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Saturday, 1 October 2016

Towards a Multisensory Aesthetic: Jean Giono's Non-Visual Sensorium

Next week I am delighted to be travelling to Montreal to speak at the International Visual Literacy Association Annual Conference. Along with my Blind Creations co-organiser Vanessa Warne, and Blind Creations speakers Georgina Kleege, Florian Grond and David Johnson, I am presenting some of the work from my forthcoming book Visions of Blindness in French Fiction in a panel organised by Piet Devos and wonderfully entitled: 'The Distorting Mirror of Blindness: Visual Literacy and Non-Sighted Aesthetics'. Whilst I am in Montreal I am also looking forward to exploring some of the places evoked by Jacques Semelin in his recent blind travel journal Je veux croire au soleil and I will be presenting some of the highlights of the Blind Creations conference at a talk (in French) at the Institut Nazareth et Louis Braille. (Click here for more details about this event and how to watch and listen via videoconference).

Below is a sneak preview of part of my work on Jean Giono which I will be presenting at the IVLA conference:

La nuit. Le fleuve roulait à coups d’épaules à travers la forêt, Antonio avança jusqu’la pointe de l’île. D’un côté l’eau profonde, souple comme du poil de chat, de l’autre côté les hennissements du gué. Antonio toucha le chêne. Il écouta dans sa main les tremblements de l’arbre. (Night. The river was shouldering its way through the forest, Antonio went as far as the tip of the island. On one side was deep water, as supple as a cat’s fur, on the other side the whinnying of the ford. Antonio touched the oak. He listened with his hand to the quivering tree.)
These opening lines from Jean Giono’s 1934 novel Le Chant du Monde, are a characteristic example of the kind of sensuous prose description Giono has become famous for using to describe his beloved Provençal landscapes. Giono’s descriptions have long been celebrated by critics for their power to capture the beauty of southern France. But if we look closely at this passage, we notice that it somewhat unexpectedly rejects the kind of visual description we expect from the realist novel in favour of a sensorium more overtly focused on a powerful combination of touch and sound. This challenge to the usual hierarchy of the senses is in fact announced in Giono’s decision to begin the novel in the dark. The novel’s opening words, ‘la nuit’, tell us that because the sighted protagonist Antonio - through whose consciousness most of the third-person narrative is filtered - does not need sight to navigate, the reader is also asked to imagine the setting without recourse to visual elements. Instead of telling us what the river looks like, Giono evokes it through Antonio’s perception of it, that is, by how it feels (as supple as a cat’s fur) and how it sounds (the whinnying of the ford). The surprising use of words associated with animals to describe a body of water adds to our sensory immersion in the scene by combining different sense impressions in vivid and evocative ways whilst reminding us that we are in a profoundly natural setting. The ford does not really sound like a whinnying horse: through the noise it makes, which is impossible to capture in language, it reminds Antonio of the unpredictable power of a skittish foal. The combination of touch and hearing is continued in Antonio’s relationship with the oak tree. The phrase ‘il écouta dans sa main’ (he listened with his hand) uses a synesthetic combination of the sense impressions of touch and hearing to capture the strength of Antonio’s feeling for the tree. 

Passages of this kind are found throughout Giono’s oeuvre. But their relevance only becomes clear when they are read alongside Giono’s depiction of the blind character Clara whom Antonio encounters later in the novel. Antonio and Clara are mutually fascinated by each other’s relationship with the senses. When they talk about blindness and sightedness the usually visually reliant reader is invited to rethink their preconceived notion that blindness is a kind of lack.

When Clara asks Antonio to describe night, day and light to her, Antonio struggles to evoke darkness without recourse to visual language. Like blindness, darkness is here unspeakable because it exists outside the limits of ocularcentric language, a language whose very existence depends on a celebration of sight and thus a negation of sightlessness. Antonio emphasises this link between darkness and blindness by evoking the one in relation to the other, and by paradoxically using a vocabulary of seeing to describe this non-sight. Clara, on the other hand, is not hampered by the constraints of ocularcentric language. Her insistent questioning of Antonio’s language encourages not only Antonio but also the reader to analyse what lies beneath the words non-blind people too often take for granted. She can thus combine sense impressions in creative and liberating ways. In an echo of the description of the river at the novel’s start, she merges two distinct sense impressions, (non)sight and smell, in her assertion that for her, ‘day is smell’.

Later, Clara offers us a more immersive and sustained experience of her impressions of the countryside. Rather than detecting spring through its visual clues, she can tell its arrival by its smells and sounds. As she explains: « Ça sent […] et puis ça parle » («It smells and also it speaks ».). Clara tries to explain how she experiences the world. She recognises flowers but does not give them the same names as everyone else. According to her it is not the names of the flowers which are important, but the multi-sensual way in which she experiences them: 

Toutes les choses du monde arrivent à des endroits de mon corps (elle toucha ses cuisses, ses seins, son cou, ses joues, son front, ses cheveux) c’est attaché à moi par des petites ficelles tremblantes. Je suis printemps, moi, maintenant. (Everything in the world comes to a place on my body (she touched her thighs, her breasts, her neck, her cheeks, her forehead, her hair) it is attached to me by tiny trembling threads. I am spring now.)

Clara’s relationship with the world is intense, multi-sensorial, corporeal and all-encompassing. She combines sense-impressions to create highly evocative and sensual descriptions of nature in a way which reminds us again of the novel’s opening lines:

Dans toute la colline il y a des pattes, des ongles, des museaux, des ventres. Entends-les. Des arbres dures, des tendres, des fleurs froides, des fleurs chaudes. Là-bas derrière, un arbre long. On entend son bruit tout droit. Il fait le bruit de l’eau quand elle court. Il a de longues fleurs comme des queues de chats et qui sentent le pain cru. (All over the hill there are feet, claws, muzzles, bellies. Listen to them. Hard trees, soft trees, cold flowers, warm flowers. Over there a long tree. We can hear its noise straight ahead. It sounds like running water. It has long flowers like cats’ tails which smell of uncooked bread.)

These descriptions are striking because they evoke the landscape with no need for visual references. But importantly these descriptions do not alienate the ocularcentric reader. Clara’s evocation of nature is so powerful that we are immediately immersed in it without even noticing her lack of reference to visual elements. It is only because Giono foregrounds her blindness that we notice her non-visual language. By describing her non-visual acquisition of knowledge as ‘seeing’, Clara rids the verb of its associations with eyesight and thus disentangles notions of perception and detection from their persistent association with physical looking. Giono is thus using Clara to destabilise the hierarchy of the senses,

The ease with which Clara discusses her multi-sensual way of not seeing, together with the way in which non-visual descriptions of nature are incorporated into the novel’s prose even when recounted via the consciousness of a sighted character, invite us to read both Clara and Antonio as authorial figures whose discussions function as reflexive comments on Giono’s own non-visual creative processes. In addition, Clara’s non-visual relationship to nature functions to overturn sight’s expected place at the top of the hierarchy of the senses whilst celebrating the creative potential of the non-visual senses. Giono’s prose thus redefines notions of ‘sight’ and ‘seeing’ by detaching them from the physical act of looking, in order to encourage his reader to rethink her own relationship with the visual.