The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Physiology of Taste.

Meditation First.

The Senses.

The senses are the organs by which man places himself in connexion with exterior objects.

Number of the Senses.

1. They are at least six —

Sight, which embraces space, and tells us by means of light, of the existence and of the colors of the bodies around us.

Hearing, which, by the motion of the air, informs us of the motion of sounding or vibrating bodies.

Scent, by means of which we are made aware of the odors bodies possess.

Taste, which enables us to distinguish all that has a flavor from that which is insipid.

Touch informs us of the consistency and resistance of bodies.

The last is genesiac or physical love, which attracts the sexes to each other, and the object of which is the reproduction of the species.

It is astonishing that, almost to the days of Buffon, so important a sense was misunderstood, and was confounded with the touch.

Yet the sensation of which it is the seat, has nothing in common with touch; it resides in an apparatus as complete as the mouth or the eyes, and what is singular is that each sex has all that is needed to experience the sensation; it is necessary that the two should be united to reach nature’s object. If the TASTE, the object of which is the preservation of the individual, be incontestibly a sense, the same title must indubitably be preserved on the organs destined to the preservation of the species.

Let us then assign to the genesiac the sensual place which cannot be refused to it, and let us leave to posterity the assignment of its peculiar rank.

Action of the Senses.

If we were permitted, even in imagination, to refer to the first moments of the existence of the human race, we would believe that the first sensations were direct; that is to say that all saw confusedly and indirectly, smelled without care, ate without tasting, etc.

The centre of all these sensations, however, being the soul, the sensual attribute of humanity and active cause of perfectibility, they are reflected, compared, and judged by it; the other senses then come to the assistance of each other, for the utility and well-being of the sensitive; one or individual.

Thus touch rectifies the errors of sight; sound, by means of articulate speech, becomes the interpreter of every sentiment; taste is aided by sight and smell; hearing compares sounds, appreciates distance; and the genesiac sense takes possession of the organs of all the senses.

The torrent of centuries rolling over the human race, has continually brought new perfections, the cause of which, ever active though unseen, is found in the demands made by our senses, which always in their turns demand to be occupied.

Sight thus gave birth to painting, to sculpture, and to spectacles of every kind.

Sound, to melody, harmony, to the dance, and to music in all its branches, and means of execution.

Smell, to the discovery, manufacture and use of perfumes.

Taste, to the production, choice and preparation of all that is used for food.

Touch, to all art, trades and occupations.

The genesiac sense, to all which prepares or embellishes the reunion of senses, and, subsequently to the days of Francois I., to romantic love, to coquetry, which originated in France and obtained its name there, and from which the elite of the world, collected in the capital of the universe, take their lessons every day.

This proposition, strange as it seems, is very susceptible of demonstration; we cannot express with clearness in any ancient language, ideas about these three great motives of actual society.

I had written a dialogue on this subject, but suppressed it for the purpose of permitting the reader, each in his own way, to think of the matter for himself. There is enough to occupy the mind and display intelligence and erudition during a whole evening.

We said above, that the genesiac sense took possession of the organs of all the others; the influence it has exerted over all sciences is not less. When we look closer, we will find that all that is most delicate and ingenious is due to the desire, to hope, or to gratitude, in connexion with the union of the sexes.

Such is, indeed, the genealogy of the senses, even the most abstract ones, all being the immediate result of continuous efforts made to gratify our senses.

Perfectness of the Senses.

These senses, our favorites, are far from being perfect, and I will not pause to prove it. I will only observe, that that ethereal sense — sight, and touch, which is at the other extremity of the scale, have from time acquired a very remarkable additional power.

By means of spectacles the eye, so to say, escapes from the decay of age, which troubles almost all the other organs.

The telescope has discovered stars hitherto unknown and inaccessible to all our means of mensuration; it has penetrated distances so great, that luminous and necessarily immense bodies present themselves to us only like nebulous and almost imperceptible spots.

The microscope has made us acquainted with the interior configuration of bodies; or has shown the existence of a vegetation and of plants, the existence of which we were ignorant of.

Animals a hundred thousand times smaller than any visible with the naked eye have been discovered; these animalculae, however, move, feed and multiply, establishing the existence of organs of inconceivable tenuity.

Mechanics have multiplied our power; man has executed all that he could conceive of, and has moved weights nature made inaccessible to his weakness.

By means of arms and of the lever, man has conquered all nature; he has subjected it to his pleasure, wants and caprices. He has overturned its surfaces, and a feeble biped has become king of creation.

