Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Making sense of the world

One of the best things about living in the Middle East was the way your senses were given a workout every day. The sounds, textures, sights, smells, and tastes are incredible in their variety and intensity, particularly in the way they infiltrate every aspect of life. In a city like Cairo, it feels as though the senses create for every street signposts to that particular reality. A street of utensil makers will be alive with the sound of clanking and clinking of hammers and the raw acrid smell of solder and welding. Spice streets, vegetable streets, laundry streets, each have their distinctive sensual signature. Then there is that wonderful moment you get when you wake up in a new country. In those first moments, you experience a place for the first time with your senses truly engaged and know you are no longer at home.

In the West, we have dulled our senses. A walk down Fifth Avenue isn’t much of an adventure for the nose, although the eyes and ears do have to work overtime. By going back into the past, we can discover something of our lost sensory heritage. This is exactly what Mark M. Smith has done in his book Sensory History. Now sensory history is apparently something rather new, but it appeals to me instantly with its direct connections to the foundations of Lovemarks: Mystery, Sensuality, Intimacy. These three are what nourishes the emotional power of Lovemarks.

Sensual historians (I guess that’s what they’re called) agree on one fundamental: people of different times and places hear, see, taste, touch, and smell in different ways. I remember writing in Lovemarks that “The texture of both hominy grits and Molokhiyya, an Arab soup, are an offense to many palettes”. I still dislike the former and enjoy slurping down the latter, but I had not realized how much our senses have been shaped across time as well as place. That’s where these historians come in. The kind of sensual shock we might experience today in Bangkok or Sao Paulo is nothing compared to, say, seeing a sailing ship appear in your harbor for the first time or tasting a tomato after its long journey from Peru to your table in London or Amsterdam. Sensual historians don’t back away from how far away we are from experiencing that past, but bring to light what a fantastic source of innovation such historical empathy could offer us.