There is a coffee shop in my neighborhood called the Sensuous Bean. This is obviously a great name, and perhaps one key to the store’s longevity; it’s one of the few small businesses in the area to have lasted over thirty years. I think it’s tops. No precious nonsense here, but the smell of roasting beans and the clutter of brewing paraphernalia is like a comforting hug.
I’ve always hoped that their name was one of the few accurate Miltonian uses of the word sensuous in modern signage. After all, Milton came up with sensuous specifically to evoke a sensory experience innocent of leers and winks. And it didn’t really take. As Oxford Dictionaries would have it:
The words sensual and sensuous are frequently used interchangeably to mean “gratifying the senses,” especially in a sexual sense. Strictly speaking, this goes against a traditional distinction, by which sensuous is a more neutral term, meaning “relating to the senses rather than the intellect” (swimming is a beautiful, sensuous experience), while sensual relates to gratification of the senses, especially sexually (a sensual massage). In fact, the word sensuous is thought to have been invented by John Milton (1641) in a deliberate attempt to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. In practice, the connotations are such that it is difficult to use sensuous in Milton’s sense. While traditionalists struggle to maintain a distinction, the evidence suggests that the neutral use of sensuous is rare in modern English. If a neutral use is intended, it is advisable to use alternative wording.
Ah, Milton! Look up the word now and you’re likely to find “a range of romance products designed to bring you and your lover even closer,” an Estée Lauder perfume (“Warm, Luminous, Feminine”) and a 2007 record by the Japanese artist Cornelius featuring the tracks “Beep it,” “Gum,” and “Toner.” I do not recommend an image search.
Here’s how Milton used it in his tractate Of Education: “Ornate rhetorick taught out of the rule of Plato … To which poetry would be made subsequent, or indeed rather precedent, as being less suttle and fine, but more simple, sensuous, and passionate.”
That’s sort of how I feel about The Sensuous Bean. It’s unfettered by the dialectics of modern coffee. Passionate? Certainly—and delicious, to boot. But perhaps less “suttle and fine” than its younger counterparts, and the better for it. What’s more, on my last visit I passed a gentleman sporting both an open fly and a bare chest, and this seemed to have everything to do with the sensuous, and nothing with the sensual.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.