With the Aid of a Lorgnette

Frank Kermode

  • The Lure of the Sea by Alain Corbin, translated by Jocelyn Phelps
    Polity, 380 pp, £35.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 7456 0732 2
  • The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination by Alain Corbin, translated by Miriam Kochan
    Picador, 307 pp, £6.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 330 32930 8

Alain Corbin is a prolific new-style French historian, and these books are notable contributions to an interesting genre he describes as ‘the history of sensibilities’. The Foul and the Fragrant created something of a stir some years ago when the translation appeared in hardback, partly, I suppose, because no respected historian had ever before written so much, and so explicitly, about shit, which, as more sanitised historians had omitted to specify, occupied in former times the worry-space now claimed by nuclear waste. And by reason of its natural properties it had much greater power to compel contemporary attention.

Corbin’s documentation, collected from a huge variety of sources, the academic equivalents of Dickens’s dustheaps, is impressive as well as disgusting. Even the pages on perfumes tend to dwell on their excremental origins, though part of the story is the adoption, by persons of refined taste, of fragrances derived from flowers rather than civet cats. The malodorous effluvia of human ‘excretory ducts’ also came to be deprecated by the upper classes: these ducts are ‘the hairy area of the head, the armpits, intestines, bladder, spermatic passages, groins, the gaps between the toes’. Since the activity of these ducts was used as a measure of individual and racial vitality, doctors could at one time maintain that dirt was good for patients deficient in animal vigour. They condemned ‘the thoughtless use of water’, warning against ‘the luxury of cleanliness’, especially pernicious to women in childbirth. It is impossible to read this book without marvelling at the rich blend of credulity and chicanery that characterised medical practice, and at the docility with which patients submitted to manifestly absurd and even injurious ‘cures’. The doctors, we learn from Corbin’s new book, were just as crazed and just as authoritarian when they decided that the sea, like filth, had therapeutic possibilities, preferably to be exploited with the maximum degree of discomfort to the patient.

The Foul and the Fragrant has chapter headings like ‘Air and the Threat of the Putrid’, ‘Redefining the Intolerable’ and ‘The New Calculus of Olfactory Pleasure’, so one may expect few concessions to the hilarity that sometimes marks lay responses to disorderly ordure. Freud was unusual in devoting some attention to the relatively feeble olfactory powers of human beings, and philosophers, as Corbin remarks, have tended to ignore the sense of smell on the grounds that it has little to do with thinking, and smell, when strong, is associated with animality. Kant excluded it from aesthetics. Yet there were those who, shrewdly noting the proximity of the nose to the brain, emphasised its power to warn of ‘the presence of miasmas’, and to enable man alone to value the fragrance of flowers. Discursive contradictions of this kind are meat and drink, or offal and stagnant pools, to Corbin, and by describing the conflicts of social attitudes to olfaction he is carrying out a plan to give smell some of the authority so long usurped by seeing and hearing.

He chooses a time when there was a lot of it about. Corpses, tanneries, serried banks of latrines, vast and leaky urban cesspits, contributed their dangerous miasmas. The corridors and courtyards of Versailles were ‘full of urine and faeces’. Unlucky Montfaucon was ‘the epicentre of stench in Paris’. Corbin’s gusto as he piles it all on is an indication of his pride and pleasure in the historian’s craft, and of his hands-on approach to the subject. Like the doctors whose bizarreries he describes so fully, he has taught himself ‘to smell reflectively’. Much in the manner of their ancestors, the scientists of Swift’s Laputa, they devised experimental methods of collecting and analysing farts; with a philological ingenuity worthy of Molière’s physicians they invented the male aura seminalis, the smell of which stimulates women, while affirming that the sweaty garments of women enchanted men.

This professional interest in smells was natural enough in an age when the stink of hospitals, ships and prisons could knock you down as you passed by. But the pampered modern reader may feel a certain relief on arriving at the point, in the middle of the 18th century, when ‘odours began to be more keenly smelled’; thresholds of tolerance were lowered, and it became self-evident that something needed to be done about improving the situation. Corbin attributes this change in perception, in part at any rate, to the influence of scientific theory, but without suggesting that scientific theory was correct. Most of it was Laputan; but, as he remarks, historians of science, interested in success, have largely neglected the history of scientific error.

