A Dandy in the Dirt

WilliamBurroughs2

– a review of Jardins d’Ècrivains Junky

For all we prefer to think we live in an age that obsesses about hedonism as an aspirational lifestyle, the fact is nonetheless that as a society, we in the West are really obsessed… with control. Control of our bodies in terms of diet and exercise, endless self-recrimination/neurosis if we don’t measure up to the advertised ideal, control of our runaway minds and impertinent, inopportune thoughts, only now we call it the ultra-hip mindfulness, control of our careers and the circumstances of our very lives as an admonition and precaution in the hopes we may keep the nefarious demons of change and chaos that threaten us on the edges at arms’ length – or else.

Chaos, lack of control, dancing on the knife edge with those demons either figuratively or literally – all these things are best left to trained professionals who know how to embrace them, so we think in our manic panic control freak mode as we whirl through our chaotic times narrowly avoiding demonic roadblocks of yet more chaos.

You know them: the outcasts, the dreamers and dancers, the poets and painters and madcap musicians and artistes and wannabes and maniacal writers who need to make sense of this chaos in any way they can to explain it to the rest of us – or die trying.

If anyone could embody that dance on the knife’s edge, of dueling with Dionysus and divine madness in ways both great and ruinous, it would surely be William Burroughs, the author of the book and the inspiration behind the French company Jardins d’Écrivains latest perfume, Junky.

William Burroughs – prophet of the Beat generation, inspiration for countless imitators, and famous for his no-holds-barred and often harrowing prose – has always seemed a bit of a paradox to me. On the one hand, he was a Social Register aristocrat with a sharp eye for all its failings, and on the other, he personified la vie dans la boue in the best of his brutally honest books, describing the low lives and human detritus that surrounded him with an acerbic pen honed by his acute observations of both their human failings and certainly his own, and nowhere more so than in his first book, Junky.

Reading Junky today reminds me quite a lot of Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater in its exposé of the perils and unearthly pleasures of addiction, but I suspect Burroughs’ intentions were very different from de Quincy’s, even if they both were addicted to two different versions of the same drug, laudanum (which is opium resin in an alcohol solution) and heroin (super-refined opium, super-potent, and one of the most addictive substances known to science). Whereas de Quincy gave us a Gothic Technicolor extravaganza of opiate visions complete with all the literary flourishes of his age, Burroughs gave us a very modern horror story complete with all the trimmings in incredibly spare and brutally honest prose. Personal tragedy, the ravage of its effects, the constant, incessant hustle for the next fix and the one after that, and the next, the agony of being without…

It seems like an odd premise for a perfume of all things, for all that both I and most of my readership are hopelessly addicted to perfume’s countless charms.

Yet Jardins d’Écrivains (the Garden of Writers, a name that had me at hello), a French perfume house which also makes other beautifully composed, luxurious writer-inspired perfumes, candles and bath products, has proven that they don’t take the obvious route with their perfumes. You’ll find no easy shortcuts or clichés in their entire lineup. I first encountered their line at Pitti Fragranze last year, and was certainly more than impressed enough to tell myself to get back to them when I could pay them more attention.

Lo and behold, here is Junky, and for a long time, there was something about it I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around until I realized two things: one, the paradox of William Burroughs himself, and two, the underlying meta-message of his book; that this singular horror could happen to anyone, even a man born at the apex of society with a silver spoon in his mouth – a very radical and highly loaded political premise in the early Fifties when it was first published.

To say that Junky begins green – and I do mean g-r-e-e-n  is an understatement. Green is another way to have me at hello – galbanum lovers, unite! Except that’s nowhere near the whole story, since a distinctive subversive heart beats beneath it – a cannabis accord that is unlike any other I’ve tried in a perfume (a few!). While it won’t get you arrested by either the FBI or the TSA, it’s very much present and unmistakable for anything else.

Yes, I inhaled! And more than once!

Before you know it, a seductive, seamless floral aura begins to bloom on the edges of your awareness. It begins as an indistinct blend, but gradually, it grows and grows and flowers on the skin in a slightly surreal way. Violet, iris and gardenia, says the notes list, yet I’ll wager that that list is missing another, less floral aspect of violet apart from alpha-ionone that accentuates the green theme in Junky – violet leaf, because I detect a lot of violet leaf on my skin. Since violet leaf is one of my favorite notes, this is no bad thing. The iris adds a dab of intellectual distance and irony fragrantly related to Burroughs’ own, whereas the gardenia – just a touch – turns up the volume on all three notes and meanwhile, somewhere in the background that pulse of cannabis beats beneath and betwixt the blooms. As they evolve, it gets harder to tell them apart and harder still not to ask the question: why hasn’t this been done before? And where is it all going, and what does it all mean? Not to mention: why do I feel dizzy?

For one thing, it means green from top to base notes. Those flowers are perceived through a green filter – first by the cannabis hello at the start, followed by those surreal flowers and then by a base that brings it to a final rest of cashmeran – making it soft and fluffy as any opiate dream. I get hints of incense, cedar and juniper, a shot of invigorating moss, a final wave of those intoxicating florals and some 6-7 hours later, a last laugh of that bittersweet cannabis before it vanishes to that Netherworld where such wonders lie in wait for us to discover them.

And the paradox?

The paradox is Burroughs’ own. He is always identified with the Beat Generation he did so much to define, and yet, for all its louche intellectualism and rejection of society’s norms, he also somehow stayed impeccably true to his own upbringing by being meticulous with his appearance to the point of being considered (by Allen Ginsberg not least) something of a dandy and that’s another aspect of this Junky. For all its surprises, Junky is a supremely delineated and exceedingly elegant perfume, just as Burroughs always remained the elegantier of the Beat Generation, somehow transcending the tragic and harrowing circumstances of his life, his unique perspectives, his work and his addictions through his equally meticulous prose.

This Junky, then, is not so much the how of Burroughs’ book, nor even the what, but the why. Why is always the question – and here, it’s a flawless green and perilous floral beauty of an ideal high I’ve found myself craving at different times this past hot summer.

Because anyone can become addicted to Junky’s charms, Even a dandy dwelling in the dirt.

Notes: Cannabis, palisander, rosewood, galbanum, violet, iris, gardenia, cashmeran, cedar, vetiver, incense, juniper, moss, myrtle.

Jardins d’Ècrivains Junky is available from First in Fragrance, Twisted Lily and directly from their website.

With my most profound thanks to Val the Cookie Queen, who does what she can to facilitate my own perfume addiction, bless her subversive heart.

Image of William Burroughs by Harold Chapman, The Beat Hotel, Paris, 1955. Photoshop modification by me.

6 thoughts on “A Dandy in the Dirt

  1. As always, an intriguing read, Sheila. I knew who Williams Burroughs was, but never read his works, so you’ve educated me a bit. Thank you! 🙂

    And the perfume sounds quite unique and fitting of the at-odds image of Burroughs as both a dandy and a junky. It feels funny even typing those words together. 😀

    1. And that’s the thing, Suzanne – the contrast between the name – Social Register, in Burroughs’ case – and the image as well as the perfume. If green is your thing – and I know it is! – this is NOT going to help your lethal perfume addiction… 😀

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