Teju Cole, “Experience”, Lecture 1 of 3, 04.08.19

Teju Cole, “Experience”, Lecture 1 of 3, 04.08.19


– Good evening. I’m Anne Walters Robertson, dean of the Division of the Humanities and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the 2019 Randy L. and Melvin
R. Berlin Family Lectures, a series sponsored by
the University of Chicago Division of the Humanities. Our acclaimed guest, the author
and photographer, Teju Cole, will spend the next three Monday evenings exploring what it means
to be a sensing being in lectures entitled Coming to our Senses. But before we introduce Mr. Cole, allow me briefly to mention how he comes to be with us this evening, not just as a guest at
the University of Chicago, but specifically as part of the Berlin Family Lectures series. First, of course, we must
thank Randy and Melvin Berlin, who are here tonight, for
their generous support that makes this annual event possible. Established in 2013, the
Berlin Family Lectures bring to campus individuals who are making fundamental
contributions to the arts, humanities and humanistic social sciences. In addition to offering
a series of lectures, each presenter develops a book for publication with the
University of Chicago Press. And with my friends from UChicago Press sitting in front of me, I will mention that the 2014 and 2015 Berlin Lectures delivered by Lawrence Lessig and by novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh have now been published by UChicago Press respectively as America, Compromised and The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. You will see these books up in the lobby. We look forward to seeing
Mr. Cole’s lectures in print as well, preserving
his words and wisdom for generations to come. Tonight, I’m also delighted to announce that the extraordinary political theorist and dazzling classicist, Danielle Allen, will be the 2020 Berlin Family Lecturer. While she teaches at Harvard now, for many years Danielle was
at the University of Chicago where she also served as dean of the Division of the Humanities. I invite all of you here
tonight to join us in 2020 and each year after for a lecture series that continually discovers new ideas and delivers fresh perspectives
about our human condition. As a series and not just a single lecture, the Berlin Family Lectures
provide distinctive rewards for both speaker and audience. The presenters are given
ample time and space to develop their ideas and
supply the proper context for their evolving topics. At the same time, the audience
can follow the speaker on an engaging intellectual journey and absorb the presenters argument over more than one presentation. For these reasons, I encourage
everyone here tonight to attend all three of
Mr. Cole’s lectures. Although a series like this will demand your all-too-precious time, in exchange you will reap
the considerable benefit of an enlightening and
intellectually rewarding experience. I fully anticipate that Mr. Cole will surprise and delight
us with new insights. It is now my great pleasure to introduce tonight’s
introducer, Will Boast assistant professor of
Practice in the Arts from the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English
Language and Literature. Will is the acclaimed author
of the short story collection, Power Ballads, about touring and recording with several bands, which won the 2011 Iowa
Short Fiction Award, the novel Daphne, a contemporary retelling of the myth of Daphne and Apollo, and the New York Times
bestseller, Epilogue, a memoir about his loss of
several immediate family members and the secrets his family hid. Will’s fiction and essays have appeared in such iconic publications as
The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic,
Virginia Quarterly Review, and The American Republic. He has excelled in writing both fiction and nonfiction for mainstream audiences. And in addition to creating new worlds and vistas through his writing, Will has traveling in his blood. He was born in South Hampton, England, and grew up there, and in
Ireland’s County Limerick. Later, his family immigrated to America where he lived with
them in rural Wisconsin. Will’s pension for travel continued into his graduate school years
at the University of Virginia and postgraduate fellowships at Stanford and the University of East
Anglia in Norwich, England. In addition to Chicago, Will
has lived in Brighton, England, Madison, Wisconsin, San Francisco, Berlin, Brooklyn, and Rome. The cultural knowledge
that Will has gained from his extensive travels
and his own admirable writing, informs his teaching of creative writing to University of Chicago students. His expansive understanding
of the human condition, moreover, makes him the perfect person. to introduce our speaker, Teju Cole. Please give a warm welcome to my esteemed colleague, Will Boast. (audience applauding) – Thank you very much Dean Robertson. It’s my true honor tonight
to introduce Teju Cole. It’s almost impossible
to talk about Teju Cole without talking about
the figure of the flaneur the wanderer, the observer,
the chronicler of urban life and all of its mundane, poignant, beautiful and bizarre forms. A paragon of how to claim or reclaim both an intellectual and a social space, of how to wander with purpose. And indeed the wandering that Teju Cole enacts in his fiction,
his essays on literature, politics, history and art, and his own accomplished photography, has served as a consistent
and often urgent reminder of how to be curious, how