The demands for improvement came not from the masses, who long remained indifferent to the quality of their air, uninhibitedly doing their shopping or churchgoing in the foetid atmosphere of rotting bodies. But their betters were developing a ‘new sensibility’, so the commonplace horror of cesspool emptying was regulated, and there were other improvements initiated by the authorities. The best people used more delicate scents in their rooms and on their bodies; and cautious washing with soap was now recommended, although wholesale bathing was still under suspicion. Of course working people did not need to wash, as sweat cleansed their pores. No doubt human beings still made their personal contributions to the general miasma, but city parks were provided for their inoffensive release.

Finding an enlarged market, parfumiers vied to make their scents ever more sensually subtle, and their customers grew ever more susceptible. So, in sympathy, does Professor Corbin, who maintains that a woman smelling a flower wears the facial expression appropriate to lovemaking, and that prolonged indulgence could even result in orgasm. Alexander Pope had thought it providential that humans were not so made that ‘sweet effluvia darting through the brain’ could cause them to ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain’, but the advance of civilisation was proving him naive.

However, the main impulse in this modified smell discourse (as one might now be encouraged to put it) was towards the practice of deodorisation, both of the body and the city. As to the latter, Corbin knows all about new systems of ventilation (‘powder was exploded inside the church of Saint-Etienne at Dijon to drive out the stench of corpses’), individual beds and tombs were newly in demand, hospitals henceforth required patients to use the privies provided. Later, utilitarian considerations advanced the cause, and schemes were devised for the commercial exploitation of excrement and corpses. Somehow this splendid idea of exposing excrement to the play of market forces, possibly of privatising privies, has dropped out of the discourse of democratic capitalism.

The introduction of chlorine had revolutionary effects, and greatly speeded progress towards ‘the bourgeois control of the sense of smell’. That the poor were unable to join in simply emphasised their difference and their undesirability; the ‘secretions of poverty’ were blamed for the cholera epidemic of 1832, which had several very distinguished non-poor victims, including Hegel.

Progress was still only by fits and starts, and by no means uniform across the whole spectrum of smells. The upper classes were more tolerant of farting than of smoking, about which there was medical as well as class-based disagreement; for some regarded tobacco as a disinfectant, while others, who, as things turned out, have had a more numerous progeny, thought it the origin ‘of every disorder’. Despite these disagreements progress was undoubtedly in progress. It was reflected in domestic architecture and in innumerable enactments controlling public health. A French law of 1848 required that every citizen should have 14 cubic metres of fresh air. As in so much else, the English led the field in the provision of taps and water closets. Baths and bidets slowly caught on. Meanwhile the pleasures of olfaction reached the heights of super-refinement we associate with Huysmans. Yet the crowd remained obstinately ‘loyal to filth’.

Corbin enjoys reporting that medical nonsense continued to flourish as these benefits accrued. At bottom the doctors had of course got it right, bad smells are correctly associated with bad health; but the reasons they gave for the connection were usually wrong, and the cures they proposed were wrong almost always. It took a Pasteur to set them on the right track.

Stench was a wonderful idea for a book, and Corbin carries it out with tact as well as zest. Could he keep it up when dealing with the relatively odourless ocean? In fact he does so admirably, digging in new dustheaps of information and detecting at the sea’s edge sensual excitements and provocations almost equal to those of the scented boudoir.

The French title of the book is Le Territoire du vide: L’Occident et le désir du rivage (1750-1840) and the English title, at once vague and ‘popular’, somewhat belies the original; Corbin’s method and manner are appropriate to serious history. The book has a continuous argument, its exposition diversified by hundreds of illustrative citations and supported by a large body of notes. The detail is not always absolutely correct; for example, Corbin situates the Giants’ Causeway in Wales, quotes a remark supposed to have been made by Francis Bacon years after he was dead, and claims that King Lear tried to throw himself off the cliff at Dover. Such are the problems that arise in work of broader scope; the smells, good and bad, of the earlier book are mostly French, but the désir du rivage was to a great extent of English origin and nurture. Incidentally, I hope and believe he is wrong in stating that the phenomenon of marine phosphorescence no longer occurs; it was still around and beautiful in my seagoing days in the Forties and I can’t think why it should have stopped.

