The Oysters of Locmariaquer
by Eleanor Clark. drawings by Leonid
Pantheon, 203 pp., $4.95
Now that we have accepted our senses again as the broad and winding path to life itself, we still puzzle our poor heads over which ones to trust and which to dismiss. Just how much does seeing, for instance, penetrate our sensuous and moral universe? Or how much do things merely viewed block us forever short of a complete experience of the object? A few neo-Freudian critic-philosophers worry seriously over it. They tell us that the faculty of vision has usurped our sensory system, because it equips us to discriminate “that thing out there.” Painting refines the visual organs and tends to eliminate the need to hold and to heft. We look only, and refrain from touching. Hearing follows close behind sight as the other take-over faculty. The rest of our senses are going to rack and ruin, and we should all look to our bodies before we lose them. It’s something to think about.
Yet there are signals up that indicate a radically different weather. A recent and authoritative scientific monograph asserts that our sense of smell remains as keen as that of a hunting dog and needs only to be brought down near the scent to develop its latent powers. The appeal of the palate was never steadier if we judge by the count of cookbook titles rather than by the dishes that reach the table in the neighborhood Chez Joe’s. And I cannot help interpreting the flag-waving sexuality that has invaded several layers of our post-capitalist culture as a limited investigation of the sense of touch. Who knows? Perhaps it is even becoming stylish again to make love in the dark.
In the midst of this widespread and confused reaffirmation of the sensuous world, I am particularly grateful for two recent creations. One is the magnificent eating sequence in the film Tom Jones. The gusto with which they sniff, suck, tease, bite, squash, gulp, slurp, and spew a dozen succulent courses tells us all we need to know of the pleasure Tom and his light-o’-love hope to find in one another’s bodies. The other is a sturdy, unconventional piece of writing by Eleanor Clark, The Oysters of Locmariaquer. In both cases we must come prepared to commit all our senses—considerably more than five, that is.
Miss Clark’s book belongs to a class of one; her own Rome and a Villa approaches as close as any other but does not really compare. There is no conveniently labeled genre into which it fits. Because of its structure, The Oysters of Locmariaquer calls to mind a quickly braided multi-colored rope in which the strands enmesh and enfold and enhance one another in perpetual reappearance. Not twisted, mind you. This is the genuine article: three strands plaited by loving hands. First, the history, biology, ecology, culture, and dégustation of the Ostrea edulis or “flat” oyster. It was consumed in such great quantities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that its natural beds nearly disappeared along …