to witness and listen, how to contemplate and contain an accelerating evermore global world. In his brilliant, subtle, and
quite sly novel, Open City, published in 2011, Cole writes
through the eyes of Julius, a half German, half Nigerian psychiatrist finishing a residency in New York, as he walks and thinks
about bird migration and human migration, about
Mahler’s 9th Symphony, the work of the deaf
painter, John Brewster, and the historical
sightings of albino whales that culminated in Moby Dick, among many other points
of rumination and inquiry. In The New Yorker, James Wood
hailed Open City’s arrival, calling it a beautiful, subtle,
and finally, original novel. For this reader, Open City
is also an invigorating and intellectually thrilling reminder just how much stuff,
fictional and factual, the novel that utterly
protean form can contain. Likewise, Cole’s compendious yet intimate collection of essays,
Known and Strange Things, in which he writes
captivatingly about VS Naipaul, Derek Walcott, and Jacques Derrida, about the influence of
Instagram on our photography, about a famous performance
of Beethovens 9th with Hitler in the audience, about his pilgrimage to the Swiss town that prompted James Baldwin’s essay, Stranger in the Village, and many other subjects he
enriches with his attention. Cole’s criticism is truly wide-ranging, compulsively connective,
scrupulously open-minded and, when need be, forthright. His curiousity and evenhandedness does not equate to moral ambivalence. Cole’s novel, Every Day is for the Thief, published in Nigeria in
2007 and in the US in 2014, also follows a young psychiatry student, perhaps Julius, perhaps not, as he visits Nigeria from New York and grapples with and
reacquaints himself with Lagos. In The New York Times,
Dwight Garner praised, “this novel of belonging
and not belonging, “intellectual seeking
and intellectual honesty. “Cole’s works,” Garner said, “are lean, “expertly sustained performances. “The places he can go, you
feel, are just about limitless.” Yet, to read Cole as merely
celebrating the global citizen or cosmopolitanism would be I
think to slightly misread him. He’s more subtle that that. The flaneur, after all, stands
outside the crowd looking on and Cole, I believe, is keen to warn us that detachment and
distance from the world, the pure life of the mind,
also has its consequences. Indeed Cole’s work often deals
with the complex interplay between the public and private, between massive social movements and poignant individual destinies. In the mode of Charles
Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin and W. G. Sebald, Cole
continuously excavates what has been buried and near
forgotten by quote progress. Cole’s books are indeed
profoundly political without being political programs. Instead they ask us to see
as many signs as we can and to constantly reevaluate
our ways of seeing. Indeed, following in the
steps of John Berger, Cole was also one of
our most astute critics of the visual arts,
particularly photography, of which he is also an
accomplished practitioner. Published in 2017, Blind Spot,
an elliptical travel essay told through both words and images roams to places both familiar and seemingly impossibly remote. It’s a peculiarly alert book, always attentive to
ephemeral moment and thought, and though it ranges widely, the point as Robert Pinsky
wrote of Blind Spot, is not the exotic but it’s opposite. Mysteries of the ordinary, attained in patiently
awaited brief flashes, Cole’s photos capture, in
perhaps its purest form, the illusiveness,
elusiveness, and deep, still, and I come back to that
word, patient attentiveness of all of his work, which is
why I’m so excited this evening to hear him speak about the senses and the human body as an
instrument sensitive to space. Teju Cole’s books have won
The PEN/Hemingway Award, The New York City Book Award for fiction, The Rosenthal Award of
the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
and have been shortlist with the National Book
Critics Circle Award, The New York Public
Library Young Lions Award, and the Aperture-Paris
Photo PhotoBook Award among numerous other honors. He’s been a Guggenheim fellow and a Poynter journalism
fellow at Yale University and is currently the photography critic of The New York Times Magazine
and the gore of it all professor of creative writing
at Harvard University. Cole has been a contributor
to The New Yorker, Granta, Brick among
many other publications and sole expositions of his photography have been held in Italy,
Iceland, India, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and of course here in the US. This year he will curate an
exhibition titled Go Down Moses at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and he has a fourth coming book, actually it’s for sale
tonight so it’s almost here, Human Archipelago which is a collaboration with the photographer Fazal Sheik. Please join me tonight in welcoming one of our most sensitive, sensory, entirely brilliant working
writers and critics, Teju Cole. (audience applauding) – Thank you all for being
here together in this space, it’s delightful to be in Chicago. Just gonna thank a few people
and then we’ll get started. I’d like to thank, well,
everybody who made this visit and this series of visits possible, especially the people in the
Division of the Humanities. It’s a little bit mysterious to me how these choices get made,
but I’m glad my number came up, so I’m very grateful for that. Dean Anne Robertson and Will Boast for the lovely introductions
