ONE: The Pleasure of All Five Senses
We can see farther today than any of our forefathers could dream of seeing. We can see farther than the keenest cheetah or lynx. We can look over the horizon, around the world, up into space, down into our intestines digesting dinner. Nothing can escape our eye. We can watch practically anything we want—the only thing is, most of what we look at comes down a cable. Using the naked eye is fast going out of style. Why bother when a camera will do it better? The image is becoming more real to us than the real thing.
There is a man in England who does his bird watching in front of the television. He doesn’t need binoculars. He will watch the golf tournaments for the chance flight of a heron across the green. He will watch nature programs, not for the lion strutting in the foreground, but for the little bird in the background that the commentator neglects even to mention. His greatest thrill is to identify a bird on his screen and check it off his list as “seen.”
Not just our eyes, but all of our senses are losing the original savor of first-hand experience. We live in an ocean of smell but smother it in detergents, disinfectants, and artificial perfumes. Millions wear little white earphones and hear only faintly the sounds of the living world they are passing through. We are becoming out of touch with the earth we live on, and fast. We need to come to our senses before we lose them.
This physical life is to die for. When we stop for a moment to register how alive everything is—every cell of our own body, every turning leaf, every drop of rain—we can begin to catch on to the fact that all of Nature is sensual by nature.
One way this came home to me was, of all things, from the lick of a Jersey cow. She had idled over to me at the gate of a field on the edge of the Cotswolds in England. Her slab of a tongue, hot with a steamy, grassy breath, curled out and began rasping across the back of my hand on the gate. That slow, grating rub, like a worn kitchen scourer, heaved itself lazily over my flesh with an undeniable empathy of beast to man. Less sloppy than a dog, slower of pace, more casual altogether than any animal I can think of, that Jersey cow had the time of day for me, or for anyone who cared to lean over the gate and offer their salt; for it was that she was after, however much my sentiments might have liked it to be otherwise.
It may sound strange, but that lick from a Jersey cow was erotic. The word has come to have an almost exclusively sexual connotation, but being moved and touched is always at the heart of what it means to be erotic: to be in a living, felt relationship with life, with all our senses and intelligence. In the Greek myth, where Psyche is another name for the human soul, Pleasure was the child of Psyche and Eros. Pleasure, then, is the result of the passage of Eros. It is an erotic response to life, one that is physically moving. The body shudders, quivers, and trembles with pleasure in striking some chord with the world around it.
That’s one of the many good things about having a body—you can be moved and touched by, literally be in touch with, other bodies. We all love to touch and be touched, not least because it brings us to earth, to our own ground, and to the common ground we share with others. Touch is the primary human experience. It is the first sense to develop; babies can die if they are not held, and their cries are often for touch as much as for food. My wife’s most cherished memory is of holding her newborn child and smelling the top of its head.
As children we are always in touch, having our hands in everything. We squeeze mud between our fingers, play with sand, pick up worms; even as adults we find it hard to keep our hands off “safer” objects like the goods in a furniture store or bread at the baker’s.
Hands have a life of their own. They have a way of taking hold of things before our social conditioning has time to stop them. They finger the fresh fruit in the grocery store, half consciously brush the arm of the person we are talking to, run along the backs of wooden chairs.
My own love the firm shake of another’s hand, the grasp of a doorknob, the soft stroke of wool, angularities and corners, globes of the world, plump strands of seaweed, the feel of a sculpture in a museum, and of course, the swell of my lover’s breast or the curve of her thigh.
The kiss, our first intimate touch, begins with the feeding from our mother’s breast; and from that early start, nourishment, aggression, comfort, and sexuality are all intermingled in the intimate pleasures of the mouth. A kiss can be an expression of desire, of friendship and greeting, of loyalty, or of spiritual blessing. A kiss can open the door to a person’s heart; it can be a self-revelation; or as it was for Salman Rushdie, who grew up in India, it can be a simple way of honoring the world of everyday objects that we rely on:
I grew up kissing books and bread. In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapati . . . the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect. Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. If I’d ever dropped the telephone directory I’d probably have kissed that too. Bread and books: food for the body and food for the soul—what could be more worthy of respect than that?
Rushdie’s kisses were not sentimental; they were genuine expressions of regard for the world we live in. Neither Nature nor possessions need our sentimentality, our fantasies of what we think they are. They don’t need us to foist some meaning on them that we may have lost in ourselves. What they do need is for us to give them the attention and respect due to them as part of the living world.
Wordsworth thought that Nature was a necessary second mother for the preadolescent child, and if that relationship was missing, the child’s imagination would be stunted in some way in later life. Imagination, he would say, feeds on old tree roots, the smell of wet grass, the shimmer of corn in the sun.
Old tree roots in a rolling beech wood in upstate New York: I can sense it now, their musty, truffly smell reaching back into the more ancient regions of my brain. Smell has to be the most underrated of all our senses. We would be wise to let ourselves be led by the nose now and again. Smells inform our deepest instincts and intuitions, which is why we have expressions like “to smell a rat,” “to smell an opportunity,” or “to smell something fishy.” In Inuit tribes the common greeting of rubbing noses has its basis in “smelling out” the intentions of others. In Asian countries like Borneo, Burma, and India the word for “kiss” also means “smell.”
Everything we taste is snatched from death: our responsibility is to taste it completely.
