WHIMS AND PHILOSOPHIES OF A SENSUIST: Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses

NaturalHistorySensesCoverA Natural History of the Senses
By Diane Ackerman
Vintage Books, 1991.
331 pages, $18.95

The mere sight of cobalt blue glass pebbles can not only elicit a memory of a jar’s mesmerizing translucency in the sunlight, but also the tingly eucalyptus scent its cleansing cream left on my mother’s soft cheek.

Diane Ackerman’s best-seller A Natural History of the Senses explores such occurrences with the sharp observations of a scholar and the melodic prose of a poet. She identifies with the term ‘sensuist as a person who “rejoices in the sensory experiences” in her pursuit to understand “the sensory idioms we use to speak of the world”. The book is skillfully structured in six evocative parts: smell, touch, taste, hearing, vision, and synesthesia. The writer claims that “both science and art have a habit of waking us up, turning on all the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention”! After its release in 1990, this book rightfully received much acclaim for Ackerman’s innovative combination of both disciplines. She melds the complexities of popular science with the splendours of art —in her study of the five senses— as perfumer Sophia Grosjman blends the essences of roses and musk to create iconic fragrances.

Her diverse experiences and observations —such as massaging babies in a Miami preemie ward, taking flying lesson in upstate New York, and tagging monarch butterflies in the Californian coast— help her gain unique insights about the sensations that shape our world. Ackerman knows her subject thoroughly. She agrees with zoologist Desmond Morris’ theory on the origins of French kissing stemming from the “ancient comfort of parental mouth-feeding”. She stands behind the countershading theory of naturalist Abbott Thayer who was passionate about the camouflage of animals. She even appreciates Epicurus’ indulgence in the lavish lifestyle of wealthy Romans. Such wide-reaching anecdotes abound in this work.

The writer has an excellent grasp of prose, which she infuses with luscious metaphors and language. For instance, she describes the sense of smell as “[detonating] softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.” Such eloquence is the mark of a seasoned poet. Before the publication of this book, Ackerman had previously written four books of poetry, including Lady Faustus. She also shares her own poem entitled Whales Songs, in which the “sleek black troubadours” of the sea “beat against the wailing wall of water”. One is swayed by the lull of her words like a babe softly rocked in her mother’s arms.

Ackerman has a tendency to go off on a tangent during a discourse. Her digressions are usually fluid and pertinent, like mentioning the lines on an ape’s hand and the Catholics’ view of stigmata when recounting a palm reading at a psychics’ convention. She also tends to enumerate many examples while making a point. For instance, she explains the countless ways ‘nice girls’ like her kissed in the sixties, from kissing “torridly, with tongues like hot pokers” to kissing their “pillows at night, pretending they were mates”. Tangents are rampant and examples are abundant among the pages of this book. This quirk may turn off some readers, especially those of the left-brained variety.

That said, A Natural History of the Senses should not be read in one sitting, but rather savoured and spread over a lingering stretch of time. This book has wide appeal and should be a staple on the bookshelf of people who are sensuists at heart. Its pages should be revisited time after time to help keep the senses finely tuned.