Sunday, 11 March 2007

27. What makes us feel good?

Amidst all the numerous pressures, frustrations and injustices which I have described in these Letters, humans still survive and sometimes glory in their world. They create masterpieces and feel intensely. I will tell you in a different kind of letter of a few of the things I have discovered about the pleasures of our senses.

Our senses stir us to our greatest efforts and our greatest achievements. Yet they also entrap and ensnare us, lulling us, diverting us, overpowering us, compelling us away from freedom and creativity. Even the tools we create to heighten our enjoyment of them, styles in art, music, cooking and many arts and crafts can soon become cramping and inhibiting, creating ruts out of which it is almost impossible to escape.

Why does smell enchant us?

As I write this in late May our garden is filled with the scent of flowering honey-suckle and the first yellow roses are out as the lilac dies away. The Japanese tea-house in which I write has the memories of rich incense which we have burnt and the aroma of green tea. This evening the smell of onions and tandoori chicken will fill our house.

Smells give us a vast amount of pleasure, even if we are not as sharp-sensed as a dog or tiger. Developing the pleasures of smell, suddenly being wafted back to other places, times and people, all these enrich experience. They carry us in an instant across space and time. The smell of a particular herb takes me from the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, Japan, to a hot terrace in the Nepal Himalayas in a fraction of a second.

The sense of smell has been developed more intensively in some cultures than others. An extreme case are the Japanese. In the eleventh century novel about Prince Genji there are frequent scent-guessing competitions. The Prince himself can be smelt well before he enters a room because of his particular exquisite mix of scents. The military rulers of Japan traditionally stored their wealth in precious incense sticks, rather than in gold. Apart from gold, the most precious gifts which the Kings could offer to the infant Jesus were frankincense and myrrh.

Yet we are hardly conscious of how smell affects us. Body smells of loved ones, newly cut grass, the smell of wood-smoke evocative of summer barbecues or winter bonfires, all these are parts of a rich tapestry of almost invisible pleasures. Likewise we are warned of danger by smells which disgust us, like those of rotten meat or faeces. Every age, every culture, every group selects from a repertoire to highlight certain smells. Even the Gods can be enticed by the smell of burning flesh or blood, of precious incense or sweet flowers.

Every society and civilization has its own smells, and the delight of travelling in India or China or South America is the new palette of smells that absorbs us. If you smell eucalyptus leaves or a salty breeze, you will be taken back to your childhood in Australia. Each reader will be able to reflect on the smells which instantly take him or her backwards; herbs, flowers, cooking or just the air, full of dust, earth smells or the fumes of buses and cars.

How has taste changed our world?

From infancy we are very aware of nice and nasty tastes and a great deal in between. Smell enhances taste, but perhaps less obvious is its connection to sight. This became apparent to me when a Japanese friend tried to explain the comparative virtues of Japanese and Indian cooking.

He said that ‘we Japanese eat food with our eyes’. The more elegant meals are beautifully presented, exquisite colours and arrangements on the plate or table. ‘Turn off the lights’, he said, ‘and eat it in the dark and much of the food is so delicate that it hardly tastes of anything’. It works by tricking our brain through associations. It is poetry on a plate.

On the other hand, to his way of thinking, an Indian curry was rather boring to look at. It consisted of a pile of white rice, with various brown sauces. Nothing to please the eye. Yet turn off the lights and eat it with one’s taste buds and nose, as it were, and it was really delicious.

Certainly the joys of taste are ones which can hardly be over-emphasized. Great civilizations have revelled in food and cooking. It is very easy to argue that the heart of Chinese culture is food, its preparation and eating. Or again, much of American culture is now carried around the world in its food and drinks, the hamburger and coke culture. Italy is for many a series of delicious pastas, the eastern Mediterranean various cooked meats and kebabs.

Other civilizations are known for their drink. The contrast between the two great religions of Europe is between the Catholic wine-drinkers of the south and the Protestant beer drinkers of the north. It is not difficult to argue that beer and the pub have long been one of the central identity markers of English culture, just as whisky is for the Scots, or sake for the Japanese.

The connection between Catholic cultures and wine reminds us that not only are food and drink among our greatest pleasures, but we project these pleasures onto the Gods. In almost all religions the chief offering is a sacred drink – wine, millet beer, rice wine – or food-stuff, bread, sacrificial meat. Like humans, the Gods delight in incorporating the material world through their mouths. Only a part of the pleasures we get from eating and drinking comes from filling our stomachs. Much of it is an expression of other things, including creativity, delight and fellowship.

