Modern Western culture is a culture of the eye.
We are constantly bombarded, seduced, and shaped by visual models and
representations, from maps and graphs to pictures and texts. This
rule of sight carries with it a powerful aura of rationality and objectivity,
even though many of its contemporary manifestations, such as advertising
images, seem designed to manipulate the emotions more than to exercise
the reason. The photographic nature of much of twentieth-century
representation helps maintain this aura of objectivity by appearing to
provide the viewer with direct access to reality, rather than only mediating
The visualist regime of modernity, in fact, prides itself on its
transparency: everything can be seen, everything can be known, nothing
is withheld from our inquisitive and acquisitive eyes. The microscopic
view and the panoramic view intersect to display our world to us inside
and out. However, the very visualism of modernity has, so to speak,
thrown a cloak of invisibility over the sensory imagery of previous eras.
So thick is this cloak that one can scarcely see through it, or even recognize
that there might be some thing worth exploring underneath. When
this cloak is lifted, however, the cosmos suddenly blazes forth in multisensory
splendour: the heavens ring out with music, the planets radiate scents
and savours, the earth springs to life in colours, temperatures, and sounds.
The aesthetic cornucopia of earlier cosmologies was not simply a
hedonistic revelling in sensation. The myriad sensory characteristics
of such cosmologies, their colours and odours, tastes and temperatures,
were coded with cultural values and linked in chains and hierarchies of
meaning. The visual was an important element in this construction
of sensory meaning, but it was not all-encompassing. If often first
in line as the "noblest" of the senses, sight nonetheless took its place
alongside the other senses, without subsuming them. The multiplicity
of sensory channels of communication meant that one could taste or breathe
in the order of the cosmos and society, as well as visualize it.
The cloak spread over the history of the senses in modernity has
also obscured other domains of history, notably, women's history.
Women have traditionally been associated with the senses in Western culture,
and in particular, with the "lower" senses. Women are the forbidden
taste, the mysterious smell, the dangerous touch. Men, by contrast,
have been associated with reason, as opposed to the senses, or else with
sight and hearing as the most "rational" of the senses. The occultation
of the sensory underpinnings of Western culture by the modern visual and
rational world view may therefore be read as an occultation of certain
feminine dimensions of that culture. In order to recover the latter,
it is necessary to uncover the former.
The Color of Angels explores the potent sensory symbolism underlying
Western culture with the aim of rediscovering the sensory imaginaries
of the past and revealing the roots of our contemporary perceptual paradigms.
The history of the dominance of vision in Western culture is not a primary
area of investigation in this book, for this is a subject which has been
treated extensively elsewhere. The emphasis is rather on the cultural
interplay of the senses and on the social lives of the often neglected
"lower" senses of smell, taste and touch.
The book is divided into three parts - cosmology, gender, and aesthetics
- each consisting of two chapters. The first part offers a glimpse
at the fertile aesthetic landscape of premodern cosmologies by delving
into ways in which the cosmos was conceptualized through sensory imagery
before the rise of the modern scientific world view. The second
part examines how sensory imagery was employed to create and express different
gender identities and roles in premodernity. The third part of the
book looks at attempts by late nineteenth and early twentieth century
artists to recover and re-invent the "lost" world of the senses.
In closing, the book explores how we in the postmodern age may arrive
at a new awareness of the multiplicity of our sensory world and create
aesthetic alternatives to the reigning sensory and social order.
The unifying theme of The Color of Angels is the "aesthetic imagination",
with "aesthetic" referring not only to the arts, but to the apprehension
and interpretation of the world through the senses - the original Greek
notion of aisthesis. As Terry Eagleton writes in The Ideology of
the Aesthetic, the territory of aesthetics "is nothing less than the whole
of our sensate life together".
With the "cloak of imperceptiibility" removed from our sensory past
(and from the multi-sensory reality of our present) we can discern the
operation and transformation of sensory paradigms across cultural fields
and historical periods, and come to appreciate the diversity of Western
Televangelism notwithstanding, in many ways Christianity would seem
to have escaped the visualizing tendencies of modernity and remained a
stronghold (or perhaps a museum?) of multi-sensory iconology. Many
churches in the twentieth-century West are still fragrant with incense.