and hospitality. Want to thank Sara
Patterson, Julianna Joyce of the Division of Humanities who took care of all the
logistics for my getting here, and Alan Thomas at the
University of Chicago Press, who has been a friend and provided great editorial support already. And I want to thank
Randy and Melvin Berlin for their commitment to scholarship and their faith in the possibilities still present in public
space, thank you so much. And I want to begin by acknowledging that this event is happening
on unceded territory of Ojibwa, Ottowa and Potowatami people. The rivers at its riversong. At this elevation, 1,200
meters above sea level, the rivers young and
narrow, shallow and fast. Sunlight is filtered through the leaves of the trees off the riverbank, inundating the water’s
surface with dapple. The rivers verged with mid-summer grass and with large gray stones,
some smooth, some jagged. He has picked his way down the bank and has settled on a large stone either side of which is traversed by the rivers fast at ease. He senses, he is sensitive,
sensate, sensible. The Latin is sentire, to
feel, to perceive, to realize. What he’s sensing there, crouched forward, still as a stone in a
flowing river, on that day, on the banks of the Valserine. Perhaps he’s as the figure described in Robert Lowell’s Waking
Early Sunday Morning. And now my body wakes to
feel the unpolluted joy and criminal leisure of a boy. No rainbow smashing a dry fly
in the white run is free as I. Here, squatting like a dragon on time’s hoard before the day’s begun. I am that figure in the Valserine. With my eyes, I can see the
bright light on the water, with my ears, I can hear the
thrum and splash of the water, with my nose, I smell the
grass and alpine flowers, I bring water to my mouth, and I can taste its mineral intensity and the faint bouquet of summer grass. My fingers touch the
stones, rough and smooth, the bed-like grass, the
marble-like pebbles, the fugitive water, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. These are the five traditional senses familiar in western
thinking since before Plato. And behind me, half buried in a hillside, is a mysterious building. Christianity has often been
terrified of the senses. It has tended to view them
as portals for the devil and the easiest way to fall into sin. This sheet, made with ink
and pigments on vellum around 1425 in Northern England is from an illuminated manuscript of a poem called The Desert of Religion. The poem uses a forest to
illustrate the Christian struggle. There are, on other pages, illustrations of the tree of
faith, the tree of meekness and the tree of spiritual battles. On this page, is the
tree of the five senses. The trunk reads, here grows
a tree of leaves fine. The tree has multifoliate leaves, each labeled with three text boxes, what sense organ is represented then in two separate boxes, a kind of sin pertaining to that sense. This one, for instance, reads of the eyes and then unlawful seeing. So, the sin of the eyes is unlawful seeing and on like that, of the
ears, unlawful hearing, of the nose, unlawful smelling,
of the feet and hands, unlawful touching, of the
mouth, unlawful tasting. Consider yourself warned. Skepticism towards the senses had not quite subsided centuries later. During the dutch golden
age, though by then the unlawful had acquired
quite a bit of elegance, the old anxieties remained. Vanitas still life paintings
of the 17th century were as much warnings
about the fragility of life as they were indulgent
exercises in surfaces, textures and pleasures of every kind. They were full of things to taste, touch, smell, look at, and listen to. A painting like this one by Peter Klas, a direct allegory of the five senses is a ravishingly painted assemblage. There’s the violin for hearing, the glowing coals and snuff box for smell, the barely perceptible
wine glass for taste, a lamp for vision, the
variety of textures, of wood and glass and
paper and cloth, for touch. How precious they all are,
this cascade of senses. “Bless thy five wits,” as
Tom o’ Bedlam says to Lear out on the heath, bless your five senses. Waking up one morning in early 2011, I was unable to see out of my left eye. This medical emergency astonished me into a new vulnerability
but I was fortunate. Within days my vision came back. In my book, Blind Spot,
composed years later from photographs made in 25 countries and passages written equally widely, I explode the highways and byways of my relationship with my sense of sight, a project for which I
found intratexual help from the Hebrew Bible,
from Homer and beyond. To speak of the sense of
hearing makes us think of music but consider the sheer possibilities inherent in acoustic sensitivity,
from military infrasound to the subtle murmurations
of the inner self scoped by a stethoscope. Not that our way of hearing
is the only way of hearing. Bats, for instance, have a
sound world very far from ours. Thomas Nagel’s famous thought
experiment on consciousness was presented in a 1974 paper titled What is it Like to be a Bat. Nagel’s work makes me
think of a superb poem Bats Ultrasound by Les Murray. Murray, who was perhaps the
leading Australian poet, writes brilliantly about animal life. I don’t think his poem, published in 1986, is necessarily in direct
response to Nagel’s queries. Nagel believes a bat’s conscience is not accessible to humans, but somehow Bat’s Ultrasound
in three quintains plus a final line, is as good, a repulse to this assertion of
