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What’s the best sense?

Julian Barnes, Julie Myerson, Andrew Solomon and four others take their pick

July/August 2015

STEPHEN SCHIFF TOUCH

In the realm of the senses, two reign supreme. Sight and hearing are rich and beloved, opulently served by the cultural forms we have devised for them – art, music, dance, theatre, poetry. They float serenely above taste and smell, two lesser nobles forever scrapping over the dominion of food. Taste has the edge there, so smell has been granted a magical little duchy of its own, where it presides in isolate splendour, mooning over old memories. Four smug monarchs, each ruling from a local seat of power, each passively receiving those emissaries from the outside, the impressions.

But touch is an eminence of a different order. It is the body’s democracy, active everywhere, sending its messages not just from the teeming power centres – the fingertips, lips and genitals – but also from those remote and neglected territories behind the knee, on top of the ear, even that unreachable itchy spot in the middle of the back. And it doesn’t just sit there; touch rouses itself and goes out to the world. Touch is generous, warm. It gives even as it receives.

And touch makes democrats of us all. There are those who develop talented eyes, a marvellous ear, an expert palate, or a superb nose. But if anyone other than a masseur has ever possessed a dazzling sense of touch, history has not recorded it. Nor do you hear a lot about the less touchy among us. Deprived of sight, hearing, taste or smell, people soldier on and sometimes flourish, but being deprived of touch is nearly unimaginable. The other senses sweep us away, out of ourselves, into the Rembrandt or the Mozart, or, with a nibble of madeleine, into the past. But the more we touch, the more deeply we become who we are.

It is night, very late. I spoon my wife as she slips into sleep, and I hope sleep will come soon to me, too. Sight disappears with the shutting of my eyes. Taste is already snoozing and smell inert, as it often is once it has taken in what is there for it to take in. Slowly, hearing crosses over into dream. I feel the length of my wife against my own length, and I reach across and cup her breast with my hand. The pleasure of that taction flows into the place where my consciousness is just beginning to nudge oblivion. Minutes pass. I drift – and then realise with a pang that I no longer feel her breast. At the edge of sleep, touch is the last sense to say goodnight. When it disappears, and then when it appears again, so do I.

 

JULIAN BARNES A SENSE OF SELF

My mother, in old age, used to toy with a conundrum: “Would I rather go deaf or blind?” We tend to take our five cardinal senses so much for granted that it is common to appreciate them negatively: which would we be least able to do without? Also, to think of them separately: this one does this, that that. Occasionally, they are invited to work together, as in Sydney Smith’s serio-comic imagining of heaven: eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets (which has always seemed cacophonous to me, the one delight distracting from the other). But, at a deeper level, the senses do work together, act consensually. The five outward ones, plus the inner ones – senses of memory, feeling and reasoning, the moral sense, the sense of guilt, and so on – all add up to make us what we are, to give us that basic, underlying sense: of self.

Some people have a weak sense of self, or a fabricated one, or a self they willingly subsume into a belief system which demands that it be minimised, even crushed. But most of us think of ourselves as having a sturdy, continuing sense of self, built up over the years. And again, we mostly take it for granted, and end up appreciating it negatively. So my mother did not get that hypothetical choice between blindness and deafness; instead, she had a stroke which left those two cardinal senses unaffected, but targeted instead her very sense of self. In hospital, she complained to me, with the remnants of her reason, “I’m quite loopy.” The word was typical: for her generation, the elderly whose selves were crumbling would be “not all there”, “soft in the head”, “off with the fairies”, and so on. Edmond de Goncourt, the great 19th-century French diarist, asked his brother Jules, whose self was being dissolved by tertiary syphilis, “Where are you?” To which the dreamy, suffering one replied, “Away in space, in empty space.”

The softer phrases of previous generations are now outmoded. Dementia, Alzheimer’s: these are the words and the things we fear. A death of the self which precedes the death of the body. We sometimes tell one another, hopefully, consolingly, of someone close to us whose self is disappearing, “He’s still there underneath.” Mostly, this is wishful thinking: the self may be six feet under before the body is. What hope do we have of retaining our sense of self until the end? The old advice used to be that mental and physical exercise would help keep us ticking over. But a recent research paper – to the alarm of health professionals and the “self-conscious” – suggests that being overweight now offers a greater chance of avoiding dementia than being lithely athletic. So perhaps it’s time to hedge one’s bets: morning walk, crossword, pizza; exercise bike, sudoku, burger. I reckon it’s worth a try.