Religious services are still held in the time-honoured oral fashion.
However, if the traditional sensory signs of worship remain in certain
branches of Christianity, much of the symbolism which once integrated
them into a larger sensory and sacred reality has been forgotten.
It is this vanished multi- sensory cosmic order which provides the topic
of the first section of The Color of Angels.
The organization of perceptual experience by the five senses served
as a basic paradigm for conceptualizing the organization of the world
from an early period. Aristotle, for example, concluded that the
five senses corresponded to the four elements: sight with water, hearing
with air, smell with fire and taste and touch with earth. A similar
arrangement was put forward in the Jewish- Hellenic Book of the Secrets
of Enoch in which the sense of smell was paired with the wind, sight with
the sun, hearing with the earth, touch with the grass, and taste with
Within Christianity, the senses operated both as a structural metaphor
for the cosmos, and as a model for Christian behaviour. According
to Christian mythology, the fall of Adam and Eve entailed a fall of the
senses. Through hearing, Eve was convinced by the serpent of the
desirability of the forbidden fruit. Through sight, Eve decided
that the fruit was "pleasing to the eye" (Gen 3:6). Through
smell, touch and taste, Adam and Eve ate of the fruit and committed the
original sin. While the fall of Adam and Eve left humans with a
vitiated sensorium, the death and ressurection of Christ (the "fruit of
the Cross") offered humanity a chance to redeem its fallen senses.
Such redemption required both a strict control of sensory impulses
and an acute appreciation of the cosmological dimensions of perception.
Just how acute this appreciation could be can be seen in the sixteenth-century
Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Consider, for example,
the indications given by Ignatius for the contemplation of hell:
The first [exercise] will be to see with the eyes of the imagination
those great fires, and the souls as it were in bodies of fire.
The second will be to hear with the ears of the imagination the
wailings, the howlings, the cries...
The third will be to smell the smoke, the sulphur, the filth, and
the putrid matter.
The fourth will be to taste with the taste of the imagination bitter
things, such as tears, sadness, and the worm of conscience.
The fifth will be to feel with the touch of the imagination how
those fires touch and burn the souls.
Two characteristics of this sensuous evocation strike the twentieth-century
reader. The first is that Ignatius considers it necessary to involve
all of the senses in his exercises in order to create the effect of a
full-bodied experience. To simply picture hell is not enough, one
has to hear the wailings, smell the stench, and so on. The second
characteristic is that Ignatius invests sensory perception with sacred
meaning: sensory images form a rosary of spiritual reminders. For
Ignatius, and for the premodern world in general, perception was a spiritual
as well as physical act, and the sensory order of the cosmos was also
a moral order.
While the sensory model of the Christian cosmos followed a generally
accepted scheme of values (in which, for example, heaven was pleasing
to the senses and hell displeasing), there was nonetheless a good deal
of historical and individual variation as to the specifics and dynamics
of this scheme. Let us take as an example a subject which excited
the interest of many cosmologists: the colour of angels.
In his influential work The Celestial Hierarchies, the fifth- century
Dionysius the Areopagite likened angels to red, white, yellow and green
jewels. In typical medieval fashion, the twelfth- century St. Hildegard
of Bingen imagined angels as glowing red like fire or shining white like
stars. In the seventeenth century, the Protestant mystic Jacob Boehme
wrote that angels come in as many varieties of colours as the flowers
of the field. A century later Emanuel Swedenborg presented a hierarchy
of angelic colours in Heaven and its Wonders: from the colour of flame
for the angelic Úlite to ordinary reds, greens and blues for less enlightened
angels. Influenced by mystical cosmologies and Romantic aesthetics,
the nineteenth century poet Charles Baudelaire clothed his angels in rich
hues of gold, purple and hyacinth. Each of these "colourings" of
angels stood for and within a particular vision of the cosmos and evoked
a train of sensory symbols.