How did a ‘nice cup of tea’ make all the difference?

I did not fully appreciate the significance of consumption and the importance of what we eat and drink until, with my mother, I wrote a book on just one small part of the vast array of foods and drinks, namely the history and influence of tea drinking. As I worked on this, I began to realize to what an extraordinary extent we are what we consume and our lives are shaped by our scarcely examined sense of taste.

In Japan, the introduction of tea drinking some six hundred years ago altered almost every aspect of life. It had a very deep influence on aesthetics, in particular pottery, but also architecture, painting and poetry. It influenced politics as the tea ceremony became a place where warring factions could meet. It fundamentally altered religion, for tea and Buddhism were inextricably mixed together. One cup of tea was worth an hour of Zen meditation.

Tea altered economics. The growing and exporting of tea was vital to the growth of the Japanese economy. The extra energy which the caffeine in the tea provided enabled the Japanese to work incredibly long hours. It deeply affected health, for the boiling of the water and the chemicals in the tea which destroyed bacteria almost eliminated water-borne disease. In sum, the ‘Way of Tea’ as it was called, and the ‘Japanese Way’ became almost identical. Tea was Japan, and Japan was Tea.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Asian continent, when tea began to be imported in quantity into Britain in the early eighteenth century it also affected everything. It altered relations between men and women, parents and children, shopkeepers and customers. It changed the nature and timing of meals. It altered architecture, furniture, pottery, shipping, navigation. It helped make the industrial revolution possible through improving health and added to the ability of people to survive fatigue and poor food. It provided the secret weapon to sustain the creation of the largest Empire the world has ever seen. Without tea our modern world would be very different from what it is today.

This is just one substance. I might have rehearsed the history of sugar, potatoes, tobacco, beer, rice, herrings and many other foods or drinks. Each would show how far the culture of human beings is almost invisibly, but very powerfully, shaped by our sense of taste. The desire for pleasant sensations is, of course, manipulated through advertising and ‘market forces’.

How does touching affect us?

When you were little, you had a passion for ‘cuddly toys’ and spent hours stroking the cats, teddy bears and other little creatures which accumulated in a pile on your bedroom floor. You loved stroking things, moss in the lawn, hazel catkins, sand and smooth stones.

The textures of the world are infinite. The pleasures of running water through the fingers, the differences of wool, silk, cotton or velvet against the skin, there are so many ways in which half consciously we enjoy bodily contact with our environment. The poet Rupert Brooke’s lines about what he loved struck a chord with me many years ago:

‘Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch’

There can be no doubt that we are touchy, feely, animals. The hugs, kisses, brushing and encounters with many surfaces through our lives gives us immense pleasure, not least in our sexual life. These pleasures are again very variable across time and culture.

What opens magic casements?

Humans are almost defined by their ability to articulate and interpret sound, particularly through language. Remove our vocal chords and we would never have flourished at all. The variations and importance of languages through history is immense. Two of the forms in which sound has given me particular pleasure are poetry and music.

It is difficult to over-estimate the degree to which the rhythms and rhymes of poetry and popular songs infiltrate our lives. I find that lines of poetry haunt me through every waking hour.

‘To cease upon the midnight with no pain’; ‘Drips wet sunlight on the powder of mine eye’; ‘Had I the heaven’ embroidered cloths’; ‘Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind’; ‘The glory jest and riddle of the world’; ‘With beaded bubbles winking at the brim’; ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’; ‘As numberless as leaves in Valambrosa’; ‘When the hounds of Spring are on winter’s traces’; ‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’; ‘A green thought in a green shade’; ‘And drunk the milk of paradise’; ‘The savage wars of peace’ and a thousand other fragments (some of them no doubt slightly mis-remembered) echo through my life and give richness and consolation.

Without their cadences, and of course the accompanying worlds of plays, novels and other literature whose sounds echo in our minds even if we do not say them aloud, our life as humans would be immensely poorer.

What passions cannot music raise and quell?