 

JULIE MYERSON A SENSE OF COLOUR

Imagine a world – any world – drained of colour. A world where even the possibility of colour does not exist. No soaring blueness, no acid green or violet. No explosions of red and tangerine. No smooth green fields seen from a train, no turquoise sea or cobalt sky. Not even the brief, welcome flash of neon pink or yellow in a shop window, or scarlet trainers on a girl at the bus stop. And in its place, an ashy deadness: bone-bleached sky, leaden grass, dark clotted squiggles of trees. A queasy sameness, a stultifying lack of change. Wouldn’t it feel as if an entire sense were missing?

As one who suffers from (or is that enjoys?) synaesthesia, I see colour but also smell it, hear it, taste it. For me, words have colours. Sometimes, putting them on the page, I choose them as much for their precise pulsing hue as for any meaning they might have. “Ragged”, for instance, is maroon tapering off into greyish black. “Breath” begins blue and turns brown, with a touch of yellow in the middle. “Sadness” is entirely pale yellow, “sorrow” a darkish green. I look for the way they seep into the palette, the way they charge each other. Because colour is all about mood: it can lift, delight, excite, break through any torpor. It opens our hearts to shifts of circumstance. With colour around, nothing is fixed, everything is alive. Yes, it will fade – colour reminds you that everything is seasonal. But a world suffused with colour and brightness allows you to dream of anything, doesn’t it?

In a photograph from a few years ago, my daughter’s defiant, teenaged fist has grabbed a bunch of just-picked sweet peas. Beneath the inky violet, pink, puce and magenta petals, are her scrubby, childish nails, each one painted in a different primary colour: sky blue, crimson, egg-yolk yellow.

I use this picture like a prayer, a benison. I turn to it often. That sweet hand, those flowers – and the colours. They tell me everything I need to know about the world: that it is, and always will be, alive, bright and perpetually astonishing.

 

ADAM FOULDS HEARING

Our sense of home is intimately bound up with our sense of hearing. I know that I am home if I can hear the silvery soloing of robins or the soulful whistling of blackbirds. I’m not alone in this attachment. Tennyson’s favourite line, among all his many thousands, recorded hearing a blackbird – “The mellow ouzel fluted in the elm” – and during the civil-rights era Paul McCartney discovered a deathless optimism in a blackbird singing in the dead of night.

Birdsong – beautiful, ubiquitous, worthy of anybody’s attention – is only one gift of hearing and one way that it connects us to the world. Hearing is a sense we cannot switch off. We can’t shut our ears. They are always open, allowing the changing world into our consciousness. As Proust puts it in “The Captive”:


At daybreak, my face still turned to the wall, and before I had seen above the big curtains what colour the first streaks of light assumed, I could already tell what the weather was like. The first sounds from the street had told me, by whether they came to my ears deadened and distorted by the moisture of the atmosphere or quivering like arrows in the resonant expanses of a spacious, frosty, pure morning. As soon as I heard the rumble of the first tramcar, I could tell whether it was sodden with rain or setting forth into the blue.

 

But it is music that makes the clinching argument for hearing as the best sense. “Without music”, wrote Nietzsche, exaggerating only slightly, “life would be a mistake.” We need music to escape ourselves – and to experience our deepest emotions, released without the sharp and splintering specifics of language. Without music, there would be no such release. There would be no Bach, no “Be My Baby”. There would be no reason to dance.

 

RICHARD EYRE COMMON SENSE

My mother had Alzheimer’s. First she lost her sense of smell and then her sense of taste. In a river of forgetfulness, non-sequiturs and vagueness, her common sense was washed away. Little by little, her other senses, including her sense of self, dropped away. If she said anything at all, it was nonsense.

Common sense may be the most invoked sense, and the least reliable. Its calibration is slippery, philosophical rather than physiological. It’s abused by politicians and derided by scientists. During the British election, it was waved like a regimental banner by one politician after another. We were told that it was common sense to privatise the National Health Service, cut welfare, sell off housing-association houses, and against common sense to scrap Trident, introduce a banking tax, revoke non-dom status, or assert that organisations can be driven by motives other than profit.

