Engaging LITERATURE, engaging the imagination . . .


Read one of the following books and comment on the quality and techniques of the storytelling (the telling of the tale more than the tale itself).  Write a 3-4 page paper about what you have read and your response to it.  As you read, try to be aware of your reading process -- the constant stream of interpretation and cross connection.  Take special care to note how the text calls on you to imagine sensations, and present examples for each sense.  The general plan of this class begins with the rather dry and factual appraisal of the senses by Diane Ackerman, then moves from the realm of the senses to the realm of the imagination.  Notice how literature makes those connections.



Isabel Allende, Aphrodite, A Memoir of the Senses, (1998), 315 pp, with lots of recipes.  What is it, fiction, autobiographical truth, a cookbook?  A sensual experience with a lot of thinking about sex, food, feelings and desires.  You may notice the quality of the paper in the book, the quality of the illustrations in the book, the pleasant heft of the weight of the book in your hand as you read it.  Great attention is paid to the quality of the book itself.  Discuss the act of reading the book as both an act of imagination and of physical perception. 


Respond to it!  There are many things to write about, and different ways to respond.  For example, you could make one of the recipes, and explain the process and why you chose a particular one.


One of the great pleasures of this book is that it is rather difficult to classify.  Is it a cookbook?  Yes, but not really–how many cookbooks have so much narrative & storytelling?  Is it autobiography?  It is, but how much of it is true and how much is fantasy?  When does the factual truth shade into fantastic truth?  For example, Allende writes about getting some herbs from a Japanese friend; after eating food prepared with these ingredients, Allende's husband begins to behave with more energy and levitates a few inches off of the ground.  Now, we know that the levitation part is probably fantasy, but when does the invention begin?  Does she have a Japanese friend?  Did that friend give her something to cook with?  Did those substances change her husband's behavior?  This book seems to me to be a perfect intensification of the literary technique known as "magical realism."  The reality in this work of literature seems extremely real– we can cook those recipes and taste the food, engaging the senses with little immediate need of the imagination.  To produce the book, Allende worked with other people and we see photographs of them in the book, so they are probably real.  Her casual, matter-of-fact treatment of matters of fact, her delight in licentious freedom with fact, can ultimately make a reader aware of the act of reading, the act of interpretation, the act of imagination.


We have our handful of sensory perceptions that art and culture extend into pleasures – we taste something, identify it as chocolate, and then transform that factual information into the emotional response of "delicious!"  We can perceive the color red, but in a vivid painting, a film, a visually appealing food, some gorgeous fabric cut into an eye-catching dress, we enjoy the color red.  Adding to our actual senses, we have the senses of the imagination – a sense order, a sense of balance, a sense of proportion.  Our sense of order, our desire that the world make sense, is satisfied by the continuous stream of narrative that we swim in.  Ever hungry for more stories, we have storytelling machines in our homes, we go to see stories with other people in various kinds of theaters.  We enjoy that order, but we also enjoy, occasionally, escapes from that order, escapes from the constant narrative stream.  Poetry might tell a story, but more often than not, poetry is a chance not to tell a story, to put words in an order that is not a narrative.  Music can be an escape from narrative order, sometimes leading to a different kind of order, a language-like code.  We enjoy the language-like properties of music, but value just as much the properties of music that seem to resist language & the patterns of language.  For example, we might enjoy a performance of the blues because of how perfectly central it is to our notion of the general code of blues (the harmonic patterns, the melodic patterns, the usual form of the lyrics, the usual rhythmic feel, etc.) while we enjoy the specific fingerprints of the performance (the idiosyncrasies of the performance).  We enjoy certain musical performances, works of art, poems, films, & stories because they satisfy our expectations in a comfortable way.  Other works are interesting to us because they challenge our codes of art – how should a novel behave?  How is a poem to be poetic?  What is the usual form for a cookbook?  How does one write a proper book of autobiographical essays?  What happens when someone (Allende) crosses over those lines, blurs distinctions, upsets order and our expectations of order?  Some people enjoy it; others recoil or at least prefer more well-behaved works of art.


Beryl Markham, West With the Night, 293 pages.  The opening page is full of questions about how to tell a story, but once she sets out on telling it, what a tale she tells!  It is of a childhood in Africa, raising race horses and becoming a bush pilot.  Here is an example of the terrific sense descriptions you'll find in her writing:


[The narrator has just landed at a rural airfield in Africa at night.]  I cut the engine, relaxed in the seat, and adjusted my ears to the emptiness of silence.

            The air was heavy, with life gone out of it.  Men's voices came from across the runway, sounding, after the deep drone of the plane, like the thin bleating of reed pipes or like the fluted whispers of a bamboo forest.

            I climbed out of the cockpit and watched a band of dim figures approach before the dancing flares.  By the manner of their walk and by their clothes, I could see that most of them were black -- Kavirondo, bulky-thighed in their half-nakedness, following two white men who moved with quicker, more eager steps over the clearing.

            Somewhere an ancient automobile engine roared into life, its worn pistons and bearings hammering like drumbeats.  Hot night wind stalked through the thorn trees and leleshwa that surrounded the clearing.  It bore the odour of swampland, the smell of Lake Victoria, the breath of weeds and sultry plains and tangled bush.  It whipped at the oil flares and snatched at the surfaces of the Avian.  But there was loneliness in it and aimlessness, as if its passing were only a sterile duty lacking even the beneficent promise of rain.


Beryl Markam, West With the Night, p. 18, North Point Press edition.


Note that she generally writes in the first person, but for one chapter she shifts into the third person.  Why? 


Raymond Chandler, Farwell, My Lovely, 1940, 175 pages.  A classic of hard-boiled American detective fiction.  Chandler's heightened way of writing certainly makes me aware of the act of reading.  He doesn't just say that someone sticks out of a crowd -- he writes, "he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."  Usually, writing that is full of adjectives and descriptive phrases can be slow going, but his word choice & economy makes his writing crackle.  Note that he didn't write "a piece of angel food cake."  "Cake" can be left out; "slice" is so much more violent than "piece."  How is the reader like a detective?  What don’t you know?  How do you find it out, tracking down those meanings?


Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler, 1979, 260 pages.  For the adventurous reader.  A deliberately fragmented and broken narrative constantly reminds the reader that he or she is reading, and makes the reader aware of the act of reading and the many acts of interpretation and re-interpretation that that entails.  The body is involved too!  Note the second-person address–very unusual.


DC Meckler
April 2008

the arts the senses & the imagination