The sky is a dove-grey bowl. As I type this, fat snowflakes are drifting down fast, but I doubt they´ll stick for long. I´ve been outside. I´ve seen the signs. Winter — bluster all you want, you don´t scare me. The tips of the daffodils are up. The snowdrops are almost finished around the base of the apple tree, and my Glory of the Snow will be carpeting my lawn in blue soon enough. Yesterday I took cuttings from my wintersweet and brought them into open overnight. Their flowers are so small, like malformed forsythia, yet their smell is astonishing – part green and part gold, like lilies and honey and hay. Three small branches scent the back room of our house, and two more perfume the bedroom. Their fragrance is poignant for me because my shrub, several years old and not quite as tall as I am, is part of the much larger bush behind the house I grew up in, now sadly in decline despite my attentions. (The bush, not the house. Well, all right, the house as well, if you want the truth.)
I´ve been reading Wabi Sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence, by Andrew Juniper, who lives in the south of England. It´s a study in contrasts and cultural behaviors; Juniper (in self-effacing Brit fashion) tries to explain the unexplainable, and does so beautifully while at the same time stressing his limitations.
Wabi sabi describes a traditional Japanese aesthetic sensibility based on an appreciation of the transient beauty of the physical world.
It embodies the melancholic appeal of the impermanence of all things – especially the modest, the rustic, the imperfect and even the decayed.
Finally, “The term wabi sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in a Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.”
Reading this book is like trying to swim in a foreign but oddly alluring body of water. There are chapters on wabi sabi elements in the tea ceremony, pottery, gardens, and more philosophical explorations like, what is beauty? I devour this book like the consummate westerner, looking for facts, scanning the glossary. I wonder if there´s a Wabi Sabi for Dummies out yet.
The bits of the book that speak most clearly to me concern the imperfect: flaws and defects, topics with which I am intimately familiar. My spoon sits in a cracked bowl. Every dent the kids put in a door, every smudge on the wall, every handprint, each scratch on the wood floor chips away at the newness of our house in a way that delights me. I´m about as Japanese as Mae West, but I´m all for imperfection. My favorite imperfections are in faces. Is there anything sexier than a well-placed mole, or gappy teeth? (I can´t find the link now, but a couple months ago there was a hilarious article in a beauty rag about gap-teethed women and the men who love them. Some people and cultures fetishize gapped teeth the way other people do shoes.)
I suppose I should get back to living in my own impermanence. The clothes are in the dryer next to me, but all too soon they´ll be dirty again. Yes, it´s true – I blog in the laundry room, where nobody else goes. The dishwasher needs to be emptied, but then I’ll have to fill it, and the Big Cheese wants us all to go out in the snow and have brunch.
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As always, my meditations on this topic tend to lead me back to fragrance. One could argue that fragrance, ephemeral and transitory (with the exceptions of Fracas and Secretions Magnifique) could be wabi sabi. Juniper devotes a chapter to physical (design) and metaphysical properties of wabi sabi, including:
asymmetry, texture, impermanence, ugliness (“disregard for conventional views of beauty; beauty in the smallest, most imperceptible details”); diffuse or subdued color; simplicity/lack of ostentation; space (“significant areas of nothing,”) balance/irregular shape; impermanence/intimacy.
Using these guidelines, I contemplate which of my fragrances might in a general way meet some of these criteria. I think I´d include:
Diptyque Essence of John Galliano or CB I Hate Perfumes´ Burning Leaves, both scents that suggest ephemeral, transitory aspects found in nature (what is more ephemeral than smoke?);
Earthy scents like CB´s Black March, or sap-green scents (actually, CB has a ton of things I could plug in here), but also Miller et Bertaux´ green, green(4) and the late, lamented Gobin Daude Sous le Buis or Seve Exquise;
Airy and/or mineral scents, maybe a few of the Hermessences, or how about The Different Company´s Sel de Vetiver? Certainly some of you reading this would argue that several Hermessences have “significant areas of nothing,” right?
Annick Goutal scents like Mandragore and Duel for simplicity and lack of ostentation (although you might also nominate these for impermanence.)
Then there are fragrances that I´d call jolie-laide (in French, obviously) and I´m trying to decide if they meet the same requirement for ugliness, although if I´m reading correctly the point of view of wabi sabi is there is no ugliness, just a perceptual challenge. If that´s the case, then I´d segue right into what was supposed to be Monday´s review of the newest Hermessence, Vanille Galante. There´s no point in my writing a review, because it would be a less articulate redo of the one by Robin at Now Smell This. I get the same melon-y note she does. Maybe JCE worked the same trick he did with Mousson, which is to create the effect of calone out of something else entirely. Ultimately, what I get is a melony aquatic lily vanilla with hints of salt, banana and fresh mulch, and no, I won´t be buying a bottle. What I love about this is, I think Robin and I have the same general smell-perception of Galante, only she loves it and I don´t. And if that isn´t one of the wonderful things about fragrance, what is?
I´m leaving this post up today and tomorrow. I invite comments on the concept of wabi-sabi from those more informed than I am; your thoughts on the ephemeral nature of perfume; other wabi-sabi scents, if you think the concept even exists; the beauty in your favorite imperfections; and anything else that occurs to you as you read this. I’m waiting to see if the Big Snow happens.
image of rock garden: roderickmann.org; this is actually a project done by a robotic arm, if I’m understanding correctly, and the implications of that as relates to wabi sabi and the Zen of rock gardens are beyond my ken.