untranslatability as any I know. And I think what Murray’s
getting at in his poem is not so much how bats speak, but the fine discriminations of hearing that they have access to. I’ll read it in its brief entirety. Bats Ultrasound. Sleeping bag in a duplex wing with fleas, in rock-cleft or building, radar bats are darkness and miniature. Their whole face, one tufty crinkled ear, with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing. Few are vampires, none
flit through the mirror. Where they flutter at evening’s a queer tonal hunting zone above highest C. Insect prey at the peak of our hearing drone re to their detailing tee. ah, eyrie-ire; aero hour, eh? O’er our ur-area our
era aye ere your raw row we air our array err, yaw,
row wry-aura our orrery, our eerie ü our ray, our arrow. A rare ear, our aery Yahweh. Taste is a rather mysterious one. It is an insulted sense. Thought of since ancient times as intellectually inferior
to sight and hearing. These senses have the
capacity to be disinterested but taste is too inundated with pleasure. It is, as Agamben writes, a
knowledge that cannot account for its judgements but rather enjoys them. Russo was getting at the same thing, or something similar with
his distinction between on the one hand, intellectual
and moral impressions which we receive by way of the senses but of which the senses are
only the occasional causes. And on the other, purely
sensual impressions. In that former category,
Russo puts colors and sounds. In the latter, taste is
implied, taste is just taste, a pure sensuality, it does
not and cannot signify. As for smell, we’re acutely
aware of how this sense is the one in which we humans
are most radically inferior. In the Kingdom Animalia we
are at the bottom of the class and don’t even begin
to pass the smell test. Compared to dogs, elephants or sharks with their extraordinarily keen noses, we humans are paltry sniffers. A bear can smell a carcass 20 miles away. At a dozen yards or fewer,
none of you can even smell the jasmine fragrance I’m wearing tonight. You’d never make it in the wild. And finally, let us be glad of touch. Marvell says, “the graves
a fine and private place “but none I think do there embrace.” Imagine the gesture of touching
your lips with your finger or touching your finger with your lips, a gesture close to but not
identical to kissing your finger. Musing others gesture, Michele Serra delivers a marvelous phrase. “The eye vibrates alternately
on both sides of the contact.” Serra is right, I am my
finger and I am my lips, and I am in all places
imbued with intentionality. Touch is the reflex of sense. To touch is to be
touched, to touch oneself is to be touched by oneself. It is to create a circle of which one is both the center and the circumference. There are at least two wrinkles in this account I give of the senses. One is that there are
more than five senses. We have always intuited
this but in modern times we have begun to codify the senses beyond these traditional five
in the western tradition. Don’t mean what one thinks of
when they say the sixth sense. I’m not talking about the paranormal, I’m talking about the utterly normal. The physical but generally unsystematized. We no longer believe that
there are only four elements, but if you ask someone how
many physical senses they have they’re likely to answer five. There are many more, there
are nine, perhaps, or 21, it depends on how you count, it depends on how you
categorize receptors. The original list of
five are now understood to be based on the fact that each has its own neural organization and is not simply a visible sense organ. And on this basis, we can
describe additional senses. The sense of pain is nociception, it’s neurologically distinct
from the sense of touch, though much of its mechanism
is also present on the skin. The ability to know
where the different parts of your body are is called proprioception. Even with your eyes closed, you know exactly where your
fingertips are right this minute and they needn’t be touching
anything for you to know that. Your sense of balance is equilibrioception and it is dependent on
your sense of sight, your inner ear vestibular
canals and your proprioception. We all have that essential
and life-preserving sense of hot and cold called thermoception with one set of receptors
for heat detection and another set for cold. There are cutaneous
thermoreceptors on the skin and there are homeostatic ones which help the body regulate
it in its internal temperature. Well, that brings us up to nine. Well, there’s a sense of
time, a sense of gravity. Even the very faint sense of
where on the planet you are. It’s subtleties all the way down. And now my body wakes to
feel the unpolluted joy. You leave the river
and approach the therme like you are in a dream, a dream of approaching your own body or waking from a dream to
discover your own body anew. To discover that the building is a body or to discover the idea of a
body in the form of a building. Not a body’s shape, nor its
functions, nothing so crude, but rather an experience
mediated through architecture, through an orchestration
of constituent experiences that embodies the sensitivities and sensitive affordances of the body. It is as though the body had been reduced to its senses alone, and those senses had imagined themselves
in the form of a building that could act on the body
and illicit its sensitivity. You approach the therme in darkness, a long dark passage, a
kind of descent and hush, a calming of the body for
