n 1784 Immanuel Kant described the Age of Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” We often think about this age in terms of intellectual maturity: astonishing advances in philosophy, science, religion, and politics. The Enlightenment also, however, delved into obscure realms of the human condition. Among the more unusual were esoteric and occasionally bizarre innovations in the sensory realm.
Carolyn Purnell’s The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses, is an intelligent, off-beat examination of the 18th century’s interest in sensory functions. In particular, the history instructor and self-described “lover of bizarre facts” set out to examine the different ways that people perceived, observed, and used sensory experiences in different aspects of their lives.
“The dominant Enlightenment epistemology,” according to Purnell, “was called ‘sensationalism,’ with other terms being sensationism, sensualism, or sensism.” Several European philosophers, including John Locke, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, studied sensationalism in depth. Many of sensationalism’s followers believed that “humans acquire all knowledge through their senses…every human experience is mediated through the senses, and sensory experience is the main way we develop and exercise our mental faculties.”
This awakening of our senses led to some astonishing results, from sensible to senseless. For instance, Purnell wrote that if “Enlightenment philosophy was born out of a critical spirit, a love of ideas, and a fascination with self-creation, the café was its cradle.” Seventeenth-century France, where “there was no shortage of places where one could get a drink,” was the starting point in this trend. In 1647, regulations at drinking establishments like cabarets and taverns were established due to an increase in “violent behavior, gambling and prostitution.” But just as this was happening, “the king’s court was becoming increasingly infatuated with exotic liqueurs” as new international products “flooded the French market,” including caffeine and spices.
This led to the rise of the limonadiers, or “lemonaders.” People started flocking to these locations in search of flavored lemonades and drinks, candies, desserts, and liqueurs. Prices for these once-exotic items fell, making them affordable for a significant portion of society. “In a matter of decades,” Purnell notes, “the limonadiers became one of the richest guilds in France.”
There were also some mysterious concoctions being offered to the broader public. The citronella-based drink Water of Carmes, which supposedly “stimulated memory and got rid of unpleasant fantasies,” was popular for a time. Meanwhile, the Water of the Queen of Hungary was made of rosemary, a spice that some people firmly believed could prevent lethargy, sluggishness, and even paralysis.
A few relatively harmless drinks aside, the senses of the Enlightenment occasionally ventured into some strange territory. Take the brief rise of “prince poo.” During the time of Marie-Antoinette in France, wealthy individuals “spent the equivalent of thousands of dollars to wear the clothing the color of baby poop.” This grotesque fashion choice was done “as a way to show their support for the monarchy and to demonstrate how fashionable they could be.”
There was also the cat piano. As the story goes, King Philip II of Spain brought his father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a ridiculous contraption in 1549 “with twenty rather narrow boxes, each of which contained a cat” that would produce a “lamentable meowing” when a key was pressed. Purnell acknowledges that “there is no evidence that a cat piano ever existed,” and could have been “a long-lasting trope or conceit.” Yet, this feline fascination somehow had “real effects on musical theory and the development of novel instruments” during the Enlightenment. This ranges from the macabre (pig piano, donkey chorus) to the genuine article (ocular harpsichord, perfume organ, liquor organ). As the author suggests, if “cats could harmonize, then so could colors, sounds, taste, smells, textures—just about anything a person could imagine.” Hence, the cat piano had both the “power and ability to amuse” as well as the ability to entice the imagination in song and sound.
As culinary tastes began to change, gastronomy was also transformed out during the Enlightenment. Food became a spectacle of colors rather than bland white and brown-looking dishes at every meal. French master chef Marie-Antoine Carême “dispensed with overpowering aromas, which had traditionally hidden the foul odors of improperly stored foods,” and favored “simple and subtle scents like orange, rose and lemon.” Culinary manuals and newspapers “were available at affordable prices” to middle class families, “and eating out was a much more common practice than it was fifty years earlier.”
Carême also started the practice of using pièces montées, or “large, sculptural centerpieces made out of edible substances like sugar and marzipan that weren’t actually intended for consumption,” to make a statement. He argued that “the principal branch of architecture is confectionary” and, as Purnell pointed out, this enabled the dinner table to become “the place to display some of the finest arts of humankind.”
The Sensational Past also provides ample evidence that some well-known and/or lesser known figures who lived during the Enlightenment, including the philosophes, followed the logic of sensationalism to many strange destinations. Benjamin Franklin argued that “the most useful contribution to science…would be a drug that would make flatulence the sweet-smelling life of the party.” The Marquis de Sade “pushed sensationalist philosophy to its extremes by creating dark, fictional worlds in which responses to pleasure and pain formed the core of all human action.” Jean-Bernard Mérian felt that “blindness should be seen as a social boon rather than an impairment” and actually hoped that doctors would “develop a special blindfold to ensure that the children’s sight would be completely checked.”
In short, Purnell’s exquisite study of the Enlightenment shows that this important age was “just as much a social and cultural movement as an intellectual one.”