How often do we feel truly alive? We spend one third of our lives asleep. As adults, most of our waking time is devoted to activities where we are concentrating on a task to be achieved: paid employment, commuting to work, household chores, food shopping, getting dressed, brushing teeth, making sandwiches, and remembering to take keys with us when we step out of the front door. We can spend hours, days or even weeks without pausing in our busyness to appreciate the vivid experience of being a living, thinking, feeling animal.
The French anthropologist Françoise Héritier was prompted to write The sweetness of life when she received a postcard from a friend of hers, a hard-working medical professor, who guiltily described a week’s holiday as ‘stolen’. Héritier counters:
You didn’t ‘steal’ your holiday in the sense of pilfering or misappropriating property. Instead, I would say that you are stealing from your own life every day.
She follows this with a list of all the things that, like holidays, she feels provide life with its ‘sweetness’. Some of the things are personal and specific to her – a French academic who has spent years living in Africa – while some of the things are universal. They run the full gamut from the intellectual pleasures to be found in books, plays and films to physical sensations, and the heightened nature of experiences had in the company of friends and family. Some of the things are not even pleasures as such: they are neutral or even painful, but are included because they are intense experiences, and help her to feel alive. The original French title was actually Le sel de la vie – ‘The salt of life’ – which is more appropriate than ‘sweetness’. It could equally have been translated as ‘The zest of life’.
The sweetness of life is very simple, and very short. Apart from a few pages at the beginning and the end, it is simply a list. If it had been any longer this could have been tedious, but as it was I read in it one sitting, in a couple of hours, and was totally absorbed. I’ll end with some of my favourite items on Héritier’s list:
- Smiling at someone who’s not expecting it
- Sitting down in an armchair too deep for you
- Watching a cat from above when it doesn’t know you’re watching it
- Clearing out your cupboards
- Feeling your taste buds react to ginger
- Coming to terms with what you hate
- Remembering the shame of faux pas committed in the past
- Touching sensitive plants
- Warm rye bread cut up in a tart, potatoes ‘for the pigs’ cooked in a big pan, freshly churned butter and cake with black cherries
- Making a ladybird walk on your finger
- Regretting that I don’t look good in a hat
- Sometimes remaining naive and not minding
- Feeling carried away by a heavy, rhythmic swell at sea and forgetting that everything is finite
- Rebelling against stupidity at the right moment
- Liking the look of windmills
- Trying to catch yourself snoring
- Planting a big kiss on the nose of a cat who took offence
- Feeling sudden outbursts of joy as you might feel fits of heat