The mind is a most tenacious organ. In the time it takes for a thought to travel between synapse A and synapse B, it may latch on to any trivial thing that unwittingly blunders onto its path, forging a connection that requires brute force to break.
One hectic day this summer, I arrived at work breathless and out-of-sorts. In the rush to get my show on the road, I'd forgotten the most essential element of my morning ablutions: perfume. For an antidote, I reached blindly into Carol's Bag of Wonderful. Out came Amouage Opus I.
For any person whose pulse rate needs no further elevation, Opus I is the ideal defibrillator. Mild, soothing, even (forgive me) a mite bland, it is the very essence of comfort in a chaotic world. One colleague described its scent as "sleepy and happy"; another joked that I smelled as though I'd just dredged myself in the world's most luxurious baby powder. Based on these and my own impressions, Opus I might have remained forever classified as a bassinet blanket for the nose... if not for the one item I had remembered to grab on my way out the door that morning.
On days when my mental wheel wants a familiar groove in which to run, A. S. Byatt's 1992 novel Angels & Insects (of which I own an ancient and frazzled publisher's proof copy) is my go-to tome. I've read it so many times, it's been converted in my mind to literary muzak: open to any page and start humming along. This is not to say Angels & Insects lacks surprises. If you've neither read it nor seen the film based upon it, I will not spoil it for you. However, be assured that my present nonchalance comes only after dozens upon dozens of readings. Even I was shocked speechless the first time.
But that day on my lunch break -- encouraged, perhaps, by the chance intersection between the customary and the new -- my mind latched onto the book as it had not done since that inaugural read of years ago. The unfamiliar nimbus of Opus I surrounding me seemed to interact with the printed word, drawing my eye to certain paragraphs (specifically those describing Eugenia Alabaster, the novel's anti-heroine) as if it wanted me to know something about itself.
Beautiful and distant, Eugenia is the favored eldest daughter of an ancient English family. She is described as pale and soft in every particular, with cream-white skin, flaxen hair, and a personality as indefinite as fog. To the young explorer William Adamson, she seems a territory more virginal and mysterious than any he has previously charted. Her acceptance of him (first as a suitor, then as a spouse) brings all his most fervent prayers to life. Yet while her exterior forever remains as he first perceived it -- "so soft, so white, so untouched, so untouchable" -- inside this goddess-shaped chrysalis, a monster resides. William will not meet it until the novel is almost over. Neither he nor we will walk away unscathed.
Throughout Angels & Insects, a motif of metamorphosis -- the process by which a complete living creature vanishes only to reappear as something different, new, even alien -- resurfaces again and again. William, an entomologist, first captures Eugenia's heart by setting all of his butterflies and moths free for her pleasure. She strongly identifies with the pretty and passionless insects who float along "so light, so soft, like coloured air"-- but shrinks in horror from those which fly mindlessly at lit lamps, pitchers of cream, her own person. In them, she perceives a blind, voracious hunger like that of ghosts. Yet at least they seek, and find, and change. Eugenia remains suspended within her chrysalis, absorbed in "self-nurture and self-communion"-- and secrets, and silence.
Opus I makes no less (and no less strange) of an impression than Eugenia. Like hers, its beauty is striking for its very bloodlessness. Its florals are blonde; its woods are powdery; its plum is palest Mirabelle. The tonka which ties it all together is as soft as pashmina and as weightless as a cirrus cloud. But Opus I's power -- which is considerable -- lies in its ability to envelop the wearer in a totality of scent, cocooning one in a formless soft accord a mile thick and thereby eliminating the need to focus on other distracting details while you drown. (I am reminded of one of the proposed demises faced by the Seven Brothers of Chinese legend-- to be buried alive in whipped cream. If suffocating in zuppa inglese has ever been a dream of yours, you can now live to tell the tale.)
Opus I is amazing, marvelous, wonderful stuff. I do not think I could wear it now without thinking immediately of Eugenia Alabaster. Like William regarding Eugenia in the final throes of their tragedy, I regard its beauty with a kind of fascinated revulsion. It very loveliness has an edge of menace, concealing like a chrysalis some as-yet unrevealed secret.
Its mystery, like metamorphosis, keeps my breath pent.
Scent Elements: Bigarade, plum, cardamom, ylang-ylang, rose, jasmine, tuberose, lily-of-the-valley, papyrus, cedarwood, guaiacwood, sandalwood, frankincense, tonka, vetiver