BATTLE OF THE SENSES? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 07, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 07, 2017

BATTLE OF THE SENSES?

Battle? What does it mean? One sense against another? No, it's an intellectual tamasha in which six professors of English Literature deliver argumentative spiels extolling their chosen sense; the sixth professor of course is all for the sixth sense. I am for taste. The assignment of senses to participants was something of a lottery; and I am quite happy with what the throw of the dice (conveniently six-sided) got me.

Yes, I know there is a hierarchy of the senses, with sight at the top, hearing in second place, and the rest – smell, touch, taste – lumped together as the lower senses. The sixth sense doesn't really count, does it? It's too ghostly. But are sight and hearing really the tops? Aren't there any blind deaf-mutes? Terribly disadvantaged, no doubt, but they can survive, with the necessary support; they can even have the most pleasurable experiences, eating gourmet food, drinking sherbet or lassi or vintage wines, sleeping with people they are attracted to. Can you imagine someone going through life without touching or smelling or tasting anything? No. The so-called lower senses are what I would call foundational senses. To put it in street-smart Americanese, you gotta have 'em, else you're a goner.

OK, but why am I for taste rather than the other two? Because taste encompasses the other two; indeed, the so-called top two as well. Let me explain. Unlike the other senses, taste does not depend on a single organ. The taste buds no doubt play a central role. There are 10,000 of them covering the human tongue; and they recognize five different tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami (or savoury flavours). But taste buds by themselves wouldn't give us the total experience of taste that is so important a part of everyday life. Everyolne knows that smell plays a dominant role in our experience of tasting food: how we salivate when our olfactories catch the bouquet of basmati or biryani or korma! Does it mean that the sense of taste is parasitical on smell? No way. In a parasitical relationship draws sustenance entirely from another. In the relationship between taste and smell and the other senses we have something like synergy.

Let us see how taste relates to touch, hearing and sight. Touch is integral to taste, for whatever we taste must touch the taste buds on the tongue. The connection doesn't stop there. The feel of food contributes to the way we taste it. That is why concepts like texture, consistency, softness, hardness, crumbliness, syrupiness feature in the spiel of gourmets. We say that a sweet dish is chewy, a dish of mussels is squishy, and so on and so forth. To give a homely example from our dining room or dastarkhan, we often hear it said that to get the real taste of our cuisine one has to eat with the fingers. The way sight influences taste is common knowledge. Gourmet chefs presenting dishes pay great attention to their look, and will take pains to create attractive compositions and colour combinations on the table. Likewise the sound of cooking – sizzling, crackling, burbling -- can be appetizing.  Clearly, taste is a composite sense and hence can be regarded as a super-sense.

So far we've been talking solely about taste as a physical phenomenon. It also has philosophical and psychological ramifications that are profound and complex. Our sense of selfhood owes much to our mouth, our sense of taste. Before we can see clearly or distinguish the precise nature of sounds bombarding consciousness, we find sustenance and solace through our taste buds as we suckle. Our ontological integrity depends on how well we are breastfed. Our psychic health is determined by the relationship of our mouths to the bounty of the maternal breast. Our psycho-sexual development, as any Freudian will tell you, begins with orality. If things go wrong here we may grow up with incurable neurosis, or worse. Our mouths are an indispensable epistemological device as well. A child puts everything into its mouth, and learns to relate to reality in the process. If something is unpleasant, and hence potentially harmful, it spits it out, and henceforth avoids it. And something tasty is gobbled up.

Taken figuratively, taste becomes a weighty concept with ramifications in aesthetics and morals. In fact modern western aesthetics begins with theorizing on taste in the eighteenth century. This was a reaction to the Cartesian rationalism that dominated early modern philosophy. It was argued that the perception of beauty or aesthetic value was not the end result of a rational process but a direct apprehension. What enabled the apprehension was taste. Aesthetic education could refine one's taste. Ever since, taste has become an indispensable part of our conceptual currency. An art connoisseur is a person of taste, or good taste. We may say that a person has no taste if he goes for kitsch. From aesthetics taste can move to the realm of morals; we may say of someone's immoral or amoral behavior that it is in bad taste. Let us not forget politics as well. If anyone supports a socio-economic system that creates increasing disparity between classes and groups, it's shockingly bad taste, isn't it?

We in this subcontinent have been theorizing about taste for much longer; for a couple of millennia, if not longer. Central to our aesthetics are the concepts of bhava (mood or emotion) and the corresponding rasa (essence or taste). When the emotion is realized through the devices of an art form, the audience relishes its essence or taste. A person of taste is a rasika. The cultivation of taste (rasobodh) is one of the prime aims of a liberal education.

Can there be any doubt that taste is not only the most significant of the senses; it is also the basis of good sense, the essence of sophistication and civilization. To deny this would be quite tasteless. 

Recently retired from the University of Dhaka, Kaiser Haq writes poetry and translates. Currently, he is the Dean of Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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