose to the bottom of the brain. Unlike the senses of sight or hearing, the olfactory bulb has connections to the amygdala and the hippocampus, two areas in the brain that are directly related to emotion and memory.

Charles Baudelaire was keen on this truth long before it was a science. His poetry used descriptions of smell to evoke the past and accent emotions. He called perfume “a gourmet of odors.” In his poem “Exotic Perfume” (p. 22, The Flowers of Evil) he narrates the smell of a woman transporting him to a dreamland made up of luscious nature, languorous desires, and overfull senses. The third stanza reads:

By thy perfume enticed to this region remote, 
A port I see, laden with mast and with boat, 
Still wearied and torn by the distant brine 
Oscar Wilde certainly had a grip on the power perfume has to stir the imagination. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, he wrote:

“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 ...” (p. 198)

The Decadence interest in perfume brought awareness to a vastly underutilized literary sense, while simultaneously lifting its artificiality to the sublime. For more Decadence writing, read London Nights and Cities by Arthur Symon, Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans and Poems of Paul Verlaine.

By Thad Higa



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