The world of sounds where the words are subordinate to the sound itself, which we can roughly term ‘music’, is as rich as that of intellectual sounds. This may be the music of nature, bird song, water falling, a kettle boiling, the wind of autumn sighing through the trees, waves breaking on rocks. Yet the special human pleasure is composed music. Here, of course, there is an almost infinite variety, from ‘pop’ in all its variants, through ‘jazz’ to classical, east and west, north and south.

Music is indeed a very deep form of communication, entering us in a way which we cannot put into words. The melodies and harmonies affect us at the level of our animal being. Music moves us to feel the most powerful of emotions, hate, fear, jubilation, love and calm. We are both liberated and trapped by its entangling enticements.

Since it is so powerful, we believe we can trap and entangle others, in particular the Gods. For, as with taste and smell, it appears that the Gods share our enthusiasm for music. Not only, we are told, are there heavenly choirs, but the angels play trumpets and harps to please God

In particular, spiritual powers can be called by a distinctive sound; the deep note of a Tibetan horn in a Buddhist ritual, the bleat of a conch shell in a shamanic rite. Breaking continuous time with an abrupt sound is particularly effective in summoning the gods. Whether it is the clapping to attract the Shinto gods, the cymbals and drums used in many death rituals, the ringing of bells large and small in Christian churches, the cacophany of gongs, bells, drums and cymbals is central to much religious ritual.

What are the pleasures of the eye?

Humans are basically visual animals. Something like three quarters of what we absorb in the way of information about nature and other human beings comes into our brains through our eyes. It comes in as a mass of meaningless fragments of light, and then we start to interpret it. Although we do not have as powerful an eye as a hawk or fly, we far outstrip either because of the size of the brain which makes sense of what the optics gives us. We have the eyes of a predator, looking forwards. We notice very minute variations that stimulate our curiosity.

What to say of the pleasures of the eye? There is so much that I shall arbitrarily confine myself to just one form, painting. The pleasures of painting have grown on me over the ages, but they are obviously ones which have given you enormous happiness. I have watched and filmed you drawing and painting from a time before you could speak.

How do we learn to see the world so clearly?

Although I have become increasingly interested in looking at paintings, I did not think that I would ever come to write or think explicitly about the history and meaning of art. So it was a surprise to find myself proposing a new theory to answer part of the largest question in the history of artistic representation. This was how, after many centuries of symbolic, non-realist, art did some painters with their brilliance, realism and accurate perspective become intense mirrors of their worlds? What caused the Renaissance in western Europe and why had it only happened in that one small, relatively backward, part of the Asian land mass?

My attempt to answer some of these huge puzzles led me to read the major historians and critics of art. I began to understand a little of how, as children, we start by seeing the world quite clearly. Then, as we grow older, we are systematically taught to distort and bend the world, both as we perceive it and as we represent it, to fit into the current fashions.

Yet, for a magical moment, roughly between 1380 and 1450, the whole visualization of nature changed in one area of the world and the earth became bathed in a glorious light which is even richer than what we normally see with the naked eye. How did this technology of enchantment become so rich, and the world consequently become enchanted in a new way?

My suggestion is that it happened primarily because of the rapid development of the one substance on earth that has directly affected what we can see, namely glass. As Leonardo da Vinci wrote, ‘the mirror is the master of painters’ and the glass mirror started to alter western vision dramatically in the century up to the time he painted. It not only allowed proper self-portraits, but it changed the angle of vision on the world, disturbing our conventional views and allowing the painter to check what he saw against another exact image. It doubled reality.

Coloured glass in churches ‘stains the white radiance of eternity’ and panes of glass frame the world and make possible new ways of perceiving the world. Glass prisms and lenses were used in experiments to determine precise laws of perspective and allowed the artist-mathematicians to understand how light and the eye work. All these developments suddenly shocked one part of the world into a new way of seeing.

That shock and surprise only occurred in western Europe. It only occurred in areas where fine glass had developed and it did so at precisely the moment when glass manufacturing became far more sophisticated.

What is the garden of earthly delights?

The garden is one source of delight which brings together all the senses. It combines smell, touch, sound, taste and sight in a powerful and evocative way. My large rambling English garden full of roses, honeysuckle, fruits and trees is an example of this and it seems to me deeply natural. Yet I also know how very odd both its form and my intense feelings for it are.

