23. A Natural History of the Senses

After weeks of trying to get myself to finish The Art of Noticing — a book I truly love and truly just do not seem able to finish right now — I pivoted, as they say these days, to this old lurker on the shelves. The choice was prompted by a passing reference to Diane Ackerman in some newsletter I subscribe to — We have something by Ackerman, don’t we? Indeed we do.

A Natural History of the Senses is 30 years old, and I almost certainly purchased it during the century now ended. I am certain that many of the references cited are out of date, some of the anthropology suspect. And yet.

In the Hall of Gems at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I once stood in front of a huge piece of sulfur so yellow I began to cry. I wasn’t in the least bit unhappy. Quite the opposite; I felt a rush of pleasure and excitement. The intensity of the color affected my nervous system. At the time, I called the emotion wonder, and thought: Isn’t it extraordinary to be alive on a planet where there are yellows such as this?

As we grind through Year 2 of the pandemic — less and less likely to have any definitively agreed upon endpoint — which seems to have a common effect of alienation, it would appear that what I need are books suffused by sensate reality, and Ackerman’s lush descriptions were a balm to my nerves. This is one of those volumes you can open to any random spot and find something there to delight the imagination. Her page on kissing alone is worth the price of the book. (The cover price in 1991 was $11.00. Can you remember books being that cheap? It’s $17.95 now, and in one of the chapters she recounts watching the launch of a space shuttle, which she describes as “clinging like the young of some exotic animal” to its rockets.)

The book is divided, reasonably enough, into sections for smell, taste, touch, etc., with a final chapter on synesthesia, all of them described with a rich depth of feeling (in the sense of sentiment) that is quite without self-consciousness.


The Word for the Summer

It took until today for me to figure out that my overriding feeling this summer has been disappointment. Things were supposed to be better than this. We had vaccinations! Daily cases were down to the double-digits in our state! We could go out places and see people. Things were finally going to be good again.

We did go out for dinner (once) and see friends (twice), but the weather has been abso-fucking-lutely miserable for the entirety of July. Now cases are spiking again (yes, even in our highly-vaccinated state), and with one kid still too young for the vaccine, we are once again forced to be choosy about what we do and where we go.

I don’t care about masks. I will wear a mask in public places for the rest of my life, who cares. I would however like the sense of hovering dread to take a hike.


Nothing? Something?

I’ve been in a reading slump ever since I finished Braiding Sweetgrass a while back. Yesterday I started flipping through How to Do Nothing again and landed on a bit where Odell is talking about some art… pieces? performances? that are really, as far as I can tell, about the difference between a thing being a thing – and particularly an art thing – vs being nothing at all. “Applause Encouraged” was one in which people sat in a roped-off viewing area, watched the sun set, and clapped when it finished. That reminded me of a bit in The Art of Noticing where the author and his wife happened across some unopened crates in a museum room and had an amiable argument about whether this was art-in-waiting, or were the crates themselves the art?

I am not qualified in the slightest to have a discussion about What is Art, but whether or not we consider something art, when we look at things as if they might be art, we are looking at them as being different from nothing at all. A blank wall is nothing. A blank wall with an empty frame hung on it might or might not be art, but in order to have that argument at all, we move the wall, or at least the part of it in the frame, from the “nothing” to the “something” category.

A big part of Odell’s book is about making this contextual mind-shift, taking into our awareness the sounds that fill what we ordinarily call silence, the energy that fills the space we call empty. What happens when we look at everything as if it was something?

(And then of course because I was well-trained in college to be suspicious of all binary models, is there a liminal edge between something-ness and nothing-ness, and what does that consist of? Perhaps for another day. Also there was an old Bloom Country strip where the news reports that, “Today, nothing happened.” Hmmm.)

arthurian literature

Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 9 – Tristram, and Others

Have not updated lately, I know. I have been in a writing slump, a reading slump, a generally bleh kind of place mentally. Things are better pandemic-wise (locally), but not enough better that I feel I can actually relax. The weather has been miserable, alternating heat waves and rainy spells that are just as effective at keeping everyone indoors as lockdown was last summer. I have been doing a lot of yoga this week and trying to get back into creative projects.

In five weeks it will be the end of the first year of the three-year plan I wrote up last summer, and that’s taking up a fair amount of mental space, as well. And now, back to Malory.

Although this book eventually gets back to Tristram, it starts with a whole new character, a fellow who goes by the name La Cote Male Taile. (Spelling was even more haphazard for French than English at the time.) There are echoes in this book of Gareth’s story, the young man who comes to Arthur’s court in search of adventure and hooks up with a shrewish damsel who turns out to be nicer than she seems.

There are a lot of differences, though. Gareth is part of the Lothian clan, while this one (his given name is Breunor, not to be confused with the evil king Tristram killed in book 8) is no one in particular. Gareth is mocked for having beautiful hands, Breunor for wearing an ill-fitting, slashed up coat–the coat his father was wearing when he WAS MURDERED, thankyouverymuch. Lamorak and Gaheris both approve Breunor’s knighting, and so Arthur goes ahead with it. Continue reading “Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 9 – Tristram, and Others”