what is to come, a turnstyle, the passage, the changing room
of dark burnished red wood enclosed in heavy black leather drapes beyond which you can begin to make out distant muffled voices. Then, long steps,
ritualistically lowering you into what seems like an enormous grotto, but this is not a grotto
or other natural cavern for things here are at right angels. Your barefeet on irregular stone, the evanescent footprints
of other bathers, glimpses of their bodies, the impression of their thrown voices in various languages echoing
and fading in the darkness. The heavy mass of the building
shot through with lightning as though the roof were fissured. Finally, immmersion in the
indoor pool, warm and blue. Inside the therme, a visceral simplicity, darkness and light, clear and indistinct, tremendous height and small spaces. All is built of local vowels nice which glint with mica,
feldspar and quartzite. It is blueish or grayish or greenish, stacked in precise slabs
cumulatively monumental. Where the water has been allowed to drip, there’s a patina of iron,
carbonates, sulfates. Around the perimeter of the indoor pool, off a passageway, are
portals that invite entry. One seems to glow red at the entrance. You enter and descend
into a pool at 107 degrees which is almost as hot as you can bear. This is the fire bath. Your body adjusts to it and you emerge. Opposite is another portal
into a smaller room, its walls concrete and painted
blue, this is the ice bath. At 57 degrees, which can only
be endured for a few moments. Further along is the
entry into a warm pool full of small marigold petals and the misted fragrance of lavender, heaven for the olfactory bulb. The therme is in the village of Vals, in the alpine canton of
Graubunden, in eastern Switzerland. The architect is Peter Zumthor
and the therme was completed in 1996 on the site of an
ancient thermal spring. The building is relatively new but its aura is of something very old. Roman, pre-Roman, water,
stone, darkness, ritual. As that great University
of Chicago scholar, Mircea Eliade, wrote immersion in water signifies regression to the
preformal, reincorporation into the undifferentiated
mode of preexistance. Never so in tune with my
own body as in this cavern with its cantilevered roofs,
its massive stone floors, the dripping water, the
enormous pillars of nice, the shimmering, the
solidity, never so in tune with my own body and
never so released from it, half buried feelings. Diana and Actaeon, Susanna and the Elders, David and Bathsheba, Moses, Achilles, the mythic history of bathing, the condensation of emotion. At the sweat stone, extreme humidity and the fragrance of eucalyptus. At the drinking stone,
val-sa va-sah in your throat. In the sound room, which is
square shaped and high ceilinged with an entrance allowing
only one person at a time. Deep here in the heart of the continent, neck deep in water, lit
from below, all alone, I begin to sing. (singing in foreign language) One voice magically becomes a choir, the overtones creating
unimagined resonances The stone is a womb, the water amniotic. I said earlier that there
were at least two wrinkles in the account I had given of the senses. The second one was already seeping into my description of the therme as light seeps into that building and its this, that the
senses are not isolated, that they’re often blended. The strongest cases of sense
blending we call synesthesia, joined or coupled sensation. People who are synesthetic
experience the coupling of senses in highly individual and specific ways. Someone might consistently
experience B-flat as orange or the letter F as green. Modern neurology has been
able to show that synesthesia, while idiosyncratic, is genetic. There are undoubtedly many synesthetes in the audience tonight since the genes
responsible for synesthesia are present in one and every 23 people. Synesthesia works in
one direction as a rule, a sound induces a color and
not the other way around. The pairings tend to be
consistent for a given person but they are idiosyncratic
from person to person. Also, what is being blended
or not strictly the senses but modalities of sensing, such as colors, letters, shapes, and flavors. A visual modality can blend
with another visual modality. In 1848, eight year old Ellen Emerson was attested as being synesthetic. She was the first documented synesthete in the United States, the first documented
child synesthete anywhere and also the first
documented female synesthete. The evidence is in a letter written by a friend of her fathers
who was helping care for Ellen and her siblings. I was stuck by Ellen’s asking me yesterday while I was talking to Mrs. Brown, if I did not use colored words. She said that she could tell
the color of a great many words and amuse the children
at school by doing so. Ellen Emerson was the daughter
of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The family friend who wrote the letter to Ellen’s father was Henry David Thoreau. But back to jasmine for a second. Charles Dickens in Household Words makes the following spooky
but, to me, alluring claim. Is Jasmine, then, the mystical maru, the center, the delphi, the
omphalos of the floral world. If at the point of departure, the one unapproachable and
indivisible unit of fragrance is Jasmine, the Isis of flowers, with veiled face and covered feet, to be loved of all,
yet discovered by none. Beautiful Jasmine! If it be so the rose ought to be dethroned and the inimitable enthroned
