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Touchy-Feelie

APHRODITE: A Memoir of the Senses.\o7 By Isabel Allende (HarperCollins: 320 pp., $26)\f7

April 26, 1998|DIANE ACKERMAN | Diane Ackerman is the author of many books about nature and human nature, including "A Natural History of the Senses," "A Natural History of Love" and, most recently, "A Slender Thread," a work of nonfiction, and "I Praise My Destroyer," a work of poetry

We live on the leash of our senses. The only way we can know the world is through our senses. So, in one way, they imprison us, but in another they free us because they allow us to extend our bodies and ideas through time and space. Yet most of us take our senses for granted. We're goal-oriented; we're problem-solvers--indeed, those are two of our finest attributes. But we very often overlook the textures and processes of life. We listen to music, which we relish, but we don't stop to think about why. We enjoy a spontaneous hug from a loved one, but we don't realize the important biological role that touch plays in our lives. We relish perfume but overlook the nearly invisible scent of loved ones and often forget what a powerful role smell plays in our fondest memories. We're intoxicated by beauty but rarely ask why.

At a time of political upheaval, we sometimes feel terribly different from people in other cultures. We think we have little in common with them. Actually, our senses unite us, not just across continents but across history, across time. We are intimately related--we have essential things in common--with people everywhere and everywhen. To really have a full "sense" of life, we need to understand how our senses work--their purpose, range and richness--and think about how they reveal the world to us and fill us with endless pleasures. Many of life's mysteries are understandable, at times surprising, and always an adventure, always a rich journey through a little-known kingdom.

I wrote "A Natural History of the Senses" over five fascinating years, in the playful tumult of a full-blown obsession, during which I longed to celebrate and understand the sensory experience of being alive. Imagine my delight when the book finally appeared and grew in popularity and readers began sending me their smell memories. A decade later, they still do. Why does "A Natural History of the Senses" speak intimately to so many people? I presume it's partly because of the puritanical era in which we live, which is often at war with our true nature, with what is most comfortable, natural, replenishing and precious to us. Not precious just psychologically but at the level of cell and bone.

Similar books have appeared on the heels of mine, some imitating it, some pursuing the science more, some focusing on one sense or another. The latest is Isabel Allende's "Aphrodite: a Memoir of the Senses," in which she combines facts, reminiscence and recipes. Much of the book is derivative and on too many occasions just factually wrong. As one of the very few authors briefly cited (although she misspells my name), I find it disturbing when, early on, she announces: "Participating passively were some fifty authors whose texts I consulted without asking their permission and whom I have no intention of mentioning, because bibliographies are a bore. Copying one author is plagiarism; copying many is research." There is no honest way to write this sort of research book (which offers a lot of facts about the senses) without crediting many of the authors and scientists whose hard work she is otherwise presenting as her own.

An important drawback of "copying many" is that it leads to misunderstandings and mistakes. Here are two examples of many I noticed: She explains that humans are the only mammals "capable of making love face to face. . . . All other creatures perform the act rapidly, and from the rear, thus enabling the female to make a fast escape should danger arise." Not true. Many other mammals (such as the bonobos) can have sex face to face and in many positions other than from the rear (I've seen whales having sex when the female is almost upside down and the male is right-side-up beside her). She says ". . . the bond between food and sex has been constant in all cultures. We do not know whether it works that way among animals." She may not have bothered to find out but, as countless scientists and others have known for a very long time, courtship feeding is widespread throughout the animal kingdom, and explanations of how and why it happens are fun and fascinating and say a lot about our own human behaviors.

And what are we to make of such sexist remarks as: "A man who cooks is sexy, a woman isn't; maybe it's too reminiscent of domestic archetypes." Or: "Unlike men, who think only of the objective, we women are inclined toward rituals and processes." Men aren't inclined toward rituals? How about priests, shamans, martial-arts devotees, gardeners, baseball players, the pope? Or such a statement as this: "Before the triumph of Christianity in Europe, there was no such thing as the concept of love for one's neighbor." Jews, Buddhists, Muslims--or indeed, atheists and agnostics--aren't capable of compassion and altruism because they're not Christian?

In the second half of "Aphrodite," Allende is more persuasive as she tells stories about a gigolo she met in an airport, considers the appeal of baguettes and entertainingly explores her private storehouse of food and romantic memories. The book is lavishly produced, well translated by Margaret Sayers Peden and includes a fun compendium of aphrodisiac recipes--such as Reconciliation Soup--provided by her mother, Panchita Llona.

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