A NATURAL HISTORY
OF THE SENSES
By Diane Ackerman
Random House. 331 pp. $19.95
CAN YOU KEEP a secret? I mean really? OK . . . for some reason I trust you. Here it is: The reason for the coolness -- perhaps antipathy would be a better word -- between the arts and the sciences has not so much to do with differences in training, temperament and technique (drawing studios and writing workshops versus crimped laboratories redolent of foul-smelling chemicals) as it does with territorial imperatives and the power that results from the possession of specialized knowledge.
Imagine what might happen if those in white coats, clutching their formulae like rosary beads, could succeed in capturing in words or images, perhaps just for a moment and on rare occasions, the poetry, the joy, the exaltation that, properly, should accompany enlightened expeditions into the wonders of science.
In short, could the world accommodate a scientist capable of setting out his discoveries in poetry? So far the world has been spared such an encounter. But what about a poet who could "do" science?
In The Natural History of the Senses, poet Diane Ackerman succeeds in capturing in words and images insights usually bestowed only upon the trained scientist.
Ackerman's goal in this fascinating admixture of humanism and science is to revive in us a feeling for the "textures" of life. This is sorely needed, she believes, since: "Much of our experience in twentieth-century America is an effort to get away from those textures, to fade into a stark, simple, solemn, puritanical, all business routine that doesn't have anything so unseemly as sensuous zest."
In an attempt to arouse our dormant senses, Ackerman starts out with that most elemental of all senses, smell. Since the nose is the only sense organ that communicates directly with the brain -- specifically the limbic system, that untamed beast we all carry around within our skulls' deeper innards as a gift from distant cousins who, several million years ago, whiled away their lives in the slime and the murk -- it should come as no surprise that smell has a lot to do with elemental things, like sex.
"An obvious question is why secretions from the scent glands of deer, boar, cats, and other animals should arouse sexual desire in humans" says Ackerman in regard to the pheromones ("the pack animals of desire" as she refers to them). She suggests, quite sensibly, that one of the reasons scents exert such a powerful effect on our psyche might be that "when we smell them we may respond as we would to human pheromones."
Perhaps what's required -- in place of a scientist -- in order to understand all this, is someone like Napoleon. In a letter cited by the author, Napoleon tells Josephine "not to bathe" for the two weeks prior to their next meeting so that, presumably, he could enjoy all the natural aromas of his beloved.
Before reacting with displeasure or distaste or a fey "Oh, really" in regard to such a fondness for olfactory turn-ons, we should examine our own predilections.
A contemporary scent, aptly named Pheromone and priced at $300 an ounce, "promises, by implication, to make a woman smell provocative and turn stalwart men into slaves of desire." Impressed that "the vision of a generation of young women walking the streets wearing boar pheromones is strange, even for Manhattan," Ackerman impishly proposes a naughty recipe: "Turn loose a herd of sows on Park avenue. Mix well with crowds of women wearing Pheromone eau de cologne. Dial 911 for emergency."
From considerations of smell Ackerman moves on to touch and the second most sensuous touch experience of all: "Kissing, we share one breath, open the sealed fortress of our body to our lover. We shelter under a warm net of kisses. We drink from the well of each other's mouth. Setting out on a kiss caravan of the other's body, we map the new terrain with our fingertips and lips. It is a kind of pilgrimage of touch, which leads us to the temple of our desire."
In the section on taste we learn about macabre meals such as were served up in 18th-century England, where it was commonly held that the best meal must involve preparation with the animal still alive. Or perhaps more to your taste will be contemporary descriptions of what happens in the brains of inveterate chocolate addicts.
The final two senses, hearing and vision, are united by reference to Helen Keller:
"I am just as deaf as I am blind. The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus -- the sound of the voice which brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man."
Keller's statement, of course, runs counter to popular opinion. Most of us if forced to make such a grim choice would elect to lose our hearing before choosing blindness. Perhaps this discrepancy between the opinion of Keller and the majority of us best illustrates how little we really know about the senses. If so, then I'm delighted to report that A Natural History of the Senses provides an accessible, entertaining and gently learned way to explore those five gateways through which we come to know and explore our world.
Richard Restak is the author of "The Brain" and "The Mind."