Saturday, May 15

hooks and eyes

there is often a shortage of things to do behind this little circulation desk, especially between semesters. I usually bring a book. today it was Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. and inbetween doses of that, there is a ritual of online adventuring. Coudal's fresh signals. design*sponge. the 'i heart strangers' archive.

and from these various gardens of hyperlinks, via comments and attributions and plugs, I have been brought to all sorts of interesting stories I never would have thought to look for otherwise--such as this fascinating discourse on the subject of ketchup, written by Malcolm Gladwell for the New Yorker back in 2004. incidentally, Malcolm Gladwell was a part of my very, very first RadioLab experience--the show about choice.

it was in the middle of Gladwell's ketchup article that I suddenly stopped, opened a new tab, and googled the word umami. that cannot be a real technical term, I thought to myself. it sounds too weird.

the first door google opened for me here was, of course, the one to wikipedia. and the wikipedians explained to me that umami is indeed a real technical term, used in honor of Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, to denote the fifth taste--the one that isn't sweet, sour, bitter, or salty. why people can't stick with a nice English word like savory, I have no idea.

as it happens, the fifth door in the infinite coridor of google results opened to this story from NPR's Morning Edition, narrated by none other but Robert Krulwich (one of my RadioLab idols) and Jonah Lehrer.

Jonah is always popping in and out with things to say on RadioLab, so it's a familiar name. someday I'll get around to reading his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, an excerpt of which is tacked onto the end of that short discussion about tastes. the title reminds me of a book I read half of last year, Proust and the Squid, an excerpt of which can be read over here, if you like.

and all this, so far, is a rambly introduction to what I've really been thinking about today, which is truth. the story they've told, around this discovery of the fifth taste, is the story of an artist--a French chef--who stumbled upon the concept of a fifth taste in his own way, around the same time that Japanese chemist came along to give a strange Japanese name to it. here's a quote from near the end of the piece:
"In his new book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah tells eight stories that share a common theme. In each case, (he chooses Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman, George Elliot, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Wolf and, yes Auguste Escoffier) an artist is busy about his/her work and happens to observe something or sense something about the real world that scientists have not yet noticed, or that scientists say is not true. But because artists are so good at describing what it's like to experience the world, so intent on delivering the truth of what it feels like to be alive, so intuitive, in each of these eight cases, the artists learn something that the scientists don't discover until years later."
artists intent on delivering the truth.

are we really?

art to me feels like an impulsive, chaotic thing. maybe that's just the person I am. the artist I am. I don't think about my motives. I let the pen steer and my mind wander. the intuitiveness Krulwich cites must be a very deep, wormy sort, such that I never notice it poking itself through the wild arrangements of words and lines and ideas. what truths can my sort of wanton, scribbly creation show me?

so much of art is based on pretense. we tell stories that are not true. we wear masks that are not us. we build dragons and monsters and castles and spaceships that don't exist. and yet with all these playthings we end up painting pictures of truth?

but I guess that's what would make the things we learn through our art that much more amazing. that we can learn them without rigid empiricism, without following any scientific method. that something within us is already somehow connected to that truth, and throwing the right colors and shapes together pulls it out.


Chris said...

Exactly. It may not be scientifically verified, but we're capable of at least touching upon all kinds of truth just by emotively and intuitively exploring our own experiences and putting it all in a way that makes sense to us on that level. It tastes good; we put it in our food. How much about the tongue do we need to know for this knowledge to be meaningful to us?

And, of course, the dragons and the spaceships don't have to be taken so literally.

Interesting comments on your own impulsiveness, though. Surely that is you being intuitve. Does intuition need motives? You're being guided by some deep part of you, though I wouldn't believe any suggestion that your rational mind has nothing to do with it. Stories moulded by language don't come out without rational application.

amelia said...

what's the word? visceral?

I love the idea of different levels of knowledge. and I love the idea that they can all be validated, eventually, by each other. every perspective has something real about it.

and my scribbly art mostly brings out truths about me. although I suppose to other people the meanings might be different. even though there might be a lot of pretense--fakery even--it's always the sort that raises questions. and then those questions get added to all this experience. the quest for truth and such.