Common sense is always conscripted by Conservative politicians and think-tanks. If you defy their common sense, you’re not living in the “real” world. In my parallel world — every bit as real as that of the conservative Centre for Policy Studies — you don’t have to be a Marxist to believe in the axiom “common sense is the sense of the ruling class”, you simply have to apply common sense.

It can be like debating the problem of consciousness with a neuroscientist, as I did recently in New York. She argued that without objective and verifiable proof, consciousness doesn’t exist. Determined to prove its existence, I found myself citing my mother who, having lost all her senses, notably the common one, retained a glimmer of humanity until the end. What was that if not consciousness?

It was common sense, I said, that there was something which, if you had to put a word to it, was her soul. I felt like Dr Johnson refuting Bishop Berkeley’s assertion that matter didn’t exist. “He struck his foot with mighty force against a large stone”, wrote Boswell, “till he rebounded from it: ‘I refute it thus’.”

 

ANN WROE THE SIXTH SENSE

You come to a door you have passed many times before, and decide this time to open it. You do not quite know why. You enter a room, and instantly something sets up a prickling in the hair, a chill in the veins, and you go no further. It is nothing precisely seen, heard or felt; it is as if things seen, though mute, also called out, as if things heard also flashed before our eyes, as if the sense of feeling turned its soft fibres inward, creeping among our thoughts. For some necessary moment we become instinctive, like an animal or a bird.

This odd sense, the sixth, makes us pause, pulling us back from the kerb and the unseen car, or pushes us out of danger when the rock falls or the ladder gives way. It says: Don’t do this. Yet it is also gentle, like a finger in the collar that makes you turn round in the street – to see a tree white and alight with cherry blossom – or look up suddenly from a book, to see four small sunset clouds arranged with perfect spacing on the horizon of the sea. It also says: Don’t miss this.

Within us or without us, who can tell? That sudden provocation may be subtle as a feather or strong as a pair of arms. If it goes beyond coincidence, happenstance or chance – with which it is easily confused – there is some message in it. We take that path – why? We’re snatched from death – for what purpose?

Perhaps the best description of the sense is T.S. Eliot’s in “Burnt Norton”, the first of his “Four Quartets”. The whole poem flickers and tingles with it. But it is when the thrush calls, in response to “the unheard music hidden in the shrubbery” and the tricks of the sunlight, that we come closest. “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”

As much reality as the sixth sense gives us, fleeting though it is, may be enough.

 

ANDREW SOLOMON A SENSE OF HUMOUR

The despair of comedians is a commonplace, but the lightness of tragedians gets less press. Many the great writer who has been more inclined to comedy than to tragedy in his later years. It may be that the exhaustion of living one’s later years contains tragedy enough, but it is also an acknowledgment that hilarity is the braver art. If you can see the humour in your own misfortunes, they are less unfortunate. The greatest pleasures of fathering include comforting a sad child and making them laugh; sometimes one does the first by way of the second, and sometimes vice-versa. Every parent and spouse knows that jubilation is a broad gateway to intimacy. Without humour, there would be only a mean resilience in many a marriage.

As the author of a book about depression, I’m often asked what got me through my worst periods of despair. The foremost answers are love and humour. One can cope with the darkest events by seeing their comical aspects, because what is funny cannot simultaneously be threatening; it is not coincidence that we denote flagrant disrespect with the word “laughable”. While anodyne laughter can mitigate calamity, mirth indulged for its own sake is precious even when it has no large enemy to face down. Sometimes, humour is used unkindly, and laughter expresses collective disparagement. Sometimes it can be deployed manipulatively; as a writer, and even more as a public speaker, I’ve discovered that it is much easier to make people cry after you’ve made them laugh.

I remember my father getting wildly angry when my mother was dying and I made a joke; he thought I was trivialising our shared suffering. I didn’t have the clarity to explain myself at the time, but I was trying to acknowledge the monumentality of what was happening to us, not to minimise it. We can meet a minor dismay with long faces, but catastrophe demands the uproarious to keep us going. Upon wit rests our sanity, in tough times or good ones.

 

Which answer gets your vote?

Go to moreintelligentlife.com and make your choice. Search “Big Question”

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