"On the Colour of Angels" is the title of the first chapter of this
book. This chapter examines and compares the sensory cosmologies
of three extraordinary visionaries: St. Hildegard of Bingen, Jacob
Boehme, and Charles Fourier. These thinkers are singled out for
the wealth of sensory imagery in their cosmological designs and for the
unique ways in which each engages with the world view of a different historical
St. Hildegard elaborates what could be termed a sensory geography
in her writings. With medieval precision, she divides the world
into five parts and allots to each a different sense. Inspired by Renaissance
alchemy, Jacob Boehme invents a mystical "chemistry" of the senses.
Boehme declares certain sensory qualities, such as sweetness, sourness,
and heat, to be primordial spirits which work together to create the cosmos.
The Enlightenment utopianist Charles Fourier combines premodern sensory
symbolism with modern notions of social welfare and progress. Through
his critique of the "abuse" of the senses in the class system, Fourier
develops a political economy of the senses.
Remarkably, the role of sensory symbolism in the cosmologies of
these three visionaries has never been explored. In fact, the sensory
complexity of such cosmologies has often been seen as an obstacle to understanding
their "underlying" conceptual frameworks. Hegel, for example, wrote
that while he admired Boehme for his "profundity of mind" he found his
thought to be "confined in the hard knotty oak of the senses... [and therefore]
not able to arrive at a free presentation of the Idea." In a similar
vein, Marx and Engels praised Fourier for his critique of capitalism while
dismissing his "cosmogonic absurdities".
Roland Barthes' well-known comparison of the writings of Ignatius
of Loyola, Sade and Fourier is something of an exception to this trend
in that Barthes does take notice of the different sensory emphases of
his authors. Ironically, however, the model which he uses for undertaking
his comparison is the eminently visual one of the "text". Hence
it is not the sensory imagery which is of primary interest to Barthes,
but the tantalizing play of written words on a page. The emphasis
on the text as a model for understanding culture found in Barthes is found
in many contemporary studies. "On the Color of Angels" offers an
alternative to such textual approaches by undertaking a sensualexploration
of the word and world-making activities of earlier eras.
The second chapter in this section, "The Breath of God" investigates
the decidedly non-visual concept of the odour of sanctity. When
one thinks of the sensory expressions of the religious past, the "odour
of sanctity" is perhaps one of the first to come to mind. It is
probably also the one which is least accessible to the modern, "deodorized"
mind. The term itself seems like a strange juxtaposition of opposites
- "odour", with its contemporary connotations of physicality and undesirabilty,
and "sanctity", with its traditional connotations of spirituality and
virtue. The result in terms of scholarly interest is that, while
major studies have been undertaken on the history of visual imagery in
Christianity, the history of olfactory imagery is still largely unexplored.
The divine scent attributed to saints and the evil odour associated
with sinners were part of a whole olfactory mythology which depicted heaven
and hell, salvation and perdition, in terms of good and bad smells.
According to this mythology the initial pristine aroma of creation was
corrupted by the stench of sin and then purified by the fragrant blood
of Christ. Here all the aromatic references of the Gospels - the
myrrh and frankincense of the Magi, Mary Magdalene's ointments, the spices
which embalm Jesus's body - come into play, along with a number of legendary
additions, such as the conception of Jesus by smell and the redemptive
fragrance of the Cross. These mystical odours, like the odour of
sanctity, travel across space and time, from heaven to earth and from
creation to redemption, binding the cosmos in a sacred network of scent.
The multi-sensory visions of St. Hildegard, the sweet and sour alchemy
of Boehme, the utopian sensuality of Fourier, and the aromatics of heaven
and hell were all part of the heady mix of sensory symbols which enlivened
the premodern cosmological imagination. Chapters 1 and 2 explore
how such sensory symbolism constituted a vibrant universe of sense
in the centuries before modern scientific philosophy transformed the cosmos
into what Alfred North Whitehead has called "a dull affair, soundless,
scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly."
