Thursday, May 15, 2008

Romancing the Ripe

Widespread is the knowledge of Napoleon's famous erotic line to Josephine, "I will return in three days, don't wash!" (“Je reviens en trois jours; ne te laves pas!"), which inspired even the famous name of a Worth perfume, Je reviens. But little do people realise that he was not the first one to appreciate the ripeness of a female body's natural aroma. It was another French figure who had the historical privilege of uttering a comparable phrase in the throes of erotic passion to his beloved centuries ago: Henry IV of France, who wrote to his mistress Gabrielle d'Estree: "Don't wash my love, I'll be home in eight days".
Interesting to note no doubt that transport as well as beliefs concerning for how long one could sustain themselves without a bath had changed accordingly through the course of more than 2 centuries.
Henry IV of France was reputed to have such a ripe smell himself that his intended, Marie de Medici, keeled over upon meeting him.
But a predecessor, Henry III was also reportedly excited by the animalic essence of the female body: he fell in love with Mary of Cleeves after smelling the odour of her just removed clothing. Of course the circumstances upon which she had removed the clothing and what he saw might also have contributed to his infatuation no doubt.

According to Alain Corbin, social historian and author of The Foul and the Fragrant, Baudelaire was in part responsible for transforming the scented profile of the woman.
"The perfume of bare flesh, intensified by the warmth and moistness of the bed,replaced the veiled scents of the modest body as a sexual stimulus.[...] The woman stopped being a lily; she became a perfume sachet, a bouquet of odors that emanated from the "odorous wood" of her unbound hair, skin, breath, and blood.[...] The atmosphere of the alcove generated desire and unleashed storms of passion".

As we had noted in a previous article on Perfume Shrine named "Glorious Stink", the matter of fragrancing the body or not, the ritual of bathing and the perceptions concerning cleanliness have been at the eye of the turmoil of civilization since antiquity. Fragrance can only be an additional veil upon the essence of the body itself. In the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "you feel how external fragrance stands upon your stronger resistance?"

Henry Miller was even more explicit when he progressed the onomatopoeia of Baudelaire's "muskiness of fur" using its proper name taken from the vernacular:
"With the refinements that come from maturity the smells faded out, to be replaced by only one other distinctly memorable, distinctly pleasurable smell" and he goes on to suggest the female genitals as the source of the ambrosial aroma. "More particularly, the odor that lingers on the fingers after playing with a woman, for if it has not been noticed before, this smell is more enjoyable, perhaps because it already carries the perfume of the past tense".

It is obvious that the natural smell of a sexually mature body held great fascination for men for centuries and it is even more confusing juxtaposing this belief with today's standards of hygiene to the point of the sterile. All in all, the print of a civilization often revolves around the use of soap and water and this is none more apparently ironic than in the examination of sophisticated societies.

Illustration by Steve Murray, courtesy of the National Post.


  1. Anonymous16:50

    Hi Helg,

    First of all I must say.... I love that picture you posted for this post. It made me laugh because it is so perfect.

    Next, I found this post to be really intriguing.

    After we get home from spending a day at the beach, my husband smells delicious. It's a combo of the salt water, driftwood,smoke from the bbq, suntan oil and body odor. All those scents combined on him drive me CRAZY. I always ask him to hold off taking a shower for a few hours after we get home just so I can inhale that aroma for a little bit longer.

    Soap should be bannded. just kidding - but still........

    Dawn :)

  2. Anonymous16:51

    Oh jeez.... I meant banned not bannded.

  3. Anonymous17:15

    i don't mind a little body odor on the man i'm with - it can be quite enticing. but when i'm standing in line behind a man who clearly hasn't washed his hair in days - greasy, matted - and he's trying to catch my eye, no way! i think body odor is pleasant when it belongs to someone we already want to be or are close to...

    - minette

  4. Anonymous17:33

    Ah, Elena, it is now almost three years since I've read Alain Corbin's book, in German translation. For everybody interested in fragrance, and the perception of scents, deodorization of public space etc. a must read.

    Sometimes I wished I could transform back to 300 years ago and bring home some fragrant memories.

  5. Dear Dawn,

    isn't the illustration FAB?? Loved it, so witty.
    I am glad you found the whole post intriguing.

    I can understand what you say about your own experience (great one, I admit): there is an element of lived-in that can be very appealing. On a loved one, mind you.

  6. I tend to agree with you dear M.
    Funny how familiarity has that effect, huh?

  7. Dear Andy,

    it is a highly recommended book to be sure: a must read! I had the good fortune to read it in the French original and there is a certain charm in it. Serious work though, very scholarly.

    The dream of the time machine in olfactory terms: what a great notion!
    I do fear we would keel over from the foulness of the streets though ;-)

  8. Anonymous08:26

    I don't think we can find anybody attractive if they don't have an body odour that appeal to us. Probably one may fall in love with somebody because of odour alone..
    Ad time machine: archeologists sometimes find and open old latrines that have a smell and stench as if they have been used until recently.

