One of the many things that I’ve come to realise from Kenneth Clark’s enthralling 1969 book and series on Civilisation, is that existential boredom and feelings of bitterness and lack of direction can affect both people living within a civilisation and people living without one.
The difference is that experiencing boredom, Clark argues, is more tolerable within a civilisation, rather than outside one, not the least because civilisation allegedly offers a way out.
I find this reasoning delightfully absurd, as the definition of existential boredom makes sense only within a civilisation, and is totally inexistent outside one, as there it lacks a meaningful opposite.
People have developed a system of measuring time, and a part of that is the notion of tomorrow, which is immaterial to any other species on the planet. If one has an idea of tomorrow, one needs philosophy, meaning ideas about how to approach it. So the more evolved a culture, or a civilisation is, the more philosophy there is, and the more varied aspects the existential boredom and bitterness may assume.
In fact, during the 18th and the 19th century Europe came up with four variants of this world weariness, namely – Ennui, Spleen, Angst, and Weltschmerz. There is a Russian variant too, known as the plight of the Superfluous Man. Which one is your cup of tea is up to you.
Also, I can’t help smiling at Clark’s suggestion that art and books offer a way out, because it makes me think of this post and the bitterly satirical treatment of the same idea by Nathanael West (1940-1940) in his novel Miss Lonelyhearts, a tiny book of great power.
I know of yet another source of solace the ways of whose exact working I can’t quite explain. It’s perfume. In this, I am backed by an unnamed French writer, once quoted by an unnamed French magazine, which in turn was referred to in another tiny book I’ve read, on the French philosophy of approaching life.
The thought is this – perfume, it is argued, is necessary “pour l’amour, la patience, le genie et l’imagination.” For love, patience, genius and imagination. I would never have thought of phrasing it like that, but how very true.
I think a fragrance functions as an olfactory representation of one’s centre, and the facets of it that it reflects float around the wearer like an extension of themselves, ricocheting back into their centre. That’s the patience part. Patience and passion stem from the Latin verb for to suffer, so patience is essentially an ability to endure in solace. To give solace means to support, relieve or soothe. Perfume does all that by heightening our awareness of ourselves. Thus, perfume is a projection of one’s individuality, and the idea that all people possess one is an attainment of civilisation too.
However, in his study of human proportions, German painter Albrecht Duerer (1471-1528) defied individuality by suggesting that the ideal human body could be made of body parts belonging to different individuals. Rather than glorifying Man, John Berger argues, this presumed a remarkable indifference to who any one person really was.
Thinking about all of this, I remembered a poem by Charles Baudelaire, whom you know how much I admire from these three earlier posts. The poem, called Completely One and translated by James McGowan, beautifully links ideas of individuality, perfume and the beauty of a person in their entirety, not as separate body parts. So here goes:
The Devil and I had a chat
This morning in my snuggery;
Trying to catch me in a lapse,
‘Tell me’, he said beseechingly,
Among the many charming things
Of which her body is composed
That make her so enrapturing,
Among the objects, black or rose,
Which is the sweetest?’ – O, my soul!
You foiled the tempter with these words;
Since all is solace in the whole
No single thing may be preferred.
I can’t, when all is ravishing,
Say some one thing seduces me.
She is the Daybreak’s dazzling,
The Night’s consoling sympathy.
And the exquisite government
The harmony her grace affords,
Makes analytics impotent
To note its numerous accords.
O mystic metamorphoses
In me, my senses all confused!
She makes a music when she breathes,
Sounds of her voice are sweet perfumes!
PS. A Lagrima, or Teardrop for you, one of the shortest and most exquisite pieces for classical guitar.