The book begins with a section called in English ‘Unconsciousness and the First Premises of Desire’, and it is worth pointing out that this is a translation of ‘L’ignorance et les balbutiements du désir’; the translation is often odd, sometimes extremely literal (‘en tout cas’ = ‘in every case’) and sometimes perverse. When women began to bathe in the sea at Brighton, we are told, men lined the promenade watching them through lorgnettes. This makes a pleasant enough picture, as of a row of Regency gallants all looking like the archetypal cover picture of the New Yorker and staring lasciviously out to sea, but of course the usual translation would be ‘opera glasses’ or ‘binoculars’ – the translator uses ‘field-glasses’ in another passage – though OED does just about endorse lorgnettes. Sometimes the original, itself somewhat pretentious on occasion, is distorted into scholarly babble: the North ‘was precisely where a new type of recourse took shape, fanned by the temptation to return sincerely to nature’ renders ‘c’est au nord que se dessine un nouveau recours, que gonfle la tentation du retour à l’authentique nature.’ Where the French speaks of the importance to the ruling classes of their genetic capital (‘leur capital génétique’) the English says they were concerned about ‘the valve of their genes’, and even if there’s a misprint here the interesting notion of genetic capital is obscured. The translator also ventures some rather inappropriate colloquialisms – ‘the flipside of enlightened despotism’ (‘l’envers’) – and is fond of the verb ‘to rehash’, which suits rather ill with Corbin’s lively but thoroughly academic manner. In Palermo the orchestra at the Marina played popular music for the lower classes until 6 p.m. and then played again, presumably selecting more elegant music, for the quality. The translation says the orchestra ‘tuned up’ for the better class of people, with an unwanted implication that they hadn’t bothered to play in tune for hoi polloi; the French merely says it ‘joue alors pour les grands’. It hardly matters that ‘minuscule’ is invariably misspelt, or that ‘vasciliate’ [sic] is not a good translation of ‘osciller’. But many little botches of this sort amount to a considerable distortion of the whole.

Still, bumpy and awkward as the translation often is, the virtues of the book shine through. Once again Corbin scores by using material other historians neglect: ‘a prolific literature including medical case-studies, travel accounts and descriptions of cure stays [séjours thérapeutiques], abundant correspondence and constant word-of-mouth publicity all testify to the intense appeal of the seaside.’ In a last word on method he attacks what he calls ‘Braudelian temporality’. The need, he feels, is to study the ways in which people of the chosen epoch reinterpreted ancient representations and incorporated them in a new ensemble of their own. So we begin with an ancient ‘system’ that regarded the sea as the consequence of the Flood, a repulsive indication of the partial ruin of the world (there was no sea in Eden, and Revelation promises that there won’t be one after Apocalypse). The shore was where the sea was providentially halted In Classical literature the sea was usually very treacherous, as Horace and Lucretius attest, and of course Odysseus took a long time to get home because of its enmity. It was also, rather vaguely, full of monsters. Ages elapsed before people began to think of it as other than a hostile void, something that made them sick if they ventured on to it.

Corbin attributes the change of view partly to the rise of natural theology and the discrediting of Genesis. The sea, no longer a vide, could now be a spectacle: towns like Rotterdam, with their blend of city, sea and countryside, as it were domesticated the alien element, and the bristling masts meant money as well as adventure. Great navies contested control of the sea, and painters celebrated its splendours. Their seaside scenes foreshadowed the later cult of the beach as a place of pleasure.

Before the ‘invention’ of the seaside holiday there was a long therapeutic prelude, and doctors flourished on the sea’s edge. There they cured, among other things, melancholia and the spleen; and the cure could be nasty. Medical wisdom emphasised the value of shock, so bathing took place in the winter months, and preferably in cold northern waters. Since the fear of drowning was an essential part of the cure the patients, whether suffering from hypochondria or nymphomania, were violently thrown in. Women and children and old folks were spared to the extent of being allowed into water at the tepid, unmanly temperature of 10° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit). But that was the only concession to frailty. The bathing attendants ‘would plunge female patients into the water just as the wave broke, taking care to hold their heads down so as to increase the impression of suffocation’: this should have been good for a temporary remission of nymphomania. However, Fanny Burney, staying at Brighton, found it pleasant and stimulating to bathe at dawn (20 November 1782). And Corbin suggests that the whole business became rather sexy: ‘the mere contact of a bare foot on the sand was already a sensual invitation and a barely conscious substitute for masturbation,’ he says, though we are not told, in any of the very numerous notes, where this information comes from. He observes other stimuli – there were half-clad women around to be leered at through one’s lorgnette – and explains that ‘the virile exaltation ... a man experienced just before jumping into the water was like that of an erection.’