queen in her stead. Revolutions and abdications
are exciting sports. Suppose we create a civil
war among the gardens and crown the jasmine
empress and queen of all. As the kids say, big if true. The synesthesia of Vladimir Nabokov is a virtiginously elaborate version of Ellen Emerson’s colored words. Here’s the account he
gives in speak memory, his 1951 autobiography,
of just how precise was his identification of
letters of the alphabet with specific colors. In detail it is like Moses Harris’s 1766 illustration of the color wheel. The color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally
forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long A of the English has, for me, the tint of weathered wood but a French A evokes polished ebony. This a black group also includes
hard G, vulcanized rubber and R, a suity rag being
ripped, oatmeal N, noodle limp L and the ivory backed hand mirror of O take care of the whites. I’m puzzled by my french O, which I see as the brimming tension surface
of alcohol in a small glass. Passing O to the blue
group, there is steely X, thundercloud Z and huckleberry K. Since a subtle interaction
exists between sound and shape, I see Q as browner than K, while S is not the light blue of C, but a curious mixture of
azure and mother of pearl. It’s extraordinary, it goes on
in this vain for quite awhile all the way to V, which
Nabokov triumphantly declares he has finally perfectly
matched with the entry for rose quartz in Maerz and
Paul’s dictionary of color. Only Nabokov is Nabokov in so many ways. Though, as I’ve said, synesthesia
is actually fairly common. A scientific study of
synesthesia has, in itself, been valuable because it sheds light on a general sophistication
in how we all interact with our sense modalities. I don’t know if I myself
am synesthetic, I doubt it. I cannot always give a mechanical account of the intensity of my sensations. I have some interaction
of numbers and colors. Three is red and seven is green. Four red roses in a vase would
make me feel uncomfortable since roses are red and
want to be three or five. But these are faint associations, for me. We’re all associative to
one degree or the other. I was surprised, but not
surprised, one afternoon when my mother looked at this
mug and said a single word. “Obama.” Bouba, kiki, kiki, bouba, kiki. If I showed you this and I told you one of them was kiki and the other bouba, how would you identify
the one on the left? And the one on the right. It’s remarkable, and its
pretty much universal. There’s a non arbitrary
mapping of sound to shape present in about 90% of
the general population. It is called the kiki and bouba effect, (laughing) and was described by
Wolfgang Köhler in 1929. Köhler’s experiment, conducted
on the island of Tenerife in 1929, asked people to match the shapes to the words takete and baluba. In 2001, researchers
Ramachandran and Hubbard repeated the experiment with
American college students and with Tamil speakers in India using the words kiki and bouba. The correct matches matching
kiki with a spiky shape and bouba with a rounded one, were made by more than
95% of the subjects. What the kiki and bouba effect suggests is that the naming of
objects is not random. Also, the rounded shape your mouth makes pushes a bouba towards roundness while the angularity of
the mouth in saying kiki as well as the shortness of the E sound help associate it with a spiky shape. The cross-sensory effect of bouba and kiki shows up in musical sounds
where a pinging is kiki and a boomy one is bouba and in taste where a tart taste is kiki
and a creamy one is bouba. In 1887, the American
chemist Charles Henry Piesse published Olfactics and
the Physical Senses. In that book, we find an account of a peculiar speculation
by Piesse’s father, Septimus Piesse. The elder Piesse proposed a taxonomy called the gamut of colors. He proposed the primary
odors to be camphor, highest, lemon, jasmine, rose, almond,
clove and santal, lowest. Going further, he assigned
them musical notes and also assigned notes to
a range of non-primary odors from the high F of civet
to the low C of patchouli. Middle C is jasmine. The smells are arranged in a musical scale the elder Piesse calls an odophone. Though, to his credit, the younger Piesse does not definitively
declare whether he believes or disbelieves his father’s speculations. We’re all highly mingled within ourselves. Most of us are exquisitely suggestible under the influence of certain cues. always one petite shell shaped madeleine away from a spiral of memory. It’s been more than a decade now since I was hiking in the Jarawa Hills outside the city of Jos
in Northern Nigeria. It was a day of such beauty and clarity as I will never forget. The pure air of the hills, our discovery of a milky blue lake and the sheer white cliff
setting off one side of it. Near the end of the hike, hours after we last ran into anyone else, we came upon a jasmine bush
abundant with white bloom. I plucked a bunch of florets
and bruising the petals with my fingers, brought them to my nose. And at the very moment I
did so, the very instant, I received the olfactory sensation of concentrated jasmine
and pure mountain air. A cloud of white butterflies
rose from the bush. I thought I was hallucinating
or having a stroke and ever since then,
whenever I smell jasmine I see white butterflies. I’m currently working on a
project of photos of Switzerland. In sequence, these images
present themselves to me as musical notes or chords. When I am editing, I am
