Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses

by Isabel Allende

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Last Updated on May 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1110

Aesthetics
Allende often discusses the concept of physical beauty in her writing, sometimes to emphasize its importance in visual attractiveness, other times to explore the social and cultural differences in what one considers beautiful. In her postscript to several erotic tales of yore, the author laments the modern fascination with the slim and bony female body, recalling the "friendlier" times when a woman's curves were a great feminine asset to her beauty and not a disease called cellulite. However, she adds, the definition of what is erotic is different for each person; her story "Colomba in the Nature" features a man's lust after an obese woman.

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In both sex and food, the aesthetic appeal is as crucial for evoking the appetite as any entreaty directed toward the other senses. In the chapter "At First Sight," the author reveals the secret seduction of the flesh according to her grandfather: "Temptation does not lie in nakedness ... but in the transparent or slinky." Allende claims that partial clothing is provocative and mysterious because it reveals a lot, but excites the spectator's imagination by what it doesn't show. Other bodily adornments used to attract potential lovers include "makeup, hairstyling, jewels, tattoos, and even decorative scars." Also, sexual aesthetics depend on the element of experimentation and surprise: in the chapter "The Spice Is in Variety," the author discusses various decorations used for erotic purposes, especially those used to "sensualize" the setting like Cupid-shaped candles, colorful goblets, satin tablecloths, and evocative plates.

As for the aesthetic appeal of food, Allende presents her mother ("who primps over her table as much as her own attire") as a true culinary artist, always managing to present a dish in an appetizing way and tastefully decorated. According to the author, aphrodisiac meals gather much power from "the association between the shapes and colors of food and those of the body." Allende gives an example of suggestive dishes such as "long, firm asparagus served with two new potatoes at the base of the stem, or two peach halves with raspberry nipples in crème Chantilly."

Flesh vs. Spirit
In her exploration of the relationship between the mind and the body in eroticism and cuisine, Allende discusses the Judeo-Christian division of "the individual into body and soul, and love into profane and divine" as a reason for the shunning of culinary and sensual pleasure in Western culture. After defining aphrodisiacs as "the bridge between gluttony and lust," the author argues that Christian condemnation of both aphrodisiacs and sensuality in general comes from the belief that "the road to gluttony leads straight to lust and, if traveled a little farther, to the loss of one's soul." According to her classification, Lutherans, Calvinists, and "other aspirants to Christian perfection" therefore deny themselves culinary pleasures. Catholics, however, "purified by confession, free to go and sin again," are unhindered in their enjoyment of the delicatessen. Allende cites the expression "a cardinal's tidbit," used to describe something delicious, as support for her claim.

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The author further discusses the Christian division between the carnal and the spiritual during the Middle Ages, when any sensual enjoyment was labeled evil and the Church preached that suffering in this life was the only certain way of achieving a pleasurable eternity. Allende cites the example of those who found virtue and got a title of sainthood in exercises of extreme self-deprivation, equivalent to physical torture.

On the other hand, the author lists some cultures that have embraced the concepts of body and soul as unified in the human pursuit of fulfillment, seen as consisting of both sensual and spiritual elevation. Aphrodite contains several references to the Tantric meditation based on sexual ecstasy, the Tibetan practice in which copulation serves as spiritual exercise, and certain Taoist monks who preached that erotic energy is a path to illumination of the soul.

Allende also reflects on the effects of the mind-body binary in the contemporary culture, in which the art of experiencing sensual pleasure has been lost. One example from the author's neighborhood in California is a "recent rash of workshops for teaching what any orangutan knows without instruction: touching oneself and touching others."

Latin American Vanguard
Under Spanish rule, the intellectual centers of Latin America were Lima and Mexico City. These two cities had to share intellectual capital with newly formed independent nations when the Spanish Empire ended. Those countries that encouraged literature as part of nation-building, like Chile, leapt to the fore while nations like Paraguay became backwaters. Due to this encouragement, it is not surprising that when a unique Latin American voice began to emerge around World War I, Chileans would play a major role. This developmental period is called the Vanguard.

Chile's Gabriela Mistral was a member of the Vanguard. She followed the example of Peru's Cesar Vallejo and concerned herself with the oppressed. She became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize when it was awarded to her in 1945. Fellow Chilean Pablo Neruda would follow her in 1971. Neruda was also sociopolitically oriented but he is better known now for his love poems beginning in 1924 with Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.

El Boom
During the 1960s, the literature of Latin America experienced the height of "El Boom," a revolution that broke away from the nineteenth-century tradition and introduced the modern Latin novel. The result was magic realism, a literary movement that addressed social issues but kept them distorted and veiled in "magical" symbolism. Its founder, Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, was the first to use the Latin American folk tradition of myth and fantasy to describe the political and historical problems of his day. Other writers of magic realism include the Brazilian Jorge Amado, the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Argentinians Julio Cortazar and Jorge Luis Borges. The Garcia Marquez generation focuses on the epic and heroic universal "Truths."

One of the first successful female novelists from Latin America, Allende is often included among these authors as a magic realist (her 1982 debut, The House of Spirits, is often compared to Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude). However, some critics see her work as a subversion and rejection of the magic realist tradition, since she addresses current issues directly and makes clear references to contemporary political events in her work. Also, Allende's writing approach is often labeled extremely feminine, due to the author's use of the woman's point of view and depiction of the female experience. This literary style, critics argue, places her work in the postmodern opus of personal, down-to-earth, body- and relationship-related works, such as the novels of Diamela Eltit, Albalucia Angel, and Sylvia Molloy, the Latin American female novelists conscious of feminism and post-structuralism.

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