July 17, 2015

Sensual Knowing

Some time ago I was rereading my essay “Ways of Knowing,” which appears in the volume A Question of Values. I was discussing a book by John Finley entitled Four Stages of Greek Thought, and how that small work made a huge impact on me when I first read it years ago. Talking about the Homeric Greeks, Finley writes: “Happiness, one sometimes thinks, is clarity of vision, moments when things stand clear in sharpest outline...as if revealed for the first time…. However intoxicating the attractions of intellect, and however essential to the structures by which we live, something in us wants also the clear signals of the senses by which alone the world is made fresh and definite.”

It was something of a coincidence, that at exactly the same time I was rereading The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell, a book I hadn’t read in decades. A sobering book, for a writer: I could crank out fiction for the next twenty years and never come close to Durrell’s ability with language. But here are some quotes from the first volume of the Quartet, Justine, which illustrate Finley’s point:

The narrator meets with Justine at a café:

“I can only remember the pattern and weight of these conversations, not their substance. And leaning there on a forgotten elbow, drinking the cheap arak and smiling at her, I inhaled the warm summer perfume of her dress and skin—a perfume which was called, I don’t know why, Jamais de la vie.” [Not in this life]

Then he talks about hearing the voice of a blind muezzin at dawn, as he is waking up, and writes:

“The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words…until the whole morning seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected, impregnating that shabby room where Melissa lay, breathing as lightly as a gull, rocked upon the oceanic splendours of a language she would never know.”

A few pages later:

“It was cold in the street and I crossed to the lighted blaze of shops in Rue Fuad. In a grocer’s window I saw a small tin of olives with the name Orvieto on it, and overcome by a sudden longing to be on the right side of the Mediterranean, entered the shop: bought it: had it opened there and then: and sitting down at a marble table in that gruesome light I began to eat Italy, its dark scorched flesh, hand-modelled spring soil, dedicated vines.”

What I feel pulsing through Durrell’s work is a mode of knowing that is rooted in the body, that is not tangible, that derives from a felt sense of the world; a kinesthetic sense (Proust). Non-Anglo cultures, ones not dominated by science, understand this; and it is this failure to understand this deeper level of reality, on the part of Anglo-scientific cultures, that leads the Third World to regard the latter as daft. There is virtually no awareness of this in contemporary American life, and I am convinced that a lot of the suffering we endure can be traced to a loss of this primal connection with the human and natural environment. Recovering this would be what I referred to, many years ago, as The Reenchantment of the World.