listening to the images. I’m not particularly
interested in their content, but more in how they
sound next to each other. The way that when I’m listening to certain kinds of contemporary music, let’s say, Morton
Feldman or György Ligeti, the satisfaction comes from
a certain bell-like ringing of chords in a certain sequence. When I am editing, when I’m
looking at finished images, I feel the music intensely. The pictures sound like bright, clean, angular and astringent piano chords. I know a sequence of images works when the individual images have that crystalline sound quality, as though they were being played by the same player on the same piano with a kind of consistent attack, though the individual notes
and the clusters keep changing. Like my mother, who immediately
identified the jug-eared mug as Obama, or my brother for
whom the counting of integers arrives in specific graphic arrays, I have certain blended sensitivities that enrich my experience of the world. Saul Bellow, who was much
honored here and deservedly so, had one of the most
sensitive descriptive pallets of any 20th century anglophone writer. He won the Nobel Prize in 1976. But in March 1994, Alfred
Kaisen wrote the following. My heart sank when I heard
that Bellow once said, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? “The Proust of the Papuans? “I’d be glad to read him.” Bellow’s statement was
not completely surprising since his pronouncement had
taken a consolative turn for a number of years. The latest statement did
add a hectic few weeks to the American culture
wars in the mid 90s and Bellow had both
defenders and detractors. He took to the pages of The New York Times to write in his own defense. Reading it now, one can still see his peak rising off the page like steam. In almost every successive paragraph, he takes a different turn,
he slashes in all directions. First he says that he’s only alleged to have said any such thing. Then he says, he suddenly
said it nowhere in print, then he says, “the scandal
is entirely journalistic “in origin, the result
of a misunderstanding.” Then he seems to concede that
he did say it in some form but that it was in order
to make a distinction between literate and
pre-literate societies. By the next paragraph, he says his remarks were off the cuff obviously and then he makes the bizarre argument that since neither the Bulgarians nor the Americans have a Proust, they should be offended too. Of course he did not say anything about Americans or
Bulgarians, the reason being, to quote the argument he
makes in a later paragraph, that we have to make allowance
for what we outsiders cannot hope to fathom in another society. Americans and Bulgarians are
not foreign to this conception of the world as he imagines Zulus to be. In the short space of his
opinion piece, one insense and internally incoherent
argument follows another. People no longer have a sense of humor. Rage is prestigious, black child gangsters are killing people for
saying the wrong thing. Nowhere in this rant is there any notion that the Zulu or the Papuan
might have a right of response or even be able to recognize the layers of condescension involved. They’re simply too primitive to be imaginable inside the argument other than as the
material of argumentation. Nevermind that there
are already actual Zulu and Papuan novelists that
are made to disappear. Finally coming to the end of his screed, Bellow decides that
anyone who criticizes him is to be equated with
anti-Semites and Stalinists and that his right to discuss
a major public question is being infringed. He concludes, we can’t open our mouths without being denounced
as racists, misogynists, supremacists, imperialists, or facists. The phrasing is unfortunately familiar now and its actual meaning
is frequently as follows. We can’t say racist, misogynist,
supremacist, imperialist or fascist things without
having them recognized as such. I’ve long wondered, what
the adequate repulse to Bellow’s rage would be
and I offer two here now, because the matter touches on both imagination and sensitivity. One response, not by me,
which I like very much was formulated by the
late writer, Ralph Wiley, and quoted in Ta-Nehesi Coates’s
Between the World and Me, here’s what Wiley said. “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, “unless you find profit in
fencing off universal properties “of mankind into exclusive
tribal ownership.” I love that response because
it identifies accurately how we live in a polifany
of cultural infleuence that is not eclipsed by race, age, gender, citizenship, or historical period. That takes us from Li Po to Virginia Wolf to Toni Morrison and all stops in between. But a quick note about jasmine. I recently bought, at
Whole Foods in Summerville, a vile of jasmine absolute essential oil. 14 dollars and 95 cents for half an ounce. It’s not so much floral as it is the very smell of the flower itself. Sweet, gummy, honeyed
with a faint citron note. I opened it in the aisle. I was thinking of what I
was gonna cook for dinner. I was thinking of what I
had taught in class earlier. I was thinking of what I would present in Chicago in a few weeks. I was thinking of the
ridiculous price of the jasmine. But the moment I closed my eyes and put that vile up to my nose, I was on a sunny hilltop in Nigeria surrounded by an apparition
of white butterflies. Here’s a second response to Bellow. This one, mine, in the form
of a speculative narrative. An invitation to imagine. I want us to go to a different place and see something of the
