The cross : In recent years, we have heard a lot about hypersensitivity. Are we more sensitive today?
Alain Corbin : I do not think so. The history of sensitivities culminates at the end of the 18th centurye century, with Rousseau, Chateaubriand and romanticism. In the 15th and 16th centuries, with Ronsard for example, literature was also based on sensitivity, but this was colored with Catholicism, very different from the sensitive soul.
How do you define sensitivity?
AC : In the word sensitivity, there are three things: the reception of sensory messages, the emotions that these messages produce in the individual, and feeling. Take the example of a caress, it is first of all the reception of a sensory message, but it can also arouse an emotion of disgust or on the contrary of love, and a feeling.
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The tolerance threshold for sensitivity varies over time. During the Renaissance, we used very strong perfumes, based on musk and civet. It was Catherine de Medici who imported this fashion from Italy. But in the eighteenth century, we can no longer bear these odors and we create small sweet perfumes, scented waters like those of Marie-Antoinette.
Does this sensitivity threshold also vary according to social class?
AC : Completely. In the 19th century, for example, the people put up with appalling smells and noises, and to distinguish themselves, the aristocrats spoke quietly, hated noise and feared smelling bad.
One day, I asked a student to analyze sensory behavior in Les Rougon-Macquart, by Zola. He had noticed that, in the aristocratic classes, seduction between men and women took place at a distance, by the look, the smile and the perfumes, while in the people, it went through the touch.
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Tears are one of the manifestations of sensitivity. Did we allow ourselves to cry at all times and in all circles?
AC: In the 18th century, in cultivated circles, men and women cried at the spectacle. But in the 19th century, it was over, the virile code, also present in popular circles, made that men no longer cry, except at the funeral of a father. The women continue to cry, but in private, in their rooms. The marital room also becomes a sanctuary in the bourgeoisie. And the rise of private life, with the writing of oneself, to use Foucault’s expression, changes the data of sensitivity.
So women cry more than men?
AC : In the 19th century, yes. I have read thousands of pages written by doctors who say that women are much more sensitive than men. She cries, she is made for sensitivity, for love. Whereas the man is made for the social melee.
In the 18th century, these characteristics were already attributed to the fairer sex because it was understood that the sexual organs of women and men were different. Indeed, it has long been thought that in sexual union, the woman emitted a seed at the same time as the man. When it was understood that she received the seed of man, it was judged to be made for sensitivity.