- The Scent Trail of "Une Charogne"
In 2007 Charogne joined the catalogue of provocative eaux de parfum launched by État Libre d'Orange. Self-proclaimed enfants terribles of the industry, the fragrance team takes concept perfumery to new heights, linking each scent to an edgy name (e.g., Delicious Closet Queen; Éloge du traître; Sécrétions magnifiques), bolstered by illustrated brochures, revealing the combination of earnestness and humor that have become the company's trademark. In response to the barrage of celebrity perfumes on the market, État Libre d'Orange offers alternative alternatives: no Britney Spears; no David Beckham; no J Lo. Instead, the avant garde perfumista may select from Tom of Finland, Rossy de Palma, or the Tilda Swinton perfume, enigmatically called, Like This. Add to the list Charogne, a shocking name that draws upon the infamy and celebrity of the reluctant Prince of Carrion, poet Charles Baudelaire.
In a letter to friend and photographer Nadar (14 May 1859) Baudelaire chides, apparently with irony: "Il m'est pénible de passer pour le Prince des Charognes. Tu n'as sans doute pas lu une foule de choses de moi, qui ne sont que musc et que roses" (CI 174).1 That year Nadar had created "Baudelaire à la charogne,"2 a charcoal and gouache caricature of the writer as a bobble-headed, gloved dandy, arms raised in a gesture of mincing awe, his ambiguous gaze (diabolical? appreciative?) directed toward a rotting animal upon which he appears to have nearly stumbled. Without that gaze it would take a moment to find the charogne, so large is the poet's head, so indecipherable, and therefore distracting, the turn of his lip.3
In the lower left-hand corner of the picture lies the animal carcass, legs in the air, its belly covered in a dense swarm of black blotches—buzzing flies, or wafting fumes, or both—rising up, blending with the dried leaves of spindly shrubs, then metamorphosing into vertical marks. These gradually [End Page 51] rejoin to form letters. Death gives birth to life and words, with the figure of the poet positioned between the carrion-etched "FLEURS DU" looming over his right shoulder, and "MAL" under his left hand. These textual flowers frame the portrait of the Prince of Carrion, simultaneously discovering and orchestrating a synesthetic landscape of decaying flora and fauna; refiguring beauty; representing invisible odor in visible words; turning stench into poetry.
Almost one hundred and fifty years later, in a provocative gesture of olfactory adaptation, État Libre d'Orange translates this poetic stench into perfume. The sample package of Charogne features a rose with a drop of red blood at the center--perhaps a nod to Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, a recognition of the poem's decomposed metaphorical flower, or a reminder of the theme of death, beauty, and the printed page. According to Etienne de Swardt, the company's founder, "Charogne c'est une histoire de peau d'inspiration BAUDELAIRIENNE, une dualité malsaine avec le poème et sa pestilence" (2009). Call this dialogical translation, olfactory adaptation, edgy marketing, voluntary synesthesia, or shock perfumery—a question inevitably emerges: how, if at all, does the fragrance correspond to the poem "Une Charogne?" The perfumer might have opted to compose a literal, scratch-and-sniff translation (perfume that makes its wearer smell like carrion). Or instead, scent notes might have been selected to illustrate textual aspects of "Une Charogne," its rhythm, its structure, the emotions it evokes, other odors suggested by its words, or a scented rendition of the poem's mood, tone, subject, themes, or ideas. Any discussion of Charogne eau de parfum in relation to Baudelaire's "Une Charogne" relates as much to language and reading, as to olfaction, and it reveals the difficulty of communicating about smell in words. This is because, like other forms of aesthetic adaptation, the translation of poetry to fragrance, or fragrance to poetry, entails a process of interpretation: How do we identify or define the scent trail in texts? How do we read the scent of words? Do certain literary works suggest a poetics of the olfactory? How do references to odors lead readers outside...