dignity of the other. An experiential complexity
that is as world rich as anything in Tolstoy or Bellow. One evening, late in the year
1385, the Ooni or King of Ife held a consulation over land dispute. The Ooni was seated on his throne in the shadowy inner room of the palace. He was arrayed in magnificent
flowing white robes, which signified his purity and his association with a God or Bathala. This Ooni was named Obalufon II, and he was the third king
to ascend the throne of Ife. He had been crowned
and then there had been a terrible succession battle and he had been deposed
by his uncle Oranmiyan. While the struggle had continued and eventually Oranmiyan was overthrown and Obalufon II had come back to power. By 1385, he’s older, wiser. The city-state of Ife, 135 miles north of West Africa’s Atlantic
coast has been secured. On the King’s face, is
a serene prosperity. He has the cheeks of a man who
laughs but he’s not laughing. He has taken an oath,
never again to laugh, ever since when he was a young prince, a distraught rival committed
suicide in front of him. That prince had sliced his own belly open. (speaks in foreign language) the Yorubas say, he died on his neck, meaning that that prince died on Obalufon’s account, blaming him. This horrible incident
had deprived Obalufon of all feeling of mirth
and he never laughed again but he smiled mysteriously. Were we able to properly see Obalufon’s dark complexioned face,
were it not obscured by the beaded crown,
which scatters the light across his face, we would see
his calmness and ingenuity. We would see the natural set of his lips, the line of that enigmatic
smile, the flare of the nostrils, all this fine detail we must imagine, but still we can see
behind the shifting beads that it is him for
aspects of the physiognomy come across unmistakably. Obalufon II leans over to an advisor and whispers his judgment. The King is second only to the Gods and his voice is not
to be heard trivially. The advisor speaks out,
rendering the verdict on the matter at hand, where
the demarcations of land are to be set, to whom
restitution must be paid, what the penalties are against anyone who contravenes the royal decision. Given the variables at play, given the various feelings
of the parties involved, his majesty has spoken wisely. Jurisprudence always contains
an element of guesswork anyway and wisdom is guaranteed to displease at least some claimants. In 100 years or so, as with so
many things in human affairs, this particular decision
won’t matter so much. There will be other
conflicts, other contests, and only faint memories of this evening. But return to the moment and
close in with me on the point. Only a few of those gathered
in court, sworn to secrecy, know that this man is not
actually the King, Obalufon II. It is someone else pretending to be him, a high chief wearing
a hyperrealistic mask. Obalufon II himself has
been dead for years now. The mask is now in his place. It is made of almost pure copper, expensive and ferociously
difficult to cast. At this moment, that
technology is lost to Europe and will only be revived
in the time of Donatello. The mask is made to the precise
size of the dead King’s face and when it is worn, it
extends his beneficial rule. In a few months, the sacred
subterfuge will be over. The next king, the fourth Ooni of Ife will ascend the throne. Obalufon will be deified and
become the God of sculptors and one of the most
honored of Ife’s kings. But for now, on this evening in 1385, we’re still suspended
in necessary deception. The Ooni rises, leaves the room and the people of Ife
fall and bow in piety. His white robe’s cloud
him in the half darkness and the air is full of his special music. The music of O-ba-at-la and
an ensemble of ignis drums with their slack and deep sound and a chatter of metal percussion. (drum music) The eyes of onlookers see
the carved wooden posts of the palace, the shimmering robes, the brass sculptures
representing the ancestors and royal families and the mask, which is the face of the King, which is a signal of tradition, which is the guarantee of personhood their ears here and
navigate the polyrhythmic percussion ensemble in
high and low registers, finally discriminating between
the instrumental tumbers, their noses smell the sweet sensors and ritual smoke of tawari
that fill the court. Their tongues are bitter with a taste of ceremonial kola nut,
obi which is distributed to stimulate wisdom and focus. Their hands and feet are in
contact with the fine red earth. Their skin feels the heat of the room and their bodies locate
them in the pulsing crowd never too far or too from or too close to their fellow courtiers. There is a sense of time but
not that governed by clocks. All their antennae are tuned in. All their receptors are activated. Proprioception,
noniception, thermoception, equilibrioception, all their memories help situate them inside
the flux of existence in their proper places in
the lineage of the living, the dead, and the unborn and
they are, at this very moment, collectively human because
sensate, sensible, sensitive, in every sense of the word,
and I, as a sensing being, sense it all too with them
like a river at its river song, like a piano struck at middle C, like a sudden whiff of jasmine, like that unsought and ineffable
cloud of white butterflies. This is the first of
three lectures, thank you. (audience applauding)

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