Sight and touch, being thus increased in capacity, might belong to some species far superior to man; or rather the human species would be far different had all the senses been thus improved.

We must in the meantime remark, that if touch has acquired a great development as a muscular power, civilization has done almost nothing for it as an organ of sensation. We must, however, despair of nothing, but remember that the human race is yet young, and that only after a long series of years can the senses aggrandise their domain.

For instance. Harmony was only discovered about four centuries ago, and that celestial science is to sound what painting is to colors.

Certainly, the ancients used to sing and accompany themselves in unison. Their knowledge, however, ended there. They knew neither how to decompose sounds, nor to appreciate their relations. *

[* We are aware that the contrary has been maintained; the idea though cannot be supported. Had the ancients been acquainted with harmony, their writings would have preserved some precise notion on the matter, instead of a few obscure phrases, which may be tortured to mean anything. Besides, we cannot follow the birth and progress of harmony in the monuments left to us; this obligation we owe to the Arabs, who made us a present of the organ, which produces at one time many continuous sounds, and thus created harmony.]

Tone was only reduced to system, and accords measured in the fifteenth century. Only then it was used to sustain the voice and to reinforce the expression of sentiments.

This discovery, made at so late a day, yet so natural, doubled the hearing, and has shown the existence of two somewhat independent faculties, one of which receives sound and the other appreciates resonance.

The German Doctors say that persons sensible of harmony have one sense more than others.

Of those persons to whom music is but a confused mass of sounds, we may remark that almost all sing false. We are forced to think that they have the auditory apparatus so made, as to receive but brief and short undulation, or that the two ears not being on the same diapason, the difference in length and sensibility of these constituent parts, causes them to transmit to the brain only an obscure and undetermined sensation, like two instruments played in neither the same key nor the same measure, and which can produce no continuous melody.

The centuries last passed have also given the taste important extension; the discovery of sugar, and its different preparations, of alcoholic liquors, of wine, ices, vanilla, tea and coffee, have given us flavors hitherto unknown.

Who knows if touch will not have its day, and if some fortuitous circumstance will not open to us thence some new enjoyments? This is especially probable as tactile sensitiveness exists every where in the body, and consequently can every where be excited.

We have seen that physical love has taken possession of all the sciences. In this respect it acts with its habitual tyranny.

The taste is a more prudent measure but not less active faculty. Taste, we say, has accomplished the same thing, with a slowness which ensures its success.

Elsewhere we will consider the march. We may, however, observe, that he who has enjoyed a sumptuous banquet in a hall decked with flowers, mirrors, paintings, and statues, embalmed in perfume, enriched with pretty women, filled with delicious harmony, will not require any great effort of thought to satisfy himself that all sciences have been put in requisition to exalt and to enhance the pleasures of taste.

Object of the Action of the Senses.

Let us now glance at the system of our senses, considered together, and we will see that the Author of creation had two objects, one of which is the consequence of the other — the preservation of the individual and the duration of the species.

Such is the destiny of man, considered as a sensitive being; all his actions have reference to this double purpose.

The eye perceives external objects, reveals the wonders by which a man is surrounded, and tells him he is a portion of the great whole.

Hearing perceives sounds, not only as an agreeable sensation, but as warnings of the movement of bodies likely to endanger us.

The sense of touch watches to warn us by pain of any immediate lesion.

That faithful servant the hand has prepared his defence, assured his steps, but has from instinct seized objects it thought needed to repair losses caused by the use of life.

The sense of smell explores; deleterious substances almost always have an unpleasant smell.

The taste decides; the teeth are put in action, the tongue unites with the palate in tasting, and the stomach soon commences the process of assimilation.

In this state a strange languor is perceived, objects seem discolored, the body bends, the eyes close, all disappears, and the senses are in absolute repose.

When he awakes man sees that nothing around him has changed, a secret fire ferments in his bosom, a new organ is developed. He feels that he wishes to divide his existence.

This active unquiet and imperious sentiment is common to both sexes. It attracts them together and unites them, and when the germ of a new being is fecundated, the individuals can sleep in peace.

They have fulfilled the holiest of their duties by assuring the duration of the species. *

[* Buffon describes, with all the charms of the most brilliant eloquence, the first moments of Eve’s existence. Called on to describe almost the same subject, we have drawn but one feature. The reader will complete the picture.]

Such are the general and philosophical principles I wished to place before my readers, to lead them naturally to the examination of the organ of taste.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31