When exploring the sensory cosmologies of past eras it becomes apparent
that the aesthetic imagery employed in such cosmologies was deeply imbued
with social ideologies, as well as with spiritual principles. In
different contexts sensory symbols could represent not only the nature
of sacred reality, but the categories of gender, class, and race.
Part II of The Color of Angels is dedicated to investigating the sensory
iconology of the first of these social categories - that of gender.
It is perhaps necessary to underline that I am examining stereotypes
of the senses and the sexes in this section. Such stereotypes may
strike many modern readers as generalizations which fail to take account
of historical exceptions and social variations. However, it is the
nature (and power) of stereotypes to generalize and to ignore exceptions
and variations. Thus, for example, centuries of labour by diverse
women as farmers, craftswomen, scholars, and so on, did little to dislodge
the traditional representation of women as homemakers.
Chapter 3, "The Scented Womb and the Seminal Eye," considers the
ways in which different sensory characteristics were attributed to men
and women and examines how such gender distinctions inflected the sensory
formation of the cosmos. In so doing this chapter provides an "archaeology"
of such current sensory constructs as the "dominating male gaze" and the
"nurturing female touch". The notion of there being an archetypal
opposition between male sight and female touch (such as expounded in the
work of Luce Irigaray, for example) has become a commonplace in feminist
theory. Yet little consideration has been given to the cultural
history of this opposition or to its relation to the other senses in the
"The Scented Womb" explores how different qualities were linked
to the different sexes within each symbolic sensory field. Thus,
within the field of sight, men tended to be associated with light and
form, and women with darkness and colour. Men were held to employ
sight for intellectual purposes while women concerned themselves with
sensuous appearance. Within the field of touch, men were typecast
as hot and hard, and women as cold and soft. Touch as physical aggression
was associated with men, while sexual and fostering touch was linked to
Such gender distinctions within sensory fields notwithstanding,
the senses themselves were gender-typed. As mentioned above, men
have traditionally been associated with the "higher", "spiritual" senses
of sight and hearing, while women have been associated with the "lower",
"animal" senses of taste, touch and smell. Speech - sometimes accorded
the status of a sense - had an ambivalent gender status. While its
active character made speech intrinsically male, its supposed widespread
appropriation by domineering women made speech female.
The sensory and gender hierarchies of premodernity were actively
enforced by social, religious and legal codes. "The Scented Womb"
proposes that during the Renaissance women's senses - linked with
intuition, emotion and sensuality - came to be seen as dangerous obstacles
to the establishment of a modern masculine and rationalist model of the
world, and as such were targeted by the ideologues of the sixteenth and
seventeenth century witch hunts. The obsession with the witch's
supernatural sense of smell, her seductive/destructive touch, her evil
eye, her gluttonous appetite, and her poisonous speech all evidence anxiety
over female sensory powers. When the enthronement of the scientific
world view was finally assured in the late eighteenth century, the figure
of the witch ceased to threaten the cosmic and social order with her transgressive
female sensuality. In a masculine age of reason, the expectation
was that "irrational" feminine sensibilities could henceforth be contained
The gender-coding of the senses served to explain and legitimate
the assignation of different social spheres to men and women. Men's
star-set mastery of the distance senses of sight and hearing empowered
them to travel, to read and write, to conquer and govern. As the
guardians of the proximity senses of smell, taste and touch, women's place
was in the home, cooking, sewing and taking care of their families.
Chapter 4, "Pens and Needles" looks at the relationship between traditional
male and female domains of work and traditional male and female sensory
domains. The chapter centers on the paradigmatic opposition between
writing as a male and primarily visual activity and needlework as a female
and primarily tactile activity.
In recent years, the history of writing by women has been the subject
of increasing scholarly interest, particularly in relation to women's
experience of embodiment. "Pens and Needles" contributes to this
growing field of investigation by considering the sensory and gender codes
which influenced the practise and reception of writing by women.
Women who read and wrote instead of sewing and spinning often faced
wrath and ridicule for transgressing the limits of their gender domain.
