When Italo Calvino died, he left behind an unfinished book of short stories on the senses, Under the Jaguar Sun. What was published explored smell, taste, and hearing. The absence of touch and sight made me wonder how to try to convey what it means, to not touch and not see through the others, the spectres of senses haunting both the written and unwritten page? It is a frame, the grave, jealousy.
Calvino’s widow urges the reader to consider Under the Jaguar Sun as not ‘unfinished but simply as … written in different periods’. She describes his last days as when he refers to ‘the frame’ in regard to its shaping: ‘it is the frame that makes the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist … but recalls—and somehow stands for—everything that remains out of the picture’. Is this not the nature of every conversation, every bodily network, our words and messages haloed like gilded angels, paintings hung in a gallery whispering to each other? That despite its constraints something must escape, too attracted by the stories of its neighbours not to follow. But in the fleeting moment, restrained by the walls of wood or flesh, the remaining senses function as a proxy for the two which hover invisibly just beyond; especially sight, to which we have given false weight. Juhani Pallasmaa in The Eyes of the Skin: ‘the hegemonic eye seeks domination … and it seems to weaken our capacity for empathy, compassion and participation with the world.’ When hands and eyes disappear, taste, scent, and hearing are suddenly amplified in the body. They reach out, scanning the landscapes of the desired like an animal hunting in the night, taking in the sensory trail of its prey as if it were already devoured. The heart beats fast in the excitement of such primal immersion. The frame, a foreshadowing of death. I may be soon within, but I will continue to live without.
There must be rites we can practice for their non-existence, a passing though they have not passed. An unseen hand swings an invisible censor wafting Patchouli Heart I by Ostens, the incongruence of the cold emanating from stones inside a church combined with the spiced warmth of gingerbread. The nose and mouth in reverent symbiosis. To hear an incantation which exists only in the curtained space of a confessional mind. To ask questions through these biological icons which drift upwards, nesting in the eaves of the mind like so many birds and unanswered prayers.
How do we remember what is not present and what has never been? Hélène Cixous in Tomb(e):
‘I will weep later
Will be the wreck of our story, five fathoms of memory deep lay my calmed body …’
If my memory lies three fathoms deep, there are two my body can never reach: out of touch, out of sight, suspended as if in earth. Where my tongue flickers, nostrils twitch, ears prick for something they have distantly known in amniotic dreams. Each fathom a layer of sleep, of memory. A lowering, except there is no rest. When my father died I was left three fathoms deep. Without presence, witnessing death through hearing, taste, and smell. This is a curious dying. We spoke and spoke. A hoarding of words because we both knew, without the other’s acknowledgement, they would be the fat I would need to survive the long winter of his absence. We talked of books, of food, and scent. I did not touch or see my father when he died. But if there is no body, what need is there for resurrection?
I will weep later, in those little nests we wove during the light of his dying hours.
A Japanese story my mother told me as a child: an old man finds a hurt sparrow, which he brings home to nurse. His wife, unable to share her husband’s empathy, cuts out the bird’s tongue and sends it away. The old man, on finding out, seeks out the sparrow, discovering it in a house among other birds, now healed. In recognition for his kindness she fetes him, and upon his departure, offers him a choice of boxes. He chooses the smaller of two and returns home. After telling his wife of his adventure, they open the box, which is filled with treasure. Mad with jealous greed, the wife secretly vows to seek out the sparrow herself. She pretends remorse and is received with gracious welcome by the birds. They entertain her in the same way, and like her husband, she is given the choice of two boxes before departing. With no hesitation she chooses the larger. Her desire for riches overwhelms her on her way home, and so she stops by the side of the road to open her reward. But instead of gold, the box releases a multitude of demons, who take her away in the night.
Taste, smell, hearing. Imagine they removed or mutilated their sensory kin, in order to share out the riches of the senses amongst themselves. I understand this; jealous of my own senses, the favouritism placed upon smell, sniffing among words in order to translate bodies I can neither see nor touch. I cannot write without it, a reliance upon which even my words must whisper amongst themselves of my weakness. If the senses function for the body, they are likewise independent. Is it a constant awareness of the possibility of another body, or simply mercenary? One day I might wake, the world not white or black but grey, a dulled nothingness deprived of pleasure and disgust. Abandoned and forced into sensory asceticism by a body which has rejected me, while another takes in the world in a promiscuous, hyper-orgasmic state.
‘Pleasure is felt most intensely and pain more profoundly when they call into play a maximum number of emotional channels, and tap an incalculable number of happy or unhappy memories, of dreams which have come true or been broken’, writes Catherine Millet in Jealousy. I am jealous because I know too well am nothing without these five hunters and gatherers. What exists in my mind or body that does not owe a total debt to the senses? Would I sacrifice one or two to keep hold of the others, and the pain of loss enhancing the pleasure of the remaining, or would loss result in a pain never to be resolved? This is jealousy: unable to choose while knowing one must, a hollow cavity gnawing on its insatiability. The senses as lovers, each system inevitably a path to another body.
Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino, tr. William Weaver
Tomb(e) by Hélène Cixous, tr. Laurent Milesi
Jealousy by Catherine Millet, tr. Helen Stevenson
Image: Tomoé Hill