All this hyperaesthesia was manipulated by the doctors, who professed to know the exact number of immersions necessary for a cure of whatever it was. The bathers, believing them, carefully counted their dips, ‘just as others count their orgasms’, and yet others their rosaries. Scores were competitively and boastfully advertised, as by boys at conkers.

The virtues of sea air and sea water were now well established. Corbin devotes several pages to a Richard Townley, who in 1789 went to the Isle of Man for his health. He explored the island Crusoe-fashion, and without bathing himself commended its splendid beaches. This reminded me of the bathing machines I observed, though without lorgnette, in my Manx childhood. Horses towed them a few yards into the water, and female bathers, shrieking faintly, descended their steps into the ocean. Of course by that time Douglas – modelled on Blackpool as Blackpool was modelled on Brighton, but having the advantage, or disadvantage, that you had to undergo a rather thrilling sea voyage to get there – was already a proletarian resort; but there was a residual beach decorum, soon to be abandoned, as it may have been already by the ruder masses elsewhere.

Corbin somehow missed those extraordinary Victorian photographs of beach behaviour, taken by F.M. Sutcliffe and by Paul Martin, with his camera concealed in a bag. They might have helped him to illustrate what went on after the seaside holiday was invented by the toffs, and then democratised. No doubt there are lots of scenes in Victorian novels which give an idea of the mixture of manners on the beaches; there is one in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.

Meanwhile the ocean offered to some images of the fashionable sublime, and to others, with whom Corbin amiably sympathises, erotic satisfaction (‘the dream of vanishing into the waves like an act of slow penetration’). The beach was now both an ‘erotic site’ and a mothering one, at any rate for francophones (‘la mère’ = ‘la mer’). Again one may wonder how the professor knows all these things, but for the most part evidence is abundantly provided, as for the peculiar pleasure to be had from watching sailors drowning as their ships sank near the shore. This gratification might be supplied by paintings, but with a bit of luck a holidaymaker might be in just the right place to enjoy the real thing, perhaps with the aid of a lorgnette. The chance of a good wreck within view of the beach was regarded as ‘one of the tourist attractions of a coast’. Corbin mentions several shipwrecks known to have given keen pleasure at Ostend and Weymouth.

So the beach moved out of the therapeutic into the hedonist mode. The move was led by the aristocracy or ‘les grands’ as Corbin calls them, but the people soon followed, and to spend some time at the seaside became a necessary part of even the millworker’s life. The phenomenon of the English ‘wakes’ he doesn’t discuss, yet they are an interesting bit of industrial history: whole populations transferred themselves homogeneously to crowded beaches and lodgings with postcard landladies, their factories closed behind them – surely one of those ‘practices’ which arise from the altering ‘discourse’ of an epoch, though perhaps not in France.

As the author knows well, there are many aspects of his topic that he has not been able to consider: the importance, for example, of new forms of transport, the trains and boats that brought the masses to their favourite beaches, which have in turn lost favour because the airlines can get them to those Mediterranean plages – which, as we learn from this book, were in the early days of the seaside holiday despised as less bracing than the colder waters of the North. He may well think he has done enough for the moment, even if the sea, despite his best efforts, proves slightly less thrilling than the filth of the earlier book.

The Lure of the Sea made me consider the elements of my own marine discourse, which seems to contain various vestiges of the historical process: a touch of sublimity, a recognition of amplitude, a vague sense of the vide left over from cruising for weeks in an apparently shoreless Pacific; a soupçon of voyeurism; a childhood familiarity with sand and seaweed, tide and storm; above all, a sense of being both at home with it and rather frightened by it. Not very sexy, I’m afraid, but even the Flying Dutchman had his Senta, and M. Corbin is sure there are similar consolations for all who go down to the sea in bathing machines and have their business on the edge of great waters.