The intensity of such attacks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
indicates that after the Enlightenment, the literary woman replaced the
witch in some ways as a focus for male anxiety over disruptive femininity.
While women tried to emulate the literary "vision" of men, the argument
went, their work was inevitably impregnated with the animalistic reek
of femininity. "Study their works, open them where you will! At
the tenth line... you will smell a woman! Odor di femina", exclaimed
Barbey D'Aurevilly in 1878 in Les Bas-Bleus.
Writing, however, would seem to have had a special appeal for women,
in that it could be undertaken within the feminine sphere of the household.
Thus, while female writers were well aware of the traditional opposition
between pens and needles, writing and housework, they also appreciated
their similarities. It was such similarities that would make it
possible for many female authors, including Fanny Burney and Jane Austen,
to pursue their writing under the guise of plying the needle. Usurpations
by women of other masculine prerogatives, such as travelling or speaking
in public, could hardly have been accomplished so handily.
A formidable literature has been generated on the subject of the
cultural construction of sight in art history. Contemporary scholars
of art have explored at great length the visual paradigms expressed in
the works of artists from different periods of Western history and analysed
how those paradigms supported the dominant social and sensory order -
or else helped fragment that order into a multiplicity of perspectives.
This intense examination of the semiotics of visual representation begs
the question of how the non-visual senses may have been theorized and
evoked in earlier periods of art.
In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the visual arts were often
integrated into a multisensory context. Churches were resonant with
music and redolent with incense, as well as rich in visual display.
The homes of the wealthy united fine arts with fine music and fine cuisine.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, these different aesthetic
and sensory fields were increasingly separated and relegated to distinct
public spaces. Eventually the gallery would become the quintessential
place for viewing art, the concert hall for listening to music, and the
restaurant for savouring a meal.
Furthermore, the organic, synaesthetic cosmos of premodernity within
which these different fields were intrinsically (if hierarchically) linked
and invested with spiritual significance, was replaced in the eighteenth
century by a mechanical and pictorial world view in which different areas
of aesthetic appreciation seemed to have no inherent connection and no
In the nineteenth century many artists, musicians and writers rebelled
against the materialistic and segmented character of modern culture and
sought to recover sensory and symbolic meaning in their work. Inspired
by the synaesthetic visions of the mystics, such artists declared "that
everything, form, movement, quantity, color, odor, both in the spiritual
world and in nature, is significant, reciprocal, converse, correspondent"
(Baudelaire). To a disenchanted modern world this vision of sensory
correspondences came as a revelation.
Chapter 5, "Symbolist Harmonies, Futurist Colours, Surrealist Recipes"
explores the quest for a multisensory aesthetics in nineteenth and early
twentieth-century art - from Symbolism to Futurism to Surrealism - and
the relationship of this quest to the perceptual and gender order of modernity.
Many of the artists involved in this quest sought to recreate the essential
sensory integrity of the cosmos by transposing mystical notions of synaesthetic
unity into artistic creations. The proponents of multisensory aesthetics
did not, however, simply wish to return to the sensory and symbolic plenitude
of premodernity - nor could they have had they so desired. The idea
of a cosmos alive with sensory interplay had long since ceased to seem
natural and could only be resurrected through artifice. Artists
who played with the senses in their work were also playing with elements
of artificiality and exoticism, as well as employing sensuality to challenge
the rationalist principles of modern culture.
As in the case of writing, painting was traditionally a masculine
preserve. Craig Owens writes in "The Discourse of Others":
What can be said about the visual arts in a patriarchal order that
privileges vision over the other senses? Can we not expect them
to be a domain of masculine privilege - as their histories indeed prove
them to be.
In this context the "elevation" of such symbolically feminine senses as
taste or smell to the level of art would seem to be a poke in the eye
of the male art establishment.
