Friday, 22 August 2014

The Lemon Tastes Yellow: Digressions Around Sartre

I wanted to write something about a passage in Sartre where he says something like "the lemon tastes yellow", except I couldn't remember where I'd read it. It's actually from Being and Nothingness, and memory had amended it:
The lemon is extended through all its qualities, and each of its qualities is extended through each of the others. It is the sourness of the lemon which is yellow, it is the yellowness of the lemon which is sour. We eat the colour of the cake, and the taste of the cake is the instrument through which its shape and its colour are revealed to what we might term the alimentary intuition. 

It's one of those passages that we 'get' on first reading - a brief flash of sense - but can't then translate it into 'ordinary language'. The question is how we tackle ideas with this rather torsive phrasing.  If we're being a hard-nosed literalist we say it's simply nonsense. Colour is one thing and taste another, and although there's something called synesthesia, that's a rather exceptional and special case.

But this hard-nosed literalist response is something we're happy to suspend if we're dealing with poetry or fiction. In literary writing "the lemon tastes yellow" is certainly something we'd allow without demanding paraphrase* . With literature we turn ourselves to the new direction from which meaning arrives. (We might compare Beckett's metaphorical use of the square root of minus one in Texts for Nothing versus Lacan's use if it in psychoanalysis. The latter is typicaly condemned as a nonsensical misuse of mathematical formulae, whereas Beckett's is an inspired analogue of the self - something at once non-existent but necessary). But, and especially in poetry, 'meaning' is also somethin rather different. The 'meaning', or sense, of a line of poetry, comes in an instant and has a peremptory finality. It names something with exactidude and justice to such a degree that paraphrase neither has nor wants an answer. This instantaneous flash of sense, which illuminates mind and body at once, is indeed part of the attraction of poetry.

Many philosophers tend towards the poetic. Not as an evasion of logic or plain sense. For them, the metaphor, the image, the paradox are ways of taking by surprise an Idea that would otherwise see us coming and take flight.  And these philosophers are the ones condemned by hard-nosed literalism and common sense. Sartre is one of them.

Associated thoughts:

1. Let's say we hear a record from our childhood, and experience a Proustian reprise of our world back then. I suggest it not that we're hearing some tones and sounds that then send us to our childhood, or onto which we then project the flavours of childhood. Rather do we directly hear our childhood.

In fact, hearing is perhaps always minimally synesthesiac in a way that's easy to understand. We hear the hardness of wood when its tapped against another surface, the brittleness of glass, the volume of something is reveaed when it hits the floor, its hollowness etc The squelch of a rotten fruit reveals its inner consistency. Sound complements touch. Each sense is a new revelation of the object, and so is the object equally distributed through these revelations.

2. The infectious contiguity of colour. It's most obviously noticeable in painting: the tone and mood of a colour changes radically according to what colours surround it. Each colour is infected by the others. Each colour is somehow distributed through the others. 

3. A more anecdotal approach concerns the impossibility of repeating a flavour from a trip abroad. There was a wine in Florence, which we had at a hilltop restaurant in Fiesole. I thought it was the best wine I'd ever tasted. Many months after we popped into a shop on the King's Road and saw the same wine, and took it home, eager to savour again that unique taste. Of course, it was very nice, but not at all the same. Something similar hasppens with cold beers tasted in hot dry countries. In fact, whenever I've come back from somwhere I've always made this mistake. A liqueur, in Prague, a coffee from Italy.. I want to reproduce the taste at home. To drink again that taste which always disappoints because there was never anything as discrete, as individualised as a taste. In fact, at the origin, all the elements interpenetrate. The wine, the breeze, the wild cat in the street below, the view over Florence. We think of the Experience as the sum total of its parts - the individual tastes and sensations. But in fact, what comes first is the Experience in its unity, which we then cut up into various individual tastses and sensations. There is perhaps a low-level synesthesia that inflects all our experience. Like the colours in a painting infecting oneanother.