    Very nice illustration! :)

  9. Anonymous09:54

    I totally believe in the theory that the scent of a person is highly involved in the "fallin-in-love"-procedure.
    I would be so curious about the scents of ancient times, aeras, places, situations, too. I believe the sense of smell must have been bluntened, also. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to stand the ubiquitous smells of blood, excrements, sweat and dead animals.
    Great post, helg!

  10. S,

    from personal experience I know that archeologists have been known to extract " dried, almost fossilised" excrement and reconstruct it in order to find out what people were consuming in that time period. Brave souls...

    I agree that there has to be some olfactory consensus for a relationship to go on.

  11. N,

    thank you for your lovely compliment!
    I tend to agree that some form of blundered sense of smell should have been in place: after a while someone would get used to the stench?
    It's interesting to contemplate just how much someone's personal odour affects us, huh?

  12. Anonymous12:43

    After i had to work together with a strict Catholic bachelor who thought deororant was some kind of satan's creation i know that it affects me a LOT! ;-)

  13. I'm enjoying myself, reading all your impressions, my friends !

    That comic strip says it all....!

    My favorite vignette deals with my awkward moment, ready-to-pop- pregnant- on public transport, HEATED car in JULY !

    It was outrageously hot- we were crammed in, like sardines-
    And I realize that I am horrifically turned on, by the virulent smell of 'honest sweat' in extremis-
    Being emitted by the tiniest Hispanic man...

    The poor fellow would have died of embarrassment, had he known.

    So much for 'pong' !

  14. LOL, dear N!! I can feel your pain!

  15. Dear I,

    your real life incident is hilarious!! And I bet very ackward for you in such a state!! Thankfully everything turned out for the best, so it stayed a funny memory. Too funny! :-))

  16. Anonymous21:32

    Give , me soap, give, me warm water, bath gel, shower gel , a bidet if possible &Summer's Eve in any scent --and deodorant. Please.... clean sweat is an entirely different story than the unwashd state. How did the people 'stand' to be with each other back when? I like clean and freshly scented bodies. The article was delightful to read - a great concept. I will think about it during my morning shower and nightly bath. Cleanliness is next to Godliness--

  17. Thanks Madelyn for your compliment. :-)
    And thanks for thinking about it while indulging in hygiene (but also -I suspect- indulgence) rituals, LOL!

    I agree that clean sweat has the advantage over stale one ;-)

  18. Anonymous12:07

    I love this story and read it often. I wonder why the Napoleon story is so obscure? I love the scent of a woman. Ripe or fresh, it is exquisite!!

  19. Anon,

    oh but the Napoleon story is much more well known than the original ripe-loving Henry's story! At least among the people reading "scent writing"... :-)

    I can only imagine how very ripe these bodies were though. Elizabeth the 1st was said to have been taking "a bath every three months, whether recommended by her physician or not". (Implying she was cleaner than most of her times)

  20. Anonymous18:35

    Hey Elena,
    Here in South Africa we have scorching temperatures and we sweat profusely. So it is a neccesity to at least shower once or twice a day.

    In the cold countries of Europa on the other hand, bathing irregularly could be OK. I sometimes think I must find my Gabrielle and move to Europa to experiment. :-)

    Kind Regards

    Henry (not the 3rd or the 4th :-))

  21. Henry,

    I surely hope you don't resort to too much "European" uncleanliness. It's never OK. ;-)
    Believe me, I live in a warm European country myself. Without resorting to the crazily sterilized American standards of today, cleanliness is a good thing. You can then soil it all you want and have fun!! ;-)

    Some of the northerners think it's OK to skip showers, but it really isn't. Im talking by experience when sitting next to tourists who sweat profusely here and they just smell stale (as opposed to just sweat), but haven't the lifestyle of the sweating countries to make up for it. Then again, in some of these countries the running water is scaly, not good quality, it doesn't encourage showering (I needed a ton of moisturizer when taking showers in Germany for instance). Here the water is very good; I almost never moisturize, there's no need.

    It's just not the same like a body that has dipped in the ocean (as per above one of my readers describes so perfectly) and hasn't washed with soap. Totally different things! But I'm sure you know by your own experience in SA.

  22. Anonymous11:11

    Love love love the smell of my beloved when he's been playing tennis/been to the gym! Been married 40 years and it STILL turns me on.Don't feel the same about the sweaty odours of other men though...

  23. Anon,

    ah, true love. This is a heart warming comment, thank you! (love this kind of stories)

    It's been scientifically proven (through experimentation, I mean, not only empirical data) that families do recognize each other's smells and rate them higher than the smells of non intimate entourage. There's something deeply romantic about it all, like a homing pigeon. :-)

  24. Miss Heliotrope00:25

    As an extremely late aside - coming from a mostly hot place - the whole concept of multiple showers or shower-and-bath on a single day is what is standing out most for me here. Shockingly, actually. An incredible waste of water.


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