People in many cultures appreciate gardens but they are often rather formal affairs and shortage of space or wealth makes it impossible for many to have a reasonable sized garden. The semi-wild garden is somewhat unusual. The English share the essential spiritual view of the irregular and ‘natural’ garden with the Japanese. Yet there is a marked contrast between the often miniaturized rock and pine gardens of Japan, the exquisite complexities of Chinese gardens, the formality of great French or Italian gardens and the tumbling pastoral woodland I have created. It is part of a wider difference in attitudes towards nature which has long intrigued me since I roamed the hills and woods of northern England as a boy.

I think the key to my English garden lies in the controlled confusion. Some have suggested that the love of artificial wildness was basically the result of the alienation caused by the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In reacting to the machines and daily horror of urban squalor the British were cut off from nature. Yet they simultaneously regarded it with all the more emotion. They broke the link with the natural world, but at the same time tried to create a deeper link. In order to gain peace and serenity, they began to worship nature. They artificially constructed nature, yet pretended that it was natural.

Personally I think that the mixture of manipulation and sentimentality, of calculative exploitation and uncalculating spontaneity, is much older than the eighteenth century. I believe that there is an unbroken tradition in the attitude to nature from the Anglo-Saxon period, through Chaucer and Shakespeare, up to Alexander Pope, the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites. Now we see the obsession with gardens in flower shows, garden centres and on the television.

This ambivalent attitude, the creation of an artificial feeling of the countryside, the garden cities, the parks and widespread tending of small plots, arises out of the tension of an unusual social structure. The English have invested their landscape with a strong commercial mentality and morality from the middle ages onwards. Nature has not been really wild or untamed for a thousand years. Yet to preserve oases of tranquility and non calculative, non-competitive, not over-rational space in the midst of all the daily bustle, the garden and the park were preserved as a space for feeling and spontaneity. There the human senses of smell, touch, hearing, tasting and above all seeing could be liberated and the body refreshed.

Certainly this is how I feel about my garden. After an exhausting day at committee meetings or teaching, of struggling through traffic or buying the week’s food, like many others I find the natural world a deep solace, a ‘haven in a heartless world’. Many find this restorative power in walking, mountaineering, deep sea diving, sitting on a river bank fishing. I find it in my garden, supplemented by walks up the reedy fen rivers or in the foothills of the Himalayas. Gardens and walking release the mind, allow us to become animals again for a brief moment in our over-cerebral existence.

Why do children delight?

Participating in the lives of children also mixes our senses and helps us shed the brittle shell of adult rationality for a while. Our own children are often a great source of joy, but also of ambivalence, strain, guilt, tiredness and confusion. They are too near us for unalloyed pleasure. My pleasure in children has reached its peak through the privilege of distance and closeness combined. I first learnt this pleasure amongst children in Nepal, and it has been repeated at an even more intense level in the pleasure of watching you, Lily, grow up.

It is difficult to say what is the ultimate source of this joy. Some of the ingredients are clear enough. You are certainly very beautiful and sometimes when the sunlight weaves into your hair or you look up with a startled smile, I suddenly see again the worlds of Cleopatra or Heloise. Certainly you are very clever and as I listen to you, discuss with you, or watch you solve problems or learn to paint or read, I am awe-struck at the complexity and brilliance of the human mind. Certainly you are full of humour and rumbustious fun and inventiveness and when you and Rosa used to pretend to fight and tumble I was reminded of so many childhood games and pretended terrors.

So, as we explore together the virtual world that hovers on the edge of this material life, the many imaginative territories you inhabit bring back another reality. I catch glimpses of my own childhood wanderings on Pook Hill, to Toad Hall, Narnia, the land of Hobbits, through Mowgli’s jungle. All these are deep pleasures which combine all my senses and momentarily transport me into another dimension of living.

So if I were to bring it all together I would say that amidst all the misery, fear, injustice and pain which I am explaining to you, I hope you will not forget moments when all this fades away into moments of innocent joy. It is when we bring all our powerful senses together, perhaps in a moment in the garden of earthly delights, perhaps when we encounter again the first Eve, that we triumph over despair.

So a moment when Lily danced to Handel, or when she sat in a pool of buttercups, or gravely took part in her first tea ceremony are the moments I treasure. These are, with similar moments with other friends and loved ones, what makes being human bearable. It is also what makes me want to write these Letters to you, Lily, for helping me to remind me of all this.


Tramon said...
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Tramon said...

You have such an amazing blog. Thank you for all of your insights!