Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Do we perceive the truth with our senses? (Books - Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje)

When we appraise our environment as we venture into some new territory, our eyes and ears provide us the advantage of doing so from some distance, whereas taste, smell, and touch require us to be closer. The level of detail which smell provides us is so fine grained we actually analyze minute amounts of chemical compounds in the environment, rather than noticing how much light bounces off something, assessing shape, its size. But the level of detail available to us comes at the cost of risk. Our encounters with what surrounds us are mixed with information from past encounters, as we evaluate not just the information we get from frequencies of light, but their value to us - good or bad - which allow us to make decisions about future actions? Do I run or do I approach. Is there food here or will I turn out to be that food? Somehow that entire process was captured by these passages in Michael Ondaatje's latest book Divisadero.

Anna carried the map with her as she walked. Since the day she had met the four hunters, she wore jeans instead of a skirt and shaved ten minutes off the ninety-minute walk. But where she was now, alongside the gorse hedges, the path was uneven, broken with stones, and she needed to slow down. Juniper grabbed her feet as she left the path, throwing up its smell. Sunlight fell through the trees and she paused to look up at the splintered beauty, she heard music.

What she heard was a woman singing. If she had thought there were men there, she would not have walked toward the sound. But this was tempting. A woman's voice, a tune that seemed to have no scaffolding, almost too caual to be good, although the voice was clear, waterlike. Anna stood where she was a moment longer. She saw a sparrow leaping from branch to branch, clumsily, hardly adept. She strolled towards the clearing, stopping once or twice, trying to interpret the tune.

She came into the open field, where there was a woman, and also a man, sitting in a straight-backed chair, accompanying her on what looked to be a guitar. They didn't see her at first, but they must have sensed something - a sudden quietness in the trees above her, perhaps - for the woman turned and, when she saw Anna, stopped singing and strode away, leaving the man alone in the open field...

Anna's advance across space brings her closer for a more detailed look as her advance across time allows her to absorb and integrate more details and relate them to her past experience. Sometimes a distant and brief relationship is all we allow ourselves, if our memory tells us that the risk of getting closer would be too great. But sometimes that distance forces us to make mistakes and never taking that risk we don't merely miss the pleasures of new encounters, we never find out we were wrong and so continue to use only the crude information we are able to collect at a distance to make decisions about value of what awaits us and whether it is worth the risk. That is the origin of 'once burned, twice shy.' It is the origin of our prejudices.

The reason I seem to be making such snail-like progress through this book is because two pages like these seem to include a whole world and I end up stopping several times and musing on wherever the narrative takes me. So did Anna's history give her an accurate sense of what lay a few paces in front of her or didn't it?

...The man with the guitar had turned his head to look at her. Feeling she needed to make a gesture to avoid being rude, Anna moved forward to say something, and he watched the uneven grass she crossed as she approached him.

Hello. I'm sorry.

As if she had some here and interrupted him to htell him she was sorry!

One thing, she felt completely safe. It was not the obvious fact that he was holding a guitar and not a weapon, it was his look, as though he had been just taken from refuge, and she was now insisting him back to earth. While she walked those last few yards towards him, she realized she must have also heard his playing when she entered the clearing, a subliminal hum and strum, a rhythm and a melody - which was why the woman had needed none in her song. The woman was accompanying him. So now it was as if everything she had heard was being replayed in her memory, recalled differently. He had been the one drawing her into the clearing.

As she gets nearer she not only uses the more detailed information she can now see, she replays her memory in light of her new information and rewrites it, reinterprets it. Is her new interpretation more correct? Not necessarily, but she does have more information than she had before and adjusts her narrative. Yet getting closer so that she could use her sense of smell might lead her to review her appraisal. More time with it could lead her to change it yet again. When is it done? When do we trust that we know something or someone? More time could lead him to new experiences which could change him and if she noticed those changes, because she was seeing collecting her visual information from the details that surround her and not with her memory of him, she might see that change and reinterpret her narrative of him yet again. The interaction of our senses, our memory and how they inform our interpretations and our behavior is captured in such livid detail in these pages. It's a real reading pleasure.


Heather said...

I didn't enjoy this book unfortunately - I just didn't get it I suppose. It is beautifully written though and I appreciate that. I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Ted said...

Heather - I've heard a lot of people have that reaction - interesting. We'll see what it all adds up to when I get to the end.

Anne Camille said...

I read Ondaatje's poem "The Cinnamon Peeler's Wife" for the first time a few days ago. It has been my occasional diversion at work since then; I've taken several short breaks to reread it. The sense of smell is center in this poem, providing knowledge and identity as well as a collective memory. I really like the passage you've quoted here. I'm not very familiar with Ondaatje's work, but I'm intrigued by his use of the sensual, enough to read more.

Anonymous said...

I love this kind of detail-rich, intense writing. I guess that's good because my girlfriend says his writing reminds her a lot of my writing style. And yet I've never read anything by him - until now! Thank you for sharing so much about his work :)