Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew
—Jack Gilbert, “Failing and Flying”
I learned to pilot airplanes. I have flown almost everywhere in the world. I could tell China from Arizona at first glance, which is very useful if you get lost during the night.
The fragrance Vol de Nuit, “Night Flight,” was inspired by the thrills and dangers of the brave, early days of aviation, and by author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a reckless romantic, one of the first masters of aeronautics.
I do love flying as a passenger, especially at night: on an airplane, the engine’s hum and vibration, the isolation, and the suspension of physical activity all induce drowsiness and serenity.
But no one is ever satisfied where he is, and the mood captured by the perfume marks a bitter turn, the uncertainty suspended between two wars, a foreboding sense of compression, like that inside a cockpit – After dark you will put me under glass. How cold it is where you live – a darker theme of loss and separation: I was more isolated than a man shipwrecked on a raft in the middle of the ocean.
A pilot, wrenched from the comfort of his domestic life, manning his aircraft through the dangers of the skies, into the inmost heart of night, often without sufficient flight instruments. Saint-Exupéry would navigate by landmark, his only entertainment the pleasure of sunsets, would watch, at twilight, the work of a veritable army of four-hundred-sixty-two thoughsand, five hundred and eleven lamplighters. Seen from a distance, this made a splendid effect. The movements of this army were ordered like those of a ballet. Without a navigation system, he relied on these lamps, on his flashlight and compass, or when, after several hours in silence…stars began to appear.
I’m lonely…I’m lonely…I’m lonely…
The cold steel carapace of the plane a thin barrier between himself and the freezing elements, the sky, the stars, the world looming up beneath him.
No wonder the pilot-author imagined a being, a little prince, hurtling through space in the dark, alone on his lonely planet.
So you fell out of the sky, too. What planet are you from?
Saint-Exupéry was himself killed in action over France in 1944, his body never recovered. His friend Jacques Guerlain created the perfume Vol de Nuit in his honor, a celebration of flight, of mastery of the air and the thrill of danger. Telling these memories is so painful for me…. If I try to describe him here, it’s so I won’t forget him. It’s sad to forget a friend. Not everyone has had a friend. The bottle’s design blends glass and metal in Art Deco design, imitates whirling propeller blades beneath a blocky brass lid, its nameplate framed in two circular lines mimicking the propeller’s drive belt.
Renowned perfume critic Luca Turin considers the scent a gold standard against which to measure all others, yet admits, “In truth, [Vol de Nuit]…is by Guerlain’s standards a somewhat shapeless perfume, lacking a legible structure.” The vast lonely landscapes and elemental space that surround the aircraft mirrored in the distancing effect of its first bitter green notes, taking to the air. Then, the plush base surrounds you like a halo of pale light, the perfume’s engine purring through to its outer reaches. I’ll certainly try to make my portraits as true to life as possible. But I’m not entirely sure of succeeding. Turin concludes, “But it gives me pleasure, …the feeling of unobstructed space and pinpoint clarity.”
The stars are beautiful because of a flower you don’t see
Unlike many perfumes of the period, Guerlain downsized the floral opulence, turned instead to herbal and leather notes. Vol de Nuit is renowned as the first perfume to incorporate the fiercely green, resinous odor of galbanum. So, while technically an oriental composed of sandalwood, oakmoss, ambergris and leathery castoreum, its distinct opening green makes it steer between an earthy oriental and an abstract chypre, a scent caught between land and air, a leather bomber jacket suspended in the sharp, cold night sky.
I’ve always loved the desert. You see nothing. You hear nothing. And yet something shines, something sings in that silence
The perfume’s surprise, what pulls everything together, is its heart of tentative sweetness. It’s as if the dark night sky suddenly reveals a falling star, a falling prince, and the loneliness and danger of flying turns into an adventure, exhilarating instead of treacherous. For travelers, the stars are guides. This heart is a facet of narcissus, of jonquil absolut. Suppose I happen to know a unique flower, one that exists nowhere in the world except on my planet. If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of starts, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, ‘My flower’s up there somewhere.’ This swift diminuendo into delicate flowers – What does ephemeral mean? – similar to those pressed between the pages – What does ephemeral mean? – of an explorer’s antique journal.
What does ephemeral mean?
It means, ‘which is threatened by imminent disappearance.’
Is my flower threatened by imminent disappearance?
My flower is ephemeral, the little prince said to himself.
Perfume, too, is ephemeral. In Guerlain’s composition, there’s no narcissistic rose to be sniffed, with or without the heart. Its heart holds only narcissus and subdued jasmine. You must never listen to flowers. You must look at them and smell them. Vol de Nuit is a beautiful, enveloping aura of pulverized starlight that lets us fully imagine the gloriously new sensation of drifting almost effortlessly, and timelessly, above the clouds. If you love a flower that lives on a star, then it’s good, at night, to look up at the sky. All the stars are blossoming.
Resolutely not beckoning and un-come-hither, the perfume is quite assertive and spiky, a study in contrasts. It’s a beautiful but odd perfume, not as popular or appreciated as Shalimar or Mitsouko. Flowers are so contradictory! But I was too young to know how to love her. Mine perfumed my planet, but I didn’t know how to enjoy that. Its cool leather and wooden dashboard undercut by a smoldering, growling cinnamon note that suggests daredevils. A scent by turns soothing and unsettling. Look up at the sky. Ask yourself, ‘Has the sheep eaten the flower or not?’ And you’ll see how everything changes…
The young pilot, the little prince, who could have been Saint-Exupéry, a pioneer of that uncertain time when a night flight could easily mean death.
…he was dropping headlong into an abyss,…nothing to hold him back…lost and remote
What does ephemeral mean? Today, vintage Vol de Nuit loses much of its topnotes, the famous galbanum, on liftoff, loses altitude, plummeting too swiftly into its darker heart and base. I miss its tension, its weirdness.
Don’t let me go on being so sad.
Despite these vagaries of fate, he nevertheless lived, risen above, on top of the world, literally, and, like the magnetic pull of the perfume and its graceful descent, the pilot has reached some kind of bliss.
For me, this is the loveliest and the saddest landscape in the world.
All italicized passages are from Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943) translated by Richard Howard (Mariner, 2000). Luca Turin’s quote is from his entry for Vol de Nuit in his and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A—Z Guide (Penguin, 2009). Other material comes from the perfume blogs Monsieur Guerlain, The Perfume Shrine, Now Smell This, Yesterday’s Perfume, Bois de Jasmin, and Black Narcissus.
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Senior Poetry Editor at Poetry City, USA. She is the author of the poetry collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com