Smells can also serve to dredge up long-forgotten memories, and they do so because they are an essential component of our emotional “read” of a situation or a moment in time. Charles Dickens claimed that the merest hint of the type of paste used to fasten labels to bottles would plunge him into the anguish of his early years, when bankruptcy forced his father to abandon him in a warehouse where they made such bottles.
I had my own experience of the power of scent over memory when I was in Branscombe, one of those English villages that seems made for a picture postcard, all thatched roofs and little winding streets. I was walking past a cottage covered with roses and honeysuckle. I was about to lean into the roses when I suddenly caught the scent of something more humble. It was a faint tang, somewhat like pepper, not entirely pleasant but not unpleasant, either.
I turned my head. A pot of geraniums was hanging from the porch, and as I caught their smell, I instantly became eight years old again. On my way to school I would pick a leaf from the geraniums that hung over our neighbor’s garden wall and enjoy the tingling sensation it sparked in my mouth. In that smell was the thrill of a private enjoyment, the pleasure of being out in the world on my own, in that exciting stretch of public domain that lay between the familiarity of home and the ordered safety of school.
Our sense of smell matters; it plays a large but usually unnoticed role in everyday decisions. It determines, often against all reason, our attraction or aversion to others. The male essential oil is androsterone. It smells approximately of musk, sandalwood, and a nuance of urine. Experiments have shown women selecting only the chairs, telephones, and theater seats that had been presprayed with this masculine odor. A woman smells sweetest and is thus most attractive during ovulation, when the rise in her blood sugar level adds to the sweetness of her breath.
Your lover’s odor is certainly part of their attraction for you. That’s probably why you like to wear his shirt or use his pillow when he is away, and why he is always sniffing your hair and around your neck. But we wouldn’t want to go so far today as women did back in Elizabethan times. Then a woman would put a peeled apple under her arm for a while and offer the “love apple” to her beloved as a gift. Even Napoleon asked Josephine not to wash in the two weeks before they would next meet, so he could enjoy her natural perfume undiluted.
When we make love in the way Eve—who is the figure of the human soul—would have us make love, then not just our fingers but our toes and eyes and ears and every part and parcel of us is dancing to the thrill the laughter the tears the pathos the exquisite tenderness of being in such intimate communion with another human being. And because we have entered the world of time, we know that the first flushes of love can, in time, give way to the more sober work of forging an enduring relationship, which has its own pleasures, unknown to starry-eyed lovers. There is great pathos—a richness of feeling both poignant and passionate—in every transition from innocence to experience. What life wants of us, in all of our transitions, whatever they are, is that we feel it, all of it, whatever it is. Because the ability to be moved, to feel the bittersweetness of life in time, is the unique opportunity of being physical, one that an angel would give his wings for.
So our lovemaking does not have to be all thunder, lightning, and Beethoven to bring us the profound pleasure of being skin to skin in tender, vulnerable nakedness with another human being. What matters is that we are there, whatever is happening; that we can savor the scent of the other, follow the contours of their body with our fingers, let our eyes linger on them, and above all—greater than any technique, tantric or otherwise—offer them the gift of our presence: so simple yet so often elusive, the gift of just being there; being there, with and for the other, that is our deepest offering.
That is not so easy, though, when we confuse our fantasies and concepts about the physical world with the actual experience of it. To be in the world requires our whole body and mind. To be in the mind alone with our fantasies is to be in a world of our own and ultimately to be lonely. You might think, from the booming pornography business, that we live in the most sexually liberated culture of all time. But no, we live in a world of images; the erotic, on the other hand, is unmediated, directly relational.
Pornography is a caricature of the erotic; it can exist only by denying relationship. It demands anonymity. And without relationship there is no connectedness, nothing more than the tight circle of oneself. Instead of soul there is only sensation, which is only skin deep and for its own sake alone.
Pornography is the legacy of the religious fear of the flesh (of getting our hands dirty) and the split between body and soul. D. H. Lawrence was aware of this a long time ago. In Women in Love, Rupert Birkin says to Ursula:
“As it is, what you want is pornography—looking at yourself in mirrors, watching your naked animal actions in mirrors, so that you can have it all in your consciousness, make it all mental.”
“But do you really want sensuality?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, “that and nothing else, at this point. It is a fulfillment—the great dark knowledge you can’t have in your head—the dark, involuntary being. It is death to oneself—but it is the coming into being of another.”
The gustatory equivalent of pornography is fast food: quick, cheap, and convenient. But pleasure likes to take its time, especially when it comes to sex and a good meal. Slow is best when it’s a matter of taking pleasure. Where else but in Italy would a Slow Food movement begin, which it has, in response to the ubiquitous demand for junk food that has penetrated even those bastions of culinary refinement, Italy and France. For the Slow Food movement, everything is in the preparation (as any good lover will know). You choose the ingredients not only for their freshness but for their variety of taste, color, and texture; you steam your vegetables to preserve their life juices; you cook everything over a low heat; you serve the result not all in one course but in two, three, or several; and you flavor the whole meal with leisurely conversation and appreciation of the surroundings. If you are serving lunch, you do not have an appointment before late afternoon—just like in the old days, at least around the Mediterranean.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Seven Sins for a Life Worth Living by Roger Housden. Copyright © 2005 by Roger Housden. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.