Groups such as the Symbolists and the Surrealists did indeed emphasize
the feminine in their work; however, they tended to do so according to
masculinist conventions. Women were presented not as agents of their
own destinies, but as vessels of primordial forces: passion and death,
inspiration and perdition. Female artists within these aesthetic movements
had ambiguous roles. When it came to aesthetics women were traditionally
conceded to have "taste", but not creative vision - and the latter still
held first place in art. Nonetheless, as brought out in the conclusion
of chapter 5, a number of female artists, particularly those linked to
Surrealism, engendered highly imaginative sensory worlds of their own
through their art.
In a turn-of-the-century critique of Symbolist multisensoriality,
Max Nordau stated that "civilized" people perceive the world through the
senses of sight and hearing, and not through the "lower" senses.
With the dominance of photographic, cinematic, and computer images in
the late twentieth century, we have, in a way, achieved Nordau's ideal.
Much of our time is spent attending to a world which can only be perceived
through sight and (less often) hearing. It is as if, in order to
bring the world in line with our current sensory priorities, the cosmos
has been technologically recreated as a visual spectacle.
The proliferation of technologies of representation in contemporary
culture has had the effect of greatly magnifying the role of sight in
aesthetics. Is it possible, in a world of such compelling visual
imagery, to create, or even imagine, an alternative sensory aesthetics?
Chapter 6, "A Feel for the World", responds to this question by examining
how the exploration of the sensory worlds of the blind and the blind-deaf
may help to open up new dimensions of aesthetic experience in a hypervisual
Standard philosophies and psychologies of aesthetics customarily
held that the appreciation of aesthetics relies so heavily upon visual
perception that the blind can have no real notion of beauty. The
argument developed in "A Feel for the World", by contrast, is that our
modern understanding of aesthetics relies so heavily on the visual that
the sighted are hampered in their appreciation of beauty as experienced
through the other senses. To begin to appreciate the subtleties
of a scentscape, to feel the power of a music of vibrations, or to experience
tactile works of art, the sighted majority must turn for instruction to
the aesthetic realms of the blind and the blind-deaf.
There are intriguing similarities in imagery between the sensory
worlds experienced by the blind and the blind-deaf in modernity and the
sensory cosmologies described in the first part of this book. To
give one example, Fourier, in his system of cosmic correspondences, ascribed
to melons the quality of "ironic humour". For Barthes this is a
perfect illustration of the idiosyncrasy of much of Fourier's thought:
"What reader can hope to dominate such an utterance - adopt it as a laughable
or critical object...?" However this is just what the renowned blind-deaf
writer, Helen Keller, would have been able to do. In describing
her aesthetic classification of tactile forms, Helen Keller remarks that
for her, humour is embodied by the melon:
The bulge of a watermelon and the puffed-up rotundities of squashes
that sprout, bud, and ripen in that strange garden planted somewhere behind
my finger-tips are the ludicrous in my tactual memory and imagination.
This convergence of opinion between Fourier and Keller is likely nothing
more than a coincidence. Yet would it necessarily be that strange
for Fourier, who emphasized the importance of the "lower" senses, to have
shared certain notions with the blind-deaf Keller, who lived in a world
solely constituted by touch, taste and smell?
While probing the aesthetic worlds of the blind "A Feel for
the World" also examines Western stereotypes of blindness, particulary
with regard to gender ideologies. In a society which associates
masculinity with sight, the blind are symbolically female, just as women
are symbolically blind. The symbolic overlap between the blind and
women in Western tradition means that creating a space for the alternative
aesthetic experiences of the blind may help open up new domains for the
artistic expression of women's experiences. The notion of an art
of tactilities or aromas seems to hold, however ephemerally, the tantalizing
promise of a medium of aesthetic communication untainted by a history
of exclusionary doctrines and practices.
"A Feel for the World" reveals the range of sensory orders and endeavours
which are possible even in a hypervisual age. All six chapters of
The Colour of Angels, indeed, are dedicated to challenging the sway of
vision over contemporary culture and bringing the multiplicity of sensory
experience - with all of its potent symbolic content - to the fore
of consciousness. By so doing they invite us to rediscover and re-imagine
our senses at the turn of the 21st century.