11 March 2012

A book of Eliot, a flask of Château Rieussec, and thou...

In a comment to my post noting a PNAS paper about rhythm structures, Julie Heyward asked:

Why does this feel a little like saying that a glass of Château Rieussec smells of ripe pineapple and honey because it contains ethyl butyrate and phenylethylic alcohols?

[Not that I've ever had a glass of Château Rieussec or know that they smell of ripe pineapple and honey, much less that it's because of the ethyl butyrate and phenylethylic alcohols – I just read and repeat this stuff ... and I hope you appreciate how long it took me to type ethylyl butyrate and phenylethylic alcohol three times.]

I didn't even know what Château Rieussec was, at the time, though of course I guessed that it was a wine. I've now looked it up, here.

I confess that all wines, and beer for that matter, taste to me like variations on the same sour, unpleasant theme. None of the finer details of aroma and bouquet reach me through the general sense that something unpleasant is rotting in my mouth. Which probably makes me a Philistine, but there you go (though while we're at it, may I point out that the Philistines are victims of a JudaeoChristian smear campaign). Brandy is a different matter ... but, I digress.

I do appreciate Julie's heroism in typing ethyl butyrate and phenylethylic alcohol three times, though I confess that I haven't typed either myself – simply copied and pasted them.

Anyway ... to return to the issue at hand ... Julie has a good point, though not an uncomplicated one.

Many moons ago, as a teenager studying English literature at A-level, I found my natural enjoyment of poetry and drama, in particular, eroded by continual analysis. In the year after I finished that course, I read almost nothing. Later, though, I returned to literature and discovered that the habits of analysis had now internalised and operated as an enriching layer which fed, rather than opposed, my enjoyment. The crucial difference was that I no longer stopped reading T S Eliot to think “hmmm ... Eliot is here echoing the contemporary debates around the meaning of time and the psychology of mind, through reference to Dante and the Vedas...” but, rather, allowed that knowledge (where it existed) to thrum away in my subconscious and generate overtones which enhanced the conscious reading ... or not, if I didn't have that knowledge available.

That distinction is one which I have since applied to every cultural interaction. Added layers of meaning are valuable if they enhance the "reading"; undesirable if they interfere with it.

I've made reference from time to time to habitat theory, particularly as espoused by Jay Appleton and proposed in his The experience of landscape. I find Appleton's analyses, and habitat theory generally, fascinating as an entirely self contained set of ideas separate from my twin loves of walking and art. When I am enjoying either a hike through the Wicklow mountains or a Maggi Hambling sunset painting, I never ever think consciously “aha ... what we have here is a set of three interlocking prospect symbologies...” because to do so would spoil either experience. On the other hand, the subconscious knowledge that such an additional dimension exists, and is being synchronously processed at another level, does add a layer of chromatic complexity to both experiences which increases my enjoyment of them. I don't offer this as a general rule, though; it works for me, but may not work for others. My ex wife, a painter and sculptor of great passion, always refused to read Appleton and was right to do so – because, although she had a rich and complex intellectual life, and would cheerfully argue the intertwining of history and myth in Shakespeare's Richard III, she knew from experience that some arts of it had to be kept away from her creative self if she was to avoid interference of the type which afflicted my A-level English lit course.

Coming back to Bach and Château Rieussec, similar principles apply. As I listen to the Matthaus Passion, I shall spare not one fraction of a second for thoughts of the power law underlying its rhythm structure ... but I can still enjoy that knowledge as a separate delight. It's possible that the knowledge will subconsciously add to my conscious and instinctive enjoyment of the music; it's also possible that it won't; but it certainly will not be allowed onto the stage where it can interfere. If I am ever forced, by politeness, to sip wine (Château Rieussec or otherwise), on the other hand, I shall probably find conscious, centre stage thoughts of ethyl butyrate and phenylethylic alcohol (again copied and pasted, not typed) a useful distraction. Transferring the spirit of the Château Rieussec argument to something I do sensuously enjoy, I have to agree that neither ascorbic nor salicylic acids have any part in my sensations as I consume a mango or a tomato ... although I find the properties of those ingredients interesting at other times, when not lost in the fruits themselves.

In general, then, my reply to Julie's comment is that parallel knowledge can, in the right circumstances and depending on the individual, be a useful amplifier of experience ... but only as long as it doesn't usurp it. The trick is ensuing that each stays in its place and time.

  • Post title with apologies to Fitzgerald's translation of The rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
  • Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape. 1986, Hull: Hull University Press. 0859584615. [Originally 1975, London: Wiley. 0471032565.] [Most recent edition 1996, Chichester: Wiley. 0471962333 (hbk) or 047196235X (pbk).] [Now out of print.]


Julie Heyward said...

You might serve Château Rieussec with artichokes.

Felix said...

I might, indeed ... to somebody else! :-)